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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Limitations Of Sex

Title:     The Limitations Of Sex
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

Are there any inevitable limitations of sex?

Some reformers, apparently, think that there are not, and that the best way to help woman is to deny the fact of limitations. But I think the great majority of reformers would take a different ground, and would say that the two sexes are mutually limited by nature. They would doubtless add that this very fact is an argument for the enfranchisement of woman: for, if woman is a mere duplicate of man, man can represent her; but if she has traits of her own, absolutely distinct from his, then he cannot represent her, and she should have a voice and a vote of her own.

To this last body of believers I belong. I think that all legal or conventional obstacles should be removed, which debar woman from determining for herself, as freely as man determines, what the real limitations of sex are, and what restrictions are merely conventional. But, when all is said and done, there is no doubt that plenty of limitations will remain on both sides.

That man has such limitations is clear. No matter how finely organized he may be, how sympathetic, how tender, how loving, there is yet a barrier, never to be passed, that separates him from the most precious part of the woman's kingdom. All the wondrous world of motherhood, with its unspeakable delights, its holy of holies, remains forever unknown by him; he may gaze, but never enter. That halo of pure devotion, which makes a Madonna out of so many a poor and ignorant woman, can never touch his brow. Many a man loves children more than many a woman: but, after all, it is not he who has borne them; to that peculiar sacredness of experience he can never arrive. But never mind whether the loss be a great one or a small one: it is distinctly a limitation; and to every loving mother it is a limitation so important that she would be unable to weigh all the privileges and powers of manhood against this peculiar possession of her child.

Now, if this be true, and if man be thus distinctly limited by the mere fact of sex, can the woman complain that she also should have some natural limitations? Grant that she should have no unnecessary restrictions; and that the course of human progress is constantly setting aside, as unnecessary, point after point that was once held essential. Still, if she finds--as she undoubtedly will find--that some natural barriers and hindrances remain at last, and that she can no more do man's whole work in the world than he can do hers, why should she complain? If he can accept his limitations, she must be prepared also to accept hers.

Some of our physiological reformers, declare that a girl will be perfectly healthy if she can only be sensibly dressed, and can "have just as much outdoor exercise as the boys, and of the same sort, if she choose it." But I have observed that matter a good deal, and have watched the effect of boyish exercise on a good many girls; and I am satisfied that so far from being safely turned loose, as boys can be, they need, for physical health, the constant supervision of wise mothers. Otherwise the very exposure that only hardens the boy may make the girl an invalid for life. The danger comes from a greater sensitiveness of structure,--not weakness, properly so called, since it gives, in certain ways, more power of endurance,--a greater sensitiveness which runs through all a woman's career, and is the expensive price she pays for the divine destiny of motherhood. It is another natural limitation.

No wise person believes in any "reform against Nature," or that we can get beyond the laws of Nature. If I believed the limitations of sex to be inconsistent with woman suffrage for instance, I should oppose it; but I do not see why a woman cannot form political opinions by her baby's cradle, as well as her husband in his workshop, while her very love for the child commits her to an interest in good government. Our duty is to remove all the artificial restrictions we can. That done, it will not be hard for man or woman to acquiesce in the natural limitations.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Limitations Of Sex