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An essay by Ambrose Bierce

The Opposing Sex

Title:     The Opposing Sex
Author: Ambrose Bierce [More Titles by Bierce]

EMANCIPATION of woman is not of American invention. The "movement," like most others that are truly momentous, originated in Europe, and has broken through and broken down more formidable barriers of law, custom and tradition there than here. It is not true that the English married woman is "virtually a bondwoman" to her husband; that "she can hardly go and come without his consent, and usually he does not consent;" that "all she has is his." If there is such a thing as "the bitterness of the English married woman to the law," underlying it there is such a thing as ignorance of what the law is. The "subjection of woman," as it exists today in England, is customary and traditionary--a social, not a legal, subjection. Nowhere has law so sharply challenged that male dominion whose seat is in the harder muscles, the larger brain and the coarser heart And the law, it may be worth while to point out, was not of woman born; nor was it handed down out of Heaven engraved on tables of stone. Learned English judges have decided that virtually the term "marital rights" has no longer a legal signification. As one writer puts it, "The law has relaxed the husband's control over his wife's person and fortune, bit by bit, until legally it has left him nothing but the power to prevent her, if he is so disposed, and arrives in time, from jumping out of the window." He will find it greatly to his interest to arrive in time when he conveniently can, and to be so disposed, for the husband is still liable for the wife's torts; and if she makes the leap he may have to pay for the telescoping of a subjacent hat or two.

In England it is the Tyrant Man himself who is chafing in his chain. Not only is a husband still liable for the wrongs committed by the wife whom he has no longer the power to restrain from committing them, but in many ways--in one very important way--his obligation to her remains intact after she has had the self-sacrifice to surrender all obligation to him. Moreover, if his wife has a separate estate he has to endure the pain of seeing it hedged about from her creditors (themselves not altogether happy in the contemplation) with restrictions which do not hamper the right of recourse against his own. Doubtless all this is not without a softening effect upon his character, smoothing down his dispositional asperities and endowing him day by day with fresh accretions of humility. And that is good for him. I do not say that female autonomy is not among the most efficacious agencies for man's reclamation from the sin of pride; I only say that it is not indigenous to this country, the sweet, sweet home of the assassiness, the happy hunting ground of the whiplady, the paradise of the vitrioleuse.

If the protagonists of woman suffrage are frank they are shallow; if wise, uncandid. Continually they affirm their conviction that political power in the hands of women will give us better government. To proof of that proposition they address all the powers that they have and marshal such facts as can be compelled to serve under their flag. They either think or profess to think that if they can show that women's votes will purify politics they will have proved their case. That is not true; whether they know it or not, the strongest objection to woman suffrage would remain untouched. Pure politics is desirable, certainly, but it is not the chief concern of the best and most intelligent citizens. Good government is "devoutly to be wished," but more than good government we need good women. If all our public affairs were to be ordered with the goodness and wisdom of angels, and this state of perfection were obtained by sacrifice of any of those qualities which make the best of our women, if not what they should be, nor what the mindless male thinks them, at least what they are, we should have purchased the advantage too dearly. The effect of woman suffrage upon the country is of secondary importance: the question for profitable consideration is, How will it affect the character of woman? He who does not see in the goodness and charm of such women as are good and charming something incalculably more precious than any degree of political purity or national prosperity may be a patriot: doubtless he is; but also he has the distinction to be a pig.

I should like to ask the gallant gentlemen who vote for removal of woman's political disability if they have observed in the minds and manners of the women in the forefront of the movement nothing "ominous and drear." Are not these women different--I don't say worse, just different--from the best types of women of peace who are not exhibits and audibles? If they are different, is the difference of such a nature as to encourage a hope that activity in public affairs will work an improvement in women generally? Is "the glare of publicity" good for her growth in grace and winsomeness? Would a sane and sensible husband or lover willingly forego in wife or sweetheart all that the colonels of her sex appear to lack, or find in her all that they appear to have and to value?

