Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/July 1879/The Condition of Women from a Zoological Point of View II

Popular Science Monthly Volume 15 July 1879  (1879) 
The Condition of Women from a Zoological Point of View II by William Keith Brooks


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TURNING now to another part of our subject, and bearing in mind the fact that by far the greater part of the external relations to which our actions are adjusted, and to which it is necessary that they should conform, in order to secure our preservation, safety, and welfare, are fixed and definite, and have been substantially unchanged for almost, if not quite, the whole period of human development, we see at once that, if the female mind is especially rich in the past experiences of the race, so far as these have resulted in laws of conduct, it follows that, since these experiences have been the same for all members of the race, there must be a greater uniformity in female character than in male character. As this statement is very abstract, I will try to put it in a less general form:

Experience of the order of events has shown that under certain circumstances, of frequent occurrence, certain conduct is proper and conducive to welfare, while its opposite is hurtful.

This experience being constantly repeated, the tendency to do the proper thing when the circumstances occur gradually takes the shape of an instinct, intuition, habit, or law of duty. Henceforward, all persons who have the impulse which has thus been formed will act in the same way when the circumstances arise, but two persons who have not the impulse will follow their individual judgments, and may or may not act alike.

As the female mind is characterized by the possession of these impulses, it is plain that it must be much more easy for one average woman to predict what another average woman will do, or feel, or think, or say in any given case, than for one average man to predict in the same way of another average man.

We may carry this line of thought a little further. Since male minds have the element of originality, male characters differ among themselves; but, since all are members of the same species, fundamental similarity must underlie this individual diversity, and this fundamental similarity must subsist between female and male characters also. The average female character will therefore have more resemblance to two or more male characters than these latter will have to each other, and accordingly, in all cases where relationship or education has not led two men into the same way of looking at things, a woman will be better able than either of them to foresee the conduct of the other under given circumstances, and of course the advantage of a woman over a man in understanding the conduct of a woman will be still greater.

Since on the whole the differences between male characters are slight when compared with their resemblances, and since the points of resemblance are also points of resemblance to women, we should expect that, although the power of women to foresee male conduct is greater than the power of men to foresee female conduct, the superiority is not so marked as in the other three cases. This superiority of women in predicting conduct will be shown by their possession, to a much greater degree than men, of the power to influence or persuade as distinguished from the power to convince or move by arguments; for to convince is to innovate and place matters in a new light, but the secret of influence is a vivid appreciation of the established motives and incentives to conduct.

The relative power of persuasion of the two sexes, then, may be tabulated as follows:

The power of To foresee the conduct of
or to influence
Is greater than the
power of
To foresee the conduct of
or to influence
Women Women Men Men
Women Women Men Women
Women Men Men Men
Women Men Men Women

According to our hypothesis, the first line of the table should give the arrangement in which the difference is greatest. In the next line the difference is less; still less in the next; and least of all in the last case. In all cases, however, the superiority of women in this respect should be very marked.

Since our feelings are necessarily much more numerous than our judgments, we should expect to find it much more easy to persuade either a man or a woman than to convince; but, if our theory is correct, the advantage of influence over argument should be much greater when a woman is to be moved than when the effort is directed to a man.

Another difference between the sexes will at once be seen to follow from the above parallel. Since male character has the variable element, and may vary toward either good or bad, it follows that the ideally perfect male character will be more hard to define and more seldom realized than the ideal female character. It is difficult to prove such a statement as this, for the sentiments upon which individual opinion of the subject is based hardly admit of exact statement, but that there is an accepted standard of female excellence, and that the women who realize it are not rare exceptions, can, I think, be shown by the study of female character as depicted by dramatists, novelists, and poets. An appeal to this test is unfavorable to our hypothesis, for characters are selected for novels or poems on account of their originality; but I think that any one who will review Shakespeare, Thackeray, or George Eliot with the subject in mind, and who will compare the more important female characters, will find that they might be transposed from one novel or play to another with much less violence than would attend the transposition of the male characters.

It is hardly necessary to call attention to the obvious fact that our conclusions have a strong leaning to the conservative or old-fashioned view of the subject—to what many will call the "male" view of women. The positions which women already occupy in society and the duties which they perform are, in the main, what they should be if our view is correct; and any attempt to improve the condition of women by ignoring or obliterating the intellectual differences between them and men must result in disaster to the race, and the obstruction of that progress and improvement which the history of the past shows to be in store for both men and women in the future. So far as human life in this world is concerned there can be no improvement which is not accomplished in accordance with the laws of nature; and, if it is a natural law that the parts which the sexes perform in the natural evolution of the race are complemental to each other, we can not hope to accomplish anything by working in opposition to the natural method. We may, however, do much to hasten advancement by recognizing and working in accordance with this method.

