Woman in the Nineteenth Century

by Margaret Fuller

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Woman in Poverty

Woman, even less than Man, is what she should be as a whole. She is not that self-centred being, full of profound intuitions, angelic love, and flowing poesy, that she should be. Yet there are circumstances in which the native force and purity of her being teach her how to conquer where the restless impatience of Man brings defeat, and leaves him crushed and bleeding on the field.

Images rise to mind of calm strength, of gentle wisdom learning from every turn of adverse fate,—of youthful tenderness and faith undimmed to the close of life, which redeem humanity and make the heart glow with fresh courage as we write. They are mostly from obscure corners and very private walks. There was nothing shining, nothing of an obvious and sounding heroism to make their conduct doubtful, by tainting their motives with vanity. Unknown they lived, untrumpeted they died. Many hearts were warmed and fed by them, but perhaps no mind but our own ever consciously took account of their virtues.

Had Art but the power adequately to tell their simple virtues, and to cast upon them the light which, shining through those marked and faded faces, foretold the glories of a second spring! The tears of holy emotion which fell from those eyes have seemed to us pearls beyond all price; or rather, whose price will be paid only when, beyond the grave, they enter those better spheres in whose faith they felt and acted here.

From this private gallery we will, for the present, bring forth but one picture. That of a Black Nun was wont to fetter the eyes of visitors in the royal galleries of France, and my Sister of Mercy, too, is of that complexion. The old woman was recommended as a laundress by my friend, who had long prized her. I was immediately struck with the dignity and propriety of her manner. In the depth of winter she brought herself the heavy baskets through the slippery streets; and, when I asked her why she did not employ some younger person to do what was so entirely disproportioned to her strength, simply said, "she lived alone, and could not afford to hire an errand-boy." "It was hard for her?" "No, she was fortunate in being able to get work at her age, when others could do it better. Her friends were very good to procure it for her." "Had she a comfortable home?" "Tolerably so,—she should not need one long." "Was that a thought of joy to her?" "Yes, for she hoped to see again the husband and children from whom she had long been separated."

Thus much in answer to the questions, but at other times the little she said was on general topics. It was not from her that I learnt how the great idea of Duty had held her upright through a life of incessant toil, sorrow, bereavement; and that not only she had remained upright, but that her character had been constantly progressive. Her latest act had been to take home a poor sick girl who had no home of her own, and could not bear the idea of dying in a hospital, and maintain and nurse her through the last weeks of her life. "Her eye-sight was failing, and she should not be able to work much longer,—but, then, God would provide. Somebody ought to see to the poor, motherless girl."

It was not merely the greatness of the act, for one in such circumstances, but the quiet matter-of-course way in which it was done, that showed the habitual tone of the mind, and made us feel that life could hardly do more for a human being than to make him or her the somebody that is daily so deeply needed, to represent the right, to do the plain right thing.

"God will provide." Yes, it is the poor who feel themselves near to the God of love. Though he slay them, still do they trust him.

"I hope," said I to a poor apple-woman, who had been drawn on to disclose a tale of distress that, almost in the mere hearing, made me weary of life, "I hope I may yet see you in a happier condition." "With God's help," she replied, with a smile that Raphael would have delighted to transfer to his canvas; a Mozart, to strains of angelic sweetness. All her life she had seemed an outcast child; still she leaned upon a Father's love.

The dignity of a state like this may vary its form in, more or less richness and beauty of detail, but here is the focus of what makes life valuable. It is this spirit which makes poverty the best servant to the ideal of human nature. I am content with this type, and will only quote, in addition, a ballad I found in a foreign periodical, translated from Chamisso, and which forcibly recalled my own laundress as an equally admirable sample of the same class, the Ideal Poor, which we need for our consolation, so long as there must be real poverty.


  "Among yon lines her hands have laden,
    A laundress with white hair appears,
  Alert as many a youthful maiden,
    Spite of her five-and-seventy years;
  Bravely she won those white hairs, still
    Eating the bread hard toll obtained her,
  And laboring truly to fulfil
    The duties to which God ordained her.

  "Once she was young and full of gladness,
    She loved and hoped,—was wooed and won;
  Then came the matron's cares,—the sadness
    No loving heart on earth may shun.
  Three babes she bore her mate; she prayed
    Beside his sick-bed,—he was taken;
  She saw him in the church-yard laid,
    Yet kept her faith and hope unshaken.

  "The task her little ones of feeding
    She met unfaltering from that hour;
  She taught them thrift and honest breeding,
    Her virtues were their worldly dower.
  To seek employment, one by one,
    Forth with her blessing they departed,
  And she was in the world alone—
    Alone and old, but still high-hearted.

  "With frugal forethought; self-denying,
    She gathered coin, and flax she bought,
  And many a night her spindle plying,
    Good store of fine-spun thread she wrought.
  The thread was fashioned in the loom;
    She brought it home, and calmly seated
  To work, with not a thought of gloom,
    Her decent grave-clothes she completed.

  "She looks on them with fond elation;
    They are her wealth, her treasure rare,
  Her age's pride and consolation,
    Hoarded with all a miser's care.
  She dons the sark each Sabbath day,
    To hear the Word that falleth never!
  Well-pleased she lays it then away
    Till she shall sleep in it forever!

  "Would that my spirit witness bore me.
    That, like this woman, I had done
  The work my Master put before me
    Duly from morn till set of sun!
  Would that life's cup had been by me
    Quaffed in such wise and happy measure,
  And that I too might finally
    Look on my shroud with such meek pleasure!"

Such are the noble of the earth. They do not repine, they do not chafe, even in the inmost heart. They feel that, whatever else may be denied or withdrawn, there remains the better part, which cannot be taken from them. This line exactly expresses the woman I knew:—

"Alone and old, but still high-hearted."

Will any, poor or rich, fail to feel that the children of such a parent were rich when

"Her virtues were their worldly dower"?

Will any fail to bow the heart in assent to the aspiration,

  "Would that my spirit witness bore me
    That, like this woman, I had done
  The work my Maker put before me
    Duly from morn till set of sun"?
May not that suffice to any man's ambition?

[Perhaps one of the most perplexing problems which beset Woman in her domestic sphere relates to the proper care and influence which she should exert over the domestic aids she employs. As these are, and long must be, taken chiefly from one nation, the following pages treating of the Irish Character, and the true relation between Employer and Employed, can hardly fail to be of interest. They contain, too, some considerations which Woman as well as Man is too much in danger of overlooking, and which seem, even more than when first urged, to be timely in this reactionary to-day.—ED.]

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