The Congress of Women: Advantages and Dangers of Organization

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Rev. Anna Garlin Spencer
The Wife of Blennerhassett
The Kindergarten

Advantages and Dangers of Organization

Rev. Anna Garlin Spencer is a native of Massachusetts, U. S. A. She was born April 17,1851. Her parents were Francis L. Garlin and Nancy Mason Carpenter Garlin, of old New England stock. She was educated in Providence, R. I., public schools and by private instruction. She married William H. Spencer, a Unitarian clergyman, in August, 1878. Her special work has been in the interest of religious, ethical and educational concerns. Her principal literary works are varied contributions to daily papers and magazines, lectures and sermons. Mrs. Spencer is an ordained minister, and is now settled over an independent religious society connected with Bell St. Chapel, in Providence, R. I., ministering to a large congregation, and her husband is settled over the Fourth Unitarian Parish of the same city. In religious faith, Unitarian. Her postoffice address is Providence, R. I.

I know no better exercise for man or woman capable of real thought than the study of this problem which we may phrase briefly thus: What is the just and true relation of the individual to the social organism? Let such a student take the question on its political, its industrial, its religious or ethical, or its more flexible side of custom and convention; in any direction he will find such difficulties as courage feeds upon and as appall all intellectual cowardice or moral pessimism.

I will speak more particularly of the voluntary organization of women. What is its history, what its growth and tendency, what its advantages, what its dangers?

In the first place, let us distinctly recognize one fact, for herein lies the kernel of the matter, let us distinctly recognize one fact, namely, the history of the voluntary organization of women in every department of thought and action begins with the self-consciousness and self-assertion of woman's individuality. So long as women were universally considered by themselves, as well as by men, nothing but the attaches, wards and subordinates of the masculine half of creation, women never dreamed of coöperation with each other upon any line either of resistance to tyranny, or self-improvement, or of philanthropic effort. In religion, which contained in the ancient world all germs of growth, so long as it was doubtful whether women had a soul of her own to save, no women dreamed of uniting, even in the most subdued and modest form, in helping to save other's souls. We read that in old times, in the earliest history of Christianity, this or that man "was converted and was baptized with his whole household." The inference is that the household followed the head from paganism to Christianity, without anyone waiting for the individual assent from the wife. Yet in this same history of early Christianity is abundant evidence that the individuality of woman in religion was awakened and sustained by the new gospel in a way previously unknown in the Pagan world. The sharpest criticism made by learned and moral Pagan writers against the new faith was that women, mothers, wives, daughters and sisters were forsaking their family gods and turning deaf ears to the authority of the heads of their families to follow the humble Nazarene. And when we realize, faintly only and for one moment, the tremendous power of ancient Pagan religion, we can better imagine what a marvelous fascination for women was in the new faith that they could thus break free, as individuals, from the inherited bonds.

In Pagan religion woman was a passive receptacle and channel for the transmission of all life, physical and spiritual. When she married her father passed her from the charge of his own family deity into the keeping of her husband's family deity. And the worship of the male heads of the family after death, ancestor worship in its purest and most powerful form, made her subordination a part of her most vital religious life. The Pagan philosophy, indeed, which had for its leaders men of the most exalted character and of as high thinking upon great problems as the world has known, penetrated the veiled individuality of some women before Christianity was born. The noble stoics were not all men. And the growth of the plebeian class in Roman civilization, the growth of this class in learning, wealth and all national power cut deeply into the patrician stronghold of the religious subordination of women; so much so that the plebeian divorced wife of a patrician noble acquired with that divorce a social and legal independence unparalleled in history. But these influences, strong beyond measure in the few, penetrated so slightly the great mass of womanhood in the ancient world, that I hold it true to history to say that until the advent of the Christian religion, the sense of individuality was not a part of the consciousness of women in general. The family sense was theirs, the sense of high worth and use as humble purveyors of spiritual and physical life forces, the sense of dignity as loyal guardians of ancient virtues and powers, the sense of social service wherein all personal wish or vagary is swallowed up in devotion to superior ideals of inherited order. But to the woman passionately devoted to the old Pagan religions of Greece and Rome there was, there could be, no glimmering of the modern sense of rightful individual choice of personal responsibility, of that spherical unity of the single soul which is the core of today's religion.

