To Limit Divorces, Undo Husbands’ Dominion Over Wives

The eighth in a series of articles commemorating Women’s History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.

In the spring of 1883, Dr. Morgan Dix, rector of the wealthy Trinity Church in Manhattan and a Columbia University trustee, launched a series of weekly lectures to share his vision of “Christian womanhood.” Outraged by his narrow view of women’s roles, journalist and author Lillie Devereux Blake rented her own meeting hall. Each Sunday evening for four weeks, she attacked “the haughty rector of Trinity” and offered her alternative views.

In this lecture, focused on divorce, she took on the illogic and injustice of then-current divorce laws as well as the notion of “headship” — that a wife belonged to her husband. These dueling themes present two poles of the ongoing debate about women in society. Dix believed maternity was woman’s highest role and opposed letting women enroll at Columbia. Blake was one of the most vocal and determined advocates for women’s admittance to the university.

Just six years after Blake’s March 11, 1883 speech, Barnard College opened its doors as a women’s liberal arts college affiliated with Columbia.

The Causes of Divorce

By Lillie Devereux Blake

Frobisher’s Hall, New York City 

In his last discourse Dr. Dix drew a sad picture of the present condition of society and predicted a future gloomy as a prophecy of Professor Wiggins, and as little likely of fulfilment. He expatiated at length on the increasing number of divorces in this country, and the social disorders thus produced, but never once considered the causes which to-day lead to more dissolutions of the marriage vows than were ever before known.

The learned doctor considered the whole question in an entirely empirical manner, like the quack who endeavors to heal a man by some external application, without touching the hidden sources of the disease under which he is suffering; so the doctor would have divorces prevented by legislation, and thinks that all unhappiness in married life can at once be removed by the passage of laws forbidding any dissolution of the bond, instead of looking deeper into our social conditions, and inquiring why it is that so many persons are anxious to escape their wedded obligations.

Really happy couples are not desirous of separating; to them the condition of the divorce laws is a matter of indifference; they would remain together though all legal unions were abolished; but when persons are wretched together, they look eagerly for the means of escape from their mutual unhappiness. The true way, then, to lessen the number of divorces is to increase the happiness of the marriage relation; and the teacher who would strive to make men and women better should study the causes of the increase of divorce before attempting to discuss the remedy.

And we charge that the most potent cause of divorce to-day is to be found in that monstrous doctrine of the headship of man, which permits the husband to usurp all authority, to hold all the joint earnings, and absolutely fosters in even good men a spirit of tyranny which may well drive a wife into indignant rebellion.

But Dr. Dix, so far from seeing this self-evident fact, or attempting to analyze the reasons for married unhappiness, calmly reasserts the old doctrine, a relic of the oppressions of those dark ages for which the rector of Trinity has so tender a regard.

“A woman must be subject to her husband in everything.”

“The father is priest over his household.”

These utterances, and others of a like character, appear constantly in his discourses, and for these declarations he affects like the other masculine interpreters, to find authority in the Bible, entirely overlooking or ignoring all texts or relations in the good book which would prove the contrary.

For instance, he quaintly asserts that man should be the head of the family, because “Adam was first formed, then Eve.” What does that prove? Either nothing, or that man is inferior to the fishes.  For another sentence of equal truth, and proving that man should be subordinate to the finny tribe, might readily be framed thus: “For the fishes were first formed, then Adam.”

The order of creation as related in Genesis was apparently a progressive one, always towards higher forms of life. First grass and herbs, then fishes, next birds, then beasts, next man, and last of all, as the grand crowning act of creative power, woman.

There is no other really intelligent reading of the account but this, and woman is either the lowest in the scale, in which case man is next lowest, or she stands highest, as the most perfect of all God’s creatures. This we believe to be the real meaning of the story of Eden, and that as man walked the earth desolate and forlorn until woman was formed, so now does the world wait for the coming of woman into an equal partnership with man in that joint dominion which was originally given, to redeem society and government, as of old Eve brought order and happiness even into Paradise.

But many preachers, including the rector of Trinity, endeavor to find a reason for woman’s subordination in the terrible curses hurled against our first parents when they were driven from their garden home. Here, again, however, we find this fancy a mere misconception. Those awful words cannot by any reasonable interpretation be construed into a law for our guidance: they are rather a prophecy of the future, which has, in woman’s case, been terribly fulfilled. “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee!” is a picture of her cruel fate, and not a rule of life.

Against man also was fulminated a curse or a prediction that he should earn his bread “by the sweat of his brow,” yet by the one-sidedness of masculine commentation, while all men consider themselves entitled to evade the literal fulfillment of this prophecy, they still hold all women to be in subjection to it.

