Woman in the Nineteenth Century

by Margaret Fuller

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The Wrongs of American Women. The Duties of American Women.

The same day brought us a copy of Mr. Burdett's little book,—in which the sufferings and difficulties that beset the large class of women who must earn their subsistence in a city like New York, are delineated with so much simplicity, feeling, and exact adherence to the facts,—and a printed circular, containing proposals for immediate practical adoption of the plan wore fully described in a book published some weeks since, under the title, "The Duty of American Women to their Country," which was ascribed alternately to Mrs. Stowe and Miss Catharine Beecher. The two matters seemed linked to one another by natural parity. Full acquaintance with the wrong must call forth all manner of inventions for its redress.

The circular, in showing the vast want that already exists of good means for instructing the children of this nation, especially in the West, states also the belief that among women, as being less immersed in other cares and toils, from the preparation it gives for their task as mothers, and from the necessity in which a great proportion stand of earning a subsistence somehow, at least during the years which precede marriage, if they do marry, must the number of teachers wanted be found, which is estimated already at sixty thousand.

We cordially sympathize with these views.

Much has been written about woman's keeping within her sphere, which is defined as the domestic sphere. As a little girl she is to learn the lighter family duties, while she acquires that limited acquaintance with the realm of literature and science that will enable her to superintend the instruction of children in their earliest years. It is not generally proposed that she should be sufficiently instructed and developed to understand the pursuits or aims of her future husband; she is not to be a help-meet to him in the way of companionship and counsel, except in the care of his house and children. Her youth is to be passed partly in learning to keep house and the use of the needle, partly in the social circle, where her manners may be formed, ornamental accomplishments perfected and displayed, and the husband found who shall give her the domestic sphere for which she is exclusively to be prepared.

Were the destiny of Woman thus exactly marked out; did she invariably retain the shelter of a parent's or guardian's roof till she married; did marriage give her a sure home and protector; were she never liable to remain a widow, or, if so, sure of finding immediate protection from a brother or new husband, so that she might never be forced to stand alone one moment; and were her mind given for this world only, with no faculties capable of eternal growth and infinite improvement; we would still demand for her a for wider and more generous culture, than is proposed by those who so anxiously define her sphere. We would demand it that she might not ignorantly or frivolously thwart the designs of her husband; that she might be the respected friend of her sons, not less than of her daughters; that she might give more refinement, elevation and attraction, to the society which is needed to give the characters of men polish and plasticity,—no less so than to save them from vicious and sensual habits. But the most fastidious critic on the departure of Woman from her sphere can scarcely fail to see, at present, that a vast proportion of the sex, if not the better half, do not, cannot have this domestic sphere. Thousands and scores of thousands in this country, no less than in Europe, are obliged to maintain themselves alone. Far greater numbers divide with their husbands the care of earning a support for the family. In England, now, the progress of society has reached so admirable a pitch, that the position of the sexes is frequently reversed, and the husband is obliged to stay at home and "mind the house and bairns," while the wife goes forth to the employment she alone can secure.

We readily admit that the picture of this is most painful;—that Nature made an entirely opposite distribution of functions between the sexes. We believe the natural order to be the best, and that, if it could be followed in an enlightened spirit, it would bring to Woman all she wants, no less for her immortal than her mortal destiny. We are not surprised that men who do not look deeply and carefully at causes and tendencies, should be led, by disgust at the hardened, hackneyed characters which the present state of things too often produces in women, to such conclusions as they are. We, no more than they, delight in the picture of the poor woman digging in the mines in her husband's clothes. We, no more than they, delight to hear their voices shrilly raised in the market-place, whether of apples, or of celebrity. But we see that at present they must do as they do for bread. Hundreds and thousands must step out of that hallowed domestic sphere, with no choice but to work or steal, or belong to men, not as wives, but as the wretched slaves of sensuality.

