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Woman's Rights in the Eighteenth Century by S. B. W.


Not only we, the latest seed of Time—

... not only we that prate

Of rights and wrongs, have loved the women well.

Nearly a century and a half ago an English lady, out of patience with the intolerable assumptions of the other sex, raised her voice in behalf of her own. In 1793 there was published in London a pamphlet entitled "Woman not Inferior to Man, or a Short and Modest Vindication of the Natural Right of the Fair Sex to a Perfect Equality of Power, Dignity and Esteem with the Men. By Sophia, a Person of Quality." The title-page has a quotation from Rowe's Fair Penitent:

How hard is the condition of our sex!

—Through every state of life the slave of man!

Wherefore are we

Born with souls, but to assert ourselves,

Shake off this wild obedience they exact,

And claim an equal empire o'er the world?

From such a title and such an epigraph one might expect the most incendiary sentiments in the pages which follow, and that Sophia had nothing less in view than to overthrow the usurper; but this she disclaims: she has no intention, she avers, "to stir up any of my own sex to revolt against the men, or to invert the present order of things with regard to government and authority" Her sole object appears to be to bring men to a proper sense of their deficiencies and the emptiness of their pretensions. But she is a person of admirable dignity and discretion: it is not until the conclusion, when she has not left them a leg to stand upon, that she magnanimously waives all the advantages to accrue from their humiliation, and merely bids them in future to know their true place. The composition is in every way worthy of these elevated sentiments. Sophia need not have announced herself a person of quality: there is evidence of it on every leaf of her book. One recognizes the accomplished gentlewoman of a hundred years ago, with her solid reading, her strong common sense, her sober religious convictions, her household science. No doubt she loved fine lace and old china; there are recondite internal proofs that she was pretty; and on closing the book a far-off rustle of her brocade reaches us as she makes her spreading curtsey. But we will let her speak for herself a little. Her first position is certainly a strong one: "If this haughty sex would have us believe they have a natural right of superiority over us, why don't they prove their charter from Nature by making use of reason to subdue themselves?... Were we to see men everywhere and at all times masters of themselves, and their animal appetites in perfect subordination to their rational faculties, we should have some color to think that Nature designed them as masters to us." The doctrine of female inferiority she considers "a vulgar though ancient error," observing that until very recent ages the sun was believed to revolve round the earth, and the notion of the antipodes was "a heresy in philosophy"—that to assert the equality of the sexes now was no greater paradox than to advocate either of those theories but a short time ago. "But," she continues, "who shall the matter be tried by?" and here we suspect she has reached the root of the difficulty. Both men and women, she admits, are too much interested to be impartial judges; therefore she appeals to "rectified reason" as umpire. She considers in order the various claims to predominance which men have put forward, and confutes them one by one. "Man concludes that all other creatures were made for him because he was not created until all were in readiness for him:" even granting that to be unanswerable, she says it only proves that men were made for women, and not vice versâ: "they are our natural drudges.... Men are magnified because they succeed in taming a tiger, an elephant or such like animals;" therefore what rank must belong to woman, "who spends years in training that fiercer animal, MAN?" She instances a journeyman tailor she once saw belabor his wife with a neck of mutton, "to make her know, as he said, her sovereign lord and master. And this is perhaps as strong an argument as their sex is able to produce, though conveyed, in a greasy light.... To stoop to regard for the strutting things is not enough; to humor them more than we could children with any tolerable decency is too little; they must be served, forsooth!" It is grievous injustice to Sophia, but one almost fancies one hears Madame George Sand. She allows that to please man ought to be part of the sex's business if it were likely to succeed; "but such is the fanatical composition of their natures that the more pains is taken in endeavoring to please them, the less generally is the labor successful; ... and surely women were created by Heaven for some better end than to labor in vain their whole life long." The supercilious commendations of men are gall and wormwood to her: "Some, more condescending, are gracious enough to confess that many women have wit and conduct; but yet they are of opinion that even such of us as are the most remarkable for either or both still betray something which speaks the imbecility of our sex." She makes an excellent plea forgiving women a thorough education, complaining that it is denied them, and then they are charged with being superficial: "True knowledge and solid learning cannot but make woman as well as man more humble; ... and it must be owned that if a little superficial knowledge has rendered some of our sex vain, it equally renders some of theirs insupportable." With all the sex's frivolity, she adds, women have not been found to spend their lives on mere entia rationis splitting hairs and weighing motes like the Schoolmen. She concludes that men deprive women of education lest they should oust them "from those public offices which they fill so miserably." She handles her logic admirably, and exposes her adversaries for begging the question and reasoning in a circle. Of course she enforces her assertions by citing the women who have distinguished themselves in every position of responsibility, military, political and intellectual, and only refrains from multiplying instances because of their number. Not to quote those alone who have filled chairs of medicine with honor, she ingeniously remarks that the remedies classed as "an old woman's recipe" are those oftenest prescribed, to the glory of her sex, who by patience, humanity and observation have invented without the help of Galen and Hippocrates an infinity of reliefs for the sick which their adherents can neither improve nor disapprove. She makes her final point on the question of moral superiority. It is sometimes stated "that some women have been more flagitious than any men, but that in nowise redounds to the dishonor of our sex in general. The corruption of the best is ever the worst: should we grant this, ... it must be owned their number would at least balance the account. I believe no one will deny but that at least upon the most moderate computation there are a thousand bad men to one bad woman." She winds up by an appeal to her own sex in the very spirit of Miss F.P. Cobbe, the sum of which is to adjure women, for their own sakes, not to be silly.

How many contemporaries of George Selwyn had their eyes opened by this clear statement of their demerits there are no means of ascertaining. But Sophia raised up at least one furious antagonist, who replied by a pamphlet called "MAN Superior to WOMAN, or a Vindication of Man's Natural Right of Sovereign Authority over the Woman, containing a Plain Confutation of the Fallacious Arguments of SOPHIA. By a GENTLEMAN." The first thing to be noted is, that whereas Sophia said her say in about fifty pages, the masculine reply covers seventy-eight in smaller print. He opens by a "Dedication to the Ladies," beginning, "Lovely creatures"—an exordium which any woman of spirit would resent, the perfidy and disrepect of his intentions being obvious in those words alone; and he continues in the tone of flippancy which was to be expected. His arguments are weak in the extreme, and his satire is pointless. The only hit is his scheme for a female university, with Mrs. Manly and Mrs. Afra Behn in the chair of literature. His summary of woman's character and occupations was given earlier, with more brevity and wit, and no less truth, by Pope. To Sophia's historical illustrations he opposes female types named Tremula, Bellnina, Novilia, etc. But in truth the production is so excessively scurrilous that one needs to remember that those were the times of Congreve and Fielding to believe that the author could have the right to style himself "A GENTLEMAN." We shudder with pity for poor Sophia, who had such a mass of filth flung at her. But that decorous personage is not disconcerted: she does not lose her head or her temper, but opens her mouth with a freedom of speech which was the prerogative of an honest woman in those days, and rejoins with a second pamphlet: "Woman's Superior Excellence over Man" Her first thrust is to regret, in behalf of the other sex, that neither Achilles nor Hector appears as their champion, but Thersites. Either her adversary was silenced, or the publishers considered that what he said was not worthy of preservation, for no further words of his appear, so that in any case she had the best of it. Her first pamphlet had a second edition in the following year. Its memory was still alive in this century, for it was quoted with respect by the Retrospective Review for 1824 in a learned article on the "Privileges of Woman," which deserves the attention of those interested in the subject.