Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/January 1875/Woman's Place in Nature



PROGRESS in knowledge is defined by Herbert Spencer as "the bringing of thoughts into harmony with things." Plato enunciated the same great truth more than two thousand years ago. "Man," he says, "is not a system-builder; his loftiest attainment reaches no higher than this: through endeavor, through discipline, through virtue, he may see what is." Recognizing the profound wisdom of these utterances of the ancient and the modern master, I propose, in studying the nature and place of woman, to be guided by this principle, which has led to results so satisfactory in other departments of science, and, forgetting theories, to study woman as she is. Should some onward glances be attempted, "a scientific use of the imagination" only will be indulged in, and the possibilities of the future will be inferred from the actualities of the past and the present.

As man's place in Nature is to be comprehended only by comparison with the various grades of organisms below him in the scale of being, so woman's place, as compared with that of man, is to be rightly understood only by a study of the relations of the sexes through the whole range of organized beings, involving a consideration of vegetable existence even, since sex accompanies all its higher forms. Paradoxical as it may seem, the less includes the greater—evolution being an unrolling or unfolding of that which potentially exists. It is by means of such a review, if at all, that we may hope to find answer to the questions of the day, relating to woman. How does she differ from man, and to what extent do these differences modify or determine her place in life? In other words, how does that differentiation of the human germ which we designate as feminine, influence the organism as a whole? Will these questions admit of complete solution? Probably not; no great question has ever yet been fully answered—and, although the human organism may be divided, for purposes of study, into numerous sets of apparatus, each having a definite office in the general economy—as the digestive apparatus, the reproductive, the intellectual, etc.—the correlation of all the forces and functions of the body is so intimate and subtile that true philosophy makes no attempt to measure the exact and separate influence of any one force or function upon the rest, or upon the organism as a whole. Hence, to estimate the influence of sex in any given organism is impossible upon general principles, and evidently so in the case under consideration, from the fact that there is no standard of comparison. To assume man as the standard would be obviously absurd, for he is as distinctively differentiated as is woman, and it is impossible for a scientific imagination to conceive of a common type of the human species excluding the idea of sex; the attempt would demonstrate the impossibility of separating the mental conception of its two phases—just as it would be impossible to conceive of a magnetic needle without polarity. Its opposite poles may be designated and described, their peculiarities discussed, and their superficial relations partially understood; but who has any distinct idea of the real significance of their relations? The only clear thought is that they are complemental, and incapable of separate existence—furnishing a complete example of perfect duality in perfect unity; and the absurdity of the idea of a "common type" of its two poles is obvious. If any thing, it would be a magnetic needle without magnetism; in other words, a conceived inconceivability! Recognizing the difficulties which beset this investigation, then, the most that can be hoped for is the attainment of some broader and deeper truth than appears on the surface of the present disturbances in the social world; the only legitimate inquiry seems to be in regard to the influences and conditions which have resulted in the woman of to-day; and the practical questions related to it: Is there a tendency toward any important change in these influences and conditions, and, if so, in what direction? From what has gone before, my readers will have already inferred that the study of this subject will unavoidably include that of its natural complement, and that, should we succeed in obtaining answer to these questions, others of equal interest will find solution.

While the distinction of sex has for its manifest object the continuation of the race, that it is of deeper significance than this—that it has important bearings upon race-development as well as race-preservation—is indicated by a mass of evidence of so great weight as to carry with it the force of a demonstration. In Darwin's "Descent of Man" we have an accumulation of statements of facts gathered from vast fields of observation by many of the foremost naturalists of the age; and his deductive interpretations of these facts seem to have been accepted by a majority of the leading naturalists and physicists of the day. Such being the case, we are warranted in making this work the basis of our inquiry, thus looking at the subject from the side of natural history. Should some additional deductions and interpretations be brought out, it is hoped that they will not be found either forced or imaginary.

