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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Angelic Superiority

Title:     Angelic Superiority
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

It is better not to base any plea for woman on the ground of her angelic superiority. The argument proves too much. If she is already so perfect, there is every inducement to let well alone. It suggests the expediency of conforming man's condition to hers, instead of conforming hers to man's. If she is a winged creature, and man can only crawl, it is his condition that needs mending.

Besides, one may well be a little incredulous of these vast claims. Granting some average advantage to woman, it is not of such completeness as to base much argument upon it. The minister, looking on his congregation, rarely sees an unmixed angel, either at the head or at the foot of any pew. The domestic servant rarely has the felicity of waiting on an absolute saint at either end of the dinner-table. The lady's-maid has to compare her little observations of human infirmity with those of the valet de chambre. The lover worships the beloved, whether man or woman; but marriage bears rather hard on the ideal in either case; and those who pray out of the same book, "Have mercy upon us, miserable sinners," are not supposed to be offering up petitions for each other only.

We all know many women whose lives are made wretched by the sins and follies of their husbands. There are also many men whose lives are turned to long wretchedness by the selfishness, the worldliness, or the bad temper of their wives. Domestic tyranny belongs to neither sex by monopoly. If man tortures or depresses woman, she also has a fearful power to corrupt and deprave man. On the other hand, to quote old Antisthenes once more, "the virtues of the man and woman are the same." A refined man is more refined than a coarse woman. A child-loving man is infinitely tenderer and sweeter toward children than a hard and unsympathetic woman. The very qualities that are claimed as distinctively feminine are possessed more abundantly by many men than by many of what is called the softer sex.

Why is it necessary to say all this? Because there is always danger that we who believe in the equality of the sexes should be led into over-statements, which will react against ourselves. It is not safe to say that the ballot-box would be reformed if intrusted to feminine votes alone. Had the voters of the South been all women, it would have plunged earlier into the gulf of secession, dived deeper, and come up even more reluctantly. Were the women of Spain to rule its destinies unchecked, the Pope would be its master, and the Inquisition might be reestablished. For all that we can see, the rule of women alone would be as bad as the rule of men alone. It would be as unsafe to give women the absolute control of man as to make man the master of woman.

Let us be a shade more cautious in our reasonings. Woman needs equal rights, not because she is man's better half, but because she is his other half. She needs them, not as an angel, but as a fraction of humanity. Her political education will not merely help man, but it will help herself. She will sometimes be right in her opinions, and sometimes be altogether wrong; but she will learn, as man learns, by her own blunders. The demand in her behalf is that she shall have the opportunity to make mistakes, since it is by that means she must become wise.

In all our towns there is a tendency toward "mixed schools." We rarely hear of the sexes being separated in a school after being once united; but we constantly hear of their being brought together after separation. This union is commonly, but mistakenly, recommended as an advantage to the boys alone. I once heard an accomplished teacher remonstrate against this change, when thus urged. "Why should my girls be sacrificed," she said, "to improve your boys?" Six months after, she had learned by experience. "Why," she asked, "did you rest the argument on so narrow a ground? Since my school consisted half of boys, I find with surprise that the change has improved both sexes. My girls are more ambitious, more obedient, and more ladylike. I shall never distrust the policy of mixed schools again."

What is true of the school is true of the family and of the state. It is not good for man, or for woman, to be alone. Granting the woman to be, on the whole, the more spiritually minded, it is still true that each sex needs the other. When the rivet falls from a pair of scissors, we do not have than mended because either half can claim angelic superiority over the other half, but because it takes two halves to make a whole.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Angelic Superiority