Ingersoll, the Premature Feminist

Susan Jacoby

In 1890, Robert Green Ingersoll wrote a powerful essay in which he denounced the neglect and oppression of women workers by both their emerging unions and their bosses. Economic justice, he insisted, must apply to women as well as men. Instead, women were the worst-paid, worst-treated workers in the United States. “Think of the sewing women in this city,” he said, “and yet we call ourselves civilized.”

Men must understand, Ingersoll argued, that just as all who labor are their brothers, “all women who labor are their sisters.” Ingersoll wrote these words more than two decades before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. The fire, which killed 145 workers (123 of them women), remains the deadliest workplace “accident”—in fact, the catastrophe was a predictable consequence of abysmal contemporary labor practices—in New York City history.

Even if I did not have numerous other reasons to admire Ingersoll, I would revere him for speaking about the rights and wrongs of women in a passionate, forthright, and consistent fashion absent from the discourse of most male freethinkers who gave birth to the Enlightenment and who took part in the secular movements of the nineteenth century.

Thomas Paine, whose critical role as a propagandist for the American Revolution was downplayed in the nineteenth century as a result of his irreverence toward religion, was one of Ingersoll’s heroes. The Great Agnostic played an important role in the well-deserved revival of Paine’s reputation in late nineteenth-century America.

Yet Paine was one of the many male Enlightenment thinkers who were sympathetic to women’s rights in private but did little to promote them publicly. As the Thomas Paine National Historical Association notes, many Enlightenment figures, even though they personally believed in women’s equality, feared that a challenge to the sexual power structure of society would hurt the primary revolutionary goal of overturning autocracies and hereditary monarchies and replacing them with a society based on the rights of man. And I do mean man, not woman.1

While men such as Paine believed that women were entitled to human rights, they viewed the function of the female sex in society as intrinsically different from that of men. In “An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex” (1775), Paine observed that women of every era in all countries had, almost without exception, been “adored and oppressed” by men. If a woman were to defend her sex, Paine speculated, she might remind men that “Our duties are different from yours, but they are not therefore less difficult to fulfill, or of less consequence to society. They are the fountains of your felicity, and the sweetness of life. We are the wives and mothers.”2

There is scholarly disagreement over whether Paine was actually the author of this essay, but it is entirely consistent with his writings throughout his life. He believed in the goodness and humanity of women, but there is little evidence that he considered women the equals of men in intellect or public affairs. A woman’s rights were based on the “feminine difference.” Despite the emergence of many exceptional women during the Enlightenment (among them Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and a personal friend of Paine), the promotion of rights for women outside their homes—from education to the ownership of property—was not a male Enlightenment project.

On the subject of discrimination against women, Ingersoll was not only more enlightened than nineteenth-century freethinkers. He was roughly a century ahead of his own time, because he understood (as some female suffragists of his own generation did not) that it would take more than the vote to achieve justice for women. Indeed, many of Ingersoll’s views about women had more in common with twentieth and twenty-first century feminists, from the 1970s through the MeToo movement, than with the suffragists of his own generation.

In an odd twist of history that seems predictable only in hindsight, Ingersoll rose to prominence as an orator in the 1870s, when a split within the woman’s suffragist movement had raised some of the same issues that had led male Enlightenment figures to dismiss women’s rights as a distraction.

Most female freethinkers—nearly all of them former abolitionists—had been appalled when the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, gave the right to vote to former slaves but not to women of any color. The excuse offered by male legislators who passed the amendment was roughly the same as the excuse offered by Enlightenment thinkers for shunting aside women’s rights: giving the vote to women, male abolitionists argued, would create such controversy that it might scuttle any effort to extend the franchise to emancipated slaves.

In the last two decades of the century, when Ingersoll became the most famous freethought advocate in the nation, suffragists were deeply divided over whether women should pursue any campaign for justice that went beyond the vote. Suffragists included both nonreligious and religious women. The latter generally came from denominations such as the Quakers, who—unlike most sects—had long recognized the importance of women’s rights and championed the cause of education for girls. But most suffragists, whatever their personal religious views, believed that associating their movement with ungodliness, anticlericalism, and the growing freethought movement would taint their cause in respectable, religiously orthodox society.

The most notable exception was Elizabeth Cady Stanton (although there were other, less famous, figures such as Matilda Joslyn Gage and Helen Hunt Gardener). Stanton declared bluntly in 1885, “You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon the earth has degraded women.” Stanton’s close friend Susan B. Anthony, an agnostic, took the opposite approach and downplayed her views about religious repression of women.

Ingersoll sided with Stanton in making a broad critique of the injustice endured by women from the factory floor to abusive marital relationships.

He saw suffrage not as a final goal but as an essential first step in the emancipation of the female sex—an emancipation that required better wages and working conditions for the millions of women who, though generally portrayed with Victorian sentimentality as “angels in the home,” had to work outside their homes to help support their families. “The question of wages for women is a thousand times more important than sending missionaries to China or India,” he declared.

