Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853) was one of the first professors at Harvard Law School, serving his 15-year tenure 1833-1848, for most of those years as one third of the law school faculty, along with Josiah Quincy (1772-1864) and Joseph Story (1779-1845). Outside of the law school, Greenleaf’s two passions were education and religion. Between his professorship and involvement with Christ Church of Cambridge, he held a fair amount of sway in the community and would give public lectures from time to time.
Greenleaf delivered one such public lecture – a lyceum lecture titled “On the Legal Rights of Women,” in 1839. In it he compares the plight of American women to that of women in ancient Greece, Rome, and China, and then explains that women in contemporary America have equal rights to their male counterparts. Whatever rights women do not have – voting, holding political office, or joining the military, Greenleaf explained away by saying that there are tasks more or less suited to either sex, and women are not predisposed to politics or military pursuits, as men are not suited for household chores. The lecture caused a bit of a stir among some local women, one of whom wrote a letter to Greenleaf explaining her position and asking him to see her side of the issue. This letter was later published in a volume edited by Nancy Cott, titled Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women (Hollis 1253724).
He later published the lecture as an article in the Christian Review (Hollis 129107) in June 1840, and his handwritten draft is in the Simon Greenleaf Papers, held by the Harvard Law School Library. The collection was recently digitized and readers can judge for themselves whether or not Greenleaf took a forward-looking view of women’s rights in society.