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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

A Copartnership

Title:     A Copartnership
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

Marriage, considered merely in its financial and business relations, may be regarded as a permanent copartnership.

Now, in an ordinary copartnership there is very often a complete division of labor among the partners. If they manufacture locomotive-engines, for instance, one partner perhaps superintends the works, another attends to mechanical inventions and improvements, another travels for orders, another conducts the correspondence, another receives and pays out the money. The latter is not necessarily the head of the firm. Perhaps his place could be more easily filled than some of the other posts. Nevertheless, more money passes through his hands than through those of all the others put together. Now, should he, at the year's end, call together the inventor and the superintendent and the traveller and the correspondent, and say to them, "I have earned all this money this year, but I will generously give you some of it,"--he would be considered simply impertinent, and would hardly have a chance to repeat the offence the year after.

Yet precisely what would be called folly in this business partnership is constantly done by men in the copartnership of marriage, and is there called "common sense" and "social science" and "political economy."

For instance, a farmer works himself half to death in the hayfield, and his wife meanwhile is working herself wholly to death in the dairy. The neighbors come in to sympathize after her demise; and during the few months' interval before his second marriage they say approvingly, "He was always a generous man to his folks! He was a good provider!" But where was the room for generosity, any more than the member of any other firm is to be called generous, when he keeps the books, receipts the bills, and divides the money?

In case of the farming business, the share of the wife is so direct and unmistakable that it can hardly be evaded. If anything is earned by the farm, she does her distinct and important share of the earning. But it is not necessary that she should do even that, to make her, by all the rules of justice, an equal partner, entitled to her full share of the financial proceeds.

Let us suppose an ordinary case. Two young people are married, and begin life together. Let us suppose them equally poor, equally capable, equally conscientious, equally healthy. They have children. Those children must be supported by the earning of money abroad, by attendance and care at home. If it requires patience and labor to do the outside work, no less is required inside. The duties of the household are as hard as the duties of the shop or office. If the wife took her husband's work for a day, she would probably be glad to return to her own. So would the husband if he undertook hers. Their duties are ordinarily as distinct and as equal as those of two partners in any other copartnership. It so happens that the outdoor partner has the handling of the money; but does that give him a right to claim it as his exclusive earnings? No more than in any other business operation.

He earned the money for the children and the household. She disbursed it for the children and the household. The very laws of nature, by giving her the children to bear and rear, absolve her from the duty of their support, so long as he is alive who was left free by nature for that purpose. Her task on the average is as hard as his: nay, a portion of it is so especially hard that it is distinguished from all others by the name "labor." If it does not earn money, it is because it is not to be measured in money, while it exists,--nor to be replaced by money, if lost. If a business man loses his partner, he can obtain another: and a man, no doubt, may take a second wife; but he cannot procure for his children a second mother. Indeed, it is a palpable insult to the whole relation of husband and wife when one compares it, even in a financial light, to that of business partners. It is only because a constant effort is made to degrade the practical position of woman below even this standard of comparison, that it becomes her duty to claim for herself at least as much as this.

There was a tradition in a town where I once lived, that a certain Quaker, who had married a fortune, was once heard to repel his wife, who had asked him for money in a public place, with the response, "Rachel, where is that ninepence I gave thee yesterday?" When I read in "Scribner's Monthly" an article deriding the right to representation of the Massachusetts women who pay two millions of tax on one hundred and thirty-two million dollars of property,--asserting that they produced nothing of it; that it was only "men who produced this wealth, and bestowed it upon these women;" that it was "all drawn from land and sea by the hands of men whose largess testifies alike of their love and their munificence,"--I must say that I am reminded of Rachel's ninepence.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: A Copartnership