A Sermon on the Public Function of Woman - Classes of Women

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Public Functions of Women

Let us look, and see what women may do here.

First, there are Intellectual Pursuits-devotion to science, art, literature, and the like.

Well, in the first place, that is not popular. Learned women are met with ridicule; they are bid to mend their husband's garments, or their own; they are treated with scorn. Foolish young man number one, in a liquor shop, of a morning, knocks off the ashes from the end of his cigar, and says to foolish young man number two, who is taking soda to wash off the effect of last night's debauch, or preparing for a similar necessity to-morrow morning- in the presence of foolish young man number three, four, five, six, and so on indefinitely-“I do not like learned young women; they puzzle me.“ So they do; puzzle him very much. I once heard a foolish young man, full of self-conceit and his father's claret, say,-“I had rather have a young woman ask me to waltz, than to explain an allusion in Dante.“ Very likely; he had studied waltzing, and not Dante. And his mother, full of conceit and her own hyson, said,-“I perfectly agree with you. My father said that women had nothing to do with learning.“ Accordingly, he gave her none, and that explained the counsel.

Then, too, foolish men, no longer young, say the same thing, and seek to bring down their wives and daughters to their own poor mediocrity of wit and inferiority of culture.

I say, this intellectual calling is not popular. I am sorry it is not; but even if it were, it is not wholly satisfactory-it suits but a few. In the present stage of human development, there are not many men who are satisfied with a merely intellectual calling; they want something practical, as well as speculative. There are a thousand practical shoemakers to every speculative botanist. It will be so for many years to come. There are ten thousand carpenters to a single poet or philosopher, who dignifies his nature with song or with science. See how dissatisfied our most eminent intellectual men become with science and literature. A Professor of Greek is sorry he was not a Surveyor or Engineer; the President of the College longs to be a Member of Congress; the most accomplished scholars, romancers,- they wish to be Collectors at Boston, Consuls at Liverpool, and the like, -longing for some practical calling, where they can make their thought a thing. Of the intellectual men who I know, I can count on the fingers of a single hand all that are satisfied with pure science, pure art, pure literature.

Woman, like man, wants to make her thought a thing; at least, wants things to work her pattern of thought upon. Still, as the world grows older, and wiser, and better, more persons will find an abiding satisfaction in these lofty pursuits. I am rejoiced to see women thus attracted thitherward. Some women there are who find an abiding satisfaction in literature; it fills up their leisure. I rejoice that it is so.

Then there are next, the various Philanthropies of the age. In these, the spare energies of woman have always found a congenial sphere. It is amazing to see how woman's charity, which “never faileth,“ palliates the injustice of man, which never has failed yet. Men fight battles; women heal the wounds of the sick: “Forgot are hatred, wrongs, and fears, The plaintive voice alone she hears, Sees but the dying man.“- and does not ask if foe or friend. Messrs. Pinchem & Peelem organize an establishment, wherein the sweat and tears and blood of the poor turn the wheels; every pivet and every shaft rolls on quivering human flesh. The wealthy capitalists, “Half ignorant, they turn an easy wheel, Which acts sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.“ The wives and daughters of the wealthy house go out to “undo the heavy burdens, and let the oppressed go free;“ to heal the sick and teach the ignorant, whom their fathers, their husbands, their lovers have made sick, oppressed and ignorant. Ask Manchester, in Old England and in New, if this is not so; ask London, ask Boston.

The moral, affectional and religious feelings of woman fit her for this work. Her patience, her gentleness, her power to conciliate, her sympathy with man, her trust in God, beautifully prepare her for this; and accordingly, she comes in the face of what man calls justice as an angel of mercy-before his hate as an angel of love-between his victim and his selfishness with the self-denial of Paul and the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Look at any village in New England and in Old England, at the Sacs and Foxes, at the Hottentots and the Esquimaux-it is the same thing;it is so in all ages, in all climes, in all stages of civilization: in all ranks of society,-the highest and the lowest; in all forms of religion, all seets of Christianity. It has been so, from Dorcas , in the Acts of the Apostles, who made coats and garments for the poor, down to Miss Dix, in our day, who visits jails and houses of correction, and leads Mr. Fillmore to let Capt. Drayton out of jail, where he was placed for the noblest act of his life.

But these philanthropies are not enough for the employment of women; and if all the spare energies of womankind were set to this work,-to palliate the consequences of man's injustice,-it would not be exactly the work which woman wants. There are some women who take no special interest in this. For woman is not all philanthropy, though very much; she has other faculties which want to be developed besides the heart to feel. Still more, that is not the only thing which mankind wants. We need the justice which removes causes, as well as the charity that palliates effects; and woman, standing continually between the victim and the sabre which would cleave him through, is not performing her only function, not her highest; high as that is, it is not her highest. If the feminine swallow drives away the flies from a poor fox struggling for life, another set of flies light upon him, and suck every remaining drop of blood out of his veins, as in the old fable. Besides, if the fox finds that a womanly swallow comes to drive off the flies, he depends on her wing and not on his own brush, and becomes less of a fox. If a miser or any base man, sees that a woman constantly picks up the man whom he knocks down with the left hand of Usury, or the right hand of Rum, he will go on with his extortion or his grog, because, he says, “I should have done the man harm, but a woman picked him up, and money comes into my pocket, and no harm to the man!“ The evils of society would become worse and worse, just as they are increased by indiscriminate alms-giving. That is not enough.

Then there are various Practical Works left by common consent to woman.

First, there is Domestic Service,-woman working as an appendage to some household; a hired hand, or a hired head, to help the housekeeper.

Then there is Mechanical Labor in a factory, or a shop,-spinning, weaving, setting type, binding books, making shoes, coloring maps, and a hundred other things.

Next, there is Trade in a small way, from the basket-woman, with her apples at every street corner, up to the confectioner and haberdasher, with their well-filled shops. In a few retail shops which venture to brave popular opinion, woman is employed at the counter.

As a fourth thing, there is the business of Public and Private Teaching, in various departments. All these are well; they are unavoidable, they are absolutely necessary; they furnish employment to many women, and are a blessed resource.

I rejoice that the Field-work of the farmer is not done by woman's hand in the free portions of America. It imbrutes women in Ireland, in France, and in Spain. I am glad that the complicated machinery of life furnishes so much more work for the light and delicate hand of woman. But I confess I mourn that where her work is as profitable as man's, her pay is not half so much. A woman who should teach a public school well, would be paid four or six dollars a week; while a man who should teach no better, would be paid two, three, four or six times that sum. It is so in all departments of woman's work that I am acquainted with.

These employments are very well, but still they are not enough.

Rich women do not engage in these callings. For rich women, there is no profession left except marriage. After school time, woman has nothing to do till she is married; I mean, almost nothing; nothing that is adequate. Accordingly, she must choose betwixt a husband and nothing,-and sometimes, that is choosing between two nothings. There are spare energies which seek employment before marriage, and after marriage.

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