You may have heard this maxim before. It is an attempt to relegate particular verbs into categories of social politeness. The raw, gross nature of sweat is too crude, even for a man. It comes from an earthy Germanic root, much unlike the scientific and placid perspire, a verb of Latin origins. Perspiration, unlike sweat, is devoid of its grosser implications. It contains a medical nuance and does not evoke the mental images of wet skin and soaked shirts. But women (ever the delicate creature, eh?) deserve a verb of noble sensibility: glow. The virtue of women is to be respected to the point that the only appropriate description of sweat on a lady is a euphemism.
Apart from some amateurish detective work on the phrase, I have not seen anyone trace its history with any rigor and depth. It seems to date back to some point before 1883, wherein The Medical Age (pg. 268) we find the earliest written mention of the phrase in print,
The teacher of a female seminary in Philadelphia instructs her pupils, touching the function of the skin, as follows: "Horses sweat, men perspire, and young ladies get in a glow."There's a lot we can learn here. First, based on the date of the quote (the 1880s) and the social constructions of the maxim, we can safely confirm the phrase was born out of Victorian ideals. Second, the age of the ladies was distinguished by the teacher (a male?), and the age of a lady seems to be latched onto the verb glow. For instance, in an 1884 publication of Puck (1884, Vol. 15, pg. 300), we see the age of a lady to be of importance,
A stock-yards urchin thoughtlessly ejaculated, "Oh, dear, how I sweat!" quite to the horror of a youthful and very precise aunt, who reproved him for making use of so inelegant and impolite a term.
"Oh, yes, I know all about it," he replied in an impatient manner and petulant tone: "horses sweat, men perspire, and giddy young things like you only glow."The article claimed to be quoting the Chicago Sun - though I could not find their citation. It may be that the Chicago Sun's article pre-dates The Medical Age. The stock-yards urchin's response was sarcastic and petulant, implying aunt's correction was a silly and ostentatious bit of culture and erudition. It may reflect a division between normal society (represented by the urchin) and Victorian sensibility (the aunt). Joel Chandler Harris, writing a review of Puck in 1907 in American Wit and Humor, remarks that the magazine ran stories far too coarse and unrefined for typical society. Perhaps Puck ran stories that were a reflection of real American people, rather than the ideals they set themselves up to mirror.
There seems to be predecessors of the maxim. A 20 July 1881 publication of The daily Cairo bulletin. of Cairo, Ill., ran a story reported from the Catskill mountains, that ladies in the region hunted in full make-up and well-to-do clothing, and that (due to the heat) the ladies "thanked God that ladies could glow but not perspire." Well, that's odd. Is glowing not perspiration or sweat? The Oxford English Dictionary records that earlier uses of 'glow' indicate the burn of bodily heat from emotion, passion, or physical exertion, such as Walter Smith's poem Kildrostan in 1884, "Girls, all glowing with the flush of life." This, of course, is less interesting, because this particular use of glowing is quite ordinary and regular.
It seems, then, that the great maxim does not imply that ladies sweat at all. In fact, their skin merely flushes. Of course, this is a bit untrue, and it's difficult to imagine people truly believing it. Based on the stock-yards urchin's awareness that the maxim was already fixed into society's standards ("Oh, yes, I know all about it," he said, implying that the concept was well entrenched even in 1884), we can assume that his sarcastic reply meant that women obviously sweatted, and that the glowing was a lie "ladies" tell themselves.
We may also mention geographic location of the phrase. The instances center around the middle states of America: The Medical Age records Pennsylvania, Puck and The daily Cairo bulletin. record Illinois. Perhaps the phrase emerged from the central state as established descendants of earlier settlers formed an upper-crust class.
But the precise origins of this phrase remain unknown. Just another mystery of the English language and American custom for the books.