The Congress of Women: Ethics of Social Life

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Ethics of Social Life

Mrs. Ione Theresa Hanna is a native of New York, and was born in 1837. Her parents are Lyman Munger and Martha S. Whitney Munger, of New England origin. She graduated from the Literary Course at Oberlin College in 1859, after which she taught in Grand River Institute, Austinburg, Ohio, and in the Pennsylvania Female Academy. She married Mr. John R. Hanna, of Pennsylvania, in 1851. They removed to Denver, Colo., in 1871. She is one of the original members of the Denver Fortnightly Club, and is a director for Colorado of the Association for the Advancement of Women. She traveled abroad in the summer of 1891. On May 1,1893, she was elected a member of the School Board of East Denver. She is an advocate of Woman Suffrage, and was much interested in the campaigns in Colorado, which terminated successfully, giving women the ballot Nov. 7, 1893. Mrs. Hanna is a member of the Congregational Church. Her postoffice address is 500 Fourteenth St., Denver, Colo.

However we have come by it, we have a code of morals which forms a standard, to which we bring all our fellows for trial, and pronounce them innocent or guilty, as the case may be. We make due allowance for ignorance, in the long run, although in individual cases some personal pique may give us such a bias that we cannot be just. That standard or code has varied in the past, and there seems to be no doubt that it will continue to change in all future ages. The pivot on which hangs this code conscience does not change. It is an invariable quantity. It simply declares, "Do the Right;" ''Do not the wrong." But what the right or the wrong may be in any given case, it does not pretend to decide.

That is the result of the evolution of the centuries, and is only absolutely fixed at any given moment.

All Ethics is social in its nature. Were we isolated beings, there would be no one to injure, no one to benefit. The beauty and the heroism of self-sacrifice could never be seen. Mental qualities now developed by the stimulating contact of mind with mind, and the aspirations of purpose that come from the observation of good deeds, and the spiritual elevation resulting from ennobling association-all would be wanting. The most beautiful thing in the world, real goodness, could never have been born. As all Ethics is social, by its nature, it follows that all acts are to be tried by one standard. The question with regard to each act should be: "Will this act contemplated by me do good or ill to any member of the human race, myself included ?"

In that wonderful compendium of the resulting wisdom of human experience, the Bible, we find this saying of St. Paul, which has been true in the past, and will remain true forever. Likening society to the human body, he says: "If one member suffers all members suffer with it."

There is one underlying constructive principle in character, and only one, and all superstructure must be built upon it. It is the constant purpose to do the right, the good, the true, and whatever contravenes or supplants this purpose, destroys rather than constructs.

Man, however, is a swaying creature. At one moment he is actuated by the highest motive; at another he yields to what he knows to be ignoble and unworthy. So the whole experience of life seems to be for the purpose of unifying him, making him at one with himself and the universe.

Then all our acts are religious acts; all have a moral quality. It then follows that what others have proved to be wise courses of conduct, or what we have discovered ourselves in the experience of life to be acts of wisdom, these are as obligatory upon us as are the commandments of the Mosaic code: "Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother," "Thou Shalt Not Steal," "Thou Shalt Not Kill," etc.

Now, in the evolution of social life, what wisdom has come to us from the immediate past that is yet partially or wholly unheeded?

First, in the matter of dress: How notorious a fact it is that Hygeia and Fashion are goddesses who reign over separate and warring kingdoms! One declares that the feminine form should be given perfect and entire freedom; the other, that every physiological law may be set at naught so that the prevailing mode be accepted.

There is another form of servitude that enslaves well-to-do women. It wastes their energies, belittles their lives, and prevents that expansion of mind and thought that is necessary, if they would appropriate and fill the places now so widely opened to them. It is what is termed the "Customs and Usages of Good Society," and includes the matter of dress above referred to. It also imposes upon women the most constant and unremitting attention to the toilet.

Ladies must have-

All manner of things that a women can put
On the crown of her head or the sole of her foot;
Or wrap round her shoulders, or fit round her waist,
Or that can be sewed on, or pinned on, or laced;
Or tied on with a string, or stitched on with a bow,
In front, or behind, above, or below;
Bonnets, mantillas, capes, collars or shawls,
Dresses for breakfast, and dinners, and balls;
Dresses to set in, and stand in, and walk in,
Dresses to dance in, and flirt in, and talk in;
Dresses in which to do nothing at all,
Dresses for winter, spring, summer and fall;
All of them different in color and pattern–
Silk, muslin and lace, crepe, velvet and satin;
Brocade and broadcloth, and other material
Quite as expensive, and much more ethereal;
In short, all things that could ever be thought of,
Or milliner, modiste, or tradesman be bought of;
From ten-thousand-franc robes to twenty-sous frills.

