Ernest Belfort Bax – ‘Some Heterodox Notes on the Woman Question’ (1887 – complete)

The complete text of ‘Some Heterodox Notes on the Woman Question’ by Ernest Belfort Bax (1887)

The above is one of those questions on which a particular species of traditional nonsense is expected of one. The “advanced” writer starts from certain dogmas, which the “advanced” reader has had handed down to him in the apostolical succession of “advanced” thought for a century past. These dogmas of “advanced” faith in the Woman Question are (1) that a natural equality of the sexes obtains in all respects save that of physical strength; (2) that women have always formed an oppressed class, but that the advance of civilization may be measured by the lightening of this oppression (here, of course, we get into the tail of the great bourgeois Panegyric of Civilization); (3) the convenient corollary from the first position, namely, that women ought to have all the rights of intellectual capacity with all the privileges of physical weakness, otherwise expressed, all the rights of men, and none of the duties or hardships of men. For it is a significant and amusing fact that no mention is ever made by the advocate of women’s claims of the privileges which have always been accorded the “weaker sex.” These privileges are quietly pocketed as a matter of course, without any sort of acknowledgment, much less any suggestion of surrender. I may add yet another thesis to the dogmas of “advanced” bourgeois thought on the Woman Question. This is what I may term the theory of “womanhood.” It is to be found in its most formulated and definite guise in the Comtian worship of woman with its virgin mother and other accessories; But in a general loose way it pervades a large section of modern Radicalism, and consists in the notion of the sacredness of the female sex as such.

The sentiment, when analysed, may, I think, be traced to two sources. One is the sentiment of consideration for weakness, laudable in itself, but which has got transformed into that of the right of weakness to privilege or domination over strength which is, of course, a very different thing. But the other and most potent factor is, I fancy, a survival of the ancient worship of the principle of generation. The exponents of Cuniform tell us that a well known symbol of the alone, corresponding to the Greek Θ, is to be taken to signify the word “woman.” Now, I think there is a certain moral attached to this piece of Cuniform lore. Woman is, and has been emphatically the sex. The veneration of the generative principles in their grosser form is of course impossible to civilised man. And while male man has ceased to represent a sex, in developing into the human personality complete up to date; woman still represents a sexual principle; her personality centres in sex, in fact she still remains for the most part, an amplified, beautified, embellished sexual organ. Otherwise expressed, sex enters into the substance of woman, while in man it is only an accident.[1] Man has a sexual side which he recognises as something more or less distinct from himself – “He” is not the male principle of humanity in the same way that “she” is the female principle. With man sex enters into and affects the personality it is true, but is clearly distinguished from the personality as such; with woman, sex is identified with, and indistinguishable from the personality as a whole. This is easily seen in the incapacity of the average woman to abandon herself to interest in any impersonal question. Discourse in any drawing room with the “ladies” there assembled and you have an irresistible but uneasy sense that, however well-feigned may be the interest in the subject of conversation, the real interest of the woman centres round the fact that she is female and you are male, and in the various conventional barriers with which this fact is surrounded. The way otherwise shrewd men let themselves be deceived by the very thinnest assumption of interest in their pursuits on the part of their wives is to the last degree amusing. A friend seriously speaks of his wife’s opinion, say on some literary point; on being introduced to the wife she tells you she thinks Shakespeare must have been a very clever man! The real interest of the good woman is, of course, entirely absorbed in the personal matters springing directly from the sexual relation of married life. In modern gyneolotry I think then we may see the survival of the cultes genatrices of antiquity exhibiting itself, not in the coarse form of the worship of the actual organ, but in the refined one of deference for the representatives of the principle of sex[2] par excellence.

