Texts Related to the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett
Man and Woman
Arthur's Home Magazine, May 1853:
It is an undeniable misconception of woman to suppose her at all capable of entering into rivalry with man, capable of competing with him for ecclesiastical and political distinction. It is nothing short of a scandalous misconception of womanhood. We shall be pointed to Elizabeth of England, Catharine of Russia, Mary de Medicis, and the other illustrious women who have exhibited a great genius for affairs. But we do not say that there are not very unwomanly women to be met with along the course of history. We see them in the street, in the market, in domestic life, every where, -- women who fairly compete with men in the pursuits of learning, traffic, and so forth. All we say is, that these women are exceptions to the rule of their sex, that they are extreme or unwomanly women. We have long been persuaded that man and woman have not yet been so sharply discriminated as they shall one day be; that a great actual confusion indeed exists in the sexes, so that there are many technical women who are really or inwardly men, and many technical men who are really women. Man is not man, nor woman woman, primarily by virtue of their formal differences from each other, but by virtue of their spiritual or interior differences, the difference of their genius or temper of mind. And where this fundamental difference does not exist, the outward difference is only transient. The natural body in that case has only to be laid aside by its decease, for the spiritual one to assert its latent sexuality; so that probably many a woman who has unmisgivingly laid down on this side Jordan, in short-gown and petticoat, will wake up by sheer spiritual gravitation on the other side, in corduroys and top-boots; and many a man who has laid down in coat and pantaloons, will similarly come to true self consciousness in petticoat and curl-papers.
It is idle, therefore, to argue to woman from certain exceptional women. We must learn to discriminate between women and woman, between the infirm actual and the stainless ideal. Mrs. A, B, and C, are, doubtless, capital women, and properly estimable to all their acquaintance. But they have not the least title to call themselves woman, nor to charge any possible perturbation of their private orbits to the influence of that sweet sanctity. Woman is a grand and divine reality, who is not so foolish as to commit herself to any special guardianship; not so vulgar as to whisper secrets in any private ear. She appoints no attorneys. No one speaks by her authority. They who know her best and are most transfigured by her intimate loveliness, suspect their great fortune the least, and are still the lowliest in all feminine modesty. It is doubtless excellent to hear Mrs. A, B, or C, discourse of woman, and belabor our sex and hers very deservedly on that behalf. But we cannot help feeling the thing to be sheer comedy all the while. If they will read lectures, or write paragraphs, and pamphlets upon the sufferings of the poor maidens who lack suitable and healthy employment, and upon the temptations to vice which such lack engenders; and if they will scornfully stigmatize our heartless public morality which permits all this temptation, and then visits the shrinking victim with its Pharisaic scorn: then every male breast in the community will second their eloquent zeal and indignation. Here is a manifest case of suffering, calling upon every passer-by, man and woman, equally to cry aloud for its relief. The extremity of the case sanctions any mode of action which promises to be effectual, and if there were no other means of drawing attention to it, one would excuse a single-minded woman for dressing herself in military costume, or climbing a church-steeple, or riding Godiva-like through the public streets. It is an exceptional exigency, and any sincere mode of advertising it on the part of those whose sympathies are so powerfully assailed, will not only be tolerated but applauded.
