The Fallacy of the Superiority of Man


The Fallacy of the Superiority of Man


Discusses scientific literature that compares the physical and mental powers of the sexes, then attends to the social conditions that have prevented women from fulfilling their potential in various endeavours.


McClaren, Laura


essay (gender politics)


pp. 54–59


It is a curious anomaly in this age of science that no serious attempt should have been made to estimate exactly the physical and mental powers of women. Men have been weighed and tested in every conceivable manner; but concerning women the evidence is scanty, conflicting, carelessly collected, and inadequate to support the conclusions based upon it. Scientific men take for granted — first, that women are inherently inferior to men, physically and mentally; and, secondly, that this fact is an axiom supported by masculine inner consciousness, and not needing proof. In popular estimation the same belief prevails, usually with a reservation in favour of women on some special point (which men do not covet much for themselves), such as physical charm, or softness of heart, or mental intuition, or spiritual insight, of a kind somewhat vague, indeed, but useful to soothe the self-esteem of women, while man openly rejoices in superiority of all more definite qualities, mental and physical. Once started on the relished theme of their own superiority, even serious men become really too funny; and as by this time there is little that is foolish left unsaid, women may now perhaps hope to have their powers estimated with attention, instead of with the usual outburst of sentimentality. This is not a matter of sentiment, but of fact. The inner convictions of either sex upon the question are worthless. If women are inferior in any point, let the world hear the evidence on which they are to be condemned. If such evidence is not conclusive, they ask that, in fairness, popular judgment be suspended till proofs are forthcoming. Women claim, further, that all tests should be applied to men and women under equal conditions. The statements of doctors, who desire to exclude women from the medical profession, should not be credited without ample inquiry. Nor should the standard by which both sexes are judged by a standard of exclusively masculine excellence. The position of women up to the present time has been that of the ugly duckling when taken to task by the hen and the cat. “Can you purr? Can you lay eggsl" say they. "No! Then you are good for nothing!"

Let us first take the point of bodily strength. It is a matter of common observation that women are weaker than men; yet, if we examine critically the grounds of this belief, we shall find many curious anomalies which merit attention, and raise a doubt whether the sex after all be inherently weaker, or only accidentally enfeebled by modern habits. An in-door life, an inconvenient and unhealthy dress, absence of gymnastics and athletic sports in girlhood, and a food frequently inferior, must act to the disadvantage of women. But how much of the muscular weakness of women may be due to sex, and how much to these preventable circumstances, no one has yet taken the trouble to inquire. The Anthropometric Committee of the British Association have recently published the results of experiments testing the relative strength of men and women, and report an advantage decidedly on the side of men. The experiments on which the report is based gauged the strength of the arm alone. Now the blow of the arm is precisely the point in which men are relatively strongest and women relatively weakest. Man has ever been a combative animal, striking and fighting with the arm both his own kind and Nature. The shoulder is therefore greatly developed. Women, as the guardians of infant life, have their chief strength in supporting burdens. The lower limbs are more muscular than the upper, and the weights they can be trained to carry are enormous. Miss Gordon Cumming relates how she was startled at the loads borne by the women of China. The Indian squaws travel great distances with children on their backs, and tents and baggage piled high above them. The testimony of Hearn, the American traveller, is interesting, and is quoted with approval by Captain Galton. “Women," said he, "were made for labour. One of them can carry or haul as much as two men can do. They also pitch our tents, make and mend our clothing, and, in fact, there is no such thing as travelling any considerable distance without them. Women, though they can do anything, are maintained at trifling expense, for, as they always stand cook, the very licking of their fingers, in scarce times, is sufficient for their subsistence." Galton himself shared this opinion. “There are few greater popular errors," he writes, "than the idea we have mainly derived from chivalrous times, that woman is a weakly creature." De Saussure, in his account of his travels in the then secluded valley of Zermatt, relates how he packed a box with mineral specimens and desired to have a man found to carry it into the next valley to meet the coach. No man in the district, he was told, was capable of even lifting such a weight; but it he would allow a woman to be employed it could be managed without trouble. A woman accordingly carried the box in triumph over the steepest roads to its destination. In some parts of this country (in our coal and iron industries) women are employed to transport heavy loads from one part of the works to another; and the amount of material moved is equal to what men are able to carry. More evidence is needed on this point; but it is certain that a test of strength which includes the arm-blow alone, without any allowance for carrying power, is unfair to the female sex. Further, the men selected for the experiment were working men, accustomed to labour with the arms. To make the test a fair one, even of arm-strength, the comparison
should be with women who labour also with the arm, as in the chain forges of Staffordshire. But the women actually chosen for the comparison were the wives of the labouring men, or persons of sedentary habits, unaccustomed to hard labour. Had such women been compared with male clerks, the difference between the strength of the male and female arm would have been found much less marked. Even this unfair test was applied to so small a number of women that an accurate average could hardly be deduced, as the report itself acknowledged.

