A Sermon on the Public Function of Woman - The Nature of Women

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Theodore Parker
The Nature of Women

Rights of Women

By nature, woman has the same Political Rights that man has,-to vote, to hold office, to make and administer laws. These she has a matter of right. The strong hand and the great head of man keep her down; nothing more. In American, in Christendom, woman has no political rights, is not a citizen in full; she has no voice making or administering the laws, none in electing the rulers or administrators thereof. She can hold no office-cannot be committee of a primary school, overseer of the poor, or guardian to a public lamp-post. But any many, with conscience enough to keep out of jail, mind enough to escape the poor-house, and body enough to drop his ballot into the box, he is a voter. He may have no character, even no money, that is no matter-he is male. The noblest woman has no voice in the State. Men make laws disposing of her property, her person, her children; still she must bear it, “with a patient shrug.“

Looking at it as a matter of pure Right and pure science, I know no reason why woman should not be a voter, or hold office, or make and administer laws. I do not see how I can shut myself into political privileges and shut woman out, and do both in the name of unalienable right. Certainly, every woman has a natural right to have her property represented in the general representation of property, and her person represented in the general representation of persons.

Looking at it as a matter of Expediency, see some facts. Suppose woman had a share in the municipal regulation of Boston, and there were as many Alderwomen as Aldermen, as many Common Council women as Common Council men,-do you believe that, in defiance of the law of Massachusetts, the City Government, last Spring, would have licensed every two hundred and forty-fourth person of the population of the city to sell intoxicating drink? would have made every thirty-fifth voter a rumseller? I do not.

Do you believe the women of Boston would spend ten thousand dollars in one year in a city frolic, or spend two or three thousand every year, on the Fourth of July, for sky-rockets and fire-crackers; would spend four or five thousand dollars to get their Canadian guests drunk in Boston harbor, and then pretend that Boston had not money enough to establish a high school for girls, to teach the daughters of mechanics and grocers to read French and Latin, and to understand the higher things which rich men's sons are driven to at college! I do not.

Do you believe that the women of Boston, in 1851, would have spent three or four thousand dollars to kidnap a poor man, and have taken all the chains which belonged to the city and put them round the Court House, and have drilled three hundred men, armed with bludgeons and cutlasses, to steal a man and carry him back to slavery? I do not. Do you think, if the woman had had the control, “fifteen hundred men or property and standing“ would have volunteered to take a poor man, kidnapped in Boston, and conduct him out of the State, with fire and sword? I believe no such thing.

Do you think the women of Boston would take the poorest and most unfortunate children in the town, put them all together into one school, making that the most miserable in the city, where they had not and could not have half the advantages of the other children in different schools, and all that because the unfortunates were dark colored? Do you think the women of Boston would shut a bright boy out of the High School or Latin School, because he was black in the face?

Women are said to be cowardly. When Thomas Sims, out of his dungeon, sent to the churches his petition for their prayers, had women been “the Christian clergy,“ do you believe they would not have dared to pray?

If women had a voice in the Affairs of Massachusetts, do you think they would ever have made laws so that a lazy husband could devour all the substance of his active wife-spite of her wish, so that a drunken husband could command her bodily presence in his loathly house; and when an infamous man was divorced from his wife, that he could keep all the children? I confess I do not.

If the Affairs of the Nation had been under woman's joint control, I doubt that we should have butchered the Indians with such exterminating savagery, that, in fifty years, we should have spent seven hundred of millions of dollars for war, and now, in time of peace, send twenty annual millions more to the same waste. I doubt that we should have spread slavery into nine new States, and made it national. I think the Fugitive Slave Bill would never have been an Act. Woman has some respect for the natural law of God.

I know men say woman cannot manage the great affairs of a nation. Very well. Government is Political Economy-National Housekeeping. Does any respectable woman keep house so badly as the United States? with so much bribery, so much corruption, so much quarreling in the domestic councils?

