Women and the Race
F. W. Stella Browne
The Socialist Review, Vol. 14, No. 18, May-June 1917
Thoughtful students of the subject of marriage and motherhood are greatly indebted to S.H. Halford for his article in the last number of the Socialist Review, for any frank and serious statement of important tabooed facts - however biassed and one-sided - is valuable. I should like to endorse Mr Halford's remarks on the conspiracy of silence in this country, with reference to the sexual impulse in almost all its deeper manifestations. We have recently seen two dangerously anti-social examples of this conventional timidity and prejudice. The Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases refused to hear the evidence tendered by the Malthusian League. And the self-styled "National" Commission on the Falling Birth-Rate - a mainly clerical and strongly reactionary body -persistently ignored the valuable evidence offered by the Divorce Law Reform Union, on the virtual sterilisation of many intelligent, morally sensitive, and public-spirited men and women, by the present English laws of separation and divorce. Certain recent correspondence in the British Medical Journal has offered paralysing proof of the sexual ignorance and obsolete superstitions of many quite eminent and experienced doctors; and at the present moment, a determined effort is being made, under a special pretext, to reintroduce into Great Britain the police control and inspection of prostitutes, which has been proved alike hygienically useless and morally degrading on the Continent.
While welcoming Mr Halford's protest again prejudice and hypocrisy, I regret that he should not have mentioned the beginning of a movement towards sexual honesty and freedom, which has made itself articulate even against heavy odds, in the very Labour and Suffragist movements, which are officially so puritanical. For a year, from the autumn of 1911 to the autumn of 1912, a small group of feminists were able to edit and contribute to The Freewoman, whose influence on the women's movement , both here and in America, has been wider and deeper than contemporaries are able to realise. Its range of topics and intelligent candour in discussion incurred the vehement denunciations of both Philistimism (in the person of Mrs Humphry Ward) and Christianity (as represented by Miss Maude Royden). And since The Freewoman broke the taboo, we have had other work from women, e.g., the painstaking and courageous book by C. Gasquoine Hartley - The Truth About Women,(1) and the admirable Downward Paths,(2) which combines social idealism with intellectual honesty, which does not seek to minimise or ignore the biological and social importance of sex, and which makes an honest effort to understand men's difficulties and men's side of the case. There is no sort of echo in these two books of Christabel Pankhurst's ignorant and presumptuous dogmatism, and I must deplore that Mr Halford should be unaware that these books exist, as I cannot suppose he intentionally ignored them.
Mr Halford makes a strong point in his denunciation of any social order, present or future, which "fails to provide a sufficiency of even legitimate outlets for an insistent and imperious biological need"; he also explicitly refuses to admit "the necessity of a system of prostitution." But he appears to share in one respect the point of view of those moralists and legislators who sanctioned prostitution in the past as an indispensable safety valve, for he apparently regards men's needs alone as biologically urgent or morally justifiable. He states that "higher education generally produces an asexual women," and he regrets the Socialist tendency to "a removal from amongst women of all economic incentives to sexual union" - a significant phrase.
Let us examine these two statements more closely. Far be it from the author of this essay to defend the "higher education" of women on all counts. However desirable in theory, it is in practice, under present conditions, saturated with unreality and snobbery, and often even less favourable to the development of originality and intellectual initiative among women than its analogue among men. But higher education did not produce the asexual woman, though it often gives the finishing touches to the work begun by traditional restrictions, economic dependence (pace Mr Halford), and constitutional anaemia and nervous exhaustion. Asexual women were demanded and supplied in thousands, long before Newnham, Girton, and the girl's high schools were dreamed of. The code of morality inseparably connected with patriarchal marriage demands the desexualizing of women, outside marriage or prostitution, and no country or social structure which accepted patriarchal marriage (whether monogamous or polygamous) has ever been able to dispense with prostitution. To the unmarried woman of the middle classes a system of restriction and repression has been applied for centuries, sanctioned by Christian morality, and in the interests of the prospective husband - who often failed to appear. I say the middle classes especially, for among the mass of the people there has always been greater spontaneity and freedom in these matters, and the small circle of leisured and wealthy families who have governed England for centuries, have always been able to allow themselves a much freer play of personality in practice than in theory. The asexual women has been sedulously cultivated. Of course, she was not called asexual: "pure," "virtuous", "innocent" - these were the terms showered upon her, though ignorance and inexperience in these most vital matters are no more healthy and creditable to women than to men, and though her affected, marketable "innocence" might and often did, veil a cowardly apathy, calculation, or profound secret depravity. A negative moral ideal, and a narrow one as well, was held up for women's observance, and artificially protected by ignorance and restrictions. The result of this process has been an enormously accentuated disparity between the sexual needs and habits of almost all men and of the majority of women. This is, of course, a source of profound unhappiness to all persons intelligent and sensitive enough to appreciate it, and psychologically the raison d'être of the prostitute. But it was not produced by the economic independence or University careers of a few middle-class women.
By the way, Mr Halford seems to me to somewhat over-estimate the magnificence and scope of women's economic prospects! However, that is a side issue.
I believe that the doctrine of the uncleanness of sex is a psychic atavism, the result of centuries of wrong and morbid conditions, and that the survival of ascetic superstitions among most of the official spokeswomen of the suffrage movement, is to be regretted, even when these superstitions are expressed with more justice, intelligence, and human charity than in Christabel Pankhurst's notorious effusion. But the dominant sex has only itself and its makeshift prohibitions to thank, if the aggressively chaste woman - the unofficial censor of other women's conduct throughout the ages - has at last extended her interference to men as well. I believe that the sexual impulse is an integral part of life, and that some experience on physical lines, as well as psychic, is necessary for the complete health and efficiency of women as well as men.
But the special characteristics and manifestations of the impulse in both sexes must be taken into consideration. Mr Halford evidently writes with special medical knowledge, and does not need to be told that sexual anaesthesia in women may develop, not only as a result of repression, but also of a lack of skill, control, and sympathy on the husband's part. This is a very serious cause of marital disharmony, of illness and racial devitalisation, but it will never be overcome till the sexual needs of women - both psychological and emotional - receive far more respect and understanding from men, than they do at present, from the majority.
I venture also to suggest that Mr Halford underrates the psychic side and the complexity of this impulse, even among men. Undoubtedly, as he points out, many men are subjected to great hardship and suffering because they are unable to meet and mate with a really understanding, physically responsive, and satisfactory mate.
But surely this is a proof of increasingly intricate needs and life. For, on the physical side, sexual relief is available for all men in our "civilisation" in a very debased and mechanical form, and complicated by serious hygienic risk. That an increasing number of men demand something bigger and finer than this, is a good symptom, but they will not find it, except in isolated cases, within our present social structure.
In speaking of sexual union, Mr Halford does not make at all clear what form of marriage law he would advocate. It is, of course, quite excluded that any reflective and experienced Socialist could approve the atrocious cruelty, the bare-faced inequality in class incidence, and the utter ineptitude of the present English law of marriage, divorce and separation. I earnestly invite Mr Halford, who is anxious - and justifiably so - about the future of the family and the race to join the Divorce Law Reform Union,(3) to reinforce by his zeal and special biological knowledge the efforts that body is making towards a cleaner and happier state of things. If marriage is to be within the financial means of all healthy persons, and if it is to take place as near puberty as possible, obviously a far greater elasticity and recognition of individual temperaments and cases, must be secured. The old patriarchal marriage only suited men en masse, because it was eked out by the degrading safety-valve of prostitution. The marriage tie in a free and rational society will have to take into consideration the needs of two human beings, as well as the interests of possible children. Marriage under present conditions, is not good enough for the finest types of women - the thinkers, the workers, the citizens. They may love passionately, with an intensity and a candour incomprehensible to the pinched Victorian type. They may desire children, and suffer mentally and bodily because they forego children. But they refuse to sign a contract whose conditions repel alike their sense of justice, their reason, and their physical instincts; and they have a very high sense of individual responsibility and dignity in regard to that special function of motherhood, which has been made a sensually-sentimental fetish in theory, and in practice a source of agony and waste. If the race is not to suffer impairment and stagnation, women must be given real protection of maternity and human rights in marriage, e.g., equal rights as to divorce and an equal share in the guardianship of their children, and the sooner the better. And as Mr Halford has so strenuously voiced the anti-feminist case in his article, I would remind him that a large percentage of sterility in women is due to venereal infection by their husbands. Does he not think that is alone, and in itself, a tremendous indictment of men's government of society?
The instincts of women as regards sex and maternity vary individually over a wide range. There are women who are natural nuns - a small percentage, perhaps. There is the predominantly maternal type. There are women to whom a man, or more than one man, mean more than any child. All these types have their good qualities and their weaknesses. All are capable of socially useful activity on varied lines, and in a decent world all would have opportunity of development and functioning. The problem os securing a larger proportion of better-births is not only economic; it is psychological. It is the problem of sexual selection, which, as Professor Geddes points out, has been one-sided throughout many centuries. It can only operate very slowly, but it will involve a transformation of man's cherished sex tradition of absolute and unconditional proprietorship and domination. It will involve a real acquiescence in women's choice, a real consideration of women's susceptibilities. If that is too hard, I fear that the finer and more individualised feminine types will become sterilised, for to them no sex relation which is not entirely voluntary and spontaneous, is thinkable.
The solution of the problem of voluntary celibacy and childless marriage is, as a rule, greater economic security and greater social freedom and variety.
Mr Halford draws a terrible and striking parallel between a lop-sided society and a hideous deformity. But we are in revolt against the repressions and abuses of an equally lop-sided past, which he ignores.
Meanwhile, I have two practical suggestions to make to Mr Halford: one is that he should give his moral and financial support to the reform of the divorce laws; the other is that he should agitate strenuously for the legislative protection of unmarried mothers and their children, pending the social changes for which we work.
Only from "intelligent and voluntary motherhood" can a finer and stronger race be developed;
and that sort of motherhood demands respect and security.
1. 2. 3.
1."The Truth About Women." Eveleigh Nash, 7s. 6d. 1913.
2.0"Downward Paths: A Study of the Causes which Contribute to the Making of the Prostitute." G. Bell and Sons. 2s 6d. 1916
3.0Address: 19 Buckingham Street, Strand, WC