The Feminist Movement/Chapter 1

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Feminist Movement



The feminist movement is not the only one to suffer from deep and widespread misunderstanding. Great movements, like great people, and those who have led forlorn causes, need the mellowing touch of time and the glory that comes from success to compel the world to recognise their worth and dignity. In the heat and clash of hot and bitter conflict, the innocent, like the guilty, become stained and spattered, and non-combatants, not knowing the meaning of it all, turn away from both in disgust; but the cry of approval, the shout of praise, the laurel-wreath, and the marble bust are their inevitable, ultimate reward, the gift of later generations, who enjoy the happiness for which those others strove. By a considerable part of the public opinion of her time Florence Nightingale was severely condemned as a woman of no refinement, who went out to the front to seek a husband: now our household goddess reigns supreme, and for ever, in myriads of British hearts and homes.

Perhaps more has been written during the last few years on one aspect or another of feminism than upon any other subject, except Socialism; but, since Socialism is feminist in its implications, it can scarcely be considered as entirely unconnected with the subject under discussion. Socialism and the Socialist movement have always stood for equality of opportunity to men and women in every department of human activity where sex does not impose an unconquerable barrier.

Although the number of books, pamphlets, leaflets, and newspaper and magazine articles devoted to the exposition of feminist teaching is enormous, general ignorance of the subject points conclusively to the fact that these books are not commonly read. It is with the hope that it may reach one other section of the public, and fall into the hands of yet another class of readers, that this simple re-statement is made. Those who know everything there is to be known about feminism will get nothing from these chapters. Those who come fresh and uninformed to the subject may perhaps find something which will stimulate them to further investigation.

No subject could be more absorbing in its interest and fascination, and certainly no subject could be more tremendous in its implication. It is, to some at least of its preachers, the greatest thing in the world, the whole of the law and the prophets. It has for its purpose the enrichment of life by the development of love; and neither ignorance nor vice, self-seekers nor politicians, things present nor things to come will be able to stay the onward march of womanhood in the struggle for the full and complete recognition of its humanity.

In the last phrase is contained the whole gospel of feminism—the recognition, full and complete, of the humanity of women. Surely this is no monstrous claim, that it should make good men and women afraid of the movement. Is it possible that there can be anything in this demand, which, if granted, will bring about such dire consequences as some people honestly seem to fear? It has been suggested, in all seriousness, that the secret purpose of the women's movement is the expulsion of all males from those offices and places requiring more than mere physical strength which they now hold, and their replacement by women. It ought to be sufficient to say that this is absurdly untrue.

The opening of new doors will assuredly result in the entrance of large numbers of qualified women into spheres hitherto closed to them, but if the standard of remuneration for the work be kept up there will be no serious economic disadvantage to capable men. It is only when women are permitted by law and custom to undersell their male competitors that the admission of women to a trade or profession becomes a serious menace to the father of a family. There are those who see in feminism something which will make for the deterioration, or for the extinction, in men, of those physical and moral qualities which have come to be regarded as purely masculine. It is suggested that the women of the future will have to maintain the men in idleness if they themselves insist on working, and that the inevitable result will be the weakening of the so-called manly qualities—strength and courage and the power of domination, with corresponding diminution in stature, brain-power, and nervous energy.

This would probably be true if the men of the future chose to live as idle parasites on the life and labour of women; exactly as it is true of many women to-day, who, from choice or compulsion, are living parasitically upon men; but the suggestion of the argument, that men are kept active and virile only because of the need to satisfy their hunger and the hunger of those dependent upon them, is a slander upon male mankind which no mother of stalwart sons will allow for a moment. Where men require compulsion to work, it is very often because they are forced to work at tasks for which they have no taste, because they are overworked, or because their toil, by reason of the process of subdivision and the employment of machinery, has been robbed of all individuality and rendered so deadly monotonous that it has become repulsive and hateful to them. Monotony and the machine are together killing the natural love of productive, creative labour.

When the critic speaks of the extinction of male qualities in men, is he quite justified in his use of language? Custom and habit, it is true, have separated the virtues and the vices, classifying them as masculine and feminine respectively; thus strength, vigour, courage, and honesty are regarded as characteristic of the typical man, whilst tenderness, grace, softness, and modesty are the commonly allotted attributes of the natural woman. Similarly greed, lust, and cruelty are more often and more commonly attributed to men than to women; and craft, dishonesty, and dissimulation to women than to men.

