Author: Richard Le Gallienne


In an essay on Vauvenargues Mr. John Morley speaks with characteristic causticity of those epigrammatists 'who persist in thinking of man and woman as two different species,' and who make verbal capital out of the fancied distinction in the form of smart epigrams beginning 'Les femmes.' It is one of Shakespeare's cardinal characteristics that he understood woman. Mr. Meredith's fame as a novelist is largely due to the fact that he too understands women. The one spot on the sun of Robert Louis Stevenson's fame, so we are told, is that he could never draw a woman. His capacity for drawing men counted for nothing, apparently, beside this failure. Evidently the Sphinx has not the face of a woman for nothing. That is why no one has read her riddle, translated her mystic smile. Yet many people smile mysteriously, without any profound meanings behind their smile, with no other reason than a desire to mystify. Perhaps the Sphinx smiles to herself just for the fun of seeing us take her smile so seriously. And surely women must so smile as they hear their psychology so gravely discussed. Of course, the superstition is invaluable to them, and it is only natural that they should make the most of it. Man is supposed to be a complete ignoramus in regard to all the specialised female 'departments'—from the supreme mystery of the female heart to the humble domestic mysteries of a household. Similarly, men are supposed to have no taste in women's dress, yet for whom do women clothe themselves in the rainbow and the sea-foam, if not to please men? And was not the high-priest of that delicious and fascinating mystery a man—if it be proper to call the late M. Worth a man,—as the best cooks are men, and the best waiters?

It would seem to be assumed from all this mystification that men are beings clear as daylight, both to themselves and to women. Poor, simple, manageable souls, their wants are easily satisfied, their psychology—which, it is implied, differs little from their physiology—long since mapped out.

It may be so, but it is the opinion of some that men's simplicity is no less a fiction than women's mysterious complexity, and that human character is made up of much the same qualities in men and women, irrespective of a merely rudimentary sexual distinction, which has, of course, its proper importance, and which the present writer would be the last to wish away. From that quaint distinction of sex springs, of course, all that makes life in the smallest degree worth living, from great religions to tiny flowers. Love and beauty and poetry; Shakespeare's plays, Burne-Jones's pictures, and Wagner's operas—all such moving expressions of human life, as science has shown us, spring from the all-important fact that 'male and female created He them.'

This everybody knows, and few are fools enough to deny. Many people, however, confuse this organic distinction of sex with its time-worn conventional symbols; just as religion is commonly confused with its external rites and ceremonies. The comparison naturally continues itself further; for, as in religion, so soon as some traditional garment of the faith has become outworn or otherwise unsuitable, and the proposal is made to dispense with or substitute it, an outcry immediately is raised that religion itself is in danger—so with sex, no sooner does one or the other sex propose to discard its arbitrary conventional characteristics, or to supplement them by others borrowed from its fellow-sex, than an outcry immediately is raised that sex itself is in danger.

Sex—the most potent force in the universe—in danger because women wear knickerbockers instead of petticoats, or military men take to corsets and cosmetics!

That parallel with religion may be pursued profitably one step further. In religion, the conventional test of your faith is not how you live, not in your kindness of heart or purity of mind, but how you believe—in the Trinity, in the Atonement; and do you turn to the East during the recital of the Apostles' Creed? These and such, as every one knows, are the vital matters of religion. And it is even so with sex. You are not asked for the realities of manliness or womanliness, but for the shadows, the arbitrary externalities, the fashions of which change from generation to generation.

To be truly womanly you must never wear your hair short; to be truly manly you must never wear it long. To be truly womanly you must dress as daintily as possible, however uncomfortably; to be truly manly you must wear the most hideous gear ever invented by the servility of tailors—a strange succession of cylinders from head to heel; cylinder on head, cylinder round your body, cylinders on arms and cylinders on legs. To be truly womanly you must be shrinking and clinging in manner and trivial in conversation; you must have no ideas, and rejoice that you wish for none; you must thank Heaven that you have never ridden a bicycle or smoked a cigarette; and you must be prepared to do a thousand other absurd and ridiculous things. To be truly manly you must be and do the opposite of all these things, with this exception—that with you the possession of ideas is optional. The finest specimens of British manhood are without ideas; but that, I say, is, generally speaking, a matter for yourself. It is indeed the only matter in which you have any choice. More important matters, such as the cut of your clothes and hair, the shape of your face, the length of your moustache and the pattern of your cane—all these are very properly regulated for you by laws of fashion, which you could never dream of breaking. You may break every moral law there is—or rather, was—and still remain a man. You may be a bully, a cad, a coward and a fool, in the poor heart and brains of you; but so long as you wear the mock regimentals of contemporary manhood, and are above all things plain and undistinguished enough, your reputation for manhood will be secure. There is nothing so dangerous to a reputation for manhood as brains or beauty.