The Christian appeal in religion was to the single soul, the separate individuality; not to family feeling, not to state allegiance, not to linked bonds of any sort of human association. And this religious appeal, always the most potent in effect upon the feminine nature, woke women generally to a sense that their souls were their own. And in spite of bad laws of Christendom, in spite of priestcraft and formal literalism, in spite of insults heaped upon the woman nature during the Middle and Dark ages, in spite of church intolerance, which puts woman in an inferior position professedly by the will of God, in spite of all this, the call of the Christian religion to each soul of man or woman, of bond or free, to work out its own salvation, was womanhood's Declaration of Independence, for our inherited civilization at least. Therefore, we may say that sense of individuality in woman, which is the only patent of her co-operative power in modern life, was born when she learned that her soul was her own. At first, and for long generations, she knew nothing of aught save purely religious applications of that truth. She had no refuge from oppression in family or state but the martyr's death, or the devotee's renunciation. But gradually, very slowly, the soul that owns itself has come to believe that it has right to some freedom of growth and expression. At first the growth of women in these directions was strictly along the line of the newly awakened individualism. The great persons among the mass of women lifted themselves to freedom and power. And the practical result has been that the individualism, which once awoke the few women to revolt for their own sakes has now touched with stimulating power the multitude of women to organization for personal development and world service.

And just as soon as the main body of womanhood began to sense the freedom and opportunity which the specially endowed had procured for them, the principle of voluntary organization began to permeate all departments of woman's thought and work. So today, to take a leap in history, what have we? We have the general benevolence of women organized for independent, or well-nigh independent, action, so far as man's control is concerned. We have the intellectual craving of women organized in clubs of women, in collegiate alumní¦ associations from women's colleges. We have the desire for full freedom among women organized in woman suffrage associations and leagues, and in special combinations for securing juster laws. We have the protective power of women organized in friendly societies to succor young and exposed women seeking work in strange places, in associations which aim to guard those solitary children and women whom God has not set in families; in industrial and educational unions which aim to surround the less favored feminine life of great cities with the dignity, the power, the uplifting self-respect which the best and strongest womanhood displays; and we have the moral conservatism of women organized. We have the wonderful Woman's Christian Temperance Union, with its temperance center and its ever-widening circumference of purification and moral growth in almost all directions of woman's power. And last, we have the new movement which, like the charity organizations, aims to make a synthesis of those analyzed specialties. We have the movement toward a national and international conference of women which shall leave each smallest club and most insignificant association free to do its work in its own way, but link all together in an army where weakness shall gather strength, ignorance shall gather wisdom, bigotry shall gather tolerance, and selfish exclusion shall gather world sympathy, by the elbow touch of a common aim to grow freely toward goodness and truth, and give generously what is received from the universe to the world's poorer souls and bodies. I look upon this latest movement among women inaugurated in that wonderful Washington meeting as the finest flower of woman's special organization.

We have traced the history of woman's organization for specific development of power, private and social, back to its germ in the religious call to a personal consecration. We have traced it by hints through its era of self-assertion of the great few, which self-assertion we find, even in its coarsest and most selfish aspects, has contributed mightily to the inherited freedom and individual power of the modern woman.

This all means what? In brief this: When woman found herself, when she began to learn that she was a person and not merely a passive conveyor of personality from generation to generation, she began to see also two other things; not clearly at first, but little by little has her sight come in these two great lines. The first thing woman began to see was that, being a person as man is a person, being herself an individual and not merely a purveyor to the individuality of men, she had both a right and a duty to interpret her own nature and grow according to the law written in her own being. This meant freedom to learn for herself, freedom to outline her own powers and uses. This meant again resistance to such crippling laws and conditions as forbade free expansion. This meant again, do you not see, the joining together of such isolated women as had come to self-knowledge and self-respecting love of freedom, in order that these crippling laws and conditions might be more successfully resisted, and these opportunities for growth and self-development might be increased, as single effort was powerless to increase them. You can have no esprit de corps among slaves who are slaves in spirit. It is only when they are united in a common impulse toward freedom that they can depend upon one another for support. So long as they look for personal advantage in slavery they are treacherous, and know no loyalty save to their masters. So of women, until they had come to a time when they looked not to manhood for reflected power and conferred privilege, but to their own womanhood for patent of their own nobility, they could not work together.

Men have an easy comradeship which does not strike deep; they have a free and happy ignoring of little differences in opinion and taste which it is the first duty of large-minded women to imitate; they have a breadth of view, a sense of proportion in working together for special ends which conscientious, fastidious women must emulate, if they are to do some of the things they wish to undertake.