A few more questions--addressed more particularly to veteran observers than to those to whom the world is new and strange. Have you observed any alteration in the manner of men toward women? If so, is it in the direction of greater rudeness or of more ceremonious respect? And again, if so, has not the change, in point of time, been coincident with the genesis and development of woman's "emancipation" and her triumphal entry into the field of "affairs"? Are you really desirous that the change go further? Or do you think that when women are armed with the ballot they will compel a return of the old _regime_ of deference and delicate consideration--extorting by their power the tribute once voluntarily paid to their weakness? Is there any known way by which women can at once be our political equals and our social superiors, our competitors in the sharp and bitter struggle for glory, gain or bread, and the objects of our unselfish and undiminished devotion? The present predicts the future; of the foreshadow of the coming event all sensitive female hearts feel the chill. For whatever advantages, real or illusory, some women enjoy under this _regime_ of partial "emancipation" all women pay. Of the coin in which payment is made the shouldering shouters of the sex have not a groat and can bear the situation with impunity. They have either passed the age of masculine attention or were born without the means to its accroachment. Dwelling in the open bog, they can afford to defy eviction.

While men did nearly all the writing and public speaking of the world, setting so the fashion in thought, women, naturally extolled with true sexual extravagance, came to be considered, even by themselves, as a very superior order of beings, with something in them of divinity which was denied to man. Not only were they represented as better, generally, than men, as indeed anybody could see that they were, but their goodness was supposed to be a kind of spiritual endowment and more or less independent of environmental influences.

We are changing all that. Women are beginning to do much of the writing and public speaking, and not only are they going to extol us (to the fattening of our conceit) but they are bound to disclose, even to the unthinking, certain defects of character in themselves which their silence had veiled. Their competition, too, in several kinds of affairs will slowly but certainly provoke resentment, and moreover expose them to temptations which will distinctly lower the morality of their sex. All these changes, and many more having a similar effect and significance, are occurring with amazing rapidity, and the stated results are already visible to even the blindest observation. In accurate depiction of the new order of things conjecture fails, but so much we know: the woman-superstition has already received its death wound and must soon expire.

Everywhere, and in no reverential spirit, men are questioning the dear old idolatry; not "sapping a solemn creed with solemn sneer," but dispassionately applying to its basic doctrine the methods of scientific criticism. He who within even the last twenty years has not marked in society, in letters, in art, in everything, a distinct change in man's attitude toward women--a change which, were one a woman, one would not wish to see--may reasonably conclude that much, otherwise observable, is hidden by his nose. In the various movements--none of them consciously iconoclastic--engaged in overthrowing this oddest of modern superstitions there is something to deprecate, and even deplore, but the superstition can be spared. It never had much in it that was either creditable or profitable, and all through its rituals ran a note of insincerity which was partly Nature's protest against the rites, but partly, too, hypocrisy. There is no danger that good men will ever cease to respect and love good women, and if bad men ever cease to adore them for their sex when not beating them for their virtues the gain in consistency will partly offset the loss in religious ecstasy.

Let the patriot abandon his fear, his betters their hope, that only the low class woman will vote--the unlettered wench of the slums, the raddled hag of the dives, the war-painted _protegee_ of the police. Into the vortex of politics goes every floating thing that is free to move. The summons to the polls will be imperative and incessant. Duty will thunder it from every platform, conscience whisper it into every ear, pride, interest, the lust of victory--all the motives that impel men to partisan activity will act with equal power upon women as upon men; and to all the other forces flowing irresistibly toward the polls will be added the suasion of men themselves. The price of votes will not decline because of the increased supply, although it will in most instances be offered in currencies too subtle to be counted. As now, the honest and respectable elector will habitually take bribes in the invisible coin of the realm of Sentiment--a mintage peculiarly valued by woman. For one reason or another all women will vote, even those who now view the "right" widi aversion. The observer who has marked the strength and activity of the forces pent in the dark drink of politics and given off in the act of bibation will not expect inaction to the victim of the "habit," be he male or she female. In the partisan, conviction is compulsion---opinions bear fruit in conduct. The partisan thinks in deeds, and woman is by nature a partisan--a blessing for which the Lord has never made her male relatives and friends sufficiently thankful. Not a mere man of them would have the effrontery to ask her toleration if she were not Depend upon it, the full strength of the female vote will eventually be cast at every election. And it would be well indeed for civilization and the interests of the race if woman suffrage meant no more than going to the polling-place and polling--which clearly is all that it has been thought out to mean by the headless horsemen spurring their new hobbies bravely at the tail of the procession. That would be a very simple matter; the opposition based upon the impropriety of the female rubbing shoulders at the polls with such scurvy blackguards as ourselves may with advantage be retired from service. Nor is it particularly important what men and measures the women will vote for. By one means or another Tyrant Man will have his way; the Opposing Sex can merely obstruct him in his way of having it. And should that obstruction ever be too pronounced, the party line and the sex line coinciding, woman suffrage will then and henceforth be no more.