But government is also Political Morality, it is National Ethics. Is there say worthy woman who rules her household as wickedly as the nations are ruled? who hires bullies to fight for her? Is there any woman who treats one sixth part of her household as if they were cattle and not creatures of God, as if they were things and not persons? I know of none such. In government as housekeeping, or government as morality, I think man makes a very poor appearance, when he says woman could not do as well as he has done and is doing.

I doubt that women will ever, as a general thing, take the same interest as men in political affairs, or find therein an abiding satisfaction. But that is for women themselves to determine, not for men.

In order to attain the end,-the development of man in body and spirit,- human institutions must represent all parts of human nature, both the masculine and the feminine element. For the well-being of the human race, we need the joint action of man and woman, in the family, the community, the Church and the State. A family without the presence of woman-with no mother, no wife, no sister, no womankind-is a sad thing. I think a Community without woman's equal social action, a Church without her equal ecclesiastical action, and a State without her equal political action, is almost as bad -is very much what a house would be without a mother, wife, sister or friend.

You see what prevails in the Christian civilization of the Nineteenth Century: it is Force-force of body, force of brain. There is little justice, little philanthropy, little piety. Selfishness preponderates every where in Christendom-individual, domestic, social, ecclesiastical, national selfishness. It is preached as gospel and enacted as law. It is thought good political economy for a strong people to devour the weak nations-for “Christian“ England and America to plunder the “Heathen“ and annex their land; for a strong class to oppress and ruin the feeble class-for the capitalists of England to pauperise the poor white laborer, for the capitalists of America to enslave the poorer black laborer; for a strong man to oppress the weak men-for the sharper to buy labor too cheap, and sell its product too dear, and so grow rich by making many poor. Hence, nation is arrayed against nation, class against class, man against man. Nay, it is commonly taught that mankind is arrayed against God, and god against man; that the world is a universal discord; that there is no solidarity of man with man, of man with God. I fear we shall never get far beyond this theory and this practice, until woman has her natural rights as the equal of man, and takes her natural place in regulating the affairs of the family, the community, the Church and the State.

It seems to me God has treasured up a reserved power in the nature of woman to correct many of those evils which are Christendom's disgrace to-day.

Circumstances help or hinder-our development, and are one of the two forces which determine the actual character of a nation, or of mankind, at any special period. Hitherto, amongst men, circumstances have favored the development of only intellectual power, in all its forms-chiefly in its lower forms. At present, mankind, as a whole, has the superiority over womankind, as a whole, in all that pertains to intellect, the higher and the lower. Man has knowledge, has ideas, has administrative skill,-enacts the rules of conduct for the individual, the family, the community, the church, the state, and the world. He applies these rules of conduct to life, and so controls the great affairs of the human race. You see what a world he has made of it. There is male vigor in this civilization, miscalled “Christian“; and in its leading nations there are industry and enterprise, which never fail. There is science, literature, legislation, agriculture, manufactures, mining, commerce, such as the world never saw. With the vigor of war, the Anglo-Saxon now works the works of peace. England abounds in wealth,-richest of lands; but look at her poor, her vast army of paupers, two million strong, the Irish whom she drives with the hand of famine across the sea. Martin Luther war right when he said, The richer the nation, the poorer the poor. America is “democratic“-“the first freest and most enlightened people in the world.“ Look at her slaves: every sixth woman in the country sold as a best; with no more legal respect paid to her marriage than the farmer pays to the conjunctions of his swine. America is well-educated; there are four millions of children in the school-houses of the land: it is a States prison offence to teach a slave to record the three letters which spell God. The more “democratic“ the country, the tighter is bondage ironed on the slave. Look at the cities of England and America. What riches, what refinement, what culture of man and woman too! Any; but what poverty, what ignorance, what beastliness of man and woman too! The Christian civilization of the nineteenth century is well summed up in London and New York-the two of foci of the Anglo-Saxon tribe, which control the shape of the world's commercial ellipse. Look at the riches-and the misery; at the “religious enterprise“-and the heathen darkness; at the virtue, the decorum and the beauty of woman well-born and well-bred-and at the wild sea of prostitution, which swells and breaks and dashes against the bulwarks of society-every ripple was a woman once!