This seems like a caricature on the modern fashionable woman; but it can hardly be called so, and remarkable is the memory of the man who from observation, and not from experience, compiled this list with a poetic jingle that is found in most "choice selections of poetry."

If this interminable list of articles of the toilet were left for the possession of the exclusively fashionable woman it would not so much matter; but sensible women, actually busy in the necessary work of the world, are more or less affected by these mandates of fashion. Add to this the series of expensive entertainments, with their wearisome menus, and the visits of ceremony which must be received and returned, and life is made so burdensome and artificial that spontaneity and joy is well-nigh dried up.

Most women of intelligence deprecate this condition of things, but do not quite see the way of escape from it.

A friend of mine who does not mingle in what is termed general society, and escapes many of its restrictions and limitations, yet feels this bond, and says: "My life is spent in busy idleness;" by which she means that the unreal and unimportant demand the most of her time.

Another respect in which modern society is seen to be defective is in the maintenance of a double standard of morals, one for men and one for women. It is demanded of women that they be absolutely pure and true; but men may be eligible to the best and most intelligent circles of society and yet not be held to the same high standard. It works evil, and only evil, continually to universal society; but its most painful and blighting effects are visited upon women.

There is another double standard in the upper stratum of society, one for men and one for women, which works evil, viz., that of occupation or employment.

A young man may start out boldly into the competitions of business life whether he be rich or poor. He may adopt the calling for which he is fitted, employ his faculties as he shall choose, receive pecuniary compensation therefor, and be confident that he is but fulfilling what a wise public opinion demands of him.

But let a young woman of wealth, who is surrounded by sheltering friends, attempt the same career, and she quickly discovers that the gates are closed. The capital that would be generously bestowed upon her brother is withheld from her through mistaken kindness. Those nearest and dearest to her will prove so many obstacles in her way rather than helps. Even if a father intend to leave his daughter a handsome fortune, he will in the majority of cases educate her to be so helpless as to be absolutely dependent upon her brothers or male relatives for business guidance and control, which is only a shade less bitter than to be dependent for one's daily necessities, rather than teach her intelligently to take care of money herself.

On the other hand, she hears the cry from another quarter: "Oh! she is taking away the opportunities of the poor. She is receiving the money that should be given to the less favored."

So it results that custom, the most arbitrary of lawgivers, forbids the daughters of the well-to-do to pursue a calling that will reward them pecuniarily. They may do benevolent or charitable work; they may be domestic and interested in the adornment of the home; they may study provided they do it with no practical end in view; and they may become wives and mothers, which latter position is likely to require all their energies. All these things, the charitable work, the little home services, the study and the marriage, are worthy of one's best effort, but they do not begin to afford a wide enough range of choice No two human beings are alike, and consequently the field of choice should possess an infinite variety.

I have seen young women not sufficiently developed in character and power of thought and imagination to be interested in philanthropic work, and who were too wide-awake to be quietly centered at home, who perhaps did not care to study without a definite purpose in view, and for whom marriage was an undetermined factor in life. As the customs of society now are, there is nothing for these young women but impatient waiting for somebody or something to turn up, Micawber-like. They become weary, and are perhaps induced to accept a marriage that under more favorable circumstances they would not make, or else they form one of the army of discontented women suffering for an inspiriting occupation, for whom the chances of marriage are daily lessening.

Can it be possible that parents who yield to this tyranny of custom never think what it is to be absolutely without a chosen end and aim in life?

Suppose your daughter is just out of school, where she has been busily occupied preparing for life. She comes home. She tries to adapt herself to her surroundings. She has lofty ideas and needs the healthy struggles involved in carrying out a chosen line of work to perfect her character and to establish her personality. Instead of this she has nothing to induce her to a sufficient employment of her time and her capabilities. She reads a little. She studies the fashions. She plans her wardrobe. She goes to balls and receptions. She takes a journey, and then she returns to go through the same round again. She gets restless; the monotony is unendurable. She keeps wishing for something new. You think her ungrateful. You feel she has a great deal to make her happy and to be thankful for, and yet she is miserable and makes everybody miserable about her. She constantly seeks change. She is going somewhere all the time. Her frame of mind, with the late hours and excitement of society life, rob her of her youthful charms, and her spirit loses its sweetness and fastens unerringly the lines of pain and suffering upon her face. It is so strange that parents do not see that their daughters, as well as their sons, are really human beings. You wish your son to make a choice of profession or calling. You strive to assist him in every possible way to do so, and feel dissatisfied with him if he continually puts off this choice and seems to center upon nothing. But it is far otherwise with your daughter. The kind of limitation spoken of is what is most often imposed upon her, and a great part of the viciousness of this whole order of things consists in the absolute dependence in which she is placed. These girls are made to feel that their own judgment is not final in any respect; that they are pensioners on the bounty of their father or male relatives; that the services they render have no money value; and it is the surest of methods to produce weakness of judgment, irresponsibility in expenditure, and incapacity for any useful service. What all about us expect from us that is what we are most likely to give; and we either sink or rise to the level of the opinions of our friends concerning us. We are in a world of material things. Our feet are on the solid earth. It seems to be a law of nature that we desire to acquire something that we can call our own.

