Getting to the source: hints for wives--and husbands

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Date: Summer 2003
From: Journal of Women's History(Vol. 15, Issue 2)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,394 words

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This article reveals, for the first time, the "humorous article" read by Lucretia Mott at the historic 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention. Written by Mott's sister Martha Coffin Wright, it presents a view of the gender roles in marriage very different from that expressed in most literature of its time.

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The official report of the 1848 Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, states that during the first day's session, "LUCRETIA MOTT read a humorous article from a newspaper, written by MARTHA C. WRIGHT." (1) The identity of this "humorous article" remained unknown to modern scholars until we began our research into the life of Martha Coffin Wright, a younger sister of Lucretia Mott. Her article was originally published in 1846, and reveals a picture of marriage very different from the view presented in most literature of the time. Although written in a humorous style, its message is very serious, and its spirit is consistent with the historic Declaration of Sentiments and revolutionary resolutions signed at Seneca Falls, which challenged traditional gender roles in society.

Wright's article first appeared on 23 September 1846 in the United States Gazette and appeared again on 11 August 1848 in Frederick Douglass's North Star. (2) Douglass was in attendance that July at the Seneca Falls Convention, presumably enjoyed hearing the article read by his friend Lucretia Mott, and asked for permission to republish it. Like many of Martha Wright's published writings, it was written in response to something she had read that angered her. She specialized in counter-punches. In this case, she responded to a published article that advised wives that "obedience is a very small part of conjugal duty," and that to please her husband much more was required, including "unremitting kindness" and "a cheerful smile." Her response to such injunctions was engendered by two decades of personal marital experience with the demands and drudgeries of maintaining a household and raising six children on a limited income. Wright sets the stage by quoting some of the advice from the offending article, advice that was typical of the time. She then turns the advice on its head with her hints for husbands, and ends with a devastating description of the typical days (and nights) of a nineteenth-century husband and his wife. We repeat below the complete text of Wright's "Hints for Wives" as it appeared, under a pseudonym, in Douglass's North Star three weeks after the Seneca Falls Convention:

Obedience is a very small part of conjugal duty, and in most cases, easily performed. Much of the comfort of a married life depends on the lady; a great deal more, perhaps, than she is aware of. She scarcely knows her own influence; how much she may do by persuasion--how much by sympathy--how much by unremitting kindness and little attention. To acquire and retain such influence, she must, however, make her conjugal duties her first object. She must not think that any thing will do for her husband--that any wine is good enough for her husband that it is not worth while to be agreeable when there is only her husband by--that she may close her piano, or lay aside her brush, for why should she play or paint merely to amuse her husband? No--she must consider all these little arts of pleasing, chiefly valuable on his account--as means of perpetuating her attractions, and giving permanence to his affections--she must remember that her duty consists not so much in great and solitary acts--in display of the sublime virtues to which she will only be occasionally called; but in trifles--in a cheerful smile, or a minute attention naturally rendered, and proceeding from a heartful of kindness, and a temper full of amiability.

In looking over a later paper, I met with the above valuable hints on the duties of wives to their lords, pointing out the modes in which they were to secure, in the husband, the chivalric devotion which had characterized the lover. The most infallible specific, or the one most strongly insisted upon in rules of this kind, is a "smiling countenance." No matter what a wife's annoyances may have been during the day, her countenance must always be wreathed in smiles on the approach of her husband. Being one of those fortunate individuals who have hitherto escaped the noose, I have had leisure to give to these subjects that profound reflection which characterizes those situated like myself.

   "For if there's anything in which I shine,
   'Tis in arranging all my friends' affairs,
   Not having of my own domestic cares." (3)

It has often recurred to me, therefore, that it was rather singular that all this good advice should always come from one side. How is it that there are so few guide-posts to point the way to innocent young gentlemen who have recently submitted their neck to the "noose and the halter?" Why is it not oftener insisted upon, that the husband should always return to his fireside with a smile, and endeavor to soothe the perturbed spirit, that has for hours been subjected to the thousand annoyances of the nursery and the kitchen.

