Chapter 3: Of the Erroneous Ideas which Men have formed, of the Characters and Abilities of Women

That ‘most women have no character at all,’ it is feared men in general endeavour to make themselves believe; and that too perhaps, not from the most upright motives. For confirming and disseminating this pleasant idea, the women of Great Britain are much indebted to the very silly line of Pope’s which I have just quoted; – and who by the way, with all his wit, had a great many silly ones on the subject. Upon this principle however, such as it is, men have formed a standard, to which they would willingly reduce the whole sex. Like the barbarous tyrant, who is reported to have stretched or amputated the limbs of his subjects, or strangers, to suit his miserable caprice; so men, not contented with women as they come from the hands of the all-wise Creator, with that endless variety of character, that variety which is the soul of beauty, the most potent charm in society; men will not allow their companions to be, what [32] Heaven has made them, and intended them to remain; but must model them anew after their own fashion; to suit their passions and prejudices; and so as to give the least check possible to that unbounded freedom to which they have always aspired, and the least chance possible for women to emancipate themselves.

I mean in the first place to combat this degrading idea of the inanity of the sex, and to advance, – it would perhaps be too bold and conceited to say prove, – that notwithstanding what has been said by wags and wits of all denominations, every woman not a fool has a character of her own, not less distinctly, though more nicely, discriminated than man’s.

I cannot however deny but it appears to me, that notwithstanding this variety of individual character, there is likewise one which is appropriate, which exclusively belongs to the sex, and which differs essentially from man’s; and partakes of the extreme delicacy, by which the shades of their individual character are distinguished. [33] May it not be owing to this extreme delicacy, that the slightest deviation from female character shocks so much? But does this argue any mental inferiority – any defect? Does it not on the contrary, rather imply, somewhat approaching to perfection? For, the nearer to perfection any thing is supposed to be, the more striking, and the more offensive, is every deviation from it.

To ascertain however, the talents and capacities of women, it may be thought necessary to draw a comparison between those of the one sex with the other; but here one great difficulty always occurs, because to do it with any degree of fairness and precision, women must have been educated with the same attention to mental improvement as men; and I know of no age or nation, where this has been generally the case. We must therefore, as on most other occasions where women are concerned, take up their cause with all its disadvantages.

But independent of this objection, a little reflection must shew, that such a comparison [34] is a task almost unsurmountably difficult, a task scarcely indeed to be accomplished, as it ought to be nothing less than a history of mankind from the earliest ages to the present. For a few instances, selected and compared, can carry no conviction on a subject of such magnitude. A subject indeed whose very nature is such, that no decisive proofs can be gathered, but from a mass of information judiciously selected, and properly arranged. Such an accumulation of facts therefore, as would display the conduct and genius of both sexes in all the different situations, under all the difficult circumstances and varieties of human existence, would be the only solid ground from which to draw the necessary conclusions.

No work of this kind has however been attempted with a view to ascertain the pretensions of the sexes upon fair and rational principles; and by drawing just and clear inferences, from these principles. I fear, as I said before, that such an undertaking is almost unconquerably difficult. But we have materials to which we can appeal, though they are too numerous and [35] cumbersome to bring forward; and these are to be found in the works of historians and biographers of credit, ancient and modern, assisted by daily observation and experience.

And here Semiramises of the North and East, Deborahs, Boadiceas, Joan D’Arcs, Elisabeths, Margarets, Catherines, and Christinas, croud upon the ‘aching sight.’ Nor are the niches of poetry and literature unfurnished with female ornaments, from the muse of fire of Sappho, down to the more chastened flame which beams in the compositions of the female poets, and prose writers, of the present day. But, heaven defend me from drudging forth to adorn, and swell out my slender pages, all the precious jewels of ancient, middle, and modern times! Life is too short for such an undertaking. It is enough fir my purpose that we know, that such things as we allude to, have been ‘and are, and are most true.’ [36]

Appealing therefore, on the one hand, to men of reading and information, who are able to decide the question upon the evidence of well-known and established facts, which must readily occur to their memory; and appealing on the other to the mass of mankind, who are fully competent to judge, upon the principles of common sense, and from daily observation; I ask those of both classes, who have sufficient strength of mind to cast prejudice aside, whether, taking into account the very few women, who have received a suitable education; the numbers who have shown, as sovereigns, as legislators, in politicks, in literature, and in common life; are not out of all proportion great?

