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The Five Cardinal Female Virtues

[1]3,388 words

Portuguese translation here [2]

In woman I recognize some of the principal virtues that make for a continuance of the human species on earth:

(1) unreflecting constancy to the demands of life

(2) untiring interest in the processes of life and its multiplication (which in its minor ramifications lead to that intense concern about all human affairs, which, in opprobrious language, is called ‘a love of scandalmongering’)

(3) a capacity for desperate bravery in defending or succoring human life

(4) a capacity for single-minded devotion to her own offspring (which in its minor ramifica­tions often manifests itself in the virgin, and in the spinster of all ages, as a single-minded devotion to a purpose, to an idea or to a cause)

(5) a capacity for bodily purity or chastity, which in the more passionate type of woman is based upon an instinct to withhold herself until her heart and her affections are captured (this in its spiritual ramifications leads to intellectual obstinacy, conservatism or fanaticism. Thus, a woman’s citadel of opinions, like her bodily citadel, is only liable to capitulation when her heart and her affections are engaged).

These five cardinal virtues of woman constitute her eternal claim to glory and to respect; in each of them she is a natural mistress, a gifted virtuosa. They are of so much value, of so much moment, to the human species, that they overshadow every catalog of foibles and vices that has ever been drawn up against her by a Weininger or a Schopenhauer, and she who possesses them can afford even to forgive a Weininger or a Schopenhauer.

Noble as they are in themselves, they can claim in addition the highest possible sanction and testimonial that it is possible for a human character to receive—the sanction and testimony of human survival itself, without which no virtue on earth can hope to last or to prevail, and by the side of which the mere applause and approval of one or many generations of men is but as a pair of bellows puffing in the wind.

To appreciate these virtues of woman at their proper worth, however, a stronger and more vital generation of people is needed than any that has appeared, in England at least, for the last 250 years. The very fact that, at the present day, the general consensus of opinion among men would accord to woman quite a different set of virtues is a suffi­cient sign of the degeneracy that has occurred.

Today, for instance, a Parliament of Englishmen or Anglo-Saxons would, in enumerating woman’s virtues, speak about:

(1) her moralizing influence in society

(2) her unselfishness (whatever that may mean!)

(3) her powers of self-sacrifice (this is the result of sick values and a confusion of thought . . .)

(4) her intuition (a great myth, the out­come of woman’s habit of saying the first thing that enters her head, and which, according to the laws of chance, must be right sometimes)

(5) her humanitarianism (a mischievous misunderstanding)—all weak, or at least fictitious, qualities, that no full-blooded woman would ever do anything more than pretend to possess, and which made Huxley say that ‘woman’s virtue was man’s most poetic fiction’!

If, however, we choose to dwell on the five cardinal virtues that derive directly from the great vital impulse within her, and to think of the many useful minor virtues that spring from them, we have a list which, if it is less goody-goody than the above, is both hardier and more com­patible with reality.

From (1), which we call the unreflecting constancy to the demands of life, we can see the following as derivatives:

(a) Woman’s constancy to the circumstances (and therefore to the man) who enables her to meet the demands of life

(b) Her intensely keen sense of self-preservation, when the danger threatening her is not life-promoting. This ac­counts for her caution, her sagacity in suspecting the unfamiliar, and her over-anxiousness in public thoroughfares, or on railway platforms, on board ship, and in the neighborhood of restive horses, etc.

(c) Her quick recognition of the fact that a given environment cannot procure the demands of life, hence her mobility, tractableness, docility, amena­bility, and readiness to follow at great personal risk, until such time as she has found the environment that can procure her the demands of life. In all communities where marriage is difficult owing to a superfluity of women, girls thus show a tendency frequently to change their environ­ment, and are quite unconscious that in so doing they are pursuing tac­tics which are calculated to enable them to meet life’s demands. Thus, they will leave home to study political economy or scripture, and when that fails they will change over to child welfare or to nursing, and if that fails they will try secretarial work, giving as their reason at each change that the previous work ‘did not satisfy them’. If economic pressure compels, they will of course be forced to remain in one occupation, whether it satisfies the demands of life or not, but those who can afford it will, as a rule, be restless until they find an environment which promises them fertilization.