There is many an unfortunate Mrs. Rogers (4) among my acquaintance, with "nine small children and one at the breast," who need all the soothing tenderness erst bestowed by the lover, to enable them to forget the troubles so wearing to the nerves--by the way, it has sometimes occurred to me whether it was not Mrs. Rogers who was the martyr, and honest John a most fortunate individual, to get so well "out of the scrape" of being obliged to make adequate provisions for the filling those ten small mouths, and the clothing those ten small bodies.

Compare for a moment the lot of Husband and Wife, in what is called a "well regulated family." The former takes his seat at the breakfast table, where his taste and comfort have been silently consulted, as far as is practicable-on his wife devolves the care of preparing the "nine small children" to take their seats there also, and in some degree of regulating their conduct. Breakfast ended, the husband goes forth to the workshop, his counter, his counting-house or his office, greets pleasantly his acquaintances by the way, and passes the day among the ever-varying scenes of every-day business life. The wife, meanwhile, amid incessant clamor, must renew the treadmill task of yesterday--must wash the same faces, make the same beds, sweep the same rooms; must settle disputes in the kitchen, and quarrels among the nine fallen little sons and daughters of her Adam; and amid all these occupations, must find occasional moments to "stitch-stitch-stitch" the innumerable garments needed in a family.

Let her look to it, according to the sapient and oft-reiterated advice above alluded to, that she gets through this in time to clothe her harrassed and care-worn visage in those "wreathed smiles" so indispensable toward maintaining the good humor of her liege lord. He too has had troubles to encounter, for from trouble no one is exempt; but not of that petty, harrassing kind that are wearing away the spirits and the life of the partner he has chosen.

Night comes--the husband finds the repose so much needed to enable him to meet the unavoidable cares of tomorrow, and sleeps as quietly as "the babes in the wood," while the wife starts at the slightest noise, to minister to the comfort of the restless inmates of the trunnel bed and the crib, all of whom are sure to be astir at the earliest dawn, and demanding the immediate care of the mother, who rises weary and unrefreshed, again to go through the same routine--truly, she should smile! whether she always can, is a debatable question. I insist, therefore, that the husband should have a full share of the advice so lavishly bestowed on the wife. Until a better state of things can be brought about, I am firmly resolved to continue


Hints on the duty of Obedience shall appear hereafter.

Wright's throwaway last line was powerful, referring effectively back to the opening line of the offending article, "Obedience is a very small part of conjugal duty." In America in the 1840s, marital advice along the lines of the first paragraph, described by Wright as "the duties of wives to their lords," was common. A wife should "make her conjugal duties her first object," apply "unremitting kindness" and "all these little arts of pleasing ... as means of perpetuating her attractions, and give permanence to his affections." Wright took the expressed need for the wife to display "a cheerful smile" as an excuse to describe the drudgery of the typical housewife's day and conclude that "truly, she should smile! whether she always can is a debatable question." She introduced the concept of reciprocity, rare in those days: "the husband should have a full share of the advice so lavishly bestowed on the wife." Many years later, when one of Wright's sons was to marry a niece of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Wright wrote him, "We can only pray that you may both be happy-'yr, dependence mutual, your independence equal, yr. duties reciprocal.'" (5) After the wedding, Wright reported proudly that the bride "didn't promise to obey." (6) This omission was very appropriate for a niece of Stanton, and for a daughter-in-law of Martha Coffin Wright. Wright remained a leader in the women's movement from 1848, when she helped to organize the Seneca Falls Convention, until her death in 1875, when she was president of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Although the nineteenth-century women's movement is often viewed largely as a fight for woman suffrage, the early workers in the movement, including Martha Coffin Wright, had a much broader agenda. The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and the various resolutions passed at that historic convention covered many issues pertaining to gender inequalities beyond the lack of the vote. Wright's "Hints for Wives" made no mention of suffrage, but attacked gender inequities on a very basic level--the relative roles of the wife and husband in marriage. Over several decades following Seneca Falls, Wright fought doggedly for woman suffrage, but her voluminous preserved correspondence reveals that she was also concerned about many other women's rights issues, including property rights in marriage, access to higher education and the professions, and gender-based salary differences. (7) When her son went to college in 1862, she wrote, "I envy a young man this privilege more than almost any other." (8) On several occasions, she expressed the desire to "pay the women I employ precisely what men receive for the same amount of work," (9) an opinion her husband considered "nonsense." He would hear much more such "nonsense" from Wright over the years. After the Civil War, when many in the women's movement chose to focus almost exclusively on the issue of suffrage, Wright, like her sister Lucretia Mott and her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, remained interested in broader social reform. "I for one have always gloried in the name of Woman's Rights," she declared at an 1866 convention, "and pitied those of my sex who ignobly declared they had all the rights they wanted." (10)