A young man never makes a success in life until he has some capital of money, profession, or business training. He must be a center, and be capable of gathering and holding something. He does not get a foothold in a community until he accomplishes this. He does not become conscious of his own possibilities or capabilities until he does it. Neither does the community about him.

Now is it so easy a matter to train the young for life that we can afford to throw away the strength and dignity that come from the acquisition of property, simply because the young man chances to be a young woman. Now I hear some one say, "You are leaving marriage out of the question." No, I am but speaking for those for whom a desirable marriage does not yet appear. I would not ignore marriage, but I would have a young girl so trained and prepared for life that she should enter into it only because of the compelling persuasiveness of a genuine love.

And I think most women would bear me out in the opinion, that the power to acquire and to properly care for money would rather sweeten the path of matrimony than lessen its advantages.

Anything that is so powerful in the human make-up as the love of possession, the desire to feel "This is mine," and is so inherent in our very nature, we do wrong to cast aside and give no legitimate field of action. Our daughters are crippled and dwarfed, and are not the grand and well-rounded women they might become.

Then this extreme dependence we impose upon them causes them to look upon marriage as the only loop-hole of escape from an irksome bondage, and they come to seek marriage as a means to this end. There is something terribly degrading in this attitude in which many of our well-to-do young women of today are placed. In a sneering way it is said, "They are in the market."

How much nobler and finer is the attitude of a woman who prepares herself for some useful profession or calling, and finds enough of interest in the busy activities of life to engross her best energies, to expand her powers, and to make her what God intended her to be-a ministering, self-helpful woman. Then when love speaks, and the love of her own heart answers, is she the less prepared for a happy marriage? I think not.

Many of us have known the genteel lady of poverty and have seen her willing to beg or borrow without the slightest idea of return, rather than do the useful things of life.

A bright friend has suggested that when the stress of need and trouble has come the battle of life is half won; when one's own opinions, which act as suckers upon the roots of strength and energy, are cut down, an open field is left free and clear.

But can you not see, my friends that when you allow in yourself, or cultivate in your daughter, the idea that useful labor is degrading, you are preparing for a moral descent in the day of adversity that may include a darker region than the one of unpaid debts.

In this brief essay the effects upon the women themselves who cherish these opinions, and are bound by these customs, have been treated. But they have a wider bearing. They reach out into all grades of life and touch every social center in the land. The discredit that is fastened upon labor for remuneration, if performed by the well-to-do women of our land, extends to the classes of people engaged in such labor, and distinctly builds rather than pulls down the barrier which exists between labor and capital, the rich and the poor. And I believe the difficulties of the labor question can never be solved until this barrier has been melted away by acquaintance, knowledge and sympathy. Anything that builds this barrier, that fortifies these walls of separation, is injurious and hurtful. But those philanthropies founded upon the principle that he is my neighbor who most needs me, and which ignore the prevailing artificial conditions and distinctions, are bringing forward the day of "the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World."

Personal contact, and the love and influence that flows from one to another in the social body, is the only agency that really wins, the only key that opens hearts.

Of late philanthropic institutions have sprung up, founded on this principle, viz., that of constant and free intercourse of the favored and cultured with the more humble and less fortunate.

Hull House, in this city, is a notable and successful example. It is a house planted by two women in the midst of a foreign population, mostly self-supporting, but comparatively destitute of a social life that brings joy and hope. These women in wise and winning ways have reached out socially, and have won their way into the hearts and confidence of the people by proving themselves real friends. No superiority has been assumed, but a footing of social equality has been their aim to establish. From the needs of these people, which were many, there has sprung a system of most diverse educational facilities too numerous to mention.

Now if it is good for "homes " to be founded in less favored, neighborhoods to carry social life into them, how much more may be accomplished when the natural homes that cover our land extend a helping hand to the needy and less favored?

Now it is quite common for our social life to rest on a commercial basis, receiving so much for so much, and using it as a means for selfish promotion; and interminable calling lists and crowded reception halls are some of the consequences. Wearisome these self-imposed burdens are, and often we feel that we cannot bear them any longer. How much better it would be to bestow ourselves and our hospitality on those who need us and whom we can really benefit, and not look for a material reward, but take it in the inward satisfaction such a life would bring. As Browning says: "Give earth yourself, go up for gain above."

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