The Economic Relations of Sex

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Voltairine de Cleyre

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To the Editor of The Open Court:

POSSESSED of rather more than ordinary interest in the sex question, and agreeing with Professor Cope that any proposition for the amelioration of the condition of women should be discussed and decided by women, I am moved to certain remarks suggested by his article on "The Material Relations of Sex" in the first number of The Monist.

All through its perusal I was impressed by his unconscious recognition of an underlying question, which, apart from woman's inferiority, determines the relations of the sexes. This is plainly apparent in the paragraph alluding to the communistic system of wealth production and distribution, in which he admits the possibility of promiscuous sex-relations. While I agree with Professor Cope that to institute communism would be a decided blow at progress, since progress consists in a constant widening of individual liberty while communism invokes authoritarian direction, nevertheless, I hold that in acknowledging the possibility of variety in sex relations under the communistic regime, he has admitted that the present social arrangement of sex is the necessary outgrowth of our economic conditions.

Postulating the fact of woman's mental and physical inferiority, our writer sees no possible ultimatum for her but the service of maternity and child-bearing in return for "protection and support" from some man, or set of men called a "state." This brings us at once to two vital questions:

Is woman's inferiority the cause, or the effect, of her economic subjection?

Is economic independence for woman a possible ideal?

I think it can be clearly proven that the mental constitution of woman, like that of man, has never failed to rise where restrictions upon equal freedom have been torn down. Whenever woman has had the same opportunity as man, results have proven that her capacities for development are as unlimited as his. It may be objected that I am instancing exceptional cases instead of dealing with types. My reply is that only in exceptional cases have women enjoyed the same opportunities as men. Yet these cases are sufficiently numerous to warrant the conclusion that nature affords no insuperable obstacle to sex-equality in brain; and that inferiority in the typical woman must be regarded as the result of her dependent economic condition, created by the artificial restrictions of man.

Concerning the physical disability of the sex, it is more difficult to show the beneficent results of liberty, since even the most advanced of women are so hampered by body-dwarfing, dress, and custom that we have scarcely sufficient data for opinion concerning her possibilities of physical development. Such as we have would indicate that much of her present incompetence during periods of gestation and nursing, is incidental to the present defective social arrangement which condemns woman to the wasteful drudgery of individual housekeeping, and all the slavish work of the much lauded family-life.

However, even physical inferiority need not prove the eternal barrier to economic independence which Professor Cope would make of it. To-day industrial progress demands not so much physical strength as skill. Undoubtedly the elephant has physical strength superior to man, yet that he is no competitor against man I need waste no space to prove. Likewise the Hercules of ages past would have no place in competitive industry to-day simply because he would not be adapted to his environment. Granting the present physical disability of woman, it by no means follows that, with equal opportunity, she would be unable to compete with man in the fields of productive industry. Indeed one general com- plaint of the workingmen is that they are competing, and, by the law of the survival of the fittest, have already driven men out of several branches of employment, such as textile fabrics, shoe- making, etc. No great amount of strength is required, but skill and patience; and it is the universal testimony of the overseers that women are equally skilful and more reliable.

There is a class of economic reformers called anarchists, who contend that with opportunity to exploit nature thrown free to the human race, the hours of labor would be so reduced as to enable one to produce sufficient to satisfy all his needs by three hours work per day. This with our present machinery, the possibilities of further reduction being left to further developments. They also contend that such freedom must necessarily result in constant labor-demand, thus securing the laborer against the present nightmare of involuntary idleness. Under such conditions, bearing in mind that the ever increasing displacement of physical strength by machinery, keeps reducing the physical burden of productive labor, woman's economic independence becomes a realisable ideal, and the whole matter of sex association changes. When woman comprehends her independence, marriage will no longer be a matter of "protection and support," which Professor Cope declares is the basis of monogamic wifehood. It will become a matter of mutual co-operation, based, let us hope on something higher than the sale of the powers of motherhood, and demanding the same standard for man as for woman.

Whether monogamy or variety will then obtain depends on which of these systems produces the higher type of humanity. At present it is impossible to decide, since without the independence of woman there can be no equality, and without equality no true adjustment of sex relations.

Voltairine de Cleyre.

Source: The Open Court. V, 11 (1891), 193. 2801-2802.  

To the Editor of The Open Court:—

As THE preceding notice of my article by Miss de Cleyre repeats the usual formula of a class of social reformers, I must again emphasise the foundation facts of the situation, as they appear from a physiological standpoint. These are somewhat opposed to our ideals, I freely admit; but it is the history of every human mind that is not incurably imaginative rather than exact, to learn the lesson which a bondage to material conditions imposes on us all alike.