What does the white-handed rector of Trinity Church know of contending with “thorns and thistles,” and yet he preaches to all women the “duty” of subordination to their husbands!

This worthy preacher, like many a clerical brother, finds ample reason for the headship of man in the famous text in the New Testament dwelt on so often with complacency by masculine expounders: “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man.”

This text Dr. Dix himself quotes as proving woman’s subordination, yet while he insists upon the literal meaning of the last clause, he evidently does not attach any force whatsoever to the first clause, since he has himself established many schools where women teach, besides employing them largely in Sunday-schools.

This is the peculiarity, however, of this learned divine, as well as of his less cultured colleagues in the pulpit, that he interprets a text according to the letter if it suit him, or freely if it so please him better. Somewhat on this wise, a woman must not usurp authority over a man: this must be accepted just as it stands; but if, you say, I find in the same chapter a verse declaring that women must not wear pearls, or braided hair, is this to be taken literally? The ready answer is, Oh, no; only in general terms as denouncing extravagance. If you urge still farther, I find this verse: “I will therefore that men pray everywhere holding up holy hands.”

What does this mean? Oh, that is a general injunction “to godliness”: it does not mean that men must go about always holding up their hands, of course, but this other verse about women not usurping authority over a man — there is no question that this text must be taken just as it stands.

So, again, when King George pointed to the text “Obey the King” as proof that the American colonies ought to be in subjection to his rule whatever he did, that was only absurd, of course, but the other text, “Wives obey your husbands” — that can never be set aside: there is no doubt as to the force of that command.

This is a specimen of the kind of reasoning with which men have striven to satisfy women that their claim for supremacy was founded on the Bible! And now let us consider the verses which I read to you just now. We find there one of the favorite texts with those who maintain the headship of man.

“Wives submit yourselves unto your husbands.”

This sounds very explicit; but close beside it, in the next preceding verse, are other words that no one ever contrasts with these. They are, “submitting yourselves one to another.” Now, what does this mean? Does it mean that every man must be obedient to his neighbor, as some persons would maintain that a wife must obey her husband? That each man must ask of some other man leave to go in and out, what money he may spend, and generally “submit himself to his neighbor” as a wife must, according to Dr. Dix, “submit to her husband”?

Certainly not. This verse evidently means simply that neighbors should be courteous one to the other, nothing more, and so the succeeding verse must mean merely that wives must be courteous to their husbands, nothing more, for surely not even Dr. Dix could say the same words had one signification in one verse and a totally different one in the next!

Following after this, we find two other verses which define the wife’s duty to the husband, and nine verses carefully describing the husband’s duty to the wife. As a rule, men say very little about these beautiful texts. I have in church heard a clergyman read with marked emphasis the three verses about wives, quite in a style to impress the women of the congregation with a sense of their subject condition, and then slur over the nine following verses so that they did not seem to mean much at all.

As in this case the commentator is a woman, we will reverse this order of proceeding and especially consider the nine verses about husbands. Now, what do we find in these verses? That once again is reiterated the declaration of Adam that “a man should leave father and mother and cleave to his wife,” a statement that might almost be claimed to prove woman’s superiority. But without ungraciously insisting upon this — we will be more generous than men — we will pass to a consideration of the especially interesting points.

In the 25th verse the husbands are told that they ought to love their wives so that they will be willing to die for them; in the 28th verse that a man should “love his wife even as his own body,” and this is the teaching of the whole passage. How many men live up to it? How many clergymen teach this to their congregations? That a man must love his wife even as himself and be willing to lay down his life for her!

Ah, how often does a man think he may claim obedience and submission from his wife, yet is far from loving her as he loves his own body! For what does this mean: It means that a man will give to his wife a love beyond all words, a love that will cause him to be to her ever tender, devoted, gentle, that will make him desire to share with her every pleasure, to give to her every luxury that he himself enjoys: a love so deep and strong and unselfish that he will be willing to die for her. You may be sure that the woman thus loved will indeed “reverence her husband.”

Ah, friends, there is one rule that will settle for ever all vexed questions between husband and wife — a rule of conduct that was laid down by one whom even Dr. Dix will hold as greater than St. Paul, the gentle Founder of the Christian faith himself, who said, “Do unto others as you would they should do unto you.”

In these beautiful words is a guide of conduct that will forever prevent divorce; the man who remembers this law in his dealings with his wife will have no need to go to the law courts for relief. In this golden maxim is a complete contradiction to any claim in support of the headship of man, and yet that claim has been persisted in for centuries, and finds plenty of supporters to-day.

