A Celebration of Women Writers

"Symmetrical Womanhood." by Mrs. Wesley Smith.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 217-220.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 217] 



Said the poet Göethe, to his friend Eckermann, in the seventy-seventh year of his age: "Had I earlier known how many excellent things have been in existence for hundreds of years. I would not have written a line, but would have done something else;" and Lord Byron, early in his literary career, wrote: "All that can be done has been done." And when these serene stars, in the blue heaven of thought, thus falter, how shall we, who as yet but look upward, dare give our message.

Writes Oliver Wendell Holmes, our genial autocrat: "An author does not always know when he performs the service of the angel who stirred the waters at the pool of Bethesda. It gives many readers a singular pleasure to find a writer telling them something they have long known or felt, but which they have never found anyone to put in words for them." And so, be it mine today to plead for some old-fashioned virtues, and to repeat some old, old truths of life and love and womanhood.

Mother Nature loves a trinity; her handiwork, material and immaterial, is largely made up of threefold creations. A geometrician would tell us that the triangle is often the keynote of her handicraft. Men and women are the highest type of this visible trinity. With a three-fold nature have they been endowed, mental, moral and physical; intellectual, spiritual and corporeal; a mind, a body, and a soul. The word symmetrical, Webster tells us, means "each part in proportion to the other." How shall our trinity be beautiful, or our triangle perfect, Unless each of these sides be symmetrically developed?

It is the unfortunate fashion of the hour to adopt some theory, some hobby, some fashion or fancy, "and forsaking all others, keep only to it, so long as the hobby shall live." It may be physical culture is the modern woman's fetich, and she drapes herself fearfully and wonderfully, passes much of her time in weird and mystifying motions, and assures you that she shall never grow old. Intellectuality is perhaps her shrine, and she soars in the empyrean of mind over matter, cares not for the adornment of her bonnet or the cut of her gown, pities you because you have not read Ibsen and Tolstoi, laments that you cannot rise to her higher plane and frowns upon all trivial conversation as to dress, disease, or domestics. Again, sweet charity may engross her time, and she founds a home for distressed cats and wandering dogs, or [Page 218]  makes little pinafores for the chilly children of Greenland. and sometimes forgets that charity means loving kindness, the womanly courtesy to the maid-servant and the gentle word to the man-servant.

The perfect woman shall cherish all of these, hold fast that which is good in each, and remember that she owes an equal allegiance to every part of her being. She who neglects health–some rational means of physical culture, or the like–shall reap a whirlwind of weariness and wretchedness; she who aids not beauty by all reasonable means has lost one of the strongest levers whereby to move the world. She who fails to expand her intellectual faculties unto the highest, cannot seek recognition or honor among men. The woman who slays love does ill, for, like the wounded lion, it shall turn and rend her, and leave her at last desolate, and stricken, and alone; while for her who knows the grace of a heavenly spirit, "her deeds shall drop as the rain, her speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass." All these things are lovely when rightly proportioned and nicely adjusted to the eternal balance. The ancient Greeks, that most perfect race physically and mentally the world has ever known, had engraven upon the arch of their academies, that he who ran might read, this motto: "Do nothing too much." and to we moderns this message comes today with timely warning.

The history of the world is rich with the tales of famous women who would have been beyond cavil had they but remembered, a woman to realize the highest must cultivate harmoniously her threefold being. Elizabeth, Queen of England, of whom Laud writes: "I am proud that such a woman has lived and reigned and died in honor;" she who was rich in mind and estate, but who lacked the gentler side, whose heart was not attuned to love and whose life missed those sweet chords in its music which only a fond affection can bring. Cleopatra, who could charm the colossus Cæsar, whose intellect was broad and great, whose beautiful body was a fit temple for a noble soul–but, alas! the casket was empty of the jewel, else the world's story had been nobler. Madame Recamier, whose gracious heart and lovely spirit made all men her knights, but who failed in that mental force which should have thrown her power into the world's work and aided its upward and onward march. Madame de Maintenon, whose piety was deep and sincere, but cultivated to such an excess that the god-like virtue of tolerance was forgotten, and the reign of Louis, the grand monarch, sullied with one of the darkest political crimes in history, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, whereby eight thousand faithful subjects were exiled or imprisoned. George Eliot, the brightness of whose descriptive pen we may never see surpassed, but whose intellectual faculties were allowed to exhaust and warp her nature so that her days were largely those of an unhappy invalid, and discord rang within them.

"'Tis strange that a harp of a thousand strings
Should keep in tune so long,"
sings the poet, and we shall only hear life's harmony aright when the bass and the treble and the medium register shall sound aloud together in one triumphant symphony. Lord Lytton writes the praises of "a various, vigorous, versatile mind," and Göethe observes: "The object of life is culture, not what we can accomplish, but what can be accomplished in us."

