Worcester Women's History Project

"Strange Things I Have Seen and Heard"

Minnie Myrtle [Nancy Cummings Johnson (1815-1852)], "Strange Things I Have Seen and Heard" and other pieces from The Myrtle Wreath or Stray Leaves Recalled (N.Y.: Charles Scribner, 1854).

[Editorial Note: The sketches and poems collected in The Myrtle Wreath first appeared in the New York Daily Times, -- the book is dedicated to Henry Raymond, editor of the Times -- The Independent, The Troy Post, and The National Era. Johnson's wrote, in her introductory "Word to My Readers," that "I have not written to instruct the wise, and have no ambition to write learnedly. I have hoped to impress the heart, and to amuse, believing this to be emphatically 'woman's mission.'" (P. 10) Now forgotten, Johnson was a popular writer in the early 1850s, sufficiently famous to be included by her pen name in the political cartoons of the day. So her writing opens a window on how the debate about woman's "place" entered into the popular culture.
In carving out her literary career, Johnson was a contemporary and rival of Sarah Payson Willis Parton, who, under the pseudonym of Fanny Fern, published several best-selling collections of pointed, humorous sketches. The first, Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio, appeared the year before Johnson's posthumous The Myrtle Wreath or Stray Leaves Recalled. Johnson explicitly refused to advocate woman's rights. At the same time in "Strange Things" and several other essays she leveled a series of scathing critiques of those who sought to keep women in their "proper sphere."]

STRANGE THINGS I HAVE SEEN AND HEARD

P.236: "Power is corrupting," says the Politician. "Power is corrupting," says the foe to hierarchies. "Good men, the best men, should not be entrusted with absolute power." "Power is corrupting," says the enemy of slavery, "men should not be permitted the absolute control of human beings; however good the master may be, he will be tempted to indulge in tyranny, if there is nothing external to restrain him."
These are sentiments which I have often heard expressed by one who still exclaims, " I will be master [P.237] in my own house; those who live with me shall obey me." And the obedience which is required of a wife is as servile as that which is rendered by any bond slave.
To his daughter he says, "Whilst you are in my house you will do as I say, if you are a hundred years old;" not because she would not obey willingly and happily, but because there is such pleasure in exacting obedience. All would gladly do right of their own accord; but that would not be sufficient; they must be compelled; they must feel in every nerve, and bone and muscle, that they are subject to the will of another. To order, thwart and torture, is a peculiar pleasure, and I am fully convinced, is not enjoyed by Princes, and Popes, and slave-owners alone.
I have seen the staunchest advocates of "Woman's rights" and "human freedom," exercise the most brutal tyranny over wives and daughters. I have seen a quiet Christian woman beaten, by a man who was ever railing against oppression. I have seen the marks of an inch cable on the shoulders of a grown up daughter, placed there by a man who was ever uttering anathemas against those, who, for any reason applied the lash to those over whom the law gave them power!
I have seen a little girl drop lifeless under the infliction of the rod, which was used not merely as an instrument of punishment, but to prove that he who [p.238] wielded it had a right to do what he pleased with his own.
If those who rule with such authority lived where human beings are property, they would exult in its peculiar privileges, and triumph in the wrongs they could commit with impunity.
"Power is indeed corrupting." I have seen a young girl dragged from room to room by her hair, beaten and trodden upon, for only slight offence, by one whom she called mother, because tyranny was sweet--to inspire fear more pleasant than to inspire love.
I have seen in many families, wives and daughters and sisters, afraid with a fear not less slavish than that which inspires the most abject among those who are bought and sold, and all because those who held it delighted in swaying the iron sceptre and ruling with an iron rod. And those who are ruled are expected meekly to endure; their lips must be even wreathed in smiles and breathless gladness for those who have crushed all gladness from their hearts. "Power is corrupting," but it is not Kings and Politicians alone whom it corrupts.

A WORD for WOMAN

P. 94: Not long ago I heard a celebrated Doctor of Divinity lecture upon "Woman," and if experience and observation had not taught me better, I should have gone home thinking the earth was actually blessed with a company of angels. There was not an allusion to any real deficiency in the character, wants, or occupations of the gentle sex--they were unmitigated blessings. In moral qualities they were represented as far superior to man, and in some intellectual qualities, quite his equal! In perception and judgment they excelled, but in inven-[P.95]tion they were inferior. This is the point in his remarks to which I intended to come, and no farther, for, dear reader, I am giving an abstract of a learned lecturer, in order to elucidate my subject.
But just as the good man had made this remark, a lady turned to me and said, "Just think of all the bags of crochet and cucumber seeds,--the purses of knitting and netting, and knotting--the counterpanes pieced in diamonds, and squares, and semi-circles, and quilted in ginger-bread, love-knots, and 'herring-bone,'--of the divans, and ottomans, and the tete a-tetes, all covered with block-work of satin and velvet, over which the brain has puzzled days, and weeks, and months--just think of the devices in all manner of purple and fine linen--of the worsted work, with its infinite variety of roses and posies,--its dogs and fawns, and cats; and then the laces and muslims, with the millions of invisible stitches, over which the eyes have dimmed and fingers ached.
. . . . . . .
P. 96: We might go on enumerating, but surely we have demonstrated that all the leisure hours of women are devoted to inventions. Some masculine critic will probably exclaim, that her powers are exerted on very trivial subjects, and the world is not much better for all those things. Most true it is, good sir, but who is to blame for all that? When you will permit her to step out of this insignificant sphere, perhaps she will shine as conspicuously in another and higher!
And I could prove, if I should try, that it is better to embroider than to do nothing; and any art that enables a woman to promote the tasteful arrangement and adorning of her home, with the time and skill which she can spend in no better way for want of permission! is useful.
. . . .
So I hope she will go on improving her powers upon little things, so as to be prepared for greater ones when they come within her reach, but never on any occasion do I advise her to step out of her sphere to reach them!

