A Small Sample from Woman not Inferior to Man
on The Thinking Man's CDROM
If a celebrated Author had not already told us, that there is nothing in Nature so much to be wondered at as THAT WE CAN WONDER AT ALL; it must appear to every one, who has but a degree of understanding above the idiot, a matter of the greatest surprise, to observe the universal prevalence of prejudice and custom in the minds of the Men. One might naturally expect to see those lordly creatures, as they modestly style themselves, everywhere jealous of superiority, and watchful to maintain it. Instead of which, if we except the tyrannical usurpation of authority they exert over us Women, we shall find them industrious in nothing but courting the meanest servitude. Was their ambition laudable and just, it would be consistent in itself, and this consistency would render them alike imperious in every circumstance, where authority is requisite and justifiable: And if their brutal strength of body entitled them to lord it over our nicer frame, the superiority of reason to passion, might suffice to make them blush to submit that reason to passion, prejudice, and groundless custom. If this haughty sex would have us believe they have a natural right of superiority over us, why do not they prove their charter from Nature, by making use of reason to subdue themselves. We know we have reason, and are sensible that it is the only prerogative Nature has bestowed upon us, to lift us above the sphere of sensitive animals: And the same reason, which points us out our superiority of Men over us, if we could discover in them the least degree of sense above what we ourselves possess. But it will be impossible for us, without forfeiting that reason, ever to acknowledge ourselves inferior to creatures, who make no other use of the sense they boast of, than basely to subject it to the passions they have in common with brutes. Were we to see the Men every where, and at all times, masters of themselves, and their animal appetites in a perfect subordination to their rational faculties; we should have some colour to think that Nature designed them for masters to us, who cannot perhaps always boast of so complete a command over ourselves. But how is it possible for us to give-in to such a notion, while we see those very men, whose ambition of ascendancy over us, nothing less than absolute dominion can satiate, court the most abject slavery, by prostituting reason to their groveling passions, suffering sense to be led away captive by prejudice, and sacrificing justice, truth, and honour, to inconsiderate custom?
How many things do these mighty wise creatures hold for undoubted truths, without being able to assign a reason for any one of their opinions! The cause of which is, that they suffer themselves to be hurried away by appearances. With them, what seems true, must be so; because the light in which they eye things stands them in the stead of conviction. Where they want evidence in the principles, fallacy helps them to fill up the vacancy with seemings in their inference. In a word, as they suppose without reason, so they discourse without grounds; and therefore would have as strongly maintained the negative of what they assert, if custom, and the impression of the senses had determined them to it after the same manner.
But a few ages ago, the belief of the Antipodes was a heresy in philosophy. Ignorance, dignified with the prerogative of custom, and supported by the seemings of reason, justified the contrary opinion; and the gravest philosophers were, or affected to be, so well convinced of it, that it was an argument of the utmost arrogance to attempt to set them right. And yet the matter has been since so unquestionably proved, that nothing but the height of madness, or the depth of ignorance can now countenance a doubt of it.
The constant revolution of days and years, determined the wiseacres of old to assert that all the celestial orbs move round the earth: And custom, ever prevailing custom, drags the major part of our contemporary bookworms to follow their opinion. Whereas the very same phases, if we maturely consider, may equally incline us to think, that the earth itself is a planet, and moves with the rest of the planets round the sun. What mighty superiority of reason then have these overgrown boys over lesser children? Both argue alike from appearances: The former see, from the diversified positions of the earth and sun, that there is motion in one of them; and because they feel not the agitation in the earth they stand upon, therefore precipitately conclude that it is the sun moves round them, and not they round the sun. The latter insensible of the motion of a coach, fancy, when in one, that the houses pass by them, and not they by the houses. Are not both led in their judgments by like principles? Yet with this difference still, that these are less obstinate in error, and more ready to be set right, than they.
In like manner the wild savages in the Indies, (who, by the bye, are nevertheless of the same species with our domestic ones at home) for want of knowing the mechanism of a clock, are apt to attribute its movements to invisible spirits within it; while your blind followers of Descartes are not ashamed to take upon religious trust from him, that the whole animal creation are but different kinds of automata, or self-moving clockwork; notwithstanding its being pretty well known, that their master himself had too much sense to believe his own system, having invented it only to amuse and impose upon fools.
The men, who have taken care to engross the affairs of religion, as well as others, to their own management, are no more guided in that than in anything else by the dictates of reason. The religion they were bred up in, they blindly prefer to all others, without being able to give any stronger proof of its being the best, than that it was the Faith of their forefathers. Upon the strength of this prejudice, they adhere to it as the only true one, and without ever examining into it, or comparing it with others; they condemn all beside it as erroneous. Is not this the case with most of the men, our clergy not excepted? No country pleases a man so well as his own; nay, so far is he apt to carry prejudice, that he can seldom be induced to do justice to any other nation, even where truth is on its side, if the honour and interest of his own is at stake: And this is a foible the very best men are equally subject to. Nay, such is the imbecility of that sex, as well as ours, that even professions are a matter of prejudice. And a fool, of our own, is often more acceptable in company than a wise-man of another calling. The very inequality of stations, which constraint, and confusion have introduced among men, has deceived multitudes of them into a notion that the same inequality is in men themselves.
If we allow ourselves but time to trace this diversity of vulgar errors up to the fountain-head, shall we be able to find them any other source than interest and custom? And yet such is the prevalency which custom, ever so wrongly introduced, has over the minds of the men, that it requires much less difficulty to wean them from sentiments, which they themselves have built on the most convincing evidences of reason and truth, than to draw them from the prejudices which custom has instilled into them.
I should never have done, was I to reckon up the many absurd notions the men are led into by custom: Tho' there is none more absurd, than that of the great difference they make between their own sex and ours. Yet it must be own'd that there is not any vulgar error more ancient or universal. For the learned and illiterate alike are prepossessed with the opinion that men are really superior to women, and that the dependence we now are in, is the very state which Nature pointed out for us. So that to advance the contrary doctrine, after so long a prepossession, must appear as great a paradox, as it did some years ago to assert, that on the nether surface of the globe, there were men who walked with their heads downwards to us; and whether the one be not as agreeable to truth as the other, will best be found on a fair trial. But what judge shall we have recourse to, or what evidence can be admitted in an affair of so delicate a nature as this; on which depends the right of one half the creation, which ever side may prevail?
All the witness we desire to be allowed, is plain, undisguised truth; and if the men have but generosity enough left to admit this evidence, we shall have no room to fear any they can bring. We are willing, at least for charity's sake to hope, that, however they may be disposed, they will at least blush to make any exceptions against so unquestionably impartial a witness.
But who shall the matter be tried by? We ourselves are too nearly concerned in the decision, to be admitted even as witnesses in the trial, much less then as judges; and the same consideration equally excludes men from acting in it in either capacity. And yet so far are we from having anything to apprehend from the defect of justice in our cause, that if the men were ever so little more just and less corrupted in their judgments than they really are, we would readily subscribe to their own sentence. But as the case now stands, we must appeal to a more impartial judge.
Hitherto the difference between the sexes has been but very slightly touched upon. Nevertheless, the men, biased by custom, prejudice, and interest, have presumed boldly to pronounce sentence in their own favour, because possession empowered them to make violence take place of justice. And the men of our times, without trial or examination, have taken the same liberty from the report of other men. Whereas to judge soundly, whether their sex has received from Nature any real super-eminence beyond ours; they should entirely divest themselves of all interest and partiality, and suffer no bare reports to fill the place of argument, especially if the reporter be a party immediately concerned.
If a man could thus divest the partiality attached to this self, and put on for a minute a state of neutrality, he would be able to see, and forced to acknowledge, that prejudice and precipitance are the chief causes of setting less value upon women than men, and giving so much greater excellence and nobility to the latter than to the former. In a word, were the men philosophers in the strict sense of the term, they would be able to see that Nature invincibly proves a perfect equality in our sex with their own.
But as there are extremely few among them capable of such an abstracted way of thinking, they have no more right to act the judges in this matter than ourselves; and therefore, we must be obliged to appeal to a more impartial judge, one incapable of siding with any party, and consequently unsuspected on both sides. This I apprehend to be rectified reason, as it is a pure intellectual faculty elevated above the consideration of any sex, and equally concerned in the welfare of the whole rational species in general, and in particular. To this Judge we leave our cause, by the decision of this we are prepared to stand or fall; and if, upon the evidence of truth, reason should declare us inferior to men, we will cheerfully acquiesce to the sentence. But what if we obtain a decree in our favour, upon impartial examination? Why then all the authority, which the men have exerted over us hitherto, will appear an unjust usurpation on their side; for which nothing can make a tolerable atonement, but their restoring us to the state of equality Nature first placed us in. And till they do that, the fancy'd wrongs they charge upon our whole sex, tho' but applicable (if at all) to a very small number among us, whom I don't however pretend to justify, can only be looked upon as very moderate reprisals upon theirs.
To set this whole matter then in as clear a light as possible, it will be necessary to clear our ideas from all that is muddled and confused, by separating the fictitious from the real, the obscure from the evident, the false from the true, supposition from matter of fact, seemings from entities, practice from principle, belief from knowledge, doubt from certainty, interest and prejudice from justice and sound judgment. To this end therefore we must examine, in order, what are the general notions which the men entertain of our sex; on what grounds they build their opinions; and what are the effects to us and to themselves of the treatment we receive from them, in consequence of their present opinion. In the course of this little treatise I shall also occasionally examine, whether there be any essential difference between the sexes which can authorize the superiority the men claim over the women; and what are the causes of, and who are accountable for, the seeming difference which makes the sum of their plea. And if, upon mature consideration, it appears that there is no other difference between men and us than what their tyranny has created, it will then appear how unjust they are in excluding us from that power and dignity we have a right to share with them; how ungenerous in denying us the equality of esteem, which is our due; and how little reason they have to triumph in the base possession of an authority, which unnatural violence, and lawless usurpation, put into their hands. Then let them justify, if they can, the little meannesses, not to mention the grosser barbarities, which they daily practise towards that part of the creation, whose happiness is so inseparably linked with their own.