A Celebration of Women Writers

"Woman–The Inciter to Reform." by Mrs. Minnie D. Louis.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 539-543.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 539] 

WOMAN–THE INCITER TO REFORM.

By MRS. MINNIE D. LOUIS.

MRS. MINNIE D. LOUIS.
We are all familiar with the generally accepted source for the traceable origin of the wonderful creation of man; that every word of that condensed statement is fraught with deepest meaning no one still doubt. We read that on the sixth day God created beasts, reptiles and man. Man stands at the head of the animal creation. We read further, and find that woman is formed afterward. And without any reductio ad absurdum may we not utilize the Darwinian theory, and call her a higher evolution of man, the mental development; in fine, the very perfection of God's noblest work. As the poet says:

   "He tried his 'prentice hand on man,
    And then He made the lassies, O."
The great Creator caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and then He formed Eve out of one of his ribs; which means, palpably, that being formed from only part of him she could not possibly be endowed with as much physical strength. But in His beneficent law of compensation, by which the beautiful balance of all distribution is maintained, He bestowed upon her keen perception, which, like the delicate diamond-drill, easily penetrates where the sledge-hammer would only shatter. She was given to Adam in his quiet moment; not when he was frolicking with the other denizens of Paradise, reveling in his superiority, but after he had slept, when his brain was in a condition to be influenced by her gentle presence, then she appeared unto him, the embodiment of a new revelation of his power, his slumbering, æsthetic nature.

I suppose it is as patent to others as to me that it was Eve who first gained knowledge and then imparted it to Adam. It was she who first espied the lurking enemy, and she who bravely dared confront him. The Serpent was not the enemy; it was Laziness, that destroyer of Divine growth in mortal. The subtle, telepathic serpent discerned Eve's mental unrest, and despite all the interpreters, translators, annotators and commentators on the Bible, Eve's interview with that gorgeous, calm-eyed ophidian was the first whisper of her energy and ambition, the real tempters; Adam's inborn sloth was exacerbating to her active, progressive mind. There was no philosophy in her brain to tell her it was better to bear the ills they had. Quick impulse, true as the magnet needle, told her that pain, toil, endurance, exile, anything was better than the [Page 540]  weariness of pleasure provided, over which they had no sway. Adam saw not this serpent, this charmer, that wooed beyond the gates of brute-inhabited Eden; it was Eve who in turn tempted him. And who can gainsay that, had she not first tasted and then given to Adam, there might now be but a race of satyrs frisking over the earth.

The ancient Greeks were not slow to recognize the due weight of woman's influence, for in their Pantheon male and female rule conjointly over the world. But mark the nice distinction they make! To the gods are given all physical power, to the goddesses all intellectual. Minerva is the living essence of Jove's brain, for she literally was born of his head. And through this belief to what excellence in war, and song, and art, and virtue, did men not attain? Perceive the contrast in countries where the female mind is ignored. Look at emasculated Turkey and shriveled Arabia. How far the association of a female in the Christian religion has exercised a humanizing effect "he who runs may read." The co-ordination of woman with man in the laws of the Hebrews has given them that vitality which day by day impresses mankind with the conviction of their immortal truth.

It would be too sweeping an assertion to say that all great men only attain their eminence through the influence of woman. Poets and musicians receive their gifts direct from the great Creator. Genius is a self-feeding flame, kindled from within; it does not borrow fuel. And yet, would Petrarch ever have been bonneted had he not so sonneted his Laura? And while Virgil dragged Dante down to hell, it was Beatrice who lifted him up to Paradise. Everyone knows that Madame de Maintenon forged the glittering rays in which Louis XIV. shone so grandly. Queen Bess was the female Vulcan, who with all her brusquerie hammered out her own "Golden Age" of poets and statesmen and navigators. A woman's finer sensibilities and foresight compassed the way to America. And what is called today "the best government under the sun" hails a woman at the helm. How much the abrogation of the Salic law in monarchial France might have lessened the causes that made it volcanic in its eruption of fiery, devastating hate, succeeding generations will pronounce; and whether the stepping of our own government on the downward grade is to be arrested by woman suffrage remains also to be demonstrated.

