Monday, February 2, 2009

Extract from Catherine Crowe's novel, Lily Dawson

From Chapter 30 of Catherine Crowe’s Lilly Dawson (1847) (transcription by Lucy Sussex)

In a true woman—and by a true woman we mean one in whom the nature of her sex is the most completely developed—candour will be the distinctive attribute; inasmuch as it is the distinctive attribute of the intuitive life which in her must prevail: but it is remarkable that these women, the true archetypes of their sex, are exactly those who have the least influence over men in general; for, to understand and appreciate such a woman, a man must be as noble and candid as herself. He must have insight—which few men have, for intellect does not give it; and in the present stage of civilization, it is certain that men are much more governed by the vices and artifices of women than by their virtues. There is plenty of power to be had by bad means—by what are frequently called “the legitimate arms of the sex”. Fie! We never see the manège and the dexterities by which so many women retain their influence over their husbands, without feeling infinitely more contempt for her successful cunning, than we do for the poor spiritless unresisting victim of a brute, who may be living next door.

The fact is, that few men know anything of woman’s true nature—how should they? For what is more rare than a thoroughly genuine woman? And how are women answerable for this, when it has been for ages the business of society not only to repress and extinguish that nature wherever it appeared, but to educate its daughters out of it from their cradles; so that at this moment there can scarcely exist in any civilized country a woman in whom the germ has had so much vitality as to have resisted the external influences exerted to repress and pervert it, who does not feel herself in an ungenial atmosphere.

The usual light in which a woman is considered is as of a being with a different physical organization to man; but in all other respects as of similar, but inferior endowments—the essential distinctions, when observed, being set down to the account of eccentricity and aberration: and the education bestowed upon her has been in conformity with this view; that is, it has been, as compared with that bestowed upon the other sex, an inferior sample of the same article—bad enough in the best—with a clumsy attempt to compensate for its inferiority by a few meretricious accomplishments. We humbly confess to a shrinking antipathy from what is commonly known as an “accomplished woman”. Let women draw, and sing, and play the harp—these things are good in their way—so are artificial flowers and French jewellery—but if these are their stock in trade—the armour with which they have been prepared to fight their battle and make their way through this life to another—we should think their outfit no more suitable, than we should their wardrobe, if its staple commodities consisted of the above-mentioned pretty appurtenances.

Man having settled to his own entire satisfaction the question of the weakness and inferiority of woman, and everything being done that training could do, to produce such results as confirmed his conclusion, it necessarily followed that she was unfit to cope with the world or resist the manifold dangers and temptations that surrounded her; and it was accordingly found necessary to hem her in by decorums and circumscribe her by conventionalities, which altogether precluded her from that self-education by experience which the more active life of man afforded him. Frightened at his own vices and the weakness of the creature to whose keeping he must needs confide his honour and peace, he saw nothing left for it but to turn the world into one large harem; perpetuating woman’s slavery by perpetuating her ignorance; and teaching her, whilst he assumed a divine right to despotic sway, that it was the worst of treasons to herself—that is, that it was unfeminine to dispute his claims.

In short he only discerned two functions for which woman could have been designed; namely, to be the slave of his passions, and the nurse of his babies in swaddling-clothes; and for these purposes, he sought to adapt her—he fitted her “to suckle fools”; and verily he has his reward, for she has done it!

Thus, that the weakness and inferiority which they allege against us really does exist, we fear there is no mistaking. Let any woman to whom circumstances have been more favourable, or who, by the energy of her own will, has found a function for herself; and forced herself out of “the circumscription and confines”, that custom has drawn about her, speak honestly the result of her experience and observation, in this respect. How many women could she reckon of her acquaintance, who have ever dared to think for themselves; or even, if they dared to think, would dare to speak? How many free souls could she count amongst them?

It is true, there is little real culture amongst men; there are few strong thinkers, and fewer honest ones; but they have still some advantages. If their education has been bad, it has at least been a trifle better than ours. Six hours a-day at Latin and Greek are better than six hours a-day at worsted-work and embroidery; and time is better spent in acquiring a smattering of mathematics, than in strumming Hook’s lessons on a bad pianoforte. Then men have the benefit of rubbing against the world in their progress through it; they have mostly some definite pursuit or profession, within the domain of which they at least know something—and it is much to know something, though, like Walter Scott’s companion in the stage coach, it be only about Bend-leather;—and altogether, stunted though they be, they have been enabled to grow into more vigour, from not being so utterly repressed and stifled by the artificial restrictions and false delicacies they have entwined round the other sex.

