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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

In Society

Title:     In Society
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

One sometimes hears from some lady the remark that very few people "in society" believe in any movement to enlarge the rights or duties of women. In a community of more marked social gradations than our own, this assertion, if true, might be very important; and even here it is worth considering, because it leads the way to a little social philosophy. Let us, for the sake of argument, begin by accepting the assumption that there is an inner circle, at least in our large cities, which claims to be "society," _par excellence_. What relation has this favored circle, if favored it be, to any movement relating to women?

It has, to begin with, the same relation that "society" has to every movement of reform. The proportion of smiles and frowns bestowed from this quarter upon the woman-suffrage movement, for instance, is about that formerly bestowed upon the anti-slavery agitation: I see no great difference. In Boston, for example, the names contributed by "society" to the woman-suffrage festivals are about as numerous as those which used to be contributed to the anti-slavery bazaars; no more, no less. Indeed, they are very often the same names; and it has been curious to see, for nearly fifty years, how radical tendencies have predominated in some of the well-known Boston families, and conservative tendencies in others.

The traits of blood seem to outlast successive series of special reforms. Be this as it may, it is safe to assume, that, as the anti-slavery movement prevailed with only a moderate amount of sanction from "our best society," the woman-suffrage agitation, which has at least an equal amount, has no reason to be discouraged.

On looking farther, we find that not reforms alone, but often most important and established institutions, exist and flourish with only incidental aid from those "in society." Take, for instance, the whole public school system of our larger cities. Grant that out of twenty ladies "in society," taken at random, not more than one would personally approve of women's voting: it is doubtful whether even that proportion of them would personally favor the public school system so far as to submit their children, or at least their girls, to it. Yet the public schools flourish, and give a better training than most private schools, in spite of this inert practical resistance from those "in society." The natural inference would seem to be, that if an institution so well established as the public schools, and so generally recognized, can afford to be ignored by "society," then certainly a wholly new reform must expect no better fate.

As a matter of fact, I apprehend that what is called "society," in the sense of the more fastidious or exclusive social circle in any community, exists for one sole object,--the preservation of good manners and social refinements. For this purpose it is put very largely under the sway of women, who have, all the world over, a better instinct for these important things. It is true that "society" is apt to do even this duty very imperfectly, and often tolerates, and sometimes even cultivates, just the rudeness and discourtesy that it is set to cure. Nevertheless, this is its mission; but so soon as it steps beyond this, and attempts to claim any special weight outside the sphere of good manners, it shows its weakness, and must yield to stronger forces.

One of these stronger forces is religion, which should train men and women to a far higher standard than "society" alone can teach. This standard should be embodied, theoretically, in the Christian Church; but unhappily "society" is too often stronger than this embodiment, and turns the church itself into a mere temple of fashion. Other opposing forces are known as science and common-sense, which is only science written in shorthand. On some of these various forces all reforms are based, the woman-suffrage reform among them. If it could really be shown that some limited social circle was opposed to this, then the moral would seem to be, "So much the worse for the social circle." It used to be thought in anti-slavery days that one of the most blessed results of that agitation was the education it gave to young men and women who would otherwise have merely grown up "in society," but were happily taken in hand by a stronger influence. It is Goethe who suggests, when discussing Hamlet in "Wilhelm Meister," that, if an oak be planted in a flower-pot, it will be worse in the end for the flower-pot than for the tree. And to those who watch, year after year, the young human seedlings planted "in society," the main point of interest lies in the discovery which of these are likely to grow into oaks.

But the truth is that the very use of the word "society" in this sense is narrow and misleading. We Americans are fortunate enough to live in a larger society, where no conventional position or family traditions exert an influence that is to be in the least degree compared with the influence secured by education, energy, and character. No matter how fastidious the social circle, one is constantly struck with the limitations of its influence, and with the little power exerted by its members as compared with that which may easily be wielded by tongue and pen. No merely fashionable woman in New York, for instance, has a position sufficiently important to be called influential compared with that of a woman who can speak in public so as to command hearers, or can write so as to secure readers. To be at the head of a normal school, or to be a professor in a college where co-education prevails, is to have a sway over the destinies of America which reduces all mere "social position" to a matter of cards and compliments and page's buttons.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: In Society