Every one knows cases where the exact opposite of this has been true. Speaking generally, it would be untrue to say that there is not some warrant, so far as the common uses of life and the conveniences of speech are concerned, for this classification of qualities. The particular work and environment of each sex have tended to make moral specialists of men and women, and to develop notably in each sex, certain tendencies and standards. Nevertheless it is a thousand pities that the world does not see in all this the natural play of cause and effect—the natural result of an unnatural artificial condition—instead of insisting that men and women are born with inherent virtues and ineradicable vices, the special and particular heritage of sex.

It is a pity, for example, that the word manly should be held to connote a certain well-defined type of man, and the word womanly a certain special type of woman—those possessing the qualities which are thoughtlessly grouped under that head in each case. Every man is manly and every woman is womanly. A man is manly in proportion as he responds to that element in woman which is different from anything he possesses. A woman is womanly to the extent that she is permeated with sex-sensitiveness. In every other respect, in the world of morals, men are as women and women are as men, or at least there is no reason why they should not be so; that is, they share, though in proportions varying as infinitely as the stars, the virtues and the vices; they are equally human.

The world has many men whose tenderness is more than the tenderness of the most loving of mothers. The immortality of the world's greatest spiritual leaders rests more upon their divine tenderness than upon their astounding courage. And the world has known many women of exalted courage and wonderful physical strength, whose great gifts of this sort in no wise detracted from their charm as the tender mothers of little children.

Feminism does not seek the extinction of strength and courage in men, nor of beauty and softness and tenderness in women, but the recognition that these fine and lovely qualities are the heritage of men and women alike—human qualities which all human beings have in germ, and which all human beings are entitled to cultivate and to use without question or reproof.

The chief purpose of feminists through all the years, and at the present time, is the achievement of freedom for womanhood and its equality of opportunity with manhood. Or, perhaps this would be more correctly expressed if one were to say that the object of feminism is to make female human beings as free as male human beings, and both as free as it is possible for the individual to be in a complex society like that of the present. For the intelligent feminist realises two things: first, that in a highly-organised and finely-evolved human society, the individual freedom must necessarily, in the general interests, be restricted in a measure. When life was simple, populations small, and the sole duty of man the gratification of his few elementary needs, an amount of personal liberty was available for each member of the community which is not possible in crowded cities of more or less educated people, whose wants are numerous, and whose many needs can be supplied only by the most delicately complex and intricate social machinery. In matters such as these the feminist asks that men and women should be equally restricted, or equally free, as the circumstances will allow.

Then the feminist clearly understands that, in a subtle but inevitable way, what is spoken of as 'sex' limits considerably both men and women, and, in the nature of the case, women more than men. Mrs Havelock Ellis well expressed the difference between men and women in these matters when she said: 'Man's need is woman, women's need is man's need of her.' That is to say, when a man loves a woman and the impulse of fatherhood holds him, no physical barrier interposes between them and the end of their desires. When a woman loves a man but is not loved nor wanted by him, honourable motherhood is denied to her. She depends upon his love and desire for the honourable achievement of her natural ambition. And the exercise of her special function of maternity involves a sacrifice of personal freedom from which no human ingenuity can contrive to save her, and which it may safely be said, she scarcely desires to avoid. The father, if he be a genius, finds domestic responsibilities a clog upon his efforts, but the ordinary, average father is not so hampered as is every woman who is a mother. He is free to come and go. The current of his life is not materially altered. His daily occupations are not necessarily interfered with. These are facts of everyday observation and experience, and as natural as the rising of the sun.

The freedom for which the feminist yearns is not freedom from the cares and obligations following upon the carrying out of woman's special and particular work as woman, nor freedom from the glorious responsibilities and deep sufferings of motherhood, the greatest profession in the world, the bearing and rearing of the race. She asks for freedom for women in the exercise of those gifts and in the use of those qualities of soul and mind which are apart from the consequences of the sex-act. She objects to the forcing of woman's interests into one groove, the pressing down of woman's personality into one channel, the directing of woman's emotion, with its specially rich quality, to one end, the confinement of woman's genius to one achievement.

