North America, by Anthony Trollope

The Rights of Women.

We all know that the subject which appears above as the title of this chapter is a very favorite subject in America. It is, I hope, a very favorite subject here also, and I am inclined to think has been so for many years past. The rights of women, as contradistinguished from the wrongs of women, has perhaps been the most precious of the legacies left to us by the feudal ages. How, amid the rough darkness of old Teuton rule, women began to receive that respect which is now their dearest right, is one of the most interesting studies of history. It came, I take it, chiefly from their own conduct. The women of the old classic races seem to have enjoyed but a small amount of respect or of rights, and to have deserved as little. It may have been very well for one Caesar to have said that his wife should be above suspicion; but his wife was put away, and therefore either did not have her rights, or else had justly forfeited them. The daughter of the next Caesar lived in Rome the life of a Messalina, and did not on that account seem to have lost her “position in society,” till she absolutely declined to throw any vail whatever over her propensities. But as the Roman empire fell, chivalry began. For a time even chivalry afforded but a dull time to the women. During the musical period of the Troubadours, ladies, I fancy, had but little to amuse them save the music. But that was the beginning, and from that time downward the rights of women have progressed very favorably. It may be that they have not yet all that should belong to them. If that be the case, let the men lose no time in making up the difference. But it seems to me that the women who are now making their claims may perhaps hardly know when they are well off. It will be an ill movement if they insist on throwing away any of the advantages they have won. As for the women in America especially, I must confess that I think they have a “good time.” I make them my compliments on their sagacity, intelligence, and attractions, but I utterly refuse to them any sympathy for supposed wrongs. O fortunatas, sua si bona norint! Whether or no, were I an American married man and father of a family, I should not go in for the rights of man — that is altogether another question.

This question of the rights of women divides itself into two heads — one of which is very important, worthy of much consideration, capable perhaps of much philanthropic action, and at any rate affording matter for grave discussion. This is the question of women’s work: How far the work of the world, which is now borne chiefly by men, should be thrown open to women further than is now done? The other seems to me to be worthy of no consideration, to be capable of no action, to admit of no grave discussion. This refers to the political rights of women: How far the political working of the world, which is now entirely in the hands of men, should be divided between them and women? The first question is being debated on our side of the Atlantic as keenly perhaps as on the American side. As to that other question, I do not know that much has ever been said about it in Europe.

“You are doing nothing in England toward the employment of females,” a lady said to me in one of the States soon after my arrival in America. “Pardon me,” I answered, “I think we are doing much, perhaps too much. At any rate we are doing something.” I then explained to her how Miss Faithful had instituted a printing establishment in London; how all the work in that concern was done by females, except such heavy tasks as those for which women could not be fitted, and I handed to her one of Miss Faithful’s cards. “Ah,” said my American friend, “poor creatures! I have no doubt their very flesh will be worked off their bones.” I thought this a little unjust on her part; but nevertheless it occurred to me as an answer not unfit to be made by some other lady — by some woman who had not already advocated the increased employment of women. Let Miss Faithful look to that. Not that she will work the flesh off her young women’s bones, or allow such terrible consequences to take place in Coram Street; not that she or that those connected with her in that enterprise will do aught but good to those employed therein. It will not even be said of her individually, or of her partners, that they have worked the flesh off women’s bones; but may it not come to this, that when the tasks now done by men have been shifted to the shoulders of women, women themselves will so complain? May it not go further, and come even to this, that women will have cause for such complaint? I do not think that such a result will come, because I do not think that the object desired by those who are active in the matter will be attained. Men, as a general rule among civilized nations, have elected to earn their own bread and the bread of the women also, and from this resolve on their part I do not think that they will be beaten off.

We know that Mrs. Dall, an American lady, has taken up this subject, and has written a book on it, in which great good sense and honesty of purpose is shown. Mrs. Dall is a strong advocate for the increased employment of women, and I, with great deference, disagree with her. I allude to her book now because she has pointed out, I think very strongly, the great reason why women do not engage themselves advantageously in trade pursuits. She by no means overpraises her own sex, and openly declares that young women will not consent to place themselves in fair competition with men. They will not undergo the labor and servitude of long study at their trades. They will not give themselves up to an apprenticeship. They will not enter upon their tasks as though they were to be the tasks of their lives. They may have the same physical and mental aptitudes for learning a trade as men, but they have not the same devotion to the pursuit, and will not bind themselves to it thoroughly as men do. In all which I quite agree with Mrs. Dall; and the English of it is — that the young women want to get married.