It would have been a consolation if, amidst these disadvantages that have been heaped upon them, women could have preserved their candour, their simplicity, their singleness of mind; but they are so artificial, so conventional, so unreal, so afraid of being themselves! No wonder! For they have in ninety-nine instances out of a hundred been so frowned out of their individualities when they were young, that they have actually forgotten after what fashion God Almighty made them. Their minds have been compressed by tight stays, like their bodies; they have so entirely lost sight of Nature that they are positively shocked when she meets their view; and as soon as they get children of their own, they set about deforming her; squeezing, pinching, and paring, till, like the Flatheads or Chinese, they have reduced their offspring to the true standard of taste and gentility. Woe to any unfortunate little being, who should be found amongst the brood, in whom a strong nature prevailing over art will insist on asserting itself! Its mother will be as much astonished and dismayed as a hen that has hatched a duck’s egg. The gods themselves know what an inane and insipid thing this eternal modelling, forming, and finishing, makes of society.

In what we have said here, we are very far from desiring to imply, that we think the intellectual faculty of woman, either in quality or calibre, equal to that of man. On the contrary, we are of the opinion that the most intellectual woman that ever lived, be she who she may, has been far inferior in that region to the most intellectual man. This opinion we are aware will be very distasteful to some of the female champions of the cause we are advocating; but it is founded, not only on the records of the intellectual heroes and heroines of antiquity, but on observations and comparisons, made betwixt some of the most remarkable men and women of the present day. No female intellect that we have ever yet heard or read of exhibits anything like the breadth, depth, and power of a noble, masculine (honest) mind—for the degree in which the want of honesty cripples men’s minds is past all calculation.

But what we wish to advance is, that, if allowed free scope and fair play, women would be able to put forth, and make available, equivalent, though different endowments; which now not only lie fallow, but are actually in the process of extinction, from want of exercise, whilst, to most of those in whom the germ yet lives, it is, from the constitution of society and the restrictions placed on the sex, more a curse than a blessing. Nothing can equal the wretchedness of a woman, in whose bosom this lamp is pent, consuming herself, because not permitted to shed its ray upon the world. The utter hopelessness, the entire inanity of life, the sense of degradation, the wondering wherefore she was made, to bear all this and suffer to no end! Life all holiday with nothing to do but play! And yet to break through this deadening charm that is flung about her, what “a downright violence and storm of fortune” is most times needed! And how many, from the want of being guided to the true outlet and freer air, rush into perdition to escape? Not because women of this temperament are vicious; but exactly the contrary; they are the least sensual of their sex; but because the living flame within must have something to pasture on. Denied to live their own life, and weave out their own destiny, they become absorbed in that of another; flinging themselves and their affections at the feet, not of a man, but of their own ideal—too often embodied in the form of some worthless idol, no more worthy of their faith, than the ill-carved stone that the poor Indians worship.

If, as we believe, under no system of training, the intellect of woman would be found as strong as that of man, she is compensated by her intuitions being stronger—if her reason be less majestic, her insight is clearer—where man reasons, she sees. Nature, in short, gave her all that was needful to enable her to fill a noble part in the world’s history, if man would but let her play it out; and not treat her like a full-grown-baby, to be flattered and spoiled on the one hand, and coerced and restricted on the other, vibrating betwixt royal rule and slavish serfdom. In her childhood, woman is perverted by the ignorance of well-intentioned mothers and governesses, who view her, not as an independent soul, capable of the richest culture, and sent into this world for the purpose of qualifying herself to fulfil high duties here and higher hereafter, but as the appendage of some man, whose fancy she must first charm by her accomplishments, and to whose humours, for the rest of her life, she must afterwards conform; and it is lamentable to think that the great portion of books now written on women’s duties, and put into the hands of young people, for their instruction, regard her in no other light. From first to last, she is governed by the pap-spoon and the rod; and whilst, for his own selfish ends, man kneels at her feet and flatters her with mock devotion, he makes laws and enforces customs, that rob her of her free franchise, and of all the rights that God and Nature gave her. *

We have frequently of late heard the question asked, “Can woman regenerate society?” Really, we cannot see how that can be, till man regenerates himself. Till he elevates his own standard, it appears next to impossible for women effectually to elevate hers: for prescription is on his side, might will be right, and he has so much the best of the game, that until by a nobler culture and the awakening of larger sympathies, his eyes are opened to his own injustice and his own loss, any material improvement in the condition of women seems hopeless.

With all the independence, the freedom, the culture, the equal laws, the introduction into active life and employments, which we crave for women, we still admit that man, through her heart and her affections, will be her lord; and should be, if he would raise himself to the standard that would entitle him to the fief. There is nothing so elevating to a woman as the love of a truly great and noble man. The worship she pays him, whether it be that of friendship or of love, exalts her mind, and fills her soul with a holy joy; there is nothing so degrading, so crushing to the spirit, as to be the slave of a churl.

When the men are better and wiser, they will be more just. When they are noble themselves they will demand noble women to their wives; and for women to be noble they will see that she must first be free. That so many amongst them do not desire to be so, is one of the worst symptoms of their condition.
* It gives us great satisfaction to learn that the women of Berne in Switzerland are at this time petitioning for equal rights; and that one of the American States is about to pass a law, giving females power over their own property.

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