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                Mary T. Lathrap (1838-1895)


[Written in reply to a man's poetic unfolding of what he conceived to be a woman's duty.]

    Do you know you have asked for the costliest thing
        Ever made by the hand above—
    A woman's heart, and a woman's life
        And a woman's wonderful love?

    Do you know you have asked for this priceless thing
        As a child might ask for a toy,
    Demanding what others have died to win,
        With the reckless dash of a boy?

    You have written my lesson of duty out,
        Man-like you have questioned me;
    Now stand at the bar of my woman's soul
        Until I shall question thee.

    You require your mutton shall always be hot,
        Your socks and your shirt be whole;
    I require your heart to be true as God's stars,
        And as pure as heaven your soul.

    You require a cook for your mutton and beef;
        I require a far better thing.
    A seamstress you're wanting for socks and shirts;
        I look for a man and a king.

    A king for the beautiful realm called home,
        And a man that the maker, God,
    Shall look upon as he did the first
        And say, "It is very good."

    I am fair and young, but the rose will fade
        From my soft, young cheek one day,
    Will you love me then 'mid the falling leaves,
        As you did 'mid the bloom of May?

    Is your heart an ocean so strong and deep,
        I may launch my all on its tide?
    A loving woman finds heaven or hell
        On the day she is made a bride.

    I require all things that are grand and true,
        All things that a man should be;
    If you give all this, I would stake my life
        To be all you demand of me.

    If you cannot do this — a laundress and cook
        You can hire, with little to pay,
    But a woman's heart and a woman's life
        Are not to be won that way.


A brief biography and a collection of Mary Torrans Lathrap's writings can be found in:
  • Lathrap, Mary T. The Poems and Written Addresses of Mary T. Lathrap. Julia R. Parish ed. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Michigan, 1895.

    As the book was compiled with the help of her husband and family, I am taking it as authoritative on the details of the poem, her name, and her life history. Such a statement may at first seem odd, but A Woman's Answer to a Man's Question has had a surprisingly rich history of being misattributed and miss-titled.

    The most grevious error concerning the poem is replicated in Lawson (1927) where A Woman's Question is credited to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This error dates back to at least 1890 (J. Rose) where it seems that the poem was "generally attributed" to Browning under this title. It is unclear where these mistakes began.

    Felleman (1936)and Alexander (1956) both attribute the poem to a "Lena Lathrop", again under the title A Woman's Question. This is at least understandable; in her youth Lathrap used the pseudonym "Lena" when writing for the county paper (reported by Wittenmyer in Willard, 1883). As for the title— A Woman's Question is both shorter and the name of another well-known poem of the same period (this other poem is by Adelaide Anne Procter, it is mentioned by R.M.Sillard, 1890, and its text can be found in Bryant, 1927).

    Even those sources which correctly identify her as "Mary T." have some disagreements and confusion. Silliard gives an excerpt of a letter by Lathrap in which she gives the correct name for the poem (used above). He also reports that it appeared under that title in the Washington (Arkansas) Post; however, he spells her surname with an "o" (Lathrop) instead of with an "a". This seems rather common at the time, Willard (1883) contains both spellings. Marshall (1985) both gives the spelling with an "o" and reports her maiden name as "Torrans" instead of "Torrance". Finally, Stevenson (1964) mistakenly identifies her as the first female member of the American Bar Association, confusing her with Mary Florence Lathrop of Colorado. The author of this poem, on the other hand, was a licensed Methodist minister in Michigan.

    In any case, it seems likely that our poet was not very concerned in correspondence whether people could tell if her name was "Lathrap" or "Lathrop", and also that she usually used simply her middle initial and not her maiden name.


  • Alexander, A. L., ed. Poems That Touch the Heart (New, Enlarged Edition). Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1956.

  • Bordin, Ruth. Woman and Temperance. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1981.

  • Bryant, William Cullen, ed. A New Library of Poetry and Song (Utopian Edition). Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1927.

  • Felleman, Hazel, ed. The Best Loved Poems of the American People. Garden City, NY: Garden City Books, 1936.

  • Lawson, James Gilchrist, ed. The World's Best-Loved Poems. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1927.

  • Marshall, Alice Kahler. Pen Names of Women Writers from 1600 to Present. Camp Hill, PA, 1985.

  • Rose, J. (1890). 'A Woman's Question.' Notes and Queries, 7th Series, 10, 108.

  • Sillard, R.M. (1890). 'A Woman's Question.' Notes and Queries, 7th Series, 10, 254.

  • Stevenson, Burton, ed. The Home Book of Quotations (Ninth Edition). New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1964.

  • Willard, Frances E. Woman and Temperance: or, The Work and Workers of The Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Hartford, CT: Park Publishing Co., 1883.