In the course of this digression I have forestalled one or two points in the subsequent argument. However, I will now jot down in succinct manner a few criticisms of the cardinal dogmas of modern gyneolotry. Like the dogmas of the Christian theology, and of the Bourgeois economy, these dogmas are supported by one or two stock pseudo-arguments of a conventional nature, the rottenness of which is manifest at a glance. For instance, in support of the potential intellectual equality of women with men, in face of the obvious actual inequality, the fiction is promulgated that women have been cut off from the possibilities of culture which men have had. Now this, I submit, is very much on a level with the Bourgeois argument in support of a class-society, which consists in trotting out the virtuous man of industry and frugality, and the vicious man of indolence and extravagance. There is a grain of truth, of course, in both arguments, but it is imbedded in a mountain of error. It may be true in isolated cases, and under special circumstances, that women have suffered from the lack of training in special departments which men have enjoyed, just as it may have been true in some few cases that wealth has been the result of industry in a sense, and poverty of laziness. The objection of course is, that as arguments they are inept, if for no other reason than that they fail to account for ninety-nine per cent of the facts. The curriculum of higher education has until recently, by general consent, been adverse rather than propitious to the development of intelligence in those subject to it. Years devoted to Latin verse-making can hardly be deemed stimulating to general mental development. This, at all events, women have been spared. Secondly, it has only been in a few departments of learning that at the best, men have had any considerable advantage over women. From the days of Sappho, there has never been any obstacle, real or conventional, in the way of women “taking to” literature or the fine arts in any of their forms. Yet what (in comparison to men) have they ever achieved in any of these departments? It is said that women have always been taught to limit their interests to home, & c. This may be true, of the Englishwoman of a generation ago and to a less extent even of to-day. But it was not true of the cultivated Greek hetaira, or of the Roman lady of the Augustan age. It has never in modern times been true of a large section of women in France, or in numberless other instances that might be mentioned. Besides, we find that with men individual character and genius has always shown itself precisely in the overcoming of such obstacles of environment. This is also true of women who have attained distinction. There was nothing, for instance, in the training of George Eliot different from that of the ordinary Englishwoman. The argument from social and educational disadvantage therefore plainly breaks down. It is not this which has prevented the average woman intellectually equalling the average man, or the exceptional woman the exceptional man.

The argument for equality, drawn from examination statistics, is hardly worth mentioning. That by great efforts some women can equal men in capacity for “cramming” proves nothing. The “examination” intellect means little more, in plain English, than a good memory and an acquired facility in using it. It is, in fact, an improved calculating machine, which is comparatively rarely accompanied by general or special ability otherwise. What senior wrangler or tripos man has ever been heard of by the world after his examinations are passed and forgotten?

Let us now consider the question of the physical strength of women. The inferiority of bodily or muscular strength is supposed to entitle woman to special privileges. That all weakness is entitled to consideration (though not to domination) goes without saying. But I submit that in the ordinary life of the modern world the question of muscular strength or weakness has very little significance. Even on those rare occasions when it becomes pressing, the invention of firearms has reduced its importance very considerably. A woman flourishing a loaded revolver could hold a room-full of able-bodied men in check. Again, on this argument the consideration shown to weakness ought to be shown quâ weakness and not quâ sex, as it is at present.

But the chief form of female privilege is the assumed constitutional “frailty” of the sex. We come now to an important point. Muscular weakness is commonly confounded with constitutional; strength of body with strength of health and vital power. Woman, because she is muscularly “frail” has obtained the credit of being constitutionally “frail.” But is this belief in accord with facts? Does muscular frailty involve constitutional frailty? If it does of course there remains a certain basis of reason in some, though not all, of the exemptions and privileges of women. But I contend it is contrary to facts open to everyone. It is a universally admitted fact that the female infant is much stronger and more easily reared than the male infant. The registrar-general’s statistics alone illustrate this, as broadly as could be desired. The number of male births is enormously in excess of female. The numerical proportions of adult men and women is, as is well-known, just the reverse. This superior vigour of the female infant would of itself lend probability, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, for assuming certainly not less vital power in the female than in the male adult. And what evidence is there to the contrary? A widespread assumption and nothing more. In observations (relating to this matter) extending over some years of accidents, severe illnesses, injuries, & c., I have noted the excess of women over men who “pull through,” as the expression is, to be enormous.

