Paris smiled, for an hour or two, in the year 1801, when, amidst Napoleon's mighty projects for remodelling the religion and government of his empire, the ironical satirist, Sylvain Marechal, thrust in his "Plan for a Law prohibiting the Alphabet to Women." Daring, keen, sarcastic, learned, the little tract retains to-day so much of its pungency, that we can hardly wonder at the honest simplicity of the author's friend and biographer, Madame Gacon Dufour, who declared that he must be partially insane, and proceeded to prove herself so by replying to him. His proposed statute consists of eighty-two clauses, and is fortified by a "whereas" of a hundred and thirteen weighty reasons. He exhausts the range of history to show the frightful results which have followed this taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; quotes the Encyclopedie, to prove that the woman who knows the alphabet has already lost a portion of her innocence; cites the opinion of Moliere, that any female who has unhappily learned anything in this line should affect ignorance, when possible; asserts that knowledge rarely makes men attractive, and females never; opines that women have no occasion to peruse Ovid's "Art of Love," since they know it all in advance; remarks that three-quarters of female authors are no better than they should be; maintains that Madame Guion would have been far more useful, had she been merely pretty and an ignoramus, such as Nature made her,—that Ruth and Naomi could not read, and Boaz probably would never have married into the family, had they possessed that accomplishment,—that the Spartan women did not know the alphabet, nor the Amazons, nor Penelope, nor Andromache, nor Lucretia, nor Joan of Arc, nor Petrarch's Laura, nor the daughters of Charlemagne, nor the three hundred and sixty-five wives of Mohammed;—but that Sappho and Madame de Maintenon could read altogether too well, while the case of Saint Brigitta, who brought forth twelve children and twelve books, was clearly exceptional, and afforded no safe precedent.
We take it, that the brilliant Frenchman has touched the root of the matter. Ought women to learn the alphabet? There the whole question lies. Concede this little fulcrum, and Archimedea will move the world before she has done with it; it becomes merely a question of time. Resistance must be made here or nowhere. Obsta principiis. Woman must be a subject or an equal; there is no middle ground. What if the Chinese proverb should turn out to be, after all, the summit of wisdom,—"For men, to cultivate virtue is knowledge; for women, to renounce knowledge is virtue"?
No doubt, the progress of events is slow, like the working of the laws of gravitation generally. Certainly, there has been but little change in the legal position of woman since China was in its prime, until within the last dozen years. Lawyers admit that the fundamental theory of English and Oriental law is the same on this point: Man and wife are one, and that one is the husband. It is the oldest of legal traditions. When Blackstone declares that "the very being and existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage," and American Kent echoes that "her legal existence and authority are in a manner lost," when Petersdorff asserts that "the husband has the right of imposing such corporeal restraints as be may deem necessary," and Bacon that "the husband hath, by law, power and dominion over his wife, and may keep her by force within the bounds of duty, and may beat her, but not in a violent or cruel manner,"*—when Mr. Justice Coleridge rules that the husband, in certain cases, "has a right to confine his wife in his own dwelling-house and restrain her from liberty for an indefinite time," and Baron Alderson sums it all up tersely, "The wife is only the servant of her husband,"-- these high authorities simply reaffirm the dogma of the Gentoo code, four thousand years old and more:—" A man, both day and night, must keep his wife so much in subjection that she by no means be mistress of her own actions. If the wife have her own free will, notwithstanding she be of a superior caste, she will behave amiss."
