An American Comment

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In America there is no Freewoman, nor anything comparable with it. Here Feminism seems to have developed along the lines of Suffragism only, and strict adherence to a single "ism" usually engenders narrowness. But the lack of such an exponent of broad feminine enfranchisement is mitigated by the courage and frankness of "Harper's Weekly," under the editorship of Norman Hapgood. This regenerated and rejuvenated publication is opening its columns to articles that deal with the profoundest problems of sex and treat them rationally, and the editor has just published a statement that the policy of the periodical will not be determined by the supposed needs of the fourteen-year-old girl. From time immemorial we have kept all literature and art down to the level of what the most conservative people think the "young girl" should be permitted to read, hear and see; and we have all stupidly acquiesced in this intellectual emasculation, quite regardless of the fact that the average girl at that period of life cannot be hired, cajoled, or driven to read any literature that deals with the social problem. It is time that we broke away from the leading strings of an imaginary and fictitious requirement, and Mr. Hapgood's declaration of independence is most refreshingly welcome. No person who realises the significance of having this influential magazine as an open forum for the expression of ideas which in so many editorial sanctums are taboo can afford to be ignorant of its work.

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Somewhat as a delicious surprise, it must be confessed, to some of us who, having no faith in political action and holding the electoral privilege in low esteem, have always looked upon woman's struggle for the franchise as misdirected energy, comes the courageous stand of Mrs. Stanton Blatch upon the morality of certain plays that deal with the sex problem and the so-called social evil. In New York recently a couple of plays ("The Lure" and "The Fight," both containing scenes from a house of prostitution) have been denounced as immoral by the police, and the managers haled into court, where the magistrate, who had witnessed performances of the plays, expressed a similar view. The pieces were temporarily suppressed, pending action by the grand jury, to which the charges were referred; but before that body had passed upon them, both plays were remodelled, expurgated, etc., to such an extent that the police withdrew their objection and permitted performances to be resumed. Bavard Veiller, author of "The Fight," admits that he has butchered his play, but avers that he could not avoid doing it if he complied with the requirements of the police department. Now the brothel scenes have been eliminated from both plays, and these scenes are what gave offence to the police and others who condemned such theatrical performances as immoral.

In the meantime a special performance of "The Lure" was given to the newspaper men and their friends, who filled the theatre. After the performance the leading man in the cast asked for a rising vote from the audience as to whether the play taught a wholesome moral lesson and would be a warning to young girls who might witness it. The news columns of the papers stated that ninety-eight per cent, of the audience rose in the affirmative. When an expression of opinion of the women alone was asked for, all but two of those present voted the play safe and salutary. Then Mrs. Blatch, who was among the guests, made a strong speech in favour of the play, stating that it would serve to warn innocent girls of the dangers that lurk in their path and to familiarise them with facts which they only too rarely have the opportunity to learn from any other reliable and friendly source.

Now, the significant feature of the affair is that, in spite of this almost unanimous personal approval of the newspaper writers of the city, the play continues to get practically universal condemnation in the editorial columns of the daily press. This is the most glaring and unscrupulous exhibition of hypocrisy that New Yorkers have had the privilege of witnessing. That all motion picture films and most theatrical performances are kept down to the intelligence of children, and especially, as intimated above, to the supposed moral requirements of the young girl, has long been a matter of common knowledge; but many of us have suspected that it was because-of the low order of intelligence of the managers themselves and that some of them, at least, and many editors, honestly believed that nobody was capable of understanding anything more stimulating to the mind or wanted anything requiring more intellectual effort for its comprehension than the inane and stupid rot that is served to the patrons of such places of alleged amusement. Now, however, the truth is laid bare, and we know that practically every editorial writer on the daily press— in New York, at any rate—privately believes in the efficacy and wisdom of free expression on the stage, yet publicly advocates the suppression of such plays as attempt to discuss a question that is of paramount importance to all human beings, and to young girls in particular. Of course the explanation is that the managers of the newspapers fear the disapproval of the conservative element among their patrons. But the avalanche of letters, condemning the suppression of such plays, which the newspapers have received from the public, many of which letters have been printed among a few of the opposite kind, forces the conviction that the aforesaid conservative element is no longer of such overwhelming proportions. It is notoriously true that people continue to fear dangers that no longer menace them, and this is no less emphatically the case with the power of public opinion. The way to test the strength of reactionary opposition is to defy it, to smoke it out; and, when this is done, it is often discovered that we have been fearing a phantom—a force that may once have been real and threatening but which has vanished.