While inviting the reader to take careful note of his personal observations and his newspaper in this respect for the next six or twelve months I may recall haphazard one or two instances of female toughness of constitution, probably exceeding that of any man on record. It is well known that to be sentenced to the knout in Russia was only deemed a euphemism for a sentence of death. The only recorded instance of anyone passing through the ordeal unscathed is that of Mme. Lapuchin, who was knouted by order of Elizabeth of Russia, survived without serious impairment of health, was deported to the mines of Siberia, survived that also, and returning to St. Petersburg; died at a green old age. Most of us recollect the instance of the old Scotchwoman, the winter before last, who being in ill-health, was on her voyage from the Shetlands to the Mainland in quest of medical advice, was wrecked, drifted about on a raft in intensely cold weather, without food of any kind, for nearly a week, when she was picked up by a passing vessel, was taken ashore, and tended, and in a few days completely recovered. Not so very long ago, a woman experienced but slight constitutional disturbance after jumping from the Clifton Suspension Bridge, a height of some 800 feet. A case came within my personal knowledge recently of a young woman having to undergo an exceptionally severe surgical operation for internal tumour, involving removal and replacement of a portion of the intestines. “She’ll never get over it” was remarked to me. “It may seem incredible,” I replied, “still strong is the female constitution and will probably prevail.” The truth of my observation was attested when in a few weeks after her two or three hours surgical vivisection she was better than she had ever been before. Now these instances, which are taken merely at random, as they occur to me while writing, and which might be indefinitely multiplied, may be termed exceptional, if you like, but allowing the utmost latitude to their exceptional character, I contend they altogether upset the traditional assumption of the “frailty” of women as regards constitutional vigour and the capacity for endurance. The fact is the “lady” of civilisation is brought up to regard herself as a “frail” creature, is always being told “my dear, this is too much for you,” that it is fatal for her to stand on her feet for a few minutes together and so on, till at last she persuades herself it is true, or at least proper and womanly for her to pretend it is. Among the proletariat where these fancies are an unattainable luxury the equality of health and staying-power between men and, women is much more obvious; so, also, to a somewhat lesser extent with those women among the educated classes who have to earn their own livelihood by teaching or literary work. The injustice to men which the conventional superstition of the “frailty” of woman, with its customary rites entails is seen on various occasions. In an omnibus on a wet morning how often does it happen that one of that unhappy class of exploited employees, the city warehouse clerk, with health undermined by long hours in a vitiated atmosphere is driven to dangerous exposure to make room for some fat, hulking matron, out to do her “shopping,” who has probably ten times his physical stamina.

I think we may fairly conclude then (1) that no case has, as yet, been made out for reconsidering the opinion dictated by the obvious facts of the problem as it stands, viz. that women are radically inferior in mental power to men;[3] on the other hand, (2) that there is a very good case, supported by a large mass of evidence, for reconsidering the received opinion of the inferiority in constitutional strength or vital power, of women as compared with men, an opinion which is accepted like most traditional beliefs, in the absence of evidence, and without examination.

The second main position of orthodox Radicalism, that women are, and have been in the past, grievously oppressed by men, is, on one side of it wholly false, and on the other true only to a very limited extent. It is a common fallacy in this connection to represent women as an oppressed class. Now, as a matter of fact, at no period of the world’s history has the female sex constituted a disinherited or oppressed class. Women may have been liable to certain disabilities. But these have been always compensated and often more than compensated by exemptions and special privileges. Economically, although dependent on men, women have for the most part had the “lion’s share at the banquet of life.” The real state of the case is that the condition of women has been determined by that of the men of the class to which they belonged. Women of the privileged class have always been privileged, women of an oppressed class have been oppressed, not as women, but as belonging to an economically inferior section of the population. We repeat that women as a sex have never been at any time treated as an inferior class to be exploited, in the same way that the slave class of ancient times, the villein class of mediaeval times, or the Proletarian class of modern times, has. The, analogy sometimes attempted to be drawn between the female sex and an oppressed class is therefore altogether inept.

