Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Liberation of Women*


 

The average man who tries to collect his ideas about women must always feel that there is something not a little preposterous in his attitudes. If his mind is at all honest he must have a consciousness that his effort, even if it could be brilliant, would at best be somewhat superfluous or futile. It is as if one should propose to collect one's thoughts on the subject of gravitation.

The theme is so obvious, so trite, so universally in mind, and yet so baffling, elusive, and transcendental. Science cannot say what gravity is; it is more obscure than electricity; and yet from infancy we are as familiar with it as with the air we breathe. Only intimacy blinds us to its tremendous power and inscrutable mystery. To pause and ask questions about it, is to become suddenly aware that we are living in the presence of something titanic and secret. It is so with woman; we live every day in her all-pervading influence, taking her for granted as something we are quite familiar with, until an occasion, when we come to reflect, we find we hardly understand her at all.

We can hope for little light on the subject from men. We know in advance that their estimates must be at best only partial and prejudiced, and in these profound reaches where we are most in need of enlightenment, uncomprehending. On the other hand, if we ask women themselves for light on the subject, we ought to know that such a hope is rather impossible. They doubtless do not seem mysterious to themselves. All their aims are so immediate and practical, they dwell so little in regions of speculation and fancy, that their life as they live it must appear to them simple enough in its essential purpose. What can it be about them that men do not understand? And even if they were well aware of an veiled mystery in their nature, why should they destroy their power by unveiling it? If they should attempt to explain themselves to us, we should probably not understand after all. As James Whitcomb Riley says, "Some folks don't like poetry, because they've got no liker to like it with." Just so, if we do not understand women, it is because we have no woman's understanding. We live in alien spheres under independent laws, to a great extent. The orb of woman's soul is like a bubble, radiant, expansive, magical, and frail. The orb of man's spirit is like a drop of dew, in comparison, more intense and far-glittering, but also harder and less entrancing. They may impinge and coalesce and run down into the soil to replenish the divine earth, but only after a touch of the rough world has shattered the bubble's tenuous glory and reduced it to the dimensions of a drop. What miracle is to expand the dewdrop to an airy bubble?

Men always take a mystic view of woman, it seems, and there is not much confidence in what philosophers have said about her. With the exception of the theologians, who long ago branded her in no uncertain terms as the source of all evil, just men either confer their perplexity or indulge in vague rhapsodies, half complimentary, half sceptical. Even such a clear-eyed rationalist as Santayana passes lightly over the topic, like a skater on thin ice. "There is something," he says, "mysterious and oracular about a woman's mind which inspires a certain instinctive deference and puts it out of the question to judge what she says by masculine standards. She has a kind of sibylline intuition and the right to be irrationally propos." That does not help us much, it only confirms our traditional and instinctive attitude,-an amazed curiosity and resignation such as we feel toward nature and the riddle of existence. Another writer, a poet and man of the world with exceptionally wide experience and knowledge of men and women, once said to me in grave confusion, "All women are just a little bit crazy." And so I suppose they must often seem from the merely logical viewpoint.

When Greek philosophy came upon the problem, How can the finite comprehend the infinite, Plotinus solved it by pointing out that although finite mind cannot comprehend infinite mind, the finite soul can rise through ecstasy into infinite regions. It was a shrewd answer, and there is an echo of it in Emerson's phrase "the stairway of surprise." Mysteries, these reasoners would say, can never be understood by the literal force of logic. The questioner must abandon his argument, and by sheer transport of spirit pass behind the veil of thought into the sanctuary of feeling. The discussion is removed from the audience chamber of the mind to the penetralia of the heart, and adoration may learn what philosophy failed to unravel. Every many who has been in love knows something of the doctrine of Plotinus.

It is worthy to note that among modern philosophers Nietzsche, the most uncompromising of logicians, was a confirmed woman-hater, while Maeterlinck, the pronounced mystic, has written about women with unsurpassed insight and charm. Nietzsche dreamed of establishing an ideal of manhood in which there should be no weakness, nothing by triumphant energy and intelligence. There was no mercy in his Superman, as there was no love in his nature. With his surpassing brilliancy the saving tincture of sympathy seems to have been lacking in his mortal make up. He spent his life in intellectual warfare, a devotee of the cold Goddess of Reason, and passed in his prime to a living death in a mad-house, like a modern Lucifer whose ambition was light and whose end what darkness,-the most pitiable titan of the nineteenth century.

In Maurice Maeterlinck our generation possesses a very different thinker, a poet and dreamer whose life is rooted in the generous soil of a normal physicality, and whose mystic speculations, reasonable as they are, seem to be prompted by an almost womanly tenderness and intuitive wisdom. He is admirably a man in his way of life, his love of science, and his power of creative imagination. At the same time he is possessed of a psychologic insight which seems almost feminine in its deep and sympathetic brooding upon human destiny. The truths he brings us are all irradiated with a touch of glory beyond the guess of pure reason. He makes us familiar with a region where beauty and truth are transfigured into a supernal good; and this is the region where women habitually dwell.

Maeterlinck is the prophet of a new day in which spiritual ideals of life are coming to prevail more and more. He foresees the gradual unfolding of those mystic and emotional powers in humanity. Of these powers woman is the natural guardian and source, and woman's movement towards a more complete development is really part of the spiritual emancipation of the race. This does not mean that we are becoming feminized or weak, only that we are becoming wiser and happier, paying attention more obediently to the dictates of the soul, and learning to light up all our processes of reason and common life with a flow of the kindly and impassioned heart. It means that we are giving spiritual or moral forces their way, and recognizing their legitimate place in a triune world, where they must always be in the lead, yet always guided by intelligence and given effectiveness through sense.