It is engrafted and incorporated in the English common law, which declared that on marriage a woman was “merged” in her husband, and, according to Blackstone, that the “husband and wife were one, and that one the husband.”

A beautiful theory, truly, for men — not quite so pleasant for our half of creation. It is no wonder that men have liked and maintained these teachings: it must be so delightful to be told that one is greater and grander than another simply because one has black eyes, or brown hair, or from the other physical accident of sex, not because one is really nobler, abler, or more capable. So we find men in all ages gladly accepting any reason, however slender; any interpretation, however lame, that will enforce their authority over women. Milton, whose writings have been accepted by many as only second to inspiration, in his fanciful description of the life of Adam and Eve in the garden, carefully taught and reiterated the supremacy of man: “He for God only, she for God in him.”

Thus he describes their relative positions, and again makes Eve say:

My master and disposer what thou bidd’st
Unargued I obey; so God ordains;
God is thy law, thou mine, to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.

Indeed, we may say that until within a very few years the writings of all men were pervaded with this idea, and among men there has always been, and is even now a sort of tacit bond or unsworn free masonry which makes them unite in order to support under all circumstances the comfortable theory of masculine Supremacy.

In one of Dickens’s sketches there is an amusing description of a certain custom in use among a tribe of South African savages. The married men of this nation finding, like all married men everywhere, that it was very difficult to control their wives, were all banded together to enforce their marital authority. When, therefore, any wife was disobedient the husband informed some friend who, assuming a hideous disguise, hid himself in the bushes in alone some place, which the husband took care the fractious wife should pass after nightfall. Thereupon the hidden man leaped from his concealment, and waving his arms and uttering frightful cries so terrified the poor woman that she fled to her husband for protection, who, on hearing her story, solemnly shook his head, saying, “Mumbo Jumbo!”

What this was, he never deigned to explain; the words remained ever after a sound of terror, and if the wife ventured on any act of which her master disapproved, he had only to say, mysteriously, “Mumbo Jumbo!” to reduce her at once to obedience.

Do not the married men even here have a somewhat similar way of frightening their wives and all other women into proper submission by the fear of some mysterious danger no more real than “Mumbo Jumbo”?

In the summer of 1880 I chanced to be traveling at the West with other ladies, on what seemed to us important business, and occasionally we would meet some man who would say to us, always, no doubt, in the interest of our husbands, and with a general view of maintaining marital headship, “Pray, how does your husband like your being out here away from home?” to which the answer naturally was, “Next fall, when the Presidential contest is at its height, and Mr. Blaine and Mr. Conkling come out here to make speeches in behalf of the Republican candidate, will you say to them, ‘Pray, how does your wife like your being out here away from home?’”

This other side of the question never occurs to a man, however: he is so entirely used to considering the relative positions of man and woman only from the point of view most agreeable to the masculine mind.

Conversing on this very question of the headship of man a few evenings since, a gentleman said, “But surely you think under some circumstances a man should have the right to enforce obedience from his wife?”

“As what, for instance?” was asked.

“Let me state a case,” was the reply. “A friend of mine had a wife who was very reckless in her conduct; she went so far that one night she came home under the influence of liquor and in the company of a strange man. Do you not think that her husband was justified in forbidding her from going out alone at night again?”

“By all means,” I replied, “provided you will allow all wives whose husbands come home under the influence of liquor, or who associate with disreputable companions, to forbid them from going out alone at night again.”

This was an equality of rights that had never occurred to him. Men have such a large capacity for headship, and assume it with such complacent certainty that they are in the right in so doing! And for centuries women have so meekly accepted their subordinate position! An old lady who was a woman of more than usual wit, was asked why she had not remonstrated with her husband in regard to certain foolish investments he had made which had led to the utter loss of their fortune. “It was not for me to advise my husband,” was her mild rejoinder. Perchance she feared had she attempted any suggestions that she might have received a reply as brutal as that of Charles XI, King of Sweden, to his lovely wife, when she ventured on a remonstrance with him:

“Madam, I took you to bear children and not to give counsels.”

This gentle lady, the mother of the lion-hearted Charles XII, was herself a woman of superior intellect, and her husband’s cruel tyranny shortened her days.

I can see now a vision of my childhood, a sweet and noble woman, more than the equal of her brother in intellect and culture, yet constantly met in argument by the lordly assertion on his part, “Women do not understand these things.” And have you not been in many a home where the coming of the husband and father was the signal for a hush of constraint as he walked in, the evident lord and master of wife and children?

