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This essay appeared in Judith Sargent Murray's 1798 book The Gleaner. It continues her essay on female abilities.
The Gleaner. No. XCI.
Nor are the modern Fair a step behind;
In the transcendent energies of mind:
Their worth conspicuous swells the ample roll;
While emulous they reach the splendid goal.
We take leave to repeat, that we are not desirous to array THE SEX in marital habiliments; we do not wish to enlist our women as soldiers; and we request it may be remembered that we only contend for the capability of the female mind to become possessed of any attainment within the reach of masculine exertion. We have produced our witnesses; their depositions have been heard; the cause is before the public; we await their verdict; and, as we entertain all possible veneration for the respectable jury, we shall not dare to appeal from their decision.
But while we do homage to the women of other times, we feel happy that nature is no less bountiful to the females of the present day. We cannot, indeed, obtain a list of the names that have done honour to their Sex, and to humanity, during the period now under observation: The Lustre of those minds, still enveloped in a veil of mortality, is necessarily muffled and obscure; but the curtain will be thrown back, and posterity will contemplate, with admiration, their manifold perfections. Yet, in many influences, fame has already lifted her immortalizing trump. Madame de Genlis has added new effulgence to the literary annals of France. This lady unites, in an astonishing degree, both genius and application! May her indefatigable exertions be crowned with the success they so richly merit — May no illiberal prejudices obstruct the progress of her multiplied productions; but, borne along the stream of time, may they continue pleasurable vehicles of instruction, and confer on their ingenious author that celebrity to which she is indisputably entitled. France may also justly place among her list of illustrious personages, the luminous name of Madame Roland. Madame Roland comprised, in her own energetic and capricious mind, all those appropriate virtues, which are characterized as masculine and feminine. She not only dignified THE SEX, but human nature in the aggregate; and her memory will be held in veneration, wherever talents, literature, patriotism, and uniform heroism, are properly appreciated.
The British Isle is at this moment distinguished by a constellation of the first magnitude. Barbauld, Seward, Cowley, Inchbald, Burney, Smith, Radcliffe, Moore, Williams, Wollstonecraft, &c. &c. — these ladies, celebrated for brilliancy of genius and literary attainments, have rendered yet more illustrious the English name.
Nor is America destitute of females, whose abilities and improvements give them an indisputable claim to immortality. It is a fact, established beyond all controversy, that we are indebted for the discovery of our country, to female enterprize decision, and generosity. The great Columbus, after having in vain solicited the aid of Genoa, France, England, Portugal, and Spain — after having combated, for a period of eight years, with every objection that a want of knowledge could propose, found, at last, his only resource in the penetration and magnanimity of Isabella of Spain, who furnished the equipment, and raised the sums necessary to defray the expenses, on the sale of her own jewels; and while we conceive an action, so honourable to THE SEX, hath not been sufficiently applauded, we trust, that the equality of the female intellect to that of their brethren, who have so long usurped an unmanly and unfounded superiority, will never, in this younger world, be left without a witness. We cannot ascertain the number of ingenious women, who at present adorn our country. In the shade of solicitude they perhaps cultivate their own minds, and superintend the education of their children. Our day, we know, is only dawning — But when we contemplate a Warren, a Philenia, an Antonia, a Euphelia, &c. &c. we gratefully acknowledge, that genius and application, even in the female line, already gild, with effulgent radiance, our blest Aurora.
But women are calculated to shine in other characters than those adverted to, in the preceding Essays; and with proper attention to their education, and subsequent habits, they might easily attain that independence, for which a Wollstonecraft hath so energetically contended; the term, helpless widow, might be rendered as unfrequent and inapplicable as that of helpless widower; and although we should undoubtedly continue to mourn the dissolution of wedded amity, yet we should derive consolation from the knowledge, that the infant train had still a remaining prop, and that a mother could assist as well as weep over her offspring.
