Women and the Alphabet.

Original title page

Despite the title, this is not an eccentric anti-woman tract. On the contrary, it is a sensible pro-woman look at women’s roles and rights, written in the days of the suffragette movement. The author’s stance is made crystal clear in passages like this:

“If an extraordinary male gymnast can clear a height of ten feet with the aid of a spring-board, it would be considered slightly absurd to ask a woman to leap eleven feet without one; yet this is precisely what society and the critics have always done.”

And again:

“The simple truth is, that, amid the vast range of human powers and properties, the fact of sex is but one item. Vital and momentous in itself, it does not constitute the whole organism, but only part of it. The distinction of male and female is special, aimed at a certain end; and, apart from that end, it is, throughout all the kingdoms of Nature, of minor importance….The eagle is not checked in soaring by any consciousness of sex, nor asks the sex of the timid hare, its quarry. Nature, for high purposes, creates and guards the sexual distinction, but keeps it subordinate to those still more important.”

But Mr Higginson’s tract isn’t all dull, if sensible, argument. If it were, it wouldn’t merit a place in this book. Rather, I have included it here because it contains a wealth of amusing anecdotes, giving little known references to the history of women’s rights. For that reason, it makes interesting reading and earns a place here.

The title, of course, was what first attracted my attention, and its origin is explained in one of Mr Higginson’s anecdotes:

“Paris smiled, for an hour or two, in the year 1801, when, amidst Napoleon’s mighty projects for remodelling the religion and government of his empire, the ironical satirist, Sylvain Maréchal, thrust in his ‘Plan for a law prohibiting the Alphabet to Women’….His proposed statute consists of eighty-two clauses, and is fortified by a ‘whereas’ of a hundred and thirteen weighty reasons. He exhausts the range of history to show the frightful results which have followed this taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; quotes the Encyclopédie, to prove that the woman who knows the alphabet has already lost a portion of her innocence; cites the opinion of Molière, that any female who has unhappily learned anything in this line should affect ignorance, when possible; asserts that knowledge rarely makes men attractive, and females never.”

Mr Higginson goes on to discuss the position of women in law, pointing out that the fundamental theory of both English and Oriental law can be summed up thus: man and wife are one, and that one is the husband.

“When Blackstone declares that ‘the very being and existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage,’ and American Kent echoes that ‘her legal existence and authority are in a manner lost;’ when Petersdorff asserts that ‘the husband has the right of imposing such corporeal restraints as he may deem necessary,’ and Bacon that ‘the husband hath, by law, power and dominion over his wife, and may keep her by force within the bounds of duty, and may beat her, but not in a violent or cruel manner;’ when Mr Justice Coleridge rules that the husband, in certain cases, ‘has the right to confine his wife in his own dwelling-house, and restrain her from liberty for an indefinite time,’ and Baron Alderson sums it all up tersely, ‘The wife is only the servant of her husband,’ – these high authorities simply reaffirm the dogma of the Gentoo code, four thousand years old and more. ‘A man, both day and night, must keep his wife so much in subjection that she by no means be mistress of her own actions. If the wife have her own free will, notwithstanding she be of a superior caste, she will behave amiss.’”

It all goes back to Eve, of course – Eve, who “ruined us all…without knowing her letters.” Or did she? Here Mr Higginson takes us on a fascinating trip back through the literature of feminism. Thus, a Veronese countess by the name of Isotta Nogarola, as early as the fifteenth century, composed a dialogue on the question of whether Adam or Eve committed the greater sin. (Presumably she blamed Adam, but I don’t know.) Then there was Lodovico Domenichi, who in 1551 published a work on the nobleness of women in which he claimed that Eve did not sin at all since she was not even created when Adam was told not to eat the apple!

In addition to these rather esoteric theological works, Mr Higginson cites a number of more directly feminist works, such as Lucrezia Marinella’s essay on The Nobility and Excellence of Women, with the Defects and Deficiencies of Men, published in 1602. Then there is Jacquette Guillaume’s Famous Women, where by Good and Sound Reasons it is proved that the Female Sex is superior to the Male in every respect, published in 1665. Nor are all the feminist works by women. In England, in 1599, Anthony Gibson published a book entitled A Woman’s Worth, defended against all the Men in the World, proving them to be more Perfect, Excellent and Absolute in all Virtuous Actions than any Man of what Quality soever, Interlarded with Poetry.

Such works, of course, expressed a minority opinion. The majority view – amongst men at least! – was expressed by the learned Acidelius, who wrote a book in Latin to prove that women simply are not reasonable creatures. Certainly male prejudice against women has a long history:

“According to Aristotle and the Peripatetics, woman was animal occasionatum, as if a sort of monster and accidental production. Medieval councils, charitably asserting her claims to the rank of humanity, still pronounced her unfit for instruction. In the Hindoo dramas, she did not even speak the same language as her master, but used the dialect of slaves. When, in the sixteenth century, Françoise de Saintonges wished to establish girls’ schools in France, she was hooted in the streets; and her father called together four doctors, learned in the law, to decide whether she was not possessed by demons, to think of educating women.”

