THE MYSTERY OF THE SEX

by Charles Dudley Warner

There appears to be a great quantity of conceit around, especially concerning women. The statement was recently set afloat that a well-known lady had admitted that George Meredith understands women better than any writer who has preceded him. This may be true, and it may be a wily statement to again throw men off the track; at any rate it contains the old assumption of a mystery, practically insoluble, about the gentler sex. Women generally encourage this notion, and men by their gingerly treatment of it seemed to accept it. But is it well-founded, is there any more mystery about women than about men? Is the feminine nature any more difficult to understand than the masculine nature? Have women, conscious of inferior strength, woven this notion of mystery about themselves as a defense, or have men simply idealized them for fictitious purposes? To recur to the case cited, is there any evidence that Mr. Meredith understands human nature as exhibited in women any better than human nature in men, or is more consistent in the production of one than of the other? Historically it would be interesting to trace the rise of this notion of woman as an enigma. The savage races do not appear to have it. A woman to the North American Indian is a simple affair, dealt with without circumlocution. In the Bible records there is not much mystery about her; there are many tributes to her noble qualities, and some pretty severe and uncomplimentary things are said about her, but there is little affectation of not understanding her. She may be a prophetess, or a consoler, or a snare, but she is no more "deceitful and desperately wicked" than anybody else. There is nothing mysterious about her first recorded performance. Eve trusted the serpent, and Adam trusted Eve. The mystery was in the serpent. There is no evidence that the ancient Egyptian woman was more difficult to comprehend than the Egyptian man. They were both doubtless wily as highly civilized people are apt to be; the "serpent of old Nile" was in them both. Is it in fact till we come to mediaeval times, and the chivalric age, that women are set up as being more incomprehensible than men? That is, less logical, more whimsical, more uncertain in their mental processes? The play-writers and essayists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries "worked" this notion continually. They always took an investigating and speculating attitude towards women, that fostered the conceit of their separateness and veiled personality. Every woman was supposed to be playing a part behind a mask. Montaigne is always investigating woman as a mystery. It is, for instance, a mystery he does not relish that, as he says, women commonly reserve the publication of their vehement affections for their husbands till they have lost them; then the woful countenance "looks not so much back as forward, and is intended rather to get a new husband than to lament the old." And he tells this story:

"When I was a boy, a very beautiful and virtuous lady who is yet living, and the widow of a prince, had, I know not what, more ornament in her dress than our laws of widowhood will well allow, which being reproached with as a great indecency, she made answer 'that it was because she was not cultivating more friendships, and would never marry again.'" This cynical view of woman, as well as the extravagantly complimentary one sometimes taken by the poets, was based upon the notion that woman was an unexplainable being. When she herself adopted the idea is uncertain. Of course all this has a very practical bearing upon modern life, the position of women in it, and the so-called reforms. If woman is so different from man, to the extent of being an unexplainable mystery, science ought to determine the exact state of the case, and ascertain if there is any remedy for it. If it is only a literary creation, we ought to know it. Science could tell, for instance, whether there is a peculiarity in the nervous system, any complications in the nervous centres, by which the telegraphic action of the will gets crossed, so that, for example, in reply to a proposal of marriage, the intended "Yes" gets delivered as "No." Is it true that the mental process in one sex is intuitive, and in the other logical, with every link necessary and visible? Is it true, as the romancers teach, that the mind in one sex acts indirectly and in the other directly, or is this indirect process only characteristic of exceptions in both sexes? Investigation ought to find this out, so that we can adjust the fit occupations for both sexes on a scientific basis. We are floundering about now in a sea of doubt. As society becomes more complicated, women will become a greater and greater mystery, or rather will be regarded so by themselves and be treated so by men.

Who can tell how much this notion of mystery in the sex stands in the way of its free advancement all along the line? Suppose the proposal were made to women to exchange being mysterious for the ballot? Would they do it? Or have they a sense of power in the possession of this conceded incomprehensibility that they would not lay down for any visible insignia of that power? And if the novelists and essayists have raised a mist about the sex, which it willingly masquerades in, is it not time that the scientists should determine whether the mystery exists in nature or only in the imagination?