It is no more than just, too, to point out that the peculiar bodily organization and physiological functions of woman have nothing to do with our conclusion. If the perpetuation of the human race were as simple as that of the starfish, where the demands made upon the female organism during reproduction are no greater than those made upon the male, the mind of woman would still be the organ of intellectual heredity, and the mind of man the organ of intellectual variation.

Up to this point I have simply indicated some of the differences between the sexes which the study of the evolution of organisms would lead us to expect. I shall now quote a few extracts from authors whose writings upon the position of women are accepted as valuable contributions to our knowledge of the subject, in order to show that they have recognized the existence of the very differences which we have been led, by theoretical reasoning, to expect.

Mill's essay on "The Subjection of Woman" must be regarded as the most important contribution to the discussion of the relative positions of the sexes as related to future progress; and it is interesting to note that, while he holds that the existing differences are not natural, but are due to the subjection of one sex by the other, he fully recognizes certain profound and characteristic differences, which are precisely in accordance with the present view of their origin and purpose. Mill's evidence as to important differences between the sexes is of the greatest value, both on account of the weight of his opinion in itself, and on account of his being in this case an unwilling witness. He says: "Looking at women as they are known in experience, it may be said of them, with more truth than belongs to most generalizations on the subject, that the general bent of their talents is toward the practical. This statement is conformable to all the public history of women in the present and in the past. It is no less borne out by common and daily experience. Let us consider the special nature of the mental capacities most characteristic of a woman of talent. They are all of a kind which fits them for practice, and makes them tend toward it. What is meant by a woman's capacity of intuitive perception? It means a rapid and correct insight into present facts. It has nothing to do with general principles. Nobody ever perceived a scientific law of nature by intuition, or arrived at a general rule of duty or prudence by it. These are results of slow and careful collection and comparison of experience; and neither the men nor the women of intuition usually shine in this department, unless, indeed, the experience is such as they can acquire by themselves. . . . To discover general principles belongs to the speculative faculty; to discern and discriminate the particular cases in which they are or are not applicable constitute practical talent; and for this women, as they now are, have a peculiar aptitude." It is only necessary to change two or three words in this last sentence in order to show its complete agreement with the demands of our theory. Its meaning will not be altered by the following reading, which serves to bring out more clearly its implications: To discover general principles belongs to the progressive aspect of the mind, which is most strongly developed in men; to. preserve and apply the general principles which are already established belong to the conservative side of the mind, and for this women, as they have been made by the evolution of the race, have and should have a peculiar aptitude. Mill continues as follows: "I admit that there can be no good practice without principles, and that the predominant place which quickness of observation holds among a woman's faculties makes her particularly apt to build over-hasty generalizations upon her own observation, though at the same time no less ready in rectifying these generalizations as her observation takes a wider range. But the corrective to this defect is access to the experience of the human race; general knowledge—exactly the thing which education can best supply."

This sentence, when viewed in connection with our present theory of the relations of the sexes, gives the key to the question of female education—for that form of education which supplies the general knowledge which is so important for the correct application of principles to special cases is culture, as distinguished from the technical training which looks to the discovery of new laws.

The next passage which I shall quote is of the greatest importance, for, founded as Mill's autobiography and numerous passages in his various works tell us it is, upon the personal experience of his life, it contains the germ of the idea which, if fully investigated, might have led him to entirely remodel his essay upon women; the idea that the sexes do not naturally stand in the relation of superior and inferior, nor in that of independent equals, but are the complemental parts of a compound whole. He says: "This gravitation of women's minds to the present, to the real, to actual fact, while in its exclusiveness it is a source of errors, is also a most useful counteractive of the contrary error. The principal and most characteristic aberration of speculative minds, as such, consists precisely in the deficiency of this lively perception and ever-present sense of objective fact. . . . Hardly anything can be of greater value to a man of theory and speculation, who employs himself, not in collecting materials of knowledge by observation, but in working them up by processes of thought into comprehensive truths of science and laws of conduct, than to carry on his speculations in the companionship, and under the criticism, of a really superior woman. There is nothing comparable to it for keeping his thoughts within the limits of real things, and the actual facts of nature. Women's thoughts are thus as useful in giving reality, to those of thinking men as men's thoughts in giving width and largeness to those of women." Here we have a clear recognition of the law that width and largeness, mental growth, originate in the male, and are then preserved by women, and the context leaves no room to doubt that the "really superior woman" which filled the author's memory at the time this passage was written, was a woman in whom this feminine characteristic was well developed; that she was a woman filled with the fruits of human experience; and it is a little strange that he fails to see that the relation with which, for a man of speculation, there is nothing comparable, may have a wider value, and be of the greatest importance to humanity as a whole.

