The True Remedy for the Wrongs of Woman

[Editorial Note: Catharine Beecher (1800-1878) had long campaigned for women's right to enter the teaching profession -- she had organized the Hartford Seminary in large measure to train women as teachers -- and for the professionalization of "Domestic Economy," a emerging field of study in which she had written a classic textbook A Treatise on Domestic Economy (Boston, 1843). A later edition, much revised, is available on line at the MOA site of the University of Michigan. Several speakers at the 1850 Convention, including Lucretia Mott, referred to her respectfully as a pioneer. But, as the excerpts below indicate, she was convinced that the woman's rights movement was not the "true remedy for the wrongs of woman." Her solution emphasized the training of women for their "true" profession, the rearing of children and the keeping of households.]

Catharine E. Beecher, The True Remedy for the Wrongs of Woman; with a History of an Enterprise Having That for its Object. (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, &;Co., 1851)
[written as a series of letters to her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe]

P.9: . . . In my long-protracted and extensive journeyings I have discovered, that the Woman's Rights party, in this country, embraces many women whom even the most conservative can not but concede to be persons of superior talent and acquisition, of great benevolence, of great purity of motive and elevation of aims, and whom, saving where conventional points are antagonistic to their principles, all would allow [10] to be women of modesty, delicacy, and refinement.

And this party, if not formally, are really, banded together as an organization, and are laboring with most persevering and well-directed energies to carry out the same objects as their European sisters [such as Miss Helena Maria Weber, the Belgian dress reformer]. Nor is this enterprise restricted to our own sex. A large body of active and earnest men are zealously acting with them, while not a few among the intelligent and cultivated, who are not yet ready openly to avow adhesion to the party, are looking on these efforts with the most profound sympathy.

P.21:. . . What is our duty as intelligent and Christian women? It can not be disputed that, even in our own most favored country, our sex, as a whole, are in many ways sufferers from unjust laws, opinions, and customs. At the same time, a very large number of women are helpless victims of such misery and wrong as, if fully portrayed, would overwhelm us with indignation and horror.

In the meantime, an organization is effected among our own sex, thought not confined to it, which is earnestly and perserveringly employed in exposing these wrongs, and in awakening the attention and sympathy of all just and generous minds. They are, many of them at least, persons of intelligence, honesty, and benevolence. They are [P.22] aiming at a noble end, and all we can object to is the method they adopt. If we join in the vituperation and ridicule by which they are assailed, we shall only add to the sympathy and respect with which all just and dispassionate minds regard their efforts; and all the interest awakened for their cause by their arguments, their eloquence, and their brave and self-denying course of action, will turn into the only channel which now is opened by them for its outflow.

In a case like this, where a noble object is sought by wrong methods, the only way to stop the mischief is, to set about accomplishing the same thing by right methods.

P.23: This, then, presents the object at which I would aim in these letters: to set forth a better way, and to show some practical results, that will tend, as I hope, to convince all whose sympathies are awakened in this direction, that what is now sought by the Woman's Rights party in this country and abroad, can be secured by far safer, less objectionable, and more efficient methods, than those they are now pursuing. [P.24]


My Dear Sister:

The only true method of estimating the wrongs to which such multitudes of our sex are victims, is to bring before our minds their future condition in that perfected state of society toward which, we believe, humanity, under the guidance of Christianity, is steadily tending.

When this state is fully attained, every man and every woman will practically love their neighbors as themselves, and all the institutions of society will emanate from this spirit. And then all men will employ their time, and wealth, and influence, as heartily for the good of others as for themselves and their own families. Of course, all land-monopolies, and all abuse of capital, and [P.25] every institution that gives undue advantages to any one class, will be known no more.

When this period arrives, every healthful, mature, man will be able to sustain a family; and, saving some few exceptions, every man will have a wife. Of course, as the sexes are about equal in numbers, with these few exceptions, all matured women will be wives, mothers, and housekeepers.

