Mary Jane Coggeshall

The White Cross and Women's Purity - c. 1886

Mary Jane Coggeshall
January 01, 1886
Print friendly

In Great Britain in sundry garrison towns there has been in operation for twenty years up to last November, a law known as the "Contagious Diseases Acts," which had made the virtue of English women and girls as legally an article of barter, and sale as the traffic in sugar and coffee.

The friends of Social Purity in England in an organization of which, Mrs. Josephine Butler is the inspired leader, -- a noble woman, who, as she sat in her darkened home from which her own lovely daughter had gone out forever - the call came to her that other mothers whose daughters had gone down to (their fate), however than the grave were suffering more than herself, so she gathered the friends together and for seventeen years have they worked and prayed, petitioned and waited for the repeal of this odious law. The horrible revelations made by the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 so aroused the public conscience to the enormity of evil existing among them that, at last, the slow going English Parliament, with the approval of the Queen, cleansed the statute books of Great Britain of this terrible stain.

Growth of this English "Federation for the Preservation of State Regulated Vice," was the White Cross Movement in America.

An institution guided by the Rev. Dr. B. f. De Costa, D.D., of New York, the third anniversary of which was held in that city in February last. This movement has now spread into every state and territory of the Union, and has received the endorsement of the Episcopal Church at its Triennial Session in Chicago, and its scope enlarged by the seven methods of the clergy's official "Declaration" which has already been approved by nearly fifty of the Bishops.

Multitudes of men and women prominent in all circles, and professions, and refreshingly all classes of Christians, have given it their approval.

What is the White Cross Movement? It means a higher life for the individual, the church, and the Nation. Its object is increased purity, and it aims especially for a single moral standard for men and for women.

It asks the Church in all its branches to maintain this standard and by practice as well as precept; let the world know that what is sin in the woman, is sin in the man. In the world a double standard prevails today, the woman being condemned while the man, often, goes free.

The object of this movement to defeat bad legislation - legislation which purposes to make it safe for men to practice crimes against women.

Legislation that would set apart a certain class for the permanently degraded, for the use of men, the White Cross Society is formed for men alone, no woman or girl has even made a member. It is not a secret organization, and has no admission fee.

Each member takes this pledge:

I promise by the help of God to treat all women with respect and endeavor to protect them from wrong and degradation.

To endeavor to put down all indecent language and coarse jests.

To maintain the law of purity as equally binding upon men and women.

To endeavor to spread these principles among my companions and to t1y and help my companions, and to try to help my younger brothers.

To use every possible means to fulfill the command, "Keep thyself _____."

What has it already done!

It has been represented before legislative bodies to secure good laws, and to repeal bad ones.

It has already destroyed 36,000 lbs. of books – letter press – and 25,000 lbs. of electric and stereotype plates – 232,000 obscene pictures, 90,000 articles of immoral use – over one million obscene circulars and songs, and we must remember that these tons of matter destroyed is not a tithe of what goes into circulation.

Two hundred and seven books have been suppressed, 8 ½ tons of gambling implements were seized, and the addresses of 982,000 persons, for whom immoral literature was intended. In the annual report, the President says that "Few persons would be willing to believe the whole truth regarding these things."

The awful uses to which young girls, poor girls, are being put in this city (N. York) cannot be named, or even hinted at. That the degradation of women that now obtains is equaled, perhaps, only by the shocking indifference of men to the whole subject. Mrs. Josephine Rutter's large experience has taught her [five handwritten lines are missing].

The Rev. W.J. Sabine before the N. York Committee of this Society said, "I have reason to believe that many of my brethren in the ministry are in the utter darkness upon this matter." If this be true of this very intelligent body of Christians, what can we expect is the condition of other classes.

How many of us have been well informed upon this matter? I confess my own ignorance of the fact that there was any "age of consent" in this or any other state, until one year ago, when our wide-awake and vigilant sister of the "Women's Christian Temperance Union," brought the subject prominently before the people of the state.

