Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Thomas Wentworth Higginson > Text of Low-Water Mark

An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Low-Water Mark

Title:     The Low-Water Mark
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

We constantly see it assumed, in arguments against any step in the elevation of woman, that her position is a thing fixed permanently by nature, so that there can be in it no great or essential change. Every successive modification is resisted as "a reform against nature;" and this argument from permanence is always that which appears most convincing to conservative minds. Let us see how the facts confirm it.

A story is going the rounds of the newspapers in regard to a Russian peasant and his wife. For some act of disobedience the peasant took the law into his own hands; and his mode of discipline was to tie the poor creature naked to a post in the street, and to call on every passer-by to strike her a blow. Not satisfied with this, he placed her on the ground, and tied heavy weights on her limbs until one arm was broken. When finally released, she made a complaint against him in court. The court discharged him on the ground that he had not exceeded the legal authority of a husband. Encouraged by this, he caused her to be arrested in return; and the same court sentenced her to another public whipping for disobedience.

No authority was given for this story in the newspaper where I saw it; but it certainly did not first appear in a woman-suffrage newspaper, and cannot therefore be a manufactured "outrage." I use it simply to illustrate the low-water mark at which the position of woman may rest, in the largest Christian nation of the world. All the refinements, all the education, all the comparative justice, of modern society, have been gradually upheaved from some such depth as this. When the gypsies described by Leland treat even the ground trodden upon by a woman as impure, they simply illustrate the low plane from which all the elevation of woman has begun. All these things show that the position of that sex in society, so far from being a thing in itself permanent, has been in reality the most changing of all factors in the social problem. And this inevitably suggests the question, Are we any more sure that her present position is finally and absolutely fixed than were those who observed it at any previous time in the world's history? Granting that her condition was once at low-water mark, who is authorized to say that it has yet reached high tide?

It is very possible that this Russian wife, once scourged back to submission, ended her days in the conviction, and taught it to her daughters, that such was a woman's rightful place. When an American woman of to-day says, "I have all the rights I want," is she on any surer ground? Grant that the difference is vast between the two. How do we know that even the later condition is final, or that anything is final but entire equality before the laws? It is not many years since William Story--in a legal work inspired and revised by his father, the greatest of American jurists--wrote this indignant protest against the injustice of the old common law:--

"In respect to the powers and rights of married women, the law is by no means abreast of the spirit of the age. Here are seen the old fossil footprints of feudalism. The law relating to woman tends to make every family a barony or a monarchy, or a despotism, of which the husband is the baron, king, or despot, and the wife the dependent, serf, or slave. That this is not always the fact is not due to the law, but to the enlarged humanity which spurns the narrow limits of its rules. The progress of civilization has changed the family from a barony to a republic; but the law has not kept pace with the advance of ideas, manners, and customs. And, although public opinion is a check to legal rules on the subject, the rules are feudal and stern. Yet the position of woman throughout history serves as the criterion of the freedom of the people or an age. When man shall despise that right which is founded only on might, woman will be free and stand on an equal level with him,--a friend and not a dependent."[1]

We know that the law is greatly changed and ameliorated in many places since Story wrote this statement; but we also know how almost every one of these changes was resisted: and who is authorized to say that the final and equitable fulfilment is yet reached?

[Footnote 1: Story's _Treatise on the Law of Contracts not under Seal_, sec. 84, p. 89.]

[The end]
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Low-Water Mark