(d) Her ability to put up with any number of inconveniences and discomforts, provided that the demands of life are procured for her, hence her stoicism in poverty or any other kind of distress, despite the fact that her children share it; hence her cheerful courage in those vital inconveniences connected with an existence in which the demands of life are being met: illness, the incessant clatter of many children, the hard work that a number of children imposes upon a poor female parent, etc., etc.

(e) Her ability to treat all life emotionally. The very quality of unreasoning or unreflecting constancy to the de­mands of life involves an impulsive attitude towards them. I used the word ‘unreflecting’ purposely. It is because woman does not pause to reflect whether it is proper or expedient or right that she should perform a certain action to meet the demands of life that she can be so thor­oughly relied upon to perform it punctually. If she reflected, it would presuppose hesitation, therefore delay, therefore possibly inaction. But it should be remembered that this attitude is a purely emotional one, and since the business of life, with the various relationships the family creates, is largely a matter of the emotions too, and not of the reflective or reasoning faculties, it follows that the tradition or history of woman’s mental life is largely confined to the play and exercise of the emotions. Life, as far as normal woman is concerned, is a matter of affection, of attachment and devotion, first to the man of her heart, and lastly to the children of her blood. Where she may be expected to be practised, gifted and versatile, therefore, is precisely in this sphere of the emotions, for they alone are capable of directing that unreflecting form of action that the demands of life impose upon her. A mistress of feeling, therefore, we cannot expect her to be so perfect at reflection.

From (2), which we call the untiring interest in the processes of life and its multiplication, we can see the following derivations:

(a) Woman’s helpfulness and readiness to be of use in all those circumstances in a neighbor’s, friend’s or relative’s home, in which she comes in close contact with life’s most serious business, at moments of childbirth, serious illness, and death, and particularly at moments of great domestic upheavals, such as times of serious disagreement, and all tragic occurrences, between couples. The fact that these virtues nec­essarily involve such an all-embracing interest in human affairs, that a love of scandal is an almost inevitable counterpart of them, is not diffi­cult to see.

The evils of scandalmongering, however, are grossly exag­gerated. All decent, humane and humanity-loving people revel in scan­dal, and I have never met a woman who was worth knowing who was not an inveterate scandalmonger. ‘The proper study of mankind is Man’, said Pope, and he was entirely right. But what is scandalmon­gering, and the exhaustive discussion of one’s acquaintances, relatives and friends, but an essential description of that ‘proper study’? Hus­bands who do not sympathize with their wives’ love of scandal, and who refuse to join with them in expatiating on tittle-tattle, are usually inhuman and narrow men, such men as make good engineers, good mathematicians, good chemists and good sailors or explorers. These men will expect their wives to listen breathlessly when they discuss sport or some other futile subject as remote as possible from humanity, and yet will show impatience if their wives discuss the marital relations of their next-door neighbour.

(b) This virtue makes women very obser­vant of little odd characteristics in their fellow-creatures. And if women are, as a rule, such good mimics and imitators, it is due partly to the earnestness with which they observe other men and women (the other reason for their power of imitation I shall give under [5]). Women will frequently draw wrong conclusions from the traits they have ob­served—this I do not deny—but the interesting point is that they usu­ally observe the traits.

From (3), which we called desperate bravery in defending and succoring human life, we can see the following derivatives:

(a) The readiness to incur mortal risk for a child of their own (quite common); for a husband (very rare, except in early days of marriage when children have not yet arrived); for a loved human creature of any kind.

(b) A certain foolhardy and reckless daring in engaging overwhelming odds for the sake of achieving a vital purpose (a woman will assault a man twice her size and three or four times her strength at such moments).

(c) A capacity for a fierce unrelenting hatred towards enemies, deceivers or betrayers of those she loves.

