THE "ESSAY ON GIRLS' RIGHTS" AND ITS ORIGIN

Kenneth Westhues

Adapted from Chapter 1 of Olive Conran Westhues, Prairie Fire (Waterloo, Ont.: K & A Westhues, 1992) and Chapter 7 of K. Westhues, ed., Where We Belong: Historical Essays for the Family of Olive Conran and John Westhues (Glasgow, Mo., privately published, 1997). Published on the web in 2003 in the Tributes section of the K. Westhues Homepage.

"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master"—such was the view of the country kid from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, who became America's sixteenth president and a beacon of human equality for people everywhere.

It is not surprising that Bertha Whitman (1876-1915) held a similar view. She was from the same British-origin, Protestant, plain, rural, midwestern culture as Lincoln. Indeed, she was from the same family. She was the great-granddaughter of Barbara Lincoln Crutchfield, the president's first cousin, the child of his Uncle Josiah. Bertha's father and paternal grandfather both fought in the Civil War, and the latter died in it.

Bertha wrote the essay below in 1892, as a sixteen-year-old student at Pine Hall School in Montgomery County, Missouri. But almost half a century would pass before anybody but her teacher would read it.

Recognizing how far the essay excelled the usual work of schoolgirls, Bertha's teacher saved it in a trunk in his attic. There it remained through the gay nineties, as Bertha grew to womanhood. It was there in 1900, when she married an Irishman named John Conran who loved her dearly; in 1902, when her daughter Olive was born; in 1910, when she moved with her husband and three children to Colorado in a desperate bid to regain her health; and in 1915, when she died on the prairie homestead.

Only in 1935, when the teacher himself died, was the essay found in his attic trunk. Months later, when Bertha's daughter Olive, my mother, was in Montgomery County for a funeral, the teacher's daughter approached Olive, now the mother of five children of her own, and thrust into her hands the essay written by her mother ten years before Olive's birth. "This will mean more to you than anyone," the teacher's daughter said.

GIRLS' RIGHTS, by Bertha Whitman

I am one of the strongminded, for I believe in girls' rights. Many people think girls have no rights any more than babies, and that they are to be fixed up like dolls, fed on dainty things, and petted like kittens. Boys are not treated so; they can dress as they please, go where they please, say what they please, and grow up to choose whatever trade or profession they please, which makes them put on airs over the girls and treat them as if they were their inferiors or waiters. Boys are well enough, but they are such a conceited set. They think they are good looking when they have red hair, freckled faces, ugly mouths, big feet, and are awkward as calves. But they are coming men, you see; they are going to take all the places, fill all the offices, do all the voting, make all the laws, and lead women around like property.

Girls are made to stand back, step aside, get out of the way, take second places, and, after the boys are served and cared for, take what is left of education, occupation, property and rights. People nowadays express surprise if any girl protests against her enforced inferiority, and she is called brazen, manish, strongminded, if she dares to rebel against the settled order of things that so degrades the very name and nature of women.

Well, so be it! I am one of the strongminded, for I will not admit my rights to everything to be less than a boy's rights. I will claim and demand every privilege and aid and sympathy which are contributed to them without their asking. And furthermore, I do say and boldly assert that girls are mistaught, misdirected and misled in their entire girl life, so that when womanhood comes they are ill qualified for any but a menial, subordinate position, and all their lives thereafter are the pensioners on some man's bounty for support.

For one, I will rebel. I will be no pensioner in my womanhood. I will earn my way to independence and I will demand the right to work, to speak, to strive wherever I can do the most for my own advancement. If this be treason, make the best of it, and I call on all girls to do the same. Don't play the simpering ninny and be afraid to say you have a soul, but come out at all times and boldly assert the dignity of your sex and your right to every such act which you can credibly and sufficiently fill. Do this and the battle for your rights is boldly fought.