A Sermon on the Public Function of Woman - Sermon

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Theodore Parker
Public Functions of Women

Classes of Women

I. In the present constitution of society, there are some unmarried women, to whom the domestic function is little, or is nothing; women who are not mothers, not wives, not housekeepers. I mean, those who are permanently unmarried. It is a great defect in the Christian civilization, that so many women and men are never married. There may be three women in a thousand to whom marriage would be disagreeable, under any possible circumstances; perhaps thirty more to whom it would be disagreeable, under the actual circumstances-in the present condition of the family and the community. But there is a large number of women who continue unmarried for no reason in their nature, from no conscious dislike of the present domestic and social condition of mankind, and from no disinclination to marriage under existing circumstances. This is deplorable evil-alike a misfortune to man and to woman. The Catholic Church has elevated celibacy to the rank of a theological virtue, consecrating an unnatural evil: on a small scale, the results thereof are writ in the obscene faces of many a priest, false to his human nature, while faithful to his priestly vow; and on a large scale, in the vice, the infamy and degradation of woman in almost all Catholic lands.

The classic civilization of Greece and Rome had the same vice with the Christian civilization. Other forms of religion have sought to get rid of this evil by polygamy; and thereby they degraded women still further. The Mormons are repeating the same experiment, based, not on philanthropy, but on tyranny, and are still further debasing woman under their feet. In Classic and in Christian civilization alone has there been a large class of women permanently unmarried-not united or even subordinated to man in the normal marriage of one to one, or in the abnormal conjunction of one to many. This class of unmarried women is increasing in all Christian countries, especially in those that are old and rich.

Practically speaking, to this class of women the domestic function is very little; to some of them, it is nothing at all. I do not think that this condition is to last,-marriage is writ in the soul of man, as in his body,- but it indicates a transition, it is a step forward. Womankind is advancing from that period when every woman was a slave, and marriage of some sort was guarantied to every woman, because she was dependent on man,-I say, woman is advancing from that, to a state of independence, where woman shall not be subordinated to man, but the two coördinated together. The evil that I deplore is transient in its nature, and God grant it may soon pass away!

II. That is not all. For the housekeeper, the wife and the mother, the domestic is not the only function-it is not function enough for the woman, for the human-being, more than it would be function enough for the father, for the man. After women have done all which pertains to housekeeping as a trade, to housekeeping as one of the fine arts, in their relation as wife and mother,-after they have done all for the order of the house, for the order of the husband, and the order of the children, they have still energies to spare-a reserved power for yet other work.

There are three classes of women:

First, domestic Drudges, who are wholly taken up in the material details of their housekeeping, husband-keeping, child-keeping. Their housekeeping is a trade, and no more; and after they have done that, there is no more which they can do. In New England, it is a small class, getting less every year.

Next, there are domestic Dolls, wholly taken up with the vain show which delights the eye and the ear. They are ornaments of the estate. Similar toys, I suppose, will one day be more cheaply manufactured at Paris and Nurnberg, at Frankfort-on-the-Maine, and other toys shops of Europe, out of wax and papier maché, and sold in Boston at the haberdasher's, by the dozen. These ask nothing beyond their function as dolls, and hate all attempts to elevate womankind.

But there are domestic Women, who order a house and are not mere drudges, adorn it, and are not mere dolls, but Women. Some of these-a great many of them-conjoin the useful of the drudge and the beautiful of the doll into one Womanhood, and have a great deal left besides. They are not wholly taken up with their function as housekeeper, wife and mother.

In the progress of mankind, and the application of masculine science to what was once only feminine work,-whereby so much time is saved from the wheel and the loom, the oven and the spit,-with the consequent increase of riches, the saving of time, and the intellectual education which comes in consequence thereof, this class of women is continually enlarging. With us in New England, in all the North, it is a very large class.