Undoubtedly there are many good and kind husbands, devoted husbands, and excellent husbands; but this doctrine of man’s supremacy has been preached so long that it is nearly impossible even for the best of men wholly to shake off the idea of his headship. This fact was curiously illustrated by a little incident in the life of Stephen Foster, the excellent Quaker, who married years ago Abbey Kelley, the gifted anti-slavery speaker. Their union was remarkably happy; and although in Massachusetts, where they lived, the laws gave all the property to the husband, yet, by mutual consent, they held all things jointly.

It happened that after a time they decided to sell a certain farm, and Mr. Foster went into Hartford and caused an advertisement to be inserted in the county paper. When in due time the journal appeared he handed it to his wife, who read that at such a time and place “the farm of Stephen Foster” would be for sale. Raising her kind eyes she merely said:

“Friend, whose farm did thee advertise?”

Thus reminding him that the announcement should have read “the farm of Stephen and Abbey Kelley Foster,” et cetera.

In relating the incident, Mr. Foster was wont to grow eloquent over the fact that innate in man’s nature was the spirit of tyranny over woman, ready to leap out and assert itself, even in one whose intellect and heart alike taught him that equality should be the rule.

Did you ever reflect, friends, on what sort of partnership it is which a young man proposes to a young woman when he offers himself to her in marriage? Let us analyze it a little, and see what any man would think if a similar proposal were made to him.

Suppose a man should come to another man and say: “I would like to have you unite with me in a partnership for life, but let me explain on what terms. In the first place the firm name shall be mine alone, you must give up your name entirely. Then all the money that we earn shall be mine alone, and I will give you only what I choose of it, providing you with such board and lodging as I see fit and giving you new clothes when I think you need them. You must fully understand, also, that I am to have perfect liberty to go and come as I please, but that you are never to go anywhere by day or by night without my leave.” What reply would any intelligent and high-spirited man make to such a proposition? And yet this is substantially what any man says to a woman when he asks her hand in marriage.

To the young lady whose lover has been for months declaring himself “her slave,” there must be something of a shock when she finds, a few weeks after marriage, that he has a very distinct idea that he is rightfully the master; and, as she looks on her new visiting card, bearing the words “Mr. and Mrs. So and So,” the name his alone, and the Mr. placed before the Mrs., showing that he is regarded as really the superior, perhaps she realizes that she is in truth “merged” in her husband.

Of this present position of women Dr. Dix highly approves; he is opposed to any separation of property or earnings. There can, of course, be little doubt as to which one of the married partnership is to hold all the money. Not certainly the wife, but the husband, whose creed the wise doctor thinks may properly be “What is yours is mine, and what is mine is my own,” as he denounces vigorously even so much of protection in her own property and earnings as the law now gives the women of this State.

“It gives the woman a separate position and separate interests,” he says. “She can hold property in her own right, she can sue and be sued apart”; and all this is very distasteful to our anti-progressive brother, who views with approval the old theory of man’s headship, especially in all money matters.

Common justice would seem to declare that even where the husband alone is the bread-winner he should have no greater share in the family purse than his wife, and no more right to spend money in ways of which she would not approve than she would have to do the same thing. How many men live up to this rule?

A manufacturer, who employs large numbers of men, recently marked $700 which he paid out to his hands on a Saturday night, and within two weeks $342 of it was deposited in the bank by saloon keepers in the neighborhood. One naturally wonders how much the wives of these men got for themselves and their children, and what these men would have said had their wives taken of their earnings to spend in a similar folly or vice.

How many married men are there who so truly “love their wives even as themselves” that they will put aside dollar for dollar as much money for those wives as they spend themselves on self-indulgence?

Would not a man who spends $10 a week on cigars and liquors be horrified if his wife asked for an equal amount to spend on sugar-plums and ice-cream?

Even where a woman does all the work of a family, rising early and late taking rest, cooking and washing, cleaning and mending, and performing all sorts of housework, her husband will talk of “supporting” her,” and never seem to think that he owes her any wages for her labor. If she were to be taken ill, he would hire a girl to do her work, and give her board and lodging, of course, and $10 or so a month — good money paid down and no questions asked as to what she did with it — whereas to the good and faithful wife the same man will dole out grudgingly a few dollars at a time, too often with the surly question, “What did you do with that last five dollars”?

When I was in the country last summer, the question of the voting of women at school elections was discussed one evening among several persons. The provisions of the law in this State, as you probably know, require that a woman to be a legal voter must have children going to school or own real estate, or have fifty dollars’ worth of personal property. One man in the company was violently opposed to woman suffrage, and finally wound up the discussion by saying:

“Well, my wife can’t vote any how. Her children are all grown up, and she hasn’t got fifty dollars’ worth of property in the world.”