It would also be interesting to inquire whether the muscles of women can be trained to bear sustained labour. Dr. Brayton Ball thus quotes the opinion of Haughton expressed in his "Principles of Animal Mechanics:" — “As the capillary vessels of muscle run between the elementary fibres, the amount of blood supply, and consequently the capacity for prolonged work, must vary for the same bulk of muscle in proportion to the smallness of the fibres. In women the fibres are of much smaller size than in men; and Haughton claims to have found, by direct experiment, that the muscles of women are capable of longer-continued work than those of men, though inferior to them in force exerted through a short time." In the Birmingham Daily Post not long ago there appeared a report of a meeting of working men called to protest against the employment of women in nailmaking. One of the speakers declared that "women were so unsexed by their occupation that they were able to go on working when he himself was completely used up."

Besides brute strength, another point to be considered in estimating physical superiority is the amount of muscular activity. It is usually admitted that women have the advantage in quickness of movement. The heart beats faster, the breathing is quicker, the nerve currents transmit their messages more rapidly. It is not, therefore, surprising that women execute manual work faster than men. The Beehive, a trades union journal; rarely friendly to the female artisan, speaks thus of the cigar trade: — "The difference between the cigars made by the best male hands and the best female hands is not appreciable. In addition, the women make them quicker!" The rapidity with which women count sheets of paper and pack light goods is also worth consideration. Dr. Dio Lewis states that in the Boston School of Physical Education women excelled men in feats of agility. "In every one of the ten classes," he writes, ''there were from two to six women superior to all the men." A scientific instrument which records the rapidity with which movement follows sensation appears to show a marked advantage on the side of women. More extended experiments might bring valuable evidence on this point; but, even now, there is reason to believe that in activity women have a natural advantage. Another point which ought to be considered is vital endurance. The chance of life of every girl born is five years longer than that of a boy. It is often assumed that the accidents to which men are exposed account for this difference, but the fallacy of this explanation is exposed when it is perceived that between the ages of fifteen and fifty the mortality of the sexes is more equal, the perils of maternity and diseases consequent upon poverty and low diet bringing up the feminine average. It is in early infancy and extreme old age that the superiority of the female organisation is apparent. The expectation of life of a man of fifty is considerably less than that of a woman of similar age. These facts seem to show that the female sex is better fitted to cope with the conditions of modern life than the male; so much so indeed, that although one hundred and five boys are born to every hundred girls, the survival of the fittest results in a preponderance of women over men in this country of three-quarters of a million. Further, women are less subject to almost all diseases than men. The number of women in hospitals averages less than the number of men. In the universities of America it has been stated that absence on account of illness is less frequent among the women than among the men. The Provident Society of Working Women in France, numbering many thousand members, reports that it has fewer persons on an average on the sick list than any man's society. The same fact has been observed among the friendly and trade societies of this country, and this in spite of the low wages of women — sometimes only 5s. or 6s. a week, a sum on which a diet capable of supporting healthy life can scarcely be procured. These facts are certainly startling. Whatever may be thought of the evidence of their immunity from disease, the fact of the length of life and increasing numbers of women testifies to their superiority in vital endurance.

The organs of sense in the female appear to be more perfect. The proportion of female children born blind, idiot, or deaf is smaller than that of males. Dr. Brundenell Carter, lecturing in 1881 before the Society of Arts, reports, as the result of his investigations, that amongst males the proportion colour-blind is 4.76 per cent., but amongst females only four-tenths per cent. "So that in this country," he says, "the colour-blind females are only one-tenth the number, of the colour-blind males."