Yet behind these unchanging institutions, a pressure has been for centuries becoming concentrated, which, now that it has begun to act, is threatening to overthrow them all. It has not yet operated very visibly in the Old World, where (even in England) the majority of women have not yet mastered the alphabet, and can not sign their own names in the marriage-register. But in this country, the vast changes of the last twelve years are already a matter of history. No trumpet has been sounded, no earthquake felt, while State after State has ushered into legal existence one half of the population within its borders. Every Free State in the American Union, except perhaps Illinois and New Jersey, has conceded to married women, in some form, the separate control of property. Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania have gone farther, and given them the control of their own earnings,—given it wholly and directly, that is,—while New York and other States have given it partially or indirectly. Legislative committees in Ohio and Wisconsin have recommended, in printed reports, the extension of the right of suffrage to women; Kentucky (like Canada) has actually extended it, in certain educational matters, and a Massachusetts legislative committee has suggested the same thing; while the Kansas Constitutional Convention came within a dozen votes of extending it without reserve, and expunging the word male from the Constitution. Surely, here and now, might poor M. Marechal exclaim, The bitter fruits of the original seed appear and the sad question recurs, whether women ought ever to have tasted of the alphabet.
Mr. Everett, perhaps without due caution, advocated, last summer, the affirmative of this question. With his accustomed eloquence, he urged on the attention of Suleiman Bey the fact of the equal participation of the sexes in the public school system of Boston, while omitting to explain to him that the equality is of very recent standing. No doubt, the eminent Oriental would have been pleased to hear that this public administration of the alphabet to females, on any terms, is an institution but little more than a half-century old in the city of Boston. It is well established by the early deeds and documents that a large proportion of Puritan women could not write their own names; and in Boston especially, for a hundred and fifty years, the public schools included boys only. In the year 1789, however, the notable discovery was made that the average attendance of pupils from April to October was only one half of that reported for the remainder of the year. This was an obvious waste of money and accommodations, and it was therefore proposed that female pupils should be annually introduced during this intermediate period. Accordingly, school-girls, like other flowers, blossomed in summer only; and this state of things lasted, with but slight modification, for some forty years, according to the School-Superintendent’s Third Report. It was not till 1828 that all distinctions were abolished in the Boston Common Schools; in the High Schools lingering far later, sole vestige of the “good old times,” before a mistaken economy overthrew the wholesome doctrine of M. Sylvain Marechal, and let loose the alphabet among women.
It is true that Eve ruined us all, according to theology, without knowing her letters. Still, there is something to be said in defense of that venerable ancestress. The Veronese lady, Isotta Nogarola, five hundred and thirty-six of whose learned letters were preserved by De Thou, composed a dialogue on the question, Whether Adam or Eve had committed the greater sin? But Ludovico Domenichi, in his “Dialogue on the Nobleness of Women,” maintains that Eve did not sin at all, because she was not even created when Adam was told not to eat the apple. It is “in Adam all died,” he shrewdly says; nobody died in Eve;—which looks plausible. Be that as it may, Eve’s daughters are in danger of swallowing a whole harvest of forbidden fruit, in these revolutionary days, unless something be done to cut off the supply.
It has been seriously asserted hat during the last half-century more books have been written by women and about women than during all the previous uncounted ages. It may be true; although, when we think of the innumerable volumes of Memoires by Frenchwomen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,—each one justifying the existence of her own ten volumes by the remark, that all her contemporaries were writing as many,—we have our doubts. As to the increased multitude of general treatises on the female sex, however,—its education, life, health, diseases, charms, dress, deeds, sphere, rights, wrongs, work, wages, encroachments, and idiosyncrasies generally,-- there can be no doubt whatever; and the poorest of these books recognizes a condition of public sentiment which no other age ever dreamed of. Still, literary history preserves the names of some reformers before the Reformation, in this matter. There was Signora Moderata Fonte, the Venetian, who left a book to be published after her death, in 1592, "Dei Meriti delle Donne." There was her townswoman, Lucrezia Marinella, who followed ten years after, with her essay, "La Nobilità c la Eccelenza della Donne, con Difetti e Mancamenti degli Uomini,"-- a comprehensive theme, truly! Then followed the all-accomplished Anna Maria Schurman, in 1645, with her "Dissertatio de lngenii Muliebris ad Doctrinam et meliores Literas Aptitudine," with a few miscellaneous letters appended, in Greek and Hebrew. At last came boldly Jacquette Guillaume, in 1665, and threw down the gauntlet in her title-page, “Les Dames Illustres; ou par bonnes et fortes Raisons il se prouve que le Sexe Feminin surpasse en toute Sorte de Genre le Sexe Masculin"; and with her came Margaret Boufflet and a host of others; and finally, in England, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose famous book, formidable in its day, would seem rather conservative now,—and in America, that pious and worthy dame, Mrs. H. Mather Croeker, Cotton Mather's grandchild, who, in 1818, published the first book on the "Rights of Woman" ever written on this side the Atlantic.
