[Editorial Note: Progress was a word to conjure with in the mid-nineteenth century. People born in the 1810s or 1820s had witnessed the introduction of steam power and, with it, an enormous increase in human productivity. The rapid spread of railroad lines meant that journey that had taken days or weeks in their childhoods took hours instead. The telegraph was in some ways even more revolutionary since it meant that communication could be almost instantaneous. Americans were sure that they lived on the brink of an entirely new era of human history, a belief that suffuses the essay reprinted below. For another, post-Civil War hymn to progress, one which proclaimed the machine a "gospel worker" and which -- in a reference to the early woman's rights conventions -- wondered whether some machines were not intelligent enough to journey to Worcester and demand their rights, click here.
What is perhaps most interesting is the distinction the author of "Progress of Womanhood" made between the "circumstantial relations" between men and women and the "primary and essential laws" established by nature. So, much was changing, and properly so. But the essential was eternal.
P. 492: . . . Progress is a tangible thing. Every washer-woman knows that her homely art has improved; and if she is not acquainted with her chemical friends, Liebig, Johnston, and Moffat, she understands perfectly that some considerate geniuses have manufactured better soaps than she formerly used. Even the little school-children comprehend how they master the multiplication-table, by the aid of machinery, in quicker time than their parents did. Progress is quite palpable to every body. . . .
One of the wonders of the age is the progress of our women. To be sure it is, in the main, a quiet sort of wonder; but on that account none the less wonderful. Women and their movements rarely take public attention by storm. . . . A dashing, noisy, turbulent woman is a rarity, and a community of them is a sheer impossibility. . . . Women have a gliding gracefulness that befits them. Like the governor in a steam-engine, they equalize the motions of society; and thus, while performing a good office for the world, attain their own ends without much strife or collision. The surprising feature of the day is the calm, noiseless, imperceptible manner in which women have advanced to a commanding social and intellectual position. There has been nothing worthy of the name of a battle about it. True, there has been some talk -- but air-guns are poor projectiles. And then, we have had clamorous Woman's Rights Conventions, speeches, revolutions; but these have been the side-eddies of the stream -- not the stream itself.
How has it happened? Just as most things happen -- because there was a necessity for it. Womanly character, power, influence, are facts in the economy of Providence -- just as much so as light, heat, gravitation, in nature -- and as facts must, sooner or later, take their place among the accredited matters of common sense, [p.493] a womanly demonstration had to come. . . . But in the philosophy of development there are outward laws as well as inward; and hence we must look to society for some of the reasons of this change in the position of women. In the present century men have advanced in intelligence, refinement, taste; the institutions of government are more just and liberal; humanity is a stronger sentiment; public opionion covers a broader ground, and is more authoritative; and Christianity is more generally recognized as the standard of thought and action. Man is much less of an out-door animal. . . . The domestic idea is far more prominent in his sentiments -- and life, in some shape or other is tributary to it. Now, all this necessitates a pleasant and agreeable companionship. Women are desirable to men as men improve, and just in proportion as they call themselves away from outward objects as material engrossments and yield to the law of a milder, more generous, sympathetic manhood, in that proportion women are more appreciated and sought.
. . . . . Be this as it may, one thing is certain, viz., society, with this freshly-awakened power [of women] in full, unrestricted operation, can never be what it has been, nor remain what it now is. Henceforth a new line of movement is among the things decreed. The old landmarks that determined the circumstantial relations of the sexes are gone forever, and hereafter metes and bounds [boundary lines] more consistent with truth and equity must be established. We say circumstantial relations, for in their primary and essential laws the sexes must always continue to exhibit their distinct characteristics. By no art, by no reform or revolution, can man cease to be man or woman to be woman, intellectually, morally, socially; but outside of these fixed qualities, which absolute nature will hold intact, there is a vast, indefinite, unappropriated region, which is to be portioned out according to a new system of distribution. . . . An hour in 1857 is practically a day of 1800. Modern wants, drawing men into remote places; expensive pleasures, taxing time and fortitude; multiplied avenues for daring enterprises and swift achievements; these have drained the crowded occupations in which the masculine sex were wont to labor, and left vacancies for women to fill. Apart from that, women have competed successfully with men in some of their own callings, and at the bar of public opinion have had judgment in their favor. All of this goes to show that the productive spirit of the age, especially in its bearings on the comfort and welfare of society, has more demanded of it than men can meet. It is, in the language of political economy, a question of consumption. . . . Women are now needed for many sorts of work that they perform better than men. American experiments in the common school system of education have very clearly shown that, in primary instruction, they are much more effective than our sex. And even in certain walks of literature it is undeniable that they surpass us. Strangely enough, the publishers of our largest and best magazines [p. 494] say that their main supply is from the pens of the ladies. Thanks for that! Womanly brains ought to bear a commercial premium in literature. Five dollars for a newspaper column or a magazine page, ten per cent. on the sales of a volume, are significant somethings.
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P. 494: For two departments of writing women are pre-eminently fitted, viz., the literature of love and the literature of practical religion. In the progress of womanhood . . . the step is in this direction. And a good, strong, muscular step it is -- not with embroidered slippers or fashionable gaiters, but with a vigorous nerve that promises a long continuance.
Displacement, then, seems to be the order of the day in the question pending between the sexes. "Get out of the way" is the new Yankee Doodle for the marching host. Dry-goods clerks may make up their reckoning. Indoor employments suitable to women, but now held by feminine men, must change hands. Inventions begin to help them. Sewing-machines are the first fruits of a friendly harvest for them. If you do not hear of woman's rights in halls of legislation, you shall see them in patent offices. Every where, in every direction, men are silently forwarding the real progress of women. Our schools of design are introducing them by scores to the successful pursuit of art, and at the present time many of the patterns for wall papers and dress goods are furnished by young women. The true Woman's Rights movement is going steadily on without parade or bluster, and its work is in sure process of accomplishment. Such women as Charlotte Bronte, Florence Nightingale, Rosa Bonheur, Harriet Hosmer, are effecting the great object. We need not be uneasy about failure. Modern civilization needs all the genius, energy, skill, that men and women can possibly exercise. No one can jostle another in this enlarging world of the nineteenth century, and society is in league with Providence to fulfill the wise and holy law, that no talent shall any longer be folded in a napkin and buried in the earth.1