Miss de Cleyre asks, "Is woman's inferiority the cause or the effect of her economic subjection?" She then expresses the opinion that it is the effect and not the cause of such subjection, as well as of "body dwarfing dress and custom." This is the fundamental error of a large class of women doctrinaires, and it needs but a superficial knowledge of Natural History to comprehend it. The inferior physical strength of the female sex is general (though not entirely universal) in the animal kingdom; and as mentality is one of the functions of human mechanism, it extends to the mental organism in man as well. It is a simple corollary of the law of the conservation of energy that where a large amount of energy is devoted to one function, less remains for expenditure in performing another. The large part of the female organism devoted to the functions of gestation, lactation, and maternal care of children, simply puts her out of the race as a competitor with man, on anything like equal terms. Even if those functions are not active, the machinery for the performance of other functions is not thereby increased in quantity or improved in quality, except in such small degree as one woman may accomplish in a life-time. And this small accomplishment she does not transmit, since the unmarried woman has no children. I call attention to the fact that although woman has had the advantage of the inheritance of male accomplishments and capacities since the origin of the species, the relation between her and man still remains about as it ever has remained. The one sex progresses about as rapidly as the other, and they maintain about the same relative position. This fact is so fundamental that it is unreasonable to expect any change in the future. What can be done is to improve both sexes as much as possible in all their powers, and to acquaint each with their limitations. In this way the greatest amount of happiness may be attained with a minimum of conflict and waste.

It is evident that marriage is the destiny of both sexes, and the question which I have considered in the article in The Monist is the nature of its conditions.

In the first place monogamic marriage is no more a slavery to women than the support of a family is to a man. Man is, to use this common, but inexact expression, in a state of "slavery" to the conditions of his environment, and no socialistic scheme can relieve him of the difficulty, though some mitigations can be doubtless introduced. Man is an essential part of this environment, and contributes to the "slavery" to which he is subject. Woman's environment differs from that of man, in the difference in the relation in which she stands to man, as compared with that which subsists between man and man. That she should escape the consequences of this environment is no more to be anticipated than is the case with man himself. She has the advantage of man however in having for her " master " a being who is naturally inclined to admire, aid, and support her; while, to man the environment is mostly controlled by grim necessity imposed by unfeeling forces. When man rebels against this environment, and makes reprisals on society by appropriating the property of others, he makes a serious mistake, and he finds it out, generally soon. So some women, discontented with their relations to a husband, are dishonest to him. They also have trouble. Community of wives is as impossible as community of property, unless wives surrender all claims to more than temporary consideration. There are both men and women who think this the better system, and who act on it. But the men generally abandon it ultimately and marry. It would be interesting to know what becomes of the women. More information is needed, but the general impression is that such women have not chosen wisely.

It is true that woman like "any animal" can bear children; but it is also true that man like "any animal " must make a living. The two occupations are on a par. But neither should neglect to develop their "self-hood" in such leisure time as they can command from these necessary occupations. Every girl should have a good education, especially in biology and housekeeping, and the more she knows of the science of life, the better will she be prepared to know and to fulfil her part in human society.

Another aspect of the question of woman's entrance into the industrial field as a competitor to man, requires more space than I can give to it here. It is the fact, that woman, not being responsible for the support of her husband and family, can afford to work at some occupations for much lower wages than man can accept. This is one of the reasons for the lower rate of women's wages; and it is not due, as many thoughtless agitators assume, to the parsimony of severe task-masters. The advent of this cheap labor into some fields has driven men out of them, and if the range of such work is to be much extended, a larger number of men will be thrown out of employment. This state of affairs is said to exist in some departments of iron manufactures in Pitts- burg, and in some other industry in Scotland. Under such circumstances men must emigrate, or cease to marry, since the can support themselves alone on their reduced wages. Any thoughtful person may follow this state of affairs to its logical consequences One of these would be the diminution in the number of marriages and the substitution therefor of a system in which women would be the chief sufferers. So that their success in some of the lighter fields of industry does not redound to the benefit of women at large.

I do not wish to be understood however to deny in toto the advantage of more or less industrial occupation for women. For temporary purposes and under peculiar conditions, it is often not only desirable but necessary that women should have remunerative occupation. But I merely wish to point out that this state of affairs does not represent the fundamental organisation of society, and cannot alter it in the least. It is only necessary where there is a surplus of female population.

* * *

It has occurred to me that, in order to escape further discussion on my part, it would be well to reinforce the fundamental fact on which my position rests, viz. the disadvantageous relation to man occupied by woman in an unprotected and unaided "struggle for existence." Some women do not appear to realise this fact, and some men support them in this mistaken opinion. Nevertheless the real state of the case is known to, or suspected by, the majority of mankind. To such as do not perceive it, it may be a help to refer to the fact that every pursuit apart from those connected with maternity, and the teaching of children, may be as well done by men as by women, and a majority of the pursuits of men cannot be followed by women at all. The fact that a number of women succeed for a time in occupations usually filled by men, does not alter the general principle. Indeed it is often entirely proper and necessary that they should do so, provided that they understand the general law of social equilibrium and act accordingly when occasion arises. But of this law they sometimes do not hear, but are taught by alleged reformers in the press and on the lecture platform, doctrines that falsely assert that in the nature of things the world is as open for an independent career to a young woman as to a young man. If I shall have prevented a single young woman from spending the best years of her life in learning the truth in this matter, my purpose will have been served.

E. D. Cope.