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REFORM IN THE POLITICAL STATUS OF WOMAN.

     By Prof. Austin Phelps, D.D.

     The unsoundness of a social or political reform is sometimes indicated by a certain animus which runs through the reasoning of its advocates, quite as clearly as by the inconclusiveness of the reasoning itself. With some honorable and able exceptions, this appears to be the rule in the advocacy of the reform of which the extension of the suffrage to women is the initial measure.

     (1) A reverent believer in the Scriptures cannot but detect evidence of this distorted animus, in the coolness with which the Biblical argument in the negative is ignored by the most positive advocates of the reform. For distinction's sake, and in justice to a different class of its advocates, they must be called "the left wing" of the reform. One is reminded of the fling which used to be thrown at the Bible, by the corresponding wing of the old anti-slavery reformers, whose answer to the objection that the Bible tolerated slavery was: "So much the worse for the Bible then!"

     If the Scriptures are clear and positive on any subject related to the organization of society, they are so on this, of the position of woman in the order of nature. St. Paul defines it beyond the reach of cavil. He reasons upon it, not as an Oriental but as a cosmopolitan. He pronounces judgment upon it, not as a priest but as a philosopher. He goes back to the beginning of things. He finds his reason for the subordination of woman in the very act of her creation. He could not well have put the case in a way more flatly antagonistic to the opposite extreme of our day. What the inspired teacher meant to say on the subject admits of no reasonable doubt. If fire is fire, the apostle's theory of the social economy under which God placed the two sexes at the beginning, and which Christianity leaves as it finds it, makes man the head, and woman something other than the head: man the power of government, and woman not that.

     Yet, notwithstanding the indubitable force of the inspired reasoning, it is scarcely ever heard of among those who chiefly give character to this modern revolution. They often ignore the Biblical argument with the flippancy with which one might dismiss the law of the Koran on the subject. Inspiration goes for nothing. St. Paul is no more to the purpose than the author of the Book of Mormon. We are afraid of a reform which starts with such an animus towards the Word of God. It is not a philosophical treatment of a great authority. It is not a judicial treatment of great precedents. It is not a Christian treatment of a revelation from Heaven.

     (2) A similar defect in the animus of its reasonings is found in the antagonism which the reform seems to foster between the sexes. Is not this the first time in the history of the race that such antagonism has assumed the dignity of a great humanitarian revolution? "The Subjection of Woman" is the mildest title which Mr. Mill could invent even for his philosophic and able essay on the subject, and the latest synonym is "The White Male Dynasty." The sexes are made to appear as master and servant, as usurper and victim, as tyrant and slave. Woman, as the Reform will have it, lies under the hoof of man. Maidenhood and marriage are only different phases of the vassalage to which the sex is born. Law, the creature of man's will, admits no other destiny. So far as the reform works out its normal results, it tends to mutual suspicion and alienation. It is infusing an element of mutual defiance into our legislation on the interests of the sexes. The drift of it is to leave absolutely nothing which law can reach to their mutual confidence and affection. Its aim seems to be to barricade the sexes against each other. Our statute books already bristle with defenses of woman against man. Marriage, therefore, as it looks in legislation, is but a truce to chronic war; and we are told that this is but the beginning of things.

     Evidence is not distant that the legitimate fruit of all this is ripening in many families. Women, whose gentle and trustful natures would never dream of a sense of servitude in their lot, are told of "chimeras dire" in the very construction of the old English marriage vow, under which duchesses and queens have "lived and loved and died" for centuries. Unsuspecting wives are tempted to believe there must be some fire where so much smoke is puffed into their faces. The relation of elder sisters to younger brothers -- in some respects the most beautiful, and, at the same time, powerful phase of domestic life -- is often poisoned by this infection. The saddest histories in this world are unwritten. If those of certain families could be known, it would be found that the last twenty years have wrought a mournful change in many homes. The change is due chiefly to the silent compulsions produced by the agitation of this reform, and by the extreme legislation which it has created. Profound instincts in both sexes are chafed into morbid remonstrance. Without a shadow of reason, wives have grown suspicious of husbands, and husbands have retaliated in kind. The ancient unity of interests has been broken up. Extreme and morbid individualism has been fostered just where it ought never to have been heard of. Persons of gentle birth and refined culture, who never would have created such a state of things, accept it, unconscious of what they do. They breathe malaria in the social atmosphere, and cannot help being diseased by it. As a consequence, married life, to many innocent parties, becomes one long disappointment of the dreams of youth.

