"Experts" of yesteryear weren't shy about advising women on how to be good mothers. But the same can't be said about advice for fathers. It appears there was little market for instructing men how to nurture, provide for, or discipline their children. Who would dare instruct a king on how to rule his own subjects?
But there are plenty of books where fathers advise their children. The advice directed from fathers to sons was rather dull and straightforward. (Stay clean. Don’t spend money. Read Horace in Latin.) But not so for their daughters. For the most part, when fathers of generations past wrote advice to their daughters, that advice was horrifying. Fathers filled pages with doom and shame, threats against their daughter’s very lives and sanity should the girls stray.
John Gregory wrote A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters in 1821. Gregory found human women … gross. He really preferred the ones in paintings and poems. He advised his daughters to banish almost every natural human instinct and behavior they possessed, in an effort to reach true femininity. After telling them never to join in men’s conversation, but listen with placid detachment, he warned against intelligence.
“Be even cautious in displaying your good sense. It will be thought you assume superiority over the rest of the company. But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts and a cultivated understanding.”
Understand, darling? Boys don’t make passes at girls in Trigonometry classes.
Gregory approved of physical health and outdoor exercise for his daughters. But for God’s sake don’t tell anyone about it.
“Enjoy [your health] in grateful silence. We so naturally associate the idea of female softness and delicacy with a correspondent delicacy of constitution, that when a woman speaks of her great strength, her extraordinary appetite, her ability to bear excessive fatigue, we recoil at the description in a way she is little aware of.”
We recoil! Healthy women disgust any decent man!
Isaac Gomez, writing 100 years later in 1920, took a more gentle approach. He copied bits of great literature that he thought would help his daughter comport herself properly. He devoted five pages of poetry to the preservation of his daughter’s virginity, and the despair that would befall her if she misplaced it. One of his quoted poems, entitled “Maniac,” describes a woman gone insane from having sex before marriage. And does it with surprisingly few vowels.
See ! yon poor Maniac: shiv'ring in her cell,
With hair dishevell'd, and with bosom bare;
Once bless'd with innocence,
the hours roll'd on In glad succession.
Her cultur'd mind Was calm'and mild as summer ev'nings are,
Till in her soul convulsing passions strove,
And rais'd a dark and wild tornado there…
And so on until she falls down the void of madness and death. Which we all agree, is pretty much what the tart deserved.
I will say, that in Gomez’s five pages of hymen-praise, I’ve never seen a woman referred to as a fruit so many times, or so colorfully. It was great when they were budding or blooming; but then they got “despoiled” or “pluckt,” becoming a “wreck of maidenhood.” Nobody wants a girl after someone else has pluckt her.
Gregory weighs in on this subject too, but his rules are stricter:
When a girl ceases to blush, she has lost the most powerful charm of her beauty. Why a woman should blush, when she is conscious of no crime? It is sufficient to answer, Nature has made you to blush when you are guilty of no fault, and has forced us to love you because you do so.
Hmm. I just made an oblique reference to flowers having stamens. This 44-year-old mother of six isn’t blushing. What a worthless, debauched hag. God, how I hate her.
Not all old-school dads were so conservative. As early as 1913, there were signs of fathers starting to believe their daughters were people. Charles Thwing wrote a whole volume to his daughter, just about her entrance to college. College! I mean, she still wasn’t a boy or anything, as he seems to be reminding her in this passage:
Your father may wish you had more and better stuff in you, but you are what you are, and education must educate that individual and that individuality which Nature out of all her material made you.
More and better stuff. Like a penis.
That’s why he had to send her to an all-girls college. He explains it with a great mincing of words, “There are, for some girls, so many [problems] so hard, that they are not able to see through them or think through them or even feel their way into or through them.”
But the bottom line being, boys will twitter-pate the downy softness of your woman-brain, and it’s already delicate enough, darling.
What a relief it was to stumble on to Henry Kett, writing to his daughter Emily in 1809. It was the oldest volume I read, but the most frank and progressive. Marriage was what a girl did with her future in 1809; that’s just the way it was. But Kett did not regard his daughter a helpless, perpetual child. He wanted her to take a hand in her own happiness. You can almost hear a modern father’s bark of “Use your damn brain!” through the spaces in his (very long run-on) sentences.
If you were to be betrayed into a matrimonial engagement by a gay admirer, who is indebted to his dancing-master, his tailor, and his coach-maker for his attractions, and were to be induced by a few flattering speeches, and his stylish appearance, to listen to his proposals, you could not have extreme youth, nor perfect ignorance of the world, to plead your excuse—you are now old enough to know your own mind ….You have had the advantage of being introduced into genteel company, and have daily opportunities of exercising your judgment upon the behaviour and characters of gentlemen.
That means, I raised you to know a dumbass when you see one. No excuses.
Kett gets even more explicit in his marital advice to Emily, using terms that probably weren’t politically correct even in his day (a time when the slave trade thrived and people threw their poop into the streets).
1. "If you marry a fool, under the delusion that you will be able to manage him, you may be the victim of your own schemes; for fools are obstinate, and your supposed idiot may put those fetters upon you, which you intended for him." (Idiots bring you down to their level.)
2. "If you marry a rake, from the flattering supposition that you shall be able to effect his reformation, you may bitterly repent of having miscalculated the power of your attractions, and may die of jealousy and despair." (You think your love will change him? Good luck with that, sunshine.)
3. "If you marry a merely rich man, you may indeed gain splendid furniture and gaudy equipages, but you may find too late that a house at the west end of the town, and a box at the opera are no cures for disappointment." (Diamonds don’t ask you how your mammogram went).
4. "If you throw yourself away upon a pauper, he may add ingratitude to ambition; he may disgrace both you and your family; his vulgarity may shock, and his insolence may terrify you." (A lazy bum at rest tends to stay at rest. Except when getting drunk and embarrassing you at barbeques).
5. "If you marry a rich old man, the world will say that you act from mercenary motives, and are only thinking of a large jointure, and the handsome figure you will soon make in widow's weeds." (You're pulling an Anna Nicole Smith.)
6. "If you marry an invalid you must make up your mind to pass many hours in a sick room, and to perform the offices of a nurse." (Love can’t heal all wounds; don’t be a martyr.)
Harsh. But so familiar to what our fathers have said to us in the privacy of our homes in the most unguarded moments. Don’t let that temporary flush of infatuation blind you and bind you. Make smart choices.
It’s very important to remember, when reading these outdated offerings of wisdom, that these fathers weren’t lunatics or tyrants. They just wanted a good life for their daughters. The best life. They lived in a society where silent, stupid, sickly virgins were the most highly valued, and well, they wanted their daughters to be valuable.
These pages of advice, however disturbing to our minds, were meant to impart the tools necessary to navigate their world smoothly and successfully. Back then, that entailed behaving in such a way as to have the finest pick of husbands and friends. Today it may mean teaching her to question authority, making sure she can do basic self-defense, and change her own tires. But whatever the century, whatever the method, good dads have always done the same thing. Encourage, protect, and try to teach their children to choose happiness.