Honor Among Women

Can honour set to a leg ? No. Or an arm ? No. Or take away the grief of a wound ? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then ? No. What is honour ? A word. What is in that word honour ? What is that honour ? Air. Who hath it ? He that died o’ Wednesday.

FALSTAFF was the prince of special pleaders, but he does not shake our belief that honor is something besides air, that it is more important than legs and arms, and that ‘he that died o’ Wednesday ’ may be an object of envy and emulation. And yet, as we reflect on the different ideals of honor that men have held, — not only different but mutually incompatible, — we see some justification for the derisive spirit.

Honor has had countless local and temporary forms. For the ancient Roman it enjoined certain forms of courage and branded certain formsof cowardice, while at the same time it permitted hideous brutality toward the weak. For the mediæval knight it prescribed in some respects an extravagant courtesy toward the weak, while in other ways it did not encourage even a scant justice. Coming nearer to our own times, we find that honor among soldiers is one thing, among doctors another, among lawyers another, among ‘ gentlemen ’ another, among business men yet another. It looks a littie hopeless. Henry M. Stanley in his autobiography calls attention to this conflict of standards. He says, ‘With regard to his “ honor ” it seemed to bear a different meaning on different banks of a river. On the eastern shore of the Mississippi, it meant probity in business; on the western shore it signified popular esteem for the punishment of a traducer, and he who was most, prompt in killing any one who made a personal reflection obtained most honor, and therefore every pedlar or clerk in Arkansas hastened to prove his mettle.’

Yet one thing all codes of honor have in common: they are outside the law. Law has taken care of certain large sections of human conduct: it has explicitly prohibited killing and stealing and various other flagrantly anti-social acts. But other large sections of conduct are left. The Mosaic law did not forbid lying, but only malicious false witnessing. Modern law covers perjury and libel, but many forms of lying are still untouched. The law compels men to keep their contracts, but not to keep their word, when given without witnesses. It controls to some extent the abuse of power, but only to some extent. It protects the weak, but it does not compel them to have courage. Accordingly, in these regions of conduct where the law falls short, honor steps in, laying emphasis on the need of truth, of good faith, of courtesy, of courage. It does this in many different ways, but its concern is almost always with the things that the law cannot or does not control. Where law ends, honor begins.

And one other thing all standards of honor have in common: that is, the kind of tribunal to which they appeal, the kind of penalty which follows upon their disregard. A gentleman pays his card debts. Why? Because if he repudiates them he is ‘no gentleman.' A soldier responds to a challenge, or gives one, under the proper conditions. Why? Because if he does not he will find himself compelled, by an intangible but irresistible force, to resign his commission. A scholar is scrupulous in his acknowledgment of every intellectual debt owed to other scholars. Why? Because if he fails in this he is in danger of the scathing condemnation of other scholars. A doctor will not criticize the work of a colleague, though a scholar will freely criticize the work of any other scholar. Why? Because among doctors custom forbids this.

Now, in all these cases, though the specific acts required or forbidden may be, and are, very different, the tribunal of reference is the same, and the penalty is the same. The tribunal is the opinion of a man’s peers, more or less crystallized as the customs or the etiquette of his class. The penalty is spiritual ostracism from his class. A man who has disregarded these customs may be passed over by the law, — he may even be supported by it, he may be blessed in his basket and in his store, — yet he is in danger of losing something immeasurably precious to him, more precious even than basket and store: the right to hold up his head among his equals.

Defined in terms of its penalties, then, honor may be described as a man’s sense of obligation with regard to those rules of social conduct which are not outwardly or legally binding, but whose infringement will, in the opinion of his equals, and therefore in his own opinion, tend to declass him.

In this sense there can be, and is, honor among thieves as well as among business men, honor among gamblers as well as among statesmen. This explains, too, the curious inconsistencies, the laxities and rigidities, of the various honor-codes. For, since honor is a class affair, its specific rulings will naturally grow out. of the conditions governing the particular class. And we can understand cases like the one that puzzled Stanleys. For on the two banks of the Mississippi there were two distinct kinds of people, living under distinctly different conditions. On the west bank it was still pioneer life, on the east bank there was a tolerably settled community. Now, among the pioneer class, courage is, on the whole, more obviously important than any other quality. In a settled community, honesty is more obviously important.

It would seem to follow, that the more distinct and close-knit a class is, the more distinct and rigid will be its code of honor. And this is indeed the case. The class which has always been bound together in the closest possible way is probably the soldier class. Now it is precisely among soldiers that codes of honor have been most elaborately and tyrannically developed.1 Only less close-knit than the soldiersare the other two great professions, the doctors and the lawyers, and these, too, have developed codes of professional honor which have been the jest, when they have not been the despair, of the ages. Loyalty to these has often seemed to lead to disloyalty toward a higher ideal, and a complete betrayal of the interests of the non-professional outsider.

This, too, is inevitable from the very nature of the case. For it will necessarily happen that the interests of one class will clash with those of another, and if a man belongs partly in two classes, whose requirements are incompatible, he must choose between them, for no man can serve two masters. Thus, the soldier finds himself required by his honor as a soldier to do things which his honor as a citizen prohibits. And many a young recruit must have been dazed, as Stanley was during his brief service with the Confederate troops, by this subversion of standards. ‘The “Thou shalt not” of the Decalogue,’ he says, ‘ was now translated, “Thou shalt.” Thou shalt kill, lie, steal, blaspheme, covet, and hate.’

Nor does this occur among soldiers alone. Many a gentleman has found himself forced to decide between his business debts and his ‘ debts of honor.’ Gentlemen of his class play for money. When they lose, they pay, for a gentleman’s word is as good as his bond — a gentleman’s word, that is, given to another gentleman. Given to the grocer, the rule does not necessarily hold. For the grocer has the law to protect him. If he is not paid, he can bring suit. But if debts of honor are not paid, no suit will be brought. The retribution will be of another sort — a sort not to be encountered. Can we blame the gentleman? It is a choice of penalties. He chooses the one he is best able to endure.

This attitude, in this particular sort of case, is becoming somewhat antiquated, at least in theory. Yet there are, I fancy, few men who can withstand the temptation to pay their club dues first, and let their coal bill wait.

This grazes the subject of business honor, and business honor is a particularly difficult matter. Business men are only emerging from a past whose traditions are characterized by vagueness and expediency. The trader was bound, even to his kind, by no close ties. His honor was the honor of the wolf, of the pirate, or of the slave.2 Gradually came the realization that honesty was really the best policy, that stability and reciprocity were necessary, that credit was the condition of progress, and that behind credit stood integrity. Moreover, it began to be recognized that a man could be at the same time a gentleman and a trader, or, speaking more generally, a man of business. Thereupon, the standards of the gentleman and those of the business man began by a kind of spiritual and social osmosis, to affect each other.

The end is not yet, but the code of the gentleman is being stripped of some of its narrowness and whimsicality, and at the same time the code of the business man is growing ashamed of its opportunism.

Naturally, this is what is happening, or going to happen, to all narrow honor-codes. With the breaking-down of class distinctions, the class-codes that have grown up within their boundaries must become blurred. The process of osmosis is going on everywhere. The growing conviction of the real solidarity of the human race is slowly working itself out in practical ways, and in the end it must give rise to a code of human honor which is the result of human needs. When this occurs, we shall get a code whose rulings, far from running counter to those of general morality, will reinforce them with the utmost rigor and universality.

From this condition we are yet a long way off. We still have visions of lands where ‘ there ain’t no Ten Commandments.’ Indeed, they are more than visions, as any one may know by glancing at the condition of the African tribes in contact with Europeans, or of the Jews in Russia, or of the Indians in our own country. Many otherwise high-minded men are not keenly conscious of any obligations of honor toward the Chinese.

