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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Self-Supporting Wives

Title:     Self-Supporting Wives
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

For one, I have never been fascinated by the style of domestic paradise that English novels depict,--half a dozen unmarried daughters round the family hearth, all assiduously doing worsted-work and petting their papa. I believe a sufficiency of employment to be the only normal and healthy condition for a human being; and where there is not work enough to employ the full energies of all at home, it seems as proper for young women as for young birds to leave the parental nest. If this additional work is done for money, very well. It is the conscious dignity of self-support that removes the traditional curse from labor, and woman has a right to claim her share in that dignified position.

Yet I cannot agree, on the other hand, with those who maintain that the true woman should be self-supporting, even in marriage. Woman's part of the family task--the care of home and children--is just as essential to building up the family fortunes as the very different toil of the out-door partner. For young married women to undertake any more direct aid to the family income is in most cases utterly undesirable, and is asking of themselves a great deal too much. And this is not because they are to be encouraged in indolence, but because they already, in a normal condition of things, have their hands full. As, on this point, I may differ from some of my readers, let me explain precisely what I mean.

As I write, there are at work, in another part of the house, two paper-hangers, a man and his wife, each forty-five or fifty years of age. Their children are grown up, and some of them married: they have a daughter at home, who is old enough to do the housework, and leave the mother free. There is no way of organizing the labors of this household better than this: the married pair toil together during the day, and go home together to their evening rest. A happier couple I never saw; it is a delight to see them cheerily at work together, cutting, pasting, hanging: their life seems like a prolonged industrial picnic; and if I had the ill-luck to own as many palaces as an English duke I should keep them permanently occupied in putting fresh papers on the walls.

But the merit of this employment for the woman is that it interferes with no other duty. Were she a young mother with little children, and obliged by her paper-hanging to neglect them, or to leave them at a "day-nursery," or to overwork herself by combining too many cares, then the sight of her would be very sad. So sacred a thing is motherhood, so paramount and absorbing the duty of a mother to her child, that in a true state of society I think she should be utterly free from all other duties,--even, if possible, from the ordinary cares of housekeeping. If she has spare health and strength to do these other things as pleasures, very well; but she should be relieved from them as duties. And as to the need of self-support, I can hardly conceive of an instance where it can be to the mother of young children anything but a disaster. As we all know, this calamity often occurs; I have seen it among the factory operatives at the North, and among the negro women in the cotton-fields at the South: in both cases it is a tragedy, and the bodies and brains of mother and children alike suffer. That the mother should bear and tend and nurture, while the father supports and protects,--this is the true division.

Does this bear in any way upon suffrage? Not at all. The mother can inform herself upon public questions in the intervals of her cares, as the father among his; and the baby in the cradle is a perpetual appeal to her, as to him, that the institutions under which that baby dwells may be kept pure. One of the most devoted young mothers I ever knew--the younger sister of Margaret Fuller Ossoli--made it a rule, no matter how much her children absorbed her, to read books or newspapers for an hour every day; in order, she said, that she should be more to them than a mere source of physical nurture, and that her mind should be kept fresh and alive for them. But to demand in addition that such a mother should earn money for them is to ask too much; and there is many a tombstone in New England, which, if it told the truth, would tell what comes of such an effort.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Self-Supporting Wives