Ernestine Rose Society

1851 Women's Rights Convention

Worcester, Massachusetts, Oct. 15, 1851

At this convention — the second national convention for women's rights — Ernestine made a dramatic speech that was widely noted for its impact. Paulina Wright Davis later referred to it as "unsurpassed."

Preceding Rose's speech, a letter was read to the convention from Jeanne Deroin and Pauline Roland, two French feminists imprisoned for attempting to stand for election to the Constituent Assembly. Ernestine Rose, ever an internationalist, was part of the first international women's movement (Anderson, 2000).

Rose's ties to European women fighting for women's rights may have preceded her emigration to America in 1836. She was probably the recipient and translator of this letter (Kolmerten, 1999), addressed to American women rights activists.

Speech of Ernestine Rose (abridged)

After having heard the letter read from our poor incarcerated sisters of France, well might we exclaim, Alas poor France! Where is thy glory? Where is the glory of the Revolution of 1848, in which shone forth the pure and magnanimous spirit of an oppressed nation struggling for freedom!… Where again I ask is the result of those noble achievements, when woman, aye, one half of the nation, is deprived of her rights: Has woman, then been idle during the contest between "right and might"? Has she been wanting in ardor and enthusiasm? Has she not mingled her blood with that of her husband, son and sire? Or has she been recreant in hailing the motto of liberty… that at the first step she takes practically to claim the recognition of her rights she is rewarded with the doom of a martyr?

… (yet) why should women not be a martyr for her cause?

… But need we wonder that France, governed as she is by Russian and Austrian despotism, does not recognize the rights of humanity in the recognition of the Rights of Woman,* when even here, in this far-famed land of freedom… woman, the mockingly so-called "better half" of man, has yet to plead for her rights...In the laws of the land, she has no rights; in government she has no voice. And in spite of another principle recognized in this Republic, namely, that "taxation without representation is tyranny," she is taxed without being represented. Her property may be consumed by taxes to defray the expenses of that unholy, unrighteous custom called war, yet she has no power to give her vote against it. From the cradle to the grave she is subject to the power and control of man. Father, guardian or husband, one conveys her like some piece of merchandise over to the other.

At marriage she loses her entire identity, and her being is said to have become merged in her husband. Has nature thus merged it? Has she ceased to exist and feel pleasure and pain? When she violates the laws of her being, does her husband pay the penalty? When she breaks the moral law does he suffer the punishment? When he satisfies his wants, is it enough to satisfy her nature?… What an inconsistency that from the moment she enters the compact in which she assumes the high responsibility of wife and mother, she ceases legally to exist and becomes a purely submissive being. Blind submission in women is considered a virtue, while submission to wrong is itself wrong, and resistance to wrong is virtue alike in women as in man.

But it will be said that the husband provides for the wife, or in other words, he feeds, clothes and shelters her! I wish I had the power to make every one before me fully realize the degradation contained in that idea. Yes! He keeps her, and so he does a favorite horse; by law they are both considered his property. Both may, when the cruelty of the owner compels them to run away, be brought back by the strong arm of the law and according to a still extant law in England, both may be led by the halter to the market place and sold. This is humiliating indeed but nevertheless true, and the sooner these things are known and understood, the better for humanity. It is no fancy sketch. I know that some endeavor to throw the mantle of romance over the subject and treat woman like some ideal existence, not liable to the ills of life. Let those deal in fancy who have nothing better to deal in; we have to do with sober, sad realities, with stubborn facts.

Again, I shall be told that the law presumes the husband to be kind, affectionate, and ready to provide for and protect his wife. But what right, I ask, has the law to presume at all on the subject? What right has the law to in trust the interest and happiness of one being into the hands of another? And if the merging of the interest of one being in the other is a necessary consequence on marriage, why should the woman always remain on the losing side? Turn the tables. Think you she would act less generously toward him, than he toward her?…

Man forgets that woman can not be degraded without its reacting on himself. The impress of her mind is stamped on him by nature and the early education of the mother, which no after-training can entirely efface; and therefore, the estimation she is held in falls back with double force upon him. Yet, from the force of prejudice against her, he knows it not.

