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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Are Women Natural Aristocrats?

Title:     Are Women Natural Aristocrats?
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

A clergyman's wife in England has lately set on foot a reform movement in respect to dress; and, like many English reformers, she aims chiefly to elevate the morals and manners of the lower classes, without much reference to her own social equals. She proposes that "no servant, under pain of dismissal, shall wear flowers, feathers, brooches, buckles or clasps, earrings, lockets, neck-ribbons, velvets, kid gloves, parasols, sashes, jackets, or trimming of any kind on dresses, and, above all, no crinoline; no pads to be worn, or frisettes, or _chignons_, or hair-ribbons. The dress is to be gored and made just to touch the ground, and the hair to be drawn closely to the head, under a round white cap, without trimming of any kind. The same system of dress is recommended for Sunday-school girls, schoolmistresses, church-singers, and the lower orders generally."

The remark is obvious, that in this country such a course of discipline would involve the mistress, not the maid, in the "pain of dismissal." The American clergyman and clergyman's wife who should even "recommend" such a costume to a schoolmistress, church-singer, or Sunday-school girl,--to say nothing of the rest of the "lower orders,"--would soon find themselves without teachers, without pupils, without a choir, and probably without a parish. It is a comfort to think that even in older countries there is less and less of this impertinent interference: the costume of different ranks is being more and more assimilated; and the incidental episode of a few liveries in our cities is not enough to interfere with the general current. Never yet, to my knowledge, have I seen even a livery worn by a white native American; and to restrain the Sunday bonnets of her handmaidens, what lady has attempted?

This is as it should be. The Sunday bonnet of the Irish damsel is only the symbol of a very proper effort to obtain her share of all social advantages. Long may those ribbons wave! Meanwhile I think the fact that it is easier for the gentleman of the house to control the dress of his groom than for the lady to dictate that of her waiting-maid,--this must count against the theory that it is women who are the natural aristocrats.

Women are no doubt more sensitive than men upon matters of taste and breeding. This is partly from a greater average fineness of natural perception, and partly because their more secluded lives give them less of miscellaneous contact with the world. If Maud Muller and her husband had gone to board at the same boarding-house with the Judge and his wife, that lady might have held aloof from the rustic bride, simply from inexperience in life, and not knowing just how to approach her. But the Judge, who might have been talking politics or real estate with the young farmer on the doorsteps that morning, would certainly find it easier to deal with him as a man and a brother at the dinner-table. From these different causes women get the credit or discredit of being more aristocratic than men are; so that in England the Tory supporters of female suffrage base it on the ground that these new voters at least will be conservative.

But, on the other hand, it is women, even more than men, who are attracted by those strong qualities of personal character which are always the antidote to aristocracy. No bold revolutionist ever defied the established conventionalisms of his times without drawing his strongest support from women. Poet and novelist love to depict the princess as won by the outlaw, the gypsy, the peasant. Women have a way of turning from the insipidities and proprieties of life to the wooer who has the stronger hand; from the silken Darnley to the rude Bothwell. This impulse is the natural corrective to the aristocratic instincts of womanhood; and though men feel it less, it is still, even among them, one of the supports of republican institutions. We need to keep always balanced between the two influences of refined culture and of native force. The patrician class, wherever there is one, is pretty sure to be the more refined; the plebeian class, the more energetic. That woman is able to appreciate both elements is proof that she is quite capable of doing her share in social and political life. This English clergyman's wife, who devotes her soul to the trimmings and gored skirts of the lower orders, is no more entitled to represent her sex than are those ladies who give their whole attention to the "novel and intricate bonnets" advertised this season on Broadway.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Are Women Natural Aristocrats?