A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Economic Independence of Women." by Mrs. Lydia A. Prescott (1842-).
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. 526-530.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 526] 

THE ECONOMIC INDEPENDENCE OF WOMEN.*

By MRS. LYDIA A. PRESCOTT.

MRS. LYDIA A. PRESCOTT.
Olive Schreiner in that prophetic vision of coming womanhood, "Three Dreams in a Desert," makes Reason say to the woman who has come out of the desert in search of the Land of Freedom but finds her progress obstructed by a dark, deep river with banks steep and high: "There is one way, and one only, to the Land of Freedom; down the banks of Labor; through the waters of Suffering." In answer to her questions, the woman learns that there is no bridge; that the water is deep; that the floor is worn so that her foot may slip at any moment and she be lost; that none have crossed before though some have tried and their bodies were swept away; that even a track to the water's edge is not yet made. Reason tells her she must not go into the water with the garments she wore in the desert, as she would be dragged down by them and lost. Then the woman gladly throws from her the mantle of ancient-received-opinion worn full of holes, though handed down to her as a priceless inheritance, and with it the girdle from her waist which had been in use so long that "the moths flew out in a cloud."

Then said Reason–that old man–"take the shoes of Dependence off thy feet." And she stood there clad in one white garment on the breast of which was written Truth. And the writer goes on to say that the sun had not often shone on it; the other clothes had covered it up. Then follows that fearful struggle between love and duty that is the experience of almost every good woman sometime in her life and her final submission to the voice of Reason. When the pitiful moan goes up–"For what do I now go to this far off land which no one has ever reached?" "Oh! I am alone! I am utterly alone!" And Reason said to her–"Silence! What do you fear?" And she listened intently and said, "I hear a sound of feet–a thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, and they beat this way." He said: "They are the feet of those who shall follow you. Lead on! Make a track to the water's edge. Where you stand now, the ground will be beaten flat by ten thousand times ten thousand feet, and over a bridge made of the bodies of those who shall follow you, and will not be washed away in the stream–shall pass away–the entire Human Race."

What is the lesson which this wonderful allegorical picture would teach? Womankind lost in the Desert of Economic Dependence, groping her way back to the Land of Freedom and Equality, down the banks of Labor, through the waters of Suffering. There is no other way. Her woman's girdle–that emblem of femininity, and for long ages a badge of physical, mental and moral inferiority–must be relegated to the shades of [Page 527]  eternal night, says the voice of an enlightened Conscience, along with the venerable mantle of ancient-received-opinion worn full of holes. Yet these are but adjuncts of the great underlying cause that has put the burden of subjection upon woman's back, tying it there, as this author has expressed it–with the broad band of inevitable necessity–until she is the creature you find her, the natural product of her condition, the fruit of an environment for ages–the ages of dominion of muscular force, from which she is now, in this last quarter of the nineteenth century, being slowly emancipated; her bonds have been cut asunder by the knife of mechanical invention and "she knows she might now rise."

"Take the shoes of Dependence off thy feet," says the voice of Reason, of Nature, of Revelation, and of God. Then, and then only, may woman rightly distinguish between truth and error, love and passion, duty and selfishness, right and wrong, and step by step grow into a realizing sense and wider knowledge of her possibilities for usefulness and her sacred obligations to the race.

That in the annals of time woman once stood noble and free, the recognized equal of man intellectually and economically, ample testimony is to be found in ancient customs, in the early languages, in history and revelation. That 'twas not man's province in the primitive ages of civilization to assign woman a position inferior to his own, is evidenced by a universal goddess–worship–from time immemorial. Says a writer in the Atlantic Monthly, a few years since: "The mysteries of this goddess, the worship of this great nature mother, is not more wonderful for its antiquity than for its prevalence as regards space. She was the Isis of Egypt, the Demeter of Greece, the Ceres of Rome, the Cybele of Phrygia, the Disa of the Norse, and was worshiped by the Suevi, the Muscovite and the Celt. She swayed the ancient world from the southeast corner of Egypt and India to Cornwall and Scandinavia on the west, everywhere the Mater Dolorosa. And still she reigns, the ideal type of suffering and purity, in the Madonna, the mother of Jesus. If all ancient rulers believed in the inequality of the sexes, what led that great king of Egypt, who brought his fabulous land into the comity of nations, to name as his successor neither of his brilliant sons, who had rendered such marked service in his Asiatic conquests, but his one daughter Hatasu, his counselor in affairs of state, his chief advisor in the work of adorning his great capitol–Thebes–the "City of Monuments?" 'Twas this woman's brain that evolved the present system of foreign commerce in all of its essential details, and caused to be built a fleet of ships for that purpose which, laden with gifts for other nations, sailed away, as much the wonder of that early age as was the celebrated barge of Egypt's latest queen when obeying the mandate of Rome's triumvir.

