Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Thomas Wentworth Higginson > Text of One Responsible Head

An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

One Responsible Head

Title:     One Responsible Head
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

When we look through any business directory, there seem to be almost as many copartnerships as single dealers; and three quarters of these copartnerships appear to consist of precisely two persons, no more, no less. These partners are, in the eye of the law, equal. It is not found necessary, under the law, to make a general provision that in each case one partner should be supreme and the other subordinate. In many cases, by the terms of the copartnership there are limitations on one side and special privileges on the other,--marriage settlements, as it were; but the general law of copartnership is based on the presumption of equality. It would be considered infinitely absurd to require that, as the general rule, one party or the other should be in a state of _coverture_, during which the very being and existence of the one should be suspended, or entirely merged and incorporated into that of the other.

And yet this requirement, which would be an admitted absurdity in the case of two business partners, is precisely that which the English common law still lays down in case of husband and wife. The words which I employed to describe it, in the preceding sentence, are the very phrases in which Blackstone describes the legal position of women. And though the English common law has been, in this respect, greatly modified and superseded by statute law; yet, when it comes to an argument on woman suffrage, it is constantly this same tradition to which men and even women habitually appeal,--the necessity of a single head to the domestic partnership, and the necessity that the husband should be that head. This is especially true of English men and women; but it is true of Americans as well. Nobody has stated it more tersely than Fitzjames Stephen, in his "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" (p. 216), when arguing against Mr. Mill's view of the equality of the sexes.

"Marriage is a contract, one of the principal objects
in which is the government of a family.

"This government must be vested, either by law or by
contract, in the hands of one of the two married persons."

[Then follow some collateral points, not bearing on the present question.]

"Therefore if marriage is to be permanent, the government
of the family must be put by law and by morals into the
hands of the husband, for no one proposes to give it to
the wife."

This argument he calls "as clear as that of a proposition in Euclid." He thinks that the business of life can be carried on by no other method. How is it, then, that when we come to what is called technically and especially the "business" of every day, this whole fine-spun theory is disregarded, and men come together in partnership on the basis of equality?

Nobody is farther than I from regarding marriage as a mere business partnership. But it is to be observed that the points wherein it differs from a merely mercantile connection are points that should make equality more easy, not more difficult. The tie between two ordinary business partners is merely one of interest: it is based on no sentiments, sealed by no solemn pledge, enriched by no home associations, cemented by no new generation of young life. If a relation like this is found to work well on terms of equality,--so well that a large part of the business of the world is done by it,--is it not absurd to suppose that the same equal relation cannot exist in the married partnership of husband and wife? And if law, custom, society, all recognize this fact of equality in the one case, why, in the name of common-sense, should they not equally recognize it in the other?

And, again, it may often be far easier to assign a sphere to each partner in marriage than in business; and therefore the double headship of a family will involve less need of collision. In nine cases out of ten, the external support of the family will devolve upon the husband, unquestioned by the wife; and its internal economy upon the wife, unquestioned by the husband. No voluntary distribution of powers and duties between business partners can work so naturally, on the whole, as this simple and easy demarcation, with which the claim of suffrage makes no necessary interference. It may require angry discussion to decide which of two business partners shall buy, and which shall sell; which shall keep the books, and which do the active work, and so on; but all this is usually settled in married life by the natural order of things. Even in regard to the management of children, where collision is likely to come, if anywhere, it can commonly be settled by that happy formula of Jean Paul's, that the mother usually supplies the commas and the semicolons in the child's book of life, and the father the colons and periods. And as to matters in general, the simple and practical rule, that each question that arises should be decided by that partner who has personally most at stake in it, will, in ninety-nine times out of a hundred, carry the domestic partnership through without shipwreck. Those who cannot meet the hundredth case by mutual forbearance are in a condition of shipwreck already.

[The end]
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: One Responsible Head