A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Virginia Woman of Today." by Mrs. Mary Stuart Smith (1834-1917).
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. 408-411.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Whatever virtues or faults the daughters of Virginia now possess they are exceedingly apt to be inherited qualities, for from infancy the little girl's imagination is filled with the fair images of the women whom her mamma and grandmamma admired in their childhood, and as she grows older her highest delight is to have pictured for her the life in which these lovely, revered beings moved. As she hears their virtues extolled, her eye kindles and her bosom dilates with the desire to be just such an one as they were, and to equal them would be to attain to the acme of her ambition. When the darkness that enshrouded with gloom the Jamestown settlement, is illumined by the radiance of such womanly virtue and self-sacrifice as shines forth in the girlish form of Pocahontas, when later the old Virginians had before their eyes such models of womanhood as Mary and Martha Washington, Dolly Madison and Mrs. Jefferson, can they be blamed for both admiring them and seeking to emulate their example?

It is believed that at the period when these ladies flourished, Virginia was full of women of the same type, who, in the quietness of private life, practiced the same virtues as did they with equal steadfastness and simplicity, although not brought before the public gaze by the accident of occupying a conspicuous station.

We think that it can also be proved that the Virginia women of today are not degenerate, but have stood well that hardest of tests–adversity. The gentlewoman who has known better days yet lives, not to bewail the past, but to make the best of the present, is happily a genus of which the Old Dominion is full. The exceeding rarity of moping, complaining women, or supinely indolent ones within her borders, has been and is the theme of praise upon the tongues of all observers. Cheerfulness and industry are the spirits that have exorcised the demons of misery and unrest, that naturally swooped down upon Virginia's home circles after the war was over, and would have preyed upon them disastrously, but for the sturdy exercise of these two Christian attributes.

Twenty-eight years have passed since those dark days, and it would be hard to name any branch of human industry in which Virginia women have not been found toiling. They are represented in the Woman's Exchanges of every city where they exist; we have teachers, clerks, artists, authors, editors, type-writers, elocutionists, postmistresses, book agents and what not? Leesburgh, in the northern part of Vir- [Page 409]  ginia, is famed for its embroidery. We hope it will not be deemed unbecoming to advert to the fact that wherever a Virginia woman is at work, her personality is marked. There is an indefinable charm about her gentle voice, cordial manners and frankness that is better felt than described. Untrue she is to her rearing, if the love light is not in her eye, and if "the law of kindness is not the law of her lips."

Virginia hospitality has become proverbial, and it goes without saying, that this quality, in its practical bearings, emanates mainly from the housekeeping branch of the family. The increased burden entailed upon a family by the presence of guests must be borne by the female members, and, therefore, where strangers are cordially welcomed to a seat at the family board, depend upon it, it is the mistress who deserves the praise. Her large heart and loving sympathy with her fellow-creatures makes every burden borne on their behalf seem light, and sweetens even domestic drudgery. Thank God Virginia women still delight to honor the precept: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers," although this can not be done nowadays without personal exertion. All New York recently laughed over the characteristic simplicity of a typical old Virginian, whom at the great naval review chance threw near enough to Sir John Hopkins, commander of the British fleet, to admit of speech. Impressed by the admiral's appearance, and full of the enthusiasm of the hour, he rushed up to him, saying: "Sir, are you a foreigner?" "I am an Englishman," was the cold reply. "Well," exclaimed the stranger, "I live in Fauquier County, Virginia, and if you ever come there, come to my house and I shall be delighted to see you."

We may be sure that would-be entertainer of the Nation's guest had a helpmate at home upon whom he could rely, should the stranger appear at her husband's behest, to be ready to greet him with smiling face and open for him the best guest-chamber, with its high post bedstead, dimity curtains, and lavender-scented linen.

Conservatism everybody admits to be an attribute peculiarly cherished in Virginia, yet more if possible by the women than by the men. The reason for any change must be well proved before being adopted by a Virginian of either sex. Local attachments are very strong in them, and doubtless this is one of the elements that enters into the glowing patriotism that is apt to inspire the breast of everyone reared within that widely diversified but homogeneous district, ycleped Virginia. And yet, what bundles of contradiction we are. The same being at whose knee her sons drink in large draughts the love of country has been bred in the belief that it is a shame for a woman to intermeddle with politics, and to feel as if it were presumptuous in her to talk of public affairs. The domestic circle has ever been believed in Virginia to be pre-eminently woman's province. In the jealousy with which the people there guard its privacy and sacredness they prove their English lineage.

