The Claims of Women

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The Claims of Women.

BEFORE women can establish claims to equality with men, the question at issue will have to be divested of certain age-old superstitions with which it is now encumbered. At the present stage of discussion, woman is not asking for equal freedom—she is still holding herself as a thing apart from man; she is still asking for favours on account of her sex; and this is the real reason why men are so tardy in formally acknowledging her equality. The greatest obstacle—which is so nearly intangible that she could walk straight through it if she would—is the so-called "sacredness of sex." No one ever stops to ask himself why sex is or should be sacred. It is one of those ancient shibboleths whose origin no one remembers and whose authority no one has thought to dispute. Sacredness of sex, moreover, seems always to imply female sex. This alleged sacredness, I maintain, must be abolished, both as it applies to the female in particular and to the sex in general.

Let us examine the proposition more closely. Why is the function of sex singled out from among all the other functions of the human body to be consecrated? It may be asserted that it is the most important, since it is by means of it that the race is reproduced. But even that is open to argument, as it may pertinently be contended that the digestive function is of more importance, since upon the ability to assimilate food depends the life of the individual. If the digestive function be so impaired that the individual never reaches the reproductive age, the function of sex becomes a matter of secondary importance. The same argument may be applied to the functions of other organs of the body. Thus it is seen that it would be equally sensible to sanctify the functions of eating, breathing, circulating the blood, eliminating waste matter and so forth, as to set apart the sex function for special reverence. So the acid test of logic reduces the sacredness of sex to a pure absurdity, and along with it the much-esteemed double standard of morality.

Now, with the abolition of the double standard, is it not worth while to question the validity of all our conventional standards of morality? Why not get down to foundation principles, and base our standard solely on expediency? As a matter of fact, what other foundation is there for morality?

The whole problem is bound up in that terse formula of equal freedom, "Every person has an equal right to do whatsoever he wills." The word "equal" in this sentence is its key. It postulates expediency. Without that word the sentence stands as the dictum of the strongest—"Might is right."

There is no action to which the foregoing formula may not be applied. It is obvious, then, that a woman has a right to do whatsoever she wills with her own body. The manner in which she deems it expedient to use her body is of no concern to anyone else, so long as she uses it non-invasively. And that freedom must necessarily apply to every part and every function of her body. Let us not mince matters : the free woman is earning her own living. And it is not for us to question the manner in which she does it. Perhaps she does it by singing—her vocal organs are not sacred. Possibly she performs some manual labour—her hands are not sacred; or some mental labour—her brain is not sacred; or, again, she may have a beautiful body and pose for artists—her beauty is not sacred. Finally, she may deem it most expedient, as a means of obtaining a livelihood, to sell sex favours: can we stand the crucial test and say that her sexual organs are not sacred? Obviously we must. There is no escaping it, and, having established that proposition, we must accept the corollaries. Hence the impropriety of condemning or criticising or blaming her for supporting herself by the means last named, is apparent. She is only exercising her right, and is doing it in a non invasive way. We must defend her right; it should be inviolable. And, while the law of equal freedom does not compel us to associate with her, it is certainly an evidence of lurking superstition if, for no other reason, we withdraw from her society. Society, as at present constituted, refers to her course of conduct as prostitution. We have only to consider the etymology of this word to see that its use has been perverted to that of a reprehensive epithet, and in this sense it should become obsolete. When we have banished the ghosts that have handed down to us their antiquated standards of morality, then, without the use of a term, the mere application of which is a condemnation, we shall be able to speak calmly and naturally of a woman who earns her daily bread by means of her sexual organs.

The use to which the sex-working woman puts her body differs only in degree—and sometimes not in that—from that to which most married women subject theirs. The woman who deliberately marries, without love, for money, position, a home or children, needs only to be mentioned to be placed in the same category. And even when sexual favours are granted for love, there is no denying the quid pro quo. As long as anything—love, caresses, money, support, a name, or what-not—is exacted or accepted in payment therefor, what differentiates one voluntary sexassociation from another?

The trouble with the usual treatment of the problem is that the biological factor is overlooked. There is a difference between the male and female of all Christian peoples that is only slightly apparent in the people of the rest of the world. The logical deduction from this fact is that the asceticism which the Christian religion has imposed upon women for nineteen centuries has so atrophied her organs and suspended their functions that in varying degrees the sexual desire has been extinguished, the natural result of such long-continued suppression of normal instincts. The male, not having been subjected to that rigorous discipline, has retained his normal desires. The result is a demand on his part for sexual satisfaction greatly in excess of the natural supply, with the inevitable consequence of a rise to correspond in the value of the supply. Hence, a premium that can be, and is, exacted and paid. The character of the consideration is of concern only to the contracting parties.

If women will be free, they must demand freedom for all of their sex and for all of their noninvasive activities. There must be no discrimination against those women whose means of support differ from those of some others. There must be no discrimination on the point of respectability— no class distinction. And, if the true spirit of equal freedom is to be observed, there should be mutual helpfulness; furthermore, if any advantage is to be gained through trade-unionism, sex-working women should be encouraged to organise, to the end that a scale of prices may be adopted and maintained, mutual insurance secured, disease prevented and health preserved. Under such conditions, there is no reason why sex labour with full knowledge of all modern preventives and prophylactics, should be more hazardous than any other of the gainful occupations open to women.

The foregoing is offered for serious consideration, since what is known as prostitution cannot be abolished, even if that were desirable (which has by no means been demonstrated). It is of such magnitude, so many women are engaged in it, that it cannot be ignored. No movement for women's emancipation, standing any reasonable chance of success, can afford to deny recognition to this branch of feminine industry and it must be envisaged in any plan of reform.

Clarence Lee Swartz.

[The differences between our point of view and that of our contributor of course turn upon the question of "property" and the "expediency" of selling the person (man's or woman's) into the "employ" of others. We redirect attention to the editorial "The heart of the question" which appeared in the last issue of THE NEW FREEWOMAN. Other aspects of the above contribution are referred to in the present issue.—ED., THE NEW FREEWOMAN.)

  • Clarence L. Swartz, “The Claims of Women,” The New Freewoman 1, no. 5 (August 15, 1913): 96-97.