Women and Civilization




EVERYONE acknowledges that women to-day are taking a more apparent place in public affairs than they used to. How great was their position in the past is difficult to judge, for they have been very much in the position of a junior partner. His name counts for little; his senior gets the credit, yet he may be indeed the directing spirit of the business. Such has been the position of women, and it is safe to say that their actual influence on society has been greater than the historic record admits.

Many recent writers have claimed that the present civilization of North America is predominantly female, and this although the legal and political freedom of women is certainly not greater here than in, say, England. Dr. Einstein asserted this, and caused great anger in the women’s clubs by linking it to a statement that American cities also suffered from intellectual poverty. Of course, Dr. Einstein could refer only to that kind of intellectual activity which he himself practises; for most American cities are seething with an activity which shows itself in ‘social work, education, and charity organization.

This work is largely in the hands of women and is surely a part of intellectual activity. It is probable that what Dr. Einstein missed was abstract intellectual activity, the search for knowledge for its own sake.

The daily papers and the magazines frequently discuss the increasing public activity of women. They have, indeed, formed a set of opinions which we find repeated again and again. These may be shortly summarized; —

Women are more imaginative and more artistic than men.
Women have a more delicate intuition than men.
Women make excellent stenographers.
And, of course, woman’s place is the home.

On the other side: —

Men are better fitted than women for the rough battle of life.
Men are more suited for business than women.
Men are physically stronger than women.

At first sight, this curious collection of qualities appears to give all the desirable qualities to women, but a little consideration shows that it really means that men are better able to occupy well-paid jobs than women. That is the beginning and end of the whole argument. All the agreeable but financially useless qualities are assigned to women, all the paying ones to men. The discussion, as at present conducted, is in its inmost heart economic.

This tale of the strong, brutal man who alone is to be allowed to swindle his fellow men in the rude battle of life, and the fragile, delicately minded woman who is to sit at home, cultivate her mind, and enjoy the proceeds, is a fable. It has no shadow of resemblance to real life. It goes on living because most men and many women want it to be true.

Even the most extreme advocates of women’s rights do not claim that men and women are the same, either physically or mentally. We all acknowledge that there are some things which men can do better than women, and other things which women can do better than men.

The real question is — What are the things? It is a question which can be answered only by an appeal to past performance.

But it is usually objected that women were given no opportunity in the past, and that, in consequence, their abilities are unknown and to be revealed only by future performance.

The answer to this is—first, that their not taking opportunity is in itself a part of the record of their ability; and secondly, that as a matter of fact a sufficient number of women in the past have taken opportunity, and that from these we can judge their abilities quite clearly. It is only necessary to consult any good historic tables to find in them the names of many distinguished women, and also to find that their abilities have not in the least been confined within the usually accepted limits.

So it may be worth while to consider the past performance of women in the activities which go to make up civilization: in music, in the graphic arts, in literature, in science, in religion and philosophy, and in the life of affairs, business, and action.


Music is, by general agreement, the most abstract of the arts. It appeals purely to the emotions, is constructed in a manner akin to mathematics, and is less touched by utility than any of the other arts. The great musician is usually deaf and blind to all interests except his own. He lives in a world of sound.

Yet music is a very popular art. For many generations it has been a ‘polite accomplishment,’ and many generations of women have been taught the rudiments of the art. Most musicteachers are women, and many public performers. Men have, on the other hand, been rather diverted from musical training. A boy needs to show a very evident desire before he is taught to play the piano; and in many parts of America any such activity is regarded as effeminate, unworthy of a real boy.

Yet there are no great women musicians. All the great composers were men; and in this, which is the heart of music, women have never risen above a respectable mediocrity. In spite of generations of training, the heights of music are unscaled except by men. Music is apparently a man’s art, and though Saint Cecilia was a woman, her disciples are men.

In painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts the case for women is a little better, but not very much so. Some elementary training in art is part of the education of most girls, and is omitted from that of most boys. Sketching is quite a female habit and, like music, is effeminate in a boy; yet how many great women painters or sculptors can we reckon — Angelika Kauffmann, Madame Lebrun, two or three more, and these not of the very highest rank.

The great creative artists are all men. Our art-schools are full of women. They earn their living in fashiondrawing, pattern-designing, illustration, and all the less important branches of the graphic arts; some of them paint pictures, and they have every opportunity to show their artistic talent. But all the great painters, sculptors, and designers to-day, as in the past, are men. Creative ability in the fine arts is a manly virtue.

It has often been claimed that architecture is a suitable occupation for women, particularly domestic architecture and interior decoration. We are told that a woman knows better how to run a house than a man, and therefore is better qualified to design one.

