By Horace Porter
[Editor's Note: General Horace Porter (1837-1921) was an American diplomat. He was widely recognized as a witty and eloquent after-dinner speaker. At a dinner of the New England Society, in New York City, on December 22, 1883 General Porter was asked to offer the toast. The toast (given below) was simply "Woman!"]
Mr. president and gentlemen:
When this toast was proposed to me, I insisted that it ought to be responded to by a bachelor, by some one who is known as a ladies' man; but in these days of female proprietorship it is supposed that a married person is more essentially a ladies' man than anybody else, and it was thought that only one who had had the courage to address a lady could have the courage, under these circumstances, to address the New England Society. [Laughter.]
The toast, I see, is not in its usual order tonight. At public dinners this toast is habitually placed last on the list. It seems to be a benevolent provision of the Committee on Toasts in order to give man in replying to Woman one chance at least in life of having the last word. [Laughter.]
At the New England dinners, unfortunately the most fruitful subject of remark regarding woman is not so much her appearance as her disappearance. I know that this was remedied a few years ago, when this grand annual gastronomic high carnival was held in the Metropolitan Concert Hall. There ladies were introduced into the galleries to grace the scene by their presence; and I am sure the experiment was sufficiently encouraging to warrant repetition, for it was beautiful to see the descendants of the Pilgrims sitting with eyes upturned in true Puritanic sanctity; it was encouraging to see the sons of those pious sires devoting themselves, at least for one night, to setting their affections upon "things above." [Laughter.]
Woman's first home was in the Garden of Eden. There man first married woman. Strange that the incident should have suggested to Milton the "Paradise Lost." [Laughter.] Man was placed in a profound sleep, a rib was taken from his side, a woman was created from it, and she became his wife!.
Evil-minded persons constantly tell us that thus man's first sleep became his last repose. But if woman be given at times to that contrariety of thought and perversity of mind which sometimes passeth our understanding, it must be recollected in her favor that she was created out of the crookedest part of man. [Laughter.]
The Rabbins have a different theory regarding creation. They go back to the time when we were all monkeys. They insist that man was originally created with a kind of Darwinian tail, and that in the process of evolution this caudal appendage was removed and created into woman. This might better account for those Caudle lectures which woman is in the habit of delivering, and some color is given to this theory, from the fact that husbands even down to the present day seem to inherit a general disposition to leave their wives behind. [Laughter.]
The first woman, finding no other man in that garden except her own husband, took to flirting even with the Devil. [Laughter.] The race might have been saved much tribulation if Eden had been located in some calm and tranquil land-like Ireland. There would at least have been no snakes there to get into the garden.
Now woman in her thirst after knowledge showed her true female inquisitiveness in her cross-examination of the serpent, and, in commemoration of that circumstance, the serpent seems to have been curled up and used in nearly all languages as a sign of interrogation.
Soon the domestic troubles of our first parents began. The first woman's favorite son was killed by a club, and married women even to this day seem to have an instinctive horror of clubs. The first woman learned that it was Cain that raised a club. The modern woman has learned it is a club that raises cain.
Yet, I think, I recognize faces here to-night that I see behind the windows of Fifth Avenue clubs of an
afternoon, with their noses pressed flat against the broad plate glass, and as woman trips along the sidewalk, I have observed that these gentlemen appear to be more assiduously engaged than ever was a government scientific commission in taking observations upon the transit of Venus. [Laughter.]
Before those windows passes many a face fairer than that of the Ludovician Juno or the Venus of Medici. There is the Saxon blonde with the deep blue eye, whose glances return love for love, whose silken tresses rest upon her shoulders like a wealth of golden fleece, each thread of which looks like a ray of the morning sunbeam. There is the Latin brunette with the deep, black, piercing eye, whose jetty lashes rest like silken fringe upon the pearly texture of her dainty cheek, looking like ravens' wings spread out upon new-fallen snow.
And yet the club man is not happy.
As the ages roll on woman has materially elevated herself in the scale of being. Now she stops at nothing. She soars. She demands the co-education of the sexes. She thinks nothing of delving into the most abstruse problems of the higher branches of analytical science. She can cipher out the exact hour of the night when her husband ought to be home, either according to the old or the recently adopted method of calculating time.
