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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Origin Of Civilization

Title:     The Origin Of Civilization
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

Nothing throws more light on the whole history of woman than the first illustration in Sir John Lubbock's "Origin of Civilization." A young girl, almost naked, is being dragged furiously along the ground by a party of naked savages, armed literally to the teeth, while those of another band grasp her by the arm, and almost tear her asunder in the effort to hold her back. These last are her brothers and her friends; the others are--her enemies? As you please to call them. They are her future husband and his kinsmen, who have come to aid him in his wooing.

This was the primitive rite of marriage. Vestiges of it still remain among savage nations. And all the romance and grace of the most refined modern marriage--the orange-blossoms, the bridal veil, the church service, the wedding feast--these are only the "bright consummate flower" reared by civilization from that rough seed. All the brutal encounter is softened into this. Nothing remains of the barbarism except the one word "obey," and even that is going.

Now, to say that a thing is going, is to say that it will presently be gone. To say that anything is changed, is to say that it is to change further. If it never has been altered, perhaps it will not be; but a proved alteration of an inch in a year opens the way to an indefinite modification. The study of the glaciers, for instance, began with the discovery that they had moved; and from that moment no one doubted that they were moving all the time.

It is the same with the position of woman. Once open your eyes to the fact that it has changed, and who is to predict where the matter shall end? It is sheer folly to say, "Her relative position will always be what it has been," when one glance at Sir John Lubbock's picture shows that there is no fixed "has been," but that her original position was long since altered and revised. Those who still use this argument are like those who laughed at the lines of stakes which Agassiz planted across the Aar glacier in 1840. But the stakes settled the question, and proved the motion. _Pero sim muove_: "But it moves."

The motion once proved, the whole range of possible progress is before us. The amazement of that Chinese visitor in Boston, the other day, when he saw a woman addressing a missionary meeting; the astonishment of all English visitors when young ladies teach classes in geometry and Latin, in our high schools; the surprise of foreigners at seeing the rough throng in the Cooper Institute reading-room submit to the sway of one young woman with a crochet-needle--all these simply testify to the fact that the stakes have moved. That they have yet been carried halfway to the end, who knows?

What a step from the horrible nuptials of those savage days to the poetic marriage of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett--the "Sonnets from the Portuguese" on one side, the "One Word More" on the other! But who can say that the whole relation between man and woman reached its climax there, and that where the past has brought changes so vast the future is to add nothing? Who knows that, when "the world's great bridals come," people may not look back with pity, even on this era of the Brownings? Perhaps even Elizabeth Barrett promised to obey!

At any rate, it is safe to say that each step concedes the probability of another. Even from the naked barbarian to the veiled Oriental, from the savage hut to the carefully enshrined harem, there is a step forward. One more step in the spiral line of progress has brought us to the unveiled face and comparatively free movements of the English or American woman. From the kitchen to the public lecture-room, from that to the lecture-platform, and from that again to the ballot-box,--these are far slighter steps than those which gradually lifted the savage girl of Sir John Lubbock's picture into the possession of the alphabet and the dignity of a home. So easy are these future changes beside those of the past, that to doubt their possibility is as if Agassiz, after tracing year by year the motion of his Alpine glacier, should deny its power to move one inch farther into the sunny valley, and there to melt harmlessly away.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Origin Of Civilization