P.26: No doubt, too, there will be many wise methods, in each community, for the division of labor, so that those who have a taste and talent for physical employment will have such duties to perform, while gifts that indicate the nurse or the educator will be employed mainly in their appropriate sphere. Still, even then, there will be all the routine of housekeeping, nursing children, the care of the sick, and the education of the young, to be carried forward by the mothers and daughters of each family.

P. 27: Whenever this golden period arrives, all women will be educated, and, what is more, they will all be educated for their [P.28] profession, as the conservators of the domestic state, the nurses of the sick, the guardians and developers of the human body in infancy, and the educators of the human mind. In addition to all that discipline and knowledge which tends to enlarge and develop the mental faculties, the science and practice of Domestic Economy will be thoroughly taught to every woman. And all that science which is now confined to the profession of a physician will be confided, in a certain extent, to all women; and, to the full extent, to all who are to act professionally as nurses.

And, above all, everything which tends to perfect a woman for the discharge of her grand office as the educator of mind, will be abundantly bestowed. And in that day every woman ill be so profitably and so honorably employed in the appropriate duties of her peculiar profession, that the folly of enticing her into masculine employments will be deemed [P.29] far more ridiculous than we now regard the bright buttons, buff vest, and light small-clothes, of the lady [Helena maria Weber, of Belgium, who dressed as a man] whose history graced my first letter.

With this view of the matter, we are prepared to understand what are the real wrongs of woman. they may all be regarded as involved under these general heads: that her profession is dishonored; that she is not educated for her profession; that in a vast majority of cases she is cut off from all employ in her true vocation; and that where it is open to her, she is drawn to it by few of those motives of honor and advantage that stimulate the other sex.

I will briefly illustrate the operation of these general causes. First, in regard to the dishonor which is awarded to a woman's true profession. In the most cultivated and influential class of society, to live so as not to perform any family work, and to be totally ignorant of both the science and practice of Do[P.30]mestic Economy, is not only very general, but often is boasted of as the particular claim to the character of "a lady."

Meantime, those who really are rendering the most service to society by performing these labors, are despised as the lowest class. Even the teachers of young children, as the general rule, receive poorer wages than are paid to the higher class of domestics, and are regarded as an inferior caste by those who consider themselves the nobility of society.

This estimate of domestic and educational labor operates disastrously on all other portions of society. Each class is striving to rise still higher, and the highest position is deemed to be that in which the occupant renders little or no service to society, but lives solely on the earnings of others.

In respect to the education of woman for her profession -- in the most intelli[P.31]gent and wealthy classes, it is little regarded. That great class of young ladies, who receive the benefits of our highest schools and seminaries, spend their whole childhood and youth in receiving what is called and education, and then the vast majority come forth profoundly ignorant of all they most need to know. As to the science and practice of Domestic Economy, they are far better instructed in Political Economy, or even in Navigation or Surveying, for these sciences are often a regular part of the course of study in our female institutions.

And as to the knowledge that would qualify them to take charge of a young infant, the cat or the sheep would be altogether their superiors in the care of the young of their own species. And in regard to the still more arduous duty of training the mind of infancy and childhood, our highly-educated young ladies would be far more wisely set to work [P.32] in constructing and regulating delicate chronometers, or in superintending the working of steam-engines, than in physical, intellectual, and moral education.

When this is true of the most cultivated class, nothing better is to be expected of those less favored, except so far as necessity drives them to learn certain things by practice which they would shun if fortune would but elevate their social position.

Meantime, to acquire a little smattering of some foreign tongue, or to learn to play a few tunes on some instrument which soon are to be forgotten, is a matter to which parents devote care, and effort, and large expense, and which children are trained to regard as the most creditable acquisitions of an education.