It is the custom amongst savage and semi-civilised tribes to-day for the women of the tribe to keep at home and spend their lives doing hard and menial tasks and bearing children. The men roam abroad and with one another engage in various pursuits of an active sort, and discuss together the questions of interest of their own times. The last remnant of this ancient division of labour is to be found in the half-querulous, wholly resentful suggestion, the favourite retort of the anti-feminist, 'woman's place is the home.' Woman as woman, woman when she is performing the particular duties of her sex is, undoubtedly, in the best and safest place possible when she is at home—always presuming that the home is a home indeed, and that she can afford to be there. But sex duties are only a part of woman's work, only a part, indeed, of some women's work. All the rest of her is her portion in common with men, the priceless part of both of them which distinguishes them from the beast of the field. Small wonder is it that certain theologians in council assembled, debated the question of the existence of a soul in woman, if their blind eyes were fixed upon one attribute and one function of her in the belief that there was the whole woman. The wonder is that in such circumstances the vote, when taken, showed a majority in favour of the soul theory.

For the woman as a human being, and not as an animal, the feminist demands opportunity and freedom.

In this brief introductory chapter it might be as well to specify in what directions the world of women seeks to enlarge its present opportunities, and in which ways and to what extent it wishes to increase its labours. In some countries more has been achieved for women than in others. In savage climes the women are in the thrall of the same terrible bondage as that in which our own female progenitors existed. In Oriental lands the veiled and secluded women still live—the most mournful and pitiful figures of modem times. In Latin countries less has been won for women than in the Germanic countries, though the status of women throughout the Germanic lands is not invariably high. In many respects British women are much more fortunate than German women; but within these islands there are differences, Irish and Scottish women being, in some matters, in a much better position than English women. The greatest liberty achieved for women up to the present time has been secured in the United States of America. The American woman has long held the title of queen amongst women. Whether in the near future she is to lose that title is a conjecture; but at present progress holds its way triumphant from end to end of the Western world.

The point of this brief reference to the position of women throughout the world is this: that the women's movement shares with other great vital movements based on principle, the happiness and the dignity of being a world-wide movement. There is no corner of the globe into which it has not penetrated. There is no land in existence in which there are not rebellious, aspiring women—rebelling against convention and prejudice, and aspiring towards the possibility of developing all their God-given capacities. A defeat in one part of the world makes itself sadly felt in every other land; a victory for the woman's cause, such as the great woman suffrage victories in the United States in 1912, thrills through the universe and stimulates to renewed effort all those struggling against selfishness and prejudice in its thousand hateful, ugly forms.

There is this thought to comfort and console the over-anxious citizen who fears the coming of the free woman: that no great world-tragedy has followed on the granting of a partial freedom to women. Those who fight against the hosts to-day are among the loudest in praising the women for the use they have made of opportunities formerly denied to them. Those who oppose the granting of the vote to women speak with warm approval of the scholastic accomplishments and scientific achievements of women. Let it be remembered, then, that a hundred years ago a learned woman was esteemed a monstrous thing, a perversion of nature. When women have become as free as they may be, the world will have the grace to laugh at itself for its foolish fear of the political woman.

One other observation should be made before the specific demands of the feminist are briefly stated. The feminist movement is comparatively modern. Individual women with advanced ideas there have been in every country and in every age. There were women like Hypatia, the pupil of Plotinus, the beautiful and learned lecturer and orator of Alexandria, whose good fortune it was to have a cultured and enlightened parent. He gave his daughter the best education available, and made her the companion of his studies. She was so far in advance of her times, and had withal so wonderful an influence upon the people, that, at the instigation of the jealous Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, who worked upon the fanaticism of his half-starved followers and the sex bias of his times, she was torn in pieces by the wild monks of the desert. There have been women like Joan of Arc, who have declined to allow the supposed limitations of sex to interfere with what they considered to be their own special mission. Women there have been like Madame Roland, who lost her life in that frightful cataclysm, the French Revolution, a woman who sought and occupied with dignity a place by the side of the men reformers. Women like Lady Mary Wortley Montague have forced on unwilling communities new ideas of a beneficent sort. The blue-stockings of the eighteenth century were the pioneers of women in literature, though individual women had contributed to literature before even their time. The anti-slavery women workers of the United States led the way in fields of social and political service hitherto little occupied by them.

But the banding together of masses of women of every race, colour, and tongue, of every age and condition, for the avowed object of persuading the male half of humanity to yield them equality of status, as half the race, is essentially a modern movement. At one time the movement in this country sought equality of educational and professional opportunity. The movement in Russia and Austria is still in that stage. In Great Britain the emphasis is at present laid on the question of the political enfranchisement of women; but the principle is the same as it was and as it will be when the army moves on to conquer new provinces.