Ingersoll knew that women were more religious then men, but he sharply disputed the conventional wisdom of his day that maintained that women were drawn to religion because they were “purer” by nature. In a preface to Gardener’s book Men, Women and Gods (1885), Ingersoll attributed women’s greater religiosity not to a purer nature but to lack of education and economic dependency on husbands—yet another consequence of low female wages in factories and offices.

“Woman is not the intellectual inferior of man. She has lacked—not mind—but opportunity.” He noted that there were universities for men before most women had been taught the alphabet. “At the intellectual feast,” he recalled, “there was no place for wives and mothers. Even now they sit at the second table and eat the crusts and crumbs. The schools for women, at the present time, are just far enough behind those for men, to fall heirs to the discarded; on the same principle that when a doctrine becomes too absurd for the pulpit, it is given to the Sunday school.”

Were he living today, Ingersoll would no doubt be surprised to find that although educational barriers to women largely disappeared in the second half of the twentieth century, what is known as the secular movement today remains predominantly male. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly two-thirds of Americans who identify as atheists or agnostics are men.3

The reasons for this disparity have not been studied thoroughly, but it would be foolish to ignore the possibility that some women do not feel welcome in secular organizations or at meetings dominated by men. There is no prominent man in the secular movement today who is noted, as Ingersoll was, for reaching out to women and making them feel that their particular concerns are a central part of secularism and freethought.

This is not to say that secular women and men do not share concerns of utmost importance, such as the separation of church and state, but secular organizations do not always pay as much attention as they should to subjects such as the relationship between fundamentalist interpretation of “sacred” books and violence against women.

Of all the positions taken by Ingersoll on “the woman question,” none resonate so strongly over time as his emphasis on the importance of birth control—before any reliable means of birth control existed—and his recognition of the vulnerability of women to male violence. It is hard to overestimate the unacceptability in the late 1800s of talking about unwanted pregnancies and rape as concerns for “respectable society” and as burdens that deformed the lives not only of poor women but of women who led supposedly safe middle-class lives.

Women, Ingersoll emphasized repeatedly, could never be truly free as long as they must rely on the good will and self-control of men to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

“Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself,” he wrote. “Science … must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.”

Only when women had the ability to control their fertility, Ingersoll emphasized, would children be raised in dignity and with respect. “This is the solution of the whole question,” he said. “This frees woman. The babes that are then born will be welcome. They will be clasped with glad hands to happy breasts. They will fill homes with light and joy.”

Ingersoll understood that such talk was offensive to those who thought that male control over female bodies—and female ignorance about sex—were desirable pillars of society. “Men and women who think that light is the enemy of virtue, that purity dwells in darkness, that it is dangerous for human beings to know themselves and the facts in Nature that affect their well being, will be horrified at the thought of making intelligence the master of passion,” he wrote.

On the subject of violence against women, Ingersoll’s statements in the 1880s could have been made yesterday. In 1888, the New York World published an extraordinary interview in which Ingersoll commented on the case of a woman in New York City whose eye had been torn out of its socket by her drunken husband. A year later, he returned in another alcoholic rage and tore out the other eye. (Adultery was the only grounds for divorce in New York State before 1967—largely as a result of effective lobbying by the Roman Catholic Church.)

Ingersoll asked:

Must a woman in order to retain her womanhood become a slave, a serf, with a wild beast for a master? … Has not the married woman the right of self-defense? Is it not the duty of society to protect her from her husband? … She may not remain in the same house with him, for fear that he may kill her. Do they sustain any relationship except that of hunter and hunted—that is, of tyrant and victim?

Of all the historical figures I admire but can know only through books, Ingersoll is the person I would most like to meet in the flesh. He was a man who loved women with a gallantry that was already beginning to seem old-fashioned in his own time, but it was a gallantry that assumed intellectual equality and did not demand that women be placed on a pedestal.

In one of his most famous, frequently delivered speeches, “On the Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child,” he combined a defense of equal rights for women with a meditation on love that expressed his feelings about his own wife. He would say:

And do you know, it is a splendid thing to think that the woman you really love will never grow old to you. Through the wrinkles of time, through the mask of years, if you really love her, you will always see the face you loved and won. And a woman who really loves a man does not see that he grows old; he is not decrepit to her; she always sees the same gallant gentleman who won her hand and heart.

Ingersoll was truly a man for all seasons—an iconoclast who saw no contradiction between loving women’s bodies and respecting their intellect and reason. The first volume of his collected works is dedicated “To Eva A. Ingersoll, My Wife, A Woman without Superstition.”



  1. The Thomas Paine National Historical Association has a rather weaselly statement on the subject at
  2. This excerpt comes from The Life and Writings of Thomas Paine (New York, Vincent Parke and Company, 1908), p. 186. It is my view that the essay does reflect Paine’s thinking on the subject.
  3. Michael Lipka, “10 Facts About Atheists,” Pew Research Center, June 1, 2016.

Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby is the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Yale University Press). Her most recent books are The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Vintage) and Why Baseball Matters (Yale University Press).