In the dozy hours, and other papers/A Curious Contention
A CURIOUS CONTENTION.
What an inexhaustible fund of quarrelsomeness lies at the bottom of the human heart! Since the beginning of the world, men have fought and wrangled with one another; and now women seem to find their keenest pleasure and exhilaration in fighting and wrangling with men. In literature, in journalism, in lectures, in discussions of every kind, they are lifting up their voices with an angry cry which sounds a little like Madame de Sévigné's "respectful protestation against Providence." They are tired, apparently, of being women, and are disposed to lay all the blame of their limitations upon men.
There is nothing very healthful in such an attitude, nothing dignified, nothing morally sustaining. Life is not easy to understand, but it seems tolerably clear that two sexes were put upon the world to exist harmoniously together, and to do, each of them, a share of the world's work. Their relation to one another has been a matter of vital interest from the beginning, and no new light has dawned suddenly upon this century or this people. The shrill contempt heaped by a few vehement women upon men, the bitter invectives, the wholesale denunciations are as valueless and as much to be regretted as the old familiar Billingsgate which once expressed what Mr. Arnold termed "the current compliments" of theology. It is not convincing to hear that "man has shrunk to his real proportions in our estimation," because we are still in the dark as to what these proportions are. It is doubtless true that he is "imperfect from the woman's point of view," and imperfect, let us conclude, from his own; but "whether we have attained that sure superiority which will enable us to work out his salvation is at least a matter for dispute. There is an ancient and unpopular virtue called humility which might be safely recommended to a woman capable of writing such a passage as this, which is taken from an article published recently in the "North American Review." "We know the weakness of man, and will be patient with him, and help him with his lesson. It is the woman's place and pride and pleasure to teach the child, and man morally is in his infancy. Woman holds out a strong hand to the child-man, and insists, but with infinite tenderness and pity, upon helping him along."
The fine unconscious humor of this suggestion ought to put everybody in a good temper, and clear the air with a hearty laugh. But the desire to lead other people rather than to control one's self, though not often so naively stated, is by no means new in the history of morals. It must have fallen many times under the observation of Thomas à Kempis before he wrote this gentle word of reproof. "In judging others a man usually toileth in vain. For the most part he is mistaken, and he easily sinneth. But in judging and scrutinizing himself, he always laboreth with profit."
And, indeed, though it be true that in civilized communities a larger proportion of women than of men live lives of cleanliness and self-restraint, yet it should be remembered that the great leaders of spiritual thought, the great reformers of minds and morals, have invariably been men. All that is best in word and example, all that is upholding, stimulating, purifying, and strenuous has been the gift of these faltering creatures, whom we are now invited to take in hand, and conduct with "tenderness and pity" on their paths. It might also be worth while to remind ourselves occasionally that although we women may be destined to do the work of the future, men have done the work of the past, and have struggled not altogether in vain, for the physical and intellectual welfare of the world. This is a point which is sometimes ignored in a very masterly manner. Eliza Burt Gamble who has written a book on "The Evolution of Woman. An Inquiry into the Dogma of her Inferiority to Man," is exceedingly severe on theologians, priests, and missionaries, by whom she considers our sex has been held in subjection. She lays great stress on certain material facts, as, for example, the excess of male births in times of war, famine, or pestilence; and the excess of female births in periods of peace and plenty, when better nutrition brings about this higher and happier result. She asserts that there are more male than female idiots, and that reversions to a lower type are more common among men than women. She has a great deal to say about the ancient custom of wife-capture as a token of female superiority, and about the supremacy of woman in all primitive and prehistoric life, a supremacy founded upon her finer organization, and upon the altruistic principles which rule her conduct. But even in this spirited and elaborate argument no attempt is made to put side by side the work of woman and of man; no comparison is offered of their relative contributions to civilization, social progress, art, science, literature, music, or religion. Yet these are the tests by which preëminence is judged, and to ignore them is to confess a failure. "If you wish me to believe that you are witty, I must really trouble you to make a joke." If you are better than the workers of the world, show me the fruits of your labor.
Against this reasonable demand it is urged that never in the past, or at least never since those pleasant primitive days, of which, unhappily, no distinct record has been preserved, have women been permitted free scope for their abilities. They have been kept down by the tyranny of men, and have afforded through all the centuries a living proof that the strong and good can be ruled by the weak and bad, physical force alone having given to man the mastery. It was reserved for our generation to straighten this tangled web, and to assign to each sex its proper limits and qualifications. The greatest change the world has ever seen is taking place to-day.
"However full the air may be of other sounds," said a recent lecturer on this subject, "the cry that rises highest and swells the loudest comes from the throats of women who in the last years of the nineteenth century of the Christian era are just beginning to live. Men cannot appreciate this as we do. From time out of mind they have used their brains and their instincts as they chose, and they cannot understand the ecstacy we feel as we stretch the limbs which have been cramped so long. What does it matter if they do not? One thing is sure. New wine is not put into old bottles. The village that has become a city does not return to its villageship. The man does not put on the child's garments again. So, whether men hate us or love us, we have outgrown the cage in which we sang. The woman of the past is dead."
It is not highly probable that universal hate will ever supplant that older emotion which must be held responsible for the existence and the circumstances of human life. But "the woman of the past" is a broad term, and admits of a good deal of variety, The chaste Susanna and Potiphar's wife; Cornelia and Messalina; Jeanne d'Arc and Madame de Pompadour; Hannah More and Aphra Behn, these are divergent types, and the singing bird in her cage does not stand very distinctly for any of them. Humanity is a large factor, and must be taken into serious account before we assure ourselves too confidently that the old order is passing away. For good or for ill, women have lived their lives with some approach to entirety during the slow progress of the ages. It can hardly be claimed that either Cleopatra or St. Theresa was cramped by confinement out of her broadest and amplest development.
Even if a radical change is imminent, there is no reason to be so fiercely contentious about it. Let us remember Dr. Watts, and be pacified. Our little hands were never made to tear each other's eyes. It is possible surely to plead for female suffrage without saying spiteful and sarcastic things about men, especially as it is not their opposition, but the listless indifference of our own sex, which stands between the eager advocate and her vote. There is still less propriety in permitting this angry sentiment to bias our conceptions of morality, and we pay but a poor tribute to woman in assuming that she should be privileged to sin. The damnation of Faust and the apotheosis of Margaret make one of the most effective of stage illusions; but it is not a safe guide to practical rectitude, and we might do well to remember that it is not Goethe's final solution of the problem. In our vehement reaction from the stringent rules of the past, we are now assuming that the seven deadly sins grow less malignant in woman's hands, and that she can shift the burden of moral responsibility to the shoulders of that arch offender, man. The shameful evidence of the courts is bandied about in social circles, and made the subject-matter of denunciatory rhetoric on the part of those whom self-respect should silence. It does not strengthen one's confidence in the future, to see the present lack of moderation and sanity in people who are going to reform the world. When wives and mothers meet to denounce with bitter eloquence the immorality of men, and then ask contributions for a monument to Mary Wollstonecraft, "who suffered social martyrdom in England a hundred years ago, for advocating the rights of woman," one feels a little puzzled as to the mental attitude of these impetuous creatures. A sense of humor would save us from many discouraging outbreaks, but humor is not a common attribute of reformers. It is the peace-maker of the world, and this is the day of contentions.