I had been told that the man was rich. I saw that his hair was white. I turned to him and asked, “How long have you been married?”

“Forty years!’’ he replied.

“And have kept ‘help’ to do the work of your family”?

“Oh, no; why, I wouldn’t have a strange girl round the place; my wife is a better cook than any woman I ever saw.”

“And she has done all the work of her family for forty years, and at the end of that time has not so much as a set of furniture, or a bit of jewelry, or even fifty dollars’ worth of personal property in any form?”

I do not think it had ever crossed the man’s mind that his conduct was unjust. It is not so much deliberate unkindness as thoughtlessness on the part of men, that leads to these oppressions, or rather the firm conviction that they have a right to everything — that headship doctrine which Dr. Dix so ardently supports.

An aged couple were sitting together in their farm-house home, the woman employed in finishing a rag-carpet. She looked up from her work and said, meditatively:

“I shan’t never live to wear out this carpet, and I think I will leave it to Susan when I die.”

Her husband regarded her in astonishment.

“Why,” he said, “that carpet ain’t yours to give; it belongs to me!”

“I made it all myself,” faltered the wife.

“But I’d like to know who you were working for? Your time belongs to me!”

He was perfectly correct in his statement. If a man’s wife is injured by accident, the husband can sue the company or individual through whose carelessness the accident has occurred for compensation for his loss of “the services of his wife.” This is his only legal ground of complaint.

Men are too often parsimonious to their wives, even where the wife has labored side by side with her husband on a farm, or in a store, and is really entitled, on any ground of justice, to her share of the income of their mutual industry. This is one of the most unjust aspects of woman’s present position — while a woman who works outside of her home is entitled to her earnings and protected in them by law, every dollar of the joint earnings is legally the husband’s.

For instance: A young couple married, and opened a grocery store. The wife gave $1,000 to the enterprise, as well as her services, waiting in the store day after day, besides doing all the housework and caring for her children. Every dollar that partnership earned belonged to the husband. Now, of course, if he were a model man, this would be quite right, the wife would have an equal share of everything, and the joint income would be jointly spent. But how many model men are there? This man was no worse than thousands of others in doing what he pleased with what he called, and was legally HIS money. He gave himself many indulgences he never gave his wife, though not a bad man, spending money for newspapers that pleased him, for a club of which she was not a member, and other things agreeable to himself. Finally, he took the joint profits without her knowledge, invested them foolishly, and died, leaving her after 30 years’ of hard work to face an old age of poverty and dependence.

Do you think his wife had not realized his carelessness! Ah, women feel all these things very bitterly, though they do not say much. Women have told me so many stories of their distress over their condition, their anxiety with regard to the future. A childless wife said to me, not long ago, that she had worked early and late on the farm that had been partly bought with her money — planting corn, milking cows, and doing other outdoor labor, besides all the indoor work, and yet could not persuade her husband to will her the farm, which, at his death, would go to his brothers, giving her only her dower-claim to one third of the rent of the real estate, which would be little enough. Another lovely young mother, married to a man much older than herself, was in similar anxiety. She had helped to buy their pleasant home in the village, and yet, neither by will or deed, would her husband give it to her — so that in case of his death, which must naturally precede hers, the property would go to his children by his first wife, leaving her only her dower-claim. Yet in both these cases the men were kind, and what the world would call good husbands.

Let any man ask himself how he would like to stand in such a position, to have labored for 20 years, and, in his prime, find that all his earnings belonged to another, and that before him for all his hard work lay the prospect of a penniless old age.

If these men could know how their wives really feel towards them! What indignation, what deep discontent there is in their hearts; how in the silent watches of the night the woman whom the man wishes to have love him, thinks of her life companion with coldness, even with resentment. Very probably he has no suspicion of this, for women bear these oppressions, these hardships with the patience born of long inherited habits of endurance, yet none the less are they beginning to make their plaints and their protests heard, feebly and faintly it may be, sometimes almost inarticulately, but as an undertone of sadness in the turmoil of men’s voices shouting in their successful lives.

You have all of you traveled by night on a sleeping car, that whirled you away over the silent country; you have waked as the train which bore you on so comfortably rushed into some station, and the motion ceased that had lulled your slumbers, you have opened your eyes and gazed up at the depths of sky through which the sparkling stars shone down; you have looked out over the silent village and the still fields wrapped in shadow, and have thought how peaceful it all was!

And then from some neighboring track where a cattle-train stood there has come to you faint muffled moans, long-drawn sighs, deep, hoarse groans, the inarticulate cries of suffering creatures, and you have known that here, close beside you, was a mass of woe, wretched things starved and athirst, weary, and fever-stricken, too anguished for sleep, moving on to a hopeless destiny, a few hours of torture to end only in death.

