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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

I Have All The Rights I Want

Title:     I Have All The Rights I Want
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

When Dr. Johnson had published his English Dictionary, and was asked by a lady how he chanced to make a certain mistake that she pointed out, he answered, "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance." I always feel disposed to make the same comment on the assertion of any woman that she has all the rights she wants. For every woman is, or may be, or might have been, a mother. And when she comes to know that even now, in many parts of the Union, a married mother has no legal right to her child, I should think her tongue would cleave to her mouth before she would utter those foolish words again.

All the things I ever heard or read against slavery did not fix in my soul such a hostility to it as a single scene in a Missouri slave-jail many years ago. As I sat there, a purchaser came in to buy a little girl to wait on his wife. Three little sisters were brought in, from eight to twelve years old: they were mulattoes, with sweet, gentle manners; they had evidently been taken good care of, and their pink calico frocks were clean and whole. The gentleman chose one of them, and then asked her, good-naturedly enough, if she did not wish to go with him. She burst into tears, and said, "I want to stay with my mother." But her tears were as powerless, of course, as so many salt drops from the ocean.

That was all. But all the horrors of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the stories told me by fugitive slaves, the scarred backs I afterwards saw by dozens among colored recruits, did not impress me as did that hour in the jail. The whole probable career of that poor, wronged, motherless, shrinking child passed before me in fancy. It seemed to me that a man must be utterly lost to all manly instincts who would not give his life to overthrow such a system. It seemed to me that the woman who could tolerate, much less defend it, could not herself be true, could not be pure, or must be fearfully and grossly ignorant.

You acquiesce, fair lady. You say it was horrible indeed, but, thank God! it is past. Past? Is it so? Past, if you please, as to the law of slavery, but as to the legal position of woman still a fearful reality. It is not many years since a scene took place in a Boston court-room, before Chief Justice Chapman, which was worse, in this respect, than that scene in St. Louis, inasmuch as the mother was present when the child was taken away, and the wrong was sanctioned by the highest judicial officer of the State. Two little girls, who had been taken from their mother by their guardian, their father being dead, had taken refuge with her against his wishes; and he brought them into court under a writ of habeas corpus, and the court awarded them to him as against their mother. "The little ones were very much affected," says the "Boston Herald," "by the result of the decision which separated them from their mother; and force was required to remove them from the court-room. The distress of the mother was also very evident."

There must have been some special reason, you say, for such a seeming outrage: she was a bad woman. No: she was "a lady of the highest respectability." No charge was made against her; but, being left a widow, she had married again; and for that, and that only, so far as appears, the court took from her the guardianship of her own children,--bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh, the children for whom she had borne the deepest physical agony of womanhood,--and awarded them to somebody else.

You say, "But her second husband might have misused the children." Might? So the guardian might, and that where they had no mother to protect them. Had the father been left a widower, he might have made a half-dozen successive marriages, have brought stepmother after stepmother to control these children, and no court could have interfered. The father is recognized before the law as the natural guardian of the children. The mother, even though she be left a widow, is not. The consequence is a series of outrages of which only a few scattered instances come before the public; just as in slavery, out of a hundred little girls sold away from their parents, only one case might ever be mentioned in any newspaper.

This case led to an alteration of the law in Massachusetts, but the same thing might yet happen in some States of the Union. The possibility of a single such occurrence shows that there is still a fundamental wrong in the legal position of woman. And the fact that most women do not know it only deepens the wrong--as Dr. Channing said of the contentment of the Southern slaves. The mass of men, even of lawyers, pass by such things, as they formerly passed by the facts of slavery.

There is no lasting remedy for these wrongs, except to give woman the political power to protect herself. There never yet existed a race, nor a class, nor a sex, which was noble enough to be trusted with political power over another sex, or class, or race. It is for self-defence that woman needs the ballot. And in view of a single such occurrence as I have given, I charge that woman who professes to have "all the rights she wants," either with a want of all feeling of motherhood, or with "ignorance, madam, pure ignorance."

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: I Have All The Rights I Want