"Belonging to the World": Women's Rights and American Constitutional Culture

By Sandra F. Vanburkleo | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

Toward Coequality and Self-Possession

Sometime in 1838, hard on the heels of the Grimké sisters' incendiary lectures about white mens' immoral and unconstitutional subordination of blacks and women, Harvard law professor Simon Greenleaf decided to mount his own lyceum series about the legal status of women. He had in mind cooling fevered brows. “The public ear,” he said, “has been filled with declamation upon the wrongs of woman,—her political and legal non-existence,—her natural equality,—her inalienable rights, and her degrading servitude; as though the sex … had been conquered and subjugated by man, and were still held in a state of bondage.” Not so, he argued: the doctrine of marital unity actually advanced human equality and women's best interests.1

Listening intently was 32-year-old “Keziah Kendall” (probably a pseudonym), who supposedly lived with two sisters on a dairy farm near Cambridge, Massachusetts. In “Kendall's” telling, the trio boasted a “good estate—comfortable house—nice barn, garden, orchard … and money in the bank besides.” She had heard about one of Greenleaf s lectures from her milkman; afterward, she wrote a letter informing him that his talk had been useless. As a property owner liable for taxes but disfranchised, Kendall had hoped to learn why she was absent in government; Greenleaf s lecture shed no light. As she put it, the “whole responsibility” of the farm fell on her, and while she was “not over fond of money,” she had “worked hard” for long years trying to “do all in my power to help earn, and help save.” Would it not be “strange” if she did not value property more than “those who never earned anything?” She did not like the lecture: ““I”t was pretty spoken enough, but there was nothing in it but what every body knows. We all know about a widows' third, and we all know that a man must maintain his wife, and we all know that he must pay her debts, if she has any. … What I wanted to know,” she added pugnaciously, “was good reasons for some of those laws that I cant account for. I do hope if you are ever to lecture … again, that you will give us some.”2

The unmarried “Kendall” resented both disfranchisement and the long shadow of married women's disabilities. “Now we are taxed every year … taxes for land, for movables, for money and all,” she said. “I dont want to go representative or anything else, … but I have no voice about public improvements, and I dont see the justice of being taxed any more than the 'revolutionary heroes' did.” What about no taxation without representation? The law of coverture, moreover, had altered her life. Her indebted fiancé had feared that should they marry, his creditors would “get my property”; depressed and broken, he had gone to sea, never to return. “What I have suffered, I cannot tell you,” she wrote; there was “more might than right” in the law of domestic relations. She did not “wish to go about lecturing like the Misses Grimkie,” but she sensed in them a “call from humanity to speak” and judged his lecture “a onesided thing.” Nor were the Grimkés troublemakers: “When the fuss was about Antimasonry, the women did nothing about it, because there were no female masons, and it was none of their business.” This was different: “Women are kept for slaves as well as men—it is a common cause, deny the justice of it, who can!”3

-103-

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