In the politics of this bad world majorities are of several kinds. One of the most "overwhelming" is made up of these simple elements: (1) a numerical minority; (2) a military superiority. If not a single election were ever in any degree affected by it, the introduction of woman suffrage into our scheme of manners and morals would nevertheless be the most momentous and mischievous event of modern history. Compared with the action of this destructive solvent, that of all other disintegrating agencies concerned in our decivilization is as the languorous indiligence of rosewater to the mordant fury of nitric acid.

Lively Woman is indeed, as Carlyle would put it, "hellbent" on purification of politics by adding herself as an ingredient. It is unlikely that the injection of her personality into the contention (and politics is essentially a contention) will allay any animosities, sweeten any tempers, elevate any motives. The strifes of women are distinctly meaner than those of men--which are out of all reason mean; their methods of overcoming opponents distinctly more unscrupulous. That their participation in politics will notably alter the conditions of the game is not to be denied; that, unfortunately, is obvious; but that it will make the player less malignant and the playing more honorable is a proposition in support of which one can utter a deal of gorgeous nonsense, with a less insupportable sense of its unfitness, than in the service of any other delusion.

The frosty truth is that except in the home the influence of women is not elevating, but debasing. When they stoop to uplift men who need uplifting, they are themselves pulled down, and that is all that is accomplished. Wherever they come into familiar contact with men who are not their relatives they impart nothing, they receive all; they do not affect us with their notions of morality; we infect them with ours.

In the last forty years, in this country, they have entered a hundred avenues of activity from which they were previously debarred by an unwritten law. They are found in the offices, the shops, the factories. Like Charles Lamb's fugitive pigs, they have run up all manner of streets. Does any one think that in that time there has been an advance in professional, commercial and industrial morality? Are lawyers more scrupulous, tradesmen more honest? When one has been served by a "saleslady" does one leave the shop with a feebler sense of injury than was formerly inspired by a transaction at the counter--a duller consciousness of being oneself the commodity that has changed hands? Have actresses elevated the stage to a moral altitude congenial to the colder virtues? In studios of the artists is the "sound of revelry by night" invariably a deep, masculine bass? In literature are the immoral books--the books "dealing" with questionable "questions"--always, or even commonly, written by men?

There is one direction in which "emancipation of woman" and enlargement of her "sphere" have wrought a reform: they have elevated the _personnel_ of the little dinner party in the "private room." Formerly, as any veteran man-about-town can testify, if he will, the female contingent of the party was composed of persons altogether unspeakable. That element now remains upon its reservation; among the superior advantages enjoyed by the man-about-town of today is that of the companionship, at his dinner _in camera_, of ladies having an honorable vocation. In the corridors of the "French restaurant" the swish of Pseudonyma's skirt is no longer heard; she has been superseded by the Princess Tap-tap (with Truckle & Cinch), by my lady Snip-snip (from the "emporium" of Boltwhack & Co.), by Miss Chink-chink, who sits at the receipt of customs in that severely un-French restaurant, the Maison Hash. That the man-about-town has been morally elevated by this Emancipation of Girl from the seclusion of home to that of the "private room" is too obvious for denial. Nothing so uplifts Tyrant Man as the table talk of good young women who earn their own living.