Let us divide our threefold being into a sexagon–from our physical nature we shall have health and beauty, from our mental endowment knowledge and sentiment, from our spiritual side morality and piety, and cultivate each unto the utmost, but each in its due proportion. The peach that grows toward the sun's warm kisses becomes first ripe and mellow and fragrant, but unless Phœbus travels on to touch its other side, is soon o'er-ripe and blackened and decayed. And so with us, if we let not the genial sun of culture shine upon us equally from all directions, we shall grow blackened with the vice of narrowness and littleness and scrupulosity, and fail our perfect fruitage.

The world today is, oh, so largely, what we women make it. Let us strive earnestly until all womanly vices shall cease to be. [Page 219] 

"Oh! lift your natures up;
Embrace high aims, work out your freedom,
Knowledge is now no more a fountain sealed;
Drink deep, until the habits of the slave,
The sins of emptiness, gossip and envy
And slander, die. Better not to be at all
Than not to be noble."

Woman cannot reign until she is worthy to be a queen. It is not by crying like a fretful child for more, that we shall attain all things, but by bearing our duties and our work so bravely, so wisely, that men shall gladly call us unto the high places to aid, until we stand–

"Two in the council, two beside the hearth,
Two in the tangled business of the world,
Two in the liberal offices of life."

The meanest pool by the wayside can hold the stars in its bosom, and give back the gleam of the sunlight, and receive the showers from heaven even as the mighty ocean. To all of us it is not given to climb the mountain, and few may wear the laurel, but who shall say what constitutes success, who deny she has achieved her highest mission, who has been simply a good woman. Says Victor Hugo: "There is in this world no function more important than that of charming. To shed joy, to radiate happiness, to cast light upon dark days, to be the golden thread of our destiny, the spirit of grace and harmony, is not this to render a service?"

It is so pleasant to dwell upon the ideal side of life, to lay far-reaching plans and dream great deeds, but be you the most orthodox of Christians or the broadest of ethical culturists, we shall yet agree that the truest and most searching test of character lies in "the trivial round, the common task," along life's wayside. The great Creative Power takes as infinite patience and care in fashioning the facets of an insect's eye, as in marking the course of a Niagara or building a Matterhorn. And George Eliot preached to us a great gospel when she wrote:

"The growing good of the world is partly dependent upon unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who have lived faithfully hidden lives and lie in unvisited tombs."

It is more satisfying to efficiently perform our duty of the hour than to hope that large opportunities may yet be ours. It is better to live today nobly than to muse on a radiant tomorrow. You cannot dream yourself into a character, you must hammer and forge one out.

It was of some fair woman who held herself worthy of being symmetrically developed unto a perfect whole that Longfellow said: "When she had passed it seemed like the ceasing of exquisite music;" and of her, also, Mrs. Hemans wrote, it was a life-long happiness

"To have met the joy of thy speaking face,
To have felt the spell of thy breezy grace,
To have lingered before thee, and turned and borne
One vision away of the cloudless morn."

In the twilight time we see her–that fair woman yet to be. She stands serene and beautiful, looking forward to meet the coming years, with calm eyes that tell of inward grace and the peace of God upon her forehead. She is robed in the white garment of modesty. About her throat she wears a circle of rare gems, and these are the pearls of truth. Her feet are shod with the winged sandals of a willing heart. Her eyes beam love and courage into the soul of Him who is her other self. Her cool, white palms are made to lay soft touches on some sweet baby brow, and to clasp the hand of manhood when it falters, so that they two shall climb together up the white heights of God. [Page 220] 

She shall cherish both the meanest flower that blows and the highest stars in heaven. She shall do all things possible with honor to herself and to her Maker. She passes on life's highway, gathering here the rose of beauty, and there the stately lily of a faithful soul. She stoops for the green mosses of love that grow all about her feet, and will yield her ever fragrant favor. She lingers long in the grateful shade of the tree of knowledge; of its wide-spreading branches she gathers the leaves to weave a garland for her forehead. She plucks the olive branch to bear within her hand. She treads the beaten path of life, and in her wake the way appears a little greener where her feet have trod, until she stands at Heaven's gate and the angel saith: "Come in. All hail, fair woman yet to be; love bless thee, joy crown thee, God speed thy career."

[Page 217] 

Mrs. Wesley Smith is a native of the United States; she was born in Chicago. Her parents were Edson L. O'Hara and Tonsley O'Hara. She was educated at Park Institute, Chicago, Kenwood Seminary, Chicago, and the Convent of Loretto Abbey, Toronto, and has traveled in the United States, Germany, France, England, Holland and the Bahama Islands. She married Hon. S. Wesley Smith, M. D., of New York City. Her special work has been in the interest of literature, charities of all creeds, clubs, congresses and organizations of women and literary societies. Her principal literary works are addresses, orations and papers for public reading. In religious faith she is Protestant, and is a member of the Episcopal Church. She is a most graceful and attractive woman, an elocutionist and writer, though not a professional. Her permanent postoffice address is No. 24 West Thirtieth Street, New York City.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom