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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

An Infelicitous Epithet

Title:     An Infelicitous Epithet
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

When the eloquent colored abolitionist, Charles Remond, once said upon the platform that George Washington, having been a slaveholder, was a villain, Wendell Phillips remonstrated by saying, "Charles, the epithet is not felicitous." Reformers are apt to be pelted with epithets quite as ill-chosen. How often has the charge figured in history, that they were "actuated by love of notoriety"! The early Christians, it was generally believed, took a positive pleasure in being thrown to the lions, under the influence of this motive; and at a later period there was a firm conviction that the Huguenots consented readily to being broken on the wheel, or sawed in pieces between two boards, and felt amply rewarded by the pleasure of being talked about. During the whole anti-slavery movement, while the abolitionists were mobbed, fined, and imprisoned,--while they were tabooed by good society, depleted of their money, kept out of employment, by the mere fact of their abolitionism,--there never was a moment when their motive was not considered by many persons to be the love of notoriety. Why should the advocates of woman suffrage expect any different treatment now?

It is not necessary, in order to dispose of this charge, to claim that all reformers are heroes or saints. Even in the infancy of any reform, it takes along with it some poor material; and unpleasant traits are often developed by the incidents of the contest. Doubtless many reformers attain to a certain enjoyment of a fight, at last: it is one of the dangerous tendencies which those committed to this vocation must resist. But, so far as my observation goes, those who engage in reform for the sake of notoriety generally hurt the reform so much that they render it their chief service when they leave it; and this happy desertion usually comes pretty early in their career. The besetting sin of reformers is not, so far as I can judge, the love of notoriety, but the fate of power and of flattery within their own small circle,--a temptation quite different from the other, both in its origin and its results.

Notoriety comes so soon to a reformer that its charms, whatever they may be, soon pall upon the palate, just as they do in case of a popular poet or orator, who is so used to seeing himself in print that he hardly notices it. I suppose there is no young person so modest that he does not, on first seeing his name in a newspaper, cut out the passage with a certain tender solicitude, and perhaps purchase a few extra copies of the fortunate journal. But when the same person has been battered by a score or two of years in successive unpopular reforms, I suppose that he not only would leave the paper uncut or unpurchased, but would hardly take the pains even to correct a misstatement, were it asserted that he had inherited a fortune or murdered his grandmother. The moral is that the love of notoriety is soon amply filled, in a reformer's experience, and that he will not, as a rule, sacrifice home and comfort, money and friends, without some stronger inducement. This is certainly true of most of the men who have interested themselves in this particular movement, the "weak-minded men," as the reporters, with witty antithesis, still describe them; and it must be much the same with the "strong-minded women" who share their base career.

And it is to be remembered, above all, that, considered as an engine for obtaining notoriety, the woman-suffrage agitation is a great waste of energy. The same net result could have been won with far less expenditure in other ways. There is not a woman connected with it who could not have achieved far more real publicity as a manager of charity fairs or as a sensation letter-writer. She could have done this, too, with far less trouble, without the loss of a single genteel friend, without forfeiting a single social attention, without having a single ill-natured thing said about her--except perhaps that she bored people, a charge to which the highest and lowest forms of prominence are equally open. Nay, she might have done even more than this, if notoriety was her sole aim: for she might have become a "variety" minstrel or a female pedestrian; she might have written a scandalous novel; she might have got somebody to aim at her that harmless pistol, which has helped the fame of so many a wandering actress, while its bullet somehow never hits anything but the wall. All this she might have done, and obtained a notoriety beyond doubt. Instead of this, she has preferred to prowl about, picking up a precarious publicity by giving lectures to willing lyceums, writing books for eager publishers, organizing schools, setting up hospitals, and achieving for her sex something like equal rights before the law. Either she has shown herself, as a seeker after notoriety, to be a most foolish or ill-judging person,-- or else, as was said of Washington's being a villain, "the epithet is not felicitous."

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: An Infelicitous Epithet