I do not wish to be altogether ironical about this rather serious matter--not so much so as to forfeit anything of lucidity. Let me state, then, in all earnestness and sobriety and simplicity of speech, what is known to every worldly-wise male dweller in the cities, to every scamp and scapegrace of the clubs, to every reformed sentimentalist and every observer with a straight eye--namely, that in all the various classes of young women in our cities who support, or partly support, themselves in vocations which bring them into personal contact with men, female chastity is a vanishing tradition. In the lives of the "main and general" of these, all those _considerate_ which have their origin in personal purity, and cluster about it, and are its signs and safeguards, have almost ceased to cut a figure. It is needless to remind me that there are exceptions--I know that. With some of them I have personal acquaintance, or think I have, and for them a respect withheld from any woman of the rostrum who points to their misfortune and calls it emancipation--to their need and calls it a spirit of independence. It is not from these good girls that you will hear the flippant boast of an unfettered life, with "freedom to develop;" nor is it they who will be foremost and furious in denial and resentment of my statements regarding the morals of their class. They do not know the whole truth, thank Heaven, but they know enough for a deprecation too deep to find relief in a cheap affirmation of woman's purity, which is, and always has been, the creature of seclusion.

The fitness of women for political activity is not in present question; I am considering the fitness of political activity for women. For women as men say they are, wish them to be, and try to think them, it is unfit altogether--as unfit as anything else that "mixes them up" with us, compelling a communication and association that are not social. If we wish to have women who are different from ourselves in knowledge, character, accomplishments, manners; as different mentally as physically--and in these and in all odier expressible differences reside all the charms that they have for us--we must keep them, or they must keep themselves, in an environment unlike our own. One would think that obvious to the meanest capacity, and might even hope that it would be understood by the Daughters of Thunder. Possibly the Advanced One, hospitably accepting her karma, is not concerned to be charming to "the likes o' we'"--would prefer the companionship of her blue gingham umbrella, her corkscrew curls, her epicene audiences and her name in the newspapers. Perhaps she is content with the comfort of her raucous voice. Therein she is unwise, for self-interest is the first law. When we no longer find woman charming we may find a way to make them more useful--more truly useful, even, than the speech-ladies would have them make themselves by competition. Really, there is nothing in the world between them and slavery but their power of interesting us; and that has its origin in the very differences which the Colonels are striving to abolish. God has made no law of miracles and none of His laws are going to be suspended in deference to woman's desire to achieve familiarity without contempt. If she wants to please she must retain some scrap of novelty; if she desires our respect she must not be always in evidence, disclosing the baser side of her character, as in competition with us she must do (as we do to one another) or lamentably fail. Mrs. Edmund Gosse, like "Ouida," Mrs. Atherton, and all other women of brains, declares that the taking of unfair advantages--the lack of magnanimity--is a leading characteristic of her sex. Mrs. Gosse adds, with reference to men's passive acquiescence in this monstrous folly of "emancipation," that possibly our quiet may be the calm before the storm; and she utters this warning, which, also, more strongly, "Ouida" has uttered: "How would it be with us if the men should suddenly rise _en masse_ and throw the whole surging lot of us into convents and harems?"

It is not likely that men will "rise _en masse_" to undo the mischief wrought by noisy protagonists of Woman Suffrage working like beavers to rear their airy fad upon the sandy foundation of masculine tolerance and inattention. No rising will be needed. All that is required for the wreck of their hopes is for a wave of reason to slide a little farther up the sands of time, "loll out its large tongue, lick the whole labor flat" The work has prospered so far only because nobody but its promoters has taken it seriously. It has not engaged attention from those having the knowledge and the insight to discern beneath its cap-and-bells and the motley that is its only wear a serious menace to all that civilized men hold precious in woman. It is of the nature of men--themselves cheerful polygamists, with no penitent intentions--to set a high value upon chastity in woman. (We need not inquire why they do so; those to whom the reasons are not clear can profitably remain in the valley of the shadow of ignorance.) Valuing it, they purpose having it, or some considerable numerical presumption of it. As they perceive that in a general way women are virtuous in proportion to the remoteness of their lives and interests from the lives and interests of men--their seclusion from the influences of which men's own vices are a main part--an easy and peaceful means will doubtless be found for the repression of the shouters.