The first joining of hands of gifted women for mutual improvement was along religious lines and generally within church bonds. But when neighborhood meeting grew to the city club, the local church gathering to the county conference, and these both grew again to the state or national association, women's organization also enlarged. Nor will we forget the second insight which came to woman with awakening individuality. Not only did it become increasingly clear to her that being a person as man is a person, she had right and duty to interpret her own nature and grow according to the law of her own being, but it became also increasingly clear to her that, being a person like and yet different from man, she had a right and a duty of world-service which she alone could fitly discover and fulfill. Hence, hand in hand from the first the organizations of women for self-development and for others helping, have climbed the road toward freedom and power. With some leaders, the master impulse has been justice; with others, the master impulse has been duty. With some, the watchword has been rights, with others, the watchword has been service. With some, the call has been, "Make the most of yourself." With others, the cry has been, "Behold a world in sin and sorrow; behold how faint home's light shines upon the highway; behold how virtue cries for knightly service and innocence for succor; behold the weak, the ignorant, the tempted, the despairing. Linger not by the hearth-fire in selfish comfort. Go out and share the light and cheer it has brought you. Give, oh woman, of your own store, nor suffer longer any fiat of man's bigotry or hindrance that would cramp your giving, nor tremble at any penalty of publicity which sets the seal of devotion to a suffering world."

It is true that the aims and methods of women thinkers and workers have deepened and widened with the growth among them in power of organization. The charity that gave without question to him that asked is fast becoming the wise helping that takes for motto, "Not alms, but a friend." The religion that exacted minute shadings of its shibboleth for fellowship is fast growing to that faith which sees a temple of the Divine

"Wherever through the ages rise
The altars of self-sacrifice."

The advantages of organization among women are patent beyond all cavil. The isolation of woman when she was a fragment, or a "relict," must have been, beyond all present understanding, terrible and dwarfing. The mind of a feminine Shakespeare, the moral devotion of a feminine Savonarola, the heart of a feminine St. John, must have been smothered in such loneliness and misunderstanding as marked the lot of all exceptional women in the older time. We feel but thrills of pity and indignation when we read of the saintly, dignified Quaker maiden, Abby Kelly, being dragged out of a meeting feet foremost because she lifted up a woman's voice for the slave. We think with shame of the lonely Harriet K. Hunt and Elizabeth Blackwell seeking in vain so long, the one in Boston, the other in London, for a respectable house to shelter them, because they, being women, determined to be also doctors. But those who had learned to speak and to do, and who were no longer in spiritual bonds, these were those glorious and not unhappy martyrs who wear the crown while yet the pang is sharp!

But for the ancient women, those daughters of illustrious men, in whose veins throbbed the dominant blood of generations of conquerors, for the ancient women who could only beat helplessly against an unyielding cage, for these we sigh. What poet shall yet arise who can fitly sing in epic tragedy their pathetic fate, their martyr service?

Today, not only the exceptional but the common woman can do, without greatly daring, almost her full pleasure. Today a cord of helpfulness, formed of great-hearted and clean-handed womanhood encircles, almost without break, the least of women's needs and desires. And if one arise, a prophet of miraculous gift in an unawakened country like India, she finds, as found Dr. Joshu and Pundita Ramabai, a sisterhood to help her from the uttermost parts of the earth. In face of such facts, it almost seems ungracious to speak of the dangers of organization connected with women and their work.

Yet as soon as perfection of one era is in sight for the multitude, the elect souls who are in the vanguard of progress see the next step of modification or balancing change. And there are two classes of danger in that organized effort of women and for humanity which make a special glory of our epoch.

The first danger is of woman's organization. The second danger is of women's organization.

The first, then, of woman's organization.

The time has come in the development of individual power and associated effort when a large minority of women can work not only as women, with women for women, and undeveloped men, but as human beings, with women and men, for every sort of human interest; a minority, I say, yet a large minority. Men have widened and sweetened and grown more just, until they now welcome a great woman almost everywhere: And all elect women, having the requisite balance of powers, can find numberless openings for co-operation with men on broad grounds for highest ends. And there is no question but such co-operation has in it greater promise of self-development for both men and women, as well as of full-orbed usefulness to the world than associations under sex limits can be at their very best. Today, however, we witness a curious phenomena in social life. In religion, philanthropy, intellectual culture and social enjoyment, women, the minority of the best and strongest women, are doubly organized, with men and without men.