Lucretia Mott's prominence as a speaker and leader in the early abolitionist and women's rights movements has led to the contributions of Martha Coffin Wright being largely overlooked. As Robert Riegel wrote in American Feminists, "The eminence of Lucretia Mott threw the career of her sister Martha C. Wright into the shadow ... Her influence, however, was widespread and important." (11) From the 1833 meeting in Philadelphia founding the American Anti-Slavery Society, the two sisters worked closely together in the antislavery movement, and from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, they similarly collaborated in the women's rights movement. Although Mott remained a revered senior figure in the women's movement throughout her life, Wright actually assumed a more active role in the fight for women's rights than her older sister after 1855. Despite a lifelong fear of public speaking, Wright presided over numerous state and national women's rights conventions, and served the movement effectively in many other capacities. In addition to her published writings, she carried petitions, wrote resolutions, prepared memorials for state legislatures, and appeared before legislatures and Congressional committees on behalf of women's rights. (She was among the women who appeared before a joint Senate-House committee hearing in Washington in January 1870, the first time in American history that women addressed a committee of Congress.) Her life and contributions to reform have been described briefly by several scholars, and are treated more fully in our forthcoming biography. (12)

Although Mott was the public speaker of the family, she considered Wright the writer of the family. Wright's written contributions at Seneca Falls clearly impressed Stanton, who immediately after the convention wrote Wright to "keep your pen busy" and "not let a day by without writing something." (13) In the years to come, Stanton would often seek Wright's assistance in drafting her own writings on women's rights. (14) Susan B. Anthony was not present at the Seneca Falls Convention, but apparently read Wright's article several years later, and wrote her, "You advice to husbands is Capital--why don't you write more--you could do a World for the Cause." (15) Over the years, Wright's writings in support of the women's rights and abolition movements indeed appeared in various newspapers, including local dailies and national weeklies like The Liberator, The Revolution, and The Nation. For example, when in 1870 an editor of The Nation attacked the woman suffrage movement, Wright responded with a forceful defense of the movement and its leaders. (16) Later that year, at a convention honoring pioneers of the women's movement, the chairman said about Wright, "her pen has always been sharpened in ready defence of the cause and the active workers." (17)

Like many of Wright's published writings, "Hints for Wives" appeared over a pseudonym. When she wrote this article in 1846, Wright was not "an old maid," nor did she have "nine small children." But she had three, plus three others no longer small, so she was very familiar with the "incessant clamor" of children, the repetitive "treadmill tasks" of a housewife, troubles of a "petty, harrassing kind," and with many hours of "stitch-stitch-stitch." So were many, if not most, of the other women at Seneca Falls. For Wright, the drudgery of housework and the incessant clamor of children were unlikely to let up very soon, since at the time of the convention, Wright was six months pregnant with her seventh child. Her life-size bronze statue in the Visitor Center of the Women's Rights National Historical Park at Seneca Falls shows her visibly pregnant, a testimony for the ages that the bearing of children does not preclude women from making important public contributions to society.


(1) The official Report of the Woman's Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls,. N.Y., July 19th and 20th, 1848 was published in Rochester in 1848, reprinted in 1870 (New York: Robert J. Johnston), and appears in The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Vol. 1: In the School of Anti-Slavery 1840-1866, ed. Ann D. Gordon (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 75-83. We should note that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds., History of Women's Suffrage (1881; reprint, Salem, N.H.: Ayer Co., 1985), vol. 1, 69 mistakenly indicates that at the Seneca Falls Convention, Wright herself read "some satirical articles she had published." By the time Stanton wrote this, many years after the convention, she knew that Wright had written several published articles, and had heard Wright speak at numerous women's rights conventions, but apparently had forgotten that Mott was the one who read Wright's article at Seneca Falls.

