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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Invisible Lady

Title:     The Invisible Lady
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

The Invisible Lady, as advertised in all our cities a good many years ago, was a mysterious individual who remained unseen, and had apparently no human organs except a brain and a tongue. You asked questions of her, and she made intelligent answers; but where she was, you could no more discover than you could find the man inside the Automaton Chess-Player. Was she intended as a satire on womankind, or as a sincere representation of what womankind should be? To many men, doubtless, she would have seemed the ideal of her sex, could only her brain and tongue have disappeared like the rest of her faculties. Such men would have liked her almost as well as that other mysterious personage on the London signboard, labelled "The Good Woman," and represented by a female figure without a head.

It is not that any considerable portion of mankind actually wishes to abolish woman from the universe. But the opinion dies hard that she is best off when least visible. These appeals which still meet us for "the sacred privacy of woman" are only the Invisible Lady on a larger scale. In ancient Boeotia, brides were carried home in vehicles whose wheels were burned at the door in token that they would never again be needed. In ancient Rome, it was a queen's epitaph, "She stayed at home, and spun,"--_Domum servavit, lanam fecit_. In Turkey, not even the officers of justice can enter the apartments of a woman without her lord's consent. In Spain and Spanish America, the veil replaces the four walls of the house, and is a portable seclusion. To be visible is at best a sign of peasant blood and occupations; to be high-bred is to be invisible.

In the Azores I found that each peasant family endeavored to secure for one or more of its daughters the pride and glory of living unseen. The other sisters, secure in innocence, tended cattle on lonely mountain-sides, or toiled bare-legged up the steep ascents, their heads crowned with orange-baskets. The chosen sister was taught to read, to embroider, and to dwell indoors; if she went out it was only under escort, and with her face buried in a hood of almost incredible size, affording only a glimpse of the poor pale cheeks, quite unlike the rosy vigor of the damsels on the mountain-side. The girls, I was told, did not covet this privilege of seclusion; but let us be genteel, or die.

Now all that is left of the Invisible Lady among ourselves is only the remnant of this absurd tradition. In the seaside town where I write, ladies of fashion usually go veiled in the streets, and so general is the practice that little girls often veil their dolls. They all suppose it to be done for complexion or for ornament; just as people still hang straps on the backs of their carriages, not knowing that it is a relic of the days when footmen stood there and held on. But the veil represents a tradition of seclusion, whether we know it or not; and the dread of hearing a woman speak in public, or of seeing a woman vote, represents precisely the same tradition. It is entitled to no less respect, and no more.

Like all traditions, it finds something in human nature to which to attach itself. Early girlhood, like early boyhood, needs to be guarded and sheltered, that it may mature unharmed. It is monstrous to make this an excuse for keeping a woman, any more than a man, in a condition of perpetual subordination and seclusion. The young lover wishes to lock up his angel in a little world of her own, where none may intrude. The harem and the seraglio are simply the embodiment of this desire. But the maturer man and the maturer race have found that the beloved being should be something more.

After this discovery is made, the theory of the Invisible Lady disappears. It is less of a shock for an American to hear a woman speak in public than it is for an Oriental to see her show her face in public at all. Once open the door of the harem, and she has the freedom of the house: the house includes the front door, and the street is but a prolonged doorstep. With the freedom of the street comes inevitably a free access to the platform, the tribunal, and the pulpit. You might as well try to stop the air in its escape from a punctured balloon, as to try, when woman is once out of the harem, to put her back there. Ceasing to be an Invisible Lady, she must become a visible force: there is no middle ground. There is no danger that she will not be anchored to the cradle, when cradle there is; but it will be by an elastic cable, that will leave her as free to think and vote as to pray. No woman is less a mother because she cares for all the concerns of the world into which her child is born. It was John Quincy Adams who said, defending the political petitions of the women of Plymouth, that "women are not only justified, but exhibit the most exalted virtue, when they do depart from the domestic circle, and enter on the concerns of their country, of humanity, and of their God."

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Invisible Lady