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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Ruling At Secondhand

Title:     Ruling At Secondhand
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

In the last century the bitter satirist, Charles Churchill, wrote a verse which will do something to keep alive his name. It is as follows:--

"Women ruled all; and ministers of state
Were at the doors of women forced to wait,--
Women, who we oft as sovereigns graced the land,
But never governed well at second-hand."

He touches the very kernel of the matter, and all history is on his side. The Salic Law excluded women from the throne of France,--"the kingdom of France being too noble to be governed by a woman," as it said. Accordingly the history of France shows one long line of royal mistresses ruling in secret for mischief; while more liberal England points to the reigns of Elizabeth and Anne and Victoria, to show how usefully a woman may sit upon a throne.

It was one of the merits of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, that she always pointed out this distinction. "Any woman can have influence," she said, "in some way. She need only to be a good cook or a good scold, to secure that. Woman should not merely have a share in the power of man,--for of that omnipotent Nature will not suffer her to be defrauded,--but it should be a _chartered_ power, too fully recognized to be abused." We have got to meet, at any rate, this fact of feminine influence in the world. Demosthenes said that the measures which a statesman had meditated for a year might be overturned in a day by a woman. How infinitely more sensible then, to train the woman herself in statesmanship, and give her open responsibility as well as concealed power!

The same demoralizing principle of subordination runs through the whole position of women. Many a husband makes of his wife a doll, dresses her in fine clothes, gives or withholds money according to his whims, and laughs or frowns if she asks any questions about his business. If only a petted slave, she naturally develops the vices of a slave; and when she wants more money for more fine clothes, and finds her husband out of humor, she coaxes, cheats, and lies. Many a woman half ruins her husband by her extravagance, simply because he has never told her frankly what his income is, or treated her, in money matters, like a rational being. Bankruptcy, perhaps, brings both to their senses; and thenceforward the husband discovers that his wife is a woman, not a child. But for want of this whole families and generations of women are trained to deception. I knew an instance where a fashionable dressmaker in New York urged an economical young girl, about to be married, to buy of her a costly _trousseau_ or wedding outfit.

"But I have not the money," said the maiden. "No matter," said the complaisant tempter: "I will wait four years, and send in the bill to your husband by degrees. Many ladies do it." Fancy the position of a pure young girl, wishing innocently to make herself beautiful in the eyes of her husband, and persuaded to go into his house with a trick like this upon her conscience! Yet it grows directly out of the whole theory of life which is preached to many women,--that all they seek must be won by indirect manoeuvres, and not by straightforward living.

It is a mistaken system. Once recognize woman as born to be the equal, not inferior, of man, and she accepts as a right her share of the family income, of political power, and of all else that is capable of distribution. As it is, we are in danger of forgetting that woman, in mind as in body, was-born to be upright. The women of Charles Reade--never by any possibility moving in a straight line where it is possible to find a crooked one--are distorted women; and Nature is no more responsible for them than for the figures produced by tight lacing and by high-heeled boots. These physical deformities acquire a charm, when the taste adjusts itself to them; and so do those pretty tricks and those interminable lies. But after all, to make a noble woman you must give a noble training.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Ruling At Secondhand