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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson


Title:     Wanted--Homes
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

We see advertisements, occasionally, of "Homes for Aged Women," and more rarely "Homes for Aged Men." The question sometimes suggests itself, whether it would not be better to begin the provision earlier, and see that homes are also provided, in some form, for the middle-aged and even the young. The trouble is, I suppose, that as it takes two to make a bargain, so it takes at least two to make a home; and unluckily it takes only one to spoil it.

Madame Roland once defined marriage as an institution where one person undertakes to provide happiness for two; and many failures are accounted for, no doubt, by this false basis. Sometimes it is the man, more often the woman, of whom this extravagant demand is made. There are marriages which have proved a wreck almost wholly through the fault of the wife. Nor is this confined to wedded homes alone. I have known a son who lived alone, patiently and uncomplainingly, with that saddest of all conceivable companions, a drunken mother. I have known another young man who supported in his own home a mother and sister, both habitual drunkards. All these were American-born, and all of respectable social position. A house shadowed by such misery is not a home, though it might have proved such but for the sins of women. Such instances are, however, rare and occasional compared with the cases where the same offence in the husband makes ruin of the home.

Then there are the cases where indolence, or selfishness, or vanity, or the love of social excitement, in the woman, unfits her for home life. Here we come upon ground where perhaps woman is the greater sinner. It must be remembered, however, that against this must be balanced the neglect produced by club-life, or by the life of society-membership, in a man. A brilliant young married belle in London once told me that she was glad her husband was so fond of his club, for it amused him every night while she went to balls. "Married men do not go much into society here," she said, "unless they are regular flirts,--which I do not think my husband would ever be, for he is very fond of me,--so he goes every night to his club, and gets home about the same time that I do. It is a very nice arrangement." It is perhaps needless to add that they are long since divorced.

It is common to denounce club-life in our large cities as destructive of the home. The modern club is simply a more refined substitute for the old-fashioned tavern, and is on the whole an advance in morals as well as manners. In our large cities a man in a certain social coterie belongs to a club, if he can afford it, as a means of contact with his fellows, and to have various conveniences which he cannot so economically obtain at home. A few haunt clubs constantly; the many use them occasionally. More absorbing than these, perhaps, are the secret societies which have so revived among us since the war, and which consume time so fearfully. There was a case mentioned in the newspapers lately of a man who belonged to some twenty of these associations; and when he died, and each wished to conduct his funeral, great was the strife! In the small city where I write there are seventeen secret societies down in the directory, and I suppose as many more not so conspicuous. I meet men who assure me that they habitually attend a society meeting every evening of the week except Sunday, when they go to church meeting. These are rarely men of leisure; they are usually mechanics or business men of some kind, who are hard at work all day, and never see their families except at meal-times. Their case is far worse, so far as absence from home is concerned, than that of the "club-men" of large cities; for these are often men of leisure, who, if married, at least make home one of their lounging-places, which such secret-society men do not.

I honestly believe that this melancholy desertion of the home is largely due to the traditional separation between the alleged spheres of the sexes. The theory still prevails largely, that home is the peculiar province of the woman, that she has almost no duties out of it; and hence, naturally enough, that the husband has almost no duties in it. If he is amused there, let him stay there; but, as it is not his recognized sphere of duty, he is not actually violating any duty by absenting himself. This theory even pervades our manuals of morals, of metaphysics, and of popular science; and it is not every public teacher who has the manliness, having once stated it, to modify his statement, as did the venerable President Hopkins of Williams College, when lecturing the other day to the young ladies of Vassar.

"I would," he said, "at this point correct my teaching in 'The Law of Love' to the effect that home is peculiarly the sphere of woman, and civil government that of man. _I now regard the home as the joint sphere of man and woman, and the sphere of civil government more of an open question as between the two._ It is, however, to be lamented that the present agitation concerning the rights of woman is so much a matter of 'rights' rather than of 'duties,' as the reform of the latter would involve the former."

If our instructors in moral philosophy will only base their theory of ethics as broadly as this, we shall no longer need to advertise "Homes Wanted;" for the joint efforts of men and women will soon provide them.

[The end]
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Wanted--Homes