Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Genius of Woman
By David Atwood Wasson (1823–1887)
From ‘Essays; Religious, Social, Political’

AN UNKNOWN friend has asked me to write upon woman. The terms in which the request was made express a spirit so large, while also it was accompanied by an offer so generous, that I do not feel at liberty to refuse, though the theme appalls me. To write worthily upon man in general were not easy; but when one selects for a subject that half of mankind whose nature differs from that of the other moiety by its greater delicacy and subtilty, by its grace of concealment, by its charm that only is a charm because it defies analysis, by powers whose peculiar character it is to tread untraceable paths and work more finely than explicit thought,—then the difficulty of treatment becomes such that I wonder at my own temerity in attempting the topic, and am half inclined to find in my consent an argument of my unfitness to write upon it. Yet it is a matter which I have a good deal meditated, and one upon which light is greatly needed….  1
  At present nothing is so discouraging as the shadow which passes over the face of earnest women when one remarks that from their sex has never proceeded an Iliad, a Parthenon, an ‘Organon’ or ‘Principia.’ And when the more hopeful among them reply, “Give us equal opportunity, and see what we will do to stop your boast,” the case becomes more discouraging still. The date-palm is not pine, oak, or teak, but thinks it may become such, and furnish timbers and masts for ships some day. Why this false desire? Why is not woman the first to remark and insist upon the fact that she does not build, whether epics or temples or systems of thought, for the very good reason that she has a genius of her own, and is not a reduced copy of man? The statement makes for her, not against her; it is argument of superiority in a kind and manner of her own. Let her respect her own nature. Let her, if she must make assertion in her own behalf, maintain that her actual performance in the history of humanity needs no imaginary eking out to bear comparison with masculine achievement. This I, for one, strenuously affirm. And in order to throw some little light upon this matter, which has been darkened so deplorably, I will endeavor in the present essay to offer some suggestions upon the genius of woman.  2
  1. The primary distinction seems to me this: that Thought is masculine; Sentiment, feminine. Of course, both these must be found, more or less, in every human being: but in a manly character the one will predominate; in a womanly character, the other. This characteristic pre-eminence being secured, the subordinate faculty may exist in any degree of power; no measure of sentiment, which leaves thought sovereign, detracts from manliness; no vigor of intellect, which does not dispute the empire of sentiment, diminishes the grace of woman. Indeed, each character, while remaining true to its own ideal, is richer in proportion to the presence of the opposite element….  3
  2. As the eye of sentiment, woman has an intuitive perception, requiring always the nearness of its objects; but so quick, so subtle and untraceable in its action, that for want of any more distinctive term, we can often give it no other name than feeling. She carries divining-rods, mysterious to herself as to another; can render no reason for what she affirms, but says, “Here it is; this is it.” Her conclusions are reached neither by induction nor by deduction, but by divination. She makes little use of general principles, defies logic; cannot be convinced against her will, it is said,—that is, against her feeling; is very commonly mistaken when she generalizes, and has a kind of infallibility in particulars. To argue against her persuasion is raining upon a duck, or reasoning against the wind. She is right and she is wrong in the teeth of all logic; can easily be confuted, but all the world will not convince her unless she is persuaded,—that is, unless her sentiment is won over. She is as often mistaken as man, but in a wholly different way; for she sees best where he is blind, and has a dim vision for that which his eye is best fitted to discern.  4
  This intelligence, so intimate with feeling as to be indistinguishable from it,—this winged sensibility, this divination at close quarters,—has but to be comprehended to make it clear why woman does not build epics and systems of thought. She has not a constructive genius, because she does not work so remotely, and through such long channels of mediation, as the architectural genius must. Because she is a diviner, she cannot be a builder….  5
