Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?

"We venture to assert, then, that woman's social inferiority, in the past, has been, to a great extent, a legitimate thing."

It was the same with political rights. The foundation of the Salic Law was not any sentimental anxiety to guard female delicacy and domesticity; it was, as stated by Froissart, a blunt, hearty contempt: “The kingdom of France being too noble to be ruled by a woman." And the same principle was reaffirmed for our own institutions, in rather softened language, by Theophilus Parsons, in his famous defense of the rights of Massachusetts men (the "Essex Result," in 1778): "Women, what age soever they are of, are not considered as having a sufficient acquired discretion [to exercise the franchise]."

In harmony with this are the various maxims and bon mots of eminent men, in respect to women. Niebuhr thought he should not have educated a girl well,—he should have made her know too much. Lessing said, "The woman who thinks is like the man who puts on rouge, ridiculous." Voltaire said, "Ideas are like beards; women and young men have none." And witty Dr. Maginn carries to its extreme the atrocity: “We like to hear a few words of sense from a woman, as we do from a parrot, because they are so unexpected." Yet how can we wonder at these opinions, when the saints have been severer than the sages? since the pious Fenelon taught that true virgin delicacy was almost as incompatible with learning as with vice,-- and Dr. Channing complained, in his "Essay on Exclusion and Denunciation," of "women forgetting the tenderness of their sex" and arguing on theology.

Now this impression of feminine inferiority may be right or wrong, but it obviously does a good deal towards explaining the facts it takes for granted. If contempt does not originally cause failure, it perpetuates it. Systematically discourage any individual or class, from birth to death, and they learn, in nine cases out of ten, to acquiesce in their degradation, if not to claim it as a crown of glory. If the Abbe Choisi praised the Duchesse dc Fontanges for being "beautiful as an angel and silly as a goose," it was natural that all the young ladies of the court should resolve to make up in folly what they wanted in charms. All generations of women having been bred under the shadow of intellectual contempt, they have of course done much to justify it. They have often used only for frivolous purposes even the poor opportunities allowed them. They have employed the alphabet, as Moliere said, chiefly in spelling the verb Amo. Their use of science has been like that of Mlle. de Launay, who computed the decline in her lover's affection by his abbreviation of their evening walk in the public square, preferring to cross it rather than take the circuit,—"From which I inferred," she says,that his passion had diminished in the ratio between the diagonal of a rectangular parallelogram and the sum of two adjacent sides." And their conception, even of Art, has been too often on the scale of Properzia de Rossi, who carved sixty-five heads on a walnut, the smallest of all recorded symbols of woman's sphere.

All this might perhaps be overcome, if the social prejudice which discourages woman would only reward proportionately those who surmount the discouragement. The more obstacles the more glory, if society would only pay in proportion to the labor; but it does not. Women, being denied not merely the antecedent training which prepares for great deeds, but the subsequent praise and compensation which follow them, have been weakened in both directions. The career of eminent men ordinarily begins with colleges and the memories of Miltiades, and ends with fortune and fame; woman begins under discouragement, and ends beneath the same. Single, she works with half-preparation and half-pay; married, she puts name and wages into the keeping of her husband, shrinks into John Smith's "lady" during life, and John Smith's "relict" on her tombstone; and still the world wonders that her deeds, like her opportunities, are inferior.