And this transition state, with all its revolting features, indicates, we do believe, an approach of a nobler era than the world has yet known. We trust that by the stress and emergencies of the present and coming time the minds of women will be formed to more reflection and higher purposes than heretofore; their latent powers developed, their characters strengthened and eventually beautified and harmonized. Should the state of society then be such that each may remain, as Nature seems to have intended, Woman the tutelary genius of home, while Man manages the outdoor business of life, both may be done with a wisdom, a mutual understanding and respect, unknown at present. Men will be no less gainers by this than women, finding in pure and more religious marriages the joys of friendship and love combined,—in their mothers and daughters better instruction, sweeter and nobler companionship, and in society at large, an excitement to their finer powers and feelings unknown at present, except in the region of the fine arts.

Blest be the generous, the wise, who seek to forward hopes like these, instead of struggling, against the fiat of Providence and the march of Fate, to bind down rushing life to the standard of the past! Such efforts are vain, but those who make them are unhappy and unwise.

It is not, however, to such that we address ourselves, but to those who seek to make the best of things as they are, while they also strive to make them better. Such persons will have seen enough of the state of things in London, Paris, New York, and manufacturing regions everywhere, to feel that there is an imperative necessity for opening more avenues of employment to women, and fitting them better to enter them, rather than keeping them back.

Women have invaded many of the trades and some of the professions. Sewing, to the present killing extent, they cannot long bear. Factories seem likely to afford them permanent employment. In the culture of fruit, flowers, and vegetables, even in the sale of them, we rejoice to see them engaged. In domestic service they will be aided, but can never be supplanted, by machinery. As much room as there is here for Woman's mind and Woman's labor, will always be filled. A few have usurped the martial province, but these must always be few; the nature of Woman is opposed to war. It is natural enough to see "female physicians," and we believe that the lace cap and work-bag are as much at home here as the wig and gold-headed cane. In the priesthood, they have, from all time, shared more or less—in many eras more than at the present. We believe there has been no female lawyer, and probably will be none. The pen, many of the fine arts, they have made their own; and in the more refined countries of the world, as writers, as musicians, as painters, as actors, women occupy as advantageous ground as men. Writing and music may be esteemed professions for them more than any other.

But there are two others—where the demand must invariably be immense, and for which they are naturally better fitted than men—for which we should like to see them better prepared and better rewarded than they are. These are the professions of nurse to the sick, and of the teacher. The first of these professions we have warmly desired to see dignified. It is a noble one, now most unjustly regarded in the light of menial service. It is one which no menial, no servile nature can fitly occupy. We were rejoiced when an intelligent lady of Massachusetts made the refined heroine of a little romance select this calling. This lady (Mrs. George Lee) has looked on society with unusual largeness of spirit and healthiness of temper. She is well acquainted with the world of conventions, but sees beneath it the world of nature. She is a generous writer, and unpretending as the generous are wont to be. We do not recall the name of the tale, but the circumstance above mentioned marks its temper. We hope to see the time when the refined and cultivated will choose this profession, and learn it, not only through experience and under the direction of the doctor, but by acquainting themselves with the laws of matter and of mind, so that all they do shall be intelligently done, and afford them the means of developing intelligence, as well as the nobler, tenderer feelings of humanity; for even this last part of the benefit they cannot receive if their work be done in a selfish or mercenary spirit.

The other profession is that of teacher, for which women are peculiarly adapted by their nature, superiority in tact, quickness of sympathy, gentleness, patience, and a clear and animated manner in narration or description. To form a good teacher, should be added to this, sincere modesty combined with firmness, liberal views, with a power and will to liberalize them still further, a good method, and habits of exact and thorough investigation. In the two last requisites women are generally deficient, but there are now many shining examples to prove that if they are immethodical and superficial as teachers, it is because it is the custom so to teach them, and that when aware of these faults, they can and will correct them.

The profession is of itself an excellent one for the improvement of the teacher during that interim between youth and maturity when the mind needs testing, tempering, and to review and rearrange the knowledge it has acquired. The natural method of doing this for one's self, is to attempt teaching others; those years also are the best of the practical teacher. The teacher should be near the pupil, both in years and feelings; no oracle, but the eldest brother or sister of the pupil. More experience and years form the lecturer and director of studies, but injure the powers as to familiar teaching.