But no one believes in this didactic attitude as the normal or permanent attitude of woman. One excuses it only when a certain necessity calls for it, and does not willingly think of woman coming before the public, without such invincible necessity. No man believes, nor ever will believe, in woman, as a teacher or preacher, until he has grown indifferent to her as woman. His instinctive loyalty forbids him to believe her capable of any serious didactic intention. He will believe any good thing you have to say of her, any wonders you have to tell of her devotion to her lover, to her husband, to her child, to her friend, or to the needy at her door. He will believe you when you speak of her disinterested affection, her cheerful self-denial, her blithe and genial activity, and the power which these things give her to redeem the longest day from tedium, and people the darkest night with eminent stars of hope and consolation. But he will not believe you when you tell him of her seriously taking the great unwashed condition of humanity at large to heart, and drawing on the seven-league boots of philanthropy, to go forth upon a mission of reform. For woman, in her true and unperverted estate, is incapable of philanthropy, which is the love of all mankind. She loves only man, and cannot be taught to bestow her affection upon the race. The conception is too vague for her affection, the motive too vast for her strictly practical genius. She believes only in the concrete, the tangible, the visible; and her mission, as they call it, is strictly proportionate. Of course, she is so blissfully sympathetic a creature, that if her lover or husband or friend, conceive a concern for the Patagonians, and give up his substance to proselyte the Choctaws, she will very meekly toil up to that cheerless height of virtue, purely by way of keeping him company. But she will not stay there a single moment of her own accord. She would see all Patagonia hanged, and every Choctaw in Halifax, before she would get up any original trepidation on their behalf. For the only credible Patagonian, to her imagination, is the lover or husband of her choice, and the only irresistible Choctaws to her affection, are the dimpled little daguerrotyes, whose sunny faces look up to her from her own floor. The only mission God saw fit to endow her with, was that of civilizing this private Patagonian of hers, and evangelizing these little Choctaws of her own invention; and no wider ambition would ever enter her beautiful head, had not her native instincts been grossly sophisticated by a morbid sentimentality. By natural and divine right, she fully believes in her capacity to make the individual man happy and blessed; and precisely in so far as she indulges this perfectly womanly aspiration, she must of course remain blind to the forlorn estate of the huge rest of the world.
So much in our opinion is indubitably true of woman's genius. Therefore we will let women invade the pulpit, the rostrum, the quarter-deck, and every other unwomanly place, to their heart's content; but we will do woman the justice to acknowledge, that she firmly disclaims all complicity with these vagaries, and rigidly exacts a totally distinct theatre of action.
The genius of woman differs from man's most obviously in this respect, perhaps that it is less reflective, less apt to weigh consequences; in short, more impulsive. It is easy for man to obey an external law, to shape his conduct by a wholly outward prudence or expediency. It is not easy for woman to do so. She does not cordially obey anything but her own affections, and where these have been interested, is much too prone to renounce prudence altogether. Woman's activity dates from her affection, man's from his intellect rather. In reference to anything to be done, man inquires whether it be true or agreeable to his intelligence; woman inquires whether it be good or agreeable to her heart. Man hears a profound voice of warning, saying, Thou shalt not eat of the fruit of this tree, for in the day thou eatest, thou shalt surely die; and he consequently refrains. But woman heeds no warning voice; and merely considers whether or not the fruit be agreeable to the sight, the taste, and so forth, in order to put forth her hand and eat.
This characteristic lack of reflection in woman is the secret, no doubt, of her superior energy, of her superior practical efficiency. She is for ever busy. An idle women, -- except where great wealth and grossly artificial manners have overlaid her native freshness and elasticity -- is one of the rarest of sights. An idle man is one of the commonest. To lounge, to snooze, and in that snooze perchance to snore, is a prerogative of man. You will scarcely enter five houses out of ten in an afternoon, without finding some great heap of a husband or brother gathered up upon the sofa, recruiting his overtasked forces by a comfortable sleep. How hard to rouse him from his recumbency at your entrance. First one leg shows signs of life, then an arm wakes, then the other leg, then the whole body stirs, finally the huge head moves, and the entire drowsy mass erects itself, dimly acknowledges the gas-light, yawns once or twice, and after all this preliminary flourish very probably sinks back again to repose. Clearly man is not handsome in himself, or when uninspired by woman. Who could imagine that this had been once the sleepless lover that talked the moon down in the western steeps, and swore an eternal alacrity in the divine art of pleasing? Where now is his alacrity? -- Alas! he has left it behind him in Pine street and Pearl street, to be put on to-morrow morning to entertain those occasional Western merchants, and has brought home only his relentless tedium to bestow upon habitual wife and little ones. Who can wonder that the dullest round of lectures or the least vivacious of theatricals proves so attractive when compared with this tedious domestic paralysis?
