Further Notes on the Intelligence of Woman


Vanity is as old as the mammoth. Romantic lying, obviously connected with vanity, is justly alleged to be deve1oped in woman. No doubt woman's chief desire has been to appear beautiful, and it is quite open to question whether the leaves that clothed our best ancestress were gathered in a spirit of modesty rather than in response to a desire for adornment.

But it should not be too readily assumed that vanity is purely a feminine characteristic. It is a human characteristic, and the favor of any male savage can be bought at the price of a neck of beads or of an admiral's cocked hat. The modern man is modish too, as much as he dares. At Newport as at Brighton the dandy is supreme. It would be inaccurate, however, to limit vanity to clothes. Vanity is more subtle, and I would ask the reader which of the three principal motives that animate man—love, ambition, and gold lust—is the strongest. The desire to shine in the eyes of one's fellows has produced much in art and political service; it has produced much that is foolish and ignoble. It has led to political competition, to a wild race for ill-remunerated offices, governorships, memberships of Parliament. Representatives of the people often wish to serve the people; they also like to be marked out as the people's men. There are no limits to masculine desire for honors; seldom in England does a man refuse a peerage; Frenchmen are martyrs to their love of ribbons, and not a year passes without a scandal because an official has been bribed to obtain the Légion d'Honneur for somebody, or, funnier still, because an adventurer has blacked his face, set up in a small flat, impersonated a negro potentate, and distributed for value received grand crosses of fantastic kingdoms. Even democratic Americans have been known to seek titled husbands for their daughters, and a few have become Papal barons or counts.

Male vanity differs from female, but both are vanity. The two sexes even share that curious form of vanity which in man consists in his calling himself a 'plain man,' bragging of having come to New York without shoes and with a dime in his pocket; which, in woman, consists in neglecting her appearance. Both sexes convey more or less: 'I am what I am, a humble person. . . but quite good enough.' The arrogance of humility is simply repulsive.

Ideas such as the foregoing may proceed from a certain simplicity. Woman is much less complex than the poets believe. For instance, many men hold that woman's lack of self-consciousness, as exemplified by disturbances in shops, has its roots in some intricate reasoning process. One must not be carried away: the truth is that woman, having so long been dependent upon man, has an exaggerated idea of the importance of small sums. Man has earned money; woman has been taught only to save it. Thus she has been poor, and poverty has caused her to shrink from expenditure; often she has become mean and, paradoxically enough, she has at the same time become extravagant. Poverty has taught her to respect the penny, while it has taught her nothing about the pound. If woman finds it quite easy to spend one tenth of the household income on dress, and even more, [See my article, 'Uniforms for Women,' in the Atlantic of November, 1914, and observe extreme figures and details of feminine expenditure on clothes. — The Author] it is because her education makes it as difficult for her to conceive a thousand dollars as it is for a man to conceive a million. It is merely a question of familiarity with money.

Besides, foolish economy and reckless expenditure are indications of an elementary quality. In that sense woman is still something of a savage. She is still less civilized than man, largely because she has not been educated. This may be a very good thing, and it certainly is an agreeable one from the masculine point of view. Whether we consider woman's attitude to the law, to social service, or to war, it is the same thing. In most cases she is lawless; she will obey the law because she is afraid of it, but she will not respect it. For her it is always sic volo, sic jubeo. I suspect that if she had had a share in making the law she would not have been like this, for she would have become aware of the relation between law and life. Roughly she tends to look up on the law as tyrannous if she does not like it, as protective if she does like it. Probably there is little relation between her own moral impulse, which is generous and the law, which is only just. (That is, just in intention.) This is qualified by the moral spirit in woman which increasingly leads her to the view that certain things should be done and others not be done. But even then it is likely that at heart woman does not respect the law; she may respect what it represents,—strength,—but not what it implies,—equity. She is infinitely more rebellious than man, and where she has power she inflames the world in protest. I do not refer to the militant suffragists, but to woman's general attitude. For instance, when it is proposed to compel women to insure their servants, to pay employer's compensation for accident, to restrict married women's control of their property, to establish laws regulating the social evil, we find female opposition very violent. I do not mean material opposition although that does occur, but mental hostility. Woman surrenders because she must, man because he ought to.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In