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But the citadel of conservatism has been reinforced by Professor Hugo Muensterberg, of Harvard University, who comes forward in an article in a Sunday newspaper, lending the power of his scientific psychology to the conspiracy of silence, strongly buttressing with cool logic the theory that ignorance is safety. While admitting that the so-called brothel play might give young girls an effective warning against the danger of falling into the hands of the "white slavers," Professor Muensterberg maintains that that is a negligible danger, since the forcible detention of unwilling victims of cadets and procuresses is so rare as to constitute an insignificant proportion of the cases of the downfall of women. He further contends that, since plays in which brothel scenes occur can act as a prophylactic against that form of social disease only in which criminal methods are resorted to, to offer them as a form of instruction in sexual matters so as to protect youth against sexual mistakes in general is to commit a serious error, inasmuch as psychology shows us that the effect is just the opposite. In other words, the innocent youth of both sexes have their sex natures prematurely, unnecessarily, and morbidly aroused by witnessing such exhibitions and by reading such literature as the popular magazines are offering on that subject. He distinctly says that "instruction itself must become a source of stimulation, which unnecessarily creates the desire for improper conduct."

There are no reliable statistics available either to prove or to disprove Professor Muensterberg's statement as to the prevalence of actual white slavery. Since we do really know of certain unquestionable cases that have been prosecuted in the courts, and of many unexplained disappearances of girls that point ominously to such a conclusion, people who are not blinded by abstract theories of psychology greatly fear that he underestimates the gravity of that phase of the problem. It must be admitted, on the other hand, that there is a great deal of loos? and hysterical talk about white slavery that applies that epithet to all means of recruiting the ranks of sex-working women, which means are in a great majority of cases noninvasive, even if not wholly irreprehensible. When women are actually abducted, detained against their will, and forced to labour for the profit of their abductors or anyone else, the crime is second only to murder, and measures for its prevention and punishment should be as effective and severe, in proportion, as those we employ in capital cases. If society is not adequately protected against such criminals, it should at once take proper steps to remedy the deficiency.

The fatal flaw in Professor Muensterberg's logic, however, is that he apparently assumes that girls and boys have, outside of literature, the drama, and horn instruction, no means of acquiring sexual knowledge. Now the main contention of those advocates (whom the Professor so vigorously assails) of early and complete instruction in all that pertains to the relations of the sexes is that all children sooner or later learn these things from their associates; that the information thus obtained is usually distorted, exaggerated, unreliable, and misleading; and, finally, that, being supposedly taboo and obtained surreptitiously, it inevitably arouses curiosity, stimulates interest in the matter, and morbidly excites the latent instincts of sex. This consideration is real and vital, and, in ignoring it, Professor Muensterberg permits his main argument to be irremediably vitiated.

Finally, his article, which is directed against all open discussion of such matters, is published in a family newspaper that goes into thousands of homes—a newspaper, moreover, whose patrons have come to regard as excluding all matter its virtuous editors consider not "fit to print"—thus completely ignoring his main thesis and wantonly violating his own precepts. Can one trust the sincerity of even this self-styled "conscientious psychologist"?

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To my old friend Tucker's playful anticipations, I can only say, Why not? It is not so very long since certain Paris and New York newspapers contained such advertisements—veiled, it is true, but very thinly. And I am not at all sure that that method of publicity is even now wholly suppressed. I cannot be shamed into preferring hypocrisy to frankness. I note that Floyd Dell's "Women as World Builders" is receiving some appreciative comment on this side of the water.

Clarence Lee Swartz.

  • Clarence Lee Swartz, “An American Comment,” The New Freewoman 1, no. 9 (October 15, 1913): 178-179.