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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Childless Women

Title:     Childless Women
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

It has not always been regarded as a thing creditable to woman that she was the mother of the human race. On the contrary, the fact was often mentioned, in the Middle Ages, as a distinct proof of inferiority. The question was discussed in the mediaeval Council of Macon, and the position taken that woman was no more entitled to rank as human, because she brought forth men, than the garden-earth could take rank with the fruit and flowers it bore. The same view was revived by a Latin writer of 1595, on the thesis "_Mulieres non homines esse_," a French translation of which essay was printed under the title of "_Paradoxe sur les femmes_," in 1766. Napoleon Bonaparte used the same image, carrying it almost as far:--

"Woman is given to man that she may bear children. Woman is our property; we are not hers: because she produces children for us; we do not yield any to her: she is therefore our possession, as the fruit-tree is that of the gardener."

Even the fact of parentage, therefore, has been adroitly converted into a ground of inferiority for women; and this is ostensibly the reason why lineage has been reckoned, almost everywhere, through the male line only, ignoring the female; just as, in tracing the seed of some rare fruit, the gardener takes no genealogical account of the garden where it grew. This view is now seldom expressed in full force: but one remnant of it is to be found in the lingering impression, that, at any rate, a woman who is not a mother is of no account; as worthless as a fruitless garden or a barren fruit-tree. Created only for a certain object, she is of course valueless unless that object be fulfilled.

But the race must have fathers as well as mothers; and if we look for evidence of public service in great men, it certainly does not always lie in leaving children to the republic. On the contrary, the rule has rather seemed to be, that the most eminent men have left their bequest of service in any form rather than in that of a great family. Recent inquiries into the matter have brought out some remarkable facts in this regard.

As a rule, there exist no living descendants in the male line from the great authors, artists, statesmen, soldiers, of England. It is stated that there is not one such descendant of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Butler, Dryden, Pope, Cowper, Goldsmith, Scott, Byron, or Moore; not one of Drake, Cromwell, Monk, Marlborough, Peterborough, or Nelson; not one of Strafford, Ormond, or Clarendon; not one of Addison, Swift, or Johnson; not one of Walpole, Bolingbroke, Chatham, Pitt, Fox, Burke, Grattan, or Canning; not one of Bacon, Locke, Newton, or Davy; not one of Hume, Gibbon, or Macaulay; not one of Hogarth or Reynolds; not one of Garrick, John Kemble, or Edmund Kean. It would be easy to make a similar American list, beginning with Washington, of whom it was said that "Providence made him childless that his country might call him Father."

Now, however we may regret that these great men have left little or no posterity, it does not occur to any one as affording any serious drawback upon their service to their nation. Certainly it does not occur to us that they would have been more useful had they left children to the world, but rendered it no other service. Lord Bacon says that "he that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which, both in affection and means, have married and endowed the public." And this is the view generally accepted,--that the public is in such cases rather the gainer than the loser, and has no right to complain.

Since, therefore, every child must have a father and a mother both, and neither will alone suffice, why should we thus heap gratitude on men who from preference or from necessity have remained childless, and yet habitually treat women as if they could render no service to their country except by giving it children? If it be folly and shame, as I think, to belittle and decry the dignity and worth of motherhood, as some are said to do, it is no less folly, and shame quite as great, to deny the grand and patriotic service of many women who have died and left no children among their mourners. Plato puts into the mouth of a woman,--the eloquent Diotima, in the "Banquet,"--that, after all, we are more grateful to Homer and Hesiod for the children of their brain than if they had left human offspring.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Childless Women