     In other cases, young mothers chafe under the indignity of household cares. Daughters unmarried become discontented with the care of aged and infirm parents; and sigh for a "mission" in some loftier "sphere" -- which means in plain language a more public sphere. They ask: "Why should we rather than our brothers do this drudgery? Why are we, rather than they, doomed to this uncongenial and obscure toil? Why should the pulpit, the bar, and the Senate be open to them; and to us, the nursery and the hospital?["] Some feel that there was a good reason for the old Jewish prayer: "Lord, I thank Thee, that I was not born a woman!" Such is the drift of this innovation, where the spirit of "the left wing" has full sway.

     To what more probable cause than this can be attributed the ominous increase in the number of divorces, in the last two decades, in the most staid and conservative New England States? The statistics published by Dr. Allen of Lowell, the Rev. Mr. Dike of Vermont, and others threaten the rapid incoming of the most morbific of all social corruptions. Nothing else is so pestilent to public virtue as legal immorality. Teach woman that marriage under existing conditions is vassalage, and then divorce for "incompatibility of temper," or any other "skeleton in the house" becomes another of her "natural rights." The same teaching so adulterates public sentiment that it will sustain courts in rulings in which communism exults, and of which Mormonism says: "Have we not told you so?"

     Is the picture overdrawn? It is to be hoped so. But thus far, the worst working of this reform is secret. It is history unwritten. It is pent up in silent and sullen homes. This is one of the revolutions which come "in noiseless slippers." But its tread is none the less malign. It is like the tread of Atilla the Hun, who, as the legend reads, left never a blade of grass behind. Who does not know of homes within the circle of his acquaintance in which the beginnings of this -- if I may use a word of rare authority -- denaturalizing process are visible?

     (3) The same passionate reasoning is seen in the recklessness with which the dignity of maternity is often flouted in the service of this social revolution. To this there are doubtless many considerable exceptions. It could not well be otherwise. Human nature, it should seem, cannot often wallow so deep in its own degradation that men and women shall degrade their mothers in their theories of life. But this reform drifts toward that. Much is blurted out in angry defense of it which implies that. It is the inevitable sequence of any theory of life which assumes that woman has, or can have, or can discover in the wide world, a "mission" more exalted than that of a mother in her nursery. Once fill a young woman's mind with the notion that it is a grander thing to be a speaker on the platform than to be a wife in a Christian home; that it is a nobler distinction to be a successful author than to be a happy mother of children; that it is more honorable to head a half-score of "committees" for public service than it is to be a loving daughter in a father's house, the model of refinement to younger brothers and sisters; and you can no longer find a place of honor in her thoughts of the mission of either daughter, wife or mother. These relationships become lost ideas. They must be superlatives or nothing. The duties they involve are either honors to be proud of, or drudgeries to be got rid of. The law of nature which imposes them on woman is either the voice of God, or the voice of tyranny. In this view is seen the massive volume of argument against this reform in the title of Dr. Bushnell's book, "The Reform against Nature." Never before was so much of solid logic packed into four words as we find in this invincible thesis. When and where has it ever been answered? One might as easily answer a Minié-bullet.

     (4) The same absence of dispassionate argument is seen in the frequent ignoring of certain objections to the reform which seem to its opponents to involve it in absurdity. Few organic changes, affecting so radically the interests of modern life, seem to us to have so few positive and relevant ideas as this has in that extreme which is now under consideration. For the most part it revolves around two, as in the groove of an ellipse; and those two are assumptions. They are the intrinsic rectitude of the reform, and its "manifest destiny."

     To the common judgment of men, for instance, it seems a non sequitur so bald that it has the look of absurdity that suffrage should be extended to women, because it is a "natural" right. Natural to what? Natural to whom? Natural, why and wherefore? The average mind questions incredulously. It finds in itself no affirmative intuitions. Has the world revolved through these thousands of years of progress without finding out till now so remarkable a discovery? Yet what "Bill of Rights" ever included it? What "Declaration of Independence," in great revolutions ever asserted it? What "Magna Charta" ever demanded it with mailed hand? Wise men have founded empires and republics on advanced theories of liberty and equality. Yet when has statesmanship, the wisest, ever built republic or empire on this as its corner-stone: "All men and women are by nature equal, and are entitled to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and -- the ballot"? So the "Declaration" of 1776 ought to have read, if the claim in question is true. Why did not the revolutionary statesmen of our heroic age, delving as they did deep down among the roots of things, happen to see so obvious a right as this, if it is a right in the very nature of things? Natural rights, it is to be presumed, are not far to seek nor hard to find. They lie near the surface, patent to the common sense of men. Yet somehow the common sense of men, even under the favoring conditions of an age stimulated by a revolutionary atmosphere, does not discern this right in the nature of the human mind. We charge that the claim has the look of absurdity; and all the answer we get is that it is a right, and has a manifest destiny.