In the early days of American independence many famous men wore their laurels more gracefully that the wreath was reflected also on the wifely brow. Mrs. John Adams quietly upheld her husband's dignity during his ministerial absence, and enhanced it when the demands of his position elicited her ability thereto. Mrs. John Hay added brighter luster to the name of her liege lord. Mrs. William Bingham was the admired lady, at home and abroad, who gave tone to the sex of her country. And surely the memory of Washington's mother and wife descends to us with their own halos of virtue and noble simplicity, contributing somewhat toward the glorious light in which shines the "Father of his Country."

As the whole machinery of a watch without the small, delicate, almost unseen mainspring is useless, so does the whole machinery of the terrestrial world require somewhere the delicate, unseen influence of woman. Her care or neglect protects or endangers mankind through the evil or the virtue that she propagates, and her subsequent fostering of it; while her individual character is Parcæan in its fiats. The unfaithfulness of a Helen plunged almost a world into war; the chastity of a Lucretia transformed a kingdom into a republic; the compassion and equity of Harriet Beecher Stowe unbound the fetters of a nation of slaves and led them into the sunlight of freedom. There is in the temperament of woman that which makes for weal or woe; the question is how best to dispose of it.

I am not prepared to say that the mere concession to woman of the privilege to cast her vote will purge all governments of corruption and establish a Platonian republic, unless such restrictions could be imposed that only the most intelligent and unbiased of her sex could be eligible, but in this country the wild scuffle for office to subvention it to private ends has so become the "tramp! tramp!" of the nation's march, that there is danger of the women too following this "Pied Piper of Hamelin." [Page 541] 

She has some propædeutical work before sharing the ballot-box. The money-mad men with outstretched, rake-like hands, who scamper into position of whatever nature, and who hope to scamper out again just grazing the portiére of the penitentiary, are so many villainous dynamite bombs in the good Ship of State that threaten to explode her. Does women see wherein she can help to avert the calamity? Does the thought occur to her that extravagance and vanity are the charges in these bombs? And does she entertain the thought that she has aided in charging them? That this desecration of our paradisical country is a reflection of her yieldance to the gorgeous serpents that woo her? Yes! Palatial mansions, regal toilets, Lucullus' feasts and Dionysian pleasures are the tempters whispering to our Eves, and the Eves tasting first, make the Adams do likewise. Certainly neither luxury, nor aught contributing to refinement should be ignored. With every object created is also a corresponding thought in man, and when the affinity is attained, the object is unfolded into higher and higher degrees of usefulness and beauty; therefore there can never be any limitations to the production of what is called wealth; the earth is full of treasure and we only follow out the plan of a Divine beneficence in discovering, utilizing and enjoying it; but let "the means justify the end;" let "what happiness we justly call, subsist not in the good of one, but all."

There is not an hour of the day but some wail of woe from still-chained humanity pierces the American woman's ears. She knows that industries are paralyzed, that idleness and want are generating anarchy, that the laborers stalk stolidly, flaunting pallid banners behind which Famine shrieks for bread, that the "black bat," Desolation, is hovering over the land! She sees the handwriting on the wall, and knows there can be no delay. Before she claims her half of the ballot-box she will cope with the impending disaster.