Evidently, then, the advocates of woman's claims—those who hold that "the virtues of the man and the woman are the same," with Antisthenes,—or that "the talent of the man and the woman is the same," with Socrates in Xenophon's "Banquet"—must be cautious lest they attempt to prove too much. Of course, if women know as much as men without schools and colleges, there is no need of admitting them to these institutions. If they work as well on half-pay it diminishes the inducement to give them the other half. The safer position is, to claim that they have done just enough to show what they might have done under circumstances less discouraging. Take, for instance, the common remark, that women have invented nothing. It is a valid answer, that the only tools habitually needed by woman have been the needle, the spindle, and the basket, and tradition reports that she herself invented all three. In the same way it may be shown that the departments in which women have equalled men have been the departments in which they have had equal training, equal encouragement, and equal compensation,—as, for instance, the theatre. Madame Lagrange, the prima donna, after years of costly musical instruction, wins the zenith of professional success; she receives, the newspapers affirm, sixty thousand dollars a year, travelling-expenses for ten persons, country-houses, stables, and liveries, besides an uncounted revenue of bracelets, bouquets, and billet-doux. Of course, every young debutante fancies the same thing within her own reach, with only a brief stage-vista between. On the stage there is no deduction for sex, and therefore woman has shown in that sphere an equal genius. But every female common-school teacher in the United States finds the enjoyment of her two hundred dollars a year to be secretly embittered by the knowledge that the young college stripling in the next school-room is paid a thousand dollars for work no harder or more responsible than her own,—and that, too, after the whole pathway of education has been obstructed for her and smoothed for him. These may be gross and carnal considerations; but Faith asks her daily bread, and Fancy must be fed. We deny woman her fair share of training, of encouragement, of remuneration, and then talk fine nonsense about her instincts and her intuitions—say sentimentally, with the Oriental proverbialist, “Every book of knowledge is implanted by nature in the heart of woman," and make the compliment a substitute for the alphabet.

Nothing can be more absurd than to impose entirely distinct standards, in thus respect, on the two sexes, or to expect that woman, any more than man, will accomplish anything great without due preparation and adequate stimulus. Mrs. Patten, who navigated her husband's ship from Cape Horn to California, would have failed in the effort, for all her heroism if she had not, unlike most of her sex, been taught to use her Bowditch.  Florence Nightingale, when she heard of the distresses in the Crimea, did not, as most people imagine, rise up and say, “I am a woman, ignorant, but intuitive, with very little sense or information, but exceedingly sublime aspirations; my strength lies in my weakness; I can do all things without knowing anything about them." Not at all. During ten years site had been in hard training for precisely such services,—had visited all the hospitals in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris, Lyons, Rome, Brussels, and Berlin,—had studied under the Sisters of Charity, and been twice a nurse in the Protestant Institution at Kaiserswerth.  Therefore she did not merely carry to the Crimea a woman’s heart, as her stock in trade, but she knew the alphabet of her profession better than the men around her.  Of course, genius and enthusiasm are, for both sexes, elements unforeseen and incalculable; but, as a general rule, great achievements imply great preparations and favorable conditions.

To disregard this truth is unreasonable in the abstract and cruel in its consequences. If an extraordinary male gymnast can clear a height of ten feet with the aid of a spring-board, it would be considered slightly absurd to ask a woman to leap eleven feet without one; yet this is precisely what society and the critics have always done. Training and wages and social approbation are very elastic spring-boards, and the whole course of history has seen these offered bounteously to one sex and as sedulously withheld from the other. Let woman consent to be a doll, and there was no finery so gorgeous, no baby-house so costly, but she might aspire to share its lavish delights;—let her ask simply for an equal chance to learn, to labor, and to live, and it was as if that same doll should open its lips, and propound Euclid's forty-seventh proposition. While we have all deplored the helpless position of indigent women, and lamented that they had no alternative beyond the needle, the wash-tub, the school-room, and the street, we have yet resisted their admission into every new occupation, denied them training, and cut their compensation down. Like Charles Lamb, who atoned for coming late to the office in the morning by going away early in the afternoon, we have, first, half educated women, and then, to restore the balance, only half paid them. What innumerable obstacles have been placed in the way of female physicians! what a complication of difficulties has been encountered by female printers, engravers, and designers! In London, Mr. Bennett was recently mobbed for lecturing to women on watchmaking. In this country, we have known grave professors to refuse to address lyceums which thought fit to employ an occasional female lecturer. Mr. Corner states that it was "in the face of ridicule and sneers" that he began to educate women as book-keepers, eight years ago; and it is a little contemptible in the authoress of "A Woman's Thoughts on Women" to revive the same satire now, when she must know that in one half the retail shops in Paris her own sex rules the ledger, and Mammon knows no Salle law.

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