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American Duchesses
by [?]

Every American woman is by birth a duchess.

There, you see, I have taken you in. When you saw the heading, “American Duchesses,” you thought I was going to purvey some piquant scandal about high-placed ladies; and you straightway began to read my essay. That shows I rightly interpreted your human nature. There’s a deal of human nature flying about unrecognised. Yet when I said duchesses, I actually meant it. For the American woman is the only real aristocrat now living in America.

These remarks are forced upon me by a brilliant afternoon on the Promenade des Anglais. All Nice is there, in its cosmopolitan butterfly variety, flaunting itself in the sun in the very ugly dresses now in fashion. I don’t know why, but the mode of the moment consists in making everything as exaggerated as possible, and sedulously hiding the natural contours of the human figure. But let that pass; the day is too fine for a man to be critical. The band is playing Mascagni’s last in the Jardin Public; the carriages are drawn up beside the palms and judas-trees that fringe the Paillon; the sous-officiers are strolling along the wall with their red caps stuck jauntily just a trifle on one side, as though to mow down nursemaids were the one legitimate occupation of the brav’ militaire. And among them all, proud, tall, disdainful, glide the American duchesses, cold, critical, high-toned, yet ready to strike up, should opportunity serve, appropriate acquaintance with their natural equals, the dukes of Europe.

“And the American dukes?”–There aren’t any. “But these ladies’ husbands and fathers and brothers?”–Oh, they’re business men, working hard for the duchesses in Wall Street, or on ‘Change in Chicago. And that’s why I say quite seriously the American woman is the only real aristocrat now living in America. Everybody who has seen much of Americans must have noticed for himself how really superior American women are, on the average, to the men of their kind. I don’t mean merely that they are better dressed, and better groomed, and better got up, and better mannered than their brothers. I mean that they have a real superiority in the things worth having–the things that are more excellent–in education, culture, knowledge, taste, good feeling. And the reason is not far to seek. They represent the only leisured class in America. They are the one set of people from Maine to California who have time to read, to think, to travel, to look at good pictures, to hear good music, to mix with society that can improve and elevate them. They have read Daudet; they have seen the Vatican. The women thus form a natural aristocracy–the only aristocracy the country possesses.

I am aware that in saying this I take my life in my hands. I shall be prepared to defend myself from the infuriated Westerner with the usual argument, which I shall carry about loaded in all its chambers in my right-hand pocket. I am also aware that less infuriated Easterners, choosing their own more familiar weapon, will inundate my leisure with sardonic inquiries whether I don’t consider Oliver Wendell Holmes or Charles Eliot Norton (thus named in full) the equal in culture of the average American woman. Well, I frankly admit these cases and thousands like them; indeed I have had the good fortune to number among my personal acquaintances many American gentlemen whose chivalrous breeding would have been conspicuous (if you will believe it) even at Marlborough House. I will also allow that in New York, in Boston, and less abundantly in other big towns of America, men of leisure, men of culture, and men of thought are to be found, as wide-minded and as gentle-natured as this race of ours makes them. But that doesn’t alter the general fact that, taking them in the lump, American men stand a step or two lower in the scale of humanity than American women. One need hardly ask why. It is because the men are almost all immersed and absorbed in business, while the women are fine ladies who stop at home, and read, and see, and interest themselves widely in numberless directions.