In intellectual lines, many colleges are open to both sexes, many associations of mature thinkers give women equal rights and privileges with men. Yet women's colleges, from which male youths are excluded, are growing in numbers, and the graduates of these colleges work by themselves for women's higher education instead of throwing their weight of influence with men for co-educational effort.

In social science and natural science, the two National associations in America founded by men, offer membership on equal terms to women, and give official platform representation to women almost commensurate with the proportion of feminine membership. Yet the "A. A. W." seeks to do a similar work for women by women only, and many scientific women limit their appeals and efforts to sex lines.

Women's clubs also, and associations for mutual improvement, are increasing very fast, and do not move in the least in the direction of seeking vital union with existing men's clubs for the same object, or in the line of greater hospitality to harassed and busy men, who are not progressive enough to have clubs of their own! Now the expression of any misgiving lest this tendency create an extreme sex feeling on the part of women is met with one invariable answer, viz.: that only a few women have the courage and ability to command equal recognition for their word and work among men, and that the great majority, even of progressive, cultivated, earnest women need the separate drill by themselves for many years before they can take a balanced part in the associated effort of men and women. All very true. Yet it is not the whole truth. Women in clubs and associations, when they compare themselves with men, select for comparison only the best drilled men, professional men, master specialists. But take men and women in America as a whole, and the women are better educated and more drilled in the understanding and discussion of everything but technical, political and financial questions than are men. The average girl stays in school longer than the average boy. In many circles in society, where the brother is almost sure to be dedicated to mercantile or manufacturing business, the sister is trained for a teacher. And the wife and mother, although overburdened and often overmastered by cares, has still in America, as a rule, in the great middle class, which sets the common standard of thought and conduct, a better chance for intellectual and moral development than the husband and father. The proof of this is in the fact that her old age is generally richer than his in all that makes life happy and helpful-in the fact that she oftener than he, finds elevating work for intellectual and moral ends when the drudgery of personal cares is lifted. In how many families the men live only for business; the women do all the higher spiritual work! How many husbands let their wives represent the entire family interest in education, in philanthropy and in religion, and perhaps cannot help it, so voraciously do business demands devour the whole man.

But if this tendency of the average husband and father to be absorbed in financial specialties until taste for general culture becomes obsolete; and for the average wife and mother, with widening opportunities and freedom, to become more and more generally cultured; if this tendency increases I say, a gulf will be fixed between women and all but professional and learned men which will be as hurtful to both as the older forms of sex separation. I hate to see this tendency divide as often as it does today. I should fear its extreme as a social menace. Therefore, I believe that now that the average woman has learned the delight and value of women's work with women, for women; the exceptional women should make haste to assume their places as human beings, with men, in associated effort for highest ends. It is time that the most clear-eyed women should cease to spend themselves chiefly in women's things, and should press wider open the doors now ajar which lead to channels of high commerce of mind and heart transcending sex limits.

And lest a new caste of sex, in which women shall show themselves the selfish superiors, shall be created, I think it high time that women whose husbands are too busy to make, or too ignorant to enjoy, literary and philanthropic clubs, should patiently, sweetly, charmingly woo their other halves to the delights they themselves feed upon!

Next, the danger of women's organization.

Did we not agree that sense of individuality preceded power of associated effort in the growth of womanhood?

Then is it not equally clear that in the individual woman all healthful development must follow the self-same order? Is it not clear that until a woman has some understanding of her own nature, its worth, its use, its social power, its supreme obligations, she can gain nothing vital by associated life with others? Mind, I do not say the ignorant woman must grow wise before she belongs to a club seeking wisdom. On the contrary, in the associated scheme she may gain far more, and sooner learn to give as she gains, than in any separate study. But this I do say, the ignorant woman must know her ignorance and long to grow wise before she can gain anything but a foolish, make-believe knowledge from the brightest club.

Mind, I do not say the religious woman must first outgrow her selfishness before she can join with profit a society for philanthropic effort. But this I do say, the selfish woman must sense her selfishness and long to grow nobler before she can gain much but self-righteousness even from the communion of saints.

Mind, I do not say the woman, stung by some personal injustice to a new apprehension of sex wrongs, must first learn impartial and abstract justice before she can usefully work with other women for equal rights. But this I do say, the woman who does not sense her union to what has been and what shall be, and long to understand it, can never gain true breadth of view even from the sages of woman's leadership.