In order to a clear understanding of the line of reasoning employed, we must distinguish between the terms "natural selection" and "sexual selection," as used by Darwin. The traits resulting from these two processes are under a different law of heredity—those arising through natural selection being transmitted alike to the young of both sexes, while the results of sexual selection are inherited mainly by the adults of the corresponding sex. It will be seen that these are important laws, and that they furnish a key to our inquiry into the conditions and influences which have resulted in the woman of to-day. Under the operation of this second law (quoting from the "Descent of Man"), "it is the male which, with rare exceptions, has been chiefly modified—the female remaining more like the young of her own species, and more like the other members of the same group. The cause of this seems to lie in the males of almost all animals having stronger passions than the females. Hence it is that the males fight together, and sedulously display their charms before the females; and those which are victorious transmit their superiority to their male offspring." The question naturally arises, How have the males of the lower animals acquired this greater strength of passion? Says Darwin: "It would be no advantage, and some loss of power, if both sexes were mutually to search for each other; but why should the male almost always be the seeker?" Reasoning from the lower forms of life, he points out the fact that the ovules, developed in the female organs of plants, must be nourished for a time after fertilization; hence the pollen is necessarily brought to them—being conveyed to the stigma by insects, by winds, or by the spontaneous movements of the stamens themselves, upon which the pollen grows. "With lowly-organized animals permanently affixed to the same spot, and having their sexes separate, the male element is invariably brought to the female; and we can see the reason; for the ova, even if detached before being fertilized, and not requiring subsequent nourishment or protection, would be, from their larger relative size, less easily transported than the male element.... In case of animals having little power of locomotion, the fertilizing element must be trusted to the risk of at least a short transit through the waters of the sea. It, would, therefore be a great advantage to such animals, as their organization became perfected, if the males, when ready to emit the fertilizing element, were to acquire the habit of approaching the female. The males of various lowly-organized animals having thus aboriginally acquired the habit of seeking the females, the same habit would naturally be transmitted to their more highly-developed male descendants; and, in order that they should become efficient seekers, they would have to be endowed with strong passions. The acquirement of such passions would naturally follow from the more eager males leaving a larger number of offspring than the less eager."

I have quoted thus at length upon this point, in accordance with the principle already laid down, that the lower is a type of the higher.

Following Darwin's argument—"the greater eagerness of the male has thus indirectly led to the more frequent development of secondary sexual characters in the male than in the female"—secondary sexual characters being those not directly concerned in reproduction. Among these are the greater size, strength, courage, and pugnacity of the male, which most naturalists admit to have been acquired or modified by sexual selection—not depending on any superiority in the general struggle for life, but on certain individuals of one sex, generally the male, having been successful in conquering other males, and thus having left a larger number of offspring to inherit their superiority.

In the human species, the differences between the sexes are marked. The greater size and strength of man are apparent. His broader shoulders, more powerful muscles, greater physical courage and pugnacity, may be plainly claimed, by Darwin and his adherents, as man's inheritance from a long line of ancestry, of which the vanishing-point is in the remote past, among the lowest forms of life.

Whether or not this relationship be accepted, the same principles which have prevailed among lower animals must have been operative in the progress and development of the human race.

During the long ages when man was in a condition of barbarism, it must have been the strongest and boldest hunters and warriors who would succeed best in the struggle for existence, thus improving the race through the operation of natural selection, and the survival of the fittest; while the stronger passions accompanying these traits would lead to their success in securing the wives of their choice.

They would necessarily, by means of the same advantages, leave a more numerous progeny than their less successful rivals. It is here that the laws of sexual selection and heredity come in to maintain and increase the differences between the sexes. Who can doubt that a difference in mental characteristics would result from such causes? The greater necessity for exertion on the part of men would inevitably result in the development of more robust intellects. "Mere bodily size and strength would do little for victory unless associated with courage, perseverance, and determined energy.

"To avoid enemies or to attack them successfully, to capture wild animals, and to invent and fashion weapons, require the aid of the higher mental faculties, namely: observation, reason, invention, or imagination. These various faculties will thus have been continually put to the test and selected during manhood; they will, moreover, have been strengthened by use during this same period of life.

