Mary Jane Coggeshall

For What Purpose Do We Live? - c. 1894

Mary Jane Coggeshall
January 01, 1894
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For what purpose do we live? Are there any prizes in the battle of life wo11h winning? Or if we fail, is the discipline of the pursuit worthwhile? These questions are absurd upon the face of them, but especially so when given before a company of young men and women. But there is a philosophy which just now sufficiently obtains (?) to merit consideration.

A young man said to me recently that he believed that when a person's life had become a burden and was of no further use to himself or anyone else, and as we are not responsible for having come into the world, that it would be a justifiable act to take himself out of it. Another young man who was then passing through a most bitter disappointment, when the future was all dark to him, said to me, "What matters it whether I am happy or not; I am in the world for a purpose, and I will rise up and do my life work in it." His ideals were higher than the attainment of his own happiness and he was determined to follow his ideals whether joy came to him in their pursuit or not.

After all are not the things which we cannot see or handle the only real things? The things that go to make up the hard wood of character and which stay with us forever? President Garfield well expressed this idea when he said that he wanted to be able always to respect himself, for he was obliged always to live with himself.

You who have been thinking God's thoughts after him along the lives of Evolution have no doubt concluded that it is not likely that the age in which we live happens to be the culminating age; but that the better is always succeeding the best, and that there is a "far off Divine event toward which the whole creation moves." So nothing in nature is without its object - no blade of grass - or drop of water or pebble upon the shore, must the human production be the one exception?

Surely no one believes but that God has a definite purpose in the life of every one of us. The trouble is not here; but do we have an object in the life that is given to us? Have we ideals? Do we not often as the days go by ask ourselves the question, "What is it all for?" Are we drifting, just moving along in the line of least resistance and expect to keep doing this until the time comes for us to leave it?

I do not believe I am speaking to persons of this class. But is self-cultivation the highest ideal? Is the sharpening of the tools for work of so much importance that the best of our life should be spent in the sharpening and only the minimum left for service? This afternoon of the century demands more of its young men and women than that they be cultured. Prof. Suring said that, "A learned man is a statue, but a learned man with a task is a living soul."

The intelligent people of today have no excuse to be deluded by the gibberish of the astrologer and the alchemist. The sciences have been working themselves, clearer and clearer and depositing impurity after impurity and we do not believe any age has passed certainly not any century but has left some residue of truth. Facts have accumulated, ideals have enlarged and, if the epitome of ten million years is written in the present structure of a miniscule, then we have been born into a splendid heritage; "heirs of all the ages in the foremost files of time." Someone has said, "Every new truth has its birthplace in a manger, lives thirty years and is crucified, and then deified." It is our work to pass on these accurnulat10ns to the generations that are to be.

Make the world better is becoming the slogan of today, and our conflict is now, and our field of labor is here. Palestine is holy ground as the birthplace of the world's highest ideals, but our land is the birthplace of our highest thought, and to you young men and women these halls are holy ground. There are a thousand ways in which to make the world better, and we thank heaven for this. There are so many wrongs to be righted, so many different points of view at which to take them that there may be a thousand workers aiming at the same point, but by different routes.

We believe in specialties. The regulation of the affairs of this world has become a system so complicated, there are so many converging lines towards the one point of bettering the condition of humanity that the age of specialties is surely here. We have come to have great patience with the hobby-rider. Indeed we are inclined to be impatient with the person who has no hobby. The man or woman who is today perfectly satisfied with the way the world is getting on and feels that nothing is required of him or her in respect of it, and has no more thought for one plan than another, we doubt if they are worth their salt.

Now you may begin to suspect that I have a hobby. It may be that I speaking to you this morning in spite of the fact that I have a hobby; but I suspect that I am speaking to you because I have a hobby; and this hobby is a soul stirring desire for equal opportunities for all people.

I am no more interested in one sex than the other; the best years of my life have been spent in raising boys whose welfare is more dear to me than my life and if we speak of the wrongs which the world practices towards women it is because these wrongs make life harder for both our boys and our girls; our men as well as our women. It has been well said that if women are not to be free, it was a fatal mistake that they were given the alphabet.

They have no longer the bliss of ignorance. As women move through history, they discover that many of the pleasing customs of modern society are but remnants of the subjection of our foremothers.