Friends, when I hear those sad sounds I think of the endless moaning of women in our land, of the sighs, the tears, the plaints that in the dead watches of the night they, too, utter when they are too unhappy to sleep. For them, too, there is a hopeless destiny; their lives seem to the careless observer peaceful enough, but their hearts know the bitterness, a long torturing struggle and no rest but in the grave.

Is it any wonder that a woman who suffers under a perpetual sense of wrong is out of temper some times? That her unuttered misery and anxiety find expression in angry words and coldness to her husband. Here, then, we find the explanation of those divorces that Dr. Dix so deplores. If he wishes to lessen their number let him preach justice to the members of his own sex.

The question of headship between man and wife can be very easily settled by the exercise of a little common sense. “Where a man alone earns the money outside of his home it is for him, of course, to say where the family shall live, as he knows best where he can earn most money, and it is also for him to say how much his annual income is, so that there may be no extravagance in their mode of life beyond what he can afford. When the wife earns all the money it is equally, of course, her place to say where and how the family shall live. It seems very absurd to talk about the headship of the shiftless husband of an energetic boardinghouse keeper.

And yet, curiously enough, you will often find that the men who are supported by their wives are opposed to all advantages for women. A bright little woman in Albany took a petition asking for woman suffrage to a woman who declined to sign it without her husband’s consent. He peremptorily refused her request, and growled that a woman’s place was home, though his wife had for four years supported him by selling lager behind a bar.

In Nebraska last fall, I stood at the polls on Election Day, when the men were voting on the constitutional amendment for woman suffrage. A man came in who had lost his right arm in the war. While he lay helpless in the hospital he was nursed back to life by two women, strangers to him, who devoted themselves to him for humanity’s sake, and he said frankly that but for them he should have died. Since his return to his home, crippled, his faithful wife had supported him. And yet this man, who owed his life to woman’s charity and his support to woman’s love, with his one remaining arm and hand cast a ballot against woman suffrage!

Probably Dr. Dix would quite approve of this, and maintain that even this crippled pauper should be the head of his wife. Not that we would deprive men of all rights; we think that even if a woman does support her husband she ought to be good to him, and give him some money of his own to do as he pleases with. In short, we think the wife who supports her husband should treat him just as the husband who supports his wife should treat her.

The reiteration of the idea of headships, the insistence that a wife belongs to her husband — this frightful doctrine drives women to desperation, to flight, to divorce! Among ruder men this theory seems to them to authorize the assertion of their mastery by blows and brutality. Recently a judge remonstrated with a man for having unmercifully beaten and pounded another man; the culprit looked at his victim penitently.

“I am very sorry, Judge,” he said; “you see I was a little drunk and I thought it was my wife.”

Perhaps he had read one of Dr. Dix’s Lenten lectures.

The idea that a man owns his wife leads directly to the stories of brutality that blacken the pages of our papers, of the man who shut his wife up in her bedroom and then set his dog upon her, a fierce bloodhound that tore her quivering flesh and lacerated her poor body; at such a story as this that appeared in the Sun this week:

Bernard A. Fitzgerald, age 33, of 48 Scammel street, was yesterday arrested by a policeman, who found him beating his wife. Several clubs covered with blood were lying about the floor. The woman was tied with a rope to the bedpost and was unconscious and bleeding from wounds about the head. She was removed to the Chambers Street Hospital. Her two children were turned over to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

The man to prison, the wife to the hospital, the children to a charity. Who broke up this home?

These, you will say, are extreme cases; so they are, but they are the direct outgrowth of the teachings of such men as this clerical tyrant, and are in fact incorporated in the very laws of our land. In very many of the States of this Union the law declares that letters of administration may be granted to, or wills made by all persons, “except idiots, persons of unsound mind, and married women” — a classification not likely to inspire much respect for our sex.

In Pennsylvania, in the case of Richards v. Richards, the court declared that “it is a sickly sentimentality which holds that a man may not lay hands rudely if need be on his wife.”

The Supreme Court of Mississippi, in the case of Bradley v. the State, asserted that “a husband should confine himself in proper bounds when he sees fit to correct his wife.”

Very kind of the judge, certainly; he probably would not approve of the bloodhound or the club, but how can he blame an angry man for going beyond “proper bounds” if he is allowed to “correct” his wife in any fashion?

