Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Heart Balm Racket & Feminist Rhetoric in 1869


FULL TEXT: The New York Times of several days and other journals of this City contain articles on Amanda Craig’s modest suit for damages for breach of promise, while the reports of Women’s Rights meetings, tell us much of the often repeated “Degradation of Woman.”* There is, no doubt, a great deal of degradation, and, perhaps, there is no greater self-degradation, and, perhaps, there is no greater self-degradation of woman than these shameless, loathsome suits for “damages for blighted affections.” No law, except the English and American law, knows of such suits. A modern English Judge has said that these suits are well founded. A girl who, under a promise of marriage, loses other opportunities of a fair settlement, is entitled to damages for the loss of time. Is this the vaunted chivalry, romance, civilization of our “advanced age?” The twelve men who awarded $100,000 to the lady with the loving name must have considered her affections worth a great deal, even after she had shown, by suing Mr. Sprague, of what dimensions they must be. It is high time that, bylaw or State Constitutions, this legal coarseness and Anglican barbarity were totally abolished.

Equally self-degrading are those suits for damage for seduction, which are instituted by the seduced. The woman degrades herself in these cases to a simply passive being, as if she had no self-government, in the sense in which the old theologians – Baxter** and those great writers took their own translation of autnomy.

Nor do the men degrade woman less by the almost impunity they accord to the worst criminals among women. No female prisoner, however fiendish, but is pardoned, because it is so hard to execute a weak woman! As though a penal trial and penal punishment were a trial of strength! The impunity extended to woman deprives her of moral responsibility and degrades her in this point, even more than the former slave was, for slavery, full of contradictions as it was, exhibited also this glaring inconsistency: that, while it declared the negro a thing to be sold and bought, it nevertheless ascribed moral responsibility to him, and made him liable to penal trials, such as they were, and sure to suffer the penalties awarded him.

History, from the most distant times, and the daily occurrences around us, show that woman can be quite as criminal, quite as fiendish, quite as bent on iniquity, as man, and all the sickly stuff about the poor, weak creature, when she has committed a crime, is simple degradation of her, when those very men who would pardon every female convict declare her infinitely superior to man in point of morality. Let us be done with this hypocricy; let us honor woman as our equal, wholly and fully, in morality, in religion, in responsibility and in immortality; let us truly honor her, and in order to do this, among other things, let us abolish civil suits asking for damages for breach of promise, and punish the female criminals. It ought be claimed as a right by women themselves to be held responsible. – E. L.

[E. L., “The ‘Degradation of Woman,” The New York Times (N. Y.), Jul. 29, 1869, p. 5]

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* “Degradation of Woman.” – A phrase apparently popularized in 1848 by American Quaker feminist Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793-1880): “The world has never yet seen a truly great nation because in the very degradation of women the very foundations of life are poisoned at their source.”

** Baxter – Richard Baxter; 1615 – 1691; American Puritan theologian promoted the idea of individual agency.

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