"Consequently, in accordance with the principle often alluded to, we might expect that they would at least tend to be transmitted chiefly to the male offspring at the corresponding period of manhood.... These faculties will have been developed in man partly through sexual selection, that is, through the contests of rival males, and partly through natural selection, that is, from success in the general struggle for life....

"Thus," continues Darwin, "man has ultimately become superior to woman." We will say, rather, thus have men and women come to differ mentally as well as physically. We will take further testimony, and inquire what sexual selection has been accomplishing for women during these long periods of man's physical and mental development, before accepting the unmodified dictum of superiority.

The authority so frequently quoted tells us that "the equal transmission of characters to both sexes is the commonest form of inheritance," and that "this form has commonly prevailed throughout the whole class of mammals." Hence the advantages primarily gained by man have been bestowed upon his descendants of both sexes, though as has been shown, in a somewhat less degree upon the female. Let us now glance at the converse of these vivid pictures of the advantages accruing to man through habits and conditions arising from primary sexual characters, and endeavor to learn whether the habits and conditions necessarily attaching to the female have been the source of any gain either to herself or to the race as a whole.

The less degree of hardship and exposure to Which she has been subjected have doubtless tended to develop in her the physical beauty in which she is generally acknowledged to be man's superior; while the fact that women have long been selected and prized for their beauty will have tended, on the principle of sexual selection, to increase the differences originally acquired through natural selection.

The "sweet low voice" which has so long been accounted "an excellent thing in woman," has undoubtedly been gained in a similar manner. In the pursuit of her more quiet avocations there would be less likelihood of the development of large and powerful vocal organs, as it is during the excitements of battle and the chase that the fiercest yells and wildest shouts are produced. The perception of musical cadences, and a sensitiveness to the influence of rhythm, manifested even by many of the lower animals, naturally associating themselves with the rhythm of motion, would tend to early development, on the part of the female, in the care and nursing of her young; while sexual selection has probably played a still more important part in the origin of music.

"Although," says Darwin, "the sounds emitted by animals of all kinds serve many purposes, a strong case can be made out that the vocal organs were primarily used and perfected in relation to the propagation of the species."

Many of the lower animals are mute except during the breeding-season, and the calls, melodious or frightful, of most animals have either a social, an amatory, or a maternal meaning. Thus, through the principle of inherited associations, music asserts its sway over the deepest emotions of the nature—spoken of by Herbert Spencer as arousing "dormant sentiments of which we had not conceived the possibility, and do not know the meaning," and apostrophized as follows by the more impassioned Richter: "Away! thou tellest me of that which I have not and never can have; which I forever seek, and never find!" Its mysterious influence is explained by Darwin as consisting in its power of exciting sensations and ideas which "appear from their vagueness, yet depth, like mental reversions to the emotions and thoughts of a long-past age."

Woman, unable to obtain an influence by those means so readily at the command of man, will have naturally resorted to milder measures, both for securing any desired object, and in self-defense; and music, appealing as it does to the gentler and more tender emotions, will have been often employed in arousing the better nature of him at whose mercy her inferior strength has placed her. Thus she will have held the ruder passions of man in check, and, in taming his wilder nature, will have developed an increasing gentleness both of feelings and of maimers in the entire race.

During the battles of rival males, the female will have occupied the less active but more dignified position of arbiter and judge. Net being in the heat of the conflict, she will have had opportunity to observe the strategy of each, and to weigh their comparative merits. By this exercise of the faculties of observation, comparison, judgment, and reason, her intellectual powers will have been "continually put to the test and selected during" womanhood. Unfairness in the conduct of the battle will doubtless have roused her indignation, and compelled her better feelings in favor of the more honorable combatant. Sympathy for the vanquished will sometimes have taken the place of exultation in the superior prowess of the victor, and admiration for mere muscular power will have had to contend with these finer emotions.