Meanwhile there have never been wanting men, and strong men, to echo these appeals. From Cornelius Agrippa and his essay (1509) on the excellence of woman and her preeminence over man, down to the first youthful thesis of Agassiz, "Mens Feminae Viri Animo superior," there has been a succession of voices crying in the wilderness. In England, Anthony Gibson wrote a book, in 1599, called "A Woman's Woorth, defended against all the Men in the World, proouing them to be more Perfect, Excellent, and Absolute in all Vertuous Actions than any Man of what Qualitie so-ever, Interlarded with Poetry." Per contra, the learned Acidalius published a book in Latin and afterwards in French, to prove that women are not reasonable creatures. Modern theologians are at worst merely sub-acid, and do not always say so, if they think so. Meanwhile most persons have been content to leave the world to go on its old course, in this matter as in others, and have thus acquiesced in that stern judicial decree, with which Timon of Athens sums up all his curses upon womankind,—"If there sit twelve women at the table, let a dozen of them be—as they are."
Ancient or modern, nothing in any of these discussions is so valuable as the fact of the discussion itself. There is no discussion where there is no wrong. Nothing so indicates wrong as this morbid self-inspection. The complaints are a perpetual protest, the defenses a perpetual confession. It is too late to ignore the question, and once opened, it can be settled only on absolute and permanent principles. There is a wrong; but where? Does woman already know too much, or too little? Was she created for man's subject, or his equal? Shall she have the alphabet, or not?
Ancient mythology, which undertook to explain everything, easily accounted for the social and political disabilities of woman. Goguet quotes the story from St. Augustine, who got it from Varro. Cecrops, building Athens, saw starting from the earth an olive-plant and a fountain, side by side. The Delphic oracle said, that this indicated a strife between Minerva and Neptune for the honor of giving a name to the city, and that the people must decide between them. Cecrops thereupon assembled the men, and the women also, who then had a right to vote and the result was that Minerva carried the election by a glorious majority of one. Then Attica was overflowed and laid waste; of course the citizens attributed the calamity to Neptune, and resolved to punish the women. It was therefore determined that in future they should not vote, nor should any child bear the name of its mother.
Thus easily did mythology explain all troublesome inconsistencies. But it is much that it should even have recognized them, at so early an epoch, as needing explanation. When we ask for a less symbolical elucidation, it lies within our reach. At least, it is not hard to take the first steps into the mystery. There are, to be sure, some flowers of rhetoric in the way. The obstacle to the participation of woman in the alphabet, or in any other privilege, has been thought by some to be the fear of impairing her delicacy, or of destroying her domesticity or of confounding the distinction between the sexes. We think otherwise. These have been plausible excuses; they have even been genuine, though minor, anxieties. But the whole thing, we take it, had always one simple, intelligible basis.-sheer contempt for the supposed intellectual inferiority of woman. She was not to be taught, because she was not worth teaching. The learned Acidalius, aforesaid, was in the majority. According to Aristotle and the Peripatetics, woman was animal occasionatum, as if a sort of monster and accidental production. Mediaeval councils, charitably asserting her claims to the rank of humanity, still pronounced her unfit for instruction. In the Hindoo dramas, she did not even speak the same language with her master, but used the dialect of slaves. When, in the sixteenth century, Françoise de Saintonges wished to establish girls' schools in France, she was hooted in the streets, and her father called together four doctors, learned in the law, to decide whether she was not possessed by demons, to think of educating women,—pour s’assurer qu’instruire es femmes n’etait pas un oeuvre du demon.