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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson


Title:     Obey
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

After witnessing the marriage ceremony of the Episcopal Church, the other day, I walked down the aisle with the young rector who had officiated. It was natural to speak of the beauty of the Church service on an occasion like that; but, after doing this, I felt compelled to protest against the unrighteous pledge to obey. "I hope," I said, "to live to see that word expunged from the Episcopal service, as it has been from that of the Methodists. The Roman Catholics, you know, have never had it."

"Why do you object?" he asked. "Is it because you know that they will not obey?"

"Because they ought not," I said.

"Well," said he, after a few moments' reflection, and looking up frankly, "I do not think they ought!"

Here was a young clergyman of great earnestness and self-devotion, who included it among the sacred duties of his life to impose upon ignorant young girls a solemn obligation, which he yet thought they ought not to incur, and did not believe that they would keep. There could hardly be a better illustration of the confusion in the public mind, or the manner in which "the subjection of woman" is being outgrown, or the subtile way in which this subjection has been interwoven with sacred ties, and baptized "duty."

The advocates of woman suffrage are constantly reproved for using the terms "subjection," "oppression," and "slavery," as applied to woman. They simply commit the same sin as that committed by the original abolitionists. They are "as harsh as truth, as uncompromising as justice." Of course they talk about oppression and emancipation. It is the word _obey_ that constitutes the one, and shows the need of the other. Whoever is pledged to obey is technically and literally a slave, no matter how many roses surround the chains. All the more so if the slavery is self-imposed, and surrounded by all the prescriptions of religion. Make the marriage tie as close as church or state can make it; but let it be equal, impartial. That it may be so, the word _obey_ must be abandoned or made reciprocal. Where invariable obedience is promised, equality is gone.

That there may be no doubt about the meaning of this word in the marriage covenant, the usages of nations often add symbolic explanations. These are generally simple, and brutal enough to be understood. The Hebrew ceremony, when the bridegroom took off his slipper and struck the bride on the neck as she crossed his threshold, was unmistakable. As my black sergeant said, when a white prisoner questioned his authority, and he pointed to the _chevrons_ on his sleeve, "Dat mean guv'ment." All these forms mean simply government also. The ceremony of the slipper has now no recognition, except when people fling an old shoe after the bride, which is held by antiquarians to be the same observance. But it is all preserved and concentrated into a single word, when the bride promises to obey.

The deepest wretchedness that has ever been put into human language, or that has exceeded it, has grown out of that pledge. There is no misery on earth like that of a pure and refined woman who finds herself owned, body and soul, by a drunken, licentious, brutal man. The very fact that she is held to obedience by a spiritual tie makes it worse. Chattel slavery was not so bad; for, though the master might pervert religion for his own satisfaction, he could not impose upon the slave. Never yet did I see a negro slave who thought it a duty to obey his master; and therefore there was always some dream of release. But who has not heard of some delicate and refined woman, one day of whose torture was equivalent to years of that possible to an obtuse frame,--who had the door of escape ready at hand for years, and yet died a lingering death rather than pass through it; and this because she had promised to obey!

It is said of one of the most gifted women who ever trod American soil,-- she being of English birth,--that, before she obtained the divorce which separated her from her profligate husband, she once went for counsel to the wife of her pastor. She unrolled before her the long catalogue of merciless outrages to which she had been subject, endangering finally her health, her life, and that of her children born and to be born. When she turned at last for advice to her confessor, with the agonized inquiry, "What is it my duty to do?"--"Do?" said the stern adviser: "Lie down on the floor, and let your husband trample on you if he will. That is a woman's duty."

The woman who gave this advice was not naturally inhuman nor heartless: she had simply been trained in the school of obedience. The Jesuit doctrine, that a priest should be as a corpse, _perinde ac cadaver_, in the hands of a superior priest, is not worse. Woman has no right to delegate, nor man to assume, a responsibility so awful. Just in proportion as it is consistently carried out, it trains men from boyhood into self-indulgent tyrants; and, while some women are transformed by it to saints, others are crushed into deceitful slaves. That this was the result of chattel slavery, this nation has at length learned. We learn more slowly the profounder and more subtile moral evil that follows from the unrighteous promise to obey.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Obey