And even leaving out differences of race, which for historical reasons always tend to blur such obligations, we need not go far afield to find cases where a community is divided against itself. Take our large universities. Here the students have theirown standards of honor, whose unwritten laws are more binding than any of those which either the police or the faculty stand for. The matter of cheating in studies is a case in point. Feeling about this has varied, and still varies widely, in the different institutions. It is probably gradually squaring itself with ordinary standards of morality. Yet the hoodwinking of an instructor by a student in the ordinary routine of the class-room is still regarded as, at worst, a venial offense. It is better not to cheat, says the code, the best fellows don’t; yet on the whole it is ’up to the instructor.’ But, on the other hand, if the students are competing for a prize, the ruling is quite different. It becomes sternly intolerant of the least shadow of dishonesty. For now it is not: a case of the student against his instructor, but of the student against his fellow students. To take advantage of his instructor is one thing. To take advantage of a fellow student, snatching the prize by dishonest means, this is quite another. This is in the highest degree dishonorable.

Honor among men, then, originally a narrow class matter, whose standards were always independent of the law, and often at variance with it, is gradually, with many back-currents and side-eddies, making progress toward a wider jurisdiction and a broader set of standards. As the sense of classdistinctions upon which it originally rested fades, and a sense of general human obligation grows, we may call it honor, or we may call it morality. Honor then becomes what Wordsworth calls it: —

Say, what is honour? ’T is the finest sense
Of justice which the human mind can frame,
Intent each lurking frailty to disclaim,
And guard the way of life from all offense
Suffered or done.

Indeed, Wordsworth’s meaning is much more the one we commonly have in mind now, than are any of the narrower interpretations which we have been considering. This is the kind of honor that will ultimately be required of men, whether they are business men, or lawyers, or soldiers. This is the kind that must ultimately be required of women. But men have been slowly working toward this through the narrower codes of their class-life. Have women been achieving it in the same way?

To a certain extent, women have, through the ages, shared men’s sense of honor — at least as regards men. Their judgments of men have usually confirmed men’s judgments of themselves. They have to some extent awarded the prizes of honor in accordance with the rules that men laid down. They have grown familiar with men’s ideals of courage, of truth, of courtesy. Such familiarity was worth something, but it did not deeply affect women’s standards for themselves, because it did not affect men’s standards for women. For example, the mere fact that women prized courage in men did not make women themselves courageous.

And it was men’s standards for women that really counted. For women never had, in the past, a class-sense in the same way that men had. Their relations were not primarily with one another, but with men. They had, indeed, certain broad class-affiliations, but these were established through their men — their fathers or brothers or husbands. In this way they were aristocrats or serfs, they were English or French or Turkish. But they had practically no classes corresponding to the class of knights, or of doctors, or of lawyers, or of masons. And it was impossible that any code should develop such as these classes evolved.

They were, to be sure, women. This was a bond. True. But it will be noticed that men’s codes of honor have developed, not through the fact that they were men, but through the fact that they were special kinds of men, — knights or lords or masons, — and, as we have seen, the narrower code usually took precedence of any which they recognized as binding them merely because they were men. This was pale, that was vivid. This was vague, that was definite.

Again, it may be said, men have developed a code of honor as gentlemen. Could not women develop a corresponding code as gentlewomen? To some extent, indeed, they did this. But the rulings which they thus developed were, perhaps, more regarding details than principles, more touching manners than morals.

This was quite natural. They had more to do with details than with principles. They were expected to be more conversant with manners than with morals, except along certain very narrow lines.

And here we come squarely up against the whole matter of the historic position of women. Perhaps, for our purposes, the question is nowhere better put than in the dictionary definition of honor. Any dictionary will do, but Webster’s happens to be most succinct. After giving various definitions, we find it explaining it as ‘more particularly, in men, integrity; in women, purity, chastity.’

Dictionaries are condensed history, and this little phrase, assuming as it does one standard for men and another for women, is very significant. The word ‘honesty’ has gone through a similar stage. In Elizabethan usage it meant square dealing, when used of men; but when used of women, it meant chastity. This meaning of the word is now ignored except by the dialect dictionaries, but the similar meaning of honor is still in good and regular dictionary standing, though actually passing out of common use.

Now this fact, that the words honor and honesty were at one time used of men in one sense, while they were used of women in another and very different sense, gives us something to think about. Evidently, integrity and honesty were not expected of women as they were of men. Why not? Probably because they were not needed by women as they were by men. We have seen that men, through the necessities of social intercourse, arrived at certain roughly formulated ideals of courage and honesty, certain traditions of class solidarity. Each man had his personal dignity to maintain, his place among his equals. But women, meanwhile, were holding intercourse, not with equals, but with superiors — men — and inferiors — children and servants. Through the necessities of such intercourse they, on their part, were working out ideals of tenderness, of industry, of adaptability, and management. In their environment these were the things that were above all necessary. And these are good things, but not the stuff of which honor is made.