In a civilization like that of the last century, dazed by stupendous revelations and engrossed in a coil of unexampled material welfare, it was only natural that the affairs of the human spirit, with its divine affiliations and unreckoned powers, should be forgotten or obscured. And as all these triumphs of industry and intelligence,-inventions and discovery and the arts,-are adjusted to life and take their place in the perspective of human progress, it is only natural that the eternal requirements of the heart should make themselves imperatively felt again, and be recognized as paramount needs.

If there is indeed a "stream of tendency, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness," beyond doubt that stream is making itself unmistakably felt in our generation. Our modern social unrest, our perplexed efforts to obtain a more truly equitable justice for all men, our growing sense of civic morality, our greater understanding and sympathy with all human hopes and wants, an intolerance of poverty, and out hatred of cruelty, our struggles for reform and improvement everywhere,-what are all these but evidences of the imperishable force and freshness of that stream of spiritual life, whose source is unknown, and whose trend can only be felt? We can only guess at the meaning of life, but its goodness and savor are indubitable.

In this vast struggle which our race seems to be making toward a fuller realization of its ideals of justice and its dreams of happiness, the part played by women must be incalculable. It is preeminently her concern. She has been from time out of mind the treasurer of all the spiritual wealth of the race, and now that this wealth is in demand, it is to her we must come for our supply. It is largely on her genius we must depend in readjusting the balance of humanity, in saving civilization from the extremes of rationalism and materialism. She well know how best to make use of all the material riches we have wrung from the earth and all the startling truths we have discovered. That is her hereditary province. She will know how to make comfort and knowledge serve the interests of the soul, which only asks to be made happy. Her genius is not only deeper, more mystical, more instinctive and impassioned than man's but at the same time more practical and less visionary. In her capacity as the great preserver and fosterer of the mysterious gift of life, she has passed countless ages of existence. Protectress of the immortal seed, guardian and transmitter of the racial wisdom and inherited good, restricted to the cradle and the hearth, she had no opportunity for that detachment and comparative irresponsibility which developed men's wits. She could only brood upon the secret of her own heart and serve the pressing need of the day and the hour. So it happens she is at once more religious and more material than man. Relying upon intuition and fact, keeping close to the life of the senses and the life of the soul, she is content to worship without reason and to enjoy without question. With small scope for speculation or adventure, and with immense need of all actual advantages in an every day world, she has little interest in abstract problems. She acts from impulse rather than principle. She is a born pragmatist and lives to make her own desires come true. She only hits the high places of aspiration and achievement, skipping the valley of reason in her haste. In the realms of thought, of investigation, of invention and discovery and the creative arts, her genius is sterile, being without the detachment and roving curiosity which the freer mind of man has been enabled to develop. She is more essentially conservative than man, not less conventional, more spontaneous and less formal. Only the most finely cultivated women accept man's code of fair play, or those who are compelled to deal with men on equal terms.

There can be nothing of more vital importance in our advance toward racial perfection than the liberation of Women. It means the liberation and salvation of all that is most divine in human nature; for all her triumphs of mind, or science and art and trade, must remain aimless and empty if they are not absorbed and transmuted into happiness for the nourishment of spirit. In this process of liberation woman's genius becomes more rational and man's genius more inspired through enforced intercourse in common interests and employments. This seems to be one of the objects which the world spirit has in mind at the present time.

Religious and intellectual freedom women already have in common with men. Their economic, social, and political freedom is still in debate. Their control of their persons and actions.is still limited. It is this control that many women are fighting for. They wish to be mistresses of their own destinies, to be set free from a position of material dependence, and to come into contact with the struggle for existence on the same terms as men.

Whatever we may think of the wisdom of this contention and its ultimate advantage, there is one direction in which women are gradually becoming emancipated which can only lead to good. I mean the direction of actual bodily freedom in the matter of dress and activity. Women's progress in this direction is surprisingly small as yet, but it is encouraging. That women should so passionately demand freedom of action in the world, and at the same time cling so decidedly to the fetters of conventional dress, which render freedom impossible, it one of those instances of unreason which leave the masculine mind in hopeless amazement. There are women who would welcome martyrdom for what they believe to be the cause of personal freedom, who would not accept the freedom of their own natural bodies as a gift. Nothing could induce them to abandon their absurd shoes and corsets. It is very strange; but fortunately this is no longer true of all women. The new woman, or she who was called the new woman a decade or so ago, the independent woman is beginning to insist on being free to move and breathe in a normal healthy way. Gown, hats, shoes, were never more comfortable than they are now. In her larger more active life, she is insisting on being unhampered and comfortable, and she is finding out that she can have that sort of freedom not only without any loss of charm, but with an actual increase of beauty and attractiveness. It was a long time in arriving, but the era of sanity in women's costume seems to have dawned. The mediaeval and oriental ideal of womanhood, man's inferior and toy to be indulged and enslaved, is passed, let us hope, forever; and with it must gradually pass the standard of women's accustomed dress, devised to emphasize and enforce women's restricted sphere. If you are only to be a doll, you do not need to walk and breathe like a human; but if you realize that you are human, with an angelic mission in a beautiful world, the doll's dress becomes intolerable.

With the physical liberation of women, and the passing of hampering dress, comes a magical increase of beauty and charm. The conventional and artificial "style" of the fashion-plate gives place to the loveliness of living figures free to move with the sorcery of rhythmical grace.


"The Liberation of Women" (undated ms., Lorne Pierce Collection, Douglas Library, Queen's University - rpt. in ed. Ramsay Cook and Wendy Mitchinson, The Public Sphere. Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976) [back]