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An essay by Charles Dudley Warner

Shall Women Propose?

Title:     Shall Women Propose?
Author: Charles Dudley Warner [More Titles by Warner]

The shyness of man--meaning the "other sex" referred to in the woman's journals--has often been noticed in novels, and sometimes in real life. This shyness is, however, so exceptional as to be suspicious. The shy young man may provoke curiosity, but he does not always inspire respect. Roughly estimated, shyness is not considered a manly quality, while it is one of the most pleasing and attractive of the feminine traits, and there is something pathetic in the expression "He is as shy as a girl;" it may appeal for sympathy and the exercise of the protective instinct in women. Unfortunately it is a little discredited, so many of the old plays turning upon its assumption by young blades who are no better than they should be.

What would be the effect upon the masculine character and comfort if this shyness should become general, as it may in a contingency that is already on the horizon? We refer, of course, to the suggestion, coming from various quarters, that women should propose. The reasonableness of this suggestion may not lie on the surface; it may not be deduced from the uniform practice, beginning with the primitive men and women; it may not be inferred from the open nature of the two sexes (for the sake of argument two sexes must still be insisted on); but it is found in the advanced civilization with which we are struggling. Why should not women propose? Why should they be at a disadvantage in an affair which concerns the happiness of the whole life? They have as much right to a choice as men, and to an opportunity to exercise it. Why should they occupy a negative position, and be restricted, in making the most important part of their career, wholly to the choice implied in refusals? In fact, marriage really concerns them more than it does men; they have to bear the chief of its burdens. A wide and free choice for them would, then, seem to be only fair. Undeniably a great many men are inattentive, unobserving, immersed in some absorbing pursuit, undecided, and at times bashful, and liable to fall into union with women who happen to be near them, rather than with those who are conscious that they would make them the better wives. Men, unaided by the finer feminine instincts of choice, are so apt to be deceived. In fact, man's inability to "match" anything is notorious. If he cannot be trusted in the matter of worsted-work, why should he have such distinctive liberty in the most important matter of his life? Besides, there are many men--and some of the best who get into a habit of not marrying at all, simply because the right woman has not presented herself at the right time. Perhaps, if women had the open privilege of selection, many a good fellow would be rescued from miserable isolation, and perhaps also many a noble woman whom chance, or a stationary position, or the inertia of the other sex, has left to bloom alone, and waste her sweetness on relations, would be the centre of a charming home, furnishing the finest spectacle seen in this uphill world --a woman exercising gracious hospitality, and radiating to a circle far beyond her home the influence of her civilizing personality. For, notwithstanding all the centrifugal forces of this age, it is probable that the home will continue to be the fulcrum on which women will move the world.

It may be objected that it would be unfair to add this opportunity to the already, overpowering attractions of woman, and that man would be put at an immense disadvantage, since he might have too much gallantry, or not enough presence of mind, to refuse a proposal squarely and fascinatingly made, although his judgment scarcely consented, and his ability to support a wife were more than doubtful. Women would need to exercise a great deal of prudence and discretion, or there would be something like a panic, and a cry along the male line of 'Sauve qui peut'; for it is matter of record that the bravest men will sometimes run away from danger on a sudden impulse.

This prospective social revolution suggests many inquiries. What would be the effect upon the female character and disposition of a possible, though not probable, refusal, or of several refusals? Would she become embittered and desperate, and act as foolishly as men often do? Would her own sex be considerate, and give her a fair field if they saw she was paying attention to a young man, or an old one? And what effect would this change in relations have upon men? Would it not render that sporadic shyness of which we have spoken epidemic? Would it frighten men, rendering their position less stable in their own eyes, or would it feminize them--that is, make them retiring, blushing, self-conscious beings? And would this change be of any injury to them in their necessary fight for existence in this pushing world? What would be the effect upon courtship if both the men and the women approached each other as wooers? In ordinary transactions one is a buyer and one is a seller--to put it coarsely. If seller met seller and buyer met buyer, trade would languish. But this figure cannot be continued, for there is no romance in a bargain of any sort; and what we should most fear in a scientific age is the loss of romance.

This is, however, mere speculation. The serious aspect of the proposed change is the effect it will have upon the character of men, who are not enough considered in any of these discussions. The revolution will be a radical one in one respect. We may admit that in the future woman can take care of herself, but how will it be with man, who has had little disciplinary experience of adversity, simply because he has been permitted to have his own way? Heretofore his life has had a stimulus. When he proposes to a woman, he in fact says: "I am able to support you; I am able to protect you from the rough usage of the world; I am strong and ambitious, and eager to take upon myself the lovely bondage of this responsibility. I offer you this love because I feel the courage and responsibility of my position." That is the manly part of it. What effect will it have upon his character to be waiting round, unselected and undecided, until some woman comes to him, and fixes her fascinating eyes upon him, and says, in effect: "I can support you; I can defend you. Have no fear of the future; I will be at once your shield and your backbone. I take the responsibility of my choice." There are a great many men now, who have sneaked into their positions by a show of courage, who are supported one way and another by women. It might be humiliating to know just how many men live by the labors of their wives. And what would be the effect upon the character of man if the choice, and the responsibility of it, and the support implied by it in marriage, were generally transferred to woman?

[The end]
Charles Dudley Warner's essay: Shall Women Propose?