This Social Purity movement by women is literally breaking a way through an untracked forest. A forest, black with an over-shadowing pall of ignorance which woman has ever been told she must not lift. Draw not the curtain aside - disturb not the dragons.

Have we not always understood that law is the perfection of reason! And our lawmakers sitting in the councils of state where no mother's voice is ever heard, have deliberately established decrees which today are on the statute books of eighteen states of the Union, by which, a man of any age has the right to use all the blandishments and persuasions that he can command upon your little girl or mine if she has passed her tenth birthday, and if he can so prevail over her ignorance or her fears as to yield to him her childish virtue - unless she or her friends can prove that she resisted him to the limit.

But the law-making power of this one-sexed government is as much out of harmony as a one sexed home. This law of "consent" virtually says, "Throw our white lambs to the vultures," for a court of justice in a neighboring state lately decided that it could not punish a fiendish libertine because "the most of his victims were over ten years of age."

Mrs. Helen Campbell's recently published articles in the New York Tribune entitled, "Prisoners of Poverty," turn for us a calcium light upon the indignities and perils to which great numbers of dependent women and girls are exposed. She says; "The woman's and the young and comely girl's extremity is the sensual man's opportunity." Three girls were once found in the maternity ward of a New York hospital, all giving the name of the same man who had brought them to deep distress and who was the foreman in the factory where they all worked. Jo Howard in the Boston Globe says of the l 0,000 girls who stand behind the counter of the retail stores of that city, receiving an average of$3.50 a week, with an enforced vacation for many of them for six or eight weeks in which they get nothing; that out of this they are expected to clothe themselves respectably, pay car fare, doctor's bills, etc. He asks if this is a promenade on which can be placed the tender feet of girls too young to realize the snares that wait for them, but old enough to want to dress as well as their companions.

Labor saving machinery and an ever increasing throng of unskilled applicants have so reduced wages that thousands of women are working like slaves for the privilege of starving. Do you say let them enter domestic service? This says Mrs. Campbell is not free from the same perils, and she gives cumulative testimony to show how strong must that dependent girl be to resist the persuasions and inducement to betrayal by the master or the son maybe. One mother whose fifteen year old daughter had been thus betrayed said; ''I'll warn every girl to keep herself and learn a trade, and not run the risk she'll run if she goes out to service letting alone the way you're looked down on."

Miss Ellice Hopkins of Brighton, England to whom the cause of Social Purity in this country is greatly indebted makes this startling declaration; "Stop the money of men and the whole thing would be starved out in six weeks." Women are decoyed into dens of vice in the midst of thriving populations, into lonely towns on the frontier or taken out of the country altogether. It states that a woman well known to the Newark detectives brings young girls to Newark from New York two or three times a week, chiefly Germans and Jewesses, and sells them to.the keepers of various houses. The commission being ten dollar a girl where they are accepted.

Recently in New York City was unearthed a system of traffic in women by which under promise of lawful work and good wages frequent installments of them were shipped to the Isthmus of Panama. With the procurer in New York and one at the Isthmus, and the proprietors of certain steamships all in collusion, the way was made easy and apparently most respectable, and innocent women - even women of mature years - were caught by the fair promises held out, and, once there, return was difficult and death in a very few months in that climate almost certain; and as De Leon, the New York procurer boasted, "dead women tell no tales." It is gratifying to know that a measure of justice has at last overtaken him, and he has been sentenced to fifteen years in the state prison.

And have not all our hearts been made to bleed for that frail seventeen years old girl who, alone in the cold and darkness on a wind-swept corner of the street in Chicago, became a mother? But stem law that knows no sex among its violators, lodges her in jail to answer to the crime of infanticide while the guilty partner to this tragedy holds high his scoundrel head among the ways of men.