A woman can run a house if she is taught how; but these claimants forget that if a girl is to undergo the same professional training as her brother, in order to become an architect, she will have neither more nor less knowledge of how to run a house than he has. Interior decoration is a minor branch of architecture and hardly to be separated from the larger problems. A certain number of women have been trained as architects, for the profession is quite open to them; but so far they have made no mark. They apparently fail in design; for architectural design is, like music, a very abstract art. We must remember that Sir Christopher Wren, one of the great architects of the world, was a mathematician before be was an artist.

The case for women in literature is a great deal better. There are many able women prose-writers, though very few poetesses. Sappho is the only woman for whom a place in highest Olympus has been claimed. Mrs. Browning, Jean Ingelow, Miss Rossetti, and Mrs. Hemans were talented ladies, but no one would claim for them a place among the immortals. In prose we have one or two names of the highest, — Miss Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, — and a large number of lesser ones.

A rough list taken from Nichol’s Historical Tables gives, between A.D. 200 and A.D. 1882, of women prominent in art, two; in music, none; but in literature, thirty-eight. Some of these were novelists, as Mrs. Oliphant, ‘Ouida,’ and Miss Edgeworth; but the greater number were essayists and writers on contemporary life.

It is in the least abstract forms of literature that women shine — in descriptions of and comments on life and society.

In the whole field of art we must therefore conclude that women are inferior to men in imagination, intuition, and the abstract qualities. These qualities are what distinguish all the highest creative art. Lacking them, though women may do good work in the less exacting and more practical branches of art, they will go no further. The great artists will always be men. Art is a manly virtue.

This conclusion is not in agreement with the popular view, but that cannot be helped. The popular view is not based on any knowledge of art.

In science women have done little. Madame Curie is, indeed, the only woman in modern times who has shown great ability in scientific research. The same applies to religion and philosophy. There are no women philosophers, and Mrs. Eddy is the only woman who has ever founded a religion.

Surely there is cause for thought in this. Pure science, philosophy, and religion are alike in that they are all highly abstract activities. Scientific research is, of course, concerned with actual material, but it is pursued in an atmosphere free from any trace of utility, or of concern with human society.

The scientist is concerned with pure knowledge only. He neither knows nor cares what use man may make of his researches. They may end in supplying bandits with bombs and motor-cars, or in supplying armies with poison-gas; his business is simply to investigate nature, so far as he can, and to tell the truth, as it appears to him. He is not aware of consequences, or of utility, in so far as he is a scientist.

The philosopher similarly is concerned with pure thought. His thought, when published, may result in a revolution, but he is not concerned with this. The scientist and the philosopher have no concern with the application of their knowledge; the one investigates matter, the other thought, in the search for pure knowledge.

This investigation calls for a very high degree of imagination, and in this the philosopher and the scientist are akin to the artist; but these very qualities of abstraction and imagination would seem to render such activities uninteresting to women.

The relation of women to religion is a most interesting point. Before the coming of Christianity women took an important and prominent place in the classic religions. In Asia Minor high priestesses controlled great cults with elaborate rites and large endowments — positions which must have called for high organizing and executive power. In Greece the Delphic Oracle was delivered by a priestess, and in Rome the Vestal Virgins were more than nuns — they were a state institution. How then does it come about that the great world-religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Mohammedanism, give so small a place to women ?

The answer seems to be that the great religions are all abstract and mystic in thought, and that these qualities have prevented women from rising in them. The classic religions had very little of mysticism, though we find mystic doctrines in the later philosophies. The early Christian Church held at first a simple doctrine of ethics and brotherly love, and, while this lasted we find that women took a large part; but as the mystic doctrine of unity with the Divine began to gain ground, as the mystic communion of the saints and the highly abstract doctrines and philosophies of the developed church came to the front , so women fell back.

Buddhism is a highly mystic religion, in which the soul seeks eventual absorption in the Divine, through repeated reincarnations. Mohammedanism, though at first a fairly material religion, rapidly became permeated with mysticism; and that is an atmosphere in which woman’s thought does not seem to flourish. A few women have been great mystic disciples, as, for instance, Saint Theresa, but never mystic leaders.

The one religion, or sect, of the present day which was founded by a woman is Christian Science. It is a practical religion, devoid of mysticism both in doctrine and in practice.

The influence of women in religion is, in general, to lessen the mystical content and to increase the social and ethical value.


In the preceding remarks I have tried to put forward fairly the position of women in the fine arts, pure science, philosophy, and religion. In these activities women have certainly had less discouragement than in the life of action, if we may call by this term the life which centres round business, politics, trade, and society. For some generations the fine arts have been regarded — particularly in America — as suited to women, and their failure to take a high place in them is the more remarkable.