The next passage which I shall quote is still more to the point. He says: "Let us now consider another of the admitted superiorities of clever women, greater quickness of apprehension. Is this not preeminently a quality which fits a person for practice? In action everything depends upon deciding promptly. In speculation nothing does. A mere thinker can wait, can take time to consider, can collect additional evidence; he is not obliged to complete his philosophy at once lest the opportunity should go by. The power of drawing the best conclusion possible from insufficient data is not, indeed, useless in philosophy; the construction of a provisional hypothesis consistent with all known facts is often the needful basis for further inquiry. But this faculty is rather serviceable in philosophy than the main qualification for it; and for the auxiliary as well as for the main question the philosopher can allow himself any time he pleases. He is in no need of doing rapidly what he does; what he rather needs is patience to work on slowly until imperfect lights have become perfect, and a conjecture has ripened into a theorem. For those, on the contrary, whose business is with the fugitive and perishable—with individual facts, not kinds of facts—rapidity of thought is a qualification next only in importance to the power of thought itself. He who has not his faculties under immediate command in the contingencies of action might as well not have them at all. He may be fit to criticise, but he is not fit to act. Now it is in this that women, and the men who are most like women, confessedly excel. The other sort of man, however preeminent may be his faculties, arrives slowly at complete command of them; rapidity of judgment and promptitude of judicious action, even in the things he knows best, are the gradual and late result of strenuous effort grown into habit."

I have quoted these passages from Mill at length, as they give a very clear although somewhat narrow statement, by the strongest advocate of the fundamental likeness of the sexes, of what I take to be the most important psychological difference between them.

According to Mill—and I think that universal experience will justify his view—the highest type of woman is distinguished by her power of intuition, by her concrete acquaintance with the laws and principles which have been established by experience and generalization, by a constitutional knowledge of these laws which amounts to habit, so that she is able to recognize in actual practical life the action which is proper in any given case, without the necessity for a slow process of comparison and thought; by that immediate command of the faculties which is necessary for action.

This power of correctly and promptly applying the established scientific laws, which are the result of all the experience of the past, to the actions of ordinary practical life, is common sense, as distinguished from originality.

The highest type of male intelligence, on the other hand, is distinguished by the power to abstract and compare, and by a slow process of thought to reach new generalizations and laws, and to see these in their abstract and ideal form, freed from all the complications of their concrete manifestations. To this power is often joined a woeful and disastrous lack of common sense, or power of prompt and proper decision and action in special cases.

Lecky, in his "History of European Morals," gives an excellent summary of the most marked differences between the male mind and the female; and, although we do not agree with him in thinking that a departure from the male type is in all cases to be regarded as an inferiority, we can not fail to note how exactly his account agrees with the demands of our hypothesis.

He says: "Intellectually a certain inferiority of the female sex can hardly be denied when we remember how almost exclusively the foremost places in every department of science, literature, and art have been occupied by men; how infinitesimally small is the number of women who have shown in any form the very highest order of genius; how many of the greatest men have achieved their greatness in defiance of the most adverse circumstances, and how completely women have failed in obtaining the first position, even in music and painting, for the cultivation of which their circumstances would appear most propitious. It is as impossible to find a female Raphael or a female Handel as a female Shakespeare or a female Newton. Women are intellectually more desultory and volatile than men; they are more occupied with practical instances than with general principles; they judge rather by intuitive perception than by deliberate reasoning or past experience. They are, however, usually superior to men in nimbleness and rapidity of thought, and in the gift of tact, the power of seizing rapidly and faithfully the finer impulses of feeling, and they have therefore often attained very great eminence as conversationalists, as actresses, and as novelists. In the ethics of intellect they are decidedly inferior. Women very rarely love truth, though they love passionately what they call 'the truth,' or opinions they have received from others. They are little capable of impartiality or of doubt; their thinking is chiefly a mode of feeling; though very generous in their acts they are rarely generous in their opinions, and their leaning is naturally to the side of restriction. They persuade rather than convince, and value belief rather as a source of consolation than as a faithful expression of the reality of things. They are less capable than men of distinguishing the personal character of an opponent from the opinions he maintains. Their affections are concentrated rather on leaders than on causes, and if they care for a great cause it is generally because it is represented by a great man, or connected with some one whom they love. In politics their enthusiasm is more naturally loyalty than patriotism. In benevolence they excel in charity rather than in philanthropy." While I can not believe that Lecky's statement is entirely unprejudiced, I think no one will deny that the views which I have quoted agree in the main with those which have gained general acceptance in the past. At the present time, however, there is a growing tendency to regard the relations of the sexes as due in great part to male selfishness; and while the substantial correctness of our view of the differences between the male and the female character is acknowledged, its origin is attributed to the "subjection" of women by men. In this paper I have attempted to present reasons, which I believe are new, for regarding the differences as natural and of the greatest importance to the race.

