[Editorial Note: Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm (1815-1884) was born in Pittsburgh into strict Covenanter branch of the Presbyterian Church. Her father died in 1823, and she helped support the family (mother, brother, and sister) by teaching lace-making; she also painted on velvet. At fourteen she became a schoolteacher. She married James Swisshelm in 1836; he was a farmer's son and a devout Methodist who insisted she give up painting. He also sought to turn her into a Methodist and insisted upon wifely obedience. In 1839 she left him to nurse her mother who died the following year. Jane then turned to journalism. In 1842 her husband returned to Pittsburgh, and they resumed living together on his family farm. In 1848 she launched the Pittsburgh Visiter [her spelling] as an anti-slavery and, later, a woman's rights weekly. Within a few years national circulation topped 6,000 making it one of the most widely read reform papers. One of the paper's most popular features was Swisshelm's weekly "letter to country girls" which she collected in book form in 1853. It is hard not to read portions of the following "letter" as autobiographical or to see in her claim "I understand the disease [of the masculine superiority fever] very well" thinly veiled reference to James Swisshelm.]
This is a very bad case, but a very common one, of the masculine superiority fever which has converted so many millions of men into ruffians. I understand the disease very well, and can cure it quite easily when I have access to the patient, and can [P. 76] get my prescriptions administered. One week of vigorous treatment will cure the complaint effectually; but it is hard to get the proper nurses and assistants!
These old fellows do not take the Visiter [Swisshelm's weekly paper]! I am too much out of "woman's sphere" to be tolerated in their august presence. No one has access to them but preachers and political stump speakers. They see no paper but a religious or political one. The former never speaks about woman, except to lecture her about her duties--her obligation to obey her husband--her vocation to forget herself and live only for the welfare of her liege lord and some particular church. The latter never speaks about woman or her interests a bit more than if such a creature never existed. The laws and policy they are discussing set her down midway between men and monkeys. She has no vote to solicit, no offices to confer, but is a kind of appendage to her master. Of course the ignorant boor gets a vast opinion of his own importance, as it is continually held up to view by church and state; and it cannot be wondered at that he practices what our divines, statesmen, philosophers, and poets teach. He is not able [P. 77] to comprehend the transcendent beauties of a system which places woman half-way between the rational and irrational creation--deprives her of the rights of self-government--the right to use her own faculties, because she is a superior being--an angel, too pure and precious to mix with sublunary things. He applies a common sense rule to the common principle, and argues "if Sallie has no right to hold office in church or state--if she is to submit to me in all things, to keep silence in churches, and learn from me at home, of course I must be wiser than she, and better too. The Constitution puts her down with 'niggers" and ingins, or a little below 'em. She is heaven's 'last best gift to man,' an' mighty useful one [I] can make her! She can make hay as well as I can--then cook the victuals while I'm restin', and raise some sons and darters in the meantime to take care uv me when I get old! Tell ye, there isn't a horse on the place I wouldn't rather lose nor Sallie!" So he puts his wife into "a woman's place," and keeps her there.
"The Sphere of Woman," Godey's Lady's Book, March 1850. Illustration for an essay by the German poet Goethe. This essay is a nearly perfect example of Swisshelm's point about boorish husbands only putting into practice what "authors, editors, poets, and divines" preach.
|It is not the ignorant country boor, the pious old penurious farmer who acts out this philosophy, that is actually accountable for it. He is only living up to the spirit [P. 78] of the age--keeping pace with its authors, editors, poets, and divines! It is very well known that thousands, nay, millions of women in this country are condemned to the most menial drudgery, such as men would scorn to engage in, and that for one-fourth wages; that thousands of women toil at avocations which public opinion pretends to assign to men. They plough, harrow, reap, dig, make hay, rake, bind grain, thrash, chop wood, milk, churn, do anything that is hard work, physical labor, and who says any thing against it? But let one presume to use her mental powers--let her aspire to turn editor, public speaker, doctor, lawyer--take up any profession or avocation which is deemed honorable and requires talent, and O! bring the Cologne, get a cambric kerchief and a feather fan, unloose his corsets and take off his cravat! What a fainting fit Mr. Propriety has taken! Just to think that "one of the deah creathures" [sic], the heavenly angels, should forsake the spheres--woman's sphere--to mix with the wicked strife of this wicked world!|
The evil of which Anniss complains is not a local affair, but a deeply rooted and unsightly cancer, which disfigures the entire face of the body politic. No permanent and general cure can be wrought in a day; but if she can get these old fellows, their wives and daughters to read the Visiter [for] a year, we will undertake to mitigate the virulence of the disease in that neighborhood. So long as they read and hear nothing but squabbles between Whigs and Democrats about a Tariff, and sermons and homilies about the Scribes and Pharisees who lived long ago, the errors of Popery, and differences between John Calvin and John Wesley, you need never hope for a reformation in this matter. They will have to hear, and learn, and know something about themselves, their own practices, opinion, duties, and errors, before they will mend their manners.
But mark you, Miss Anniss, I do not oppose women working in the field, under some circumstances. There are times and places when they ought to do so. In some families there is a "houseful of girls," while the father has little help; and I [P.80] should think a girl very mean, selfish and lazy, who would loll about idly, or trifle away her time while her father or brother was oppressed and hurried with his harvesting, corn-planting, hoeing, or hay-making. A family should ever labor to lighten each other's burdens. If a husband is hurried, and the wife can help him, let her do so, kindly and cheerfully, at what is called his work--when she requires his assistance at her work, let him return the favor; but for a woman to work out in the field, then come home and do her work there, while the men rest, is positively brutal, but by no means uncommon in our back counties, where they are scarce of schoolmasters.
The efficient remedy for this class of evils is education, an equal education! If parents would give their daughters the same mental training they do their sons, they could not be converted into slaves so handily. Every where there is a distinction between the education of boys and girls--if the boys get little, the girls get less; as they get more, the proportion is kept up. If you wish to maintain your proper position in society, to command the respect of your friends now, and husbands and chil- [P. 81] dren in future, you should read, read--think, study, try to be wise, to know your own places and keep them, your own duties and do them. You should try to understand every thing you see and hear; to act and judge for yourselves; to remember you each have a soul of your own to account for; --a mind of your own to improve. When you once get these ideas fixed, and learn to act upon them, no man or set of men, no laws, customs, or combinations of them can seriously oppress you. Ignorance, folly, and levity, are more or less essential to the character of a slave. If women knew their rights, and proper places, we would never hear of men "making their wives" do this, that, or the other.