But the grand source of the heaviest wrong that oppresses our sex is found in the fact that they are so extensively cut off from honorable and remunera[P.33]tive employ. This is owing in part to the disgrace which is attached to the performance of the most important services of the family, and in part to the fact that, to a wide extent, men have usurped the most important department of woman's profession, and thus she has been driven to take up the relinquished employments of man.

The training of the human mind in the years of infancy and childhood -- this, it is claimed, is the appropriate and highest vocation of woman. And in all those states and cities of our country where education prospers the most, it has flourished just exactly in proportion to the extent in which men have forsaken and women have been restored to this employ.

There are now more than two million children in this country without any schools! There are probably as many more in schools taught by men, who [P.34] could be fare more appropriately employed in shops or mills, or other masculine pursuits. Were all these children placed in schools at the ordinary rate of apportionment of pupils to teachers, it would require two hundred thousand women to meet the demand. Where are these women? They are living in indolent east, or they are toiling in shops and mills, or in some other employments, which yield a pittance scarcely sufficient to sustain life. I have no doubt that, in this country, there is that number of women already so fare qualified, that a few weeks of additional training would fit them to become teachers.

P.38: . . . I have made the situation of our sex in shops and mills a distinct subject of inquiry and of personal investigation; and it is my solemn conviction that if there is no other way to relieve our sex but to remove them from their appropriate vocations to labor in manufactories and shops, it would be far better for woman, and for the coming generation, that she follow the example of the Germans at the West, and toil in the open air in horticulture and farming. It would be better for her health, [P.39] better for her morals, and better for her children.

If I should state all I can prove on this subject, and that, too, in reference to our best-conducted manufacturing establishments, it, probably, would make a great hue-and-cry among capitalists; yet nothing is needed but to go to these places and converse with the most intelligent and candid female operatives, to learn what would abundantly establish my position - that, as the general rule, it would be far better for women to be employed on farms and gardens than in shops and manufactories.

P.40: . . . the wrong resulting from excluding woman so extensively from the true and highest vocation of her sex, I do not regard as bearing exclusively on the poverty-stricken class. I regard the women who are highest as to social position, in large numbers, as almost equal sufferers. To exhibit clearly my meaning I will quote a few sentences from Dr. Coombs:
"Inactivity of intellect and feeling is a very frequent predisposing cause of every form of nervous disease. For evidence of this, we have only to look at the numerous victims to be found, who have no call to exertion in gaining the means of subsistence, and no objects of interest on which to exercise their mental fac[P.41]ulties. The intellect and feelings, not being provided with interests external to themselves, must either become inactive and weak, or work upon themselves, and thus become diseased."

"The most frequent victims of this kind of predisposition are females of the middle and higher classes, especially those of a nervous constitution and good natural abilities. The liability of such persons to melancholy, hysteria, hypochondriasis, and other varieties of mental distress, really depends on a state of irritability of the brain occasioned by imperfect exercise."

Now, we know by experience, that there is no other avocation that so effectively and so healthfully exercises every intellectual faculty as that of a teacher, while, in this service, all the social, moral, and benevolent emotions, are kept in full play. I think the most truly happy persons I have ever known -- those who would claim to be fully content with their lot, and as happy as they wish to be on earth (and I have seen such) -- were successful teachers.

P.42: Indeed, the most painful drawback to my enjoyment in the pursuit of this profession has been, the results of high cultivation on the character and happiness of young ladies of the higher classes during those periods when, after completing their school education, they find no appropriate employment for their developed energies and affections. That restless longing for excitement, that craving for unattainable good, that morbid action of the imagination, that dissatisfaction with the world, that factitious interest in trifles, and those alternations of high excitement and brooding apathy -- these are the secret history of many [P.43] a gifted and highly-cultivated female mind.

Many a young woman of fine genius and elevated sentiment finds a charm in Byron's misanthropic repinings, because they so exactly picture her own experience -- the experience, to a greater or less degree, of every well developed mind which has no nobler object in life than that which ordinarily occupies the thoughts of most of our highly-educated young ladies.