God forbid that they should not so want. Indeed, God has forbidden in a very express way that there should be any lack of such a desire on the part of women. There has of late years arisen a feeling among masses of the best of our English ladies that this feminine propensity should be checked. We are told that unmarried women may be respectable, which we always knew; that they may be useful, which we also acknowledge — thinking still that, if married, they would be more useful; and that they may be happy, which we trust — feeling confident, however, that they might in another position be more happy. But the question is not only as to the respectability, usefulness, and happiness of womankind, but as to that of men also. If women can do without marriage, can men do so? And if not, how are the men to get wives, if the women elect to remain single?

It will be thought that I am treating the subject as though it were simply jocose, but I beg to assure my reader that such is not my intention. It certainly is the fact that that disinclination to an apprenticeship and unwillingness to bear the long training for a trade, of which Mrs. Dall complains on the part of young women, arise from the fact that they have other hopes with which such apprenticeships would jar; and it is also certain that if such disinclination be overcome on the part of any great number, it must be overcome by the destruction or banishment of such hopes. The question is whether good or evil would result from such a change. It is often said that whatever difficulty a woman may have in getting a husband, no man need encounter difficulty in finding a wife. But, in spite of this seeming fact, I think it must be allowed that if women are withdrawn from the marriage market, men must be withdrawn from it also to the same extent.

In any broad view of this matter, we are bound to look not on any individual case, and the possible remedies for such cases, but on the position in the world occupied by women in general — on the general happiness and welfare of the aggregate feminine world, and perhaps also a little on the general happiness and welfare of the aggregate male world. When ladies and gentlemen advocate the right of women to employment, they are taking very different ground from that on which stand those less extensive philanthropists who exert themselves for the benefit of distressed needlewomen, for instance, or for the alleviation of the more bitter misery of governesses. The two questions are in fact absolutely antagonistic to each other. The rights-of-women advocate is doing his best to create that position for women from the possible misfortunes of which the friend of the needlewomen is struggling to relieve them. The one is endeavoring to throw work from off the shoulders of men on to the shoulders of women, and the other is striving to lessen the burden which women are already bearing. Of course it is good to relieve distress in individual cases. That Song of the Shirt, which I regard as poetry of the immortal kind, has done an amount of good infinitely wider than poor Hood ever ventured to hope. Of all such efforts I would speak not only with respect, but with loving admiration. But of those whose efforts are made to spread work more widely among women — to call upon them to make for us our watches, to print our books, to sit at our desks as clerks and to add up our accounts — much as I may respect the individual operators in such a movement, I can express no admiration for their judgment.

I have seen women with ropes round their necks drawing a harrow over plowed ground. No one will, I suppose, say that they approve of that. But it would not have shocked me to see men drawing a harrow. I should have thought it slow, unprofitable work; but my feelings would not have been hurt. There must, therefore, be some limit; but if we men teach ourselves to believe that work is good for women, where is the limit to be drawn, and who shall draw it? It is true that there is now no actually defined limit. There is much work that is commonly open to both sexes. Personal domestic attendance is so, and the attendance in shops. The use of the needle is shared between men and women; and few, I take it, know where the seamstress ends and where the tailor begins. In many trades a woman can be, and very often is, the owner and manager of the business. Painting is as much open to women as to men, as also is literature. There can be no defined limit; but nevertheless there is at present a quasi limit, which the rights-of-women advocates wish to move, and so to move that women shall do more work and not less. A woman now could not well be a cab-driver in London; but are these advocates sure that no woman will be a cab-driver when success has attended their efforts? And would they like to see a woman driving a cab? For my part, I confess I do not like to see a woman acting as road-keeper on a French railway. I have seen a woman acting as hostler at a public stage in Ireland. I knew the circumstances — how her husband had become ill and incapable, and how she had been allowed to earn the wages; but nevertheless the sight was to me disagreeable, and seemed, as far as it went, to degrade the sex. Chivalry has been very active in raising women from the hard and hardening tasks of the world; and through this action they have become soft, tender, and virtuous. It seems to me that they of whom I am now speaking are desirous of undoing what chivalry has done.

The argument used is of course plain enough. It is said that women are left destitute in the world — destitute unless they can be self-dependent, and that to women should be given the same open access to wages that men possess, in order that they may be as self-dependent as men. Why should a young woman, for whom no father is able to provide, not enjoy those means of provision which are open to a young man so circumstanced? But I think the answer is very simple. The young man, under the happiest circumstances which may befall him, is bound to earn his bread. The young woman is only so bound when happy circumstances do not befall her. Should we endeavor to make the recurrence of unhappy circumstances more general or less so? What does any tradesman, any professional man, any mechanic wish for his children? Is it not this, that his sons shall go forth and earn their bread, and that his daughters shall remain with him till they are married? Is not that the mother’s wish? Is it not notorious that such is the wish of us all as to our daughters? In advocating the rights of women it is of other men’s girls that we think, never of our own.

