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Mere Man

May 4, 1900 — Annual Ladies’ Banquet, Whitefriar’s Club, London England


Mr. Chairman:— I have the honor to propose the toast of “Mere Man,” but why “Mere Man,” I want to know? After all that has been said this evening so truthfully on the subject of “Sovran Woman,” it is impossible for me to use such an epithet without feeling myself in an invidious position, in the position of the dog that bites the hand which ahs just caressed it — or rather I should feel myself in that position if I were in any way responsible for the use of the ungracious word. I beg most emphatically to state that I am not in any was responsible for it. I decline to be identified with any such expression: I decline to be accused of calling man any names, any names that I have not already called him. I do not decline out of consideration for mere man altogether, but in self-defense. To use such an expression deprives me of any dignity which I might myself derive from the dignity of my subject. Besides, the words in my mouth, were I to be identified with them, would be used against me as a bomb by a whole section of the press, to blow me up. I object to being blown up for nothing by a whole section of the press. That is the sort of thing that ruffles my equanimity. My comfort is that no one can accuse me of having originated such an expression, because it is well known no woman every originated anything. I assure you I have seen it so stated in print; and in one article I read on the subject the perturbation of the writer, lest there should be any mistake about it, so agitated his grammar that it was impossible to parse it. I should like to know who was responsible in the first place for the expression which has bene imposed upon me. It seems to me there is strong presumptive evidence that it was by man himself that man was dubbed mere man. If the lords of creation choose to masquerade sometimes as mere man by all means let them.

The saying is, “In small things, liberty; in great things, unity; in all things, charity, but when you meet a man who describes himself as a mere ma, you would always do well to ask what he wants, because, since many first swung himself from his bought in the forest primeval and stood upright on two legs he has never assumed that position for nothing. My own private opinion, which I confide to you knowing it will go no further, is that he assumes that tone, as a rule to draw sovran woman. Mere man is a paradoxical creature — it is not always possible to distinguish between his sober earnest and his leg-pulling exercises. One has to be on one’s guard, and woe be to the woman who in these days displays that absence of the sense of humor which is such a prominent characteristic of our comic papers. I do not mean to say for a moment that man assumes his “mere man” tone for unpleasant purposes. On the contrary, he assumes it for party purposes as a rule — for dinner party purposes. When man is in his mere man mood sovran woman would do well to ask for anything that she wants — for it is then that he holds the scepter out to her. Unfortunately, the mood does not last; if it did he would have given us the suffrage ages ago. Sovran woman is the Uitlander of civilization — and man is her Boer. It seems to me that sovran woman is very much in the position of Queen Esther, she has her crown and her kingdom, and her royal robes, but she is liable to have her head snapped off at any moment. On the other hand, there are hundreds of men who have their heads snapped off every day. Mere man has his faults, no doubt, but sovran woman also can be a rasping sort of creature, especially if she does not cultivate sympathy with cigarettes as she gets older. Let us be fair to mere man. Mere man has always treated me with exemplary fairness, and I certainly have never maintained that the blockhead majority is entirely composed of men; neither have I ever insinuated that it is man that makes all the misery.

Personally, and speaking as a woman whose guiding principle through life has been never to do anything for herself that she can get a nice man to do for her, an principle which I have found entirely successful, and which I strongly recommend to every other woman — personally I have always found mere man an excellent comrade. He has stood by me loyally, and held out an honest hand to me, and lent me his strength when mine was failing, and helped me gallantly over many an awkward bit of the way, and that, too, at times when sovran woman, whom I had so respected and admired and championed, had nothing for me but bonnet-pins. It does upset one’s ideas ad unsettle one’s principles when sovran woman has nothing for one but bonnet pins. The sharp points of those pins have made me a little doubtful about sovran woman at times — a little apt to suspect that in private life her name is Mrs. Harris, but I must be careful about what I say in this connection lest it should be supposed that I have been perverted.

