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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Reason Firm, The Temperate Will

Title:     The Reason Firm, The Temperate Will
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

It is a part of the necessary theory of republican government, that every class and race shall be judged by its highest types, not its lowest. The proposition of the French revolutionary statesman, to begin the work of purifying the world by arresting all the cowards and knaves, is liable to the objection that it would find victims in every circle. Republican government begins at the other end, and assumes that the community generally has good intentions at least, and some common sense, however it may be with individuals. Take the very quality which the newspapers so often deny to women,--the quality of steadiness. "In fact, men's great objection to the entrance of the female mind into politics is drawn from a suspicion of its unsteadiness on matters in which the feelings could by any possibility be enlisted." Thus says the New York "Nation." Let us consider this implied charge against women, and consider it not by generalizing from a single instance,--"just like a woman," as the editors would doubtless say, if a woman had done it,--but by observing whole classes of that sex, taken together.

These classes need some care in selection, for the plain reason that there are comparatively few circles in which women have yet been allowed enough freedom of scope, or have acted sufficiently on the same plane with men, to furnish a fair estimate of their probable action, were they enfranchised. Still there occur to me three such classes,--the anti-slavery women, the Quaker women, and the women who conduct philanthropic operations in our large cities. If the alleged unsteadiness of women is to be felt in public affairs, it would have been felt in these organizations. Has it been so felt?

Of the anti-slavery movement I can personally testify--and I have heard the same point fully recognized among my elders, such as Garrison, Phillips, and Quincy--that the women contributed their full share, if not more than their share, to the steadiness of that movement, even in times when the feelings were most excited, as, for instance, in fugitive-slave cases. Who that has seen mobs practically put down, and mayors cowed into decency, by the silent dignity of those rows of women who sat, with their knitting, more imperturbable than the men, can read without a smile these doubts of the "steadiness" of that sex? Again, among Quaker women, I have asked the opinion of prominent Friends, as of John G. Whittier, whether it has been the experience of that body that women were more flighty and unsteady than men in their official action; and have been uniformly answered in the negative. And finally, as to benevolent organizations, a good test is given in the fact,--first pointed out, I believe, by that eminently practical philanthropist, Rev. Augustus Woodbury of Providence,--that the whole tendency has been, during the last twenty years, to put the management, even the financial control, of our benevolent societies, more and more into the hands of women, and that there has never been the slightest reason to reverse this policy. Ask the secretaries of the various boards of State Charities, or the officers of the Social Science Associations, if they have found reason to complain of the want of steadfast qualities in the "weaker sex." Why is it that the legislation of Massachusetts has assigned the class requiring the steadiest of all supervision--the imprisoned convicts--to "five commissioners of prisons, two of whom shall be women"? These are the points which it would be worthy of our journals to consider, instead of hastily generalizing from single instances. Let us appeal from the typical woman of the editorial picture,--fickle, unsteady, foolish,--to the nobler conception of womanhood which the poet Wordsworth found fulfilled in his own household:--

"A being breathing thoughtful breath,
A traveller betwixt life and death;
_The reason firm, the temperate will;
Endurance, foresight, strength and skill;_
A perfect woman, nobly planned
To warn, to comfort, to command,
And yet a spirit still, and bright
With something of an angel light."

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Reason Firm, The Temperate Will