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An essay by George William Curtis

The Mannerless Sex

Title:     The Mannerless Sex
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

To be told that the lily is not the flower of vestals, but of Venus, could not be more surprising than to be assured that the mannerless sex is not that of the troubadour Rudel, but of the Lady of Tripoli, to whom he sang. Such a suggestion is, of course, but a merry fancy. Could any critic, however inclined to misogyny, seriously allege ill-manners against the sex of Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother? Yet this is precisely what has been recently done.

One censor enumerates and catalogues and classifies the sins against good manners of which the sex is guilty. He presents a philosophical analysis of the recondite forms of feminine discourtesy. It is the ancient sage again pitilessly exposing the Lamia. It is Circe out-Circed. He details the degrees of offence--in young women, in women who are no longer classed as girls, in nearly all women, in women with the fewest social duties. Then the boundless Sahara of ill-manners opening before him, and with a certain zest of unsparing scrutiny, he treats of the behavior of women in the horse-cars, at the railway station buying tickets, at the post-office, where the rule is imperative, first come first served, but where this chief of sinners presses for a reversal of the beneficent rule of equality in her favor.

Still more flagrant aspects of misconduct rise upon the censor's view of the sex. The shameful or shocking treatment by woman of those whom she holds to be her inferiors cries to Heaven. Her heartless detention of railway porters staggering under their burdens, her browbeating of "tradespeople," cause this observer of fine susceptibilities and an acute sense of the becoming to lament the desuetude of the ducking-stool. The more general outrage, however, apparently common to the sex from Helen of Troy to Florence Nightingale, is, according to our censor, the spite of women towards each other, which mounts into an ecstasy of rudeness when "woman goes a-shopping."

But our Cato the elder does not permit man truculently to exalt himself by contrast with discourteous woman. He expressly disclaims the declaration of the implication that man is mannerly, while woman is not. In many men he remarks indifference to rudimentary courtesies, and in many women a gentle regard for others which deserves even eulogy. The sum of the whole matter, nevertheless, is that the average woman is more neglectful of common courtesy than the average man.

"And no wonder," exclaims Cato the younger, "for the foolish fondness of man teaches her discourtesy." If man, instead of giving her his seat in the railway car, and slavishly removing his hat in the elevator, and acquiescing in her tyrannical hat at the theatre, insisted upon his legal rights in a bargain, and required the railroad company to furnish without evasion the commodity of seats for which it has been paid, or if he brought the manager to task for allowing one of his customers to steal what he has sold to another--namely, a view of the play--the world would tremble on the edge of the millennium of good manners.

This terrible arraignment is a comprehensive accusation of selfishness against the sex. But it seems to be a generalization founded on a local and restricted observation. It is true of the woman of many artists and critics. The women of Du Maurier, for instance, belong to "a set," but they are not representatives of a sex. Becky Sharp is no more a typical woman than Amelia, or Scott's Rebecca. Major Dobbin is as much a type of men as Lord Steyne. Should our social censor sequester himself for a time in any remote rural community, it would hardly occur to him to signalize the sex of the rural wives and mothers as the selfish sex. And in town, although there are a few fleeting hours of flattered youth in which the beautiful and fortunate Helen may tread on air and breathe adulation until she feels herself a goddess, yet a newer and younger Helen is always gently pushing her from the throne. Of all seasons that of blossoms is the briefest, and the maturer Helen, of whom the sex is composed, is not wayward and selfish, is no longer "uncertain, coy, and hard to please," but patient, self-sacrificing, and true.

Man was self-convicted from the beginning. Could there be more ineffable selfishness than Adam's plea in the garden? "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat." Had Eve been of no finer stuff than he, she would have left him there. But his craven answer at once revealed the essential weakness that demanded the devoted stay of unselfish constancy. Were woman the ever-selfish, Eve would have abandoned Adam to himself while she tripped to solitary pastures new. But the same quality that sustains the secluded farmer and his household in the hills supported the timid tiller of the first garden as the sword flamed behind him over the closing gate of Eden. If Adam plained that Eve had lost him Paradise, does not every son of Adam own that she has regained it for him?

The watchful traveller in city cars, or wherever his fate may guide, is not struck by the discourtesy of the gentler sex. The observable phenomenon in city transit is the resolute, aggressive, conscious selfishness of man hiding behind a newspaper, with an air of unconsciousness designed to deceive, or brazening it out with an uneasy aspect of defending his rights. This is the spectacle, and not a supercilious assumption on the part of the shop-girl. Her courteous refusal to take a seat, or courteous acceptance of it, is more familiar than the courteous proffer.

Cato the younger suggests that it is a wrong that seats should not be provided, and holds that the company should be compelled to furnish the accommodation for which it is paid. It is a Daniel come to judgment, but how shall it be done? Shall men keep their seats until, by sheer shame, and in deference to indignant public protest, the company does its duty? But would the shame and indignation be due to the consciousness that the accommodation paid for was not provided? Would they not arise rather from the consciousness of the peculiar wrong that the gentler sex should be so incommoded? And, if so, while the incommodation lasts, what but the selfishness of men devolves it upon women! But if men should agree to surrender their seats that women should be first accommodated, is there any doubt that the wrong would be speedily righted? And to what would this be due but to the fact that the selfishness of men would insist upon the comfort of which, while the incommodation lasts, they deprive women?

Indeed, if all men in crowded cars should resolutely keep all women standing, the wrong would not be righted, because women would submit with unselfish patience, and because corporations have no souls. The better plan, therefore, is that all men shall refuse to see a woman stand, because if men are really discomforted by their own courtesy they will compel redress.

In a world turned topsy-turvy, where Cordelia and Isabella and Juliet were mannerless, the other sex might be eulogized by distinction as mannerly. But in this world is the gentle Bayard as truly the type of the average man as Jeanie Deans of the average woman?

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: The Mannerless Sex