In the great republic of letters wo which I have the honor to belong — in the distinguished position of the letter “Z” — my experience is that woman suffers no indignity at the hands of man on account of her sex. That is the sort of experience which creates a prejudice. It is apt to color the whole of one’s subsequent opinions. It gives one a sort of idea that there are men in the world who would stand by a woman on occasion, and I must confess that I began life with a very strong prejudice of that kind. For a woman to have had a good father is to have been born an heiress. If you had asked me as a child who ran to help me when I fell, I should have answered, “My daddy.” When a woman begins life with a prejudice of this kind she never gets over it. The prejudice of a man for his mother is feeble in comparison with the prejudice of a woman for her father, when she has had a man for her father and not one of what Shelley called, those — 

Things whose trade is over ladies
To lean and flirt and stare and simper,
Till all that is divine in woman
Grows cruel, courteous, smooth, inhuman,
Crucified ‘twixt a smile and whimper

Whatever that woman has to suffer she never loses her faith in man. Remembering what her father was, she always believes there are good men and true in the world somewhere. The recollection of her father becomes a buffer between that woman and the shocks and jars of her after life; because of him, there is nothing distorted in her point of view, and she remains sane. It rather spoils a woman in some ways to have a good husband as well as a good father because then she is so sure that

God’s in His heaven,
All’s well with the world,

That she becomes utterly selfish, and cares for nothing that is outside her own little circle. But the thing to guard against is loss of faith. Men and women who have lost faith in each other never rise above the world again — one wing is broken and they cannot soar. It has been said that the best way to manage man is to feed the brute, but sovran woman never made that discovery for herself — I believe it was ma in his mere man hood who first confided the secret to some young wife in distress — somebody else’s young wife. Feed him and flatter him. Why not? Is there anything more delightful in this world than to be flattered and fed? Let us do as we would be done by. It seems to me sometimes that it is impossible in reviewing our social relations ever to be wholly in earnest. One’s opinions do wobble so. If one would earn a reputation for consistency one must be like that great judge who declined to hear more than one side of the case because he found that hearing the other side only confused him.

The thing about mere man which impresses me most, which fills me with the greatest respect, is not his courage in the face of death, but the courage with which he faces life. The way in which we face death is not necessarily more heroic than the way in which we face life. The probability is that you never think less about yourself than you do at the moment when you and eternity are face to face. When you are sick unto death you are too sick to care whether you live or die. In some great convulsion of nature, a great typhoon, for instance, when the wind in its fury lashes the walls of the house till they writhe, and there are the shrieks of people in dire distress, and fire, and the crash of giant waves, and all that makes for horror, the shock f these brute irresponsible forces of nature is too tremendous for fear to obtrude. Thought is suspended — you are in an ecstasy of awful emotion, emotion made perfect by the very strength of it.

But when it comes to facing life day after day, and day after day, as so many men have to face it, the workingmen, in all classes of society, upon whom the home depends, men whose days are only too often a weary effort, and whose nights are an ache of anxiety lest the strength should give out which means bread, when one thinks of the lives these men live, and the way in which they live them, the brave, uncomplaining way in which they fight to the death for those dear to them, when one considers mere man from this point of view, one is moved to enthusiasm, and one is fain to confess that sovran woman on a pedestal is a poor sort of creature compared with this kind of mere man in that so often she not only fails to help and cheer him in his heroic efforts, but to appreciate that he is making any effort at all. I positively refuse to subscribe to the assertion, “How poor a thing is man!” It takes more genius to be a man than manhood to be a genius. As to the differences between men and women, I believe that when finally their accounts have been properly balanced it will be found that it has been a case of six of one and half-a-dozen of the other, both in the matter of sovereignty and of mereness and, therefore, without prejudice, I propose that the sixes to which I belong shall rise and cordially drink to the health of the other half dozens, our kind and generous hosts of to-night.



Source: Modern Eloquence: A Library of the World’s Best Spoken Thought, Vol II, After-Dinner Speeches E to M, ed. Ashley H. Thorndike, (New York: P.F. Collier & Son) 1941, pp. 134-138.