Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/September 1911/The Constitutional Conservatism of Women

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IN the course of his essay on emancipation—black and white—written at the close of our civil war, Huxley says that with few exceptions the ideal of womanhood in his generation seemed to oscillate between Clärchen, on the one hand, and Beatrice, on the other. That women are intended neither as guides nor as playthings, but as comrades, fellows and equals, in so far as nature herself raises no bar to equality, at that time had not penetrated the minds of those entrusted with the education of girls. But even the densest media are ultimately permeable, and if we can now point with pride to certain accomplished results, it is because the underlying principles have not only been discovered and understood, but practically applied.

At heart these principles are biological, and the success which has attended their application depends on the fact that women share the senses, perceptions, feelings, emotions and reasoning powers of men, and that the average woman deviates less in these respects from the standard of men, than one brother differs from another. But problems are fatefully linked together, and the answer to one is invariably the herald of others. If the education of women has demonstrated both its feasibility and value, the inevitable next question clamors for solution no less insistently than its progenitor. Now that she is educated, what shall we do with her? Perhaps at this point biology can aid us anew and point the moral to a tale which itself may have proceeded no farther than the opening paragraph.

Whoever has sufficient temerity to read all that has been written on the subject of sex in twenty years, is likely, sooner or later, to revert with a sense of freedom to Geddes and Thompson's splendid work,[1] there to rejoice in a view by no means out of harmony with recent results, and so comprehensive that the truth, though still "in block," lies well within the field of vision.

Beginning with the simplest cases, and ending with the almost hopelessly complex sexual life of man himself, these writers reduce all to elementary terms in physiology, and find the fundamental difference between the sexes in the essentially disruptive diathesis of the male, and the essentially constructive diathesis of the female.

These abstract characterizations, however, can convey little meaning without the evidence on which they rest. What does "constitutionally disruptive" imply, and what "constitutionally synthetic"? It is a far cry from humanity to the cochineal insect, yet this may serve as our point of departure. The well-known dye derived from this species is elaborated entirely by the females, who store it in huge quantities and as a result are condemned to a life of quietude on the sustaining cactus. The males, on the other hand, are small in size, quick in movement and short-lived.

This division of labor, though somewhat pronounced, is not a biological freak; it can be matched, more or less closely, many times, not only among insects, but among other animals, both lower and higher in the scale of being. Sexual differentiation among birds and mammals, however, manifests itself not by some one glaring difference of habit, but usually in smaller ways; in ourselves, in the sudden and strenuous outbursts of activity, characteristic of men, especially of young men, boys and barbarians, and in the patient, long-continued, and less violent expenditure of energy ordinarily seen in women.

Of course these distinctions are broad and have no bearing on individual cases. They serve rather as convenient, though well-founded rubrics under which to array the leading characteristics of the two temperaments whose existence affects our daily conduct in a hundred ways. Nor is this dealing with averages, whose constituent items merge unrecognizably in the multitude, disadvantageous, for in matters that seem to involve a whole kind, evidence from this or that individual affects the general result no more than my tall friend makes the average height of men other than it is.

While the males and females of fishes, reptiles and amphibians, follow the rule of the cochineal insect, exactly the reverse is true of birds and mammals, for among these the males are practically always the larger. In reality, however, maleness and femaleness are fundamentally unaltered throughout the living world, and the apparently contradictory evidence from the higher forms of life is traceable to their peculiar habits of reproduction.

Most important of all in this connection is brooding, for it throws light, from two angles at least, on the physical superiority of the male sex. Maternity, whether in birds or mammals, demands tremendous sacrifices—in fact is the very thing responsible for their higher development. Moreover, these sacrifices are not laid down in one lump sum, but bit by bit, and it may take years before all the premiums needed to insure a new life completely have been paid up.

Greater, albeit subtler, effects than come from these drains, are traceable to the inevitable stagnation of females incapacitated by incubation or pregnancy, for the quietude necessitated by these states is offset by stress in the male. Food and protection must be furnished for two instead of one, and at times for more than two. It is because effectiveness during these critical periods is racially essential, that the males are larger, stronger and in general more pugnacious.