That women have a talent — a talent which, duly cultivated, would confer that independence, which is demonstrably of incalculable utility, every attentive observer will confess. THE SEX should be taught to depend on their own efforts, for the procurement of an establishment in life. The chance of a matrimonial coadjutor, is no more than a probable contingency; and if they were early accustomed to regard this uncertain event with suitable indifference, they would make elections with that deliberation, which would be calculated to give a more rational prospect of tranquility. All this we have repeatedly asserted, and all this we do invariably believe. To neglect polishing a gem, or obstinately to refuse bringing into action a treasure in our possession, when we might thus accumulate a handsome interest, is surely egregiously absurd, and the height of folly. The united efforts of male and female might rescue many a family from destruction, which, notwithstanding the efforts of its individual head, is now involved in all the calamities attendant in a dissipated fortune and augmenting debts. It is not possible to educate children in a manner which will render them too beneficial to society; and the more we multiply aids to a family, the greater will be the security, that its individuals will not be thrown a burden on the public.
An instance of female capability, this moment occurs to memory. In the State of Massachusetts, in a small town, some miles from the Metropolis, resides a woman, who hath made astonishing improvements in agriculture. Her mind, in the early part of her life, was penuriously cultivated, and she grew up almost wholly uneducated: But being suffered, during her childhood, to rove at large among her native fields, her limbs expanded, and she acquired a height of stature above the common size; her mind also became invigorated, and her understanding snatched sufficient information, to produce a consciousness of the injury she sustained in the want of those aids, which should have been furnished in the beginning of her years. She however applied herself diligently to remedy the evil, and soon made great proficiency in writing, and in arithmetic. She read every thing she could procure; but the impressions adventitiously made on her infant mind still obtained the ascendancy. A few rough acres constituted her patrimonial inheritance; these she has brought into a state of high cultivation; their productions are every year both useful and ornamental; she is mistress of agricolation, and is at once a botanist and a florist. The most approved authors in the English language, on these subjects, are in her hands, and she studies them with industry and success.
She has obtained such a considerable knowledge in the nature of soils, the precise manure which they require, and their particular adaptation to the various fruits of the earth, that she is (sic.) become the oracle of all the farmers in her vicinity; and when laying out, or appropriating their grounds, they uniformly submit them to her inspection. Her gardens are the resort of all strangers who happen to visit her village; and she is particularly remarkable for a growth of trees, from which, gentlemen, solicitous to enrich their fruit gardens, or ornament their parterres, are in the habit of supplying themselves; and those trees are, to their ingenious cultivator, a considerable income. Carefully attentive to her nursery, she knows when to transplant and when to prune; and she perfectly understands the various methods of inoculating and ingrafting. In short, she is a complete husbandwoman; and she has besides, acquired a vast stock of general knowledge, while her judgment has attained such a degree of maturity, as to justify the confidence of the villagers, who are accustomed to consult her on every perplexing emergency.
In the constant use of exercise, she is not corpulent; and she is extremely active, and wonderfully athletic. Instances, almost incredible, are produced of her strength. Indeed, it is not surprising that she is the idol and standing theme of the village, since, with all her uncommon qualifications, she combines a tenderness of disposition not to be exceeded. Her extensive acquaintance with herbs, contributes to render her a skilful and truly valuable nurse; and the world never produced a more affectionate, attentive, or faithful woman: Yet, while she feelingly sympathizes with every invalid, she is not herself subject to imaginary complaints; nor does she easily yield to illness. She has lately been indisposed — and a life so valuable, when endangered, embodied a host of fears for its safety: With difficulty she was persuaded to lie down upon her bed, and the young woman who attended her, and to whom she had endeared herself by a thousand good offices, after softly closing the shutters and door of her apartment, privately summoned the aid of a physician; and when the medical gentleman made his appearance, she accompanied him to the apartment of a friend; but behold, the bird was flown! And when pursued, she was found at a distance from her habitation, directing some labourers, who were employed in her service, and who, she was fearful, were not sufficiently attentive to her previous instructions. The event proved she had acted judiciously; for, braced by the fresh air, her nerves new string, assumed their usual tone, her sickness vanished, and her native vigour returned.
