The narrator heads off to the British Museum to uncover the answers to the questions that had come up as a result of her visit to Oxbridge, the men’s college, and Fernbridge, the women’s college. Her previous wanderings had led to a subjective analysis of the condition of women in academia, so she searches here in order to access the truth beyond her own experience of the situation. Specifically, she wants to know why men were so rich and women so poor, what were the effects of poverty on creative/intellectual endeavor, and what preconditions were required to create works of genius. If truth cannot be found among all of the research done on the subject of Woman, where does it exist?
During her research, she comes to discover that the subordinate woman that exists within research and literature is a product of a masculine sense of entitlement rather than any innate inferiority. Comparing London to a machine, and the library to one of that machine’s constituent parts, she attempts the mechanical process of investigation. The selection of material on the subject of woman is vast, crossing every discipline from the natural sciences to literature. Men of every qualification or lack thereof write on the subject; their only commonality is in fact, their gender. She notices that women do not write so profusely on the subject of men, and wonders why women are such a curiosity to men. Their opinions on women are at times contradictory; according to these writers, women are worthy of worship, despicable, soulless and moral beacons all at once. However, all of the writers are concerned with proving women’s inferiority in some capacity; and she notices that these writers are actually quite angry. Why was that?
She uncovers male prejudice by constructing an archetypal male writer on the inferiority of women. He goes by the name of Professor Von X; he is unattractive, not particularly well-received by women, and is therefore intent on “proving” their innate physical, intellectual, and spiritual inferiority. Significantly, she notices that she had constructed the image of the angry male professor out of her own anger; she is dissatisfied that men’s lack of genunine understanding of women is so often passed off as Truth, and projects that anger into the unfavorable portrait she paints of male scholars. This insight into her own motivations sheds light on the motivations of male writers; perhaps they are angry at women because women do not reflect what these men want to see in themselves. Consequently, these texts were not written in any rational manner; men’s opinions of women were so filtered by prejudices and emotion that little semblance of truth could possibly be found in their texts. But most importantly, this observation suggests that the Woman of scientific and humanistic literature says more about the men who write about her than women themselves.
Woman are such a curiosity of men because men have an interest in enhancing their own sense of superiority that women do not. They are in every conceivable position of power, they are the opinion-makers and the arbiters of Truth, and they guard their power jealously. By considering any others to be innately inferior, they can claim the right to rule over them in some way, and gain self-confidence by doing so. This confidence in oneself is necessary if one is to accomplish anything. When their power is questioned, even rightfully so, they are offended because they feel their right to even believe in themselves is being taken away; the indignation of the Professors is simply a defense mechanism. She calls men’s illusory perspective of their own superiority “the looking-glass vision.” Men must necessarily perceive women as inferior in order to magnify their own attributes; men then use inflated sense of self-worth and capability to justify their activities in the private and public realms. They resist criticism more than a woman would because criticism reveals their true capabilities, not their relative strengths with respect to an ideologically diminished group, ie, women. With this exaggerated sense of confidence, men can achieve thier goals effectively, and perceives the world through a very different frame than one who lacks this sense of self-worth.
She goes on to argue that obtaining money (in the form of an inheritance) was of greater practical significance than obtaining the vote. Before obtaining the inheritance, she was forced to do difficult jobs earning a meagre living. The lifestyle took it’s toll on her psyche, leaving her fearful (of the repercussions of revealing her true self) and bitter (because she was forced to waste her time doing uninspiring work). However, with the inheritance her material circumstances were no longer insecure, so the anxiety disappered. She was no longer forced to flatter the men on who she depended, so she began to regard them with less hostility. Her perspective also changed; she could see how thier status also bred defects in character, just as hers did. Acquisitiveness and the relentless desire for power kept them from appreciating the simple things in life. After regarding the powerful with fear, and then pity, she could eventually see the Truth in things.
Only with money could she release her biases and find the Truth she was looking for, because her perspective was no longer clouded by fear and envy of the powerful. She is essentially saying that both men and women hold biased perspectives of the world and one another due to their unequal position relative to one another. Woman’s dependency makes her jaded towards men and fearful of them. Men are privileged, yet their status and confidence is based on the premise of women’s inferiority, which they go to great lengths to prove. These “proofs” are not based on any real knowledge of women, but male scholars etc. have an interest in reading evidence in a biased manner because they are fearful of losing their status. In particular, they chafe under the scrutiny of women who would reveal their flaws. Inequality in wealth and status prevents either sex from regarding the other accurately.
If notions of value are based on such biases, how do you measure the worth of a human being? She specualates that in time, men and women will do the same work. All of the assumptions of women’s innate inferiority based on present conditions that place them there will no longer be valid. She closes by speculating about what would it mean to be a Woman if women were no longer protect from the world, and could actively participate in it alongside men.