Let a woman known to be a nymph walk down the street of a city and how many amorous eyes will take note of her steps; and we will say that she has lured our young men to ruin. Let a man known to be a libertine through and through walk down the same street, he will perhaps catch not one sensuous glance. No wonder that men are tempted of women when scores of them are lying in wait for just this opportunity. But does anyone suppose that in the sight of Heaven the woman is the greater sinner? It is estimated that for every licentious woman there are at least ten licentious men. Chicago is said to have 30,000 prostituted women. Think of 300,000 men in one city leading licentious lives. We may talk of female chastity, as long as we please, it cannot be without male chastity. But remembering that while our laws and the customs of society are thus lenient towards the lusts and passions of the stronger sex, let us never cease to thank God that notwithstanding these things are there yet in the world of so many pure men.

What can we do? Much, very much. But the speakers who are to follow me doubtless will get us out of the plenitude of their careful study, practical suggestions that will help women and thus humanity in its upward climb. While we would ask for woman that she be made a workman complete in building up the broken walls of our pain, yet each may with the help of God, single-handed and alone put every day a stone in the wall opposite her own door. She may first be pure and true herself and then begin to influence for purity her boys and girls while they are beneath the home roof - better even to begin while they are yet about her knees. Better still to begin twenty years before it is born.

Thus far we have spoken of prostitution only as it exist outside of marriage. Shall we speak of prostitution as it exists inside of marriage? And shall we not here find the Arch dragon - centuries old? Dare we stir him up! If humanity had no other guide, the ruder orders of nature might at last teach us that the female during gestation should be free from all passional interference. Ever since the earth brought forth beasts and birds and creeping things, these lower orders of creation have been the objects of the All-Fathers peculiar care. The female mastodon whose gigantic male made the primeval forests tremble beneath his tread was herself safe under that instinctive law that made her body inviolate. The lioness rests in her liar in quiet and serenity, even the covey which area a feeble folk gambol with its fellows, or seeks its burrow in security; throughout the whole animal creation, from the greatest to the least, the female is not only safe from interference during gestation, but she alone dictates when, or whether maternity shall be.

But what of the woman? Are ye not of more value than many sparrows?

I believe you will agree with me that in all human experience there is nothing so costly as an idea. We are now nearing the open door of the twentieth century and through all the growing ages has run the great unwritten law that the daughters of our sinning first mother have not the right to the complete control of their own persons. That highest and finest product of civilization - the monogamous marriage, Alas! Alas! How has it been defiled?

Mrs. Lucinda B. Chandler, President of the Moral Educational Society of Chicago, tells of a cultivated woman who from various causes had been whelmed in this final catastrophe of prostitution, when asked by her physician why she did not cease that mode of life and many, as she was attractive enough to secure a good husband replied, "Marry! No, indeed! If I am sick or tired, or want to be alone, now, I have but to turn the key in that door, and no man has the right to demand entrance to my room, or the use of my body." This arraignment does not lose aptness or force because there are many comfortable and happy unions, where respect and love make blessed and good the legal relations.

If through woman the world lost in Eden, was it not more than restored at Bethlehem? And forever blessed be the story of the Christ Mother, who, though Joseph was her husband, beloved yet he knew her not through all the hallowed days of their loving care of the Christ in _____. God was with Joseph as well as with Mary, and he has not forgotten the world, and we believe that earth is later Savior's will be thus tenderly guarded. Victor Hugo says: "He who has seen the men only, has seen nothing. He must see the misery of women only, has seen nothing. He must see the misery of childhood."

We are glad when our children by the spirit of God moving upon them, are born the second time; but we believe the very angels in Heaven sing praises when a child comes to earth well born first time. And if women are appointed by God to be the conservators of the race, the world will work upward no faster than her feet shall clinch the heights of progress; and in these _____ days of peace the call comes to her most loudly – O! Woman! Rise and shine, for the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee!

But the property of every young girl in the land is surrounded with legal safeguards that she could not squander it if she would, before she is of legal age.

Georgia Mark, in the Union Signal, shows that by tracing back the old Common Law of England through its modifications to the present time there never has been a period in English history when girlish innocence was so early left unprotected by law as at the present.

Our country needs better protection for girls. It is a maxim of Mr. Gladstone "that is it the province of government to make it easy to do right and difficult to do wrong."

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.