Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Woman's Dress

An essay by George William Curtis

Woman's Dress

Title:     Woman's Dress
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The American who sits in a street omnibus or railroad-car and sees a young woman whose waist is pinched to a point that makes her breathing mere panting and puffing, and whose feet are squeezed into shoes with a high heel in the middle of the sole, which compels her to stump and hobble as she tries to walk, should be very wary of praising the superiority of European and American civilization to that of the East. The grade of civilization which squeezes a waist into deformity is not, in that respect at least, superior to that which squeezes a foot into deformity. It is in both instances a barbarous conception alike of beauty and of the function of woman. The squeezed waist and the squeezed foot equally assume that distortion of the human frame may be beautiful, and that helpless idleness is the highest sphere of woman.

But the imperfection of our Western civilization shows itself in more serious forms involving women. The promiscuous herding of men and women prisoners in jails, the opposition to reformatories and penitentiaries exclusively for women, and, in general, the failure to provide, as a matter of course, women attendants and women nurses for all women prisoners and patients, is a signal illustration of a low tone of civilization. The most revolting instance of this abuse was the discovery during the summer that the patients in a woman's insane hospital in New Orleans were bathed by male attendants.

It should not need such outrages to apprise us of the worth of the general principle that humanity and decency require that in all public institutions women should be employed in the care of women. A wise proposition during the year to provide women at the police-stations for the examination of women who are arrested failed to become law. It is hard, upon the merits of the proposal, to understand why. Women who are arrested may be criminals, or drunkards, or vagabonds, or insane, or witless, or sick. But whatever the reason of the arrest, there can be no good reason whatever, in a truly civilized community, that a woman taken under such circumstances should be abandoned to personal search and examination by the kind of men to whom that business is usually allotted. The surest sign of the civilization of any community is its treatment of women, and the progress of our civilization is shown by the constant amelioration of that condition. But the unreasonable and even revolting circumstances of much of the public treatment of them may wisely modify ecstasies over our vast superiority.

The squeezed waists and other tokens of the kind show that our civilization has not yet outgrown the conception of the most meretricious epochs, that woman exists for the delight of man, and is meant to be a kind of decorated appendage of his life, while the men attendants and men nurses of women prisoners and patients show a most uncivilized disregard of the just instincts of sex. We are far from asserting that therefore the position of women in this country is to be likened to their position in China, where the contempt of men denied them souls, or to that among savage tribes, where they are treated as beasts of burden. But because we are not wallowing in the Slough of Despond, it does not follow that we are sitting in the House Beautiful. The traveller who has climbed to the _mer de glace_ at Chamouni, and sees the valley wide outstretched far below him, sees also far above him the awful sunlit dome of "Sovran Blanc." Whatever point we may have reached, there is still a higher point to gain. Nowhere in the world are women so truly respected as here, nowhere ought they to be more happy than in this country. But that is no reason that the New Orleans outrage should be possible, while the same good sense and love of justice which have removed so many barriers to fair-play for women should press on more cheerfully than ever to remove those that remain.

(_December_, 1882)

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Woman's Dress