O, brother men, who make these things, is this a pleasant sight? Does your literature complain of it-of the waste of human life, the slaughter of human souls, the butchery of woman? British literature begins to wail, in “Nicholas Nickleby,“ and “Jane Eyre,“ and “Mary Barton,“ and “Alton Locke,“ in many a “Song of Shirt“; but the respectable literature of America is deaf as a cent to the outery of humanity expiring in agonies. It is busy with California, or the Presidency, or extolling iniquity in high places, or flattering the vulgar vanity which buys its dross for gold. It cannot even imitate the philanthropy of English letters: it is “up“ for California and a market. Does not the Church speak?-the English Church, with its millions of money, the American, with its millions of men- both wont to bay the moon of foreign heathenism? The Church is a dumb dog, that cannot bark, sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. It is a Church without woman, believing in a male and jealous God, and rejoicing in a boundless, endless hell!

Hitherto, with woman, circumstances have hindered the development of intellectual power, in all its forms. She has not knowledge, has not ideas or practical skill to equal the force of man. But circumstances have favored the development of pure and lofty emotion in advance of man. She has moral feeling, affectional feeling, religious feeling, far in advance of man; her moral, affectional and religious intuitions are deeper and more trustworthy than this. Here she is eminent, as he is knowledge, in ideas, in administrative skill.

I think man will always lead in affairs of intellect-of reason, imagination, understanding-he has the bigger brain; but that woman will always lead in affairs of emotion-moral, affectional, religious-she has the better heart, the truer intuition of the right, the lovely, the holy. The literature of women in this century is juster, more philanthropic, more religious than that of men. Do you not hear the cry which, in New England, a woman is raising in the world's ears against the foul wrong which America is working in the world? Do you not hear the echo of that woman's voice come over Atlantic-returned from European shores in many a tongue-French, German, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Russian, Dutch? How a woman touches the world's heart!-because she speaks justice, speaks piety, speaks love. What voice is strongest raised in continental Europe, pleading for the oppressed and down-trodden? That also is a woman's voice!

Well, we want the excellence of man and woman both united; intellectual power, knowledge, great ideas-in literature, philosophy, theology, ethics-and practical skill; but we want something better-the moral, affectional, religious intuition, to put justice into cities, love into theology, piety into science and letters. Every where in the family, the community, the church and the state, we want the masculine and feminine element coöperating and conjoined. Woman is to correct man's taste, mend his morals, excite his affections, inspire his religious faculties. Man is to quicken her intellect, to help her will, translate her sentiments to ideas, and enact them into righteous laws. Man's moral action, at best, is only a sort of general providence, aiming at the welfare of a part, and satisfied with achieving the “greatest good of the greatest number.“ Woman's moral action is more like a special human providence, acting without general laws, but caring for each particular case. We need both of these, the general and the special, to make a total human providence.

If man and woman are counted equivalent,-equal in rights, though with diverse powers,-shall we not mend the literature of the world, its theology, its science, its laws, and its actions too? I cannot believe that wealth and want are to stand over side by side as desperate foes; that culture must ride only on the back of ignorance and feminine virtue be guarded by the degradation of whole classes of ill-starred men, as in the East, or the degradation of whole classes of ill-starred women, as in the West; but while we neglect the means of help God puts in our power, why, the present must be like the past-“property“ must be theft, “law“ the strength of selfish will, and “Christianity“-what we see it is, the apology for every powerful wrong.

To every woman let me say,-Respect your nature as a human being, your nature as a woman; then respect your rights, then remember you duty to possess, to use, to develop and to enjoy every faculty which God has given you, each in its normal way.

And to men let me say,-Respect, with the profoundest reverence respect the mother that bore you, the sisters who bless you, the woman that you love, the woman that you marry. As you seek to possess your own manly rights, seek also, by that greatarm, by that powerful brain, seek to vindicate her rights as woman, as your own as man. Then we may see better things in the church, better things in the state, in the community, in the home. then the green shall show what buds it hid, the buds shall blossom, the flowers bear fruit, and the blessing of God be on us all.

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