Bishop, one of the standard authorities of this country, in his work on “Marriage and Divorce,” defines the positions of husband and wife as resembling “that between parent and child, or guardian and maid,” and declares that “the wife should conform to the tastes and habits of her husband.” Some of the “tastes and habits” of some husbands would seem very queer if their wives did “conform to them,” and took up the use of whisky and tobacco so as to be in full accord with “the head of the family.”

Such legal maxims as these place women in a position so subordinate that they seem but the play things, or dependents of men — a truly Oriental view of woman’s place.

It is related of an Arab chief, whose daughter had recently married, that when she came to him in tears, declaring that her husband had struck her, he simply said, “On which cheek?” and when she had indicated it, dealt her a stinging blow on the other. “Now go home,” said he, “and tell your husband that if he has struck my daughter I have struck his wife.”

The woman herself was of no consequence except as she stood related to these men.

This story has its parallel in this country. A few years ago a young wife at the South fled from her husband’s brutality to her father’s protection. Through the night and the storm she wandered for three miles, and flung herself into her father’s arms crying that her husband had struck her. What did her father do? He ordered his carriage with all speed, and putting his daughter into it, drove her back as fast as he could to her husband’s roof; women had to bear a great deal, he said, and there must be no scandal.

There was no scandal then. But 20 years later the son of that woman, born only a few weeks after her flight, killed the father who had been always the “head of the family.”

A recent divorce case in England is thus reported in the New York World of Feb. 23:

The patient Griselda is still not without honor in England. Sir James Hannen, in the Probate and Divorce Court at London, has just dismissed the petition for a judicial separation from her husband of Mrs. Latham on the ground that she was in too much of a hurry to escape from a husband who merely beat her, tore off her clothes, threw her down, reviled her, wiped his shoes on her mantle, sate up all night to burn her clothes up, cut off one of her eyebrows, and shaved one side of her head. Sir James was astonished at the woman’s impetuosity and petulance, and bade her wait till her husband should put her in danger of serious “injury in life and limb.”

This decision, you will see, supports the theory with regard to personal “correction” just quoted, and the same view is evidently held in our own State of New York, according to a recent decision, thus described in one of our journals:

Five or six months ago the general term of the supreme court of New York ruled that a woman may maintain an action against her husband for beating her. The person whose pastime was thus menaced took the case to the court of appeals, which has now overruled the decision of the lower court, possibly in accordance with a previous decision, that a married woman might sue any man for assault and battery except her husband, but that to give her the right to appeal to the courts against his brutality would be “contrary to the policy of the law, and destructive of that conjugal union and tranquillity which it has always been the object of the law to guard and protect.”

“Conjugal union and tranquillity” maintained by blows would, according to Dr. Dix, be better than divorce, but to the ordinary observer seems as unsatisfactory as the “peace” maintained in Russia by the bayonets and cannon of the Czar.

I have now endeavored to show to you how deeply incorporated in law and society is the doctrine of man’s headship in the family and how frightful a source it is of unhappiness and consequently of divorce. Only a union of equals can be permanent, with any hope of stability, only such a union sanctioned and sanctified by love.

The divorce laws of this country were well discussed last Friday evening by the rector of Trinity, in various recent essays on the subject, which need not be recapitulated here. There is no legal question of to-day needing revision more than this of divorce. At present the legislation of the different States is diverse both as to the forms of marriage and the reasons for disunion. In some States, as in New York, mere cohabitation under the same name constitutes legal marriage; in others, various preliminaries, such as publishing banns, obtaining license, etc., are needed to make the tie legal. In South Carolina no divorce is granted for any cause whatsoever, and from this zero the grounds for dissolving the marriage tie range all the way from the one sole cause permitted in New York, to the light law of Indiana, where the courts could grant a divorce whenever they deemed it “reasonable and proper.”

Of course with such a remarkable puzzle of legislation, most curious domestic complications constantly arise, and a man who has been married, divorced, and remarried, will, in traveling from Maine to Florida, find himself sometimes a bachelor, sometimes married to his first wife, sometimes married to his second wife, sometimes a divorced man, and sometimes a bigamist, according to the statutes of the State through which he is traveling.

Such is the present chaotic condition of the divorce laws of a single nation! Let us be thankful that no woman has had anything to do with this absurd muddle!

In some states a judge is actually permitted to sit on his own case. And an instance is related in Missouri where a judge divorced himself from his wife because she had had “the mad dumps silently for three days.”

In New Mexico the Legislature has the power of divorce, and a bill was once passed in that Territory divorcing the Governor from his wife. He affixed his signature to it in the morning and married another woman in the evening.