  Rejoice, O women, that you do not produce Homers and Newtons. It is that blessed incapability, due to another mode of human genius, which has again and again held the world fast to the breasts of living, foodful Nature, when the masculine world had lost itself among the dead dust and débris of its own labor. At this very moment my hope for modern civilization clings to the spirit of woman, to this divining sensibility whose blessed cannot is the cable that holds humanity to the shores of life. If woman could cope with man in his own form of labor and excellence, she could also lose herself with him. But, thank God, we are all born of mothers, and never can quite leave our cradles behind us. And ever and anon when the learned scribes of the world have buried the Biblical heart out of sight beneath their traditions,—that is, beneath representative forms of imagination and thought built out of other forms, and those out of others still,—there arises some one to say, Become as little children; go back to the mother heart of humanity, to this matrix of pure, divining sensibility, and, newly born thence, become again living souls. If that command be heeded, a new epoch arises, and the wrinkled Tithonus obtains the blessing along with the gift of immortality.  6
  I do not intimate that woman should forbear attempting a literary career, nor that she is incapable of high excellence in such labor. On the contrary, I think she can contribute to literature work which in its own kind the other sex will scarcely be able to equal,—can give us a literature of sentiment without sentimentality, which would be a precious addition to the world’s wealth and resource. The religious lyric or hymn would well befit her; and indeed the tenderest hymn in the English language, and pure in tone as tender in feeling, was written by a woman,—‘Nearer, my God, to Thee.’ The devotion of love has never been expressed in our tongue as by Mrs. Browning in the ‘Portuguese Sonnets’; a lady whose genius I value far above that of her husband, though in the later years of her life she seemed to have been bewitched by him, and fell to his jerky style,—a sort of St. Vitus’s dance with pen and ink. Mrs. Howe’s ‘Army Hymn’ was perhaps the most lyrical expression of devout feeling brought forth by our war. The underlying excellence of ‘Uncle Tom’ was its pure appeal to sentiment: just this made it irresistible. Uncle Tom himself is feminine to the core,—a nun in trousers. Miss Cobbe’s ‘Intuitive Morals’ assumes the feminine point of view by its very title: woman, by her very nature, must believe in intuitive morals; and by bringing her own native method to the treatment of this topic can render invaluable service….  7
  Personality in the pure sense is Spirit without individual limitation. Woman by her very nature and genius inevitably affirms Spirit. She holds the human race to that majestic confession. Blindly, superstitiously she may do so; blindly and superstitiously she will do so, while philosophy falsely so called has eyes to stare only into the earth: but in this blindness there is vision, and the superstition of belief need not be shamefaced before the superstition of sciolism. But superstitious or otherwise, she has the master-key; and man can but bruise his hand against the iron gate until he takes the key from hers. The metaphysic of France and England is barren because it is purely masculine; it dares not assume Spirit, this perennial import of feminine sensibility. When we have yawned over it a century or two longer, one may hope that we shall return to the starting-point, begin with Personality or Spirit, and bringing masculine logic to the service of feminine divination, attain to a philosophy….  8
  All the charm of life is inseparable from a certain fine reserve. In the half-opened rosebud, at once displaying and concealing its beauty, there is a fascination wanting to the full-blown flower. The soft veil of purple haze that lies over the Grecian landscape gives to it an enchantment scarcely conceivable to one accustomed only to the starry aspect of scenery under a perfectly clear air. What more enticing than a road winding and losing itself among woods? Inevitably the eye dwells on that point where it disappears: for there the hard everyday world ends and the world of imagination begins; beyond that point, dryads lurk and fauns with cloven heel, with all the enchanting dream-world of mythic antiquity.  9
  Now, woman’s existence is appointed to carry forever, and in the highest degree, this inscrutable, inexhaustible charm. Indeed, when this is gone she is no longer woman, but only a female animal, or at least a somewhat feeble copy of man. This peculiar genius is symbolized by her spontaneous choice of concealing draperies in dress. Mr. Winwood Reade remarks upon the painful disillusionment effected by the absence of costume among the women of tropical Africa. The imagination is quite stared out of countenance, he says, by the aspect of unclothed women; and every trace of sexual attraction disappears. Without dress, love loses its beauty, woman her exaltation, domestic life its spiritual complexion; and the relation of the sexes becomes animal only. I have seen among the Esquimaux what a sad disenchantment is operated by the spectacle of woman in trousers. It is no longer a woman you behold, but only a lumpy, ugly, ill-gaited, ridiculous man. Whenever the dress of the two sexes approximates closely, woman is degraded; a curious fact that ought not to be disregarded. In Hindostan, the men are effeminate and the women inferior: the dress of the two sexes is nearly the same. Only courtesans there conceal the bosom; the charm of costume is left to those who defile it: and in this fact alone a hint of the degradation of the sex is given to any who are sufficiently skilled in interpretation.  10
