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."

We find, on investigation, what these considerations would lead us to expect, that eminent women have commonly been more exceptional in their training and position than even in their genius. They have excelled the average of their own sex because they have had more of the ordinary advantages of the other sex. Take any department of learning or skill; take, for instance, the knowledge or languages, the universal alphabet, philology.—On time great stairway, at Padua, stands the statue of Elena Cornaro, professor of six languages in that once renowned university. But Elena Cornaro was educated like a boy, by her father.-- On the great door of the University of Bologna is inscribed the epitaph of Clotilda Tambroni, the honored correspondent of' Poi-son, and the first Greek scholar of Southern Europe in her day. But Clotilda Tanibroni was educated like a boy, by Einanucle Aponte.-How fine are those prefatory words, "by a Right Reverend Prelate," to that pioneer book in Anglo-Saxon lore, Elizabeth Elstob's grammar: “Our earthly possessions are indeed our patrimony, as derived to us by the industry of our fathers; but the language in which we speak is our mother-tongue, and who so proper to play the critic in this as the females?" But this particular female obtained the rudiments of her rare education from her mother, before she was eight years old, in spite of much opposition from her right reverend guardians.—Adelung, the highest authority, declares that all modern philology is founded on the translation of a Russian vocabulary into two hundred different dialects by Catherine II. But Catherine shared, in childhood, the instructors of her brother, Prince Frederick, and was subject to some reproach for learning, though a girl, so much more rapidly than he did.-- Christina of Sweden ironically reproved Madame Dacier for her translation of Callimachus: "Such a pretty girl as you are, are you not ashamed to be so learned?" But Madame Dacier acquired Greek by contriving to do her embroidery in the room where her father was teaching her stupid brother; and her queenly critic had learned to read Thucydides, harder Greek than Callimachus, before she was fourteen.—And so down to our own day, who knows how many mute, inglorious Minervas may have perished unenlightened, while Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were being educated "like boys"?

This expression simply means that they had the most solid training which the times afforded. Most persons would instantly take alarm at the very words; that is, they have so little faith in the distinctions which Nature has established, that they think, if you teach the alphabet, or anything else, indiscriminately to both sexes, you annul all difference between them. The common reasoning is thus: "Boys and girls are acknowledged to be distinct beings. Now boys study Greek and algebra, medicine and book-keeping. Therefore girls should not." As if one should say “Boys and girls are distinct beings. Now boys eat beef and potatoes. Therefore, obviously, girls should not."

The analogy between physical and spiritual food is precisely in point. The simple truth is, that, amid the vast range of human powers and properties, the fact of sex is but one item. Vital and momentous in itself, it does not constitute the whole organism, but, only a small part of it. The distinction of male and female is special, aimed at a certain end; and apart from that end, it is, throughout all the kingdoms of Nature, of minor importance. With but trifling exceptions, from infusorial up to man, the female animal moves, breathes, looks, listens, runs, flies, swims, pursues its food, eats it, digests it, in precisely the same manner as the male; all instinct's, all characteristics, are the same, except as to the one solitary fact of parentage. Mr. Ten Broeck's race-horses, Pryor and Prioress, were foaled alike, fed alike, trained alike, and finally ran side by side, competing for the same prize. The eagle is not checked in soaring by any consciousness of sex, nor asks the sex of the timid hare, its quarry. Nature, for high purposes, creates and guards the sexual distinction, but keeps it humbly subordinate to still more important ones.

Now all this bears directly upon the alphabet. What sort of philosophy is that which says, "John is a fool; Jane is a genius; nevertheless, John, being a man, shall learn, lead, make laws, make money; Jane, being a woman, shall be ignorant, dependent, disfranchised, underpaid." Of course, the time is past when one would state this so frankly, though Comte comes quite near it, to say nothing of the Mormons; but this formula really lies at the bottom of the reasoning one hears every day. The answer is: Soul before sex. Give an equal chance, and let genius and industry do the rest. La carrière ouverte aux talens. Every man for himself, every woman for herself, and the alphabet for us all.