Let it not be said that crowned heads are too much out of the common road, to be brought forward for examples; for as they are neither more nor less than men and women, they come quite within our sphere. Queens may at all events be fairly stated against Kings, and I believe will lose little by the comparison. [37] For, of thousands of kings who have reigned, how few have come down to posterity, with credit of any sort in proportion to their number! Whereas of the few females who have been permitted to wield the sceptre, most of them, nay nearly all of them, have made themselves remarkable, in a degree that would have equally signalized men precisely in the same situation, and under the same circumstances; otherwise the argument falls to the ground.

That this class indeed, and particularly fitted for the purpose of comparing to each other, is obvious; because both sexes of this class generally receive an education the nearest upon an equality of any other. And what have been the consequences? – Just what reasonably speaking, was to be expected; that their capacities and talents appear to be nearly so likewise.

If then it can hardly be disputed that women – the ancients so far as we can learn from the extraordinary panegyricks of historians – the moderns from actual and undoubted proofs – [38] have ruled with as glory to themselves, as much benefit to their subjects and as great marks of sound judgment, and knowledge in the arts of government, as the greatest princes their contemporaries; I hope it will not appear presumption to say, that did women receive equal advantages of education, there is every reason to suppose, they would equal men in the sublime science of politicks; which as it includes the whole art of governing the multitude well in the most liberal sense of the word, requires not only such talents, as the one sex is allowed to possess in common with the other; but includes likewise those, which men are fond of arrogating exclusively to themselves. Such as strength of mind, – extensive foresight, – genius to plan schemes of importance, – and resolution, and stability to put them in execution; – with a thousand et cæteras which will very readily occur to men, accustomed to string up their own superiorities; and extremely willing to take for granted, without much examination, opinions so creditable and convenient for themselves. [39]

On the capacity of women for politicks I shall not at present enter more minutely; because it is possible I may have occasion to touch more at large upon that topic, before I close my labors.

Trusting again to the candor of my readers, and expecting not only forgiveness, but credit, for not bringing forward trite, and well known facts; shall not candor allow, that in the walks of literature, women have been sufficiently conspicuous, to forward their pretensions to equality in that line likewise? – Keeping always in mind however, and allowing for, those almost unsurmountable difficulties which they have to conquer, when they attempt

–––– ‘to climb

The steep where fame’s proud temple shines afar.’

If in the arts and sciences women have not so frequently excelled, as in politicks and literature; it is impossible to prove that it is not, nay there is every possibility that it is, because their education and opportunities have been still [40] less suited, to give them a chance for perfection in these; and because their natural delicacy of frame, nursed to a vicious extreme, is here, generally speaking, evidently against them. I say generally speaking, because it is obvious, and frequently lamented by thinking people, that both the mental and bodily strength of women, even taking them as they are; – an oppressed, – a degraded, – and an excluded portion of the human race; – are fully equal to the perfecting of many of the arts, from which they are by the tyranny of fashion debarred.

But after all that can be said on this subject, it is undeniably true, and I mean not to contest it, that it is in common life that women shine with most lustre, if their natural talents have been at all improved by a proper education; or if even indeed they have not been quashed or perverted by an improper one.

