“The extent to which wives flatter the vanity and humor the weaknesses of their husbands is humiliating to both men and women, and degrading to matrimony.”

Lavinia Goodell, October 1876

Lucy Stone, a lifelong advocate for women’s rights, was one of Lavinia Goodell’s mentors.

Lucy Stone

In 1870, Lucy and her husband, Henry Blackwell, launched the Woman’s Journal, a paper promoting suffrage and women’s rights. Lavinia Goodell wrote numerous articles for the paper and shortly before her death she was added to the masthead as a contributor.

In a September 28, 1876 diary entry, Lavinia wrote, “Commenced piece for Woman’s Journal.” She finished the article four days later. It appeared in the paper’s October 28, 1876 issue.

In the piece, titled “Ownership of Wives,” Lavinia outlined how society required women to subordinate themselves to men, to the detriment of women’s intellectual and moral development.

Lavinia wrote, “That the will of one mature person should be absolutely and invariably subjected to that of another, at every point wherein their wills clash, during an intimate and life-long companionship, is a principle laid down by an influential class of writers,” with “religion … summoned to the support of this theory.”

Lavinia noted that she had recently read an article in Popular Science Monthly on the “Mental Aspects of Ordinary Disease,” in which the author posited that when a person is utterly dependent on the bounty and will of another, their intellect becomes servile. While this condition usually exists in the elderly, Lavinia suggested “that such a condition of helpless submission should obtain … in women is readily to be conceived.” She wrote:

When we consider how abject has been the subjection of Woman to Man in the past, how utterly she has been dependent upon him, and how largely she has been obliged to study and accommodate herself to his varying moods and caprices, can we wonder at the “brain-starvation” which has prevented her from developing … a Mozart, a Milton, a Shakespeare, a Bacon, or a Newton? Let it be remembered that Man has always legislated for Woman, and does so still. That he is not only her lawgiver, but her judge and juror. That, until a recent date, the husband became possessed of all the property of the wife at marriage, and of all she might afterward acquire…. He had the power while living to take her children from her; dying, he could will them, even when unborn, to whose charge he would, even though it might be to the worst enemy of the mother. Until recently, he had the legal right to administer “moderate” corporeal punishment to his wife, when he deemed best.”

She went on to say:

College doors have been until recently, and to a large extent still are, barred against her. Almost every lucrative field of industry excepting matrimony has, until a late date, been closed to her; and social opprobrium has been thrown upon her if she did not marry. She has been taught from infancy that her noblest aim was to please man, and minister to his wants. She has always been instructed that her duty as a Christian required her unquestioning submission to the authority of her husband.

Lavinia said because of the pernicious effects resulting from treating women as inferior to men, rather than Divine law requiring such treatment, “may we not plainly read the Divine will forbidding it?” She closed by making clear that she had much more to say on the subject:

I have merely hinted at a train of thought which might well fill a volume. The effects of “subordination” upon the mental and moral development of Woman; the effects of the “ownership of wives” on the mental and moral development of man; viewed in the light of social, moral, religious, psychological, physiological, economic and political science, afford a vast theme for thought and study.

We will, of course, never know what Lavinia Goodell would have accomplished had she not succumbed to cancer three and a half years after writing this piece. She was a skilled writer who was clearly passionate about trying to advance women’s rights, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that, had she lived,  she may well have “filled a volume” expanding upon the theme developed here.  And although it is sad she did not have the opportunity to publish a book, she left behind a multitude of short pieces such as this one that offer a critical review of women’s roles in the post-Civil War era.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diary (September 28 and October 2, 1876); “Ownership of Wives,” by Lavinia Goodell, published in the Woman’s Journal, Vol. 7, No. 44, 10/28/76, seq. 354-55, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

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