Thus far, our whole course of argument has been defensive and explanatory. We have shown that woman's inferiority in special achievements, so far as it exists, is a fact of small importance, because it is merely a corollary from her historic position of degradation. She has not excelled, because she has had no fair chance to excel. Man, placing his foot upon her shoulder, has taunted her with not rising. But the ulterior question remains behind,—How came she into this attitude, originally? Explain the explanation, the logician fairly demands. Granted that woman is weak because she has been systematically degraded; but why was she degraded? This is a far deeper question,—one to be met only by a profounder philosophy and a positive solution. We are coming on ground almost wholly untrod, and must do the best we can.

We venture to assert, then, that woman's social inferiority, in the past, has been, to a great extent, a legitimate thing. To all appearance, history would have been impossible without it, just as it would have been impossible without an epoch of war and slavery. It is simply a matter of social progress, a part of the succession of civilizations. The past has been, and inevitably, a period of ignorance, of engrossing physical necessities, and of brute force,—not of freedom, of philanthropy, and of culture. During that lower epoch, woman was necessarily an inferior,—degraded by abject labor, even in time of peace,—degraded uniformly by war, chivalry to the contrary notwithstanding. Behind all the courtesies of Amadis and the Cid lay the stern fact,—woman a child or a toy. The flattering troubadours chanted her into a poet's paradise; but, alas! That kingdom of heaven suffered violence, and the violent took it by force. The truth simply was, that her time had not come. Physical strength must rule for a time, and she was the weaker. She was very properly refused a feudal grant, because, say "Les Coustumes de Normandie," she is not trained to war or policy: C’est l’homme ki se bast et ki conseille. Other authorities put it still more plainly: "A woman cannot serve the emperor or feudal lord in war, on account of the decorum of her sex; nor assist him with advice, because of her limited intellect; nor keep his counsel, owing to the infirmity of her disposition." All which was, no doubt, in the majority of cases, true, and the degradation of woman was simply a part of a system, which has indeed had its day, but has bequeathed its associations.

From this reign of force woman never freed herself by force. She could not fight, or would not. Bohemian annals, indeed, record the legend of a literal war between the sexes, in which the women's army was led by Libussa and Wlasla, and which finally ended with the capture, by the army of men, of Castle Dziewin, Maiden's Tower, whose ruins are still visible near Prague. The armor of Libussa is still shown at Vienna, and the guide calls attention to the long-peaked toes of steel, with which, he avers, the tender Princess was wont to pierce the hearts of her opponents, while careering through the battle. And there are abundant instances in which women have fought side by side with men, and on equal terms. The ancient British women mingled in the wars of their husbands, and their princesses were trained to the use of arms in the Maiden's Castle at Edinburgh and in the Isle of Skye. The Moorish wives and maidens fought in defence of their European peninsula; and the Portuguese women fought, on the same soil, against the armies of Philip II. The king of Siam has at present a bodyguard of four hundred women; they are armed with lance and rifle, are admirably disciplined, and their commander (appointed alter saving the king's life at a tiger-hunt) ranks as one of the royal family and has ten elephants at her service. When the all-conquering Dahomian army marched upon Abbeokuta, in 1851, they numbered ten thousand men and six thousand women; the women were, as usual, placed foremost in the assault, as being most reliable; and of the eighteen hundred bodies left dead before the walls, the vast majority were of women. The Hospital of the Invalides, in Paris, has sheltered, for half a century, a fine specimen of a female soldier, "Lieutenant Madame Bulan," now eighty-three years old, decorated by Napoleon's own hand with the cross of the Legion of honor, and credited on the hospital-books with "seven years' service,-- seven campaigns,—three wounds,—several times distinguished, especially in Corsica, in defending a fort against the English." But these cases, though interesting to the historian, are still exceptional, and the instinctive repugnance they inspire is condemnatory, not of women, but of war.

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