Julia Ward Howe

The Moral Initiative as Related to Woman – May 16, 1893

Julia Ward Howe
May 16, 1893— Chicago, Illinois
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Howe gave this address before the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893.

This title indicates a topic which has come to me in hours of thought and of study, attracting me both by its philosophical and its practical aspect. The present century has seen great progress in these two departments. The old philosophies have been taken up, sometimes in a reverent, often in a skeptical, spirit, and the critical procedure has acknowledged no barriers beyond which it is forbidden to pass. Rules of life, on the other hand, have also been sharply reviewed and amended. The salient points of morals have been distinctly sought out and emphasized, and the two great orders of thought, philosophy and ethics, have been brought into new relations of nearness and dearness. Religious teaching has passed from the observation of rites and the inculcation of metaphysical views and doctrines to the illustration of the intrinsic essence of Christianity ; and the subtleties of mysticism, ritualism, and what not, have been forgotten in the sympathetic uprising of the heart of the multitude. When ten thousand people waited in the square around Trinity Church, in Boston, for the last glimpse of Phillips Brooks' coffin, when they joined in the Lord's prayer and in the hymn led by trumpets, which constituted all the outdoor service on that memorable occasion, those who were present saw the triumph of cordial over formal Christianity saw, and thanked God for what they saw.

Something of this process of integration appears to me to have gone on with regard to the powers and offices of women during the last twenty-five years. I can remember when it was not deemed improper to plead in excuse for foolish and even wicked conduct, " She is only a woman." Only a woman only half the human race, and the mother of all mankind ! This reminds me of a bigoted European Catholic whom I once met in traveling, who, learning that we have no established state church in America, inquired: "Well, what provision have you then for religion?" I replied, "We have the doctrine and example of Jesus Christ." " Nothing but that ? " he answered with contempt.

Well, we do not often hear this phrase to-day, "Only a woman," and gradually we have been led to discard the fragmentary and imperfect views of our sex which their enemies have taught us ; for low-minded men are always the enemies of women, and always desire to see them in a position of subserviency and dependence. High-minded men, on the other hand, have tried to give us high ideas of what women ought to be and to stand for in social economy,, and some of them have had much to do with the present awakening and rehabilitation. For lofty ideals of womanhood the literary world has not wanted. The tragedians of Greece, and her great philosopher, Plato, the writers whose treasures are gathered in our Bible, the poets of the Renaissance noticeably Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante have shown us, with other types, the women of noble stature and august character. But the common world of men about us has not appeared to take much stock in these. A feebler and more frivolous type has been more congenial to them, and while expecting and exacting from us a stricter morality than that required of their own sex, they have been at no small pains to obstruct in us the sources of moral inspiration, and to make us feel that to please them is our highest duty and our greatest honor.

The times of this ignorance we may say with St. Peter, " God winked at." In the old mythology Mars and Venus went together, the fighting man with the woman whose beauty is her chief endowment. But Mars is going out of high fashion. The soldier is no longer the supreme example of heroism, but simply a necessary evil. The thoughtful, the life-preserving virtues are in the ascendant to-day. Character attracts, character rules, and we have learned at last that it can not rule unless men and women have it equally, unless in both sexes its aspirations may rise to their own height and work out their own development.

Now, what do I mean by this moral initiative as belonging to woman ? Is it a wise phrase that sounds metaphysical and means nothing ? My thought of it is simply this : The world has had much good to say of its women, and much evil, and both with reason. The first woman has been credited with all the woes which have befallen humanity, and with all the sins into which it has fallen.

Buddhism considers the principle of evil in nature as resident in the female sex, and ascetics in all lands have held the same view. The legends of the mother of Christ have no doubt exercised a potent influence in elevating the moral position of the sex ; yet in romance and stage-play to-day, as well as in ordinary society pleasantry, the question is common, Where is the woman who is at the bottom of the mischief ? I think that wise people now ask an opposite question. When we meet with a man who is without fear and without reproach, whose blameless life seems to have gone on from strength to strength, up-building the community, and honoring humanity by his own noble image and conduct, we are apt to ask where the woman is. And our thoughts go back to the cradle in which his helpless infancy was tended even further, to the heart to which his own was the nearest thing on earth, to the breast from which he was fed with the essence of a pure life. Happy is the man whose mother has been a tower of strength to herself and her family. The first precious lessons it has been hers to give. No matter what storms may have raged without, how mean the home or how wild the street, he has first seen the light in an atmosphere of celestial purity. The mother love has watched at the gates of his childish Eden with a drawn sword. No evil counsel or influence has been allowed to come near him. And when in the necessary course of things he has passed out of her keeping, he has gone accompanied by the Christ-prayer, " I pray not that thou shouldst take him out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep him from the evil." This I call the moral initiative, the man's start in life. The nucleus of all that he is to believe, to aim at, and to do, has been delivered to him, like a sealed packet full of precious things, by a mother who honors supremely all that honors humanity, who dreads and despises all that dishonors and deforms it.