(d) In the realm of the spirit, a readiness to perform a mad feat of intrepidity to defend or promote an idea (Miss Emily Davidson in that marvelous rush at the King’s horse in the Derby of 1913. We loathed the cause for which she fought, but we honored and admired the fierce single-mindedness with which she and the other militant suffragettes fought for it).

From (4), which we call a capacity for single-minded devotion to her own offspring, we can see the following derivatives:

(a) Woman’s unswerving tenacity of purpose in serving and ministering to those she loves.

(b) Her indefatigable industry on behalf of those who depend on her, so that she is able, like a horse, to work herself to death, provided she loves and knows she is loved.

(c) In the spiritual realm, her capacity for fanatical adherence to a cause, to a belief, to a faith, and her corresponding fierce antagonism to those who oppose that cause or faith.

(d) Her pride in her own offspring and her consequent tendency to under­value or to dislike the offspring of others. When this sentiment is stimulated to its zenith by the fact that the offspring of others happen to be the offspring of the former possessor of her man’s love, you get the staggering cruelties of the stepmother. Thus in woman’s nature does good merge into evil, and evil merge into good . . .

Everything connected with this virtue is at once so useful to the race, and so unique and unforgettable as an individual experience, that it seems only fitting to pause for a moment here to dwell on one or two of its most stirring features. Passing over the first months and years when the only force between helpless, pitiably dependent life and death, or at least neglect, is precisely this mother’s instinct, this jealous care, when inarticulate infancy can neither acknowledge, return thanks for, nor, what is perhaps more perplexing, realize all the thousand and one services that are cheerfully performed in order to promote its growth and its comfort; passing over, too, those moments of the silent watcher, of the sleepless sentry, in which, during times of danger, every breath is a prayer, and every smile a song of thanksgiving; we would like more particularly to concentrate upon that period of early childhood, on that age of babbling tongue and unsteady gait, when most of that which is to be of use in life, and indeed most of that which is never to be forgotten in life, is learnt at the mother’s side. Not that we would wish to reduce by one iota the importance of the former period, the most wonderful aspect of which is, perhaps, the joy that is felt by either side in simply playing its appointed role, but rather because in the latter period both parties are conscious of this same joy, and are in a position to prolong it, transmute it and preserve it, until long after that age when the positions become reversed, and dependence has begun on the side of the once protecting mother.

There is in the child of a good mother a spirit so confiding, so receptive, so perfectly trustful, that possibly at no other age are the prerequisites for sound education more completely present than in those first years of life at the dawn of which a fold of the mother’s skirt still offers a substantial amount of support to legs that are learning both bearing power and balance. What happens then, and how it happens, will of course never be properly recorded, for lessons are given and lessons are learnt without sufficient conscious effort on either side for the method to be made a subject of exact knowledge. But the result is gradually made manifest by the marvelous transformation of an inarticulate little animal, whose whole horizon is bounded by food, sleep and apparently purposeless limb-exercises, into a creature that can ex­press its wishes, demand explanations of the things about it, learn to recognize the first rules of decent behavior and, what is more, shed its own fresh light on the problems of existence. And if what it learns later on may, from the standpoint of material utility, bear a more imposing and less chaotic aspect, certainly nothing it has failed to learn at this period will ever be acquired at any subsequent stage of its existence. It cannot be said that it has mastered any definite system of thought, or that it has memorized any particular striking fact; it may not even have learnt the very patience and gentleness which its mother has constantly exhibited in her care of it. Nevertheless, it has learnt things which, in solemn truth, can be said to be little short of priceless.

