Woman’s Wrongs: A Counter-Irritant

The popular writer skewers a leading minister

Mary Abigail Dodge (1833 -1896) was a popular writer and humorist who lived much of her life in the small town of Hamilton, Mass. Under the pen name Gail Hamilton, she wrote the bestselling Country Living, Country Thinking (1863). The Atlantic, for which she wrote, reviewed the book, saying, “She is wild in sentences, heretical in paragraphs, thoroughly orthodox in essays. Her mind is really inclosed by the most rigid maxims of Calvinistic theology, while, within that circle, it frisks and plays in the oddest and wittiest freaks.”

On the title page of her 1868 book Woman’s Wrongs: A Counter-Irritant, she quotes Horace’s Epistles: Si quid novisti rectius istis, candidus imperti; si nil, his utere mecum. (If you can better these principles, tell me; if not, join me in following them.)

Dodge then proceeds to lay out a 212-page response to an essay Rev. John Todd (1800-1883) had written in opposition to women’s rights. Todd, a public intellectual of his time, was the author of 30 books, including the bestselling The Student’s Manual (1835), in which he warns young men to be wary of novels and their attendant danger, masturbation.

Dodge was both an abolitionist and a woman whose belief in democracy was limited by her class perspective. While she favored expanding the suffrage to at least some women and Black Americans, she was also quite willing to deny the vote to those deemed unworthy.

She made her living as a governess and writes from the perspective of a devout, upper-middle class woman.

Dodge was most celebrated for turning her sharp wit on men, of whom she had no high opinion. She writes, in part:

The Rev. John Todd, D.D. has lately been moved to announce and expound the laws of human life, especially in their bearing upon the relations between man and woman. …

If to diminish disgust of vice, and to destroy the charm of innocence, be success, he has indeed achieved a singular success.

He turned his attention to a thing “horrible, hateful, monstrous, not to be told”[1] and he so managed to overlay it with impotent and sometimes ridiculous logic, with ill-directed denunciation, with irreverent assumption of Divine prerogatives, with Scriptural misrepresentations, with the kind of talk for which the popular phrase “silly sentimentalism” is too substantial, and which is better described by sentimental silliness, that pious fatuity did the work of infernal cleverness … He touched a sacrament, and it shriveled to profanity.

Marriage became in his hands a base commercial transaction. Woman was reduced to the level of the beasts that perish. What is beyond the province of reasoning he did not scruple to force under the yoke of his sophistry. Things secret and sacred, the soul’s most solemn symbolism, God’s own trust  to the hidden heart of humanity … he brought out remorselessly to the blare of argument, and the glare of ambition, and the stare of stupidity. …

Through the rank growths of selfishness his words spread like prairie fire.

A gospel that preaches masculine self-gratification as manly religion, the lowest womanly subserviency to man as the sole womanly way of doing God service, is not the boon of every day, nor to be lightly let slip. It’s improbabilities, its inconsistencies, its monstrosities seemed to go down sweetly, like the grapes of Beulah[2]. …

“Religious” newspapers hastened to give him their sanction. Secular newspapers became suddenly devout… The piety of it, Iago, the piety of it! Liberal Christian and bigoted Puritan, man of God and man of the world, all who loved themselves better than righteousness who would rejoice to see inequity framed into a moral law and transmuted into gospel—all, for once, laid down the weapons of their warfare, and joined in the holy shout, “There is no god but God, and Dr. Todd is his prophet!” …

So far as happiness consists of setting adjectives and pronouns adrift without any visible means of support, the following sentence [of Dr. Todd’s] must be conceded to be eminently blissful: “Among the other sex there is a widespread uneasiness—a discontentment with woman’s lot, impatience of its burdens, rebellious against its sufferings, an undefined hope of emancipation from the ordinary lot of humanity, by some great revolution, that that her condition will be entirely changed!”

“This feeling”—we quote now rather for the felicity of the thought than of the expression—“crops out in publicly ridiculing marriage, dwelling on its evils, raving about the tyranny of men, crying for the ‘emancipation of women.’ ”

Dr. Todd can never be suspected of using language to conceal ideas. ….

Certainly let the ballot be put within reach of every industrious person in any calling of life; let the condition of suffrage be such that a non-fulfillment of the condition is presumptive evidence of incapacity to exercise the right. Who shall fix the standard? … The authority that grants to every tatterdemalion the right to vote because he is 21 years old may forbid the man of 21 years to vote because he is a tatterdemalion.[3] The indiscriminate bestowal of the ballot makes the ballot common and unclean. … I would have the ballot made a noble and desirable possession, a sign of sagacity, of ability, of worth, something to be striven for, a guerdon[4] as well as a power. And when it is thus ennobled, let it be open to all who can fulfil the conditions—men and women, black and white. …

Whoever feels obliged to use his reason finds himself constantly hampered by its requirements, and can reach correct conclusions only by a slow, zig-zag, and often perplexing path; but Dr. Todd is free from vexing limitations. His mind seems to be of that privileged sort that has no relation to facts. …

He prepares an elaborate and formidable list of occupations—tying up whales, cutting out tumors, stirring tan vats, bleeding calves, sticking swine, and may other equally aesthetic—and felicitously adds, “Now she must go in for all this, if she leaves her sphere and tries to be a man. Take off the robes, and put on pants, and show the limbs, and grace and mystery is” (a minor grammatical felicity) “all gone.”

The Mohammedan and the Mormon doctrines are that women have no life in the next world except through their husbands. The Christian doctrine is that they have none in this.

“Man,” says a popular lecturer, “needs the conscious affection of a female heart to soften the asperities of his own, and to give completeness to his being.” But what of the female heart while it is thus softening his asperities and completing his being? Is asperity-softening a pleasant work? Will it be likely to give completeness to the female being? Or is she supposed to be already complete?

“In order to found a home,” says the same lecturer, according to the newspaper report, “the first thing to do is to look around for a woman who would make a good partner in this home business—a pleasant woman pure, good, sensible, modest, tidy, good-looking and intelligent.”

I should say, decidedly the first thing for him is to take a good long look at himself, and make sure that he is pure, good, sensible, modest, tidy, good-looking and intelligent, and therefore a fit person for a woman of such qualities to associate with…

Gail Hamilton [pseudonym for Mary Abigail Dodge] (1833-1896). Woman’s Wrongs: A Counter-Irritant. Boston : Ticknor and Fields, 1868. Author’s presentation copy, dated January 18, 1869

[1] From Alfred Tennyson’s “Maud” from Maud, and Other Poems

[2] The “grapes of Beulah,” (a reference to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)) are grapes “so sweet that they actually cause people to talk in their sleep.” Not to be confused with Mae West’s line from I’m no Angel (1933): “Peel me a grape Beulah,” the apparent inspiration of which was not Jon Bunyan but Boogie, her pet monkey who would peel each grape before he ate it.

[3] According to Meriam Webster, a tatterdemalion is similar to a slubberdeguillion.

[4] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an archaic word for reward or recompense.

Gail Hamilton (Mary Abigail Dodge)

Mary Abigail Dodge, writing under the name Gail Hamilton, was a journalist in Washington, D.C., before and after the Civil War. She was best known for her 1863 book Country LIving and Country Thinking and was a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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