It is sometimes urged that women have been so universally held down that they could rise in nothing; but that is surely an overstatement. Men of genius have very frequently been held down in their first efforts to express themselves. Fathers have not always appreciated the first artistic strivings of their sons, and have very frequently insisted on their entering some quite prosaic occupation. Keats was trained as a druggist. Suppression was the lot of men of genius as well as of women, but it failed. If unfavorable circumstances were incapable of suppressing men of genius, it is not open to us to claim that under easier circumstances women of genius have failed to show themselves. And in art matters women have, for fully a century and a half, been better trained than men.

We must conclude that the fine arts are not really suited to woman’s mind, and that imagination, intuition, and the love of pure knowledge are manly attributes.

In the life of action women have certainly had less opportunity than men, yet, after literature, there are more distinguished women in this life than in that of art . Some of them are among the greatest characters of history. Queen Elizabeth, the Empress Irene, Catherine de’ Medici, Florence Nightingale, the Empress Catherine of Russia, and Joan of Arc were women of very different characters, but they were all great organizers, great in action. They take a place in history beside the greatest men of their type.

Joan of Arc is one of the great characters of all history, and her greatness is due not so much to her visions — plenty of men have visions — as to her exceptional power of acting on those visions, and of organizing the defeated people of her country. Queen Elizabeth was an organizer. Her greatness was due to her power of selecting ministers and of uniting them in action.

The world of action is one which men have always tried to keep to themselves. Women have never been encouraged to enter it, yet, by force of character, they have done so.

The more we consider woman, the more we must acknowledge her organizing power. The management of a household, that traditional sphere of woman, is organization. It is no light matter to arrange a little community of a man, a woman, two or three children, and a servant, so that all their different wants shall be satisfied with the least friction on an insufficient income; yet that feat is accomplished every day by women.

In France, the wife is more especially the organizer and manager of the small business. In a little baker’s shop it is the man who bakes the bread — he is the producer; but it is his wife who sells it — she is the distributor and gives a social value to the man’s production.

Women themselves acknowledge this, though probably unconsciously; for in the recent expansion of woman’s work they have not sought employment in the arts for which they were supposed to be so well fitted, but have gone into business, organization, and education.

Women make excellent clerks and managers; social work is largely in their hands, and is almost entirely a matter of organization. They have also entered the medical profession with success; and this is a social activity rather than a scientific one.

The fact is that the distinguishing character of those occupations which women have chosen for themselves is their social quality. This of course involves organization, since society is an organization. It also involves utility.

We have seen that the abstract arts are peculiarly suited to men; we may suspect that the practical and social pursuits are equally suited to women. As has already been noted, many of the women authors were writers of memoirs, of comments on society; and woman now appears as the gregarious genius. She is at her best when working with her fellow citizens on useful schemes of social organization or improvement.

This is not a new idea. It has already been noted by various writers on American society, and the ‘practical’ nature of the American people has been attributed to the influence of women. If it is true, a comparison with societies in which women’s influence has been small should give results.

The civilizations of Asia have always suppressed woman. She has been confined to the harem, veiled, secluded, and reduced as far as possible to a puppet for the amusement of man, her sole serious duty the raising of children.

Corresponding to this, the characteristics of Asiatic civilization have been lack of sustained energy, lack of organization, lack of practical qualities. The characteristic of Asiatic thought is abstraction, the characteristic of Asiatic religion is mysticism. This is the result of suppressing woman, and of giving man a free rein.

In America, on the other hand, women are really in control of the social and civilized life of the community. American civilization is known for its intensely practical character, its desire to get things done, without always considering the ultimate result. American religion has lost its mystic element, and has become a series of movements for the regeneration and reform of society. It has largely abandoned faith for good works. Is this the result of suppressing man?

The Oriental saint is holy because holiness is a good thing in itself. He seeks to lose himself in the Divinity. The Western saint is a reformer. He seeks to devote himself to the improvement of his fellow men. The Western saint is devoted to his brother, but the Eastern is devoted to God.

It is easy to see that both extremes are to be avoided. The fanatical devotee is as useless and as disagreeable us the fanatical reformer; but they do seem to represent the two extremes of religion, the Eastern and the Western.

It is noteworthy also that the only organizations in America which retain any trace of mysticism are men’s organizations — the Roman Catholic Church and the Freemasons.


So we have grounds for claiming that the end of a civilization too much controlled by men is impractical abstraction, that of one too much controlled by women, utilitarian materialism. After all, man and woman were made to live together, and to contribute their respective qualities to a common fund. Where either predominates, the result will be a one-sided, imperfect culture; and where each contributes his weakest quality, the result will be — dare one suggest modern America?

It would be easy to multiply examples which support this view. The Germany of the philosophers and musicians was also the Germany of the Hausfrau. Classic Greece secluded her women and was a land of philosophers and artists. Europe, we may believe, owes her greatness to the balance of man and woman. There abstract thought, art, and pure knowledge — those manly virtues — have been balanced by the society-forming, utilitarian instincts of women. It is proverbially the woman who holds the home together.