No one will deny that this type of woman is most precious. The question will rather be how we may maintain and multiply it. And here the whole horizon of the past confronts us, as well as the veiled heaven of the future. In this past we read that all that is slavish in human institutions is demoralizing ; that while discipline forms and exalts, despotism degrades and deforms, appealing back to the lower instincts, which have their place in animal life fear, cunning, low self-love, and the low attachments of mere habit and interest. From the tyrannies of the old order into the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free the world is slowly passing, but all that detains humanity on its lower levels retards the progress of the race. Oh, that men, themselves enfranchised, should wish to detain their women in the bondage from which they themselves have been delivered ! In true Christianity there is no moral distinction of sex, neither male nor female ; but in the political life even of free America the man opens the door for himself and shuts it against his wife, opens the door for his son and shuts it upon his daughter. And this, I say, is demoralizing. It compels one-half of the human race to look back toward the old barbarism, while the other insists upon looking forward to the new civilization. The man to whom the woman's freedom of soul is the first condition of his own, puts on that freedom a fatal barrier, and defrauds himself thereby. His mother should be his superior ; his wife should be his equal and companion. He invites them to acquiesce in a lower position, to exercise a self-control which he does not dream of exacting from himself, but also to sacrifice the self-respect out of which should spring this very power of self-control, of self-sacrifice, of subordinating the pleasurable to the ethical, the caprice of self-indulgence to the steady purposes of duty.

I do not say that any of these thoughts are new, but I do say that as life goes on, and the world with it, they present themselves to me with new power and completeness. In reviewing my days, I recall the noble women whom I have known, deep-hearted and wise-thoughted. I have revered them as individuals, as stars in a dark sky, as striking exceptions to the poor average of feminine attainment, intellectual and moral. But I see them now as partial revelations of a glorious whole. The germ of all that I have admired in any woman surely resides in every woman ; and if you can reach the true woman in her you will call forth something of it. Men and women are alike cheated by the frivolity in which most of us are bred and educated. We are taught to be content with suiting the tone of our life to the careless pleasure of thoughtless men.

Now, I say, let there be an uprising among us. Let thoughtless men take, on the contrary, their attitude from our nobleness of mind. Let them recognize in us not only a moral sentiment which they must respect, but a moral determination to which they must conform.

Oh, women! let your sons see in you only what shall raise you in their esteem. And while you inspire them with tender respect, and train them to all that is generous and truth-loving, remember that you have a double duty to your daughters. They are to be the companions and inspirers of men. Oh, see that the source of moral power in them be not corrupted by cowardice nor impeded by senseless tradition. Let man that is born of woman be also trained by woman to the attainment of his fullest manhood, corresponding to her fullest and freest womanhood. God has joined the sexes together in the highest spiritual, as in the simplest natural, need. What he hath joined together let not man put asunder. The woman has slowly conquered the right to education, both as learner and as teacher. Let the mother instruct the daughter to keep, above all else, the impregnable fortress of her own strength, faith, and purity. Let her find and follow the terrible right whose victories, adjourned but certain, are written all over the world. With deep reverence for father, brother, husband, let her yet revere and obey an authority deeper and far beyond theirs, the dictates of an enlightened and ever-studious conscience. Let her keep her own moral initiative. It is from God, and not from man.

I believe in the political enfranchisement of women because I see in it the key to all that is rightly expected of them in the world's economy. I believe in it because I believe in logic; not so much in the short-sighted syllogisms which we teach as in the great logic which life teaches us, in which effects follow causes, and moral principles confirm themselves in moral results.

May we not suspect that a latent sense of the superiority of service underlies the master's expectation that his slave or servant shall surpass him in patience and benevolence ? I find something of this element in the feeling of men toward women. " You are our subordinates, bound to serve and obey, and you should therefore have certain inestimable qualities which we do not feel obliged to possess. You should better than we." And this brings me back to that fragmentary view of great things of which I have already spoken. Men have had their glimpses of what is right and proper. They have guessed well at the truth here and there. Women should exercise some virtues which for men are less obviously requisite, such as patience and endurance in forms peculiar to their life and constitution, and, above all, affections which it is hard to wear out, and faith which never flinches from its loyalty.

But the progress of the great order reveals truth in its wholeness. These broken views of good and of merit are but parts of a great whole whose outline is now becoming visible to us. In the political world these great unifications are matters of familiar history. Macedon and Rome each produced a certain sense of unity from the chaos of differing tribes and nationalities, but Christianity brings us this unity in the moral world, and shows us that there is one right and one wrong for all. What a human being would not himself endure he can have no right to inflict upon others ; of what he finds supremely precious he has no right to deprive any one.

Lastly, women must be free, if freedom is to be enjoyed by men and safeguarded for them. Ignorance is the first condition of enslavement, and ignorant women will always be the tools of the men who are the enemies of freedom. To all that society expects from women let us then add the enlightened mind, the liberal and resolute will. This will secure to them the moral initiative.