It is not so with the other sex. I mean that it is a very much less common thing to see an indolent, self indulgent woman, than it is to see a man of that sort. Every one knows individual women, possibly, who are untrue to the characteristics of their sex, victims of absurd fashion, distorted by a fatal luxury out of feminine health and grace. But the rule with woman is unceasing activity. The plain reason is, that her action dates so exclusively from herself, is motived so much more from her affections than from her intellect. It is always the sunlight of affection which kindles her energy, while the poor moonlight of the intellect enlivens man's. Man feels impelled to seek subsistence, physical and social. He has great powers to overcome and clothe with his livery, the powers of earth and air, and the forces of the human mind itself. -- These are his destined ministers, but their reduction to his service is slow and wearisome. He has perpetually to remember, and invent, and contrive a thousand modes of progress. He has slowly to sift the teachings of a wide experience, and garner them up in laws and statutes. He has to appoint bounds for this thing and that, to encourage industry, to discourage vice and idleness, to punish crime. He has to defend himself from aggression, to enlarge his territory when population presses on the means of subsistence, to foster education, to establish commerce, to promote religion, to sustain international justice. All this indicates the bent of his genius. It is an outward bent. He does battle with the aboriginal forces of nature, and makes them finally docile to his will. He is engaged in preparing a theatre of life, rather than in actually living. Thus his action is imposed by his outward necessities, instead of his inward taste or inspiration. It accordingly consumes instead of refreshes him. He waters the accursed sod with his tears, and earns his bread in the sweat of his brow. Undoubtedly it is for his good that the ground is accursed, as the good Book tells us. Because if nature brought forth spontaneously to man, if it required no culture, but supplied all his wants at sight or on demand, why then, manifestly, the resources of his genius would have remained for ever unknown. In that case his faculties, for lack of something to call them forth, would have remained for ever hidden from his consciousness, and he would accordingly have gone down to the grave a mere pampered menial of nature, unconscious of God, and indifferent to any life but the sensual one. All this is sublimely true. But it is none the less true at the same time, that the progress of human development is a slow and painful one, and that poor man, meanwhile, being ignorant of the glory that is in store for him, and knowing only the toilsome experience by which it comes about, often sinks down in utter weariness, or renounces life itself in hasty and untaught despair.
But woman's activity leaves her refreshed, because she really lives instead of only prepares to live. For it is very curious and beautiful to observe, that just in so far as man by his stalwart might subdues the domain of nature to himself, woman steps in to glorify it by her enchantments. The aim of all man's exertion since the beginning of history, has been to conquer himself a home upon the earth, nor will he ever flag in that career, until he has secured one proportionate to his powers: that is to say, a home which shall be co-extensive with the uttermost bounds of space, and to which every realm of nature will bring its glad and lavish tribute. But wherever he halts for a night in this career, wherever he establishes a temporary home to inspirit him against the fatigues of the still beckoning to-morrow, there woman comes to pitch the white tent of her innocence beside him, and make his otherwise inevitable wilderness blossom like the rose. His work has ever been that of the hardy pioneer, stretching forth into the savagery of nature, and rescuing it from the grasp of her own incompetent offspring, the bear, the fox, and the serpent. Her work has ever been that of turning the rude domain thus snatched from nature, into a smiling and blooming home. For man, with the immense love of dominion which characterizes him, would pause nowhere, but go on to oversweep and consume the whole earth, were it not for these angel arms of woman binding him to stay and cultivate his present possessions, that so his future conquests might be the more secure. The rude conqueror he! She, the builder up and fashioner of his conquests! For this is the vital difference of the pair, that man for ever asks more, while woman is always intent upon making the most of what she has. Man is a perpetual seeker, woman turns whatever she finds into a present use and profit. Man's eye is fixed upon the future, woman's upon the present. He sweeps the heavens with his gaze, to see what fairer worlds invite his adventure; she quietly unpacks the trunk of his observation and appropriates whatever available results it contains to the improvement of his present abode. -- Putnam Monthly