On the other side of the question Dr. Crichton Browne, in his articles against the education of women, gives great weight to his experiments on the relative quantity of air inhaled by either sex as proving à priori the inferiority of the female physique." The average vital capacity of boys," he says, "is 244 cubic inches; that of girls only 130." We may perhaps be excused from treating his experiments seriously. It is probable that Dr. Browne tested fairly the quantity of air exhaled by the children on the boys' side of the school, where loose clothing was worn and the spirit of emulation in all muscular exercises prevailed. But if he was able to induce schoolgirls to blow themselves vulgarly out to the full extent in the interests of science, he performed a feat which those who know the queer notions of such girls will regard as extraordinary. Moreover, his victims were, of course, attired one and all in tight clothing, so that they could not expand the diaphragm fully even if they would. If the experimenter would direct his arguments against stays instead of against university degrees he might yet do women a service. That they have acquired a bad habit of breathing, from improper clothing, is an
unfortunate fact, but it is yet unproved that the female in natural conditions breathes less air in proportion to her size than the male. Great female singers have invariably capacious chests, and it is unlikely, from the music they sing, that the air they inhale is conspicuously less than that of the male artist.

Dr. Browne has yet another charge against women, which is not advanced for the first time. "There are," he says, “half a million fewer red corpuscles in a cubic millimetre of girls' blood than in the same quantity of boys' blood." The retort to this should be "Which girls and which boys?" If he asserts generally that all persons who live in-doors and take little exercise have fewer red corpuscles than those who romp or work in the open air, few will contradict him. But no one has taken the pains to test whether, in the same family, under the same conditions of air, food, and exercise, the female blood is invariably poorer in quality. Amongst savage races experiments on this point have yet to be made. Another argument brought forward by the medical profession is that the digestive power of women is too feeble to supply much surplus material to devote to manual labour or brain-work. This charge is easily disposed of. There is no proof that the digestive power of man is ever in excess of the needs of his own organism. In the case of woman an immense reserve of vital power exists, which is not only equal to all the needs of the woman herself, but is able to digest food enough to supply nutriment to one or even two additional human beings, and this without any natural loss of flesh or energy. That such an immense addition to the work of the system can be carried on often for years together without loss of strength, shows a marvellous reserve of force in the female organisation, which has apparently escaped the notice of the scientific world. It has always been the fashion amongst men to regard the possibility of motherhood as a disability and a source of weakness to the other sex. It should be rightly considered as a tremendous latent force which might possibly find an outlet in more ways than one.

One more advantage on the side of women may perhaps be mentioned. Of the two the female organisation is naturally more independent than the male. The sexes are, of course, mutually dependent; still, millions of women can and do dispense with male companionship without inconvenience. The customs of society are all directed to counterbalance this advantage by making women dependent upon men for food and clothing. But when once woman secures a separate means of livelihood, Nature gives to her the sceptre of sovereignty, and she is able to dictate to man the conditions of the partnership.

Leaving the physical side, let us now compare the mental calibre of the two sexes. The first argument always brought out by the medical profession is the à priori one derived from brain-weight. A woman's brain weighs less than a man's brain; therefore, it is argued, she must be inferior to him in mental power. In the first place, however, it is yet by no means certain that a large brain is superior to all smaller brains. Brain-power depends, authorities tell us, first, upon quality; secondly, upon activity; thirdly, upon size. The man who possessed the heaviest brain yet weighed was an American black-smith, who does not seem to have been otherwise remarkable, even for the excellence of his iron-work. However, admitting that if the quality and activity be equal, a large brain is superior to a small one, it is still uncertain whether or not women possess smaller brains than men in proportion to their size. When we consider how much of the brain is occupied in controlling muscular movements, it is obvious that the larger animal needs the larger brain to exert the same mental power than the smaller animal. How much less, if any, the female brain weighs in proportion to size, has never yet been calculated. Even the average weight of the female brain itself is not exactly known, as every experimenter gives a different result. Parchappe estimates that the proportion of the female to the male brain is 909 to 1,000. Surely the difference of stature would allow a difference of weight greater than this? Other inquirers give different figures. One of the best-known tables is that quoted by Professor Huxley in his “Man's Place in Nature," where the result seems adverse to feminine pretensions. Allowance must, however, be made for the following considerations. In the case of men a larger number of brains were weighed, amongst which were included the brains of many celebrated men, specially collected for this object. The women's brains were much fewer in number, taken from the lowest source, and did not include the brain of one woman of distinction. A comparison of such material is obviously unfair. Yet amongst the female brains the heaviest brain known to science up to that time was discovered. It weighed several grammes more than the brain of Cuvier. Since that time, however, though great pains have been taken to ascertain the brain-weight of celebrated men, not one record exists of the brain-weight of famous women. The brain of George Eliot was specially remarkable. The following passage occurs in her Life: “Mr. Bray, the enthusiastic believer in phrenology, was so much struck with the grand proportions of her head that he took Marian Evans up to London to have a cast taken. He thinks that, after that of Napoleon, her head showed the largest development, from brow to ear, of any person's recorded."

Whatever may result from more complete investigation with regard to brain-weights, women may expect to gain much by inquiries concerning the quality and activity of brain-matter. "Fine quality of brain," writes Mr. Fowler, the phrenologist, "may be inferred from the fineness of tissues, from delicacy of skin, and fineness of hair." These qualities women undoubtedly possess. Men of poetic temperament have often been like women, of the nervous as opposed to muscular type. The question of muscular activity has already been touched upon. Rapidity of movement is attended by rapidity of nerve currents. As regards activity of brain, the proverbial quickness of women in mental operations supports the theory that they enjoy high activity of brain. Altogether, it is not established that the brain-substance of women shows in itself an inferiority which prevents women from competing with men on equal terms.

Passing from the question of physical inferiority of brain, let us consider how far the achievements of women support the theory of their mental inferiority. Wherever boys and girls are instructed under similar conditions, no marked difference is found in the work of the children. In America, where young men and women follow university courses in the same classes, the results are highly favourable to the female sex. A recent official report of the Cornell University informs us that "during the last ten years the male and female students have followed exactly the same course of studies, have passed the same examinations, and the degree lists prove that the women have passed all tests with the same success as the men. They have taken as high degrees, they have shown themselves capable of bearing the strain of mental labour, and in no point have they shown themselves inferior to the other sex." From England we have the same testimony. In the English universities the relative proportion of women whose names appear in the honour lists is greater than the relative proportion of men. The recent success of Miss Ramsay at Cambridge has had its full effect in contributing to remove the stigma of inferiority from women in popular estimation. The generosity with which men hailed this success was as new as it was unexpected. By overcoming the unworthy jealousy with which they have too often greeted feminine achievements, men have scored as great a moral triumph as women have won in matters intellectual. But even an admission of the talents of women students does not cover the whole of the ground. "How is it," men ask, "that, if women possess an intellectual power equal to that of men, no female Shakespeare has yet appeared; that the greatest artists of the world have been men, and that most important discoveries and inventions have also been the work of men?" If an unbiassed mind will thoroughly and candidly examine this problem, the causes which have in the past acted to extinguish female genius will appear strong enough not only to account for the absence of achievement, but to cause a feeling of surprise that women have found themselves able to accomplish any literary or artistic work at all. One insuperable obstacle to the performance of any great work by women has been the want of education. All colleges and public schools have been closed to them in every past age and in every country. Ignorance of the standards and modes of thought accepted in the learned world has made women diffident. If even in society a woman hazarded an opinion on things profound, it has been an established custom — as we see in old novels and plays — to stop the mouth of the presumptuous one by some classical quotation, which had to her all the terrors of the unknown. Another impediment was the seclusion in which the majority of women were wont to pass their lives. Want of roads and means of locomotion shut them out from a knowledge of the world. Poverty restricted their library, and prevented research or foreign travel. The interests of men circled round the hunting-field and the tavern. The masculine talk was of duelling, of gambling, and of wine; of wars and of adventures, in which women had no share, and which they could not look to reproduce in literary work. Coarseness of manners, and the necessity of preserving a higher standard of morality, decreed the imprisonment of women, and prevented sympathy of ideas between the sexes. Perhaps more fatal still to feminine effort has been the absence of any inducement to women either to write or to qualify themselves for any literary or scientific work. Men became learned either to make money or to receive honour. For a woman to be learned meant disgrace. To have a serious pursuit beyond the household work was to forfeit the good opinion of every one whom she might hold dear. How bitterly Lady Mary Wortley Montagu writer, even in her time, when she gives advice to her friend on the education of her daughter! “Let her conceal whatever learning she attain with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness.'' It is very difficult for any one to be insensible to the decrees of public opinion, but especially for those who like women are dependent upon public opinion for a livelihood. If you tell one boy you will give him a shilling to run round a field, and another you will give him a thrashing if he attempt the same feat, what wonder that the one should run and the other remain standing? So with men and women. In attempting great work men have always had the crown before them; women could only have the cross in view. Another hindrance to women was, and is still, the want of freedom. Women who are dependent on fathers or husbands for the bread they eat, rarely feel justified or even find it possible to withdraw from household occupations sufficient time to achieve any really great work. A man makes the development of a literary or scientific idea the work of his life. It is for women to bring up his children; to feed, wash, and mend him while he works. The world holds that, in thus tending man, woman fulfils her mission; and it asks of her no more. On the contrary, men have always resented the notion that women could have any work in view other than the care of masculine comforts. For the misguided female creature who might start on the wild-goose chase of achieving worldly fame, no private censure or public ridicule have been too great. Accordingly, we see that no women but those who, by some mere chance, have escaped from masculine domestic life, have accomplished great intellectual work.

The difficulties which have crushed the literary aspirations of women were even more powerful in preventing excellence in art. So long as women were excluded from schools of painting where live models were studied and anatomy taught, so long their work remained that of amateurs. Women have ever been lovers of music, and have regarded it as a solace for their leisure moments. But no mere tinkler on the piano or guitar, either man or woman, has ever achieved greatness in composition. All the great composers have given up their whole lives to the study of musical construction. They have for years conducted orchestras and lived in the atmosphere of opera houses. Such a training gives a grasp and breadth to musical thought which no solitary performer on one instrument can ever attain. Not till these same conditions are fulfilled for women will their compositions compare favourably with those of men.

Another idea to be combated is that the inferiority of women is shown by this lack of mechanical ingenuity. Women have made many inventions of which they hardly get the credit. The weaving of silk into a fabric was invented by Si-Lung-Chi, an Empress of China, who is still held in veneration by the Celestials on this account. Women, also, are said to have invented the weaving of gauze. Pillow-lace was invented by one Barbara Uttmann, while Isabella Cumia, of Ravenna, in the twelfth century, took the first steps in the discovery of wood-engraving. In our own times the cotton-gin was invented by an American woman called Greene. This machine, which greatly reduced the cost of cotton manufacture and caused an immense extension of that industry, is used almost unchanged to this day. Numbers of other discoveries are recorded in which either women had the first idea and resorted to the technical skill of men to develop it, or men had the first idea and employed women to investigate, experiment, and assist its progress. In either case, it is needless to say, the whole profit and honour were reaped by men. In the recent development of machinery it is idle to have expected women to bear a part. The first requisite is a knowledge of mechanics, in which science women are never instructed, and of the properties and manipulation of metals, and the use of tools, from which men have jealously excluded the other sex. Domestic life, too, offers a poor field for inventions which can dazzle or delight humanity. If ten persons want to cross a river in a month, a rowing-boat is better adapted to ferry them over than a steamer. In the multifarious duties of women, isolated in separate homes, machinery can never play a great part; and for slicing the family cucumbers no instrument will ever be found better than the common domestic knife. It is only when capitalists desire to feed and clothe the entire world out of their factories for a money profit that labour-saving appliances are called into existence. The one valuable offshoot from the mechanical world which has penetrated the domain of women is the sewing machine. To expect women to have invented it for themselves is as absurd as to expect the rustic to invent the steam-plough, or an able-seaman to construct the modem ironclad. And this tide of invention seems likely to continue in the hands of men. It is probable that the next few years may see a remarkable advance in electrical science. Unless clever men will send their daughters at once into electricians' workshops, men will be certain to score another triumph on their side, and boast of their ingenuity at even greater length.

In all the minor arts women have to contend with difficulties, which accounts for the inferiority of their work. Everywhere men are trained to special trades; women are expected to make themselves generally useful at low salaries. The uncertainty which attends the lot of every woman is in a great measure to blame. No one knows whether, as rich men's wives, girls may need accomplishments; or, as poor men's wives, have to turn everything into account; or whether, indeed, they may ever be wives at all. To train a girl for any occupation is to run a strong risk of having one's pains entirely wasted. The model housewife dies a solitary old maid. The brilliant musician has nineteen children and forgets to teach the piano. The rich man's daughter, accustomed to shine in society, marries a poor curate, and cobbles her husband's socks in solitude; while the perfect cook will marry a drunkard, who brings home no viands to dress. In trades the same difficulty is felt. If a man be educated for any given post he will probably remain at it for the best years of his life. But if you take the same pains to train a woman, the first man who comes along may carry her off as his general servant for life, and you are left lamenting. The one quality certain to be of value to women themselves is their power of turning their hands to any kind of work and performing it fairly well without training. But such labour can never bear comparison with the work of trained hands.

Surely here are difficulties enough in the path of women. Without technical training, without intellectual advantages, without knowledge of the world and its prevalent ideas, tastes, and requirements, without leisure, without freedom, and without money, in the face of public ridicule and private censure, alone, unaided by patrons and unsupported by disciples, what wonder if women have failed to make their talents felt? Men have devoted themselves to their own development; women have been devoted to the development of men. The talents of men have been set upon a candlestick; those of women extinguished under a bushel. Surely it is not strange that the results are different. It is curious to note how, whenever obstacles have been withdrawn, women have won new fields of honour. A remarkable instance of this comes from ancient Greece, which I quote from Symond's "Greek Poets." "The customs of the AEtolians permitted more social and domestic freedom than was common in Greece. AEtolian women were not confined to the harem like lonians, nor subjected to the rigorous discipline of the Spartans. While mixing freely with male society, they were highly educated and accustomed to express their sentiments to an extent unknown elsewhere in history until indeed the present time. It is noticeable that of four Lesbian poets three were women (one of them the immortal Sappho), whom Aristotle places in the same rank with Homer. In Thebes, which was also an AEtolian city, Myrtis and Corinna rivalled Pindar." After this burst of sunshine the prospects of women clouded over, and are only now beginning to brighten. Once women were held incapable of acting plays: to-day not only are they present on the stage, but they eclipse the male artist. A century ago the writings of women were treated with contempt: to-day it is acknowledged that women can, in modern literature, compete on equal terms with men. The age of heroic poetry and the classical drama is, however, gone. The very men who ask women why they do not produce a Shakespeare, are not ashamed to write, applaud, and even to revive such pieces as The Colonel. In painting and in musical composition women are daily gaining ground. The fact that women have in all ages possessed talent, if not genius, which was prevented from developing through want of opportunity, rests upon independent testimony. The mothers of many great men have been found upon inquiry to have possessed the same qualities which made their sons famous. The mother of Goethe had that "Lust zum Fabuliren" of which her domestic circle alone reaped the benefit. The mother of Van Dyck only found an outlet for her artistic skill in the design of figure and landscape, which she slowly worked in an embroidery of coloured silk. The mother of George Herbert had all his talents and depth of religious feeling. Porson inherited his wonderful memory from his mother, who was a housemaid, and who astonished her master by committing whole volumes to memory and reciting them at her work. Mendelssohn himself declares that his sister was naturally his equal in genius. Instances may be multiplied at any length. In every century it can be shown that women have possessed talents which failed to find a suitable sphere of action and left no permanent fruit.

Briefly to sum up this argument. Women contend that wherever the sexes have competed in intellectual work under similar conditions, the theory of female
inferiority has not been borne out. Wherever men have enjoyed conspicuous advantages their work has naturally excelled the work of women. Whether women, with equal advantages, would have excelled, or even equalled, menkind in every branch of labour, is a question which no one is competent to decide. Women only ask that public judgment be suspended until their powers have had fair trial. No age was ever so favourable for the development of female talent as the present, and every day the conditions of male and female labour become more equal. It has taken many centuries to develop the intellect of man. Women ask but one century more. If, by the year 1987, the position of women in the artistic, musical, scientific, and literary worlds is not equal to that of the other sex in their day, men will then be able to write a plausible essay on the inherent inferiority of women.