in Old and New Times
From a Chickering Hall Lecture
George William Curtis
from The Hammondsport Herald, April 26, 1876
reprinted from the New York Tribune of several days before
"When foolish imagination sighs for the old time, it forgets that the old time was cruel, superstitious, and gross. The men of the old time hated personal, political, and religious liberty; they were times when men died faster in the open country than in the dirtiest lane of our city to-day. The whole progress of civilization is in the emancipation from the theories and manners of the old time. We do not excuse our age, but when we sigh for a return of the past let us remember that its greatest glory was the divine discontent with those times. One commanding and supreme indication of the world's progress is its higher and better estimate of women. The position of woman is always the test of society. Today as I stand in the ample halls of some great school, filled with the hum of industrious and happy life, I remember that in the girl of the age of Pericles all scholastic diligence would have been accepted as evidence of evil design. In the golden age of Athens the most accomplished women belonged to an outlawed class."
Mr. Curtis then humorously described the discussions that were carried on in Dean Swift's time as to whether it would be prudent to marry a woman who had good natural sense, some taste, and was able to read understandingly the literature of the day. It was said that there were radical objections against an intelligent wife; that the natural levity of women needed a ballast of ignorance and stupidity. And such was the tenderness of the sex that the women consented to remain ignorant that they might be equal to their husbands…
Mr. Curtiss sketched the great caution with which the Pilgrims and early settlers of New England dealt out a little education to their girls, and in a strain of keenest irony told how Boston, trembling for the bulwarks of freedom, opened a high school for girls, and stood aghast at the immense attendance upon it and the eager acceptance of it privileges. The notion that the education and usefulness of women should be confined to home, simply because men had an idea that that was her "sphere," was ridiculed and disposed of by argument and copious illustration. "Yesterday is gone and today is come. The fretted slave of the Greek household, and the idle toy of the age of Chesterfield, has given place to a better idea, and we go forward with God's help, to find the true woman…."