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In Defense of Vain Women


"Vanity" by John William Waterhouse, 1849–1917

1,470 words

Woman’s vanity, I take it, is not open to question. If no other proof of its preeminence in her were available, we should find one in her universally reported modesty, for who says modest, says also vain. Since, therefore, no-one has yet contested the modesty of women, I may take it that her vanity is by implication generally accepted too.

The ramifications of this vice in her are to be found in her tendency to inordinate jealousy (which arises from her incessant desire to be the center of attraction and her intolerance of rivals in this desire); in her love of honors, titles, badges, etc. (hence her incessant spurring-on of her mate to obtain them, and her impatience with him if he fails); in her tendency to adopt only showy or conspicuous callings in which tangible and visible results, and speedy applause, are sure to be obtained (see note); finally, in her constant and deep concern about her appearance, her clothes, her hair, and her neighbor’s clothes and hair, and her love of flattery.

This latter derivative of her basic vanity is perhaps the worst of all, because it means that women, as a rule, are always governed in their likes and dislikes, and in their appreciation of their fellow-crea­tures, not by a recognition of the latter’s intrinsic worth, which they sum up once and for all, but by the manner in which their fellow-crea­tures treat them.

A woman does not ask herself, what is the precise character of So-and-so, and value him accordingly. Her instinctive question is, how did So-and-so treat me? He may be an inferior man who dances attendance upon her and treats her well, he may be a knave; she will always prefer him before the worthy man who treats her with indifference.

Madame de Staël’s adverse opinion of Napoleon was not formed until Napoleon had systematically and thoroughly snubbed her. But Madame de Staël’s adverse opinion of Napoleon is not valu­able as an index to Napoleon’s true character; it is only valuable as an index to the way Napoleon treated her.

Likewise with our ‘good Queen Bess’, it was not Leicester’s desirable qualities that so much endeared him to her, for he was a bigamist, a murderer, an incompetent and cow­ardly general, and a bad governor of men, as his experiences in the Netherlands proved, but the fact that he was an arch-flatterer. Even the ingenuity he displayed in designing his presents to his sovereign and lady-love reveal an unusual knowledge of woman’s weaknesses.

Eliza­beth’s treatment of Admiral Lord Seymour, whom she made a Privy Councilor, was also not based upon an estimate of his true worth but upon the way in which he treated her, for the man was a convicted de­faulter . . .

The most cursory study of any woman’s opinion about her fellow-creatures will always reveal the same fact: that they are not based at all upon the intrinsic value of people, but on the way people treat her. This is a comparatively harmless trait so long as woman has no power; the moment, however, that she is placed in a position of wielding power, her errors of judgment affect public life, and she only accepts those men as her ministers, advisers or directors who can prostrate themselves with the best grace at her feet, and appeal most irresistibly to her vanity. Her choice of a fellow-creature may of course be right by a fluke, as for instance when he combines with general ability the power for fulsome flattery (Benjamin Disraeli), but otherwise it is almost sure to be wrong.


"Unconscious Rivals" by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1836–1912

These ramifications of the fundamental vice of vanity in woman are, I presume, disputed by no-one. It only remains, therefore, to show that here again we are concerned with a vital instinct which, while it may require curbing by man, is too precious to be uprooted or suppressed.

For what, after all, is this vanity in woman but the outcome of her natural impulse to attract the notice of the male—to speed up, that is to say, or to make certain of, the act of fertilization, which can only be con­summated when a male has been captivated?

If the female played the aggressive and prehensile role in the sexual act, she would only need to pursue and to overpower as the male does. Since, however, she plays the passive, receptive and submissive role, her only means of securing and expediting fertilization is to draw the male to her, and this instinct in the human female naturally manifests itself as a deep concern about her own personal appearance and its powers of provoking flattering attention.

If intellectual brightness can add to the power she is thus able to exercise, and she has the gift for developing intellectual power, she will do so in order to add to the glamor of her person. That is why it is never safe to argue from a woman’s intellectual pursuits that she is truly interested in the subjects she is studying. It is far wiser to wait until she has given some unmistakable proof of the purity of her mo­tives. This, however, rarely if ever happens.

Since, however, in a contest between attractions, native beauty and native endowments generally play a greater part than dress or acquired intellectual smartness, it will generally be found that women are more bitterly jealous of each other’s bodily gifts than of each other’s wardrobes, wealth or wisdom.

But woman does not consciously consider the benefit of the species, although she is constantly working for it. Thus when she is vying with other women in the business of attraction, she realizes the enormous advantage enjoyed by the rival who has the best physical endowments, and since it is her own fertilization that is alone important to her, her jealousy of the other woman or women may quite easily drive her to homicide, if she can hope to achieve a speedier tri­umph by this means.

Apart from sexual matters, this characteristic in the female manifests itself generally as a desire to shine or to outshine, and to be the center of an admiring or at least attentive group. Tiresome as this pro­pensity is, particularly when a wife shows it to a marked degree, it should never be forgotten that it has a vital origin, and therefore that it should be treated with patience and toleration. A little kindly and timely explanation to a woman of one’s own circle will generally enable her to realize how foolish she has been making herself appear, and the moment she realizes this and begins, with the aid of your explana­tion, to notice the self-assertiveness of other women, and its reasons, she will be on the high road to understanding the wisdom of your re­buke.

As a general rule it is best to teach women through the example of other women, because their natural loathing and contempt of other women is such that if you can once convince your wife or your daughter that she is behaving, or has behaved, like a certain other woman, whom she has had opportunities of observing with disapproval, the chances are that you will have cured her spontaneously of the objec­tionable trait which it was your desire to suppress.

This fact, however, should be carefully noted in regard to female vanity, and that is that normally it is only a means of luring the male. When once the male has been lured, and the woman is passionate and positive, vanity is flung to the four winds and passion will induce the woman to accept even insults from the man she loves without ceasing from loving him.

The negative woman, on the other hand, whose vanity is never smothered by passion, cannot accept an insult from anyone. She hates the lover who does not keep up to the mark in worshiping her. Since she is never carried away by passion, she never forgets to ask herself the constant question, what sort of figure she is cutting in the affair, and this makes her very sensitive to adulation, neglect and insults.

Note: Thus Havelock Ellis says: ‘It is difficult to recall examples of women who have patiently and slowly fought their way at once to perfection and to fame in the face of complete indifference, like, for instance, Balzac . . . It is still more difficult to recall a woman who for any abstract and intellectual end has fought her way to success through obloquy and contempt, or without reaching success, like a Roger Bacon or a Galileo, a Wagner or an Ibsen’.

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