"Diseases, desperate grown by desperate appliance, are relieved, or not at all." "Similia similibus curantur" will be the therapeutics she will practice. It is through the purse–the over-gorging of some and the evisceration of others–that this fair country has become sick, its once healthy, honest countenance scarcely recognizable in its present emaciation; and through the purse must it be cured. The remedy that the American woman proposes is indeed a desperate one. She is well aware that commerce is the main pivot on which the civil world revolves, and that exchange with foreign nations is, in a degree, necessary to maintain it. She knows, too, that notwithstanding international courtesy, the Old World's interest in the New World does not extend beyond the material advantage it can gain from her as a market and a dumping-ground. And the American woman feels justifiable in obeying the dictum, "self-preservation is the first law of nature." She sees our ragged children, our despairing mothers, our hollow-eyed, hollow-checked fathers sitting disconsolate by the silent mill, the mine, the manufactory. And whether it be the tariff, or whether it be the silver-purchase bill, or whether it be the monopolist, or whether it be the land-grabber, one thing can restore life and vigor to all, at least for the present, and that she proposes to do.

And this it is: That for the next three, four or five years, or as long as the tonic is required to get our country on its legs again, she will not buy for her house, for her person, for her cuisine, for her pleasure, or for any purpose except for sickness or education, any article that is not produced and manufactured in the United States. If the merchants must in consequence cease their importations, the gold will remain in our own land; and if exportations, in retaliation, cease, and stop the influx of gold, then let all the mines be worked and make up the deficiency; and if there be not enough gold, our silver coinage, under honest and discreet regulation, must be accorded its parity. Think of the resources that would have to be opened up to supply everything! Think of the hands that would be needed to do it, and to convert the raw materials into all their uses! Why are we dependent on the French bourse, the English exchange, the Indian or Austrian monetary policy? Are we not a whole, new world? Are we not sixty-five millions of people? But are we all fed, all clothed, and all housed as our colonial fathers planned we should be? [Page 542] 

Why are we waiting for French cambrics, for English prints, for Scotch ginghams, when we grow the cotton here? Why are we waiting for superior qualities of cotton manufacture when we make the machinery for it here? If the manufacturers here will not make the best qualities, why can we not boycott them till they do? And if such manufacture should cost more than the foreign, which is not probable, for domestic gingham is eight cents a yard and Scotch gingham thirty-five cents a yard retail, eighteen cents direct from the factory, we must be willing to share in the just distribution. If American silks will not equal those of French manufacture, we can wear them notwithstanding, and encourage the improvement. Our forests furnish all the beautiful woods for every appurtenance of use or grandeur; our quarries, as yet almost unknown, are rich in material for the finest structures or ornaments; our mineral realm, yet but superficially surveyed, can surely overtop the world; our fields groan with fullness of nourishment; in short, there is nothing that fails, if intelligent energy be directed to unearth it. Even the contention-breeding wool could be produced in our vast downs if the coveted quick returns did not preclude the patient nurture for its prescribed standard.

It is positively disgraceful that there should not be employment here for everyone. If the laborers are unskilled, establish plenty of schools wherein they may be trained, which would be the most powerful extirpator of crime. We have the instruction and improvements of all ages and all nations at our command. What prevents us from profiting by it and making all our people, the native-born and the latest refugee, happy and contented? Nothing but the wild desire, like the prodigal son, to seek pleasures away from home, and the mad pursuit of unrepublican opulence to enjoy those pleasures; but like the prodigal son, we come back to the father's house poor and humiliated. It is our own homestead that we must build up securely, this pure city of the gods, the most beautiful ever on earth, is proof of the mighty constructive forces in our sons and daughters, and nothing short of the most determined, inviolable, energetic home-support will thus build it. It is directly in the power of woman, through her mercantile patronage, to accomplish this revival. "For if she will buy American goods, she will, you may depend on't; and if she won't buy foreign goods, she won't; so there's an end on't."

But, "if it were done, then 'twere well it were done quickly." Now is the time for her to assert her moral and intellectual strength, her comprehension of the underlying currents that should sustain the even flow of our prosperity, and also the quicksands that will insidiously engulf it. She need not for this wait for the ballot-box. The demonstration of her high resolve will bring man into wondering appreciation, and he may ask woman as a favor to share the onus of government.

