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The Education of Women | The Nation

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The Education of Women

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This article originally appeared in the August 30, 1866, issue.

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The McCutcheon campaign finance ruling is only the latest in a series of bad decisions that have sparked growing grassroots resistance.

He made it clear that on matters of conscience, inaction is unacceptable.

In most of the discussions in relation to the improvement of female education, the objectors have shown themselves unable to rise above the utilitarian, or rather the purely material, argument, and have assumed that those who ask a higher intellectual training for woman are as incapable as themselves of regarding the question from a loftier point of view. The range of woman's powers and duties, say they, is confined, by her physical and her mental nature alike, to a narrow and a humble sphere. Of what use is it for her to pursue studies or cultivate arts, which for her can have no practical application? Why should she concern herself about the political history, the constitution, or the jurisprudence of her country, seeing that she is deprived of the political franchise, and ineligible to legislative or judicial office? Why should she know anything of theology, except as a body of positive dogmas, inasmuch as she can neither preach nor perform any priestly function? Why should she study the rules of aesthetical criticism or the fundamental principles of any art, when it is notorious that she can neither invent a character, paint a historical picture, model a group, nor compose an anthem?

Now this reasoning is objectionable, not merely as assuming much that is disputable, much even that this generation has seen dispelled, but because it raises a false issue, while, at the same time, it places a low and degrading estimate on the uses of knowledge, and virtually denies that it is, in and of itself, a good. Our intellectual training, our discernment of good and evil, of the true and the false, of the beautiful and the base--these are as much constituents of that complex entity which we call self, as our physical appetites and sensations. Discipline, self-culture, soundness of judgment, positive attainment, all which are implied in knowledge, are equally necessary for the discharge of our duties to our Maker, to ourselves, and to our brother. Knowledge, then, helps us alike to be and to do, and the obscurantists, in refusing a better education to woman, are denying her the choicest of jewels as a possession, the most efficient of instrumentalities as a means of action.

The present question is not, as is perversely insisted, What shall women do? Shall they command fleets and armies? Shall they preside in the councils of the nation? Shall they defend criminals at the bar of justice? Shall they expound Scripture and enforce religious and moral obligation in the pulpit? Shall they administer potions and perform capital operations? Shall they be allowed publicly to buy and sell and get gain? But it is: Shall woman be encouraged, or at least permitted freely, to cultivate such humble faculties as she is admitted to enjoy, and develop those intellectual powers which, in common with what grammarians call the "sexus dignior," the worthier sex--though, as a half-reasoning animal, in an inferior degree--she appears to possess; may she receive a mental training which will raise her in her own self-respect, contribute to her rational enjoyment, and render her a more useful and less tiresome companion to the Solomon who is destined to lord it over her?

There are, certainly, persons who propose to put women forthwith upon a footing of absolute, social, civil, legal, and political parity with men, and suppose the fifteen hundred British maids and matrons who are demanding the exercise of political franchises in England, will have many sympathizers in and out of their own sex, many powerful advocates in Parliament, in society, and in literature. But, after all, we do not know or believe that, as a general rule, women now want, or ever will want, to exercise many of those functions of which generous man reserves to himself the monopoly. Physical reasons, and the appetites and repugnances naturally resulting from the physical constitution of women, will secure man, to a very great extent, from the dangerous competition, the apprehension of which is throwing universal fogydom into such a fever; and the law of supply and demand will, in the long run, when the market is fairly thrown open, bring the custom to the right shop, whether Adam or Eve stand behind the counter. As we have already said, we have no sound experimental knowledge in regard to the capacities and aptitudes of women, but, so far as the evidence goes, it is, as in all cases of the extension of human liberty, entirely favorable to the enlargement of woman's sphere of action. Women, we all know, once voted in New Jersey. The world was then by no means as well prepared for such an anomaly as it now is; but history does not tell us that New Jersey gained very much in wisdom of internal administration, or in respect abroad, by their exclusion from the polls. Had women continued to vote in that State, or rather station, we believe New Jersey would have been sooner redeemed from thraldom to the slave-driver; and had she still, for a time, worshipped some Juggernaut as the god of her idolatry, she would have placed him on a nobler chariot than a snorting locomotive, and the lesser divinities of her pantheon would have been something better than deified stokers.

The opponents of the social and intellectual elevation of woman may be divided into two categories--the hierarchies, which fear or rather foresee that their own usurped powers and privileges will be reduced in proportion as rights shall be recovered by classes which have hitherto been deprived of them, and the vast body of men and women who honestly believe that woman is, upon the whole, an inferior creature.