(2) "Hints for Wives" in draft form can be found in the folder marked "answers to mistaken editors" in the Garrison Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, hereafter referred to as GFP. It appeared, edited slightly, on the first page of the stated issues of United States Gazette (published in Philadelphia) and North Star (published in Rochester). Shortly after her article appeared in North Star, Wright wrote to her sister, with irony typical of her, "The Star comes regularly--To think of one having that threadbare Hints for Wives in it." Martha C. Wright to Lucretia Mott, 21 August 1848, GFP.

(3) "Don Juan" by Lord Byron, Canto I, verse XXIII. Wright was apparently very fond of Byron, for her letters often cite his poetry. Although her formal education ended at age fifteen, Wright's letters make it clear that she read widely throughout her life, both fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry.

(4) "Mrs. Rogers" refers to the wife of John Rogers, minister in London who was burned at the stake in 1555 for his anti-Catholic views, the first Protestant martyr in the reign of Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor, known as "Bloody Mary"). Most editions of the New England Primer, a book commonly used to teach spelling and reading, as well as the Protestant religion, from 1690 to the 1890s, contained a woodcut of Rogers' martyrdom with his wife and children watching. The accompanying text read, "His wife with nine small children, and one at her breast following him to the stake." New England Primer was so widely read at the time that Wright could assume that most of her readers would understand her references to "Mrs. Rogers" and "honest John." Wright suggests that a woman responsible for feeding, clothing, and raising ten children is also a martyr.

(5) Martha C. Wright to William P. Wright, 14 July 1869, GFP.

(6) Martha C. Wright to Ellen Wright Garrison, 31 October 1869, GFP.

(7) Over 1500 of Wright's letters have been preserved in the Garrison Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College. Several hundred other letters written by Wright can be found in the Osborne Family Papers, Syracuse University Library, Department of Special Collections.

(8) Martha C. Wright to William P. Wright, 26 September 1862, GFP.

(9) Martha C. Wright to William P. Wright, 1 April 1865, GFP; and Martha C. Wright to Lucretia Mott, 13 May 1846, GFP.

(10) Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, eds., History of Women's Suffrage, vol. 2, 175.

(11) Robert E. Riegel, American Feminists, (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1968), 23-24.

(12) Paul Messbarger, "Martha Coffin Pelham Wright (1806-1875)," Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Edward T. James (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1971), Vol. III, 684-685; Kathleen Banks Nutter, "Martha Coffin Pelham Wright," American National Biography, ed. John A. Garrity and Mark C. Carnes, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), Vol. 24, 44 45; and Sherry H. Penney and James D. Livingston, "Expectant at Seneca Falls," New York History 84 (winter 2003): 33-50. We have written a book-length biography of Martha Wright, which is under contract with University of Massachusetts Press (2004).

(13) Stanton's requests are reported in Martha C. Wright to Lucretia Mott, n.d., 1848, GFP.

(14) For example, see Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Martha C. Wright, 12/17?/ 1855, GFP, reproduced in Gordon, Selected Papers, Vol. 1,305.

(15) Susan B. Anthony to Martha C. Wright, 18 January 1856, GFP.

(16) Martha C. Wright, "Opposition of Women to Female Suffrage," The Nation, 7 April 1870, 222-223 (signed "M.C.W.").

(17) Paulina Wright Davis, comp., A History of the National Woman's Rights Movement for Twenty Years (New York: Journey-men printers' Co-operative, 1871; reprinted by Source Book Press, 1970).

SHERRY H. PENNEY is author of Patrician in Politics: Daniel Dewey Barnard of New York (Kennikat Press, 1974) and articles and book reviews on American history. She served as Associate Provost at Yale, as Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs, Policy, and Planning for the 64-campus SUNY system, and as Acting President of SUNY Plattsburgh. From 1988 to 2000, she was Chancellor of University of Massachusetts, Boston, and during 1995, she served as Interim President of the five-campus University of Massachusetts system. She currently holds the Sherry H. Penney Professorship of Leadership in the College of Management at University of Massachusetts, Boston.

JAMES D. LIVINGSTON holds a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Harvard University. Since retiring from General Electric Company, he has taught in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. In addition to an engineering text and other technical writing, he is author of a book on science history, Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets (Harvard University Press, 1996); a town history, Glenville: Past and Present (Glenville, NY, 1970); and several published articles on New York State history.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A109581238