As for honor which gives a human being the sense of personal dignity, the right to hold up his head among his peers, this came to a woman, not through any qualities she herself possessed, but through those of her lord, provided always that she preserved herself as clearly and unquestionably his possession. Hers was the honor of the thing possessed. The ownership of the owner must be jealously guarded, even by the thing owned, so far as it had any volition. This done, she must adapt herself as well as possible to his needs. And this adaptation followed one or both of two main lines — the lines of usefulness and the lines of ornament. A woman was expected to be useful, or to be, in one way or another, pleasant . If she were very useful, she did not need to be quite so pleasant; if she were very pleasant, she did not need to be quite so useful. This gives us the rationale of the relations of most women in the past.

The theories about woman’s position correspond with these two lines of usefulness and ornament. They go all the way from the theory of woman as a drudge, to the theory of woman as a rose, or a goddess.

The first theory is often not clearly formulated, although it is very clearly implied in the tenth Mosaic commandment, which classified a man’s wife with his house and his ox and his ass. It is exemplified with rare neatness in the answer made to a missionary in the Far East by a coolie whose wife had just carried him across a muddy stream. ‘Are n’t you ashamed to let. your wife carry you across?' the Western woman exclaimed indignantly. He looked puzzled. She repeated her question. He still looked dazed, and finally asked, ‘Whose wife should carry me across?’

The second theory has been often formulated with great elaborateness, and never, perhaps, with greater charm than in Lord Houghton’s little poem, ‘To Doris.’

‘If, my Doris, I should find
That you seemed the least inclined
To explore the depths of mind
Or of art;
Should such fancies ever wake,
Understand without mistake,
Though our hearts, perhaps, might break,
We must part.
I’d as lief your little head
Should be cumbered up with lead
As with learning, live or dead,
Or with brains.
I have really doated less
On its outline, I confess,
Than the charming nothingness
It contains.
Do you think the summer rose
Ever cares or ever knows
By what law she buds and blows
On the stem?
If the peaches on the wall
Must by gravitation fall,
Do you fancy it at all
Troubles them ?
So, as sun or rain is sent,
And the happy hours are spent,
Be unaskingly content
As a star.
Yes, be ever of the few
Neither critical nor blue,
But be just the perfect you
That you are.’

This is delightful, but if Doris took it seriously, it would end matters for her, so far as honor is concerned. Roses and peaches do not concern themselves with honor, any more than with gravitation or the laws of growth. The same theory is implied in the younger Donne’s characterization of woman as ‘the most excellent toy in the world.’ Honor is not found among toys, even the most excellent ones.

But we do not have to go back to Donne, or even to Lord Houghton, to find this attitude toward women. It was never more attractively summarized than in Barrie’s play, What Every Woman Knows, when Maggie gives her quaint definition of ‘charm.' To quote from memory, it runs about as follows: ‘Charm is something, that if a woman has it, it does n’t matter whether she has anything else or not; and if she does n’t have it, it does n’t matter what else she has.’ Indeed, there could be no better illustration than is furnished by this whole play of the kind of thing women have, by the force of inexorable necessity, trained themselves to be and to do.

These two theories, the drudgetheory and the rose-theory, are, of course, not the only ones that have been held about women. They are the two extremes, which have shaded into and interpenetrated each other, with various modifications. All that we are concerned with here is the fact that neither the extremes nor any of their variants provide the kind of soil and climate in which women’s ideals of honor — except of the one narrowly restricted sort — would be likely to grow and burgeon.

In fairness it ought, perhaps, to be added, that these theories never absolutely corresponded with the whole situation. Theories never do. Theories of child-training were once, perhaps, even less sound than they are to-day, yet many children were doubtless excellently trained. So, in spite of theories, many women undoubtedly lived lives which offered every encouragement to their honor-sense, and many more, even without such stimulus, developed this sense in its highest form, just as many women, without any tradition of courage to incite them, have displayed the most brilliant courage.

