The Glittering Generality, Woman
WOMEN are uncertain creatures, as a class and as individuals, — only to be counted on, according to popular (masculine) tradition, to scream at the sight of a mouse ; to impart any secret rashly confided to them ; to haunt bargain counters ; to jump at conclusions, with a fine disregard of the barriers of logic ; and to be possessed at crucial moments with a consuming desire to know whether their hats are on straight. The case of Woman is far different. She is composed of the three ingredients, loveliness, purity, tenderness, — these three, and no more; and she never varies by so much as a hair. Who does not know her as she appears in fervid oratory,“ soothing the brow of care ” ?
The vocations of women are many and various. Some are clerks, some are stenographers, some are club women, some are washerwomen, some are housekeepers and mothers of families, some are cooks, indifferent or otherwise. But the occupation of Woman is “soothing the brow of care,” — that, and that only.
Really the difference between Women and Woman in masculine estimation furnishes food for thought. Woman is not to be mentioned without reverence, without a strewing of rhetorical flowers ; the subject of Women is one which evokes the latent humor of the most unhumorous man, the amused patronage of even the gallant Southerner. “ How like a woman! ” even he is apt to exclaim, in any case of feminine absurdity.
A woman, observe, is not Woman; though the Woman, the bright particular woman, is sometimes confused with her for periods of varying shortness ; during which season of glamour he delights to say to her, “ How different you are from other women ! ” and she blushes and lowers her lids at such superlative praise. If he should say rashly, “ How unwomanlike you are ! ” — but that is not to be imagined, even.
The Exceptional Woman — the woman, that is, whom a man delights to honor by regarding as such — may, I repeat, be for a while more or less confused in his mind with Woman. But, speaking generally, Woman is a platform product, — that, and nothing more ; an oratorical accessory, intended to perform two highly useful functions : namely, to serve as a peg upon which to hang rhetorical wreaths; and also, like the battered bird kept at the photographer’s for the behoof of depressed infant subjects, as a device for making, the female auditor “ look pleasant.”
Now, far be it from me to speak flippantly of any harmless invention of human ingenuity, especially of one venerable from age and long service. I would merely deprecate too naïve a reliance upon it for the purpose last mentioned. This is a sophisticated age. Even the babies — to judge from a three-year-old relative of mine, recently put to the test — respond tardily and not without reserve to the immemorial device of the battered bird. And so, if the orator will but notice, he will find it with the female auditor of to-day. She, as a rule, distinctly refuses to “ look pleasant ” when Woman is dangled before her eyes. The unskillful may simper, but the judicious assume an air of considering Woman to be no concern of theirs, which is not without grimness.
Yet Woman no doubt will abide with us until Women reach the goal of their extreme ambition ; and then will come the time of the rival figure, Man, — indispensable to the female orator; Man, not a composite capable of resolution into Smith, Jones, Brown, and Thompson; into the iceman, the gas-meter man, the clergyman, the club man, the greengrocer, the Congressman, the policeman, the burglar, and so on, but just Man,— a decorative creation composed of a cardinal virtue or two and a dab of rose color.
An object of imitative art need not conform slavishly to nature, in order to be highly prized by an imaginative mind. I knew a little girl once who constructed a doll by simply tying a string of false curls to the neck of a shoe-polish bottle, and thenceforth lavished upon it the warmest and most faithful devotion. So the future woman may feel a genuine affection toward Man, the complement of Woman, and her eyes may moisten with real emotion as she displays her handiwork. I cannot but think, however, that Mr. Smith and Mr. Brown in the audience may not greatly care for this figment of her fancy, at its first presentation, even ; and that it may not impossibly, in time, become the signal for groping for hats and umbrellas.
And so some day women may receive the exploitation of Woman. Even now I can fancy that it would awaken symptoms of impatience at “ advanced ” female gatherings ; not, I hasten to add to forestall retort, because of the essentially unfeminine idiosyncrasies of those who promote and frequent such gatherings, but because of the very strong conviction entertained by these ladies that Woman is a complex creature, made up of other elements than loveliness, purity, tenderness, and adapted to many things besides “ soothing the brow of care.”
We who are not “ advanced,” however, do not resent the “Woman of oratory,” but rather feel toward those who maintain her as an institution a sentiment of regard, as being those who would do us pleasure. But, I repeat, she is really no affair of ours. As Mrs. Prig said of Mrs. Harris, to the undying scandal of Mrs. Gamp, “ there ain’t no sich a person ” as Woman. And we know it. Fervors lavished on her do not touch us. “ My child,” said Sydney Smith one day, seeing a child caressingly patting a tortoise, “ you might as well pat the dome of St. Paul’s to please the Dean and Chapter! ”
And so say we women, humble individuals of the Absurd Sex, to those who praise Woman!