In short, to be a true woman you have only to be pretty and an idiot, and to be a true man you have only to be brutal and a fool.

From these misconceptions of manliness and womanliness, these superstitions of sex, many curious confusions have come about. They so to say, professional differentiation between the sexes had at one time gone so far that men were credited with the entire monopoly of a certain set of human qualities, and women with the monopoly of a certain other set of human qualities; yet every one of these are qualities which one would have thought were proper to, and necessary for, all human beings alike, male and female.

In a dictionary of a date (1856) when everything on earth and in heaven was settled and written in penny cyclop√¶dias and books of deportment, I find these delicious definitions—

Manly: becoming a man; firm; brave; undaunted; dignified; noble; stately; not boyish or womanish.

Womanly: becoming a woman; feminine; as womanly behaviour.

Under Woman we find the adjectives—soft, mild, pitiful and flexible, kind, civil, obliging, humane, tender, timorous, modest.

Who can doubt that the dictionary maker defined and distributed his adjectives aright for the year 1856? Since then, however, many alarming heresies have taken root in our land, and some are heard to declare that both these sets of adjectives apply to men and women alike, and are, in fact, necessities of any decent human outfit. Otherwise the conclusion is obvious, that no one desirous of the adjective 'manly' must ever be—soft, mild, pitiful and flexible, kind, civil, obliging, humane, tender, timorous, or modest; and no one desirous of the adjective 'womanly' be—firm, brave, undaunted, dignified, noble, or stately.

But surely the essentials of 'manliness' and 'womanliness' belong to man and woman alike—the externals are purely artistic considerations, and subject to the vagaries of fashion. In art no one would think of allowing fashion any serious artistic opinion. It is usually the art which is out of fashion that is most truly art. Similarly, fashions in manliness or womanliness have nothing to do with real manliness or womanliness. Moreover, the adjectives 'manly' or 'womanly,' applied to works of art, or the artistic surfaces of men and women, are irrelevant—that is to say, impertinent. You have no right to ask a poem or a picture to look manly or womanly, any more than you have any right to ask a man or a woman to look manly or womanly. There is no such thing as looking manly or womanly. There is looking beautiful or ugly, distinguished or commonplace, individual or insignificant. The one law of externals is beauty in all its various manifestations. To ask the sex of a beautiful person is as absurd as it would be to ask the publisher the sex of a beautiful book. Such questions are for midwives and doctors.

It was once the fashion for heroes to shed tears on the smallest occasion, and it does not appear that they fought the worse for it; some of the firmest, bravest, most undaunted, most dignified, most noble, most stately human beings have been women; as some of the softest, mildest, most pitiful and flexible, most kind, civil, obliging, humane, tender, timorous and modest human beings have been men. Indeed, some of the bravest men that ever trod this planet have worn corsets, and it needs more courage nowadays for a man to wear his hair long than to machine-gun a whole African nation. Moreover, quite the nicest women one knows ride bicycles—in the rational costume.


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Chicago: Richard Le Galliene, "THE ARBITRARY CLASSIFICATION OF SEX," PROSE FANCIES (SECOND SERIES) (Chicago: H. S. Stone and Co., 1896), Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2020,

MLA: Le Galliene, Richard. "THE ARBITRARY CLASSIFICATION OF SEX." PROSE FANCIES (SECOND SERIES), Chicago, H. S. Stone and Co., 1896, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2020.

Harvard: Le Galliene, R 1896, 'THE ARBITRARY CLASSIFICATION OF SEX' in PROSE FANCIES (SECOND SERIES), H. S. Stone and Co., Chicago. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2020, from