No. III. 


On the Influence of Authority and Custom on the 

Female Mind and Manners


         Of all bondage, mental bondage is surely the most fatal; the absurd despotisim which has hitherto, with more than gothic [20] barbarity, enslaved the female mind, the enervating and degrading system of manners by which the understandings of women have been chained down to frivolity and trifles, have increased the general tide of effeminacy and corruption. To conform to the perpetual fluctuation of fashion (and few have the courage to dare the “slow and moving finger of scorn,” which is pointed at every external singularity) requires almost their whole time and attention, and leaves little leisure for intellectual improvement.

         “Say dreamers of gay dreams!

How will you weather an eternal night,

Where such expedients fail?”


It has been alleged, that this constant variation of mode is serviceable to commerce, and promotes a brisk circulation of money; or with more propriety it might be said a quick succession of bankruptcies: but however this may be, it is I conceive making too expensive an offering at the golden shrine of Plutus to sacrifice all the [21] dignified and rational pursuits of life. A few distinguished individuals, feeling the powers of their own minds (for what can curb the celestial energy of genius?) are endeavouring to dispel the magical illusions of custom, and restore degraded woman to the glory of rationality, and to a fitness for immortality. The rights of woman, and the name of Woollstonecraft, will go down to posterity with reverence, when the pointless sarcasms of witlings are forgotten. I am aware that some men of real good sense and candor, have supposed that the idea of there being no sexual character, is carried in this most admirable work a little too far. Let them reflect for a moment on the extremes which the opposite opinion has produced; and say from whence arises the most formidable danger? Is there any cause to apprehend that we may subject our feelings too much to the guidance of reason? Or that we shall conduct the business of our families with too much order and equity: to the wise and good only, I now appeal! would you not dare to give up any of the allurements of the mistress (if indeed any [22] need be given up worth the preserving) to the refined pleasure of living with a rational and equal companion? In such an intercourse, when enlivened by love, if happiness resides on earth, surely it is to be found! where the advantages are reciprocal, for each reflects back with interest, the light they receive. Similarity of mind and principle is the only true basis of harmony. Great superiority of either side causes a narrow jealousy, or a painful constraint; there is nothing so irksome as to converse with people who cannot understand you.

         Others (I mean the vulgar of every rank) terrified at the very idea of our feeling and asserting our rights to rationality, raise innumerable cavils and objections, all originating from the same source, a pertinacious and jealous adherence to a narrow and mistaken self-interest, and the petty word authority. It is this which makes the priest on certain occasions raise an alarm about the safety of the church, the sovereign with paternal solicitude endeavor to guard his people from light and knowledge, by [23] royal proclamations and prohibitions, and the Ephesians to exclaim that their “craft is in danger.” Must I inform these profound politicians, that every infringement of right weakens duty, every stretch of prerogative gives a mortal wound to monarchy, and every weak sense of proscription prepares the way for their utter demolition, and for laying Hierarchy waste? The love of arbitrary power, with morbid influence, corrupts the human mind; and after the factitious strength of the delirium, exhausted by the unnatural exertion, sinks it into helpless effeminacy and cowardly despondence, the usurper must sooner or later be the victim of his usurpation.

         Let those who love influence seek it by surer methods; bolts and bars may confine for a time the feeble body, but can never enchain the noble, the free-born mind; the only true grounds of power are reason and affection, vows of obedience are lighter than vanity, but the sensible heart rejoices to anticipate the wishes of the object of its tenderness. Ye simple men! so tenacious [24] of your prerogative, insinuate yourselves gently into our affections and understandings, respect in us the majesty of rationality, upon which ye so justly value yourselves, and ye will have no cause to complain that like wayward children, spoilt by equally misjudged caresses and corrections, we in fact tyrannise over you by our caprices, while you are deluded with mock ensigns of power. And even where this is not the case, and the brute prevails over the weak infant, or the heart-broken slave, say! what are the mighty advantages ye reap from your dear-bought victory? Sullen acquiescence, gloomy resignation, fretful impatience, or degrading servility; all the virtues of the woman (for virtue is not the child of constraint) sunk in the poor spiritless contemptible slave; and when totally degraded by abject compliances to a tyrannical despot, every act of tame subjection to unreasonable requisitions, by weakening affection, clouding reason, and exciting disgust (for even the worm at times will turn upon the trampler) prepares the way for defection by undermining principle; and it [25] is “by good luck” only, if the effects are not such as a penetrating eye, going back to first causes, might without a prophetic spirit easily foresee, or if actuated by criminal and selfish motives as easily perhaps bring to pass.

“Let him ungenerous, who alone intent

To bless himself – in eternal cares

Well merited, consume his nights and days!

Let barbarous nations whose inhuman love

Is wild desire! Let eastern tyrants

From the light of heaven seclude their bosom

Slaves! Meanly possest of a mere lifeless

Violated form!

While those whom love cements in holy faith 

And equal transports, free as nature live,

Disdaining fear.”

“Alas! (says the sensible writer of the Persian Letters) I may find in Persia a seraglio composed of beautiful slaves, the mercenary or reluctant victims to gross and tyrannical desire. But what rational converse can I hope from these? What true affection? What solid peace? What heartfelt delight? But was Zelis my wife, in such a wife I should find the most endeared, [26] most pleasing, most faithful friend! All the precautions of eastern jealousy would then be unnecessary; those wretched precautions! which if they bar the door against dishonor, shut out esteem, the life of friendship, and confidence, the soul of love.” Religion, reason, and affection, are stricter surer guards, than; walls of adamant.

         Lovers of truth! be not partial in your researches. Men of sense and science! remember, by degrading our understandings, you incapacitate us for knowing your value, and make coxcombs take place of you in our esteem. The ignorant and the vulgar prove their cunning by leveling principles; but you! how impolitic to throw a veil over our eyes, that we may not distinguish the radiance that surrounds you!

         Objections are also made against the vindication of our rights, under the pretence, that by enlarging and ennobling our minds, we shall be undomesticated, and unfitted (I suppose is meant) for mere household [27] drudges. With the excellent Dr. Priestley, I repeat “this is a sordid and debasing prejudice,” of the fallacy of which I have been convinced both from experience and observation. Numberless women have I known, whose studies (incapable of the “epicurism of reason and religion”) have been confined to Mrs. Glasse’s Art of Cookery, and whose whole time has been spent in the kitchen, altercating with and changing of servants, provoking them to dishonesty by mean cautions, and narrow distrust; and immersed in unnecessary and dirty drudgery, have ruined their health, spoilt them tempers, neglected their persons, laid waste their minds, and sacrificed their friends, and after all these expensive forfeitures, have never attained the end; but have (to use a feminine phrase) muddled away their time and money in the disorderly management of hands without a head; been cheated by their dependents, because neither feeling respect or attachment they have gloried in outwitting them; and their acquaintance, turning with disgust from their expensive and labored treats, [28] have sighed for the plain dish, the cordial and hospitable manners, “the feast of reason and the flow of souls.”1 Contrast with this the following picture from Fitzosborne’s charming Letters, “Her refined sense, and extensive knowledge have not raised her above the necessary acquisitions of female science; they have only taught her to fill that part of her character with higher grace and dignity. She enters into all the domestic duties of her station with the most consummate skill and prudence; but economical deportment is calm and steady; and she presides over her family like the intelligence of some planetary orb, conducting it in all its proper directions without violence, or disturbed effort.”

         But the vindicator of female rights is thought by some sagacious married men to be incompetent to form any just opinion of the cares and duties of a conjugal state, from never having entered the matrimonial lists, because perhaps she has not met with the man who known who properly to value [29] her, of having met, may, alas! have lost. Wonderful free-masonry this! And ridiculous as wonderful. To be sure those who are eagerly engaged in play, with all their self-interest up in arms, are much better judges of the game than the cool impartial looker on; and a West-India Planter must understand the justice of the Slave-Trade far better than an English House of Commons, to say nothing of the very superior and extraordinary political wisdom necessarily belonging to the office of Prime Minister, of which the profane vulgar can form no idea! What nonsense this! Does it need a serious refutation! From such notions (most devoutly I repeat a part of the liturgy) good Lord deliver us.

         “Every science (said the late Mr. Robinson in his political Catechism) beheld in the gross, resembles a loaded fruit tree in autumn; but as all the fruits and foliage and ramifications of the one, so all the departments of the other, may be reduced to a few first principles, and these comprehended, the whole is understood.” “Mystery, he adds, is a fine material for manufacture.”

         For once Rousseau does us justice, and writes, “Notwithstanding the corrupt manners of the age, women are no more strangers than men to that rapturous enthusiasm with which the ideas of wisdom and virtue fire the soul.” Domestic concord is the lovely fruit of sympathy, congeniality, and kindred, sense and goodness. With equal sweetness and truth, sung the Poet in his admirable Indian Philosopher:

                  “Happy the youth that finds the bride,

                  Whose birth is to his own allied,

                           The sweetest joy of life:

                  But oh! The crowds of wretched souls,

                  Fetter’d to minds of different moulds,

                           And chain’d to eternal strife.

 

                  Some courteous angel tell me where,

                  What distant lands this unknown fair,

                           Or distant seas detain?

                  Swift as the wheel of nature rolls,

                  I’d fly to meet and mingle souls,

                           And wear the joyful chain.”

 



Usually seen as “the feast of reason, and the flow of soul,” from Pope’s Essay on Man