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CHAPTER X. THE SOCIAL POSITION OF WOMAN AS AFFECTED BY “CIVILISATION.”
The legend which teaches that the first woman was formed out of one of the ribs of the first man must surely be true, seeing that it agrees perfectly with the position which woman holds among all primitive peoples!

With few rights, if any, in this life, it is not surprising that her subordination is continued in the spirit world, and that if she gains admittance at all into the native heaven, it is usually under peculiar circumstances. Thus, the Fijian women are voluntarily strangled or buried alive at the funerals of their husbands, from the belief that in their company alone “can they reach the realms of bliss;” to which is added the idea that she “who meets her death with the greatest devotedness will become the favourite wife in the abode of spirits.” What becomes after death of the women who do not die with their husbands is, perhaps, uncertain, but there is reason to believe that among many uncultured peoples as little thought is given to the future state of such unfortunates as to that of animals killed for food. In fact, among the Papuan tribes, and with many of the natives of Australia, women are highly prized for cannibal pur220poses. Judging from this fact, we shall not expect to find that, during life, they are much cared for, unless it be on the principle which sometimes leads cannibals to fatten their victims before preying on them. This is not the case, however, with the natives of Australia, and women among them not only have to endure many privations, but are most barbarously treated. Wilkes states that they are considered as articles of property. Among few peoples is the lot of woman so cruel as with the aborigines of Australia.

In this respect, however, there is little difference with any uncultured race. Marriages of affection are unknown to the Fijians, and women remain faithful to their husbands from fear rather than from love. “Like other property,” says Admiral Wilkes, “wives may be sold at pleasure, and the usual price is a musket. Those who purchase them may do with them as they please, even to knocking them on the head.” Thus, among the Fijians, women are, in the true sense of the word, “property,” and marriage is a matter of bargain and sale. This remark is applicable to peoples less savage than the untamed Papuan. Among the pastoral tribes of East Africa, and also the black tribes of Madagascar, women are, if anything, thought less of than cattle. The Kafirs, indeed, value them in cattle, and girls pride themselves on the price they fetch. The condition of the Kafir wife agrees with the estimation in which she is held. Woman occupies much the same position with the true Negro tribes, and even among the North African peoples who have embraced Mohamedanism the woman is subject absolutely to the will of her husband. Wives do not221 appear to be treated with cruelty, however, and, according to Mr. Winwood Reade, they often, by force of a certain public opinion, exercise a peculiar influence over the men in domestic affairs. Among the Wahuma of East Africa, women, curiously enough, are not regarded exactly as property, and their condition is probably, on the whole, superior to what it is among the Negro or Kafir tribes.

Women occupy among the American aborigines a position of, on the whole, greater hardship. They are generally considered as inferior beings, and their lives are spent in the lowest and most laborious drudgery. Throughout both North and South America, with few exceptions, a wife is treated as the property of her husband, who will lend her to a friend with as little compunction as he would a hatchet. Moreover, as amongst most uncultured peoples, she is always liable to instant divorce. This arbitrary treatment, and the hardships which women suffer, have probably much to do with the prevalence of infanticide, especially of female children. The condition of woman among the Eskins appears to be more bearable than with the true American tribes. This is shown by the existence between husband and wife of a certain attachment, which sometimes ripens into real affection; and yet, according to Sir John Ross, the Eskino women are considered merely as property or furniture. It is not far otherwise with the Greenlanders. Crantz declares that, from their twentieth year, the life of their women is a mixture of fear, indigence, and lamentation.

Among some of the Polynesian Islanders, and par222ticularly the Samoans, woman is more esteemed than with others, but usually she is treated in the same manner as with most uncultured peoples. As shown by many of their customs, she is looked upon as an inferior creature. Captain King remarked that at the Sandwich Islands, when these were first discovered, less respect was shown to women than at any of the other Pacific Islands which Captain Cook’s expedition had visited. All the best kinds of food were forbidden them. In domestic life they lived almost entirely by themselves, and although no instance of positive ill-treatment was actually observed, yet it was evident that “they had little regard or attention paid them.”

