[To “Voices from 19th-Century America”]

Woman’s Rights, by John Todd (1867)
Woman’s Wrongs, by “Gail Hamilton” (1868)

He was a literature-minded minister.

She was a writer who combined wit and sometimes-caustic social commentary.

Together, they were a decidedly odd literary couple connected by opposing viewpoints on a single subject.

John Todd (1800-1873) probably was well known to 19th-century American readers: he wrote The Student’s Manual (1835), which went through 21 printings before 1856; and some of his works appeared in children’s periodicals. In Woman’s Rights, he expresses his concerns about the place of women in American society—ideas built around Christianity and not that unusual for the late 1860s. The book appeared originally as a series of essays in The Congregationalist, published in Boston, Massachusetts.

Women, Todd asserts, are simply not the equivalent of men, physically or mentally. Women just simply cannot become scholars, scientists, inventors, or artists; the young woman “thumping and drumming her piano for years, under the best teachers” found that her brother could “come along and take it up, and without any teaching, soon go in advance of the sister.” (p. 11)

Women, Todd avers, shouldn’t “chase and kill and try up whales” or “go to the Arctic Ocean for seals” or take any other job because, he reminds them, “you can’t be good wives, mothers, and crowns of your families, and go into these things—can you?” (p. 16)

Women, Todd announces, cannot wear trousers or even “the Bloomer dress” because the costume isn’t graceful (pp. 16-17); they shouldn’t demand the vote because voting is “unseemly” and, besides, the right to vote isn’t universal, since “[m]inors, foreigners, and idiots are denied it” (p. 17); they shouldn’t hope for equal pay because men need the money more (p. 19); they shouldn’t become professionals because … men need the money more (p. 21).

Oh, my.

Todd is … an easy target, in his earnestness and in his evident belief that his rickety logic is unassailable. And he is a tempting target, given his urge to address women directly, “kindly, faithfully, plainly, calmly, and decidedly.” (p. 3) And—not surprising—condescendingly. “O woman!” he bleats; and he refers to his assumed audience as “women of my country!,” “dear sisters,” and “gentle ones.” (pp. 26, 16, 27)

Abigail Dodge (1833-1896) turned out not to be one of the “gentle ones.” As “Gail Hamilton”—author of a popular work or 12 beginning in the 1860s—she dissected Todd’s argument the year after its publication, in Woman’s Wrongs, a work not kind or calm, but very, very decided. Besides disassembling Todd’s shaky argument, Dodge gives us a glimpse of the reception of his comments: “Clerical conferences passed resolutions fortifying Dr. Todd’s position. ‘Religious’ newspapers hastened to give him their sanction. Secular newspapers became suddenly devout, and, ranging themselves by the side of their religious brethren, went singing Te Deums after Dr. Todd. The piety of it, Iago, the piety of it!” (Wrongs, pp. 5-6)

Among the entertainments of Todd’s work is an early version of the phrase “why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” (on page 26) and a thorough and probably exaggerated list of the subjects offered to students at schools for girls (p. 23)—besides, of course, the “three to six hours of severe toil at the piano” which would fail to make them into musical prodigies.

Among the entertainments of Dodge’s work is an eloquence formed by fury. Todd building his argument around Christianity was a tactic that Dodge found especially noxious: “The Mohammedan and the Mormon doctrines are that women have no life in the next world except through their husbands,” she notes here. “The Christian doctrine is that they have none in this.” (page 183)

Reviewers were not kind to Todd, sometimes using the word “twaddle” to describe his work. They tended to be more enthusiastic about Dodge, calling her “the sharpest writer of the day” and enjoying the way she “transfixed, disembowelled and analyzed, decapitated and annihilated our good Dr. Todd. Oh, Gail, Gail, how could you have the heart to do it?” one asked, knowing full well exactly how and why.

Woman’s Rights and Woman’s Wrongs were reprinted in one volume by the Arno Press in 1972. The first editions are presented here in individual files, with page numbers indicated. Together they are a decidedly lively read.

Both texts are available together as an ebook. Notices and reviews of both books are intermingled on a separate page.

Woman’s Rights, by John Todd (1867) |

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