The Position of Women


The Position of Women


An essay examining the past and present factors that have contributed to women's position in society. It focuses on the relationship between "power" and "position" in women's history, and the changing relationships between women across classes and between men and women due to social, legal, and political changes.


Portsmouth, Eveline


November 1888


essay (gender politics)


pp. 7–10


No subject has, perhaps, excited more conflict, been the nucleus for more theories, or originated more prophecies than the position of woman as it should be, or as it will be, in the world — physical, moral, and social. Men and women have placed themselves on opposite sides, claiming an equal right to display the standards of Religion, Science, and Common Morality. However much the noise of battle may mislead us, the actual position of woman, as we find it in Western civilisation, has been attained by other means than those of controversial triumph.

The links which form the chain of progress up to the present position of woman are many and complex. In these pages it will be possible only, in examining a few of those links nearest to our own day, to surmise as to the plan upon which they were forged. To do this, it is necessary to make clear the exact signification attached to the term, "The Position of Woman." The advantage it possesses over others that are often used in its place is obvious, and by defining its meaning as intended by the writer, the way is made plainer for observation of the conditions out of which that position has sprung, and the influences or forces which have affected it

It is certain that no woman now holds objective power at all commensurate with that held by individual women in former times. The same statement applies to men, for wherever increased civilisation has been crowned with liberty, a death-blow has been struck at absolute power. But the fact is to be noted that at periods when a woman has wielded tremendous power, the position of her sex in general has been more or less degraded. Not only would the quantity of power over others be now impossible, but the quality of it would be different.

The existence of Semiramis has been accepted on the records or traditions of her fame as a ruler, founder, and conqueror. The Queen who travelled far to prove the wisest man with hard questions, cultivated learning when her subject-women knew neither Girton nor Somerville. A poor country girl, rich in patriotism and the courage it breeds, won a pure renown when she conferred on the simple name of Joan a national glory. We feel it incredible that only three hundred years ago Catherine of Medicis was able, in a country whose civilisation was then conspicuous, to plan and execute with impunity a scheme of diabolical dimensions. Where can we now see any supreme power equal to that exercised by the virgin Queen Elizabeth?

In this year of grace it is inconceivable that any combination of events should place the lives and welfare of a nation, the prosperity or glory of a state, at the feet of any woman even for an hour; yet the sex, the many women instead of the few, enjoy a position very considerably higher and happier than was possible when to the individual, raised by extraordinary talent or fortune, nothing seems to have been impossible. Still, while at present the position of woman may embrace all women, one of its primary characteristics is the relation it bears to individual talent and character.

Power and position are used sometimes as convertible terms, whereas they need be in no way synonymous. The desire in man or woman for direct personal control over others, even in its least offensive, the religious or philanthropic forms, is one that ever savours of human weakness, and is bom of human vanity. As an energy, it may obtain a transient success and afford a feeble satisfaction, but its roots are deep in selfishness. It enfeebles and impoverishes the mind from which it emanates; its fire, which gives neither light nor heat, consumes for a short season and is doomed to extinction. The present position of woman rather represents that realisation of the first precepts of pure liberty that insists on the personal control over life, actions, and property, the free enjoyment of individual tastes, the unthwarted exercise of individual talents, the unrestrained use of individual faculties, always and only subordinate to national duty and the consideration of the same freedom to others. Such a position is defended, but not created, by law, although the birth and decay of a statute mark the progress made. The repeal, and still more the disuse, of a statute can prove the establishment of a principle more than its promulgation. The present position of woman compared with the past would appear to show that its extension is mainly due to the removing of barriers, inviting entrance into new fields of thought or occupation defined by individual character and ability, and regulated by the rules of simple justice and common sense, that dictate other affairs. The systems by which more was demanded of the weaker sex, and less justice afforded to meet the demand, are overthrown, or in a state of siege.

Women of the higher class in society escape in a large measure the suffering which an unjust position entails upon those below them. Except in cases where experience of some particular cruelty or injustice struck them sharply through the protection of rank or wealth, they were inclined to resent as unnecessary, undesirable, or ridiculous, the earlier agitation for a change in the position of women. This was not occasioned by hardness or ill-will, but, as the heart cannot feel what the eye does not see, so the multitude of preachers has always been great who choose Patience for their text, because they have never felt pain. Pity was not refused, but prevention was not entertained. In the same way when women suffered personal ill-treatment, indignation was more freely than logically bestowed upon ruffianism that could stand, if not with pride, at least with insolence, upon legal rights. While the offender was execrated, the power to offend was permitted to remain in the garb of a Government official, respectable in his uniform, and dangerous to meddle with.

Christianity held forth to the world a picture of marriage, as a most ancient institution, a gift ever fresh in the beauty of holiness from the hand of the Great Father to His children. So tender and lovely was the picture that it was chosen to represent the mysterious and enduring tie between the Church and Christ. Of different design, but beautiful also in colour and in grace, is the portrayal of marriage by Auguste Comte. Poets sang and moralists dwelt upon marriage as a subject of almost transcendental perfection. Too deeply engrossed in the adoration of such ideals, who would withdraw their eyes to look at the hideous caricature that really represented marriage to thousands of women? Marriage, as established by law and exhibited by custom, might and did very often represent to a wife a hopeless and bitter slavery. The work of the weaker sex was constantly paid in wages to the stronger. The fruits of hard toil of the wife could be spent by the husband ; her industry be devoured by his drunkenness. The inheritance of a woman could act as bait for the most contemptible of mankind. Children could be removed from mothers when these were their best as well as their most natural guardians. Women themselves suffered every outrage and wrong. Not " the good, old rule, the simple plan, that they should take who have the power, and they should keep who can,'* was therein justified, but this state of things was upheld and cherished by the law of the same lands that gloried in Christianity, or gave birth to Comte's fair picture.

In England the statutes that amended the position of married women passed from mere personal protection to complete possession of property. The same spirit dictated those acts which give her the partial, and under some circumstances the entire, control of her children, and the power to appoint guardians.

These acts were the offspring of that change which had begun in the minds of men, a change itself the out- come of strong and irrepressible revulsion. These concessions, affecting the direct action of life upon married women, affecting all the circumstances of their life, followed quickly upon each other. Still further proof of the altered estimation which has promoted the position of women generally, whether married or single, is found in the accepted claim for higher education, in the accessibility to the medical profession, to the supervision of national education, and to many other posts of trust and counsel. Perhaps the strongest proof of all, from this point of view, lies in the admission to full academical trial, if not yet to full academical honours. The young gentlewoman who so happily selected the year of a good Queen's Jubilee to celebrate a feminine triumph of learning is herself a graceful illustration of what woman has won in her new era, and of what she has not lost in charm and attraction from the old.

We have now enumerated a few of the links nearest to us in a ponderous chain, facts tangible, capable of examination, easy to handle; and as we look on them we are inclined to say, "How swiftly changes have filled the cup of alteration!"

Let us proceed to examine what have probably been the latest agents to which we may attribute the existence of these facts which establish the position of woman as it now appears. We must not conclude by the choice of those which are more easily discerned by us, that they have had really greater activity than many which may still remain occult The difficulty of dealing fairly and precisely with such subjects is great The thing made, the substance out of which it was made, and the influences which shaped it, form a trinity that cannot always be dealt with at the same time, and yet may never be entirely separated. For holding the extreme end of a chain that stretches through ages, we must remember that we grasp but an infinitesimal part of a whole, of which by far the largest portion is lost to our sight and sense in the remotest past, and we have to rely for its continuity upon that about which we have no knowledge. What appears to us decisive or rapid in its development is only so from our own standpoint, and is not to be regarded as a proof that we are really approaching a final perfection of that which has passed through the factory of unnumbered years. Among these later agents seems to be the apparent accord of women with civilisation. Apparent accord are guarded words, and necessarily so when we admit that civilisation has not been, and is not, an invariable friend or foe. For man and woman alike there is an eternal per contra in their intercourse with her. Still, in recent years, woman has made some favourable treaties with civilisation.

Adaptability, in the common sense of the word, is a quality often put down to the balance of woman's account with nature. If civilisation has shown a scant respect in demanding adaptability, by the pressure she has imposed, she has increased the store of it. What has been said to testify to an inferiority of nature may assert a superiority of habit. The practical education of centuries is displayed, when under comparatively heavy disabilities women have been able to turn the opportunities of civilisation to the improvement of circumstances. Safer and easier means of transit, a wider scope of reading and of thought, greater familiarity with arts and sciences, which, if they do not direct, they eminently serve, solid and higher education within their grasp, are all fair weather tokens, the gifts and graces to women, offered to them by the season of civilisation into which we are entering. Another agent in the seeming momentum of events is the marked change which has taken place in the minds of men. The boot and spur creed that one portion of mankind should ride, the saddle and bit that the other portion should be ridden, would naturally find place for an article that woman existed for the happiness of man and not for her own : that her first and highest duty was to him, and not to herself. As men became more critical in the adjustment of their ideas, a larger number became restless under external conditions, which they recognised as irreconcilable with principles that they professed, or that they felt directed them. Add to such men the trouble of a generous nature, or the pricking of a good conscience, and we understand how the conflict became unendurable. If this creed still holds its own over the mind of any educated or thoughtful man, he does not reserve to himself the right of defending it. How far this change in opinion among men has helped to influence women in the same direction it would be hard to say; but if, as there seems good reason to hope, it has largely contributed to do so, we have an augury, than which none could be found better and happier, of the future relation of the sexes.

From whatever cause, women manifest an increasing determination to find happiness and to cultivate it for its own sake; to discover whatever is possible in life for them individually, which will bring interest, work, and therefore enjoyment. They trust more to their own choice, and consult their own individual capabilities. Marriage, which is not for all women, is none the less, but rather the more, desirable, but it is ceasing to be the only goal for girlhood. New resources are at hand and eagerly sought. Fresh possibilities are bom, and in a widening horizon a wholesome and more hopeful spirit is awakened. The workwomen of our large towns are those on whom all burdens fall most heavily, to whom most of the advantages of change come last, but they are also stirred by the movement that is passing over other women, and may soon give it great impetus. The higher class of women, who before seemed isolated in their superiority, are eager to use their faculties. With an increasing number, a life of pleasure is losing its importance, and with all there is a craving after the happiness which is "the work of our own hands." But it is in the middle class that the greatest change has taken place: there, not only the excellent education attainable by them, but the consideration of health and enjoyment put into the scale, weighs heavily, and is working little short of a miracle. A Nonconformist minister, who had been engaged among this class for many years in London, described the present type of girl as altogether different to that he remembered forty years ago, owing to her finer physical and mental qualities.

A good illustration of this is to be found by comparison of the education and the places where such girls received it formerly, with what they now receive and the circumstances that at present surround it. Then, education for the middle class consisted chiefly of training in the performance of certain tricks, shamming the accomplishments after which they were called. If the education were more real, which occasionally was the case, it was still difficult to find any girl's-school in which the first requirements of health were entertained. Air and exercise alone were matters considered of little, if any, importance, and this because common sense did not preside, and the ideas of happiness and enjoyment were not considered with regard to the education of girls. We may still have much to learn and much to forget in these matters, but any one of our High Schools for girls can testify to the fortunate change of opinion. This has only taken place since happiness has been considered the right of girls as much as of boys.

Women whose work lies among women, are becoming aware of another agent affecting, and likely to affect yet more largely, the position of woman. A "solidarité" is springing up among the mass of women, creating a new tie between those of different classes. No longer is it only a religious (in its narrow sense) or philanthropic impulse that directs the action of woman for woman. It is no longer only gratitude or self-interest that breathes in the response from woman to woman. Some new spring of feeling attracts women of all classes to each other. One more only of the forces which have co-operated to establish the present position of woman remains for notice here. Its results are vividly before us, but in point of time it is old as the subject to which it belongs. If other influences have worked with subtlety, this has been an evident and an impelling force always. It is signified in that struggle, or rather scramble, for life which civilisation, notwithstanding her milder moods, has pressed and does press upon woman.

Not the hour of accord, but that of discord with her. Adaptation to circumstances where adaptation was hardest. The paths that seemed most suited to her, roughly invaded; those that were left for her, blocked by artificial difficulties and impediments. With evil alliance the world for a long time insisted upon the continued cultivation of qualities which, if they served her in barbarism, were under the new determination of things becoming the most useless and the most dangerous for woman — vanity, superficiality, fear, dependence. Often the burden of a sickly mind has been added to the frailty of a weakly body as an ornament, yet to none of the architects of her position may she lie, perhaps, more indebted than to the rude treatment she has received at the hands of civilisation. The necessity of robuster virtues has been their mother. Truth has been chosen, rather than cunning, sentiment instead of sentimentality, courage instead of timidity, the pride of self-respect instead of a petty vanity, to be the attributes after which women should strain, and these even fashion affects to admire in them, and writers to recommend.

Lastly, of the future position of woman, what can we say? There are many prophets, but of their trade it was long ago told "whether there be prophecy it shall fail." When men and women are the factors of our calculation how shall we twice find the same total? The units pass on to hundreds, the thousands fall back into the unit line. In vain we try

“To bind Him in woven bands,
Who holds our small thoughts in His balance,
With the minutes, and drops, and sands.”

A prophetic fire seems to lurk in the common cry of "the danger of going against Nature." The whole case of woman's future is covered by it apparently, so conclusive is it to some minds. The cry is a true one, but hardly true enough. It is not dangerous, but it is fatal to go against Nature. When Dame Nature allowed the rearing of her sons and daughters to pass into the hands of civilisation, she accepted for them a capricious nurse and teacher; one who supplants method by experiment, who, assuming falsely the authority of the mighty mother, teaches her children to defy their parent and to rebel against her. But never has civilisation so fortified or directed any of her nurselings, that when coming round some sharp angle of time they have been again face to face with Nature, they could do other than bow before her:

"With nor tear or sigh
She sees with an unpiteous eye
The multitudes be born and die,
And all things pass into the place
Appointed them in time and space.
Loss doth not vex, nor pain deter,
Nor failure fret, nor trouble stir.
Nor self-comparison vanquish her.
How free from love, how free from hate,
How careless, yet how accurate,
Admitting neither more nor less.
She looks with an unshamèd face
On her own work, and doth possess.
Firm from the summit to the base.
Her calm hereditary place
'Twixt stars and graves, most pitiless.
Most positive.”

Nature has no special interpreters. Those who would learn her ways must look in her face. What her children hold may be her own best gifts or their perishable substitutes. Neither man nor woman can offer her counsel, nor may they pass on to others any in her name.

If, however, our description of the position of woman be a true one — even if it bear any harmony with the idea we have tried to present — we may, without rashness, indulge in some thoughts, speculative as they may be, of its future. To maintain is harder than to obtain, and it will be important for women to reflect on those principles which are likely to prove the firmest for support and the surest for defence.

There is an uneasiness in the minds of some men at the accord, with the present temper of civilisation, which gives women now a natural fellowship in its development on certain lines. Distrust, and not jealousy, may easily explain it. Possibly it lies in a fear lest certain qualities be still too untried, too "unnatural" to women, to insure their withstanding an attempt to use a newly-gained position of personal freedom for one of power over others; of throwing their weight into the balance of noble desires, perhaps, to be ignobly fulfilled through law or compulsion; of losing, in the glow of some of the highest virtues, the searching light of justice. These fears may well arrest the attention of thoughtful women. If in the possession of a position — the best they have realised for centuries — they look away from sound principles of security, the fair prospect before them may become a precipice. Should they rely on combination or force to secure a transient triumph for purity or temperance; should they imagine the liberty to seek personal happiness gives them the right to dictate that of others; should they only remember the debt of compensation due, and forget that of reparation; should they allow the claims of patriotism to have a rival, may it not be feared that the goddess of Victory will not fold her wings upon their citadel?

Man as well as woman has suffered by civilisation. Her gifts have often turned to destruction in his hand; and though he may look with an anxious eye upon the changes that have come so thickly and so swiftly upon woman, he may find his own advancement is hidden in hers and dependent upon it.

May not the time be come when the strength of woman is imperative to make man stronger? — when it is necessary for him that she should be his fitting companion — loyal but not servile? May not the hour have struck when her own elevation is absolutely necessary to prevent his deterioration? And out of the present may not that future be already preparing which will increase, and not decrease, the physical and mental distance between man and woman ? — when she will fully taste the satisfaction, not of her inferiority, but of his superiority, of which every fresh development in her favour now makes her the builder and preservere?