As to the theories themselves, they are sometimes discussed with too much heat. No one was particularly to blame for them, any more than any one was to blame for the prevalence of curious theories concerning disease, or the movements of the sun. Moreover, even the women themselves acquiesced in these ideas. As late as the Victorian era, we find the Honorable Mrs. Norton, one of the most brilliantly endowed women who ever lived, writing in this way: —

‘The wild and stupid theories advanced by a few women, of “equal rights ” and “equal intelligence” are not the opinions of their sex. I, for one (I, with millions more), believe in the natural superiority of man, as I do in the existence of a God. The natural position of woman is inferiority to man. Amen! That is a thing of God’s appointing not of man’s devising. I believe it sincerely, as a part of my religion. I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality.’

And yet it is clear that nothing but this wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality could ever furnish women with the incentive to develop a sense of honor at all like men’s. It is a curious fact that, while Mrs. Norton was denouncing the theory, she was, indirectly through the tragedy of her life, and directly through her immense personal influence, doing all that she could to make it prevail by bringing about an important change in the laws concerning women. And it is not her fault that she furnished Meredith the model for his Diana and gave him the suggestion for Diana’s great act of treachery — the selling of a state secret intrusted to her in the intimacy of friendship. The real Mrs. Norton, in spite of rumors, did not actually commit such an act, but it is for our purposes deeply significant that Meredith, who, of all our literary artists, has most fully understood the possibilities of women, should have made so excellent a creature as Diana do so abominable a thing. The motives that he assigns her are vanity — the longing to display her power — and a desperate need of money. The excuses he offers are her ignorance of usage, her lack of fundamental training, bringing about in her a complete blindness to the nature of her own act.

It is virtually the same excuse that Ibsen furnishes Nora, in The Doll’s House, for her act of forgery. It is the excuse all women must submit to have offered in their behalf, so long as they still do queer things with money and checks and contracts and confidences, — and, it must be admitted, that women still do the queer things; either this excuse, or else the excuse which has the sanction of much older tradition, namely, that women, training or no training, have no sense of honor at all.

On this point women are still not entirely in agreement. ‘Sense of honor?’ said one young woman to whom the question was brought up; ‘Women’s sense of honor? They have n’t any.’ On the other hand, an older lady— one who is wise through long and sweet living — answered, ‘Sense of honor? Of course women have it — as high as any man’s. Only — I should want to choose my woman.’ Where, then, does the truth lie?

About forty years ago, in a young ladies’ seminary where the ‘higher branches’ were taught, the principal was addressing his class of graduates on this very subject of honor. Young ladies, he explained, had little of it. ‘If,’ he went on, in effect, ‘one of your number should commit a breach of school discipline, what would the rest of you do? You would, of course, tell.’ The young ladies listened with demure attention, and the principal never knew that the very situation he was describing had been existent in the class for a year. They had recognized it, dealt with it, and kept silence.

Probably these were extraordinary young ladies. It was chiefly the extraordinary ones who, at that period, pursued the ‘higher branches.’ However that may have been, the significant thing, for our present purpose, is, not that the secret was kept, but that an intelligent educator — one of the most advanced of those who, at that time, were engaged in women’s education — should have still held this opinion about women. We shall see how far we have come since, if we try to imagine a principal of a girls’ school or college addressing his class in this strain to-day.

It is, of course, a truism that the education of girls—using education in a very broad sense — has undergone during the last three generations, and with cumulative speed and effectiveness, a radical revolution. With most of its results we are not now directly concerned, but as regards this one matter of honor, the effect is already obvious.

For, as we have seen, honor develops most conspicuously where men are closely knit together as equals, in such a way that they feel at once their own personal dignity and their interdependence. For the first time in history, young women are coming together in just this way, in large masses, in the schools and colleges. They had come together before, in small numbers, in royal courts and in nunneries, but the atmosphere of courts is, for various reasons, unsuited to the development of honor, even among men, and still more among women, while the whole postulate of the nunnery, as of the monastery, clearly precludes it.