The facts stated sufficiently establish that, among primitive peoples, woman is regarded as “property.” Usually female children are thought little of by their parents, and they are cared for only as having a certain exchange value. In the more advanced stage represented by the pastoral peoples they are more highly prized, because, although a man may prefer his cattle to his daughters, these, if successfully reared, will bring a certain addition to his stock. A curious relic of this primitive idea of the exchange value of woman is yet extant in Afghanistan, where crimes are atoned for by fines estimated, partly in young women, and partly in money. It is not surprising that the man who has purchased his wife should look upon her in the same light as any other chattel which he has acquired, and this property notion is at the foundation of most of the social habits of savage life.

It must not be thought that women, even among the223 most uncultured peoples, are altogether without influence, if not over their own condition, yet over the minds of other. The wars, if such they can be called, waged by the Australian aborigines, are generally due to the old women, who incite the men with the most passionate language to revenge any injury to the tribe, and they perform the same office among other uncivilised peoples. It is well-known what influence over the conduct of such peoples is exercised by the sorcerers or wizard doctors, and in many parts of both Africa and America women as well as men exercise that calling;. It is not often that among the more warlike races women attain to the position of chief, but such a state of things is not unknown to the African tribes; and in Madagascar and the Polynesian Islands woman is as competent as man to occupy the throne. With the American tribes who trace descent through females, women have great influence in the election of the chiefs.

Nor is woman exactly without rights among uncultured peoples. At first these relate to the disposition of her own person before marriage, and the existence of such a right is implied in the widespread customs which have been thought to give evidence of the primitive social phase described as “marriage by capture.” Mr. Darwin, in his work, “The Descent of Man,” well points out that among uncultured peoples girls have more choice in the matter of marriage than is usually supposed.

It by no means follows that the position of a woman is, among uncultured peoples, more bearable because she has managed to marry the man whom she prefers.224 Where the marriage has been preceded by actual attachment, no doubt it usually is so; and in that case, especially if she has much intelligence, a wife may have great influence over her husband. It is probable that polygamy has been an important instrument in improving the condition of the married woman. With most uncultured peoples who practise polygamy, a first wife is the head wife, and all the succeeding ones are under her control. The former thus occupies a position of influence in the household; she is less roughly treated by her husband, and she gradually acquires certain rights. Mr. Shooter says that, among the Kafirs, all the cows which a man possesses at the time of his earliest marriage are regarded as the property of his first wife, and after the birth of her first son they are called his cattle. Theoretically, the husband can neither sell nor dispose of them without his wife’s consent. Cattle are assigned to each of the wives whom the husband subsequently takes, and the wife who furnishes the cattle to purchase and endow a new wife, is entitled to her services, and calls her “my wife.” These rights of property are, however, in reality of very slight value. On the death of the husband, the women of his household descend to the son who is entitled to the cattle belonging to each family division, and if he dies without direct heirs, to the next male relative, who is nevertheless bound to provide for them.

It is difficult to conceive that the improvement in the position of woman witnessed among civilised peoples, can have been much affected by any change that could take place in the relation between husband225 and wife, so long as the latter is treated as mere property. I am disposed, therefore, to trace that improvement to another source, and to look upon it as springing from the maternal relationship. Stern as may be the treatment experienced by a wife, it is seldom that a mother is not honoured. This is especially the case among the African tribes. The same feeling is not unknown to the Arabs, whose sacred book declares that “a son gains Paradise at the feet of his mother.” Inconsistent as it is with our ideas, there can be little doubt that the curious custom of strangling parents, or burying them alive, when they have become old and helpless, is looked upon as a mark of respect and regard. Wilkes was assured by the missionaries that the Fijians were kind and affectionate to their parents, and that they considered the strangling custom as so great a proof of affection that none but children could be found to perform it.