But, nevertheless, what shall we do for those women who must earn their bread by their own work? Whatever we do, do not let us willfully increase their number. By opening trades to women, by making them printers, watchmakers, accountants, or what not, we shall not simply relieve those who must now earn their bread by some such work or else starve. It will not be within our power to stop ourselves exactly at a certain point; to arrange that those women who under existing circumstances may now be in want shall be thus placed beyond want, but that no others shall be affected. Men, I fear, will be too willing to relieve themselves of some portion of their present burden, should the world’s altered ways enable them to do so. At present a lawyer’s clerk may earn perhaps his two guineas a week, and he with his wife live on that in fair comfort. But if his wife, as well as he, has been brought up as a lawyer’s clerk, he will look to her also for some amount of wages. I doubt whether the two guineas would be much increased, but I do not doubt at all that the woman’s position would be injured.

It seems to me that in discussing this subject philanthropists fail to take hold of the right end of the argument. Money returns from work are very good, and work itself is good, as bringing such returns and occupying both body and mind; but the world’s work is very hard, and workmen are too often overdriven. The question seems to me to be this — of all this work have the men got on their own backs too heavy a share for them to bear, and should they seek relief by throwing more of it upon women? It is the rights of man that we are in fact debating. These watches are weary to make, and this type is troublesome to set, We have battles to fight and speeches to make, and our hands altogether are too full. The women are idle — many of them. They shall make the watches for us and set the type; and when they have done that, why should they not make nails as they do sometimes in Worcestershire, or clean horses, or drive the cabs? They have had an easy time of it for these years past, but we’ll change that. And then it would come to pass that with ropes round their necks the women would be drawing harrows across the fields.

I don’t think this will come to pass. The women generally do know when they are well off, and are not particularly anxious to accept the philanthropy proffered to them — as Mrs. Dall says, they do not wish to bind themselves as apprentices to independent money-making. This cry has been louder in America than with us, but even in America it has not been efficacious for much. There is in the States, no doubt, a sort of hankering after increased influence, a desire for that prominence of position which men attain by loud voices and brazen foreheads, a desire in the female heart to be up and doing something, if the female heart only knew what; but even in the States it has hardly advanced beyond a few feminine lectures. In many branches of work women are less employed than in England. They are not so frequent behind counters in the shops, and are rarely seen as servants in hotels. The fires in such houses are lighted and the rooms swept by men. But the American girls may say they do not desire to light fires and sweep rooms. They are ambitious of the higher classes of work. But those higher branches of work require study, apprenticeship, a devotion of youth; and that they will not give. It is very well for a young man to bind himself for four years, and to think of marrying four years after that apprenticeship be over. But such a prospectus will not do for a girl. While the sun shines the hay must be made, and her sun shines earlier in the day than that of him who is to be her husband. Let him go through the apprenticeship and the work, and she will have sufficient on her hands if she looks well after his household. Under nature’s teaching she is aware of this, and will not bind herself to any other apprenticeship, let Mrs. Dall preach as she may.

I remember seeing, either at New York or Boston, a wooden figure of a neat young woman, as large as life, standing at a desk with a ledger before her, and looking as though the beau ideal of human bliss were realized in her employment. Under the figure there was some notice respecting female accountants. Nothing could be nicer than the lady’s figure, more flowing than the broad lines of her drapery, or more attractive than her auburn ringlets. There she stood at work, earning her bread without any impediment to the natural operation of her female charms, and adjusting the accounts of some great firm with as much facility as grace. I wonder whether he who designed that figure had ever sat or stood at a desk for six hours; whether he knew the dull hum of the brain which comes from long attention to another man’s figures; whether he had ever soiled his own fingers with the everlasting work of office hours, or worn his sleeves threadbare as he leaned, weary in body and mind, upon his desk? Work is a grand thing — the grandest thing we have; but work is not picturesque, graceful, and in itself alluring. It sucks the sap out of men’s bones, and bends their backs, and sometimes breaks their hearts; but though it be so, I for one would not wish to throw any heavier share of it on to a woman’s shoulders. It was pretty to see those young women with spectacles at the Boston library; but when I heard that they were there from eight in the morning till nine at night, I pitied them their loss of all the softness of home, and felt that they would not willingly be there, if necessity were less stern.

