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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Virtues In Common

Title:     Virtues In Common
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

A young friend of mine, who was educated at one of the very best schools for girls in New York city, told me that one day her teacher requested the older girls to write out a list of virtues suitable to manly character, which they did. A month or more later, when this occurrence was well forgotten, the same teacher bade them write out a list of womanly virtues, she making no reference to the other list. Then she made each girl compare her lists; and they all found with surprise that there was no substantial difference between them. The only variation, in most cases, was, that they had put in a rather vague special virtue of "manliness" in the one case, and "womanliness" in the other; a sort of miscellaneous department or "odd drawer," apparently, in which to group all traits not easily analyzed.

The moral is that, as tested by the common sense of these young people, duty is duty, and the difference between ethics for men and ethics for women lies simply in practical applications, not in principles.

Who can deny that the philosopher Antisthenes was right when he said, "The virtues of the man and the woman are the same"? Not the Christian, certainly; for he accepts as his highest standard the being who in all history best united the highest qualities of both sexes. Not the metaphysician; for his analysis deals with the human mind as such, not with the mind of either sex. Not the evolutionist; for he is accustomed to trace back qualities to their source, and cannot deny that there is in each sex at least a "survival" of every good and every bad trait. We may say that these qualities are, or may be, or ought to be, distributed unequally between the sexes; but we cannot reasonably deny that each sex possesses a share of every quality, and that what is good in one sex is also good in the other. Man may be the braver, and yet courage in a woman may be nobler than cowardice. Woman may be the purer, and yet purity may be noble in a man.

So clear is this, that some of the very coarsest writers in all literature, and those who have been severest upon women, have yet been obliged to acknowledge it. Take, for instance, Dean Swift, who writes:--

"I am ignorant of any one quality that is amiable in a woman, which is not equally so in a man. I do not except even modesty and gentleness of nature; nor do I know one vice or folly which is not equally detestable in both."

Mrs. Jameson, in her delightful "Commonplace Book," illustrates this admirably by one or two test cases. She takes, for instance, from one of Humboldt's letters a much-admired passage on manly character:--

"Masculine independence of mind I hold to be in reality the first requisite for the formation of a character of real manly worth. The man who allows himself to be deceived and carried away by his own weakness may be a very amiable person in other respects, but cannot be called a good man: such beings should not find favor in the eyes of a woman, for a truly beautiful and purely feminine nature should be attracted only by what is highest and noblest in the character of man."

"Take now this same bit of moral philosophy," she says, "and apply it to the feminine character, and it reads quite as well:--

"'Feminine independence of mind I hold to be in reality the first requisite for the formation of a character of real feminine worth. The woman who allows herself to be deceived and carried away by her own weakness may be a very amiable person in other respects, but cannot be called a good woman; such beings should not find favor in the eyes of a man, for a truly beautiful and purely manly nature should be attracted only by what is highest and noblest in the character of woman.'"

I have never been able to perceive that there was a quality or grace of character which really belonged exclusively to either sex, or which failed to win honor when wisely exercised by either. It is not thought necessary to have separate editions of books on ethical science, the one for man, the other for woman, like almanacs calculated for different latitudes. The books that vary are not the scientific works, but little manuals of practical application,--"Duties of Men," "Duties of Women." These vary with times and places: where women do not know how to read, no advice on reading will be found in the women's manuals; where it is held wrong for women to uncover the face, it will be laid down in these manuals as a sin. But ethics are ethics: the great principles of morals, as proclaimed either by science or by religion, do not fluctuate for sex; their basis is in the very foundations of right itself.

This grows clearer when we remember that it is equally true in mental science. There is not one logic for men, and another for women; a separate syllogism, a separate induction: the moment we begin to state intellectual principles, that moment we go beyond sex. We deal then with absolute truth. If an observation is wrong, if a process of reasoning is bad, it makes no difference who brings it forward. Any list of mental processes, any inventory of the contents of the mind, would be identical, so far as sex goes, whether compiled by a woman or a man. These things, like the circulation of the blood or the digestion of food, belong clearly to the ground held in common. The London "Spectator" well said some time since,--

"After all, knowledge is knowledge; and there is no more a specifically feminine way of describing correctly the origin of the Lollard movement, or the character of Spenser's poetry, than there is a specifically feminine way of solving a quadratic equation, or of proving the forty-seventh problem of Euclid's first book."

All we can say in modification of this is, that there is, after all, a foundation for the rather vague item of "manliness" and "womanliness" in these schoolgirl lists of duties. There is a difference, after all is said and done; but it is something that eludes analysis, like the differing perfume of two flowers of the same genus and even of the same species. The method of thought must be essentially the same in both sexes; and yet an average woman will put more flavor of something we call instinct into her mental action, and the average man something more of what we call logic into his. Whipple tells us that not a man guessed the plot of Dickens's "Great Expectations," while many women did; and this certainly indicates some average difference of quality or method. So the average opinions of a hundred women, on some question of ethics, might very probably differ from the average of a hundred men, while it yet remains true that "the virtues of the man and the woman are the same."

[The end]
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Virtues In Common