Our point of vantage includes also those flagrant expressions of masculinity, known as the secondary sex characters: among birds, the resplendent plumage of the cock, the comb and wattles; among mammals, manes, horns and scent glands; in man, the beard and deep voice. All these are the outward signs of maleness, for they come and go with the sexual life, and their development may be stunted or prevented by operation. Gelded stags never renew their antlers; sheep, oxen and antelopes grow inferior horns; whereas the preservation of valuable soprano voices in men is assured by the same means.

These effects are due to the absence of certain chemicals normally emanating from the male sex glands. Analogous results may follow in operated females, but usually most illuminating complications set in, for the female not only has distinctive characters of her own, but is largely dependent on the suppression of those belonging to the male. The functional derangements often associated with old age involve changes in the chemical output of the essential organs, and explain, not only the crowing hen in the barn-yard, but the greater resemblance of the sexes in senescence than in middle life.

All this is reducible to a chemical basis, certain substances being necessary for the development and persistence of the characters that stamp the male; others being essential not only for the positive traits of the female, but also to insure her freedom from male tincture. From the standpoint of the male, the female is an instance of arrested development, a conclusion bodily transferable to other attributes, for except in matters peculiarly her own the female is surpassed in amplitude by the male. Physiologically he cuts a wider swathe, and this inevitably involves greater variability. Accordingly we find that not only as an animal, but as a thinking being, man presents more departures from mediocrity than woman. On this point history testifies with her right hand up, for numerically and as individuals, men have always excelled, not only in knowledge and art, but also as sinners and fools.

"We may blame the social heritage of women for the supremacy of men, but heritage and supremacy alike have their head-waters in the greater variability of the male sex, for variability means special fitness for advancement. Departure from traditions has ever been the first step of progress, and it is to our variants, our gifted men and geniuses, that we owe railroads, wireless telegraphy and airships; it is to them also that we are indebted for our greater stories, plays and poems, and even for our deepest thoughts. This type of man startles us by his originality, and brings into the world things before unknown.

The history of civilization, however, is only half written when all the departures from mediocrity have been listed and analyzed, for tradition clings inevitably to the coat-tails of departure, and holds it close to solid ground. If the greater variability of men is the gift that fits them to explore new fields, nothing is more certain than that the less erratic organization, both physical and mental, of women, fits them for administration, conservatism, tradition and culture.[2]

These special aptitudes are sexual differentiations no less truly than bristling beards and flowing tresses, and under modern conditions, infinitely more important. Nothing, however, could be more fatal to any cause, involving either men or women, than failure to recognize that the natural endowments of the sexes are complementary, racially essential and, fortunately, bred in the bone.

It is at bottom, failure to recognize this that has given rise to the current opinion that the emancipation of women through suffrage would destroy maternity. This, if it means anything at all, means that it will destroy sex. Those who have fears in this direction will do well to remember that the sex of woman is no less solidly grounded than the sex of man, and that both are infinitely older than our civilization whose earliest date is only this morning in the complete history of the race. We are the descendants of untold generations before Adam and Eve, and sex is more strongly inbred than the ten fingers.

Biology knows only racial justice, but racial justice in the long run will require suffrage for women, because they are constitutionally fitted for the exercise of the conservative influences of which, as a body politic, we stand so much in need. That the enlightened woman will wield her power without blocking progress, and, within human limits, for the prevention of errors, and the conservation of things worth while, follows both from her organization and her training. Society to-day is losing the services of a specialist in these matters, one too, not only endowed by nature but strengthened by education. When once this becomes clear, shall we continue to doubt her ability to face the waves of jingoism that periodically unsettle our markets and industries, distort the prices of living, and even carry us into trivial yet costly war?

  1. Patrick Geddes and J. Arthur Thompson, "The Evolution of Sex," American edition published by Scribners.
  2. W. K. Brooks, "Woman from the Standpoint of a Naturalist," The Forum, Vol. 22.