In the orchestration of mind woman's instruments might have kept silence without injury to the volume and quality of the music; efface the impress of her touch upon the world and, by those who come after, the blank must be diligently sought. Go to the top of any large city and look about and below. It is not much that you will see, but it represents an amazing advance from the conditions of primitive man. No where in the wide survey will you see the work of woman. It is all the work of men's hands, and before it was wrought into form and substance, existed as conscious creations in men's brains. Concealed within the visible forms of buildings and ships--themselves miracles of thought--lie such wonder-worlds of invention and discovery as no human life is long enough to explore, no human understanding capacious enough to hold in knowledge. If, like Asmodeus, we could rive the roofs and see woman's part of this prodigious exhibition--the things that she has actually created with her brain--what kind of display would it be? It is probable that all the intellectual energy expended by women from first to last would not have sufficed, if directed into the one channel, for the genesis and evolution of the modern bicycle.

I once heard a lady who had playfully competed with men in a jumping match gravely attribute her defeat to the trammeling of her skirt. Similarly, women are pleased to explain their penury of mental achievement by repressive education and custom, and therein they are not altogether in heresy. But even in regions where they have ever had the freedom of the quarries they have not builded themselves monuments. Nobody, for example, is holding them from greatness in poetry, which needs no special education, and music, in which they have always been specially educated; yet where is the great poem by a woman? where the great musical composition? In the grammar of literature what is the feminine of Homer, of Shakspere, of Goethe, of Hugo? What female names are the equivalents of the names of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Wagner? Women are not musicians--they "sing and play." In short, if woman had no better claim to respect and affection than her brain; no sweeter charms than those of her reason; no means of suasion but her power upon men's convictions, she would long ago have been "improved off the face of the earth." As she is, men accord her such homage as is compatible with contempt, such immunities as are consistent with exaction; but whereas she is not altogether filled with light and is moreover, imperfectly reverent, it is but right that in obedience to Scriptural injunction she keep silence in our churches while we are worshipping Ourselves.

She will not have it so, the good, good girl; as moral as the best of us, she will be as intellectual as the rest of us. She will have out her little taper and set the rivers of thought all ablaze, legging it over the land from stream to stream till all are fired. She will widen her sphere, forsooth, herself no wider than before. It is not enough that we have edified her a pedestal and perform impossible rites in celebration of her altitude and distinction. It does not suffice that with never a smile we assure her that she is the superior sex--a whopper by the repetition whereof certain callow youth among us have incurred the divine vengeance of belief. It does not satisfy her that she is indubitably gifted with pulchritude and an unquestionable genius for its embellishing; that Nature has endowed her with a prodigious knack at accroachment, whereby the male of her species is lured to a suitable doom. No; she has taken unto herself in these evil days that "intelligent discontent" which giveth its beloved fits. To her flock of graces and virtues she must add our one poor ewe lamb of brains. Well, I tell her that intellect is a monster which devours beauty; that the woman of exceptional mind is exceptionally masculine in face, figure, action; that in transplanting brains to an unfamiliar soil God leaves much of the original earth about the roots. And so with a reluctant farewell to Lovely Woman, I humbly withdraw from her presence and hasten to overtake the receding periphery of her "sphere."

One moment more. Mesdames: I crave leave to estop your disfavor--which were affliction and calamity--by "defining my position" in the words of one of yourselves, who has said of me (though with reprehensible exaggeration, believe me) that I hate woman and love women--have an acute animosity to your sex and adoring each individual member of it. What matters my opinion of your understandings so long as I am in bondage to your charms? Moreover, there is one service of incomparable utility and dignity for which I esteem you eminently fit--to be mothers of men.

[The end]
Ambrose Bierce's essay: The Opposing Sex