At each success, be it noted, some of the army drop out of the ranks contented. It would be unfair to imply, even faintly, that all the women and men in the women's movement stand for feminism full and complete. On the contrary, it is quite certain that the number of feminists of full faith in the movement is very small indeed. Women of conservative mould are allied with those of radical temperament in the British women's movement to-day, only to get something which all are agreed it is desirable that women should have. The more conservative amongst them, probably the majority, will, in all likelihood, be content with this. What is equally probable is that these women will use their new power to keep back their former colleagues, who will press for more. Their numbers will be small, and on them will rest the burden of converting to the new idea, or rather to the new application of an old idea, a number of people large enough to compel public attention and Parliamentary action.

As an example of what is meant it may be quite frankly pointed out that some feminists desire to see women made eligible for Parliament. There are not many who hold this view, but there are some, men and women; and these people will not be content with the Parliamentary vote. Then again, some members of the women's movement stand for the right of women to qualify for, and enter, all the learned professions—not excepting the church and the law. Many who desire to see women vote for a member of Parliament would seriously object to this innovation, but the demand is, of course, pure feminism. A section of the women's movement advocates equal pay for equal work, a formula which must be read very literally and insisted upon very firmly if it is to be fair all round. Many who believe in equal educational opportunities for the two sexes would draw the line at equal pay for equal work; but it must be taken as part of the gospel of feminism.

There is very little difference of opinion amongst women to-day concerning the justice of providing an educational ladder for men and women, with its lowest rung in the elementary school and its top rung in the universities; nor about the right of women to win and wear the honours that are open to the men of the universities; neither is there much difference of opinion, amongst women at least, about the pressing necessity for the establishment of one code of morality for men and women alike. It may be hard, owing to ages of laxity and self-indulgence, for the male half of the race to observe the code of manners and morals it has imposed upon the female half; but the injury to innocent women and children which comes from the double standard of morality has become too obvious and too dreadful to permit of two opinions about the matter. It may take generations to achieve, but the purity of men as well as the purity of women is an ideal which very few feminists will be found to reject.

But the number of feminists who support in its entirety the claim of the out-and-out feminist for the economic freedom of women is comparatively small. Most women who think are convinced of the desirability of economic independence for women, if only that they may not be driven into a loveless marriage for the sake of bread to eat and clothes to wear. But economic independence and economic freedom are not quite the same thing. Many women are economically independent to-day, or, rather they are economically dependent upon a part of the community unknown to them, which works to supply them with dividends. In the sense that their income is tolerably secure, however, and that they have not to look to another for bread, these women are economically independent; but they are not economically free. Economic freedom means absolute security from want, a security which nothing short of the annihilation of the whole community could touch. Economic freedom can be secured only through the organisation of society in such a way as to provide food and other necessaries for all, from the day of their birth to the day of their death. This means economic change and political evolution of a vast and far-reaching character. It would involve the community in the public ownership of land and industry, which is Socialism. How else could the community secure to all a means of livelihood?

Thus the extremists amongst feminists, those who believe that the woman's problem will not be solved unless and until economic freedom is secured both to women and men, are to be found in the various Socialist movements of the world. They are small in numbers, generally aggressive in their methods, and are in no essential way connected with the world-wide woman suffrage movement.

The last and greatest demand which the thorough-going feminist will make, and which she will probably achieve last, since it is the one which apparently flies most deliberately in the face of all established order, threatening the existence of the race, is a woman's absolute right over herself after marriage. The old idea taught from the cradle, that it is the woman's part unquestioningly to obey, must be exploded if a sacred companionship between husband and wife—which is what the feminist desires—is to take the place of the ancient relationship; the latest, newest, finest chivalry will admit this unalienable right, and will take nothing that is not yielded in love and confidence. This is at the root of many domestic problems which creed and custom seem scarcely able to solve.

For all these claims the advocate of feminism, man or woman, can give reasons which, in their eyes, appear sufficiently strong and good. They believe with the intensity of conviction that, in seeking the elevation and the freedom of women, they are securing the freedom and the elevation of men. The two are bound together in bonds which are indissoluble. Neither can move forward continuously without the other. The animal in each is the instrument through which, by divine ordination, the world is re-peopled. But sex becomes a thing gross and degrading when it is contemplated apart from the divine, human spirit, of which it is only one form of expression.

On the divinity of many-sided humanity the thoughtful feminist takes his or her stand, and claims for the woman-soul as for the man-soul as much of freedom as each can bear.