Those who acknowledge the weight of my argument, as applied to evolution in the past, may, however, question its applicability to the human evolution of the future. It may fairly be urged that while we grant that the course of evolution from the lower forms of life up to rational man has been by the slow process of variation and heredity, we have now passed into a new order of things, and the great advances of the human race have been and are now brought about by the much more rapid and totally dissimilar process of intelligent education. It may be urged that heredity does very little more for the civilized than for the savage child, and that the wide difference between the savage and the civilized adult is mainly the result of the training and instruction of the individual; that it has not been brought about by the destruction of those children whose congenital share in the results of the intellectual advancement of the race is most scanty. It may be urged that, since man has reached a point where progress is almost entirely intellectual, and depends upon his own efforts, he is free from the laws by which development up to that point was reached.

We are not concerned at present with the question how far progress might be accelerated by intelligent selection, and we may therefore conditionally accept the view that future progress, for some time to come at any rate, must depend almost entirely upon education; but, far from holding that this conclusion will allow us to ignore or obliterate the differences between the male and the female intellect, I believe that the full significance of these differences can be appreciated only in their relation to higher education. The scope of the present paper will only allow the space for an outline sketch of the reasons for this belief. As the field of human knowledge widens in all directions, as society becomes more complex, and as the points of contact between man and his inorganic environment multiply, the amount of general education which each individual must receive before he is in a position to hold his own, and to guide himself rationally in all the emergencies of life, and to enjoy his share of the benefits which our intellectual advancement has placed within his reach, increases in a geometrical progression, and the amount of time demanded for general liberal education increases in the same ratio. Meanwhile the amount of special preliminary training which must be undergone in order to fit a person for new and original work in any department of knowledge or art increases at the same rate, and makes greater and greater inroads upon the time which is needed for general education. At present the most important, delicate, and complicated of educational problems, the problem which each individual must meet and decide upon, and the problem which engrosses most of the thought of educational bodies, is where to draw the line between general culture and practical or technical training.

Culture in its widest sense is, I take it, thorough acquaintance with all the old and new results of intellectual activity in all departments of knowledge, so far as they conduce to welfare, to correct living, and to rational conduct; that is, culture is to the intellectual man what heredity has been to the physical man. Culture is concerned only with results, not with demonstrations, and does not look to new advances; while technical training is concerned with methods and proofs, and values the results of the methods and investigations of the past only as they contribute to new advances. Technical training looks to progress in some one definite line, one radius of the growing circle of the domain of human intelligence, and ignores the rest of the circumference. It is to the intellectual man what variation is to the physical man. By culture we hold our own, and by technical training we advance to higher levels. Both are equally important to human welfare, and the great problem of the future is how to secure each to the greatest degree without sacrificing the other. The analogy of the rest of the organic world would seem to indicate that this is to be accomplished by "division of labor." If the female mind has gained during its evolution an especial aptness for acquiring and applying the results of past progress, by an empirical method and without the necessity for studying proofs and reasons, it would seem especially fitted for culture, as distinct from training, while the male mind is best fitted for education by that process of inductive training by demonstration and experiment which leads to new advances. The methods employed in the general instruction of young men and young women should not therefore be identical. With the one the field may be very wide and the methods empirical, and with the other the range more narrow and the methods more strictly logical. In this way each type of mind will be developed in the manner for which it has an especial fitness; and we have the strongest grounds for the belief that this method would also gradually result in the extension of that congenital acquaintance with nature which is the common stock of the race, and would thus leave more time for the special training of those minds which are by nature best fitted to receive it. It is unavoidable that a bald outline of a view which has such wide implications should afford many openings for serious criticism; but the present article does not admit of the expansion of the idea, even if its detailed examination could be fairly included in the province of biology. Having traced the origin and significance of sex from its lowest manifestations to a point where it becomes purely intellectual, the biologist may fairly leave the subject in the hands of the psychologist.