Well, what shall these domestic women do with their spare energies and superfluous power? Once, a malicious proverb said-The shoemaker must not go beyond his last.“ Every shoemaker looks on that proverb with appropriate contempt. He is a shoemaker; but he was a man first, a shoemaker next. Shoemaking is an accident of his manhood, not manhood an accident of his shoemaking. You know what haughty scorn the writer of the apochryphal book of Ecclesiasticus pours out on every farmer, “who glorieth in the goad“-every carpenter and blacksmith, every jeweller and potter. They shall not be sought for, says this aristocrat, in the public councils; they shall not sit high in the congregation; they shall not sit in the judges' seat, nor understand the sentence of judgment; they cannot declare justice. Aristotle and Cicero thought no better of the merchants; they were only busy in trading. Miserable people! quoth these great men, what have they to do with affairs of state-merchants, mechanics, farmers? It is only for kings, nobles, and famous rich men, who do no business, but keep slaves! Still, a great many men at this day have just the same esteem for women that those haughty persons of whom I have spoken had for mechanics and for merchants. A great many sour proverbs there are, which look the same way. But, just now, such is the intellectual education of women of the richer class in all our large towns, that these sour proverbs will not go down so well as of old. Even in Boston, spite of the attempts of the city government to prevent the higher public education of women-diligently persisted in for many years-the young women of wealthy families get a better education than the young men of wealthy families do; and that fact is going to report itself presently. The best educated young men are commonly poor men's sons; but the best educated young women are quite uniformly rich men's daughters.

A well-educated young woman, fond of Goethe, and Dante, and Shakspeare, and Cervantes, marrying an ill-educated young man, who cares for nothing but his horse, his cigar and his bottle-who only knows how to sleep after dinner, a “great heap of husband,“ curled up on the sofa, and in the evening can only laugh at a play, and not understand the Italian words of an opera, which his wife knows by heart;-she, I say, marrying him, will not accept the idea that he is her natural lord and master; she cannot look up to him, but rather down. The domestic function does not consume all her time or talent. She knows how to perform much of her household work as a manufacturer weaves cotton, or spins hemp, or forges iron, with other machinery, by other hands. She is the housekeeping head; and after she has kept house as wife and as mother, and has done all, she has still energies to spare.

That is a large class of women; it is a great deal larger than men commonly think it is. It is continnally enlarging, and you see why. When all manufactures were domestic,-when every garment was made at home, every web wove at home, every thread spun at home, every fleece dyed at home-when the husband provided the wool or the shespskin, and the wife made it a coat-when the husband brought home a sack of corn on a mule's back, and the wife pounded it in a mortar, or ground it between two stones, as in the Old Testament-then the domestic function might well consume all the time of a very able-headed woman. But now-a-days, when so much work is done abroad-when the flour mills of Rochester and Boston take the place of the pestle and mortar, and the hand-mill of the Old Testament-when Lowell and Lawrence are two enormous Old Testament women, spinning and weaving year out and year in, day and night both-when so much of woman's work is done by the butcher and the baker, by the tailor and the cook and the gas-maker, and she is no longer obliged to dip or mould with her own hands every candle that “goeth not out by night,“ as in the Old Testament woman's housekeeping-you see how very much of woman's time is left for other functions. This will become yet more the case. Ere long, a great deal of lofty science will be applied to housekeeping, and work be done by other than human hands, in the house, as out of it. And accordingly, you see that the class of women not wholly taken up by the domestic function will get larger and larger.

III. Then, there is a third class of women, who have no taste and no talent for the domestic function. Perhaps these are exceptional women; some of them exceptional by redundance-they have talents not needed in this function; others are exceptional by defect-with only a common talent, they have more for housekeeping. It is as cruel a lot to set these persons to such work, as it would be to take a born sailor and make him a farmer, or to take a man who is born to drive oxen, delights to give the kine fodder, and has a genius for it, and shut him up in the forecastle of a ship. Who would think of making Jenny Land nothing but a housekeeper? or of devoting Madame de Stael or Miss Dix wholly to that function? or a dozen other women that any man can name.

IV. Then there is another class of women-those who are not married yet, but are to be married. They, likewise, have spare time on their hands, which they know not what to do with. Women of this latter class have sometimes asked me what there was for them to do? I could not tell.

All these four put together, make up a large class of women, who need some other function beside the domestic. What shall it be? In the middle ages, when the Catholic Church held its iron hand over the world, these women went into the Church. The permanently unmarried, getting dissatisfied, became nuns;-often calling that a virtue which was only a necessity,- making a religious principle out of an involuntary measure. Others voluntarily went thither. The attempt is making anew in England, by some of the most pious people, to revive the scheme. It failed a thousand years ago, and the experiment brought a curse on man. It will always fail; and it ought to fail. Human nature cries out against it.

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