Coming to the present day, the talk of male oppression, in any form or degree is simply the grossest and most impudent piece of cant. Law, custom, and opinion, in this and in most other western countries are wholly and absolutely on the side at women as against men. It is hopeless for a man to attempt to get justice where his adversary is a woman. This has reached a condition of scandal in this country that every assizes shows a crop of spurious charges of indecent assault brought by women against men, without a single instance of one of these women being prosecuted for perjury. There was an atrocious case, recently, of a woman who, charged an unfortunate workman in the same factory with her, because he refused to give her money. Baron Huddleston who tried the case remarked that the woman ought to be prosecuted. Was she? Not a bit. Now suppose these cases were reversed. Suppose men of the baser sort to have discovered a way of blackmailing “ladies.” Conceive the yell of indignation that would well up from press and platform; conceive the proposals to apply the “cat” to the dastardly ruffians; conceive the sentences of penal servitude for life which would re-echo from the walls of every tribunal! Imagination pales before the terrific ebullition of Bourgeois fury that would ensue. But, of course, when it is men who are the sufferers, and women who are the assailants it is only a matter on which Mr. Stead may exercise his small wit.

Again, it is a fact, the explanation of which for obvious reasons, cannot be given here, that severe corporal punishment is more likely to injure young boys than girls. Yet if there is a case of a female child receiving a very mild castigation it is invariably magnified into a violent assault and emotionally commented on from the bench, and this in face of the brutal flogging systematically inflicted on the unfortunate lads on board government training ships, and in industrial schools. Yet again, take the case of the law of husband and wife. The husband is compelled to maintain his wife, under all circumstances, while the wife, who has her earnings protected, can sell him up for drink or to keep a paramour at her sweet will and pleasure. If he remonstrates she may proceed to rejoin with a chair, or a flat-iron, or a poker; and should he then be rash enough to stay the uplifted arm, he has committed an assault, she proceeds with wailing to the nearest police-court; commiseration from magistrates for her and six months “hard” for him – la voila – she is but an ill-used matron, and a convict-felon he. And this is what you call advancing toward equality between the sexes. The success of Barnum journalism and its maiden tribute agitations, Langworthy marriages, & c., shows the ease with which a cheap conventional indignation can be trumped up on any question supposed to point the moral and adorn the tale of the fiendish malignity of man and the angelic innocence of woman. How different is it with any infamy perpetrated not for the immediate satisfaction of an imperious passion (however unnatural or perverted) but in the cold-blooded pursuit of gain. A few months ago a fishmonger at Hammersmith, was sentenced by the stipendiary to a month’s imprisonment for one of the most revolting crimes a man can commit-he had tried to sell to the poor of the neighbourhood a portion of a putrid cod, which, had it been eaten, must, the medical officer stated, inevitably have produced inflammation of the intestines, probably resulting in a horrible death. This fishmonger appealed, the already ridiculous sentence was quashed, on account of “previous good character,” and a fine of ten pounds substituted. Did the humane philanthropic Bourgeois make the welkin ring with his protestations? Oh dear no. This was done in pursuance of a legitimate branch of trade. (It cannot be said in excuse that such offences are not common for it is admitted that only in the most extreme instances, and not always then, are they brought to justice, and notwithstanding, scarcely a week passes without one appearing at one or other of the London police courts.) This same Bourgeois philanthropist can foam at the mouth, gnash his teeth and vomit an ocean of gushing indignation over the chance seduction of a girl under eighteen! The latter has nothing to do with trade, and is connected with the wellspring of traditional emotion, so you have only to turn the tap on, and out spouts the sentiment ready brewed.