These are just the years of leisure in the lives even of those women who are to enter the domestic sphere, and this calling most of all compatible with a constant progress as to qualifications for that.

Viewing the matter thus, it may well be seen that we should hail with joy the assurance that sixty thousand female teachers are wanted, and more likely to be, and that a plan is projected which looks wise, liberal and generous, to afford the means, to those whose hearts answer to this high calling, of obeying their dictates.

The plan is to have Cincinnati as a central point, where teachers shall be for a short time received, examined, and prepared for their duties. By mutual agreement and cooperation of the various sects, funds are to be raised, and teachers provided, according to the wants and tendencies of the various locations now destitute. What is to be done for them centrally, is for suitable persons to examine into the various kinds of fitness, communicate some general views whose value has been tested, and counsel adapted to the difficulties and advantages of their new positions. The central committee are to have the charge of raising funds, and finding teachers, and places where teachers are wanted.

The passage of thoughts, teachers and funds, will be from East to West—the course of sunlight upon this earth.

The plan is offered as the most extensive and pliant means of doing a good and preventing ill to this nation, by means of a national education; whose normal school shall have an invariable object in the search after truth, and the diffusion of the means of knowledge, while its form shall be plastic according to the wants of the time. This normal school promises to have good effects, for it proposes worthy aims through simple means, and the motive for its formation and support seems to be disinterested philanthropy.

It promises to eschew the bitter spirit of sectarianism and proselytism, else we, for one party, could have nothing to do with it. Men, no doubt, have oftentimes been kept from absolute famine by the wheat with which such tares are mingled; but we believe the time is come when a purer and more generous food is to be offered to the people at large. We believe the aim of all education to be to rouse the mind to action, show it the means of discipline and of information; then leave it free, with God, Conscience, and the love of Truth, for its guardians and teachers. Woe be to those who sacrifice these aims of universal and eternal value to the propagation of a set of opinions! We can accept such doctrine as is offered by Rev. Colvin E. Stowe, one of the committee, in the following passage:

"In judicious practice, I am persuaded there will seldom be any very great difficulty, especially if there be excited in the community anything like a whole-hearted and enlightened sincerity in the cause of public instruction.

"It is all right for people to suit their own taste and convictions in respect to sect; and by fair means, and at proper times, to teach their children and those under their influence to prefer the denominations which they prefer; but further than this no one has any right to go. It is all wrong to hazard the well-being of the soul, to jeopardize great public interests for the sake of advancing the interests of a sect. People must learn to practise some self-denial, on Christian principles, in respect to their denominational prejudices as well as in respect to other things, before pure religion can ever gain a complete victory over every form of human selfishness."

The persons who propose themselves to the examination and instruction of the teachers at Cincinnati, till the plan shall be sufficiently under way to provide regularly for the office, are Mrs. Stowe and Miss Catharine Beecher, ladies well known to fame, as possessing unusual qualifications for the task.

As to finding abundance of teachers, who that reads this little book of Mr. Burdett's, or the account of the compensation of female labor in New York, and the hopeless, comfortless, useless, pernicious lives of those who have even the advantage of getting work must lead, with the sufferings and almost inevitable degradation to which those who cannot are exposed, but must long to snatch such as are capable of this better profession (and among the multitude there must be many who are or could be made so) from their present toils, and make them free, and the means of freedom and growth in others?

To many books on such subjects—among others to "Woman in the Nineteenth Century"—the objection has been made, that they exhibit ills without specifying any practical means for their remedy. The writer of the last-named essay does indeed think that it contains one great rule which, if laid to heart, would prove a practical remedy for many ills, and of such daily and hourly efficacy in the conduct of life, that any extensive observance of it for a single year would perceptibly raise the tone of thought, feeling and conduct, throughout the civilized world. But to those who ask not only such a principle, but an external method for immediate use, we say that here is one proposed which looks noble and promising; the proposers offer themselves to the work with heart and hand, with time and purse. Go ye and do likewise.

Return to the Woman in the Nineteenth Century Summary Return to the Margaret Fuller Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson