by Edward Bellamy

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Chapter XX. What the revolution did for women

"It occurs to me, doctor," I said, "that it would have been even better worth the while of a woman of my day to have slept over till now than for me, seeing that the establishment of economic equality seems to have meant for more for women than for men."

"Edith would perhaps not have been pleased with the substitution," said the doctor; "but really there is much in what you say, for the establishment of economic equality did in fact mean incomparably more for women than for men. In your day the condition of the mass of men was abject as compared with their present state, but the lot of women was abject as compared with that of the men. The most of men were indeed the servants of the rich, but the woman was subject to the man whether he were rich or poor, and in the latter and more common case was thus the servant of a servant. However low down in poverty a man might be, he had one or more lower even than he in the persons of the women dependent on him and subject to his will. At the very bottom of the social heap, bearing the accumulated burden of the whole mass, was woman. All the tyrannies of soul and mind and body which the race endured, weighed at last with cumulative force upon her. So far beneath even the mean estate of man was that of woman that it would have been a mighty uplift for her could she have only attained his level. But the great Revolution not merely lifted her to an equality with man but raised them both with the same mighty upthrust to a plane of moral dignity and material welfare as much above the former state of man as his former state had been above that of woman. If men then owe gratitude to the Revolution, how much greater must women esteem their debt to it! If to the men the voice of the Revolution was a call to a higher and nobler plane of living, to woman it was as the voice of God calling her to a new creation."

"Undoubtedly," I said, "the women of the poor had a pretty abject time of it, but the women of the rich certainly were not oppressed."

"The women of the rich," replied the doctor, "were numerically too insignificant a proportion of the mass of women to be worth considering in a general statement of woman's condition in your day. Nor, for that matter, do we consider their lot preferable to that of their poorer sisters. It is true that they did not endure physical hardship, but were, on the contrary, petted and spoiled by their men protectors like over-indulged children; but that seems to us not a sort of life to be desired. So far as we can learn from contemporary accounts and social pictures, the women of the rich lived in a hothouse atmosphere of adulation and affectation, altogether less favorable to moral or mental development than the harder conditions of the women of the poor. A woman of to-day, if she were doomed to go back to live in your world, would beg at least to be reincarnated as a scrub woman rather than as a wealthy woman of fashion. The latter rather than the former seems to us the sort of woman which most completely typified the degradation of the sex in your age."

As the same thought had occurred to me, even in my former life, I did not argue the point.

"The so-called woman movement, the beginning of the great transformation in her condition," continued the doctor, "was already making quite a stir in your day. You must have heard and seen much of it, and may have even known some of the noble women who were the early leaders."

"Oh, yes." I replied. "There was a great stir about women's rights, but the programme then announced was by no means revolutionary. It only aimed at securing the right to vote, together with various changes in the laws about property-holding by women, the custody of children in divorces, and such details. I assure you that the women no more than the men had at that time any notion of revolutionizing the economic system."

"So we understand," replied the doctor. "In that respect the women's struggle for independence resembled revolutionary movements in general, which, in their earlier stages, go blundering and stumbling along in such a seemingly erratic and illogical way that it takes a philosopher to calculate what outcome to expect. The calculation as to the ultimate outcome of the women's movement was, however, as simple as was the same calculation in the case of what you called the labor movement. What the women were after was independence of men and equality with them, while the workingmen's desire was to put an end to their vassalage to capitalists. Now, the key to the fetters the women wore was the same that locked the shackles of the workers. It was the economic key, the control of the means of subsistence. Men, as a sex, held that power over women, and the rich as a class held it over the working masses. The secret of the sexual bondage and of the industrial bondage was the same — namely, the unequal distribution of the wealth power, and the change which was necessary to put an end to both forms of bondage must obviously be economic equalization, which in the sexual as in the industrial relation would at once insure the substitution of co-operation for coercion.

"The first leaders of the women's revolt were unable to see beyond the ends of their noses, and consequently ascribed their subject condition and the abuses they endured to the wickedness of man, and appeared to believe that the only remedy necessary was a moral reform on his part. This was the period during which such expressions as the 'tyrant man' and 'man the monster' were watchwords of the agitation. The champions of the women fell into precisely the same mistake committed by a large proportion of the early leaders of the workingmen, who wasted good breath and wore out their tempers in denouncing the capitalists as the willful authors of all the ills of the proletarian. This was worse than idle rant; it was misleading and blinding. The men were essentially no worse than the women they oppressed nor the capitalists than the workmen they exploited. Put workingmen in the places of the capitalists and they would have done just as the capitalists were doing. In fact, whenever workingmen did become capitalists they were commonly said to make the hardest sort of masters. So, also, if women could have changed places with the men, they would undoubtedly have dealt with the men precisely as the men had dealt with them. It was the system which permitted human beings to come into relations of superiority and inferiority to one another which was the cause of the whole evil. Power over others is necessarily demoralizing to the master and degrading to the subject. Equality is the only moral relation between human beings. Any reform which should result in remedying the abuse of women by men, or workingmen by capitalists, must therefore be addressed to equalizing their economic condition. Not till the women, as well as the workingmen, gave over the folly of attacking the consequences of economic inequality and attacked the inequality itself, was there any hope for the enfranchisement of either class.

"The utterly inadequate idea which the early leaders of the women had of the great salvation they must have, and how it must come, are curiously illustrated by their enthusiasm for the various so-called temperance agitations of the period for the purpose of checking drunkenness among men. The special interest of the women as a class in this reform in men's manners — for women as a rule did not drink intoxicants — consisted in the calculation that if the men drank less they would be less likely to abuse them, and would provide more liberally for their maintenance; that is to say, their highest aspirations were limited to the hope that, by reforming the morals of their masters, they might secure a little better treatment for themselves. The idea of abolishing the mastership had not yet occurred to them as a possibility.

"This point, by the way, as to the efforts of women in your day to reform men's drinking habits by law rather strikingly suggests the difference between the position of women then and now in their relation to men. If nowadays men were addicted to any practice which made them seriously and generally offensive to women, it would not occur to the latter to attempt to curb it by law. Our spirit of personal sovereignty and the rightful independence of the individual in all matters mainly self-regarding would indeed not tolerate any of the legal interferences with the private practices of individuals so common in your day. But the women would not find force necessary to correct the manners of the men. Their absolute economic independence, whether in or out of marriage, would enable them to use a more potent influence. It would presently be found that the men who made themselves offensive to women's susceptibilities would sue for their favor in vain. But it was practically impossible for women of your day to protect themselves or assert their wills by assuming that attitude. It was economically a necessity for a woman to marry, or at least of so great advantage to her that she could not well dictate terms to her suitors, unless very fortunately situated, and once married it was the practical understanding that in return for her maintenance by her husband she must hold herself at his disposal."

"It sounds horribly," I said, "at this distance of time, but I beg you to believe that it was not always quite as bad as it sounds. The better men exercised their power with consideration, and with persons of refinement the wife virtually retained her self-control, and for that matter in many families the woman was practically the head of the house."

"No doubt, no doubt," replied the doctor. "So it has always been under every form of servitude. However absolute the power of a master, it has been exercised with a fair degree of humanity in a large proportion of instances, and in many cases the nominal slave, when of strong character, has in reality exercised a controlling influence over the master. This observed fact is not, however, considered a valid argument for subjecting human beings to the arbitrary will of others. Speaking generally, it is undoubtedly true that both the condition of women when subjected to men, as well as that of the poor in subjection to the rich, were in fact far less intolerable than it seems to us they possibly could have been. As the physical life of man can be maintained and often thrive in any climate from the poles to the equator, so his moral nature has shown its power to live and even put forth fragrant flowers under the most terrible social conditions."

"In order to realize the prodigious debt of woman to the great Revolution," resumed the doctor, "we must remember that the bondage from which it delivered her was incomparably more complete and abject than any to which men had ever been subjected by their fellow-men. It was enforced not by a single but by a triple yoke. The first yoke was the subjection to the personal and class rule of the rich, which the mass of women bore in common with the mass of men. The other two yokes were peculiar to her. One of them was her personal subjection not only in the sexual relation, but in all her behavior to the particular man on whom she depended for subsistence. The third yoke was an intellectual and moral one, and consisted in the slavish conformity exacted of her in all her thinking, speaking, and acting to a set of traditions and conventional standards calculated to repress all that was spontaneous and individual, and impose an artificial uniformity upon both the inner and outer life.

"The last was the heaviest yoke of the three, and most disastrous in its effects both upon women directly and indirectly upon mankind through the degradation of the mothers of the race. Upon the woman herself the effect was so soul-stifling and mind-stunting as to be made a plausible excuse for treating her as a natural inferior by men not philosophical enough to see that what they would make an excuse for her subjection was itself the result of that subjection. The explanation of woman's submission in thought and action to what was practically a slave code — a code peculiar to her sex and scorned and derided by men — was the fact that the main hope of a comfortable life for every woman consisted in attracting the favorable attention of some man who could provide for her. Now, under your economic system it was very desirable for a man who sought employment to think and talk as his employer did if he was to get on in life. Yet a certain degree of independence of mind and conduct was conceded to men by their economic superiors under most circumstances, so long as they were not actually offensive, for, after all, what was mainly wanted of them was their labor. But the relation of a woman to the man who supported her was of a very different and much closer character. She must be to him persona grata, as your diplomats used to say. To attract him she must be personally pleasing to him, must not offend his tastes or prejudices by her opinions or conduct. Otherwise he would be likely to prefer some one else. It followed from this fact that while a boy's training looked toward fitting him to earn a living, a girl was educated with a chief end to making her, if not pleasing, at least not displeasing to men.

"Now, if particular women had been especially trained to suit particular men's tastes — trained to order, so to speak — while that would have been offensive enough to any idea of feminine dignity, yet it would have been far less disastrous, for many men would have vastly preferred women of independent minds and original and natural opinions. But as it was not known beforehand what particular men would support particular women, the only safe way was to train girls with a view to a negative rather than a positive attractiveness, so that at least they might not offend average masculine prejudices. This ideal was most likely to be secured by educating a girl to conform herself to the customary traditional and fashionable habits of thinking, talking, and behaving — in a word, to the conventional standards prevailing at the time. She must above all things avoid as a contagion any new or original ideas or lines of conduct in any important respect, especially in religious, political, and social matters. Her mind, that is to say, like her body, must be trained and dressed according to the current fashion plates. By all her hopes of married comfort she must not be known to have any peculiar or unusual or positive notions on any subject more important than embroidery or parlor decoration. Conventionality in the essentials having been thus secured, the brighter and more piquant she could be in small ways and frivolous matters the better for her chances. Have I erred in describing the working of your system in this particular, Julian?"

"No doubt," I replied, "you have described to the life the correct and fashionable ideal of feminine education in my time, but there were, you must understand, a great many women who were persons of entirely original and serious minds, who dared to think and speak for themselves."

"Of course there were. They were the prototypes of the universal woman of to-day. They represented the coming woman, who to-day has come. They had broken for themselves the conventional trammels of their sex, and proved to the world the potential equality of women with men in every field of thought and action. But while great minds master their circumstances, the mass of minds are mastered by them and formed by them. It is when we think of the bearing of the system upon this vast majority of women, and how the virus of moral and mental slavery through their veins entered into the blood of the race, that we realize how tremendous is the indictment of humanity against your economic arrangements on account of woman, and how vast a benefit to mankind was the Revolution that gave free mothers to the race-free not merely from physical but from moral and intellectual fetters.

"I referred a moment ago," pursued the doctor, "to the close parallelism existing in your time between the industrial and the sexual situation, between the relations of the working masses to the capitalists, and those of the women to men. It is strikingly illustrated in yet another way.

"The subjection of the workingmen to the owners of capital was insured by the existence at all times of a large class of the unemployed ready to underbid the workers and eager to get employment at any price and on any terms. This was the club with which the capitalist kept down the workers. In like manner it was the existence of a body of unappropriated women which riveted the yoke of women's subjection to men. When maintenance was the difficult problem it was in your day there were many men who could not maintain themselves, and a vast number who could not maintain women in addition to themselves. The failure of a man to marry might cost him happiness, but in the case of women it not only involved loss of happiness, but, as a rule, exposed them to the pressure or peril of poverty, for it was a much more difficult thing for women than for men to secure an adequate support by their own efforts. The result was one of the most shocking spectacles the world has ever known — nothing less, in fact, than a state of rivalry and competition among women for the opportunity of marriage. To realize how helpless were women in your day, to assume toward men an attitude of physical, mental, or moral dignity and independence, it is enough to remember their terrible disadvantage in what your contemporaries called with brutal plainness the marriage market.

"And still woman's cup of humiliation was not full. There was yet another and more dreadful form of competition by her own sex to which she was exposed. Not only was there a constant vast surplus of unmarried women desirous of securing the economic support which marriage implied, but beneath these there were hordes of wretched women, hopeless of obtaining the support of men on honorable terms, and eager to sell themselves for a crust. Julian, do you wonder that, of all the aspects of the horrible mess you called civilization in the nineteenth century, the sexual relation reeks worst?"

"Our philanthropists were greatly disturbed over what we called the social evil," said I — "that is, the existence of this great multitude of outcast women — but it was not common to diagnose it as a part of the economic problem. It was regarded rather as a moral evil resulting from the depravity of the human heart, to be properly dealt with by moral and religious influences."

"Yes, yes, I know. No one in your day, of course, was allowed to intimate that the economic system was radically wicked, and consequently it was customary to lay off all its hideous consequences upon poor human nature. Yes, I know there were, people who agreed that it might be possible by preaching to lessen the horrors of the social evil while yet the land contained millions of women in desperate need, who had no other means of getting bread save by catering to the desires of men. I am a bit of a phrenologist, and have often wished for the chance of examining the cranial developments of a nineteenth-century philanthropist who honestly believed this, if indeed any of them honestly did."

"By the way," I said, "high-spirited women, even in my day, objected to the custom that required them to take their husbands' names on marriage. How do you manage that now?"

"Women's names are no more affected by marriage than men's."

"But how about the children?"

"Girls take the mother's last name with the father's as a middle name, while with boys it is just the reverse."

* * * * *

"It occurs to me," I said, "that it would be surprising if a fact so profoundly affecting woman's relations with man as her achievement of economic independence, had not modified the previous conventional standards of sexual morality in some respects."

"Say rather," replied the doctor, "that the economic equalization of men and women for the first time made it possible to establish their relations on a moral basis. The first condition of ethical action in any relation is the freedom of the actor. So long as women's economic dependence upon men prevented them from being free agents in the sexual relation, there could be no ethics of that relation. A proper ethics of sexual conduct was first made possible when women became capable of independent action through the attainment of economic equality."

"It would have startled the moralists of my day," I said, "to be told that we had no sexual ethics. We certainly had a very strict and elaborate system of 'thou shalt nots.'"

"Of course, of course," replied my companion. "Let us understand each other exactly at this point, for the subject is highly important. You had, as you say, a set of very rigid rules and regulations as to the conduct of the sexes — that is, especially as to women — but the basis of it, for the most part, was not ethical but prudential, the object being the safeguarding of the economic interests of women in their relations with men. Nothing could have been more important to the protection of women on the whole, although so often bearing cruelly upon them individually, than these rules. They were the only method by which, so long as woman remained an economically helpless and dependent person, she and her children could be even partially guarded from masculine abuse and neglect. Do not imagine for a moment that I would speak lightly of the value of this social code to the race during the time it was necessary. But because it was entirely based upon considerations not suggested by the natural sanctities of the sexual relation in itself, but wholly upon prudential considerations affecting economic results, it would be an inexact use of terms to call it a system of ethics. It would be more accurately described as a code of sexual economics — that is to say, a set of laws and customs providing for the economic protection of women and children in the sexual and family relation.

