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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Intellectual Cinderellas

Title:     Intellectual Cinderellas
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

When, some thirty years ago, the extraordinary young mathematician, Truman Henry Safford, first attracted the attention of New England by his rare powers, I well remember the pains that were taken to place him under instruction by the ablest Harvard professors: the greater his abilities, the more needful that he should have careful and symmetrical training. The men of science did not say, "Stand off! let him alone! let him strive patiently until he has achieved something positively valuable, and he may be sure of prompt and generous recognition--when he is fifty years old." If such a course would have been mistaken and ungenerous if applied to Professor Safford, why is it not something to be regretted that it was applied to Mrs. Somerville? In her case, the mischief was done: she was, happily, strong enough to bear it; but, as the English critics say, we never shall know what science has lost by it. We can do nothing for her now; but we could do something for future women like her, by pointing this obvious moral for their benefit, instead of being content with a mere tardy recognition of success, after a woman has expended half a century in struggle.

It is commonly considered to be a step forward in civilization, that whereas ancient and barbarous nations exposed children to special hardships, in order to kill off the weak and toughen the strong, modern nations aim to rear all alike carefully, without either sacrificing or enfeebling. If we apply this to muscle, why not to mind? and if to men's minds, why not to women's? Why use for men's intellects, which are claimed to be stronger, the forcing process,--offering, for instance, many thousand dollars a year in gratuities at our colleges, that young men may be induced to come and learn,--and only withhold assistance from the weaker minds of women? A little schoolgirl once told me that she did not object to her teacher's showing partiality, but thought she "ought to show partiality to all alike." If all our university systems are wrong, and the proper diet for mathematical genius consists of fifty years' snubbing, let us employ it, by all means; but let it be applied to both sexes.

That it is the duty of women, even under disadvantageous circumstances, to prove their purpose by labor, to "verify their credentials," is true enough; but this moral is only part of the moral of Mrs. Somerville's book, and is cruelly incomplete without the other half. What a garden of roses was Mrs. Somerville's life, according to some comfortable critics! "All that for which too many women nowadays are content to sit and whine, or fitfully and carelessly struggle, came naturally and quietly to Mrs. Somerville. And the reason was that she never asked for anything until she had earned it; or, rather, she never asked at all, but was content to earn." Naturally and quietly! You might as well say that Garrison fought slavery "quietly," or that Frederick Douglass's escape came to him "naturally." Turn to the book itself, and see with what strong, though never actually bitter, feeling, the author looks back upon her hard struggle.

"I was intensely ambitious to excel in something; for I felt in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned them in my early days, which was very low" (p. 60). "Nor ... should I have had courage to ask any of them a question, for I should have been laughed at. I was often very sad and forlorn; not a hand held out to help me" (p. 47). "My father came home for a short time, and, somehow or other finding out what I was about, said to my mother, 'Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait-jacket one of these days'" (p. 54). "I continued my mathematical and other pursuits, but under great disadvantages; for, although my husband did not prevent me from studying, I met with no sympathy whatever from him, as he had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge of nor interest in science of any kind" (p. 75). "I was considered eccentric and foolish; and my conduct was highly disapproved of by many, especially by some members of my own family" (p. 80). "A man can always command his time under the plea of business: a woman is not allowed any such excuse" (p. 164). And so on.

At last, in 1831,--Mrs. Somerville being then fifty-one,--her work on "The Mechanism of the Heavens" appeared. Then came universal recognition, generous if not prompt, a tardy acknowledgment. "Our relations," she says, "and others who had so severely criticised and ridiculed me, astonished at my success, were now loud in my praise."[1] No doubt. So were, probably, Cinderella's sisters loud in her praise, when the prince at last took her from the chimney-corner, and married her. They had kept for themselves, to be sure, as long as they could, the delights and opportunities of life; while she had taken the place assigned her in her early days,--"which was very low," as Mrs. Somerville says. But, for all that, they were very kind to her in the days of her prosperity; and no doubt packed their little trunks and came to visit their dear sister at the palace as often as she could wish. And, doubtless, the Fairyland Monthly of that day, when it came to review Cinderella's "Personal Recollections," pointed out that, as soon as that distinguished lady had "achieved something positively valuable," she received "prompt and generous recognition."

[Footnote 1: Page 176.]

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Intellectual Cinderellas