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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Noble Sex

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

A highly educated American woman of my acquaintance once employed a French tutor in Paris to assist her in teaching Latin to her little grandson. The Frenchman brought with him a Latin grammar, written in his own language, with which my friend was quite pleased, until she came to a passage relating to the masculine gender in nouns, and claiming grammatical precedence for it on the ground that the male sex is the noble sex,--"_le sexe noble_." "Upon that," she said, "I burst forth in indignation, and the poor teacher soon retired. But I do not believe," she added, "that the Frenchman has the slightest conception, up to this moment, of what I could find in that phrase to displease me."

I do not suppose he could. From the time when the Salic Law set French women aside from the royal succession, on the ground that the kingdom of France was "too noble to be ruled by a woman," the claim of nobility has been all on one side. The State has strengthened the Church in this theory, the Church has strengthened the State; and the result of all is, that French grammarians follow both these high authorities. When even the good Pere Hyacinthe teaches, through the New York "Independent," that the husband is to direct the conscience of his wife, precisely as the father directs that of his child, what higher philosophy can you expect of any Frenchman than to maintain the claims of "_le sexe noble_"?

We see the consequence, even among the most heterodox Frenchmen. Rejecting all other precedents and authorities, the poor Communists still held to this. Consider, for instance, this translation of a marriage contract under the Commune, which lately came to light in a trial reported in the "Gazette des Tribunaux:"--


The citizen Anet, son of Jean Louis Anet, and the _citoyenne_ Maria Saint; she engaged to follow the said citizen everywhere and to love him always.--ANET. MARIA SAINT.

Witnessed by the under-mentioned citizen and _citoyenne._--FOURIER. LAROCHE.

PARIS, April 22, 1871.

What a comfortable arrangement is this! Poor _citoyenne_ Maria Saint, even when all human laws have suspended their action, still holds by her grammar, still must annex herself to _le sexe noble_. She still must follow citizen Anet as the feminine pronoun follows the masculine, or as a verb agrees with its nominative case in number and in person. But with what a lordly freedom from all obligation does citizen Anet, representative of this nobility of sex, accept the allegiance! The citizeness may "follow him," certainly,--so long as she is not in the way,--and she must "love him always;" but he is not bound. Why should he be? It would be quite ungrammatical.

Yet, after all is said and done, there is a brutal honesty in this frank subordination of the woman according to the grammar. It has the same merit with the old Russian marriage consecration: "Here, wolf, take thy lamb," which at least put the thing clearly, and made no nonsense about it. I do not know that anywhere in France the wedding ritual is now so severely simple as this, but I know that in some French villages the bride is still married in a mourning-gown. I should think she would be.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Noble Sex