The task is as difficult as it is important, for it demands some exercise of sober judgment to view it with requisite impartiality; it requires, too, some courage to encounter the charge of inconsistency which a faithful discharge of it entails. For it is an apparent inconsistency to recommend at the same time expansion of views and contraction of operation; to awaken the sense of power, and to require that the exercise of it be limited; to apply at once the spur and the rein. That intellect is to be invigorated only to enlighten conscience—that conscience is to be enlightened only to act on details—that accomplishments and graces are to be cultivated only, or chiefly, to adorn obscurity;—a list of somewhat paradoxical propositions indeed, and hard to be received; yet, upon their favourable reception depends, in my opinion, the usefulness of our influence, the destinies of our race; and it is my intention to direct all my observations to this point.
It is astonishing and humiliating to perceive how frequently human wisdom, especially argumentative wisdom, is at fault as to results, while accident, prejudices, or common sense seem to light upon truths which reason feels after without finding. It appears as though a priori reasoning, human nature being the subject, is like a skilful piece of mechanism, carefully and scientifically put together, but which some perverse and occult trifle will not permit to act. This is eminently true of many questions regarding education, and precisely the state of the argument concerning the position and duties of women. The facts of moral and intellectual equality being established, it seems somewhat irrational to condemn women to obscurity and detail for their field of exertion, while men usurp the extended one of public usefulness. And a good case may be made out on this very point. Yet the conclusions are false and pernicious, and the prejudices which we now smile at as obsolete are truths of nature’s own imparting, only wanting the agency of comprehensive intelligence to make them valuable, by adapting them to the present state of society. For, as one atom of falsehood in first principles nullifies a whole theory, so one principle, fundamentally true, suffices to obviate many minor errors. This fundamentally true principle, I am prepared to show, exists in the established opinions concerning the true sphere of women, and that, whether originally dictated by reason, or derived from a sort of intuition, they are right, and for this cause: the one quality on which woman’s value and influence depend is the renunciation of self; and the old prejudices respecting her inculcated self-renunciation. Educated in obscurity, trained to consider the fulfilment of domestic duties as the aim and end of her existence, there was little to feed the appetite for fame, or the indulgence of self-idolatry. Now, here the principle fundamentally bears upon the very qualities most desirable to be cultivated, and those most desirable