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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Fact Of Sex

Title:     The Fact Of Sex
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

It is constantly said that the advocates of woman suffrage ignore the fact
of sex. On the contrary, they seem to me to be the only people who do not
ignore it.

Were there no such thing as sexual difference, the wrong done to woman by
disfranchisement would be far less. It is precisely because her traits,
habits, needs, and probable demands are distinct from those of man, that
she is not, never was, never can, and never will be, justly represented by
him. It is not merely that a vast number of human individuals are
disfranchised; it is not even because in many of our States the
disfranchisement extends to a majority, that the evil is so great; it is
not merely that we disfranchise so many units and tens: but we exclude a
special element, a peculiar power, a distinct interest,--in a word, a sex.

Whether this sex is more or less wise, more or less important, than the
other sex, does not affect the argument: it is a sex, and, being such, is
more absolutely distinct from the other than is any mere race from any
other race. The more you emphasize the fact of sex, the more you strengthen
our argument. If the white man cannot justly represent the negro,--
although the two races are now so amalgamated that not even the microscope
can always decide to which race one belongs,--how impossible that one sex
should stand in legislation for the other sex!

This is so clear that, so soon as it is stated, there is a shifting of the
ground. "But consider the danger of introducing the sexual influence into
legislation!" ... Then we are sure to be confronted with the case of Miss
Vinnie Ream, the sculptor. See how that beguiling damsel cajoled all
Congress into buying poor statues! they say. If one woman could do so much,
how would it be with one hundred? Precisely the Irishman's argument against
the use of pillows: he had put one feather on a rock, and found it a very
uncomfortable support. Grant, for the sake of argument, that Miss Ream gave
us poor art; but what gave her so much power? Plainly that she was but a
single feather. Congress being composed exclusively of men, the mere fact
of her sex gave her an exceptional and dangerous influence. Fill a dozen of
the seats in Congress with women, and that danger at least will be
cancelled. The taste in art may be no better; but an artist will no more be
selected for being a pretty girl than now for being a pretty boy. So in all
such cases. Here, as everywhere, it is the advocate of woman suffrage who
wishes to recognize the fact of sex, and guard against its perils.

It is precisely so in education. Believing boys and girls to be unlike, and
yet seeing them to be placed by the Creator on the same planet and in the
same family, we hold it safer to follow his method. As they are born to
interest each other, to stimulate each other, to excite each other, it
seems better to let this impulse work itself off in a natural way,--to let
in upon it the fresh air and the daylight, instead of attempting to
suppress and destroy it. In a mixed school, as in a family, the fact of sex
presents itself as an unconscious, healthy, mutual stimulus. It is in the
separate schools that the healthy relation vanishes, and the thought of sex
becomes a morbid and diseased thing. This observation first occurred to me
when a pupil and a teacher in boys' boarding-schools years ago: there was
such marked superiority as to sexual refinement in the day-scholars, who
saw their sisters and the friends of their sisters every day. All later
experience of our public-school system has confirmed this opinion. It is
because I believe the distinction of sex to be momentous, that I dread to
see the sexes educated apart.

The truth of the whole matter is that Nature will have her rights--
innocently if she can, guiltily if she must; and it is a little amusing
that the writer of an ingenious paper on the other side, called "Sex in
Politics," in an able New York journal, puts our case better than I can put
it, before he gets through, only that he is then speaking of wealth, not
women: "Anybody who considers seriously what is meant by the conflict
between labor and capital, of which we are only just witnessing the
beginning, and what is to be done _to give money legitimately that
influence on legislation which it now exercises illegitimately,_ must
acknowledge at once that the next generation will have a thorny path to
travel." The italics are my own. Precisely what this writer wishes to
secure for money, we claim for the disfranchised half of the human race,--
open instead of secret influence; the English tradition instead of the
French; women as rulers, not as kings' mistresses; women as legislators,
not merely as lobbyists; women employing in legitimate form that power
which they will otherwise illegitimately wield. This is all our demand.

[The end]
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Fact Of Sex