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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Individual Differences

Title:     Individual Differences
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

Blackburn, in his entertaining book, "Artists and Arabs," draws a contrast between Frith's painting of the "Derby Day" and Rosa Bonheur's "Horse Fair,"--"the former pleasing the eye by its cleverness and prettiness, the latter impressing the spectator by its power and its truthful rendering of animal life. The difference between the two painters is probably more one of education than of natural gifts. But whilst the style of the former is grafted on a fashion, the latter is founded on a rock,--the result of a close study of nature, chastened by classic feeling and a remembrance, it may be, of the friezes of the Parthenon."

Now it is to be observed that this description runs precisely counter to the popular impression as to the work of the two sexes. Novelists like Charles Reade, for instance, who have apparently seen precisely one woman in their lives, and hardly more than one man, and who keep on sketching these two figures most felicitously and brilliantly thenceforward, would be apt to assign these qualities of the artist very differently. Their typical man would do the truthful and powerful work, and everybody would say, "How manly!" Their woman would please by cleverness and prettiness, and everybody would say, "How womanly!" Yet Blackburn shows us that these qualities are individual, not sexual; that they result from temperament, or, he thinks, still more from training. If Rosa Bonheur does better work than Frith, it is not because she is a woman, nor is it in spite of that; but because, setting sex aside, she is a better artist.

This is not denying the distinctions of sex, but only asserting that they are not so exclusive and all-absorbing as is supposed. It is easy to name other grounds of difference which entirely ignore those of sex, striking directly across them, and rendering a different classification necessary. It is thus with distinctions of race or color, for instance. An Indian man and woman are at many points more like to each other than is either to a white person of the same sex. A black-haired man and woman, or a fair-haired man and woman, are to be classified together in these physiological aspects. So of differences of genius: a man and woman of musical temperament and training have more in common than has either with a person who is of the same sex, but who cannot tell one note from another. So two persons of ardent or imaginative temperament are thus far alike, though the gulf of sex divides them; and so are two persons of cold or prosaic temperament. In a mixed school the teacher cannot class together intellectually the boys as such, and the girls as such: bright boys take hold of a lesson very much as bright girls do, and slow girls as slow boys. Nature is too rich, too full, too varied, to be content with a single basis of classification: she has a hundred systems of grouping, according to sex, age, race, temperament, training, and so on; and we get but a narrow view of life when we limit our theories to one set of distinctions.

As a matter of social philosophy, this train of thought logically leads to coeducation, impartial suffrage, and free cooperation in all the affairs of life. As a matter of individual duty, it teaches the old moral to "act well your part." No wise person will ever trouble himself or herself much about the limitations of sex in intellectual labor. Rosa Bonheur was not trying to work like a woman, or like a man, or unlike either, but to do her work thoroughly and well. He or she who works in this spirit works nobly, and gives an example which will pass beyond the bounds of sex, and help all. The Abbe Liszt, the most gifted of modern pianists, told a friend of mine, his pupil, that he had learned more of music from hearing Madame Malibran sing, than from anything else whatever.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Individual Differences