It is very easy, of course, to carry this argument too far. We may be able to draw broad distinctions which will be, in the main, true when applied to men or women in the mass, but only exceptional individuals will show these characteristics distinctly in themselves. There are manly, artistic women, and feminine, executive men. It is when they come to work together in numbers that the peculiarities emerge.

The boy and his sister are really very like one another, and the trend is so slight that it may often be broken down by training — especially by the training of the boy. And it is in this that one danger lies.

There can be little doubt that many of the great pioneers in industry have owed their success, not to executive powers, but to artistic powers turned into an executive channel. The building-up of a great business requires imagination, and the great businessbuilders have been men.

But the good name of a country depends eventually not on the records of its business or on the tale of its trusts: it depends on the contribution which it makes to human thought. This is an old truism. But how many of our business magnates are spoiled artists? How many have gained the world at the loss of their own souls and of the soul of their country?

But is this altogether their fault? At a recent meeting of a woman’s club, the statement was made, with pride, that ninety-eight per cent of education in North America is in the hands of women. This means that practically every boy in the country is, during his most impressionable years, being trained to woman’s ideals. He is, it is true, probably revolting against them, but his manly qualities are being suppressed. Indeed, he is being taught to consider them as the peculiar field of women. The virtues held up to him as manly are the primitive, elementary virtues of courage, loyalty, and the like. Now these are admittedly very important virtues, but they are virtues common to both men and women. Brave and faithful women are just as common as brave and faithful men; indeed, for utter devotion, it is doubtful if men can stand beside women.

These are not the peculiar manly virtues or qualities at all. The imaginative virtues cannot be taught by women and the first step in the emancipation of man must be the education of boys by men.

Not only have the woman teachers failed to train men as men, but they have brought the whole teaching profession into disrepute. The boy comes away from school only vaguely conscious that his mental needs have not been met, but perfectly aware that he despises the schoolmistress. He transfers this to the whole teaching profession, and is thereby rendered almost incapable of ever learning anything beyond the practical needs of his business. He is certainly made impervious to any real culture. In the East, where the teachers are all men, they are highly honored; in the West men teachers are ridiculed. They are ridiculed because they are said to be lacking in ‘practical’ qualities, because they are wrapped in abstract, useless knowledge; in fact, because they have the minds of men.

It has been reported that the European or American missionary in China is handicapped in his work because he lives in a comfortable house. ‘This man cannot be a holy man, or a great, teacher,’ says his unconverted audience; ‘he is too rich!’

In the West, however, poverty is almost the only real offense. What we need here is the possibility of honored poverty. It need not be carried too far, but we need the possibility of a man taking an honored place in society in spite of his not being wealthy. At present a poor man may be honored by the few who know his genius; but if he is to exercise real influence on his fellow citizens, it is well for a man to be wealthy.

It is often claimed that the lack of pure intellectual life in America is due to the traditions of the ‘pioneer life.’ The hardships of backwoods life, we are told, left no time for thought or art. But in China or India, poor men live lives of abstract thought — it may not be the best abstract thought, but it is thought. The peasant, arts of Russia and the Levant prove that poverty is no bar to fine art. But we soon knock all that nonsense out of them here.

Besides, after all, the backwoods are a thing of the past, and the present characteristics of American life are comfort and conventionality.

America has, in fact, a thoroughly feminized society. It does not really matter very much to-day whether women do or do not have the vote, or practise as lawyers, or manage businesses. These things are all being done by woman-trained men, and a few real women among them will make very little difference. The characteristics of the American world, its love of activity, its desire to do things, its social and gregarious ‘convention’ habit, its reform habit, its scorn for ultimate principles, pure knowledge, and art — these are the weakest qualities of woman, and they are the qualities of which many American men are proud. For, naturally, in acquiring the feminine qualities the men have acquired the weakest ones. They are as incapable of acquiring the strongest ones as the women are of acquiring those of the men.

These qualities have led to material prosperity in the past simply because America has been able to import the work of men from Europe. But they are rapidly leading to intellectual death.

For this the men are to blame. Women are perfectly justified in taking every opportunity and in insisting on their right to every opportunity. The men have left to them the intellectual and artistic culture of the country, and, if they have failed to produce any culture worth having, it is not their fault. They cannot, and that is all there is to that.

The men have neglected their duty. They have left undone those things which they ought to have done, and it is not fair for them to bring forward the old excuse which Adam made to Eve. They are the only people who can supply the elements now wanting in the culture of this continent. From their ranks must come the scientists, the artists, the poets, and the thinkers who alone can gain for the country an honored name. And just at present they are not doing anything.

It is, unfortunately, necessary to add that America, in this connection, must always include Canada.