The Chinese have preserved the germs of the primitive idea, according to which woman is a kind of property, and among them still a wife may be sold, although only with her own consent, and as a wife and not as a slave. These restrictions show a great advance, which is evidenced also by the fact that wives possess equal rank with their husbands. Moreover, mothers are allowed a certain degree of influence over their sons, who are, indeed, obliged at particular seasons to pay homage to them, the Emperor himself not being exempt from performing the ceremonies of the kotow before his mother. Where the filial piety is so strong, it is not surprising that ancestral-worship extends to the mother as well as the father, and that the memory226 of women celebrated for their virtues is perpetuated. Nevertheless, Chinese women are almost absolutely in the power of their fathers, husbands and sons, to whom they owe obedience as the representatives of heaven.

In some of their customs the Romans bore considerable resemblance to the Chinese. With the former, as among the latter, the father was absolute within his family, and originally a woman, as part of her husband’s familia, could be sold or put to death by him without interference by the State. This was not so if the wife was only uxor and retained her own familia, in which case, however, her children belonged to her husband. The latter form of marriage, or the custom known as “breaking the usus of the year,” gradually came to be the most usual, and it resulted in the emancipation of women from the control to which they had before been subjected.

The old Roman, Cato the elder, complained of their having much power in political matters, and statues were even then erected in the provinces to Roman ladies. Unfortunately the emancipation of woman among the Romans was attended with a license which had the most deplorable results, both moral and social.

In Greece the peculiar institutions established by Lycurgus gave the Spartan women much influence, and they were even said by the other Greeks to have brought their husbands under the yoke. On the other hand, among the Athenians, women were generally viewed as inferior to men, and wives were treated rather as household drudges than as companions.227 Before marriage girls were kept in strict seclusion, a habit which, in the middle and higher classes, was long retained after marriage, wives seeing little even of their husbands or fathers. It would appear, however, to have been different during the heroic age, when the intercourse between husband and wife, says Mr. Gladstone, was “thoroughly natural, full of warmth, dignity, reciprocal deference, and substantial, if not conventional, delicacy.”

It is to the development of the emotion of love that the full recognition of the true position to which woman is united must be traced. The parent has influence because he or she is respected, and love induces the same feeling in relation to the wife and woman in general. Thus, at least, it would seem to be with Eastern peoples, who probably closely agree in social habits with the ancient Greeks. Among the Bedouins, in whose manners we may doubtless trace those of the early Hebrews, women enjoy a considerable degree of liberty; and hence marriages, although accompanied by the incidents of wife-purchase, are often governed by choice, and husbands make real companions of their wives. The respect paid to them is so great that, if a homicide can succeed in concealing his head under the sleeve of a woman and cry fyardhék, “under thy protection,” his safety is insured. Pallas mentions an analogous custom as existing among the Circassians, who also highly esteem woman. The same may be said of the Afghans, among whom, although marriage is still a matter of purchase, love-matches are by no means rare. Wives often exercise great influence in Afghan households,228 the husband sometimes sinking into a secondary place.