The sanctity of the marriage relation is regarded with a primeval simplicity. It is a land of happy marriages, large families, and loving bands of brothers and sisters. Women smile when they are asked if they favor women's rights, so live they to bless and be blessed in the sunshine of domestic happiness, that if there be a yoke upon them they are perfectly unconscious of its existence; or, can it be that the yoke is so softly lined with the velvet of courtesy and mutual respect, devotion and self-sacrifice, that its pressure can never gall. Let Virginia women long rest in their happy contentment, blind to any wrongs to be righted in the nature of their own lot.

To the generation now extant has not fallen the stimulus of the heroic epoch that preceded this. Upon them has blown the cold, biting winds of poverty, a reduction in circumstances and narrowing of the horizon that is all the harder to struggle against because its trials are of a petty, every-day sort, and if overcome and transmuted into blessings, the victory is of that quiet, unobtrusive kind, which elicits no praise and awakens no enthusiasm.

Here again we notice an apparent inconsistency. These same conservative, contented, and domestic women are indomitable in their enterprise. They imbibe, by intuition, it seems, the ideas of the age in which they live, and ten to one they are in the van of every movement for the advancement of their sex, holding back, though at all times they seem yet in the car of progress, driven by the spirit of the period. [Page 410]  For instance, at the very same time that Miss Elizabeth Blackwell was patiently and persistently pressing her claim to be allowed to pursue the study of medicine in one of Philadelphia's famous medical schools, meeting with ridicule and violent opposition, in a lonely farmhouse in Virginia a young girl was seized with the same unquenchable thirst after a knowledge of medical science, and triumphing over similar prejudices and opposition, became a thoroughly educated physician, for she did not fail to attend the first medical school that opened its doors to women. She traveled widely, especially in the East, returned home to act the part of an angel of mercy during the war, founded a hospital in the town nearest her own home, and died full of honors while yet young. She did not depart, though, until she had demonstrated to the satisfaction of all cognizant of her career, that what had been deemed a young girl's freak had been rather a call from on high to enter a peculiar field of usefulness and beneficence. Oriana Moon's name should be honored as one of the pioneers who opened to woman the career of medical practitioner, which has given the missionary in the East a lever of immense power for effecting the conversion of women, and through them, the rising generation of Asia's myriads. Inspired by her example, two of her sisters became students of Oriental languages, and ardent, successful missionaries to China.

The standard of excellence in the study of English literature at one of Virginia's best-known schools for young women–Hollins' Institute–is well illustrated by the fact that for eight consecutive years, under the training of Prof. Wm. Tayloe Thom, the prize offered to American schools of either sex by the New Shakespeare Society of England, was won by members of his senior class in literature. This prize was given for proficiency in a competitive examination prepared by the Shakespeare scholar, Mr. H. H. Furness, and adjudged in England. The answers were printed and sent to England, and upon one occasion complimented in an autograph letter received by one of the successful competitors from no less a person than the then poet laureate, Lord Tennyson.

In education Virginia women are determined not to be behind their fellows. They have many flourishing seminaries which are thronged with pupils from their own and other states.

In the one town of Staunton, with about ten thousand inhabitants, there are six well equipped academies for girls, with an attendance of about a thousand pupils, representing many states. Even at our national capital no seminary for young ladies maintains a higher standard than Norwood, presided over by honored Virginians. Recently in Lynchburgh, the enthusiastic president of Randolph Macon College, at Ashland, determined to found an institution for the higher education of women; and such was the response obtained from the people, impoverished as they are, that in the short space of eight weeks he obtained $200,000, a sufficient sum to warrant him in pushing forward the work. And now, after the interval of one brief year, the buildings have been reared on the most approved plans and next September will go into operation–not a boarding school, but a veritable college for women.

The primary branches of education are not neglected in Virginia, and are largely committed to the hands of women. The new mode of learning to read by sight rather than sound, through power of observation rather than memory, has been quietly and unobtrusively practiced in Virginia for the past fifty years. The writer was thus taught in her mother's nursery at home.