Let it not be suspected, however, because we can find only vague phraseology for our purpose, that we wish to claim for this early education an indispensable character that it really does not possess. What is it then that makes it almost impossible to give a more narrow descrip­tion of it without losing all grasp of its magnitude and importance? It is the fact that from this education are derived those qualities of heart and mind which, though hardly ever referred to at critical moments in a man’s life, are nevertheless among the most serviceable and powerful of life’s weapons. The man who has had a good mother has learnt to feel a certain confidence in his own unaided efforts, because the best in him has been diligently sought, encouraged and brought to the fore; he has acquired a certain vigorous sanguineness and courage because, having started life so well, in such a glorious morning of sunshine, he is conscious of stored-up warmth within him, upon which he can fall back in his moments of loneliness, gloom and trouble; but, above all, he has been launched forth into the world with at least one solid experience, one ineffaceable impression of human kindness and human beauty, and this, while it gives him a perpetual criterion of value and criticism, shielding him from the specious and the base, also prevents him from ever feeling that despair and doubt about himself and his fellows which in moments of deep tribulation paralyses effort and precludes the pos­sibility of hope.

This is what the equipment amounts to with which a loving mother can endow her son. Quite apart from the joys that are derived from deep filial emotions, and from that unique relationship of a mother to her son, these are among the chief benefits that the relationship necessarily involves. Most of the great men in history owe their greatness partly to this equipment; most of the great men in history—Schopenhauer, Byron, de Quincey—whose relationship to their mothers was not ideal, reveal in their works the effects of this deficiency; and he who ventures to question that here, indeed, I have laid my finger on what is quintessential in the education that a good mother gives to her child, and incapable of satisfactory substitution by any other means in her absence, is one of those unfortunates from whom life has with­held this most precious of all her blessings.

It is here that woman excels; it is here that she can defy all competition, and it is in this role that the best in herself, and some of the best in mankind, is developed and sustained. Anything else that she may do must be always second best to this, and those who, by misrepresenta­tion and appeals to vanity, persuade her while she is yet quite young that there are callings better than, or at least as good as, motherhood for her are enemies not only of woman, but also of the species.

From (5), which we call a capacity for bodily purity or chastity, which is based upon an instinct to resist fertilization until heart and affection are engaged, we can see the following derivatives:

(a) Woman’s tendency to a certain rather becoming dignity and pride, which come to their zenith at the moment of the most heated appeal made by the lover who has failed to engage her heart and affection. This on the spiritual side leads to a power of renitency against conviction and persuasion, which frequently makes a woman a most powerful and reliable ally in a secret movement or in a secret intrigue.

(b) Since the demands of life make it necessary, when once woman has abandoned her attitude of chaste resistance, to yield wholly and unreservedly to the male, there is in all women a certain sequaciousness, a certain docility, a marked predilection in favour of subservience and subordination to those who have engaged their affections, which makes of woman the most natu­rally constituted follower, disciple, servant that it is possible to find.

On the spiritual side, it makes her acutely subject to guidance and direc­tion, to receptivity, to suggestion and to imitation. But seeing that sequaciousness, imitation, whether in regard to opinion, mannerism or fashion, is the reverse of original production and involves an absence or a weakness of the initiating power of personality, we are bound to recognize in woman, as a direct consequence of her necessary physical and psychological surrender, when once the attitude of chastity has been abandoned, a lack of originating power, a lack of that prehensile attitude of mind which seizes and does not wait to be seized, and which is behind all male emancipation, aggression, originality and inventiveness. This, indeed, is the other reason which under (1) we said we had yet to give for woman’s power of imitation. Thus Arabella Kenealy calls the sex-instinct ‘in the normal girl, responsive rather than initia­tive’.

From this fifth virtue, which, when the attitude of chastity is abandoned, becomes converted into subjection and submission, are thus de­rived woman’s suppleness, her plasticity, her promptness to assimilate and to form herself according to another’s pattern, and her ability to adapt herself to circumstances.

In all these derivatives of the five cardinal virtues of woman we can trace the indirect but certain connection with the vital primum mobile in her nature, which is her deep concern about life and its multiplication. On the same principle, therefore, it ought to be possible to enumerate the cardinal vices of woman and their auxiliary manifestations. For if a creature’s virtues are the outcome of its instincts, its bodily formation and the functions it has to perform, its vices must surely have a similar origin.

From The Lost Philosopher: The Best of Anthony M. Ludovici, ed. John V. Day (Berkeley, Cal.: ETSF, 2003), available for purchase here [3].