Not long ago, I saw an account of two offenders, brought before a Justice of New York. One was charged with stealing a pair of boots, for which offense he was sentenced to six months' imprisonment; the other crime was assault and battery upon his wife; he was let off with a reprimand by the judge! With my principles, I am entirely opposed to punishment, and hold that to reform the erring and remove the causes of evil is much more efficient, as well as just, than to punish. But the judge showed us the comparative value which he set on these two kinds of property. But then you must remember that the boots were taken by a stranger, while the wife was insulted by her legal owner! …

It is high time… to compel man by the might of right to give woman her political, legal and social rights… She will find her own sphere in accordance with her capacities, powers and tastes; and yet she will be woman still… Away with that folly that her rights would be detrimental to her character — that if she were recognized as the equal to a man she would cease to be a woman! Have his rights as a citizen of a republic, the elective franchise with all its advantages, so changed his nature that he has cease to be man? …

But say some, would you expose woman to the contact of rough, rude, drinking, swearing, fighting men at the ballot box? What a humiliating confession lies in this plea for keeping woman in the background! Is the brutality of some men, then, a reason why woman should be kept from her rights? If man, in his superior wisdom, cannot devise means to enable woman to deposit her vote without having her finer sensibilities shocked by such disgraceful conduct, then there is an additional reason as well as necessity why she should be there to civilize, refine and purify him, even at the ballot box…

Do you not yet understand what has made woman what she is? Then see what the sickly taste and perverted judgment of man now admires in woman. Not health and strength of body and mind, but a pale delicate face; hands too small to grasp a broom, for that were treason to a lady; a voice so sickly, sentimental and depressed, as to hear what she says only by the moving of her half-parted lips; and, above all that nervous sensibility that sees a ghost in every passing shadow — that beautiful diffidence that dare not take a step without the arm of a man to support her tender frame, and that shrinking (mock) modesty that faints at the mention of the leg of a table… Oh! The crying injustice towards woman! She is crushed in every step she takes, and then insulted for being what a most pernicious education and corrupt public sentiment has made her…

We have hardly an adequate idea how all-powerful law is in forming public opinion, in giving tone and character to the mass of society. To illustrate my point, look at that infamous, detestable law, which was written in human blood, and signed and sealed with life and liberty, that eternal stain on the statute book of this country, the Fugitive Slave Law. Think you that before its passage, you could have found any in the free states — except a few politicians in the market — base enough to desire such a law! No! No! Even those who took no interest in the slave question would have shrunk from so barbarous a thing. But no sooner was it passed than the ignorant, the rabble of the self-styled Union Safety Committee, found out that we were a law-loving, law abiding people! Such is the magic power of Law! Hence the necessity to guard against bad ones. Hence also the reason why we call on the nation to remove the legal shackles from woman, and it will have a beneficial effect on that still greater tyrant she has to contend with, Public Opinion.

Carry out the republican principle of universal suffrage, or strike it from your banners and substitute "Freedom and Power to one half of society, and Submission and Slavery to the other." Give women the elective franchise. Let married women have the same right to property that their husbands have; for whatever the difference in their respective occupations, the duties of the wife are as indispensable and far more arduous than her husband's. Why then, should the wife, at the death of her husband, not be his heir to the same extent that he is heir to her? In this inequality there is involved another wrong. When the wife dies, the husband is left in the undisturbed possession of there is, and the children are left with him; no change is made, no stranger intrudes on his home and his affliction. But when the husband dies, the widow at best receives a mere pittance, while strangers assume authority denied to the wife. The sanctuary of affliction must be desecrated by executors; everything must be ransacked and assessed, lest she should steal something out of her own house: and to cap the climax, the children must be placed under guardians. When the husband dies poor, to be sure no guardian is required, and the children are left for the mother to care and toil for, as best she may. But when anything is left for their maintenance, then it must be placed in the hands of strangers for safekeeping! The bringing up and safety of the children are left with the mother, and safe they are in her hands. But a few hundred or thousand dollars can not be intrusted with her!

But, say they, "in case of a second marriage, the children must be protected in their property." Does that reason not hold as good in the case of the husband as in that of the wife? …

According to a late act, the wife has a right to the property she brings at marriage, or receives in any way after marriage. Here is some provision for the favored few; but for the laboring many, there is none. The mass of the people commence life with no other capital than the union of head, hearts and hands. To the benefit of this best of capital the wife has no right. If they are unsuccessful in married life, who suffers more the bitter consequences of poverty than the wife? But if successful, she has not a dollar to call her own…

In case of separation, why should the children be taken from the protecting care of the mother? Who has a better right to them than she? How much do fathers generally do toward bringing them up? When he comes home from business and the child is in good humor and handsome trim, he takes the little darling on his knee and plays with it. But when the wife with the care of the whole household on her shoulders, is not able to put them in the best order, how much care does he do for them? Oh no! Fathers like to have children good-natured, well-behaved and comfortable, but how to put them in that desirable condition is out of their philosophy… Whether from nature, habit, or both, the mother is much more capable of administering to their health and comfort than the father and therefore she has the best right to them. And where there is property, it ought to be divided equally between them, with an additional provision from the father toward the maintenance and education of the children.

Much is said about the burdens and responsibilities of married men. Responsibilities indeed there are, if they but felt them: but as to burdens what are they?… I grant that owing to the present unjust and unequal reward for labor, many have to work too hard for a subsistence; but whatever his vocation, he has to attend (to his business) before as after marriage. Look at your bachelors, and see if they do not strive as much for wealth, and attend as steadily to business as married men. No! the husband has little or increase of burden, and every increase of comfort after marriage; while most of the burdens, cares, pains and penalties of married life fall on the wife. How unjust and cruel then to have all the laws in his favor! If any difference should be made by law between husband and wife, reason, justice and humanity, if their voices were heard, would dictate that it should be in her favor.

… [T]here is no reason against woman's elevation, but… prejudices. The main cause is a pernicious falsehood propagated against her being, namely that she is inferior by her nature. Inferior in what? What has man ever done that woman, under the same advantages could not do? In morals, bad as she is, she is generally considered his superior. In the intellectual sphere, give her a fair chance before you pronounce a verdict against her. Cultivate the frontal portion of her brain as much as that of man is cultivated, and she will stand his equal at least. Even now, where her mind has been called out at all, her intellect is as bright, as capacious and as powerful as his. Will you tell us that women have no Newtons, Shakespeares and Byrons? Greater natural powers that even those possessed may have been destroyed in woman for want of proper culture, a just appreciation, reward for merit as an incentive to exertion and freedom of action, without which mind becomes cramped and stifled, for it cannot expand without bolts and bars; and yet amid all blighting crushing circumstances — confined within the narrowest possible limits, trampled upon by prejudice and injustice, from her education and position forced to occupy herself almost exclusively with the most trivial affairs — in spite of all these difficulties, her intellect is as good as his. The few bright meteors in man's intellectual horizon could well be matched by women, were she allowed to occupy the same elevated position. There is no need of naming the de Staels, the Rolands, the Somervilles, the Wollstonecrafts, the Sigourneys, the Wrights, the Martineaus, … the Fullers, Jagellos and many more of modern as well as earliest times, to prove her mental powers, her patriotism, her self-sacrificing devotion to the cause of humanity, and the eloquence that gushes from her pen, or from her tongue. These things are too well known to require repetition. And do you ask for fortitude, energy and perseverance? Then look at woman under suffering, reverse of fortune, and affliction when the strength and power of man have sunk to the lowest ebb, when his mind is overwhelmed by the dark waters of despair. She like the tender ivy plant, bent, yet unbroken by the storms of life, not only upholds her own hopeful courage, but clings around the tempest-fallen oak, to speak hope to his faltering spirit, and shelter him from the returning blast of the storm. (quoted in HWS, v. 1, pp. 237-242.)