This excerpt is from Robert Lewis Dabney’s 1871 essay “Women’s Rights Women.” Dabey was a Reb, and therefore he and his views are now anathema. If he ever had a statue, it has surely been torn down by now. He has said things elsewhere with which you will disagree; yet your disagreement with that is irrelevant to what he said below. Once again I abjure you to note the date, which is nearing its sesquicentennial. Some paragraphifications have been added to enhance readability on screens.
In our day, innovations march with so rapid a stride that they quite take away one’s breath. The fantastical project of yesterday, which was mentioned only to be ridiculed, is to-day the audacious reform, and will be to-morrow the accomplished fact. Such has been the history of the agitation for “women’s rights,” as they are sophistically called in this country. A few years ago this movement was the especial hobby of a few old women of both sexes, who made themselves the laughing-stock of all sane people by the annual ventilation of their crotchet.
Their only recruits were a few of the unfortunates whom nature or fortune had debarred from those triumphs and enjoyments which are the natural ambition of the sex, and who adopted this agitation as the most feasible mode of expressing their spitefulness against the successful competitors. To-day the movement has assumed such dimensions that it challenges the attention of every thoughtful mind…
One result of the reflection which we have been able to give this movement, is the conviction that it will prevail in the so-called “United States.” This is foreshadowed by the frantic lust for innovation which has seized the body of the people like an epidemic. It is enough with them to condemn any institution, that it was bequeathed us by our forefathers; because it is not the invention of this age, it is wrong, of course. In their eyes no experience proves anything, save the experience which they have had themselves…
The very axioms of American politics now are, that “all men are by nature equal,” that all are inalienably “entitled to liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and that “the only just foundation of government is in the consent of the governed.” There was a sense in which our fathers propounded these statements; but it is not the one in which they are now held by Americans…Those wise statesmen meant to teach that all men are morally equal in the sense of the Golden Rule…Radical America now means by natural liberty each one’s privilege to do what he chooses to do…By “the consent of the governed” it would appear that Radicalism means it is entirely just for Yankeedom to govern Virginia against Virginia’s consent…
And last: the State has committed the crowning outrage and inconsistency of not letting [Mistress Amazona Narragansett] be a man because God made her a woman! What an outrage this to be committed on so frivolous a pretext! Be consoled, Mistress Amazona; it is simply impossible that such abuses can stand much longer in the full light of this reforming age…That mighty tide of progress which has already swept away the Constitution, and slavery, and State’s rights, and the force of contracts public and private, with all such rubbish, will soon dissolve your grievance also. Has not the Radical version of the political gospel said, “All men are by nature mechanically equal?”…It means that a woman has a natural right to do all the particular things that a man does (if she can), to sit on juries and shave her beard, to serve in the army and ride astraddle, to preach sermons and sing bass…
(Start here if you are short of time or attention.)
It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will to-morrow be forced upon its timidity, and will be succeeded by some third revolution, to be denounced and then adopted in its turn.
American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader.
This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always—when about to enter a protest—very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance.
The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip.
No doubt, after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.
The reader is reminded that most of Dabney’s prophecies have come to pass; we anxiously await the completion of animal “rights” to make his average one hundred percent. The essay continues after this, but that’s enough for today.
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