June 19, 2013

Oakes Smith: Unless we can do, as well as talk

The final installment of Elizabeth Oakes Smith's 10-part essay on "Woman and Her Needs" was published on June 19, 1851 in the New York Tribune. In it, she offers a passionate plea for the advancement of women's roles in society. The series was published in part by recent critics, politicians, and journalists mocking the movement for women's rights. Women, Oakes Smith says, should not merely be the "other" type of human that is not man, but a person in her own right and with her own agency: "I have insisted... upon the recognition of the entire individuality of Woman, her claims as a creation distinct, and one; not as a half — a supremacy — an appendage."

Oakes Smith, who was also a poet, believes that the suppression of women has not been intentional on the part of men (or mankind): "He has been too busy in war; in toil and legislation, in bloodshed, and persecution and sensuality, to look into the soul of things." Yet the current system was mutually oppressive to all of humanity, she suggests. Women, if given the opportunity, can come up from this system and lead in inspiring positive change. She can, after all, be more than a symbol of beauty or a wife who has no further role than serving her husband. "Look at the pale faces, the feeble step, the uncertain and disaffected faces of half the married women that you see, and contrast them with the firm, upward, joyous look of the few — whether married or single — whose whole being has been recognized, and then say which realizes best the intents of the Creator."

That she had to say this at all was "something humiliating" to her. But, more importantly, she says that those who are discussing women's rights must also take the next step and take action: "Unless we can do, as well as talk, it were better to be silent." It is wrong, she says, to disobey that instinct to do something, even if the result is failure:

Mistakes, failures must and will ensue — what then? it is something to have attempted great things — if the motive be pure, it is godlike, and good will come of it. Vanity, pretension, soon find their level, but the great and holy aim is in God's keeping, and must go onward conquering and to conquer. I care not that a woman sometimes fails in her attempts, as thousands of the other sex do, — it will not lessen her, provided there is any magnitude in her nature; but I reverence the sentiment in her soul that dictate the movement. I feel there must have been deep need within her which she was bound to recognize, and that the mantle that perhaps slipped from her too delicate shoulders may be broadcast upon others more nobly proportioned.

The essay also offers a more positive view of the world in general. Improving all  humanity, regardless of gender, she says, will allow the world to prosper and become more positive. Laws will not long focus on "do not" but instead promote good things people can do for one another. She makes the connection that this system is a religious promise which will be ushered in by women: "Here is to be the great birth of a purer humanity, that of peace and love and good will; the embodied new testimony of love, when the law shall not life in the prohibition but in the enactment."


  1. She deserves reposting! It's sobering to reflect how far we are from realizing her hopes.

  2. See the webpage for more on Oakes Smith--she's enormous!


  3. Yes, do visit the web site, all. The link I offered to the full version of "Woman and Her Needs" comes from this site, too.

  4. Reading things like this always makes me wonder how on earth, in such demoralizing circumstances, those women kept their sanity.