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”?