Or what means the story of Deborah, divinely called to take the leadership in her country's emergency? She was a wife; why should she order an army to the front and plan a great campaign? Said Barak, at the head of his army, "If thou wilt go with me then I will go, but if thou wilt not go with me then I will not go." "She arose and went." A nation was redeemed and delivered, and, says the inspired writer, "Under the beneficent rule of this female judge, the land had rest for forty years." To such as believe in the inherent inferiority of woman, what a picture is this! The great Israelitish general reverently bowing before a female judge and commander, listening to words of wisdom that would guide a nation to victory.

And again, if 'tis woman's sphere to be a clinging dependent, and that by Divine decree, why that careful record about Solomon's virtuous woman, to be found in the last chapter of Proverbs, from which a text for this address may well be chosen?

This perfect woman, a model for all time, so strong, so self-reliant, that husband and children could safely depend upon her in every emergency, was far from the ideal type of a clinging vine–a dependent housewife. Though 'tis plain that her domestic duties were none the less faithfully performed because she went out into the world of trade and commerce as a producer–a live factor in this great organic, busy, human world. "She considereth a field and buyeth it," "With the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard." No mention is made of her asking her husband's advice or [Page 528]  permission as regards this purchase, or that she was in the habit of consulting this Jewish elder and statesman about business affairs with which he was practically unacquainted. "She perceiveth that her merchandise is good"–again pointing out that this woman relied not upon the opinions of her husband or of any other man or woman, but upon her own judgment. Not at all vine-like, you see; and if we are hunting for clinging types, we shall be quite shocked at the next quotation: "She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms," which strength of body as well as of mind, instead of being denounced as unfeminine, was most earnestly commended. And as if the inspired writer could not enough exult over this important fact, he adds: "Strength and honor are her clothing and she shall rejoice in time to come." Then as if to show the full significance of this economic freedom combined with a perfect physical development, he goes on to give, first, a record of her charities: "She stretcheth out her hand to the poor and the needy." Of her discretion: "She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness." Of her maternal foresight and wifely devotion: "Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also; and he praiseth her." Of the public regard for this loyal wife and mother, whose home horizon was not bounded by walls of timber and stone, but by the needs of humanity, and this brings us to our text, "Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her own works praise her within the gates." Which praise within the gates, be it remembered was, prior to the days of a public press, the greatest publicity known. Nor do I wish it to be overlooked for one moment that this noble woman, with a record worthy of being handed down from the early history of the race as a model wife and mother, won this renown, not through her husband's virtues, influence or position, albeit he was a great man, and sat with the elders; nor for any riches or honors that was in his power to bestow on his wife; not for the wealth she had herself acquired; but because this woman had a definite industrial position of her own, an occupation separate and apart from her husband's, over which he had neither jurisdiction nor control; a purpose in life of her own seeking, that promised to make the world a little better for her having lived in it, an industrial occupation which in no manner interfered with the obligations and responsibilities of wife and mother, the sanctity of home, or the claims of humanity.

Dependence begets an inforced submission to the power that feeds. And by a law as unvarying as that water finds its level, this submission has restricted woman's energies to a circle of private interests, warped her moral sense and so weakened her individual will as to render it partially or wholly incapable of carrying out what even the warped moral sense can see.

"The ethics of human life," says Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Stetson, "require a governing personal force standing between cause and effect; a storage of energy to keep action steady when immediate pressure is removed; a power of judgment to decide between acting causes and move or refuse to move from ultimate rather that immediate reason. This is called the moral nature."

Unquestionably, then, the advance of humanity depends directly upon the ratio in which this moral nature is developed. And because it is now generally admitted that the development of human characteristics and of other forms of life are modified by conditions–by the environment–it behooves the student of ethics to find out what conditions tend most to develop the moral nature; to ascertain under what circumstances men have manifested the most rapid growth in moral power and insight, primarily and essentially, under conditions of freedom.

That slavery begets vice and freedom virtue is a fact that rests upon the wisest laws of nature. No one expects that virtue and slavery can co-exist. "What is freedom?" Mrs. Stetson tells us again, "The capacity to see what is right; the ability and will to do it; the courage to bear the consequences." That the kind of character which sees right and does it at all costs is only matured in an atmosphere of freedom is one of the most valuable lessons to be drawn from liberty. When governments require submission and dependence civic virtues are wanting. Where economic systems [Page 529]  require submission and dependence, economic virtues are wanting. What, then, may be said of the moral growth resulting from a lifelong and complete dependence of one-half of the civilized world upon the other half–and the case aggravated through countless generations of inheritance? For it is not alone that the economic pressure upon woman compels submission, it is that because of her inheritance of class dependence she can not rightly judge or strongly act independently of others. Her moral nature is stunted by her environment–her slavery.