At this portion of my subject, that of female excellence in common life, is above all open to the decisions of common sense, and daily [41] observation; it is not perhaps therefore, the less likely to be judged without prejudice. I wish then that my readers of all denominations would look around the circle of their acquaintance, and examine, and recollect in their own minds, the characters and conduct of the individuals of both sexes, who compose it. And notwithstanding the many disadvantages that women labor under, I am not afraid to say, that they have no cause whatever to be ashamed of the comparison.

Indeed I believe, to use a ridiculous but well understood phrase, they often laugh in their sleeves at being obliged to acknowledge superiority, where they can distinguish none; except obstinate self love, and some ponderous qualities of more weight than value; but nothing that decidedly claims the distinction of superior genius and rationality, or of intrinsic worth and usefulness in common life.

That there is something unbending and inflexible either in the natural or acquired character [42] of man, which by no means belongs to, nor is it at all affected by the other sex, nobody pretends to deny. But it is rather wonderful that they should pride themselves upon this rugged quality of the mind – Since it has nothing to do with that firmness and energy of character, without which there can be no consistency of conduct – Since it is equally tenacious of right or wrong – And since it unfits men from enjoying happiness themselves, or communicating it to those about them upon easy terms, or in all situations.

Such as it is however we willingly concede this amiable, engaging, and manly virtue, to those whom it may belong; and since they are so fond of it, much good may it do them! But we can go no further. It must go for nothing, or worse than nothing in any fair estimate of the talents or good qualities of the sexes. Nor can we be so complaisant as look up as to something superior, to that, which is neither countenanced by reason nor religion, and which very seriously influences against our happiness and ease. [43]

Upon the same principles we cannot help doubting much, whether because the minds of women are more pliable, and yield more readily to the pressure of circumstances, without altogether sinking under them; that we are thereby entitles to brand them with weakness or levity. That elasticity in their animal spirits, which has a constant tendency to restore them to their natural state, and which supports them wonderfully, under many a trying scene, we should almost be tempted to rank high among the virtues, from its analogy to philosophy and common sense, as well as its influence on general happiness – but that it seems to be rather a felicity of constitution, – a gift of nature, – given to counterbalance many of the evils of life.

Whatever is really frivolous or inconsistent in the character of women, I mean not however to defend any more than the obstinacy or pride of man. If such are not the effects of bad habits raised upon wrong education, as I much suspect they chiefly are, – they are at best, but imperfections [44] of our nature, which we should endeavour to correct, rather than soften and indulge.

In short, I cannot perhaps explain myself better, than by saying that it appears to me, that women, with respect to mental abilities, compared with men, are like the French nation compared to every other nation upon earth; who under the appearance of lightness and frivolity, possess a capability of every thing useful and agreeable, or great and good.

These observations on the characters of women are at least such as have occurred to me in my progress through life; and as freedom of enquiry gains ground, I do not find that I am singular in my opinions.

If they are well founded then, – if the good qualities of the sex shine, and force their way through the artificial cloud that envelopes them; – there is not a reasonable doubt, that if their minds were as much improved to every useful purpose as so good a soil is capable of [45] being; much might be added to the happiness and comfort, of domestic and social life.

I now then once more, make a direct appeal to the judgement and candor of men, and ask them if upon a fair examination, at least as fair an one as can be made under the unfavorable circumstances in which women are placed; the comparison does not turn out, – shall I dare once more to repeat it, – beyond all proportion favorable on the part of women?

As this opinion may however partake of prejudice to a favorite system, let us drop it, and adopt one more likely to be nearer the truth; viz. that the abilities and capacities of the sexes are so nearly alike, that with equal advantages it were difficult to determine to whom the palm were due. And this indeed would be quite sufficient to establish our argument, and bring us again to that equality, so dear to every feeling heart and rational head – That equality which holds a people, a nation, a world [46] equipoized – not that chimera of the brain, which never was, nor never will be realized.

I hope I have said enough upon this head, slight as the sketch necessarily is, with what their own observation must have often suggested, that men have in general indulged themselves in erroneous opinions with respect to the characters and abilities of women. [47]