  It is therefore by a true instinct, though pushed to a destructive extent, that Mussulman women are forbidden to appear in public unveiled. There the rosebud must always remain bound in the green calyx, never expanding in the sunshine. This is one of many instances to be found in history wherein sentiments of great intrinsic delicacy develop themselves blindly and with a kind of ferocity. What is sweeter than religion in Jesus? Yet we all know what a fury, what a merciless edge, Christian sentiment has often shown. Faith in Mohammed was preached with the scimitar, faith in Christ with the fagot and rack; and to this day those who no longer employ those summary methods for the propagation of “the faith” in this world pay themselves off by a liberal supply of menace for the next….  11
  But the sentiment from whose barbaric interpretation the growing ages must release themselves, will guide the ages still. Woman conserves for herself and for humanity that unsurpassed priceless grace of which the veil is here made the symbol. A nameless fascination leads the high labor of civilization: a nameless charm sustains the dignity of life, which would lapse into brutishness without it; and this charm hides chiefly behind the native veil of womanhood. Athens was named for a feminine divinity; the ideal woman was enthroned in the Parthenon, and here in Greece told the fine secret of civilization. It requires courage to say that woman’s function is to charm; courage, for in the meaning often given it the statement is pre-eminently silly. Taken as signifying that the proper business of Araminta is to bewitch Augustus, and bereave him of the little sense nature gave him, it may be made over to the exclusive use of those who speak because they have nothing to say. But it is the business of woman to enshrine that grace which makes human life nature’s supreme work of art, and keeps the eye entranced, and the heart kindled. Somewhere in life itself is the inspiration and the reward of our labor; and in the exalted reserve of woman, without design on her part, and aside from the express affection she may draw, lurks this finest resource of the race….  12
  The perennial interests of humanity may be classified as public and private, outdoor and indoor: the former having more breadth, the latter greater depth; the one catching the world’s eye, the other engaging its heart; that furnishing food, this giving fertility. The means of life, that by which we live, whether as physical or as human beings; the instrumentalities of use, from the plow to the university; the sustenance that we live upon from corn and wine to thought and philosophy,—belong to the department of public interest: but the inward enrichment, the digestion, the chemical conversion, the fructification of life, all its subtler, deeper, immediately vital interests, belong to the realm of privacy. Now, the “spheres” of man and woman correspond to these two classes of interests. Of course, the two mingle in action very intimately. When some men invite woman to stay indoors and mind her affairs there, she might reply by inviting man, at dinner-time or evening, to stay out of doors and mind his affairs there. Of course, too, each sex is concerned in the work of the other. Woman shares in all public good or ill; man, in all private. It certainly imports much to the husband whether the children of his household are born healthy or sickly, reared excellently or miserably; whether he is at home surrounded by an atmosphere of peace, amenity, charity, and all spiritual beauty, or with one of brawl, scandal, and tumbled disarray: and it equally imports much to the wife whether the husband does his duty, whether he be industrious or a drone, faithful and honorable, or the contrary, in all those concerns upon which private competence and public peace descend. I here separate these diverse interests only in respect to the sovereignty over them. The sovereignty, the office, the endowment and credentials of Nature are given to man and woman according to this classification. Each works for the other,—it may probably, and properly, be with a predominant regard for the other; for they are polaric. Life has its uses only in relation. He does not really live who lives only to and for himself. The plant grows from the soil that feeds it. “What I give, I have.”  13

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