The love of power is the strongest of human passions, and it is a remarkable proof of the intensity of the social feeling in man that aggregate bodies cling more tenaciously than individuals to the exceptional privileges they have become possessed of. Kings have voluntarily abdicated their thrones, but never did an order resign its prerogatives except upon compulsion. This is especially true of all hierarchies, lay or ecclesiastical, which, by incorporation or otherwise, have or claim perpetual existence by continuous succession, the transmission of a virus, as Dr. Rice called it. Happily the inviolability of corporate rights of all sorts is now becoming matter of frequent question. The reverence with which associate bodies were regarded is greatly diminished. The old Whig superstition of the immaculate conception of the United States Bank is now pretty much exploded, and it is very doubtful whether every point of the judgment in the famous Dartmouth College case would be affirmed upon a rehearing to-day. Although financial, and especially railroad, corporations have been the great springs of pecuniary, and too often of political, corruption in our time, yet their social influence is far less dangerous than that of bodies which rest their claims to power on the higher basis of religion. Ancient oppressions were sanctioned by appeals to vaguely conceived divinities, speaking, as in a great part of Europe they do to this day, only through the priests. In nations which have shaken off some part of their mediaeval superstitions--royalty, hereditary aristocracy, consecrated priesthoods--advocates of the slavery of man and the degradation of woman fortify every proposition by quotations from Holy Writ--the joint authority of "Peter and Paul." When it was a penitentiary offence in South Carolina to teach the negro to read, when generous Georgia condemned missionaries to penal servitude for preaching Christianity to the Indians, the pious, the learned, the wise, and even the philanthropists of those enlightened communities had no doubt that the sentences were just. Reason and experience proved the inferiority of the black skin and the red just as logically as they establish the inferiority of woman now, and devout gospellers appealed to Scripture in the former case as triumphantly as they still do in the latter. It was clear from Holy Writ that "Ham's sons was gi'n to us in charge;" slavery was their natural, divinely ordained condition, their earthly school and paradise; and though the "nigger" was a "useful institution" to his owner, yet it was more as a matter of duty than of interest that the magnanimous Southron held him in perpetual bondage. In fact, the Southern States constituted a great Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the slaveholders and priesthood; and when a religious congregation in Charleston sold a few "communicants" further "down South" to raise money to repair their church, they had the comfortable reflection that they were sending out catechists and missionaries to teach the way of truth to their yet but half-converted brother on the sugar plantations. As to the Indian, his name did not appear in the biblical genealogies--he was not the son of anybody; they "'spected he growed." Of course he inherited no share in the "covenant promises," and the taking of his lands and his goods and appropriating them to better uses was a praiseworthy spoiling of the Egyptians. All this was conscientiously believed five years ago by seven or eight millions of men, women, and children. Does anybody but a Copperhead believe, it now?

Is it not possible that the all but universal belief in the inferior nature of woman rests on a not less sandy foundation? We look back with astonishment at the solemn decision of Southern judicial tribunals, that, unless restrained by local statute, the master's power over his slave was as unlimited as over his ox; that at common law no indictment would lie against the owner for torturing or even killing his "servant"--that, in short, he had all the rights over his bondman which the volunteer gladiator's oath and the laws of Rome conferred upon the ludimagister, "to bind, burn, scourge, slay with the sword, or whatsoever else the master should please." Justice Buller declared that, by the law of England, beating a wife with a stick not thicker than his lordship's thumb was not to be considered as anything more than that "moderate chastisement" which the husband might rightfully administer. Shall we not by and by grow wise enough and humane enough to try to get a mitigation of this judgment and reduce the size of the stick to perhaps the measure of a judge's little finger?

Dr. Johnson, whose strong sense helped him, in spite of the tenacity of his prejudices, to see the hollowness of many of the social shams of his time, said that woman was not made subject to man because she was his inferior, but because, "when two ride on one horse, one of them must ride behind." In our day everybody travels in the East, and the Western world is becoming familiar with the fact that, by the use of a pannier-saddle, which the Orientals call a kajaxa, two persons may travel on one camel and yet ride side by side.

Some time since a European lady expressed to us the regret she felt, in visiting a school which her husband had been instrumental in establishing for the purpose of so far educating peasant girls as to make them useful domestic servants, to find that the girls were not content with the little their instructors were willing to teach them, but that they desired to acquire knowledge enough to qualify them for teachers in higher female schools. When we said that we thought this was a creditable feeling, which ought to be encouraged rather than repressed, she replied, "Mais, Monsieur, elles aspirent à se déclasser!" They want to rive above their caste. "Well," said we, "this answer of yours points to a fundamental distinction between your Old World institutions and those of which we Americans are so proud. The very thing we aim at is to 'déclasser' our people, to relieve them from the servitude and the tyranny of caste, to 'exalt the humble' majority, even at the cost of 'depressing the proud' minority. True, we strive to lengthen upwards the ladder on which all alike stand, that all may climb higher than the highest has yet ascended, but we do not allow the occupant of the topmost round any possessory right to exclude from a place beside him the aspirant who is rising from the lowest."

The European traditions, which reduce woman to the condition of an inferior caste, are in conflict with the whole tone and purport of American institutions. They constitute what lawyers call a "discrepancy," an irreconcilable discord, in our whole social life. Let us begin with recognizing true and liberal principles, and trust to the logic of society to work out legitimate and beneficent results. Let us not dispute whether women shall, if special vocation call them, walk in hitherto untrodden paths, or still be confined to such rude "small chores" as lofty manhood scorns to stoop to; let us not, like the bee, feed one human larva to be a worker, one a mother, and another a drone; but let us administer to both sexes, in every condition of life, that generous intellectual, moral, and physical nutriment which will enable each to develop most perfectly the powers and faculties of its material and moral organization.

No person has discussed this general question with greater ability, none with more of that sage moderation which is the sure token of an elevated and an enlightened spirit, than the noble woman whose essays we take as the text of this article.* We do not know how much her works have yet been read in the United States, but no writer of our time, male or female, better deserves to be listened to by Americans who seek the true solution of the greatest social problem which it remains for Americans to determine.

* "Essays on the Pursuits of Women. By Frances Power Cobbe." London, 1863.

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