Notwithstanding the state of law, public opinion, and custom, the “shrieking sisterhood,” and their male lackeys continue to invoke male “chivalry” in defence of every usurpation or act of injustice perpetrated in the interest of female domination. This invocation of chivalry now is about on a level with the capitalist’s invocation of “freedom of contract.” With both ideas, while their form remains intact the content has entirely changed. Under an Individualist system of production, “freedom of contract” between employer and employed had a meaning; under the great industry it has none – it is merely an excuse for exploitation by the Capitalist class. In the early middle ages, when strength of arm was commonly called into requisition for defence, “chivalry” had a meaning; in the nineteenth century it has none, and is merely an excuse for the privileges and domination of the female sex. In fact, if “chivalry” means taking the side of the weaker, it would be shown more often to-day, in championing the cause of the man against the woman, than that of the woman against the man. Hegel said that every typical character appeared twice in history – once as tragedy and once as farce. If we apply this to the chivalric type, and take King Arthur or Sir Launcelot (regarded for the nonce as historical personages) as the embodiment of the former we may certainly find the latter in the person of the great cheap-jack of London journalism, and exponent of the sorrows of husband-hunting wenches. The drop is certainly great from the hero of the “City of Legions” to the “Northumbrian boy.”

It might be thought from the general tenor of these remarks that they were intended as an attack on all idea of equality between the sexes. Such, however, is not the case. All I have meant to do is to attack the spurious social and political equality advocated by the bourgeois “woman’s rights” faction, male and female, an “equality” which, to employ the celebrated bull, is “all on one side.” This to my thinking is to be fought at all costs. As a friend intimately acquainted with current political life recently observed to me, what these people want to get the suffrage for is not to further any broad social views whatever, but simply to get infamous laws passed against men as men. This I believe to be true. What they really want is the erection of a sex domination.

I have also endeavoured in the foregoing to show the baselessness of the arguments supposed to tell in favour of the intellectual equality of men and women. Two things seem to me clear. (1) There is and has been a palpable inequality. (2) The arguments hitherto put forward to explain away that inequality won’t hold water. It will be observed that this is a very different thing from dogmatically asserting the inequality to be necessarily permanent. I believe it to be much more radical than many people would wish to imagine, but we can none of us foresee the results which such a revolution as that toward which modern socialists look forward will effect in modifying human life generally and with it calling into play latent and as yet unproven capacities in the female mind. With regard to the practical point of equality of social status between men and women the question entirely rests on an economic basis. As has been often said, so long as a man “keeps” a woman, whether as wife or mistress, as things go, it is perfectly natural he should expect to control that woman. It is a part of the system. Abolish the economic independence, place woman on an equal economic footing, and you have cut the ground from under any other possible dependence. In this great socialistic step toward real as opposed to sham equality between the sexes, two other points are I think involved. One is the definitive overthrow of our sham monogamic marriage and the formal recognition by society collectively of free relations between the sexes; and the other is the repudiation by women themselves of the anachronistic notion of “Chivalry,” as being due to them from men. (This reconstruction aspect of the question would require a special article). If we are to have equality and fellowship, let it be equality and fellowship, and not a hollow fraud masquerading under the name.

NOTES : 1. This does not, of course, touch the question as to the relative strength of the actual sexual appetite in the two sexes. The latter may quite consonantly with the argument be, as some physiologists allege, greater in man than in woman. The statement in the text is best illustrated by the two aims of the “respectable” woman, which are (1), to maintain her virginity, or (2) to make a good marriage.

2. Christianity, in accentuating as the first of virtues, the essentially female morality of sex, really, tended to drag men down to the level of mere males. When “sex” interpenetrates the whole personality a sexual ethic is obviously the dominant one. Chastity – as in the case of women – becomes the first of virtues. Where sex is merely one side of the personality, the sex-morality necessarily loses its importance, even if it is not formally abrogated.

3. I have refrained from entering into the strictly scientific questions of embryology and craniology which nevertheless make entirely in favour of the above thesis, partly from incompetence to deal with them adequately, partly because they would extend this paper too much.