Although far advanced in years, without a matrimonial connexion, yet, constantly engaged in useful and interesting pursuits, she manifests not that peevishness and discontent, so frequently attendant on old maids; she realizes all that independence which is proper to humanity; and she knows how to set a just value on the blessings she enjoys.
From my treasury of facts, I produce a second instance, equally in point. I have seen letters, written by a lady, an inhabitant of St. Sebastian, (a Spanish emporium) that breathed the true spirit of commerce, and evinced the writer to possess all the integrity, punctuality and dispatch, which are such capital requisites in the mercantile career. This lady is at the head of a firm, of which herself and daughters make up the individuals — Her name is Birmingham. She is, I imagine, well known to the commercial part of the United States. She was left a widow in the infancy of her children, who were numerous; and she immediately adopted the most vigorous measures for their emolument. Being a woman of a magnanimous mind, she devoted her sons to the profession of arms; and they were expeditiously disposed of, in a way the best calculated to bring them acquainted with the art of war. Her daughters were educated for business; and, arriving at womanhood, they have long since established themselves into a capital trading-house, of which, as has been observed, their respectable mother is the head. She is, in the hours of business, invariably to be found in her compting-house; there she takes her morning repast; her daughters act as clerks, (and they are adepts in their office) regularly preparing the papers and letters, which pass in order under her inspection. She signs herself, in all accounts and letters, Widow Birmingham; and this is the address by which she is designated. I have conversed with one of our captains, who has often negociated with her the disposal of large and valuable cargoes. Her consignments, I am told, are to a great amount; and one of the principal merchants in the town of Boston asserts, that he receives from no house in Europe more satisfactory returns. Uprights in their dealings, and unwearied in their application, these ladies possess a right to prosperity; and we trust that their circumstances are as easy, as their conduct is meritorious.
“Would you, good Mr. Gleaner, station us in the compting-house?” No, my fair country-women, except circumstances unavoidably pointed the way. Again I say, I do but hold up to your view, the capability of your Sex; thus stimulating you to cultivate your talents, to endeavour to acquire general knowledge, and to aim at making yourselves so far acquainted with some particular branch of business, as that it may, if occasion requires, assist in establishing you above that kind of dependence, against which the freeborn mind so naturally revolts. Far be it from me, to wish to unsex you — I am desirous of preserving, by all means, those amiable traits that are considered as characteristic — I reverence the modesty and gentleness of your dispositions — I would not annihilate a single virtue; but I would assiduously augment the faithfulness and affection of your bosoms. An elegant panegyrist of your Sex, hath assigned you the superiority in the feelings of the heart; and I cannot more emphatically conclude my subject, than in his beautifully pathetic language:
“The pleasures of women must arise from their virtues. It is by the cradle of their children, and in viewing the smiles of their daughters, or the sports of their sons, that mothers find their happiness. Where are the powerful emotions of nature? Where is the sentiment, at once sublime and pathetic, that carries every feeling to excess? Is it to be found in the frosty indifference, and the sour severity of some fathers? No — but in the warm and affectionate bosom of a mother. It is she, who, by an impulse as quick as involuntary, rushes into the flood to preserve a boy, whose imprudence had betrayed him into the waves — It is she, who, in the middle of a conflagration, throws herself across the flames to save a sleeping infant — It is she, who, with disheveled locks, pale and distracted, embraces with transport, the body of a dead child, pressing its cold lips to hers, as if she would reanimate, by her tears and her caresses, the insensible clay. These great expressions of nature — these heart-rending emotions, which fill us at once with wonder, compassion and terror, always have belonged, and always will belong, only to Women. They possess, in those moments, an inexpressible something, which carries them beyond themselves; and they seem to discover to us new souls, above the standard of humanity.”
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