I understand how inconsistent is this statement compared with the immoderate estimate of moral superiority granted to women within the last century or so; but her claim does not bear analysis, nor does it appear that in general cases women are credited with superior moral sense. She is superior only in those virtues enforced upon her by her position–who is not?

Is the moral sense strong when almost every woman bears upon her hips, even while admitting the injury to her health, a dangerous weight of skirts, too often lying inches deep on floors and pavements, that sweep up and carry into homes and nurseries germs of stealthy pestilence?

Is the moral sense strong that leads women to spend millions of dollars annually in laces, jewels and idle ornaments, in cities where one-fourth of the population are paupers–where thousands of our own sex annually sell their souls for the necessaries of life; where multitudes of children are brought to an untimely grave from hunger and cold? Says Ruskin: "So long as there is nakedness and cold in the land around you, so long will there be no question but that splendor of dress will be a crime."

Is the moral sense strong when ninety-nine women out of a hundred scorn true standards of beauty in the human form and voluntarily so deform and weaken their own bodies as to increase the rate of infant mortality and otherwise lower health standards as to threaten the physical degeneracy of the race through this gigantic folly alone?

Is the moral sense strong when women, to whom society has a right to look for examples in matters of propriety, enter public gatherings so immodestly clad as to compel good men to turn their gaze away, and unprincipled ones to believe that womanly virtue exists but in name? And this, too, in defiance of a law of the land that requires, as an essential to modesty, that the body be covered? Such intelligent, high-minded women too often encouraging their daughters to attract the opposite sex by displays of personal beauty and physical charms, rather than intellectuality and moral worth.

Can it be claimed that the moral sense is strong when women condemn the same sin a thousand-fold more severely in woman than in man; and for the sake of wealth or position, give an innocent daughter to a man of notoriously unclean life. Aye, 'tis claimed that the greatest stumbling-block men find to leading purer lives, is that women do not care.

If the moral sense of mothers is what it is painted, do you think she would ignore the sacred duty of teaching her sons that to take a wife who is to come to him in the beauty of purity, when he has shameful secrets to hide, is perfidy in the last degree? That to dishonor the poorest, giddiest, weakest girl will bring disgrace upon his kindred, his manhood, his unborn sons and daughters?

It is the economic pressure upon woman that has made her what she is. And it is by seeing herself apart from the ideal virtues ascribed to her, that she may ever hope to realize the glorious possibilities now opening to her, and properly estimate her value as a source of strength to others through the power and influence of a noble life.

The woman who enters the married relation for any pecuniary consideration whatever, is either making a wicked sacrifice of herself or is lacking in moral sense or courage. And but for the economic pressure brought to bear upon her, would be regarded as little less fortunate than the woman who enters into a similar relation from similar motives without the sanction of the law. And the woman who marries to live in [Page 530]  ease and idleness can hardly be expected to see as clearly that her husband has no right to dictate her actions or opinions as the woman who supports herself. The woman with a definite industrial position of her own is not likely to marry for mercenary reasons, she may therefore be expected to see the rights; duties and obligations of wife and mother from quite a different standpoint from one who marries for her support.

As another has expressed it, this nineteenth century is sweeping grandly on to its close, "carrying with it mighty movements that can no more be staid by the hand of man than the rushing waters of Niagara or the tides of the ocean." Of woman's mission in this field of human progress we would repeat the Divine command, "Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her own works praise her within the gates." And she who is to be the product of these future conditions of absolute freedom for woman–she who is to come? Will be–

"A woman in so far as she beholdeth
    Her one Beloved's face;
A mother–with a great heart that enfoldeth
    The children of her race.
A body free and strong, with that high beauty
    That comes of perfect use, is built thereof;
A mind where reason ruleth over duty,
    And justice reigns with love;
A self-poised royal soul, brave, wise and tender,
    No longer blind and dumb:
A human being of an unknown splendor,
    Is she who is to come!"


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Mrs. Lydia A. Prescott is a native of Michigan. She was born August 5, 1842. Her parents were Dio and Lydia Hess. She was educated in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Denmark Academy, Iowa. She has traveled in Canada, the United States and Mexico. She married Maj. B. W. Prescott in January, 1867. Her literary works have been confined chiefly to that of correspondent on moral questions. Mrs. Prescott is a professional teacher. In religious faith she is a Congregationalist. Her postoffice address is Oakland, Cal.


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* The full title of the address was "The Economic Independence of Women and Its Relation to Morals."

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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
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom