Women's Literature in the 19th Century: Primary Sources

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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


SOURCE: Smith, Elizabeth Oakes. Woman and Her Needs, pp. 10-29. New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1851.

In the following excerpt, Smith underscores the importance of "Woman thought."

Whatever difference of opinion may exist amongst us as to the propriety of the recent Conventions held in our Country, called "Woman's Rights," the fact stands by itself, a handwriting on the wall, proclaiming a sense of wrong, a sense of something demanding redress, and this is fact enough to justify the movement to all candid eyes. Indeed enough to render it praiseworthy. For one, I am glad to see that our Republic has produced a class of women, who, feeling the Need of a larger sphere and a better recognition, have that clearness of intellect and strength of purpose by which they go to work resolutely to solve the difficulty. They might stay at home and fret and dawdle; be miserable themselves and make all within their sphere miserable likewise; but instead of this, they meet and talk the matter over, devise plans, explain difficulties, rehearse social oppressions and political disabilities, in the hope of evolving something permanently good.

All this is well, and grows naturally from the progress of institutions like our own, in which opinions are fearlessly discussed, and all thought traced home to its source. It isn't in the nature of things that any class in our midst should be long indifferent to topics of general interest; far less that such should feel the pressure of evils without inquiring into the best means of abatement. When our Fathers planted themselves upon the firm base of human freedom, claimed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they might have foreseen that at some day their daughters would sift thoroughly their opinions and their consequences, and daringly challenge the same rights.

For myself, I may not sympathize with a Convention—I may not feel that the best mode of arriving at truth to my own mind—I may feel that its singleness of import would be lost to me while standing in the solid phalanx of associated inquiry; but these objections do not apply to the majority of minds, and I reverence their search in their own way, the many converging lights of many minds all bent upon the same point, even although I myself peer about with my solitary lantern.…

The world needs the action of Woman thought in its destinies. The indefinite influence springing from the private circle is not enough; this is shaded away into the graceful lights of feminine subserviency and household endearment; blessing the individual husband, or ennobling the one group at the family altar, but the world goes on with its manifold wrongs, and woman has nothing but tears to bestow—the outrages that may wring either her own heart or that of others, are perpetrated before her eyes, and she can only wring helpless hands, or plead with ideal remonstrance, while her lord and master tells her these things are quite beyond her comprehension; she can not see how unavoidable it is, but it is not the less unavoidable, and she must shut her eyes and ears, and "mind her spinning." Or, if blessed with a large share of manly arrogance, he will tell her, as did the captain of a militia company of a country town, who, in practising in the court of his house those martial evolutions that were to electrify the village upon parade, accidentally stepped down the trap-door of the cellar. His wife rushed out to succor her liege lord, when she was met with, "Go in, woman; what do you know about war?"

Sure enough, what does she? But this directness of sympathy, this promptitude to relieve, makes her fruitful in resource in small matters, and why should it not in large? If an evil come under her own inspection, she at once casts about for redress, and good comes of it. There is no reason why she should not enlarge her sphere in this way, and no fear of her being the less feminine or endearing by the process.…

I have said the world needs the admixture of Woman thought in its affairs; a deep, free, woman-souled utterance is needed. It is the disseverance of the sexes, the condemning of the one to in-door thought only, to the degradation of in-door toil, far more limiting in its nature than that of the out-door kind, beneath the invigorations of air and sky, that has done so much in our country to narrow and paralyze the energies of the sex. Excessive maternity, the cares and the labors consequent upon large families, with inadequate support (when we consider the amount of general intelligence amongst us) have conspired to induce the belief that the most entire domestic seclusion is the only sphere for a woman. Our republic has hitherto developed something akin to a savage lordliness in the other sex, in which he is to usurp all the privileges of freedom, and she is to take as much as she can get, after he is served.

Now, a woman may or may not be adapted to an in-door life exclusively. There is as much difference in us in that respect as there is in men. The expanse of earth and sky have unquestionably worked enlargement upon the mind of the other sex; and, in our own, have developed for the poor serving girl of the Inn of Domremy, inured to the toils of the stable, the chivalric and enthusiastic Joan of Arc. It is the making woman a creature of luxury—an object of sensuality—a vehicle for reproduction—or a thing of toil, each one, or all of these—that has caused half the miseries of the world. She, as a soul, has never been recognized. As a human being, to sin and to suffer, she has had more than an acknowledgment. As a human being, to obey her God, to think, to enjoy, men have been blind to her utmost needs.

She has been treated always as subservient; and yet all and the most entire responsibility has been exacted of her. She has had no voice in the law, and yet has been subjected to the heaviest penalties of the law. She has been denied the ability to make or enforce public opinion, and yet has been outraged, abandoned, given over to degradation, misery, and the thousand ills worse than a thousand deaths, by its terrible action. Even her affections—those arbitrary endowments imparted by the Most High for her own safeguard, and for the best being of society—have been warped and crushed by the action of masculine thought upon their manifestations, till their unadulterated play is well nigh lost.

Men have written for us, thought for us, legislated for us; and they have constructed from their own consciousness an effigy of a woman, to which were are expected to conform. It is not a Woman that they see; God forbid that it should be; it is one of those monsters of neither sex, that sometimes outrage the pangs of maternity, but which expire at the birth: whereas the distorted image to which men wish us to conform, lives to bewilder, to mislead, and to cause discord and belittlement where the Creator designed the highest dignity, the most complete harmony. Men have said we should be thus and thus, and we have tried to be in accordance, because we are told it is womanly.…

Let woman learn to take a woman's view of life. Let her feel the need of a woman's thought. Let her search into her own needs—say, not what has the world hitherto thought in regard to this or that, but what is the true view of it from the nature of things. Let her not say, what does my husband, my brother, my father think—wise and good and trustworthy though they be—but let her evolve her own thoughts, recognize her own needs, and judge of her own acts by the best lights of her own mind.

Let her feel and understand that there is a difference in the soul as in the bodies of the sexes—a difference designed to produce the most beautiful harmony. But let her not, in admitting this, admit of inferiority. While the form of a man is as it were more arbitrary, more of a fact in creation, more distinct and uniform, a sort of completeness of the material, and his mind also more of a fixture, better adapted to the exactitudes of science, and those protracted labors needful to the hardier developments of the understanding, let her bear in mind that this fixedness, this patience of labor, this steadiness of the understanding, are in conformity with his position as Lord of the material Universe, to which God has appointed him; whereas she was an after-creation, with something nearer allied to the heavenly. In her shape there is a flexibility, a variety, more graceful, ethereal, and beautiful, appealing more intimately to that something within the soul of man, that goes onward to the future and eternal—a softening down of the material to the illusions of the unseen—her mind, also, when unstinted and unadulterated, has in it more of aspiration, more of the subtle and intuitive character, that links it to the spiritual; she is impatient of labor, because her wings are nearly freed of the shell of the chrysalis, and prompt to a better element; she cares less for the deductions of reason, because she has an element in herself nearer to the truth than reason can ever reach, by which she feels the approaches of the true and the beautiful, without the manly wrestlings all night of the Patriarch to which the other sex are subjected. She does not need the ladder of Bethel, the step by step of the slow logician, because her feet are already upon the first rung of that mystic pass-way; this is why she is bid by the arrogance of apostolic injunction to veil her head in public, "because of the Angels." She is a step nearer them than her material lord and master. The angels recognize her as of nearer affinity.…

Would that women should learn to recognize their own individuality—their own singleness of thought. Let them not feel disparaged at the difference which I have recognized; it is a difference that crowns them with a new glory. We give the material Universe to men, and to those of our own sex who, from whatever cause, approximate to their standard; to such let us yield ungrudgingly the way; but it is no less certain that there is a woman-thought, a woman-perception, a woman-intuition, altogether distinct from the same things in the other sex; and to learn what these are, and to act from these, is what women must learn, and when they have so learned and impressed themselves thus through these upon the world, it will be regenerated and disenthralled.…

Women must recognize their unlikeness, and then understanding what needs grow out of this unlikeness, some great truth must be evolved. Now they busy themselves with methods of thought, springing, it is true, from their own sense of something needed, but suggested altogether by the masculine intellect. Let us first shake ourselves of this pupilage of mind by which our faculties are dwarfed, and courageously judge for ourselves. In doing this, I see no need of Amazonian strides or disfigurements, or a stentorian lungs. The more deeply and earnestly a woman feels the laws of her own existence, the more solemn, reverent, and harmonious is her bearing. She sees what nature designed in her creation, and her whole being falls gracefully into its allotted sphere. If she be a simple, genial, household divinity, she will bind garlands around the altar of the Penates, and worship in content. If more largely endowed, I see no reason why she should not be received cordially into the school of Arts, or Science, or Politics, or Theology, in the same manner as the individual capacities of the other sex are recognized. They do not all square themselves to one standard, and why should we? They have a very large number engaged in sewing, cooking, spinning, and writing very small articles for very small works, designed for very small minds.

The majority are far from being Platos, or Bayards, or Napoleons. When so very large a portion of the other sex are engaged in what is regarded as unmanly, I see no reason why those of ours who have a fancy to tinker a constitution, canvass a county, or preach the Gospel, should not be permitted to do so, provided they feel this to be the best use of their faculties. I do not say this is the best thing for them to do; but I see no reason, if their best intelligence finds its best expression in any such channel, why they should not be indulged.

Our right to individuality is what I would most assert. Men seem resolved to have but one type in our sex. They recognize the prerogative of the matter-of-fact Biddy to raise a great clamor, quite to the annoyance of a neighborhood, but where's the use of Nightingale? The laws of stubborn utilitarianism must govern us, while they may be as fantastic as they please. They tell much about a "woman's sphere"—can they define this? As the phrase is used, I confess it has a most shallow and indefinite sense. The most I can gather from it is, the consciousness of the speaker, which means something like the philosophy of Mr. Murderousness firmness; it is sphere by which every woman creature, of whatever age, appending to himself, shall circle very much within his own—see and hear through his senses, and believe according to his dogmas, with a sort of general proviso, that if need be for his growth, glorification, or well-being, in any way, they will instantly and uncompromisingly become extinct.

There is a Woman's sphere—harmonious, who have been developed by labor or accident, with some of your puny metropolitans who have never seen the sun rise or set. Theory may say that if man and woman from the beginning were educated precisely alike, man would still be the larger, the stronger. When the experiment is fully made, it will be time enough to admit the assumption. But suppose we admit that man is physically larger than woman, what do you gain by the admission? Among men the athletic, the muscular, the brawny, are by no means the great men in the best sense of that word, neither are they the strongest physically. The sight of a small man whipping a large one is not uncommon. The force of will has much more to do with strength than the size of the frame, the impelling organs of the brain than the size of the arm and chest. By far the greater proportion of distinguished men, of generals, statesmen, and philosophers, have been small men of fine nervous organization and exquisite sensibilities. Look at Napolean, Lord Nelson, Guizot, Hamilton, Burr, Adams, Channing, Emerson and Seward. So, should we grant man the superiority of the ox, we should but prove him an inferior order of being.

Men and women are not so unlike in person either, but by skilful dressing the one may pass for the other. George Sand, the assumed name of the distinguished Madame Dudevant, has travelled incognito in man's attire through many countries and observed society in all its phases in Parisian life. There are many instances of men escaping from prison in women's attire, undiscovered, and of women disguised as soldiers fighting in the hottest of the battle, side by side with those they loved. In children's plays, boys and girls are constantly seen wrestling, running, climbing, comparing their strength and swiftness. I never heard it hinted in the playground or the schoolroom, that boys and girls were not legitimate subjects of comparison. When a girl, I have gone many a time from our Academy gate to the belfry, snowball in hand, to punish a boy for washing my face. The girls in my native village not only tried strength with boys in the play-ground, but we measured lances with them, in the sciences, languages, and mathematics. In studying Algebra and Geometry, in reading Virgil or the Greek Testament, I never found out the difference in the male and female mind. In those days there was no feminine way of extracting the cube root of x, y, z; no masculine way of going through all the moods and tenses of the verbs Amo and Tupto. We have had so much sentimental talk in all our woman's conventions, by the friends of the cause, about the male and female element, and by outsiders, on women's sphere, her mission, her peculiar duties, &c., that I should like to have all this mysterious twaddle thoroughly explored; all these nice shades of difference fully revealed. It is not enough to assert that there always has been, is, and always will be a difference. The question is, What is it?


SOURCE: Butler, Josephine. "The Education and Employment of Women." In Women's Writing of the Victorian Period 1837-1901: An Anthology, edited by Harriet Devine Jump, pp. 162-65. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

In the following excerpt, originally published in The Education and Employment of Women in 1868, Butler describes two separate rationales for women's rights to equal education, concluding that educated women would prove to be a benefit to gender relations and society as a whole.

There are two classes of advocates of the improvement of the education and condition of women The one class urge everything from the domestic point of view. They argue in favour of all which is likely to make women better mothers, or better companions for men, but they seem incapable of judging of a woman as a human being by herself, and superstitiously afraid of anything which might strengthen her to stand alone, prepared, single-handed, to serve her God and her country. When it is urged upon them that the women who do and must stand alone are counted by millions, they are perplexed, but only fall back on expressions of a fear lest a masculine race of women should be produced, if we admit any theories respecting them apart from conjugal and maternal relationships.

On the other hand, there are advocates who speak with some slight contempt of maternity; in whose advocacy there appears to me little evidence of depth of thought, or tenderness, or wisdom, and which bespeaks a dry, hard, unimaginative conception of human life. They appear to have no higher ideal for a woman than that of a man who has been "tripos'ed," and is going to "get on in the world," either in the way of making money or acquiring fame. They speak of women as if it were a compliment to them, or in any way true, to say that they are like men. Now it appears to me that both these sets of advocates have failed to see something which is very true, and that their ears are deaf to some of the subtle harmonies which exist in God's creation—harmonies sometimes evolved from discords—and which we are much hindered from hearing by the noise of the world, and by our own discordant utterances.

The first class of advocates do not know how strong Nature is, how true she is for the most part, and how deeply the maternal character is rooted in almost all women, married or unmarried: they are not, therefore, likely to see that when a better education is secured to women, when permission is granted them not only to win bread for themselves, but to use for the good of society, every gift bestowed on them by God, we may expect to find, (as certainly we shall find,) that they will become the more and not the less womanly. Every good quality, every virtue which we regard as distinctively feminine, will, under conditions of greater freedom, develop more freely, like plants brought out into the light from a cellar in which they languished, dwarfed and blanched, without sun or air. The woman is strong in almost every woman; and it may be called an infidelity against God and against the truth of nature to suppose that the removal of unjust restrictions, and room given to breathe freely, and to do her work in life without depression and without bitterness, will cause her to cast off her nature. It will always be in her nature to foster, to cherish, to take the part of the weak, to train, to guide, to have a care for individuals, to discern the small seeds of a great future, to warm and cherish those seeds into fulness of life. "I serve," will always be one of her favourite mottos, even should the utmost freedom be accorded her in the choice of vocation; for she, more readily perhaps than men do, recognises the wisdom and majesty of Him who said—"I am among you as he that serveth."

The second kind of advocacy of the rights of women, of which I spoke, may be said to be simply a reaction against the first. It is chiefly held by a few women of superior intellect who feel keenly the disadvantages of their class, their feebleness, through want of education, against public opinion, which is taken advantage of by base people, their inability, through want of representation, to defend their weaker members, and the dwarfing of the faculties of the ablest and best among them. These women have associated little with men, or at best, know very little of their inner life, and do not therefore see as clearly as they see their own loss, the equal loss that it is to men, and the injury it involves to their characters, to live dissociated from women: they therefore look forth from their isolation with something of an excusable envy on the freer and happier lot, which includes, they believe, a greater power to do good, and imagine that the only hope for themselves is to push into the ranks of men, to demand the same education, the same opportunities, in order that they may compete with them on their own ground. They have lost the conception of the noblest development possible for both men and women, for assuredly that which men, for the most part, aim at, is not the noblest, and yet that is what such women appear to wish to imitate; they have lost sight of the truth, too, that men and women were made equal indeed, but not alike, and were meant to supplement one another, and that in so doing,—each supplying force which the other lacks,—they are attracted with a far greater amount of impulse to a common centre.…

The above misconception, like many other errors, results from men and women living so dissociated as they do in our country; hence comes also all that reserve, and incapacity for understanding each other which has existed between the sexes for so many generations, those false notions about women which are entertained in society, and great injury to the work, and happiness, and dignity of man and woman alike: for it may be truly said that many of the most serious evils in England are but the bitter and various fruit of the sacrilegious disjoining of the which God had joined together, the disunion of men and women, theoretically and practically, in all the graver work of life.

To conclude this part of my subject, although I grant that too much stress cannot be laid upon the improvement of the education of women who will be actually the mothers of a future generation, yet I wish, on the one hand, that persons who only look at it from this point of view would take more into account the valuable service our country might command if it but understood the truth about the condition and feelings of its unmarried women, and that a more generous trust were felt in the strength of woman's nature, and the probable direction of its development when granted more expansion, while on the other hand I should like to see a truer conception of the highest possibilities for women than is implied in the attempt to imitate men, and a deeper reverence for the God of nature, whose wisdom is more manifested in variety than in uniformity. It cannot be denied that a just cause has sometimes been advocated by women in a spirit of bitterness. Energy impeded in one direction, will burst forth in another; hence the defiant and sometimes grotesque expression which the lives and acts of some few women have been of the injustice done to them by society. This will cease, and while it lasts, it ought to excite our pity rather than our anger. It must be remembered that it is but a symptom of a long endured servitude, a protest against a state of things which we hope will give place to a better. It is folly to regard it as the natural fruit of that of which we have scarcely seen the beginning. Acts of violence on the part of a long oppressed nation are not the offspring of dawning liberties, but of a doomed tyranny. Again, no important reform can be carried without a measure of attendant confusion. Evil agencies are the most vigilant for destruction at the beginning of a great and good work, and many lives have to be consumed in its inauguration. Any evils which may at first attend a social reform ought not to alarm us: they are transient; they are but the breakers on the bar which must be crossed before we launch into deep waters, but the "noise and dust of the wagon which brings the harvest home."


SOURCE: Cobbe, Frances Power. "To Elizabeth Garrett Anderson." In Women's Writing of the Victorian Period 1837-1901: An Anthology, edited by Harriet Devine Jump, pp. 181-82. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

In the following poem, originally published in 1871, Cobbe details many of the institutions that the women's rights movement needed to overcome.


The Woman's cause was rising fast
When to the Surgeons' College past
A maid who bore in fingers nice
A banner with the new device
"Try not to pass!" the Dons exclaim,
"M.D. shall grace no woman's name
"—"Bosh!" cried the maid, in accents free,
"To France I'll go for my degree."
The School-Board seat came next in sight,
"Beware the foes of woman's right!"
"Beware the awful husting's fight!"
Such was the moan of many a soul—
A voice replied from top of poll—
In patients' homes she saw the light
Of household fires beam warm and bright;
Lectures on Bones grew wondrous dry,
But still she murmured with a sigh
"Oh, stay!"—a lover cried,—"Oh, rest
Thy much-learned head upon this breast;
Give up ambition! Be my bride!"
—Alas! no clarion voice replied
At end of day, when all is done,
And woman's battle fought and won,
Honour will aye be paid to one
Who erst called foremost in the van
But not for her that crown so bright,
Which her's had been, of surest right,
Had she still cried,—serene and blest—
"The Virgin throned by the West."



Frances Power Cobbe combined a radical demand for suffrage with a moderate view of woman as being the equivalent rather than the equal of man. Although she emphasized gender differences, and was convinced that women had particular duties associated with their sex, she was also adamant that they have equal access to the public sphere. She held that because God had created women as morally autonomous individuals, they were as capable as men of deciding what was best for themselves, of living up to their potential, and of determining the direction their lives would take. In 1862 Cobbe drafted her conservative argument defending a woman's right—as long as she was either single or a childless wife without family responsibilities—to an education and a useful and remunerative life.

Cobbe's feminist consciousness developed further when she moved to South Kensington with her companion, Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd, in 1864, and met other women's rights activists, including Lydia Becker, Bessie Rayner Parkes, and Barbara Bodichon. In 1866 Cobbe signed the petition for women's suffrage that was presented to Parliament by John Stuart Mill. In her 1868 essay, "Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors: Is the Classification Sound?" she attacked the inequitable social and legal systems that reduced women—rational free agents created by God in His image—to the quasi-legal status of "Criminal, Idiot, Minor." She was particularly critical of marriage and the common law that victimized women, destroying their individuality and potential while consolidating male power in the private and public sphere. Cobbe sat on the committee that formed in 1868 to secure property rights for wives and from the mid-1870s publicized cases of wife abuse; this latter activity was instrumental in passing the 1878 Matrimonial Causes Act.


SOURCE: Coleridge, Mary Elizabeth. "The Witch." In The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, Second Edition, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, p. 1147. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

In the following poem, originally published in 1892, Coleridge characterizes marriage as being akin to death for women.


I have walked a great while over the snow,
And I am not tall nor strong.
My clothes are wet, and my teeth are set,
And the way was hard and long.
I have wandered over the fruitful earth,
But I never came here before.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
The cutting wind is a cruel foe.
I dare not stand in the blast.
My hands are stone, and my voice a groan,
And the worst of death is past
I am but a little maiden still,
My little white feet are sore.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
Her voice was the voice that women have,
Who plead for their heart's desire.
She came—she came—and the quivering flame
Sank and died in the fire.
It never was lit again on my hearth
Since I hurried across the floor,
To lift her over the threshold, and let her in at the door.

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Women's Literature in the 19th Century: Primary Sources

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Women's Literature in the 19th Century: Primary Sources