While man has been engaged in contests with the common enemy, during which his fiercest passions will have been aroused, woman has been subjected to the discipline of family life. To meet emergencies successfully, to provide for the sick, to maintain order and discipline in the household, which, at an early period in human history, included slaves as well as children, will have required mental powers of a high order. At the same time she will have developed a milder character through the exercise of the beneficent traits of maternal love, and solicitude for the absent husband and father. These feelings of tenderness and love will have gradually prepared the way for the development of the devotional sentiment, and will have thus furnished a basis for the deeper religious nature which has become a part of woman's birthright.

Darwin says that the foundation of the moral qualities lies in the social instincts, including in this term the family ties—the more important elements being love and sympathy.

Thus it appears that while sexual selection and intellectual development have gone hand-in-hand, it is no less true that the moral and emotional sides of, human nature have been developed by the operation of the same laws mainly through the female portion of the race. Though Darwin scarcely does more than touch upon this phase of the subject, he says: "Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness;" and again: "It is indeed fortunate that the law of equal transmission of characters to both sexes has commonly prevailed throughout the whole class of mammals; otherwise it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowments to woman as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen."

I shall refrain from indulging in any "would-have-beens" upon the moral aspects of this picture, in the contingency to which Darwin alludes, since we are concerned only with what is.

Our authority continues; "That there is a tendency to the equalizing of the sexes is undoubted in many of the secondary sexual characteristics; woman bestows these superior qualities on her offspring of both sexes."

Applying the principles, to the operation of which he imputes man's mental superiority, we will add—though in a greater degree upon her adult female offspring, since it is during her maturity that these qualities of greater tenderness and less selfishness are most called into exercise.

Although Darwin states that man has been more modified than woman by the law of heredity in connection with sexual selection, he admits its force in the development of both sexes by many statements which might be quoted, were it necessary. The principal argument against its equal force in the two cases is found in the fact that the young of both sexes in many animals, including the human, most resemble the mother. While this is true in a limited sense, the points of greater resemblance being mainly of a physical character, as superior softness and smoothness of skin, greater delicacy of muscles, muscular tissue, etc., it is not applicable to the qualities of tenderness and unselfishness, the cruelty and selfishness of children, especially boys, being proverbial.

Still quoting from the same work: "Although men do not now fight for the sake of obtaining wives, and this form of selection has passed away, yet they generally have to undergo, during manhood, a severe struggle in order to maintain themselves and their families, and this will tend to keep up, or even increase, their mental powers, and, as a consequence, the present inequality between the sexes.... In order that woman should reach the same standard as man, she ought, when nearly adult, to be trained to energy and perseverance, and to have her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point; and then she would probably transmit these qualities chiefly to her adult daughters. The whole body of women, however, could not be thus raised, unless, during many generations, the women who excelled in the above robust virtues were married, and produced offspring in larger numbers than other women."

Though the writer appears to see no incompatibility in these two conditions of the intellectual elevation of women, doubtless many of my readers will, particularly such of them as have borne and raised large families.

Herbert Spencer says: "Taking degree of nervous organization as the chief correlative of mental capacity, and remembering the physiological cost of that discipline whereby high mental capacity is reached, we may suspect that nervous organization is very expensive; the inference being that bringing it up to the level it reaches in man, whose digestive system, by no means large, has at the same time to supply materials for general growth and daily waste, involves a great retardation of maturity and sexual genesis." This is a general statement, applicable to the race as a whole, but it follows that, in so far as reproduction is a greater physical tax upon woman than upon man, so far she labors under a natural disability to equal man intellectually, there being a necessary antagonism between self-evolution and race evolution, since energy expanded in one direction is not available in another.

Darwin, in suggesting a method—evidently impracticable, however—by which women may become the intellectual peers of men, fails to provide for the elevation of man to a moral equality with woman, although he admits that "the moral faculties are generally esteemed, and with justice, as of higher value than the intellectual powers." He says also that "the moral nature of man has reached the highest standard as yet attained, partly through the advancement of the reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially through the sympathies being rendered more tender and widely diffused."

