Saturday, May 21, 2011
I've been reading a bit from Lucy Stone, an important suffragette and abolitionist. She was the first Massachusetts woman to ever earn a college degree--she went to Oberlin, the first coeducational university, and graduated in 1847--and was the first known woman to keep her maiden name upon her marriage.
I just read Stone's last speech, which was delivered to the Congress of Women at the Chicago World's Fair a few months before her death. It is titled The Progress of Fifty Years, and simply describes the great progress of women's rights in America, starting with the opening of Oberlin College in 1833. This event, she contends, "lifted a massive load from woman. It shattered the idea, everywhere pervasive in the atmosphere, that women were incapable of education, and would be less womanly, less desirable in every way, if they had it."
From then on, the extension of women's rights could not be stopped. Stone lists the achievements of women who were pioneers in their fields, and the great difficulties they had to overcome. She comments, "I think, with never-ending gratitude, that the young women of today do not and can never know at what price their right to free speech and to speak at all in public has been earned."
Stone also says, "The idea that [women's] sphere was at home, and only at home, was like a band of steel on society...We pleaded that whatever was fit to be done at all might with propriety be done by anybody who did it well; that the tools belonged to those who could use them; that the possession of a power presupposed a right to its use." That second sentence, I think, sums up the feminist cause in a nutshell.
This would be a great speech to give to a younger audience to read, because it describes so well the extensive limitations on women throughout the 19th century, which are quite difficult to imagine today. Stone articulately points out that women had few legal right and could not speak in public or become doctors, lawyers, or indeed anything much outside of the home. It's also quite short and clear, without much Victorian elaboration; it would make an excellent piece for classroom discussion.