I never knew of but one married man who gained any decided domestic advantage by this change in our time. He was an habitue of a club situated next door to his house. His wife was always upbraiding him for coming home too late at night. Fortunately, when they made this change of time, they placed one of those meridians from which our time is calculated right between the club and his house. [Laughter.] Every time he stepped across that imaginary line it set him back a whole hour in time. He found that he could leave his club at one o'clock and get home to his wife at twelve; and for the first time in twenty years peace reigned around that hearthstone.
Woman now revels even in the more complicated problems of mathematical astronomy. Give a woman ten minutes and she will describe a heliocentric parallax of the heavens. Give her twenty minutes and she will find astronomically the longitude of a place by means of lunar culminations. Give that same woman an hour and a half, with the present fashions, and she cannot find the pocket in her dress.
And yet man's admiration for woman never flags. He will give her half his fortune; he will give her his whole heart; he seems always willing to give her everything that he possesses, except his seat in a horse car. [Laughter.]
Every nation has had its heroines as well as its heroes.
England, in her wars, had a Florence Nightingale; and the soldiers in the expression of their adoration, used to stoop and kiss the hem of her garment as she passed.
America, in her war, had a Dr. Mary Walker. Nobody ever stooped to kiss the hem of her garment-because that was not exactly the kind of garment she wore. [Laughter.]
But why should man stand here and attempt to speak for woman, when she is so abundantly equipped to speak for herself? I know that is the case in New England; and I am reminded, by seeing General Grant here tonight, of an incident in proof of it which occurred when he was making that marvelous tour through New England, just after the war. The train stopped at a station in the State of Maine. The General was standing on the rear platform of the last car. At that time, as you know, he had a great reputation for silence-for it was before he had made his series of brilliant speeches before the New England Society. They spoke of his reticence-a quality which New Englanders admire so much-in others. [Laughter.] Suddenly there was a commotion in the crowd, and as it opened a large, tall, gaunt-looking woman came rushing toward the car, out of breath. Taking her spectacles off from the top of her head and putting them on her nose, she put her arms akimbo, and looking up, said: "Well, I've just come down here a runnin' nigh onto two mile, right on the clean jump, just to get a look at the man that lets the women do all the talkin'." [Laughter.]
The first regular speaker of the evening [William W. Evarts) touched upon woman, but only incidentally, only in reference to Mormonism and that sad land of Utah, where a single death may make a dozen widows. [Laughter.]
A speaker at the New England dinner in Brooklyn last night [Henry Ward Beecher] tried to prove that the Mormons came originally from New Hampshire and Vermont. I know that a New Englander sometimes in the course of his life marries several times; but he takes the precaution to take his wives in their proper order of legal succession. The difference is that he drives his team of wives tandem, while the Mormon insists upon driving his abreast. [Laughter.]
But even the least serious of us, Mr. President, have some serious moments in which to contemplate the true nobility of woman's character. If she were created from a rib, she was made from that part which lies nearest a man's heart.
It has been beautifully said that man was fashioned out of the dust of the earth while woman was created from God's own image.
It is our pride in this land that woman's honor is her own best defense; that here female virtue is not measured by the vigilance of detective nurses; that here woman may walk throughout the length and the breadth of this land, through its highways and its byways, uninsulted, unmolested, clothed in the invulnerable panoply of her own woman's virtue; that even in places where crime lurks and vice prevails in the haunts of our great cities, and in the rude mining gulches of the West, owing to the noble efforts of our women, and the influence of their examples, there are raised up, even there, girls who are good daughters, loyal wives, and faithful mothers. They seem to rise in those rude surroundings as grows the pond lily, which is entangled by every species of rank growth, environed by poison, miasma and corruption, and yet which rises in the beauty of its purity and lifts its fair face unblushing to the sun.
No one who has witnessed the heroism of America's daughters in the field should fail to pay a passing tribute to their worth. I do not speak alone of those trained Sisters of Charity, who in scenes of misery and woe seem Heaven's chosen messengers on earth; but I would speak also of those fair daughters who came forth from the comfortable firesides of New England and other States, little trained to scenes of suffering, little used to the rudeness of a life in camp, who gave their all, their time, their health, and even life itself, as a willing sacrifice in that cause which then moved the nation's soul. As one of these, with her graceful form, was seen moving silently through the darkened aisles of an army hospital, as the motion of her passing dress wafted a breeze across the face of the wounded, they felt that their parched brows had been fanned by the wings of the angel of mercy.
Ah! Mr. President, woman is after all a mystery. It has been well said, that woman is the great conundrum of the nineteenth century; but if we cannot guess her, we will never give her up. [Applause.]