Say that by advocating the rights of women, philanthropists succeed in apportioning more work to their share, will they eat more, wear better clothes, lie softer, and have altogether more of the fruits of work than they do now? That some would do so there can be no doubt; but as little that some would have less. If on the whole they would not have more, for what good result is the movement made? The first question is, whether at the present time they have less than their proper share. There are, unquestionably, terrible cases of female want; and so there are also of want among men. Alas! do we not all feel that it must be so, let the philanthropists be ever so energetic? And if a woman be left destitute, without the assistance of father, brother, or husband, it would be hard if no means of earning subsistence were open to her. But the object now sought is not that of relieving such distress. It has a much wider tendency, or at any rate a wider desire. The idea is that women will ennoble themselves by making themselves independent, by working for their own bread instead of eating bread earned by men. It is in that that these new philosophers seem to me to err so greatly. Humanity and chivalry have succeeded, after a long struggle, in teaching the man to work for the woman; and now the woman rebels against such teaching — not because she likes the work, but because she desires the influence which attends it. But in this I wrong the woman — even the American woman. It is not she who desires it, but her philanthropical philosophical friends who desire it for her.

If work were more equally divided between the sexes, some women would, of course, receive more of the good things of the world. But women generally would not do so. The tendency, then, would be to force young women out upon their own exertions. Fathers would soon learn to think that their daughters should be no more dependent on them than their sons; men would expect their wives to work at their own trades; brothers would be taught to think it hard that their sisters should lean on them, and thus women, driven upon their own resources, would hardly fare better than they do at present.

After all it is a question of money, and a contest for that power and influence which money gives. At present, men have the position of the Lower House of Parliament — they have to do the harder work, but they hold the purse. Even in England there has grown up a feeling that the old law of the land gives a married man too much power over the joint pecuniary resources of him and his wife, and in America this feeling is much stronger, and the old law has been modified. Why should a married woman be able to possess nothing? And if such be the law of the land, is it worth a woman’s while to marry and put herself in such a position? Those are the questions asked by the friends of the rights of women. But the young women do marry, and the men pour their earnings into their wives’ laps.

If little has as yet been done in extending the rights of women by giving them a greater share of the work of the world, still less has been done toward giving them their portion of political influence. In the States there are many men of mark, and women of mark also, who think that women should have votes for public elections. Mr. Wendell Phillips, the Boston lecturer who advocates abolition, is an apostle in this cause also; and while I was at Boston I read the provisions of a will lately left by a millionaire, in which he bequeathed some very large sums of money to be expended in agitation on this subject. A woman is subject to the law; why then should she not help to make the law? A child is subject to the law, and does not help to make it; but the child lacks that discretion which the woman enjoys equally with the man. That I take it is the amount of the argument in favor of the political rights of women. The logic of this is so conclusive that I am prepared to acknowledge that it admits of no answer. I will only say that the mutual good relations between men and women, which are so indispensable to our happiness, require that men and women should not take to voting at the same time and on the same result. If it be decided that women shall have political power, let them have it all to themselves for a season. If that be so resolved, I think we may safely leave it to them to name the time at which they will begin.

I confess that in the States I have sometimes been driven to think that chivalry has been carried too far — that there is an attempt to make women think more of the rights of their womanhood than is needful. There are ladies’ doors at hotels, and ladies’ drawing-rooms, ladies’ sides on the ferry-boats, ladies’ windows at the post-office for the delivery of letters — which, by-the-by, is an atrocious institution, as anybody may learn who will look at the advertisements called personal in some of the New York papers. Why should not young ladies have their letters sent to their houses, instead of getting them at a private window? The post-office clerks can tell stories about those ladies’ windows. But at every turn it is necessary to make separate provision for ladies. From all this it comes to pass that the baker’s daughter looks down from a great height on her papa, and by no means thinks her brother good enough for her associate. Nature, the great restorer, comes in and teaches her to fall in love with the butcher’s son. Thus the evil is mitigated; but I cannot but wish that the young woman should not see herself denominated a lady so often, and should receive fewer lessons as to the extent of her privileges. I would save her, if I could, from working at the oven; I would give to her bread and meat earned by her father’s care and her brother’s sweat; but when she has received these good things, I would have her proud of the one and by no means ashamed of the other.

Let women say what they will of their rights, or men who think themselves generous say what they will for them, the question has all been settled both for them and for us men by a higher power. They are the nursing mothers of mankind, and in that law their fate is written with all its joys and all its privileges. It is for men to make those joys as lasting and those privileges as perfect as may be. That women should have their rights no man will deny. To my thinking, neither increase of work nor increase of political influence are among them. The best right a woman has is the right to a husband, and that is the right to which I would recommend every young woman here and in the States to turn her best attention. On the whole, I think that my doctrine will be more acceptable than that of Mrs. Dall or Mr. Wendell Phillips.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43