It would seem, then, that Virginia women are prone to do, rather than boast of their doings, and quietly pursuing the even tenor of their way, are largely oblivious of comments made flattering or otherwise. The awakening, during the last two decades, both as to literature and art, in this state has been amazing. Woman workers in both these delightful branches of human industry may be reckoned by the legion, and worth is by no means confined to those whose names are already 'public property'. A pleasant little incident indicates the possibilities of female achievement in the latter direction, viz., that of art. Mr. Ginter, one of Richmond's wealthiest citizens, sent an order to New York for two handsome water-color drawings, to ornament a particular [Page 411]  style of room, and the art dealer sent him two that were executed by a Miss Williams of Mr. Ginter's own city. But, you observe, the New York seal was required to be set upon Southern work before its value was acknowledged at home. The failure to recognize and cherish the genius of her own artists and literary workers is one of the few blots on Virginia's escutcheon. May it be the happy portion of the present generation to wipe out this reproach.

The fact that there has been literally no market at home for literary production has widely scattered the forces, and sent to the ends of creation that which would have been so much more gladly dispensed at home. The number of Virginia women who are contributors to literature in some form or other is far larger than is generally known, and the generosity with which their labor has been encouraged and recompensed by Northern and Western editors is noteworthy, and deserves the warmest gratitude. If Virginia women are not broad-minded and do not include in feelings of friendly affinity their sisters of all states, it is a strange thing; for, verily, they have ties of kinship to bind them with every state and territory from the borders of Mexico to those of British Columbia, and from the shores of the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Virginian is almost as ubiquitous as the Jew throughout all parts of the United States, and while he seems everywhere at home and a favorite, he rather resembles the Chinese in the fondness with which he reverts to his native place, keeping it before him as a load-star of hope. "I shall go back and settle at home when success is won, for my body must rest nowhere but in old Virginia."

When the question of representation at this great World's Fair came up, the heart of our people beat in sympathy. But the means required were not at hand. Our legislature concluded that, being in debt, they could vote but an inadequate appropriation for the fit appearance of such a venerable state. But a board was appointed, and when with general approval they selected an exact copy of Mount Vernon, the home of Washington, as a receptacle for our exhibit, the fountain of feeling was stirred, and many a poor and hard-worked woman resolved that she would make pilgrimage to this sacred spot, and from it as a starting-point participate in the delight of social intercourse with her fellows from all parts of the country, be thrilled with patriotism at such a sublime display of the wealth, glory and greatness to which that republic has attained, of which our own Washington was the first President, and love for whose memory does more than any other one circumstance to weld our commonwealths, together as a united people.

Individual exertion was needed to equip even so plain a state building as we have, and the lady who was appointed to do the honors of Mount Vernon was one, whom we all agreed, filled every condition of the representation; we were all willing, nay proud, to have Mrs. Beale personate the Virginia matron. Her name must go down to posterity as that of one who did more than any other of her sex in Virginia to enable Virginia to take her place in Chicago, side by side with her sister states. She was untiring in her labors, working from a lofty, patriotic standpoint, and wherever she appeared interest was awakened, co-operation secured, and lovely and efficient coadjutors stood by her side. Mrs. Paul, one of our national lady managers, has also achieved a task for which is due her the thanks of all Virginians, viz., the collecting and having catalogued a list of Virginia authors and their works. Such a work will in itself be a monument to the intelligence and efficiency of a Virginia woman.

Sisters of other states! Few experiences has the writer found more thrilling than the opportunity afforded at this grand Congress to converse with women of other lands and different training. But more especially sweet is it to hold loving communion with the residents of other states. If this Exposition has no other effect, it will wonderfully promote friendliness between the different sections of our country, and doing this, its results can be none other than blessed.

Let the last word now spoken concerning Virginia women be a greeting on their part of warm good-will to those who preside over these Congresses, and to the genial, liberal women assembled here from all parts of the world.

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Mrs. Mary Stuart Smith was born at the University of Virginia, February 10, 1834. Her parents were Gessner Harrison, M. D., Professor of Ancient Languages at the University of Virginia, and Eliza Lewis Carter Tucker. She was educated at home by her father and tutors, but was sent to Philadelphia to study music. Her travels have been in our own country and Germany and England. She married Francis N. Smith, of Virginia, now Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University of Virginia. Her literary works are scattered through many periodicals, and besides numerous translations she has published, "Heirs of the Kingdom," "Lang Syne, or the Words of Mt. Vernon," "The Art of Housekeeping" and "Virginia Cookery Book." She is a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, president of several missionary societies, and is at present regent of the Albemarle Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her permanent postoffice address is University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.


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
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom