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THOUGHTS ON SELF-CULTURE.
GENERAL VIEW OF WOMAN'S POSITION AND INFLUENCE.
THROUGHOUT the many changes that woman's social position has undergone in past and present times, its importance has never been wholly overlooked. The condition of woman may vary from slavery and degradation, to refinement and freedom, according to the age or country we consider; but the Asiatic who dreads her emancipation, the savage who enforces her labour, or the enlightened European who seeks in her a companion and friend—all alike, with hope or with fear, tacitly or avowedly, acknowledge the vital consequence of the position she occupies.
An able writer of our own day has spent much research in tracing through the various phases of human society, the influence of different institutions and forms of civilization upon woman's position, as an introduction to considering that position in the present day. To her brilliant sketch we refer our readers, as establishing more clearly than any reasoning could prove it, the constant and inevitable reaction upon society of the different modes of estimating woman's condition and influence.* When we have traced this reaction upon the stern patriotism of Sparta or Rome, on the polished and licentious freedom of Athens, on the voluptuous barbarism of the East, and on savage life whereever it exists; when we have followed it through the changes effected by the spread of Christianity and the successive develop
* " Woman's Rights and Duties," Vol. I., four first chapters.
SOURCES OF WOMAN'S INFLUENCE.
ments of modern civilization; through the rude chivalry of feudal times, the corruption of subsequent periods, and the dawn of an age of better knowledge, we shall more fully understand how necessary it is, in all schemes of moral and social reform, to consider first what position women hold in the social system, and the nature of the power they exercise.
In our own day, if we consider woman's external position only, it is still one of entire subjection. To judge from the rights conceded to her by law in our own country, she seems scarcely to have been considered worthy to attract the attention of the legislator. In estimating public opinions, her opinions are passed over in silence; in questions that most nearly concern herself, her claims are unheard in the national councils; whenever her interests clash with those of men, they must at once give way: in everything she is subordinate and powerless. But if we look more closely, we find her armed with a power which man can neither cast off nor abridge, for it springs from her natural position towards him, which cannot be altered whatever be the outward forms of society.
The source of this indestructible influence lies deep in the passions and affections of men, and its empire not only moulds the child from the cradle, but sways the man throughout the period when his mind is most active and his feelings most ardent. For good or for evil, the power thus exerted must be immense, corrupting and enervating, or refining and ennobling men; training in a new generation the worthless and selfish qualities, or breathing into them the spirit of a more earnest usefulness, and a higher patriotism.
By this influence given to women, the Creator provided against their sinking into the mere passive instruments of man's will. They must, indeed, depend on his power, but whatever he forces them to become, the effect will inevitably, through the influence he cannot prevent, react upon himself, to punish him for his selfishness, or reward him for his justice or generosity. They cannot emancipate themselves from social evils; but neither can man achieve permanent advance without their free and willing aid. Whatever he would render sacred and durable, he must first place under the safeguard of the household gods; on their altars must burn the flame of whatever great and generous, earnest and purifying sentiment, he desires to see kindling human hearts with more than an evanescent glow. And of those altars women are the Heaven-appointed guardians.
Such is the law of nature; but the power thus given may be beneficial or injurious, according to individual or national character. The influence of women over the young, varies from
that of mere natural affection to the highest moral force, in proportion to the mother's enlightenment and sense of responsibility; while their power over manhood will be exercised through the passions only, or through the affections, according to individual disposition, or the moral tone of the period; the former having the preponderance when that tone is low, and the latter, when a higher standard and greater purity prevail.
Unfortunately, as passions are more impetuous and more violent than affections, so likewise the influence exercised through them is more irresistible. History, accordingly, shows us too often the most depraved periods as those in which female influence has been most prominent and active. But this fact, so often commented on by the satirist, only proves the general truth, that influence exercised without the restraint of moral principle, is dangerous in proportion to its power; and it should likewise be remembered, before we assent to the blame or contempt cast on this account upon female influence,-first, That it is easier to estimate the pernicious effects of intrigue in those public scenes and characters, which history delineates, than the silent force of domestic influence, which is never obtruded on public notice; and, secondly, That the corrupt sway of women is to be considered no less as the effect, than as the cause of national corruption. Whenever men sink into mere lovers of pleasure, and creatures of intrigue, they necessarily become the tools of those who can flatter their vanity and play upon their passions; and especially, therefore, of the least worthy among women, in whose hands the possession of natural influence is most easily perverted to effect their subjugation.
In a corrupt state of society, where the exercise of this kind of power is an object of ambition instead of scorn, many minds, otherwise capable of better things, fall into the snare, which, in the absence of all higher aims, tempts their pride and love of power. Hence this unworthy empire spreads with the spread of corruption, till the reign of female influence becomes fatally associated with moral degradation and national decay. On the other hand, influence which is kept subject to the restraints of virtue, and whose high purposes must often thwart the passions and low objects of mankind, is necessarily exercised and acknowledged within a more limited circle; whence it follows, that woman's purer sway is apparently more feeble, and passes unnoticed on the wide field of history, save by close observers of social progress and national character.
WHEN IT BECOMES AN EVIL.
The political condition of society exercises also an important influence in this respect. The freer, the more pure are the institutions of any country, the less scope there is for the control or
NEGLECT OF INFLUENCE.
interference of women in state affairs; and, at the same time, the fairer is the field for the exercise of that moral influence, which is the best safeguard of national happiness. Plot and intrigue, the natural instruments of advancement when the public destinies of men hang upon the prevailing passion of a despot, or the smile of a king's mistress, sink more and more into contempt and neglect, when action and opinion are free, and men look to the esteem of their country, not to royal favour, as a reward for their toil and their ambition. At the same time, the more free the current of political life, the wider the sway allowed to opinion and knowledge, the more necessary becomes the healthy and enlightened exercise of that moral influence, from whose sway public morality and opinion cannot escape, and which, through the medium of early education, moulding individual character in all classes of society, stamps itself on the character of the nation.
One great evil which has resulted from considering female influence too much under its more corrupt form is, that numbers of amiable retiring women shrink from the thought of exercising any, and look upon the attempt to do so as overstepping the modesty of their position. Their circle of duties is thus circumscribed and lowered; and the feeling of responsibility for the possession and use of a natural gift, is not called forth at all. If the thought of its possession flits across the fancy of the young girl, it is as a dream of resistless power to be exercised over those who claim the title of Masters. It is a fond vision, mingled with all that stirs her frivolous ambition, or makes her vain heart throb with yet untried emotion; but it comes with no stern thought of duties to be performed, of responsibilities entailed, of wide relations of social and domestic usefulness to be studied and appreciated, in order to exercise it rightly; with none, in short, of those thoughts which belong to the sober and elevating view of female influence. This is one of the dark shadows still cast over us by the errors of past times; the result of the false deification of our sex in a semi-barbarous age, and of the frightful corruption which waited upon the long agonies of the feudal system; a shadow, which a better tone of education, and a higher view of woman's position, can alone dispel.
It is not, then, with any intention of feeding the vanity, or frivolous ambition of our young readers, that we have dwelt here on the power of female influence, and recalled facts so universally known; but because, having seen what that influence is, by the law of Nature, and what it may become, either for good or for evil, we are better enabled to search for evidence of its character in our own day. That will furnish us with the truest measure of what modern education has done, towards fitting women for
ITS PRESENT TONE.
the position they hold; since, if their influence be either weak or corrupt, there must be some lurking evil under the polished surface, which should be carefully sought out and eradicated.
When we compare the present with some former periods, whether illustrated by history or private records, we must be aware of a certain amount of decided improvement in the tone of opinion and the state of society, and especially in those things which most nearly affect the happiness of women. Even in the gay circles of fashionable life, which afford no criterion of a nation's morality, because subject to peculiar causes of corruption, nothing like a general tone of license prevails. The loosest code of morals admitted there, would have seemed decorum at some by-gone time; while among other classes, removed from the contagion of luxurious idleness, attachment to domestic life, and the strength of family ties, offer the fairest prospect to the social observer. Knowledge has spread, ancient prejudices have fallen, and are falling before it; female education has been unfettered; while a long peace has left undisturbed the work of refinement and progress. Everything, therefore, seems most favourable to the highest and purest exercise of female influence. Let us now examine into facts, and see how far such high expectations are actually realized.
First, however, we would premise, that in examining the influence of women in our own day, we do not intend to touch upon that of the avowedly dissipated or unprincipled; not only because in that form it cannot be said to be a characteristic of our times, but also that the vices of the world are sufficiently known, and are defended, at least, by none. Our object is to indicate the errors, the involuntary short-comings of those, whose good intentions might have produced useful results, had not education and society conspired to render their moral tone weak, and their minds insipid.
To look then, first, at our social pleasures, which are supposed to be mostly governed in all civilized and refined communities by the influence of women. The general improvement in the moral tone of society alluded to above, at once secures commendation, but having allowed for that, we must now ask, whence the mercantile spirit of our social intercourse?—whence the absence of a genial spirit of kindliness in the midst of our pleasures? whence the tolerance for every defect of heart and mind in the wealthy or highly-stationed, and the uncharitableness which, through wanton gossip and foul-mouthed scandal, so often stabs the feelings of others, or ruins the peace of families?—whence the violence of party abuse, as loud in the drawing-room as in public assemblies-if the gentle and refining influence of