“Woman and the Philosophers” by G.K. Chesterton


Simon Glücklich “Paar im Gespräch”

Woman and the Philosophers by G.K. Chesterton 

The Speaker, January 26, 1901

The title of the work before us is Woman: a Scientific Study and Defence. It never occurred to us before that woman stood in need of a defence of any kind; and what the women of our acquaintance would think of being made the subject of a “scientific defence” we shudder to conceive. The work which Mr. Seed has adapted from M. Fouillee contains a considerable amount of sound and suggestive argument against the scientific theories of the inferiority of woman; but the plan of the book is a mistake. Instead of attempting to base the equality of the sexes on the domestic habits of some wretched amoeba in the primeval twilight, the author should have turned on the men of science and told them, with all possible respect, that they have nothing whatever to do with questions of superiority and inferiority. Obviously they have not. Whether woman is structurally different to man is a matter of physical science, whether she is superior or inferior or equal is not a matter of physical science; it is a question of what you happen to want. Science does its duty in saying that monkeys have tails and men have not; but as for saying that it is better not to have tails, that is a matter of taste and imagination, and by no means certain even at that.

The author himself quotes incidentally a remarkable instance of this in a citation from Herbert Spencer, but he does not seem to see the full fallacy that he is trying to expose. Herbert Spencer says, truly enough, that the interest of women is generally directed rather to persons than to ideas, and gives this as showing their inferiority, since the last products of human evolution are “abstract reasoning and the abstract emotion of justice.” Here we have in full operation that strange religious dogma which crept into the minds of so many evolutionists- the notion that the last thing must be the highest. In this case it is clearly untrue. To understand a man (as many women do) is to understand one of the most complex and untranslatable cryptograms conceivable, to understand a “cause” is to understand the clumsiest thing created, a mere alphabet of thought. What is “abstract justice”? Personally we know nothing about it, except that in proportion as it becomes abstract it generally becomes unjust. If a preference for personal over abstract criticism be a mark of inferiority, the great novelist must be inferior to the political wirepuller. But all this staring common sense is swept away by the philosopher who wishes to make biology prove what it can never prove and the sole test he applies is to ask what is the last product of human evolution. By that argument playing on the typewriter would be superior to playing on the organ.

In any discussion of philosophic strictures upon women it was inevitable that Schopenhauer should be involved, though we fancy most women and most believers in womanhood would be much more annoyed by Schopenhauer’s approval than by his denunciation. When a gentleman wishes for the destruction of the human race, and may therefore, presumably, reserve his affections for such things as assassination and typhoid fever, to be regarded by him with a loving smile would be rather disquieting than complimentary. But the particular passage quoted in this book is so remarkable an instance of Schopenhauer’s astonishing literary ingenuity and still more astonishing unreality of experience and outlook, that it is worth a moment’s consideration. Women, says Schopenhauer, in effect, are the best guardians of children, because they are themselves children, “puerile, futile, limited.” Now we know what women do for children; they nearly kill themselves over them with work and anxiety; the simple and obvious way, therefore, of testing the truth of Schopenhauer’s comparison is to ask what children do for children. If the “futility” and “limitation” of a little boy of seven lead him naturally to martyr himself for another little boy of seven, then the comparison is sound. But as we all know that they lead him to kick his shins and run away with his toys, the comparison is nonsense. It is surely strange that the name of philosopher should ever have been given to a literary man, however brilliant, who was capable of basing an argument upon the amazing notion that people love what is like themselves. In fact, the whole of Schopenhauer’s theory of the childishness of women is capable of the shortest and simplest answer. If women are childish because they love children, it follows that men are womanish because they love women.

The author speaks with just contempt of these efforts to discredit women by biological parallels. If it be true that certain baboons have a large amount of the maternal instinct, rational ethics have nothing to say to it except, “So much the better for the baboons.” They may be inferior to us in other respects; so are the birds of the air. But a mortal with the wings of a bird is an angel, and a mortal with the maternal instinct is a mother.

We think this book would have been better if it had been purely scientific or purely poetic and moral. Its biological thesis, that from the earliest dawn of life the two sexes have certain types and functions which may still be traced in their moral and mental attitudes, may be true and is very probable. The scope of the book and its dallyings with other matters, however, leave no space for the serious scientific demonstration of this. But while we suspend our judgment on the truth of the biological contention we are heartily in agreement with the moral contention, and cannot see that it requires any biological machinery.at all. The divinity of woman is to be decided by what she is, not by how she was made. It has always seemed to us truly extraordinary that Christians should have raised such a shriek of disgust at the “degrading” notion that man was made out of the lower animals, when the very Bible they defended described him, with splendid common sense, as made out of red mud. But it is stranger still that philosophers who have accepted in a healthier spirit the genial fact of our kinship with the other creatures, should try to revive the silly and vulgar prejudice against the animal world in order to throw discredit on the moral dignity of man or woman. To refuse to judge of souls, laws, creeds or tendencies on their own merits is the perfection of cosmic snobbery. To inquire whether a man’s father did not keep a shop is far less snobbish than to inquire whether his ancestor did not keep a tail.

The question is far too large a one to be treated here, but we have a strong conviction that the world will gradually, by a beneficent revolution, turn this idea upside down. Hitherto it seems to have been thought that in proportion as a phenomenon detached itself from the background, ceased to be serene, inevitable and obvious and became strange, diverse and audacious, an interesting development, it became less sacred and more profane. We venture to prophecy that the tendency now in progress to show everything, no matter how fundamental, as a growth, an experiment, a choice among alternatives, will at length result in a religious sense of wonder passing all the religions of the earth. The age of miracles will have returned; for a man come from the womb will be as strange as a man risen from the dead and the sun rising in its season as startling as the sun standing still upon Gibeon.

This is at least the true light in which to regard woman. If it were proved to us ten thousand times over (it has not yet been proved once) that woman laboured under eternal mental as well as physical disadvantages, it would not make us think less but rather more of that brilliant instinct of chivalry which saw in her peculiar possibilities and put her to higher uses. The whole romance of life and all the romances of poetry lie in this motion of the utterly weak suddenly developing advantages over the strong. It is the curse of the modern philosophy of strength that it is ridden with the fallacy that there is only one kind of strength and one kind of weakness. It forgets that size is a weakness as well as littleness; that the camel is just as weak for the purpose of going through the eye of a needle as the microbe for carrying a load of hay.

As to what form this peculiar dignity of woman is to take at the present day, a question to which many pages of this book are devoted, we think it a matter for much more serious consideration than it has yet received. We do not mean that we are out of sympathy with the modern movements. We believe firmly in the equality of the sexes, and we agree, moreover, that to use woman merely as a wooden idol is as bad as to use her as a wooden broom. But, in the interests of equality, we must say that we doubt whether the mere equalisation of sports and employments will bring us much further. There is nothing so certain to lead to inequality as identity. A mere struggle between the sexes as to who will make the best tinkers, tailors, or soldiers, is very likely indeed to result in a subordination of women infinitely more gross and heartless than that which disgraced the world up to now. What we really require is a revised and improved division of labour. Whatever solution may be best (we do not pretend for a moment to have decided) it must emphatically not be based upon any idea so paltry and small-minded as the idea that there is anything noble in professional work or anything degrading in domestic. Woman must not be elevated as the worst type of working man is elevated, merely (to use the silly phrase) “to a better kind of work,” to choke the memory of his own class in a stick-up collar. If this is the only end of the noble promise of female emancipation, the intellectual woman’s lot will certainly be an ironic one, for she will have toiled to reach the haughtiest eminence from which she can look down upon the housemaid, only to discover that world has become sane and discovered that the housemaid is as good as she.



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