The wedding ring upon the finger of the bride of today said to symbolize the love of the bridegroom has no end is in reality but a beautiful remnant of the iron band that bound the wrist of the bride of long ago. The chivalry and wedding journey is a reminiscence of that feudal age when the newly married serf was jeered by his friends because the lord of the manor had prior claims upon the bride.

It is a singular fact of history that the rights of property have everywhere been recognized before the rights of persons. Property is a delicate test of the condition of a nation. The American revolution arose from an attack upon property rights. If it was an outrage for King George to tax the colonists without their consent, even when this tax money was used in protecting the colonies; it is today an outrage for the government to tax the women of this country without their consent. No man can take the property of another without his consent; neither can a body of men. It is less than sixty years since a change in the laws favorable to women has taken place in any part of the United States; and none of these changes occurred until women began to ask for the ballot. Only when wrongs find a tongue do they become righted! Since women have entered the literature, it has outgrown the thoughts of Coleridge that "The perfection of character in women is to be characterless."

What has purified our art? When the art of Greece was in the hands of men only its productions were set in the streets where Greek decorum forbade women to appear, for their works were never meant to be judged by women while later artists never carved marble that may not stand in our parlors.

If we accept the story in Genesis that a woman started the world in the clothing business furnishing the fig leaves for herself and husband, it is pathetic that the civilization of 6000 years does not yet permit a woman to own the clothes she wears. Surely, one fifth of the states of this Union yet allow this. You probably saw the account in the papers awhile ago of the man in Connecticut who was so displeased with the fancy gowns which his wife wore that he destroyed them. He was arrested for the destruction of property, but nothing could be done with him because as he plainly showed he had a right to do what he pleased with his own clothes. We who want to vote are sometimes taunted with the assertion that we want to wear men's clothes, while women have always been wearing men's clothes; the suffragists are trying to get for women the right to wear their own.

We are often asked why if women really have any grievances that more of them do not come out and protest against them. We do not wonder that so many women do not make a public protest against their environment. Ages of repression have had a most benumbing effect upon the undertakings of women. They have learned their lesson of subordination well. Ninety nine pulpits out of every hundred have taught that women should not meddle with politics. Almost as large a percent of the newspapers have done the same; and by the hearthstone the lesson has been repeated to the little girl, and when she is grown if she does not throw away the teachings of a life-time, we ask why she is not progressive.

But the gymnasium and the bicycle are two great – heaven sent – emancipators of women; and girls when you are inspired to do a right thing, and a sensible thing, do not be afraid of Madam Grundy. Even if she should come to you in guise of a good young gentleman; if the mask were torn off you would still see the face of Madam Grundy.

Is there anything in the system of a representative government that is of necessity corrupting? The ballot is the most peaceful and orderly method yet devised for the expression of opinion.

[Page 16 is missing of her handwritten copy.]

...them there and reduce men to the same plane if it works so well. This is one feature of the great social and economic questions of the day and we suggest that it be made a subject for discussion at some meeting of our Society. The suffragists are accused of treading the well worn highway of assertion in support of their claims. Let us see what is proven by a quarter of a century of the actual working woman suffrage in Wyoming. These statistics are from the records of 1890. From Nebraska west to the Pacific in proportion to the population, Wyoming has scarcely more than one half as many criminals as the other states and territories. Nevada has one fourth less population than Wyoming and two and three fourth times as many criminals. Arizona, with the same population and Wyoming has three fourth times as many offenders, Montana three times as many, and now after women have had full suffrage in that state for a quarter of a century, Wyoming has not had a woman criminal.

Since writing this paper, we have seen that there is one woman in jail there. We presume she ran across the line from a state where women are not allowed to vote. The records show too that people stay married there better than in other states; that while in the United States divorces have increased 38 percent, in Wyoming they have decreased 29 percent.

One of the first acts of the legislature after the women were freed was to give the women school teachers the same pay as men. In the prison statistics of the other states we find that quite a proportion of the criminals arc young men. Now men have been born and raised in Wyoming since women there were absolutely free. We are told that if women are allowed to vote that they will be likely to neglect their children and forget home duties. Then why is it that in 25 years there should be a much smaller number of offenders where women are free than in any other part of the United States?

Transcription from Ferris, J. N. (2017). Mary Jane Whiteley Coggeshall, Hicksite Quaker, Iowa/National Suffragette and Her Speeches. Milton, IN: Kids at Heart Publishing LLC.