How far the condition of women has been mitigated among the Bedouins and other races by Mohammedanism is an open question. According to the Koran, the Arabs were accustomed to treat them with great cruelty, while one of the chief features of Mohammed’s teaching is the high position accorded to them. In permitting polygamy, Mohammedan law accommodates itself to the habits of an earlier stage of social progress, and tends to perpetuate many of its objectionable features. As remarked by Lord Kames, polygamy is intimately connected with the treatment of woman as a slave to be purchased even in marriage. But, great as are the evils attending that custom, they depend in great measure on special circumstances, and they are capable, as Mohammedan teaching shows, of considerable mitigation. Probably the practice of polygamy has never, among a civilised people, been accompanied by more baneful results than it exhibits in modern Egypt, if we can accept the testimony of Miss Martineau. This lady somewhat unjustly remarks that, “if we are to look for a hell upon earth, it is where polygamy exists; and that, as polygamy runs riot in Egypt, Egypt is the lowest depth of this hell.” Polygamy has not in India so degrading an effect, but, of the six qualities ascribed to woman by the code of so-called Gentoo laws, all are bad ones. A really good wife is, however, so highly esteemed that, if a man forsake her of his own accord, he is to receive the punishment of a thief. Perhaps the scarcity of such wives accounts for the fact mentioned by Bishop Heber, that through229out India anything is thought good enough for women, and that “the roughest words, the poorest garments, the scantiest alms, the most degrading labour, and the hardest blows, are generally of their portion.” No doubt women of the lower castes are here referred to, and it cannot be supposed that all women are thus treated. The Abbé Dubois, indeed, affirms that among the Hindoos the person of a woman is sacred, and that, however abject her condition, she is always addressed by every one by the term “mother.” If we may believe the Abbé, who lived for thirty years among the natives, the position of Hindoo women is far superior to what Europeans in general believe. He says,230 “To them belong the entire management of their household, the care of their children, the superintendence over the menial servants, the distribution of alms and charities. To them are generally entrusted the money, jewels, and other valuables of the family; to them belong the care of procuring provisions and providing for all expenses; it is they also who are charged, almost to the exclusion of their husbands, with the most important affairs of procuring wives for their sons, and husbands for their daughters, and in doing it they evince a nicety of attention and wisdom which are not certainly surpassed in any other country; while in the management of their domestic business, they in general show a shrewdness, a savingness, and a foresight, which would do honour to the best housekeepers in Europe.... In short, although exposed outwardly in public to the forbidden frowns of an austere husband, they cannot be considered in any other view than as perfect mistresses in the house. The influence of the Hindoo females on the welfare of families is so well known, that the successes or misfortunes of the Hindoo are almost entirely attributed to the good or bad management of the former; when a person prospers in the world, it is the custom to say that he has the happiness to possess an intelligent wife, and when any one runs to ruin, it is the custom to say that he has the misfortune to have a bad wife for a partner.”

Judging from the Abbé’s description, the properties of a good wife, according to the compiler of the “Book of Proverbs,” would doubtless meet with the perfect approval of the Hindoo.

Much as the emancipation of woman is aided by the development of love between the sexes, she is indebted to religion for its completion. The description given by Tacitus of the high honour in which women were held by the ancient Germans, as being in some sense holy and as having the gift of prophecy, may be somewhat exaggerated; but if it is true that the safest mode of binding that people to their political engagements was to require as hostages women of noble birth, we may well believe that their regard for the female sex had a religious basis. Tacitus adds, that the care of house and lands and of the family affairs, was usually committed to the women, while the men spent their time in feasting, fighting, and sleeping. A happy commentary this on the question whether the former is capable of managing her own affairs! The true position of woman, however, is not that assigned to her by the ancient Germans, who gave her a fictitious superiority based on superstition. We231 must look to the peoples among whom have flourished the religions which have permanently influenced the world, for evidences of the continued improvement of that position. That which has had the most striking and lasting effect over the social status of women in the East is undoubtedly Buddhism. Gautama preached salvation to all human beings alike, rich and poor, male and female, and some of his first converts were women. His teaching went to the root of the prejudice so powerful in the East, which leads man to consider woman his inferior,302 and she was at once raised to a level with him. Hence, in most Buddhist countries, women are treated as man’s companions, and not as his slaves. The fact that the former are allowed to take monastic vows reveals the true source of female emancipation. It is a recognition of the capability of woman to attain to the spiritual re-birth, and, as a consequence, not only to escape from the material life with its continued evils, but to secure supreme bliss in another state. The idea of the spiritual re-birth was at the foundation of the ancient mysteries, and therefore the admission to them of woman was a sign of her emancipation. The Zend-Avesta places men and women on the same footing, and among the ancient Persians the latter sometimes occupied even high sacerdotal positions. She was, moreover, freely admitted to the secret mysteries. M. Lajard says that the monuments show us women232 not only admitted as neophytes to the celebration of the mysteries, but performing there sometimes the part of god-mother (marraine), sometimes that of priestess and arch-priestess. In these two characters they assist the initiating priest, and they themselves preside at the initiation, assisted by a priest or an arch-priest. The learned French writer concludes, therefore, that “women among the peoples endowed with the institution of the mysteries found themselves thus placed in a condition of equality with man.” That which had been begun by Buddhism and Mazdaism was continued by Christianity, which knows no distinction of sex or position, however much its principles may from time to time have suffered at the hands of ignorant or irrational legislators.


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