Woman and Her Wishes

A Plea for Equality

Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Kean Collection/Getty Images

Thomas Wentworth Higginson is known, when he is remembered at all, for his role as commander of black troops in the Civil War, for his active participation in the abolitionist movement, his connection to the Transcendentalists, as the officiant at the radical wedding of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, and as a discoverer and editor of Emily Dickinson's poems. Less known is his lifelong advocacy of women's rights. In this essay, first published in 1853 and addressed to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, Higginson presents an early argument for women's rights.

Woman and Her Wishes - 1853

Annotated Table of Contents

The titles of the sections are my own, as the original is not divided. I have included this annotated table of contents to aid in understanding Higginson's argument.  The original document in full can be found on the web or in libraries.

  • Purpose
    In this preface to the essay, Higginson addressed the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, meeting to decide how the Legislature would be elected, and suggesting that the larger issue of woman's vote be considered. Note the allusions to Queen Isabella's support of the expedition of Columbus.
  • Women's Education
    Higginson outlines the state of education for girls in Massachusetts: they have been included equally in public education through high school, but are not admitted to colleges.
  • Educated Women of History
    Higginson cautions against feeling too joyful over progress in education, since there have always been highly educated women -- and he names some notables.
  • Aim of Education for Girls
    Higginson points out that schooling for girls is justified on the basis that girls will become wives and mothers -- yet many never do. Is this an adequate aim for education for women?
  • Education and Employment
    Higginson then moves to discussing the importance, for motivation in education, of believing that one will be able to apply that education to a useful vocation. Yet girls do not have this prospect at the end of their education, outside of marriage and motherhood.
  • Sea-Captains If They Will
    Higginson points out a few women who have, despite having to swim against the current of opposition, proven that women can succeed in a variety of professions. He includes here names of some prominent accomplished women of his own time: editors, ministers, health workers, lawyers, artists, etc.
  • Woman's Secondary Position
    Higginson lists many ways in which girls are taught that they have no mission to be successful, but that women are only to be secondary to men, and defined in relation to them.
  • Encounter with Prejudice
    Higginson shows the difficulties which women have in achieving success, and suggests that if a few women are unfeminine or unattractive, that this is a product of exclusionary prejudice.
  • Ballot-Box
    More important than employment and schooling, Higginson argues, is the right to the ballot-box, and the right to the public life that goes along with the vote, including public office. He argues that in Europe, exclusion from the vote is by status or class, not sex, as women have been queens, regents and peeresses. In a democracy that values political participation of all persons, excluding women makes them less than persons. He ends this section with the suggestion that American chivalry and politeness is intended to make up for other inequalities, but is inadequate compensation.
  • Public Service of Women in Europe and America
    Higginson enumerates many instances where women served well in public offices in Europe, and contrasts this to limited roles for women in America.
  • The Grievances
    Higginson, in a transition, summarizes the wrongs in education, employment, political rights, lack of a "consent of the governed," losses to the public by excluding women's skills, lack of protection of the dignity of labor.
  • The Great Grievance
    Beyond the individual grievances named thus far, Higginson considers much greater the systematic nature of woman's status. At the core of American institutions is the assumption that woman is inferior to man, and even legally nonexistent after marriage. He also argues that political equality through the vote is the essential remedy.
  • What Do Women Want?
    Higginson acknowledges the three Woman's Rights Conventions held in the years just before he is writing this essay, and the specious arguments he finds that are used against the "rebellious females" by editors, ministers and professors. He points out that similar arguments have been used against slavery and in defense of oligarchy before. He addresses the first of these arguments: that women don't want equal rights.
  • Do Women Need Civil Rights?
    In this section, Higginson answers the common argument that women do not need additional citizenship rights by asserting that indirect influence is not acceptable, and that the issue is not specific statutes, but the overall attitude of the law towards women.
  • Are Women Fit for Political Rights?
    Higginson argues that women are able to and willing to participate in voting and other public rights. He points out contradictions in how women are "protected" from public participation.
  • The Importance of Dinner
    Could it be, Higginson asks, that one reason men hesitate to give women equality is that they believe that their dinners are threatened? He points out that many literary women have had to "prove" their right to write by producing "cookery-books" first. Yet Queen Victoria has been manager of a household and head of state. Perhaps, he also suggests, the perspective of the household would sometimes be useful.
  • The Value of Inclusion
    Higginson argues that including women in political meetings would improve the quality of the meetings, and suggests that, if women have different God-given qualities, that those qualities are needed in public life. He closes his argument with the suggestion that a woman even as head of the nation is not such a daring idea, no more than other innovations not yet experienced. Woman "must be a slave or an equal; there is no middle ground." It is absurd to deny her full equality.