In regard to the future progress of the race, Herbert Spencer asks "in what particular ways this further evolution, this higher life, this greater coordination of actions may be expected to show itself;" and concludes[1] that it will not be in the direction of increased muscular strength, but somewhat in an increase of mechanical skill, largely in intelligence, but most largely in morality.

Thus these high authorities assign to woman a place in the production of those influences which have developed and must continue to develop mankind, coextensive in importance with the moral interests of the race.

But, if I have read their teachings aright, neither man nor woman can justly take any individual pride, the one in his intellectual, the other in her moral superiority; rather they must see themselves as

"Parts and proportions of a wondrous whole;"

as the accompanying movements which make up the harmony of the grand diapason of the human race.

And there is that just adaptation of the different parts which is essential to and constitutes harmony. Bacon says that the causes of harmony are equality and correspondence; and Pope completes our argument with the line—

"All discord, harmony not understood."

There can be, then, no real conflict of interests between man and woman, since there is a mutual dependence of each upon the other, bringing mutual good. Neither can it be a misfortune to be a woman, as so many at the present day would have us believe, although her position may be in some respects subordinate to that of man.

In fact, the subordination of man to woman, different in kind from its converse, is equally apparent; both seem to be matters of common consciousness. It may be readily seen how, in early times, when muscular strength and general physical power were held in the highest esteem, that the position of woman should have been a subordinate one. Animal courage, endurance of physical hardships, the strength, cunning, and agility, which enabled men to cope with wild beasts and with each other, were the traits of character most prized, because most conservative of life in those barbarous times; hence the idea that, woman's position is naturally a subordinate one, has acquired the force of a primal intuition, and might almost be claimed as a "datum of consciousness." But, as the necessities of existence have been gradually modified by civilization, both the character and degree of her subordination have notably changed.

Those qualities, regarded as preeminently feminine, have risen in common estimation, and mere muscular superiority, and even intellectual power, are now put to the test of comparison with the higher moral qualities.

It is true that the laws of most countries still discriminate in a manner unfavorable to women. Legislation has been largely upon the ideal basis of every woman being under the protection of some man, and of all men being the true defenders of all women, and this is evidently traceable to the conviction, already alluded to, that a subordidate position belongs naturally to woman. Lecky says that "the change from the ideal of paganism to the ideal of Christianity was a change from a type which was essentially male to a type which was essentially feminine." As the race shall continue to approach the level of its lofty ideal, the subordination of woman, as well as that of man, will continue to lessen, since both have their chief foundation in the lower traits of character, the force in the one case being superior strength combined with power of will, and, in the other, superior beauty with the desire to fascinate. As these influences are gradually losing their power of despotic sway, woman, in place of acting as the slave, the toy, or the tyrant of man, is becoming not only his companion, but the custodian of the moral and religious interests of society, man looking at her as the natural critic and judge of the moral aspects of his conduct.

While the varying characteristics of the two sexes are thus seen to be inherent and inevitable (the secondary sexual characters having largely grown out of those which are primary and essential), it does not follow that they are necessarily indicative of the "sphere" of each for all time. While it is doubtless true, in a certain sense, that "that which has been is that which shall be," nevertheless, change (in accordance with law) underlies the very idea of evolution, and as it has been and is now, so it ever shall be, that the sphere of woman will be determined by the kind and degree of development to which she shall attain. Like man, she need know no other limitation; but when we look around upon the great industries of life, mining, engineering, manufacturing, commerce, and the rest, and consider how little direct agency woman has had in bringing them to their present stage of progress, we are compelled to believe that she must not look toward direct competition with man for the best unfolding of her powers, but, rather, while continuing to supplement him, as he does her, in the varied interests of their common life, that her future progress, as in the past, will consist mainly in the development of a higher character of womanhood through the selection and consequent intension of those traits peculiar to her own sex.

  1. For argument, see "Principles of Biology," vol. ii., p. 495.