November 21, 2013

Evils oppressing themselves or others

Elizabeth Oakes Smith was angry. Women had recently been gathering at public conventions to demand their rights. They were met with ridicule, hecklers, and laughter, "as if it were the funniest thing in the world for human beings to feel the evils oppressing themselves or others, and to look round for redress." With those words, she opened the first of her series "Woman and Her Needs," published November 21, 1850 in the New York Tribune.

She was further annoyed that some who ridiculed these women's rights conventions who were themselves women, so "well cared for" that they remained unaware of the suffering of others. Oakes Smith argues part of their problem is that they lack "comprehensiveness of thought." Others, who themselves suffer from their subjugation, simply know no better. She writes, "These are the kind over whom infinite Pity would weep as it were drops of blood. These may scoff at reform, but it is the scoffing of a lost spirit, or that of despair." Still, she says, there are women who have become aware of their problematic role in society:

They are not content to be the creatures of luxury, the toys of the drawing room, however well they grace it — they are too true, too earnest in life to trifle with its realities. They are capable of thinking, it may be far more capable of it, than those of their own household who help to sway the destinies of the country through the ballot box. They are capable of feeling, and analyzing too, the evils that surround themselves and others — they have individuality, resources, and that antagonism which weak men ridicule, because it shames their own imbecility; which makes them obnoxious to those of less earnestness of character, and helps them to an eclectic power, at once their crown of glory.

Prior to these movements, Oakes Smith writes, there were individual women who spoke up. Now, however, they are gathering in larger groups and calling with a unified voice. Certainly, they will make missteps, but the movement is new and the people are learning. She argues in particular that women simply must have a voice in the world because they are already part of it, that they must be a part of lawmaking because they are impacted by law.

They are the mothers and wives and sisters of the Republic, and their interests cannot be separated from the fathers and husbands and brothers of the Republic. It is folly to meet them with contempt and ridicule, for the period for such weapons is passing away.

Ultimately, Elizabeth Oakes Smith contributed 10 articles in this series on "Woman and Her Needs." The final installment was published nearly seven months after the first.

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