"The marriage contract was embellished by a rich embroidery of sentimental and religious fancies, but I need not remind you that its essence in the eyes of the law and of society was its character as a contract, a strictly economic quid-pro-quo transaction. It was a legal undertaking by the man to maintain the woman and future family in consideration of her surrender of herself to his exclusive disposal — that is to say, on condition of obtaining a lien on his property, she became a part of it. The only point which the law or the social censor looked to as fixing the morality or immorality, purity or impurity, of any sexual act was simply the question whether this bargain had been previously executed in accordance with legal forms. That point properly attended to, everything that formerly had been regarded as wrong and impure for the parties became rightful and chaste. They might have been persons unfit to marry or to be parents; they might have been drawn together by the basest and most sordid motives; the bride may have been constrained by need to accept a man she loathed; youth may have been sacrificed to decrepitude, and every natural propriety outraged; but according to your standard, if the contract had been legally executed, all that followed was white and beautiful. On the other hand, if the contract had been neglected, and a woman had accepted a lover without it, then, however great their love, however fit their union in every natural way, the woman was cast out as unchaste, impure, and abandoned, and consigned to the living death of social ignominy. Now let me repeat that we fully recognize the excuse for this social law under your atrocious system as the only possible way of protecting the economic interests of women and children, but to speak of it as ethical or moral in its view of the sex relation is certainly about as absurd a misuse of words as could be committed. On the contrary, we must say that it was a law which, in order to protect women's material interests, was obliged deliberately to disregard all the laws that are written on the heart touching such matters.

"It seems from the records that there was much talk in your day about the scandalous fact that there were two distinct moral codes in sexual matters, one for men and another for women — men refusing to be bound by the law imposed on women, and society not even attempting to enforce it against them. It was claimed by the advocates of one code for both sexes that what was wrong or right for woman was so for man, and that there should be one standard of right and wrong, purity and impurity, morality and immorality, for both. That was obviously the correct view of the matter; but what moral gain would there have been for the race even if men could have been induced to accept the women's code — a code so utterly unworthy in its central idea of the ethics of the sexual relation? Nothing but the bitter duress of their economic bondage had forced women to accept a law against which the blood of ten thousand stainless Marguerites, and the ruined lives of a countless multitude of women, whose only fault had been too tender loving, cried to God perpetually. Yes, there should doubtless be one standard of conduct for both men and women as there is now, but it was not to be the slave code, with its sordid basis, imposed upon the women by their necessities. The common and higher code for men and women which the conscience of the race demanded would first become possible, and at once thereafter would become assured when men and women stood over against each other in the sexual relation, as in all others, in attitudes of absolute equality and mutual independence."

"After all, doctor," I said, "although at first it startled me a little to hear you say that we had no sexual ethics, yet you really say no more, nor use stronger words, than did our poets and satirists in treating the same theme. The complete divergence between our conventional sexual morality and the instinctive morality of love was a commonplace with us, and furnished, as doubtless you well know, the motive of a large part of our romantic and dramatic literature."

"Yes," replied the doctor, "nothing could be added to the force and feeling with which your writers exposed the cruelty and injustice of the iron law of society as to these matters — a law made doubly cruel and unjust by the fact that it bore almost exclusively on women. But their denunciations were wasted, and the plentiful emotions they evoked were barren of result, for the reason that they failed entirely to point out the basic fact that was responsible for the law they attacked, and must be abolished if the law were ever to be replaced by a just ethics. That fact, as we have seen, was the system of wealth distribution, by which woman's only hope of comfort and security was made to depend on her success in obtaining a legal guarantee of support from some man as the price of her person."

"It seems to me," I observed, "that when the women, once fairly opened their eyes to what the revolutionary programme meant for their sex by its demand of economic equality for all, self-interest must have made them more ardent devotees of the cause than even the men."

"It did indeed," replied the doctor. "Of course the blinding, binding influence of conventionality, tradition, and prejudice, as well as the timidity bred of immemorial servitude, for a long while prevented the mass of women from understanding the greatness of the deliverance which was offered them; but when once they did understand it they threw themselves into the revolutionary movement with a unanimity and enthusiasm that had a decisive effect upon the struggle. Men might regard economic equality with favor or disfavor, according to their economic positions, but every woman, simply because she was a woman, was bound to be for it as soon as she got it through her head what it meant for her half of the race."

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