In the college, then, and to a less degree in the school, honor ought to develop as clear and strong among young women as among young men. And in fact it does. No college boy will ‘give away’ a fellow student to an instructor. No college girl will do it either. Everything that can be said in this regard about boys may also be said about girls, if we make a certain allowance for two things: first, the fact that, for obvious reasons, faculty surveillance is, though gradually being reduced, still much greaterover the girls than over the boys; and second, that owing to their extreme youth the girls’ colleges have not had time to acquire any such body of student tradition, on all subjects, as has accumulated in the older colleges. It is, perhaps, all the more impressive that the college girl’s sense of honor — of the honor of her college, the honor of her class, the honor of her team, and her own honor as inextricably bound up with these—should have reached the keenness that it has.

But it is not alone in the college world that this is happening. In the business world the story is the same. A New York business man was recently asked what he thought about women in business, — were they, on the whole, as businesslike, as honorable, as men? He answered promptly, ‘More so.’ Perhaps his ‘ more so ’ can be discounted a little. Perhaps it was the accent residuary from an earlier surprise at finding women businesslike at all. Or perhaps women in business, like the woman who, forty years ago, studied the ‘higher branches,’are still to some extent a picked lot, and would therefore in some respects average a little higher than men. Or perhaps women, knowing the line along which their reputation has been weak, have made rather special efforts to counteract this.

Finally, it is possible that women through lack of experience have brought the standards of an abstract morality to bear on business matters, and these standards are, probably, in some respects higher than those now governing ordinary business transactions. As illustrative of this, a young woman, not in business, but following her husband’s affairs with intelligent interest, said to me the other day, ‘I am beginning to learn what business men call business honor. It is often quite different from what I should expect. I should n’t do some things that they would, and they would n’t do some things that I should. It seems to be a case of knowing what is customary and expected.’

These are cases where women are responding to a new environment. But there is a class, dwelling in our midst, whose environment has nothing about it particularly new, a class who lack the training and opportunities granted to the college and the business woman, but who yet have developed an honor-code binding and explicit, although little recognized. The servants within our doors, drawn together in the comradeship of similar conditions, have such a code among themselves, which, when it runs counter to our own interests, we sometimes resent, never realizing that it is in essence the same as the code that binds one gentleman to another, one white man to another, one doctor or lawyer to another. Many a servant has left a satisfactory position because she knew another servant to be dishonest, and there was no way,according to her code, of honorably meeting this situation. She could not countenance dishonesty, she could not accuse a fellow servant. There was nothing to do but leave.

This is doubly interesting because it shows that the sense of honor may be strong where it has, apparently, little to feed on, so long as it has these two conditions: class feeling, and some degree of personal independence. In the matter of independence, it is perhaps worth noting that women-servants have, for a long time, stood upon their own feet in a sense in which few other women have done so. The mistress, to take a trifling but significant example, cannot return home at night alone, but her maid may come for her alone, and is counted a sufficient escort.

It would appear, then, that the sense of honor in women has been, not an absent, but a latent quality. All it has needed for its development has been the proper environment.

But this does not mean that, the proper environment now being given, women are to pass through all the successive honor-stages that men have — that they must swathe themselves in all the honorable red tape of the Roman, the knight, the gentleman, the lawyer, and the doctor. Heaven forbid! There is no reason why they should adopt standards which, though once useful, have now been superseded. We have noticed that all codes of all classes are gradually being modified by the growing consciousness of a broadly human solidarity, and it is on this plane that women will naturally fall into line.

Neither men nor women have so far been able to build up, to a point of practical and universal efficacy, such a code of honor as Wordsworth suggests, but both men and women are now working toward this. It is perhaps not altogether utopian to anticipate that what they have not been able to do apart, they may be able to do, with somewhat greater success, together.

  1. For an exposition of certain phrases of soldier honor that is at once quaint and masterly, the reader is referred to Joseph Conrad’s novelette, Honor. — THE AUTHOR.
  2. Legal recognition of this is to some extent implied in the doctrine of ‘caveat emptor,’ by which the seller is not bound to point out such defects in the thing sold as the buyer could presumably discover for himself. — THE AUTHOR.