A formidable early feminist

Mary Abigail Dodge (1833 – 1896) was an American writer and essayist, who wrote under the pseudonym Gail Hamilton. She is noted as much for her wit as she is for her championship of women’s rights and her polemics against slavery. Here is a fairly representative example of her views on men and women – “Man pays deference to woman instinctively, involuntarily, not because she is beautiful or truthful or wise or foolish or proper, but because she is a woman, and he cannot help it. If she descends, he will lower to her level; if she rises, he will rise to her height.” Here she is on a broader topic, amusingly outlining some uncomfortable home truths about friendship and making friends.

Oh, the matchless power of silence! There are words that concentrate in themselves the glory of a lifetime, but there is a silence that is more precious than they. Speech ripples over the surface of life, but silence sinks into its depths. Airy pleasantnesses bubble up in airy, pleasant words. Weak sorrows quaver out their shallow being, and are not. When the heart is cleft to its core, there is no speech nor language.

Do not now, Messrs. Bores, think to retrieve your characters by coming into my house and sitting mute for two hours. Heaven forbid that your blood should be found on my skirts! but I believe I shall kill you if you do. The only reason why I have not laid violent hands on you heretofore is that your vapid talk has operated as a wire to conduct my electricity to the receptive and kindly earth; but if you intrude upon my magnetisms without any such life-preserver, your future in this world is not worth a crossed sixpence. Your silence would break the reed that your talk but bruised. The only people with whom it is a joy to sit silent are the people with whom it is a joy to talk. Clear out!

Friendship plays the mischief in the false ideas of constancy which are generated and cherished in its name, if not by its agency. Your enemies are intense, but temporary. Time wears off the edge of hostility. It is the alembic in which offences are dissolved into thin air, and a calm indifference reigns in their stead. But your friends are expected to be a permanent arrangement. They are not only a sore evil, but of long continuance. Adhesiveness seems to be the head and front, the bones and blood, of their creed. It is not the direction of the quality, but the quality itself, which they swear by. Only stick, it is no matter what you stick to. Fall out with a man, and you can kiss and be friends as soon as you like; the recording angel will set it down on the credit side of his
books. Fall in, and you are expected to stay in, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. No matter what combination of laws got you there, there you are, and there you must stay, for better, for worse, till merciful Death you do part or you are ” fickle.” You find a man entertaining for an hour, a week, a concert, a journey, and presto! you are saddled with him forever. What preposterous absurdity!

Do but look at it calmly. You are thrown into contact with a person, and, as in duty bound, you proceed to fathom him, for every man is a possible revelation. In the deeps of his soul there may lie unknown worlds for you. Consequently you proceed at once to experiment on him. It takes a little while to get your tackle in order. Then the line begins to run off rapidly, and your eager soul cries out: ” Ah! what depth! What perpetual calmness must be down below! What rest is here for all my tumult! What a grand, vast nature is this!” Surely, surely, you are on the high seas. Surely, you will now float serenely down the eternities! But by-and-bye there is a kink. You find that, though the line runs off so fast, it does not go down it only floats out. A current has caught it and bears it on horizontally. It does not sink plumb. You have been deceived. Your grand Pacific Ocean is nothing but a shallow little brook, that you can ford all the year round, if it does not utterly dry up in the summer heats, when you want it most; or, at best, it is a fussy little tormenting river, that won’t and can’t sail a sloop. What are you going to do about it? You are going to wind up your lead and line, shoulder your birch canoe, as the old sea-kings used, and thrid the deep forests, and scale the purple hills, till you come to water again, when you will unroll your lead and line for another essay. Is that fickleness? What else can you do? Must you launch your bark on the unquiet stream, against whose pebbly bottom the keel continually grates and rasps your nerves, simply that your reputation suffer no detriment? Fickleness? There was no fickleness about it. You were trying an experiment which you had every right to try. As soon as you were satisfied you stopped. If you had stopped sooner you would have been unsatisfied. If you had stopped later you would have been dissatisfied. It is a criminal contempt of the magnificent possibilities of life not to lay hold of ” God’s occasions floating by.” It is an equally criminal perversion of them to cling tenaciously to what was only the simulacrum of an occasion. A man will toil many days and nights among the mountains to find an ingot of gold, which, found, he bears home with infinite pains and just rejoicing; but he would be a fool who should lade his mules with iron pyrites to justify his
labours, however severe.

Fickleness! what is it, that we make such an ado about it? And what is constancy, that it commands such usurious interest? The one is a foible only in its relations. The other is only thus a virtue. ” Fickle as the winds ” is our death-seal upon a man; but should we like our winds unfickle? Would a perpetual northeaster lay us open to perpetual gratitude? or is a soft south gale to be orisoned and vespered forevermore?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s