     So of other things involved in this reform which, but for the gravity of the interests at stake, we should smile at, so unnatural do they look at the first assertion to the average of men. The absurdity of thrusting upon one-half of the human race a privilege which they have never asked for, and their desire of which is a thing not proved; the absurdity of imposing upon one-half of the race a duty, the gravest that organized society creates, but which they have no power to defend in an emergency; the absurdity of holding woman to military service, as she must be held, if she is to stand on any fair terms of equality with man in the possession of this "natural right"; the absurdity of the intermingling of the gravest duties of the court-room and the Senate Chamber, with those of the nursery; these and other like things, involved in the proposed revolution and its sequences, we claim, have the look of absurdity to the average sense of mankind. Yet they are commonly treated either flippantly or passionately in the attempt at rejoinder; and once and again we are told the revolution is right, because it is right; and it must succeed, because it will succeed.

     If anything more specific than this is urged in reply, we still find a want of relevance which reminds us of the popular fling, which we would gladly forget, at a "woman's reason" for things. We ask, for example, for a plain answer to the argument from the Biblical order of creation, in which man was first, and woman was ordained to be his help-meet; and we are told that men beat their wives. We ask for a reverent answer to St. Paul's reasoning; and we are informed that St. Paul was a bachelor. We ask what to do with the apostle's inspired command to wives, so marked in its distinction from his commands to husbands; and we are reminded that the apostle was a Jew. We urge the impossibility of woman's defending the ballot by force of arms; and we are answered that woman is a slave. We argue the incongruity of the duties of maternity with those of the jury box and the Bar and we are instructed, gravely, that men are tyrants, usurpers, brutes. We speak of the dignity of marriage and the sacredness of motherhood, and we are met with the discovery that woman has a "mission." So the changes ring on a few ideas, of which we fail to see the logical relevance to the point.

     We cannot help knowing that great revolutions carry with them great complications. The whole order of society is involved in them. They never end where they begin. They never do away with one institution, one usage, one abuse, and stop there. They have a course which they must run, intricate and inevitable. They shake the world under the tramp of their progress. Sooner or later, armed men are apt to spring up in their wake. Such must be the destiny of this one, if it succeeds. Not a single interest of society can escape it. The ballot is but the first of its demands. The whole sweep of the relation of the sexes, and all the duties and rights of both, must come under revision. Natural foundations on which organized society has been built from the beginning of time, and without which it is a thing not proved that organized society can exist at all, must be torn up, if this reform is carried consistently to its maturity. Nothing else like it exists in history. No other theory of life has ever cut everything loose from the experience of the race, and put everything at hazard on an unproved and untried hypothesis. If such a reform is even to be talked of, in the seclusion of universities and libraries, every step in its inception should be calmly measured; every principle involved should be dispassionately studied; every argument for and against it should be weighed judicially. If it does not start right, it can end, even as a theory, only in chaos. Specially should the animus which controls it be reverent to the Word of God, and respectful to the common sense of men.

     There is a "right wing" of this reform which may command the trust of conservative and Christian men. Such men have already supported it; they were pioneers in it before the "left" extreme was developed. It covers especially four things, viz.: the higher education of women; the extension of the range of their employments without loss of caste; their protection from swindlers in their tenure of property; and the extension of their usefulness in organized charities. My space forbids the discussion of these any farther than to say of them two things. One is that they are yet very largely on trial, and no rightminded man will do other than to welcome any results which fair and full experiment shall prove. The other is, that every true interest of woman in the experiment can be gained without complicating it with the question of suffrage; and the more wisely and quickly gained by its deliverance from the unnatural suspicions and alienations which political agitation inevitably creates. Organic improvements in social life are always most healthfully advanced when they are made to take the type, not of reform but of development, not of revolution but of growth.


Notes

This essay is from The Congregationalist, Wednesday December 14, 1881, p. 409 First page of this issue, and from the series: Great Subjects. No. ii. When he wrote this article, Austin Phelps (1820-1890) was a popular Massachusetts minister, writer, and teacher, retired from the conservative Andover Theological Seminary. He also was the father of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, (1844-1911), popular author of The Gates Ajar (1868). His influential daughter's public opposition on feminist issues may have influenced his writing in this piece.
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St. Paul: In I Timothy, Paul says, "I will therefore ... that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety" (King James Version, 2: 8-15).
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Mr. Mill: John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, 1869.
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Dr.Bushnell: Horace Bushnell, Women's Suffrage: Reform Against Nature, 1869.
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