Against the present conflict of laws and contradictions of usage, Dr. Dix uttered a protest, and plaintively stated that he had endeavored to obtain some changes from the Legislature, but the subject had received no attention whatsoever! If there had been women in that body, the dignified matrons of our State, the rector of Trinity would probably not have appealed in vain in behalf of any measures in the interest of humanity.

But men seem to think themselves quite capable of discussing and settling this whole question of divorce without the aid of women. Ex-President Woolsey of Yale College recently wrote an elaborate essay on the subject of divorce, advising that there should be a grand national council to frame a uniform code of laws for the whole country. A council of whom? Why, of men alone!

Positively, one would think, to hear Dr. Dix and other learned professors discuss this subject, that women had no interest in the matter whatsoever, that men married men, and that women lived in some beautiful region where matrimonial troubles were unknown.

Undoubtedly there should be a grand national council to settle all questions of marriage and divorce, but the council should consist not of men alone, but of women also. And the united wisdom of these learned men and virtuous matrons would produce a code which should, at least, have as its basis equal justice for both sexes.

We find pervading all society to-day the idea that men are competent to do everything, regulate everything, to manage everything. The haughty Southerner, 30 years ago, declared: “This is a white man’s government.” Four years of bloody war took out one of these words, but the haughty rector of Trinity reiterates the rest: “This is a man’s government.” Yes, men make all laws, and guide all public opinion, and this is not “a government of the people, for the people, and by the people,” but “a government of men, for men, and by men.”

The newspapers, faithful reflectors of the tastes and needs of the hour, are printed by men, and for men, and what do we find in them? Here, within the last week, have been printed long accounts of various prize fights. One of them took place in West Virginia, between two persons bearing the euphonious titles of “Sweitzer Bill,” and “Butcher Mose,” and after a hideous encounter, Sweitzer Bill is reported to be dying. So that this amusement ended in murder.

The other “pugilistic event” occurred in this city, and was witnessed by men who paid $10 apiece to see the “mill,” more than they would pay to hear Dr. Dix. This encounter is related at much length, and with great fullness of details about “drawing the claret,” “putting his optic in mourning,” “dashing his dexter mauley on the ribs heavily, and knocking his man against the ropes.” In which phrases, wounds and suffering, and bodily hurt are “artistically” described to the delight of many readers, who are certainly not women.

In the same paper there is an account of a dog fight. Friends, I could not read this. I am very fond of these canine companions, and I could not bear the story of how these faithful creatures were torn and mangled, and cruelly injured for the pleasure of human beings who were much greater brutes than the dogs. Poor fellows! Cannot you, in fancy, see them, bleeding, suffering, exhausted; yet, turning their blood-stained eyes with affection towards their cruel masters, and with what strength they had left, licking the hands that had forced them to this contest?

Now, these are the “manly sports” which our journals record week after week, with full knowledge that they will be pleasing to their masculine readers. Must not such reports tend directly to increase brutality?

Supposing the papers were read by women alone; do you think we should have such accounts as these?

Some one will, of course, here object that if edited for women alone, the papers would be very silly. True, their tone would probably be weakened at once. Therefore, what we ask is not that either men alone or women alone shall control anything. But that together they shall make a harmonious whole, each helping and improving the other.

One evening last summer I sat on a hilltop overlooking the ocean, which was all sparkling under the rays of the moon. And behold, there stepped up onto the height a youth who, reaching his hand down, assisted a maiden to spring up beside him. They stood there for a moment hand in hand, behind them the myriad splendor of the summer sea, and before them all the fair promise of the future. And I thought how pleasing a type they were of that coming time, when manhood and womanhood should stand together side by side. He did not say to her, “You must walk below me”; he said to her, “Come up beside me.” And so do we ask the manhood of to-day to hold his hand to womanhood, and bid her come up beside him.

When this shall be, when men and women shall be equal companions in life, then, indeed:

Comes the statlier Eden back to man;
Then reigns the world’s great bridals chaste and calm,
Then springs the crowning race of human kind.

And in such a union there will be little danger of divorce. 

Source: Woman’s Place To-Day: Four Lectures, In reply to the Lenten Lectures on “Woman” by The Rev. Morgan Dix, D.D., Rector of Trinity Church, New York, (New York: John W. Lovell Company) 1883, pp. 95-132. 

Dana Rubin is a speaker and consultant focused on women’s voice and speech. She’s the founder of Speaking While Female, the first-ever online collection of contemporary and historical speeches by women from across time and around the world. Dana recently gave a TEDx Talk on “Unlocking the Secret History of Women’s Speech,” and she’s working on an anthology of women’s speech. For more on how she helps organizations attract, retain and develop their women leaders, visit SpeakingWhileFemale.biz.