LITERARY WOMEN

P. 115: It may seem superfluous to devote a line, or moment of time, to the vindication of literary women, when they are so successfully vindicating themselves--when they are so greatly honored and universally respected. But there are a great many women who are not guilty of dabbling in literature in any way, who are vastly concerned for the reputation of their sisters of the press, and more concerned for the well being of their [i.e., the literary women's] husbands and families. There is scarcely a day that we do not hear some unjust remark, or uncharitable allusion to [P.116] one who has lately become so world renowned in the empire of letters [Harriet Beecher Stowe?]. "She neglects her family." "Her children receive from her no attention." "Her household affairs are left entirely to others." "She is unamiable as wife, and mother, and friend," et cetera, et cetera. Every one of which charges I know to be false.
. .. . . .
No woman who is a good housewife, in the highest sense of the term, need spend all her time in household duties. The more systematic she is, and thoroughly acquainted with her profession, the more time she may redeem for other pursuits. No woman should be compelled to toil from early morning till late at night in the nursery, kitchen, or at the needle, though the bent forms, sallow faces, and dejected spirits, we meet at every step, show how many do so.
There is no profession which so absolutely requires a well-balanced mind and high degree of cultivation in order to excel as housewifery, and there are very few women even in our land who have attained to perfection. That the poor are so miserably poor and remain so, is, in a great proportion of cases, owing to the igno[P.117]rance and inefficiency of women. That enterprising business men so often fail, is owing to the extravagance of their wives and daughters, and extravagance is often owing entirely to ignorance. A few literary women have been slatterns who would just as surely been slatterns had they never seen a book or pen, and infinitely more useless and disagreeable!
But the slatterns who could not read or hold a pen, have not been counted, though it is conceded by most matrons that our emigrant servants are not the most learned, tidy, or the most expert! But suppose that literary and cultivated women must necessarily devote the time to books which should be devoted to the "weightier matters," which must certainly be deemed the most imperative and important, if they have assumed the responsibilities of wives, mothers, nurses, et cetera. Are the husbands, and children, and puddings, which are neglected for books, in any worse condition than those neglected for theatres, balls, operas, or tattling, slander and gossip? The proportion of learned ladies, is as yet very small in comparison to the whole, and there is a goodly prospect that it will be for a long time to come, while the fashionable women are a host, and their employments are no different now from what they were when Addison[1] described them.
Their toilet is their great scene of business, and the right adjusting of their hair, the principal employment [P.118] of their lives; the sorting of a suit of ribbons is reckoned a very good morning's work, and if they make an excursion to a mercer's [dealer in textiles, usually silks] or a toy-shop, so great a fatigue makes them unfit for anything else all the day after. Their more serious occupations are sewing and embroidery; and their greatest drudgery the preparation of jellies and sweet-meats. "One infallible resource in that day, as in this, was shopping." And then, as now, their overflowing affections were lavished on monkeys, lap-dogs and parrots.
There is a certain "knack of doing things," which is as much a gift as speaking of tongues, or writing poetry, and we have seen young ladies try most perserveringly for years and never learn to bake, or wield a dishcloth, or broom, with grace or dexterity. Do not laugh at the idea of grace in such matters, for sewing, knitting, and sweeping, if done properly, are done gracefully, and are done well by some in half the time that others are doing them ill.

A WOMAN'S TOIL

P.272: How many sensible husbands do I know, who think a woman's toil is nothing, and deserves no reward because she is not engaged in coining money.
They cannot perceive that it is any labor to take five thousand steps round the cooking stove to prepare breakfast for a dozen people, or as many more for dinner and for supper, and twice as many more for the various other duties she has to perform.
[here follows an enumeration of a wife's endless chores]
P.275: And when one wife has worn herself into the grave, and the green mound has covered her, why he can easily get another, for there are plenty more who have nothing else to do, and it is proverbial that the second does get a little more mercy than the first! And it is proverbial that men grow old with scarcely a foot-print upon their brows, whilst women fade and wither and [P.276] fall like autumn leaves; but there is no reason, for their labor is nothing, and the "wearing, harassing, perplexing toil," is all performed by men, and they earn all the money!
NOTES
[1]Joseph Addison (1672-1719), English essayist and social commentator who, with Richard Steele, founded The Spectator. Addison also served as secretary of state for Great Britain, 1717-1718.

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