Today the organization of woman's effort in thought and action has reached a position of such dignity, such power, such charm, such helpfulness, that small natured, pretentious, vain and selfish women see its advantages, and seek to share them in some form or other. And the chief danger of it all lies just here, that on the one side the leaders will be "leveled down" as the membership is leveled up, and a half-growth only be secured; and on the other hand that pride of form, devotion to the letter of woman's association, shall kill its spirit. Look at the question as it relates to religion and charity, the first specialties of woman's associated effort. An item from a society journal which I clipped not long ago will illustrate my thought. In the column of "Correspondence" the question is asked, "How may I, a stranger in New York, with ample means, but with no first-class letters of introduction, best acquire social standing?" The response was this: "Hire an eligible sitting in a church frequented by people of high social influence, join two or three popular charitable associations managed by society women, subscribe liberally to their work and get elected if possible on their boards of directors." Comment on this seems unnecessary, but I wonder if any of us fully realize how degraded from its high uses a church and a charitable organization must become, if a majority of its membership considered it only in the light of a ladder to social distinction.

Nor is the danger less in intellectual ways. "It is fashionable in Boston to patronize classical music," says a cynic observer; "so people lie by the thousands. They say they like it and go to the concerts to be bored, or else outrage true music lovers by whispering and stirring about." We may well say, better a fashion for high things not understood, or yet really liked, than a fashion for bull-fights or coarse minstrel jokes. Yes; but true growth for the individual, and so for the social organism, is along lines of sincerity. And a pretence never truly educated anyone.

It is fashionable in many circles for women to belong to a literary or artistic "club." A good fashion, infinitely better than the set "party" with its horrors of commonplace, or an informal tea with slander, spiced gossip or belittling gabble called conversation. Yes, but many a woman thinks she is is "cultivated" because she hears swiftly-forgotten "papers" by the bushel; and snubs women far superior to herself who modestly disclaim absorbing devotion to literature.

Beware of danger in intellectual club-life if it makes you only willing to accept all that wisdom and knowledge can pour into you from another's thought and study. No woman grows from club-life as she can and ought who does not feel stimulated by it to individual study and personal strenuous thinking.

Beware of the danger in charitable club-life if it makes you contented only with giving in the mass to the mass. No woman is ennobled by such effort. What is wanted for all true growth for the individual woman as for the sex is the awakening to self-knowledge, the stimulation to personal study and work. And herein lies one of the great gifts of the Woman Suffrage Association to woman's growth. By its very nature, so broadly inclusive and so sharply logical is it, the woman suffrage demand has been debarred an easy popularity. It has never had any social distinction to care for, any personal ambition to serve which might not be more easily and quickly attained from other sources. Always has its emphasis been strongest of all the organizations of women upon the full and free development and expression of the individual. And in it men and women have always worked side by side.

Beware of the danger in associated demand for rights and privileges if it leads you to forget personal duty toward your inferior, in nature or circumstances, in the abstract demand for equality of rights. No woman grows in individual justice by "resolutions," or even by most strenuous and wise labors which base themselves on that virtue, unless her homage and service to the universal principle constantly leads her to practice it downward as well as demand it upward.

I have known a woman visit "slums" with benevolence, and beat down the wages of her children's governess. I have known a woman gloat over a fine essay at a club and neglect the simplest rules of intellectual development in her own life and family. I have known a woman to spend unceasing devotion in defending and establishing abstract principles of justice, who never stopped to inquire if the money on which she lived was unstained by oppression, or if the labor she exacted from her servants was righteously compensated.

But say you all, I am sure just here, such women are not made worse by the associated effort; they have only not yet pulled themselves up to their own standard. Yes, true; but a subtle danger to character, unknown to the isolated woman, lies in these modern associations, the danger that we pretend to be what we are not, that we think ourselves leading in the march of progress when we are only tagging on because the crowd attracts us.

The "Time Spirit" speaketh these words, I repeat, Individual Development Associated Effort.

Beware lest, as was said of George Eliot by a too severe critic, "we keep our ethics only for foreign export."

Beware lest the show of learning cheat us of the substance, of that true knowledge which must be fibered upon our own thought to produce fruit of wisdom.

Beware lest the lazy, modern way of getting smatterings of things deceive us as to the leanness of our own mental cupboards.

Beware lest we join on to things from shallow motives before there is anything in us fit to root itself in the eternal laws of growth.

Beware of the tyranny of organization, of that partizan spirit which exacts worship of some intellectual or artistic "cult" as if these were absolute truth and beauty.

Beware of that spiritual dogmatism which makes the phrasing more than the message in all that feeds life's nobler part.

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