The basis of all reform, in whatever department of thought or action, is an increasing knowledge of truth, to which purity is the leader. The veriest misogynist pictures his ideal of purity in female form, and we all instinctively concede this attribute to woman; but to lead man to truth, which will unveil all his errors, she must preserve to herself purity uncontaminated. It is her most powerful weapon. The story of the chaste Diana who, with merely a look, converted the sensual Actæon into a stag, torn to pieces by his own dogs, should be an ave in every woman's daily rosary, for it would give a basilisk power to her glance upon evil. The drinking-bout, the dice box, the betting pool, could all be denied admission to the festal or family board if the hostess willed it so; but Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes is the only one who had the courage to publicly do so. It is a sad confirmation of the rapid growth of vice, that in our standard lexicon of 1869 a "bookmaker" is defined as "one who writes and publishes book," or "compiles them," and in the one of 1889, the additional definition to "bookmaker" is given, "a professional betting man," with all the details of the process. It is safe to say, that if woman had ostracized the betting man, whether prince or loafer, from her society, he would have gained no significance in our dictionary, which is a mighty umpire, especially for the rising generation.

It is first in the home that the reformatory processes begin, and from thence [Page 543]  are carried into life's wide arena. When at the Fourth of July celebration, though her husband was not one of the orators of the day, Josiah Allen's wife looked up and with glowing pride observed that Josiah's "biled" shirt was the whitest of any man's there, is to me full of meaning. Pride that our men shall be the purest, the cleanest, and that our efforts in the home shall make them so, will effect the greatest reform; for, after all, it must come from within; the mere veneer of it in statutory enactments is nothing without the vital spirit.

Ever since woman led the way to that wonderful tree in Eden she has been conscious that she is the leader of man; there is only fear of her conception of her position reverting to that crude one of a certain savage tribe, whose women, when sought in marriage, leap astride a horse and ride away furiously, the wooer in pursuit, and never abate their speed till the wooer's swiftness elicits their approval, when they allow themselves to be caught. But whether in the forum, or in the clinic, or in the academy, or in the pulpit, or in the legislative hall, or in the home, woman is the lode-star; and with the suffrage which Heaven from the first accorded her, she can will the world to sway which way she please; but her own mind and heart must be in consonance with all the virtues if she desire to bring about the reign of virtue; she must strive, and wait, and pray.

"Strive–yet I do not promise;
   The prize you dream of today
Will not fade when you think to grasp it,
   And melt in your hand away;
But another and holier treasure,
   You would now perchance disdain,
Will come when your toil is over,
   And pay you for all your pain.

"Wait–yet I do not tell you;
   The hour you long for now
Will not come with its radiance vanished,
   And a shadow upon its brow;
Yet far through the misty future,
   With a crown of starry light,
An hour of joy you know not
   Is winging her silent flight.

"Pray–though the gift you ask for
   May never comfort your fears,
May never repay your pleading,
   Yet pray, and with hopeful tears;
An answer, not that you long for,
   But diviner, will come one day;
All souls will gratefully hear it.
   Then strive, and wait, and pray."


[Page 539] 

Minnie D. Louis was born in Philadelphia, Pa. When four months old her parents moved to the South, so that in all but the accident of birth she claims to be a native Georgian. Her parents were Fannie Zachariah Dessau, a woman of rare beauty and energy, born in Chatham, England, though a child when brought to this country, and Abraham Dessau, a native of Hamburg, Germany, a man of wide learning and exceptional purity of character. She was educated in academic schools in Columbus, Ga., and at Pecker Collegiate Institute, Brooklyn, N. Y. She has traveled in the United States and Canada. She married Adolph H. Louis in July, 1866. Her special work has been in the interest of uneducated and needy children of the Jewish poor in New York City. Her literary works consist of essays and poems and the "Personal Service" Department in the "American Hebrew," as yet uncompiled. She is a Jewess and a member of the Temple Emanuel. She is a beautiful, accomplished and most attractive woman. Her rare good taste in dress and deportment are a subject of remark. Her permanent postoffice address is No. 66 West Fifty-sixth Street, New York City.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom