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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Talking And Taking

Title:     Talking And Taking
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

Every time a woman does anything original or remarkable,--inventing a rat-trap, let us say, or carving thirty-six heads on a walnut-shell,--all observers shout applause. "There's a woman for you, indeed! Instead of talking about her rights, she takes them. That's the way to do it. What a lesson to these declaimers upon the platform!"

It does not seem to occur to these wise people that the right to talk is itself one of the chief rights in America, and the way to reach all the others. To talk is to make a beginning, at any rate. To catch people with your ideas is more than to contrive a rat-trap; and Isotta Nogarola, carving thirty-six empty heads, was not working in so practical a fashion as Mary Livermore when she instructs thirty-six hundred full ones.

It shows the good sense of the woman-suffrage agitators, that they have decided to begin with talk. In the first place, talking is the most lucrative of all professions in America; and therefore it is the duty of American women to secure their share of it. Mrs. Frances Anne Kemble used to say that she read Shakespeare in public "for her bread;" and when, after melting all hearts by a course of farewell readings, she decided to begin reading again, she said she was doing it "for her butter." So long as women are often obliged to support themselves and their children, and perhaps their husbands, by their own labor, they have no right to work cheaply, unless driven to it. Anna Dickinson had no right to make fifteen dollars a week by sewing, if, by stepping out of the ranks of needle-women into the ranks of the talkers, she could make a hundred dollars a day. Theorize as we may, the fact is that there is no kind of work in America which brings such sure profits as public speaking. If women are unfitted for it, or if they "know the value of peace and quietness," as the hand-organ man says, and can afford to hold their tongues, let them do so. But if they have tongues, and like to use them, they certainly ought to make some money by the performance.

This is the utilitarian view. And when we bring in higher objects, it is plain that the way to get anything in America is to talk about it. Silence is golden, no doubt, and like other gold remains in the bank-vaults, and does not just now circulate very freely as currency. Even literature in America is utterly second to oratory as a means of immediate influence. Of all sway, that of the orator is the most potent and most perishable; and the student and the artist are apt to hold themselves aloof from it, for this reason. But it is the one means in America to accomplish immediate results, and women who would take their rights must take them through talking. It is the appointed way.

Under a good old-fashioned monarchy, if a woman wished to secure anything for her sex, she must cajole a court, or become the mistress of a monarch.

That epoch ended with the French Revolution. When Bonaparte wished to silence Madame de Stael, he said, "What does that woman want? Does she want the money the government owes to her father?" When Madame de Stael heard of it, she said, "The question is not what I want, but what I think." Henceforth women, like men, are to say what they think. For all that flattery and seduction and sin, we have substituted the simple weapon of talk. If women wish education, they must talk; if better laws, they must talk. The one chief argument against woman suffrage, with men, is that so few women even talk about it.

As long as the human voice can effect anything, it is the duty of women to use it; and in America, where it effects everything, they should talk all the time. When they have obtained, as a class, absolute equality of rights with men, their appeals on this subject may cease, and they may accept, if they please, that naughty masculine definition of a happy marriage,--the union of a deaf man with a dumb woman.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Talking And Taking