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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Allures To Brighter Worlds, And Leads The Way

Title:     Allures To Brighter Worlds, And Leads The Way
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

When a certain legislature had "School Suffrage" under consideration, the other day, the suggestion was made by one of the pithiest and quaintest of the speakers, that men were always better for the society of women, and therefore ought to vote in their company. "If all of us," he said, "would stay away from all places where we cannot take our wives and daughters with us, we should keep better company than we now do." This expresses a feeling which grows more and more common among the better class of men, and which is the key to much progress in the condition of women. There can be no doubt that the increased association of the sexes in society, in school, in literature, tends to purify these several spheres of action. Yet, when we come to philosophize on this, there occur some perplexities on the way.

For instance, the exclusion of woman from all these spheres was in ancient Greece almost complete; yet the leading Greek poets, as Homer and the tragedians, are exceedingly chaste in tone, and in this respect beyond most of the great poets of modern nations. Again, no European nation has quite so far sequestered and subordinated women as has Spain; and yet the whole tone of Spanish literature is conspicuously grave and decorous. This plainly indicates that race has much to do with the matter, and that the mere admission or exclusion of women is but one among several factors. In short, it is easy to make out a case by a rhetorical use of the facts on one side; but, if we look at all the facts, the matter presents greater difficulties.

Again, it is to be noted that in several countries the first women who have taken prominent part in literature have been as bad as the men; as, for instance, Marguerite of Navarre and Mrs. Aphra Behn. This might indeed be explained by supposing that they had to gain entrance into literature by accepting the dissolute standards which they found prevailing. But it would probably be more correct to say that these standards themselves were variable, and that their variation affected, at certain periods, women as well as men. Marguerite of Navarre wrote religious books as well as merry stories; and we know from Lockhart's Life of Scott, that ladies of high character in Edinburgh used to read Mrs. Behn's tales and plays aloud, at one time, with delight,--although one of the same ladies found, in her old age, that she could not read them to herself without blushing. Shakespeare puts coarse repartees into the mouths of women of stainless virtue. George Sand is not considered an unexceptionable writer; but she tells us in her autobiography that she found among her grandmother's papers poems and satires so indecent that she could not read them through, and yet they bore the names of _abbes_ and gentlemen whom she remembered in her childhood as models of dignity and honor. Voltaire inscribes to ladies of high rank, who doubtless regarded it as a great compliment, verses such as not even a poet of the English "fleshly school" would now print at all. In "Poems by Eminent Ladies,"--published in 1755 and reprinted in 1774,--there are one or two poems as gross and disgusting as anything in Swift; yet their authors were thought reputable women. Allan Ramsay's "Tea-Table Miscellany"--a collection of English and Scottish songs--was first published in 1724; and in his preface to the sixteenth edition the editor attributes its great success, especially among the ladies, to the fact that he has carefully excluded all grossness, "that the modest voice and ear of the fair singer might meet with no affront;" and adds, "the chief bent of all my studies being to attain their good graces." There is no doubt of the great popularity enjoyed by the book in all circles; yet it contains a few songs which the most licentious newspaper would not now publish. The inference is irresistible, from this and many other similar facts, that the whole tone of manners and decency has very greatly improved among the European races within a century and a half.

I suspect the truth to be, that, besides the visible influence of race and religion, there has been an insensible and almost unconscious improvement in each sex, with respect to these matters, as time has passed on; and that the mutual desire to please has enabled each sex to help the other,--the sex which is naturally the more refined taking the lead. But I should lay more stress on this mutual influence, and less on mere feminine superiority, than would be laid by many. It is often claimed by teachers that co-education helps not only boys, but also girls, to develop greater propriety of manners. When the sexes are wholly separate, or associate on terms of entire inequality, no such good influence occurs: the more equal the association, the better for both parties. After all, the Divine model is to be found in the family; and the best ingenuity cannot improve much upon it.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Allures To Brighter Worlds, And Leads The Way