Mr Higginson also quotes some more recent maxims and bon mots (doubtless women readers will find other names for them!) of eminent men on the subject of women. Thus, the German dramatist Lessing said that women who think are like men who put on rouge – ridiculous! Voltaire said that ideas are like beards: women and young men have none. Then there was Dr McGinn, with this classic of prejudice: “We like to hear a few words of sense from a woman, as we do from a parrot, because they are so unexpected.”

An interesting point raised by Mr Higginson is that woman themselves are not entirely blameless in the perpetuation of the myth of their own inferiority. In the French court of the seventeenth century, for example, young ladies actually cultivated folly as a female virtue considered attractive to the male. This is an extreme case, it is true, but the same applies at an academic level, perpetuating the myth of their intellectual inferiority. Thus, Christina of Sweden reproved Madame Dacier for her translation of Callimachus with the words: “Such a pretty girl as you are, are you not ashamed to be so learned?” As Mr Higginson says:

“They have often used only for frivolous purposes even the poor opportunities allowed them. They have employed the alphabet, as Mollière said, chiefly in spelling the verb Amo. Their use of science has been like that of Mdlle. De Launay, who computed the decline in her lover’s affection by his abbreviation of their evening walk in the public square, preferring to cross it rather than take the circuit: ‘From which I inferred,’ she says, ‘that his passion had diminished in the ratio between the diagonal of a rectangular parallelogram and the sum of its two adjacent sides.’”

That women should have perpetuated the myth of their own inferiority in this way is not difficult to explain, and Mr Higginson puts it well:

“Systematically discourage any individual, or class, from birth to death, and they learn, in nine cases out of ten, to acquiesce in their degradation, if not to claim it as a crown of glory.”

But if this explains the perpetuation of the myth, it doesn’t explain its origin. Granted that woman is ‘weaker’ because she has been systematically degraded, but how did she come to be degraded in the first place ? Mr Higginson argues that it was almost a necessary consequence of the historical development of the human race as a whole:

“The past has been inevitably a period of ignorance, of engrossing physical necessities, and of brute force – not of freedom, of philanthropy, and of culture. During that lower epoch, woman was necessarily an inferior.”

In an era when physical strength ruled, then, woman was the weaker, and therefore inferior, sex. In medieval annals it is expressly stated that woman is denied equality on account of her “unfitness for war or policy.” Here again, though, Mr Higginson takes us on a fascinating tour of history to show that, even at the level of physical force, woman has not always been as inferior as man would like to believe. The wives of the ancient Britons, for example, fought alongside their husbands, and Portuguese women opposed the armies of Philip II of Spain in the sixteenth century.

“The King of Siam has, at present, a bodyguard of four hundred women: they are armed with lance and rifle, are admirably disciplined, and their commander (appointed after saving the king’s life at a tiger hunt) ranks as one of the royal family, and has ten elephants at her service. When the all-conquering Dohomian army marched upon Abbeokuta, in 1851, they numbered ten thousand men and six thousand women. The women were, as usual, placed foremost in the assault, as being most reliable: and of the eighteen hundred bodies left dead before the walls, the vast majority were of women.”

But if the inferiority of women dates back to an era of physical force, that is no excuse for its perpetuation today, Mr Higginson argues:

“There can be no question that the present epoch is initiating an empire of the higher reason of arts, affections, aspirations; and for that epoch the genius of woman has been preserved. The spirit of the age has always kept pace with the facts, and outstripped the statutes. Till the fullness of time came, woman was necessarily kept a slave to the spinning-wheel and the needle; now higher work is ready; peace has brought invention to her aid, and the mechanical means for her emancipation are ready also. No use in releasing her till man, with his strong arm, had worked out his preliminary share in civilisation. ‘Earth waits for her queen,’ was a favourite motto of Margaret Fuller Ossoli; but it would be more correct to say that the queen has waited for her earth, till it could be smoothed and prepared for her occupancy. Now Cinderella may begin to think of putting on her royal robes.”

Mr Higginson calls for the long overdue emancipation of women – equality of opportunity, and, of course, the vote:

“First give woman, if you dare, the alphabet, then summon her to her career: and though men, ignorant and prejudiced, may oppose its beginnings, there is no danger but they will at last fling around her conquering footsteps more lavish praises than ever greeted the opera’s idol, – more perfumed flowers than ever wooed, with intoxicating fragrance, the fairest butterfly of the ballroom.”

So ends Mr Higginson’s tract. We today are able to look back on nearly a hundred years of developments since it was written. Just what progress has really been made, I leave my readers to judge for themselves. Rather, I will close my book by referring readers to a short tract published in 1985. Its title was Mothers Beware Mothers, Being a Brief Account of False Feminism and the Monstrous Betrayal of Man by their Earliest and Most Traitorous Companions. It was by Janet Roberts, and was billed as “Anti-Feminist Papers No.2”. What makes it particularly interesting here is that it reveals a development that even the wise Mr Higginson didn’t envisage: namely, that an extremist feminist backlash would arise that would call for the castration of all men, and that that backlash would be rebuffed – by a woman!