by Edward Bellamy

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Chapter XXI. At the gymnasium

Edith had come up on the house top in time to hear the last of our talk, and now she said to her father:

"Considering what you have been telling Julian about women nowadays as compared with the old days, I wonder if he would not be interested in visiting the gymnasium this afternoon and seeing something of how we train ourselves? There are going to be some foot races and air races, and a number of other tests. It is the afternoon when our year has the grounds, and I ought to be there anyway."

To this suggestion, which was eagerly accepted, I owe one of the most interesting and instructive experiences of those early days during which I was forming the acquaintance of the twentieth-century civilization.

At the door of the gymnasium Edith left us to join her class in the amphitheater.

"Is she to compete in anything?" I asked.

"All her year--that is, all of her age--in this ward will be entered in more or less events."

"What is Edith's specialty?" I asked.

"As to specialties," replied the doctor, "our people do not greatly cultivate them. Of course, privately they do what they please, but the object of our public training is not so much to develop athletic specialties as to produce an all-around and well-proportioned physical development. We aim first of all to secure a certain standard of strength and measurement for legs, thighs, arms, loins, chest, shoulders, neck, etc. This is not the highest point of perfection either of physique or performance. It is the necessary minimum. All who attain it may be regarded as sound and proper men and women. It is then left to them as they please individually to develop themselves beyond that point in special directions.

"How long does this public gymnastic education last?"

"It is as obligatory as any part of the educational course until the body is set, which we put at the age of twenty-four; but it is practically kept up through life, although, of course, that is according to just how one feels."

"Do you mean that you take regular exercise in a gymnasium?"

"Why should I not? It is no less of an object to me to be well at sixty than it was at twenty."

"Doctor," said I, "if I seem surprised you must remember that in my day it was an adage that no man over forty-five ought to allow himself to run for a car, and as for women, they stopped running at fifteen, when their bodies were put in a vise, their legs in bags, their toes in thumbscrews, and they bade farewell to health."

"You do indeed seem to have disagreed terribly with your bodies," said the doctor. "The women ignored theirs altogether, and as for the men, so far as I can make out, up to forty they abused their bodies, and after forty their bodies abused them, which, after all, was only fair. The vast mass of physical misery caused by weakness and sickness, resulting from wholly preventable causes, seems to us, next to the moral aspect of the subject, to be one of the largest single items chargeable to your system of economic inequality, for to that primal cause nearly every feature of the account appears directly or indirectly traceable. Neither souls nor bodies could be considered by your men in their mad struggle for a living, and for a grip on the livelihood of others, while the complicated system of bondage under which the women were held perverted mind and body alike, till it was a wonder if there were any health left in them."

On entering the amphitheater we saw gathered at one end of the arena some two or three hundred young men and women talking and lounging. These, the doctor told me, were Edith's companions of the class of 1978, being all those of twenty-two years of age, born in that ward or since coming there to live. I viewed with admiration the figures of these young men and women, all strong and beautiful as the gods and goddesses of Olympus.

"Am I to understand," I asked, "that this is a fair sample of your youth, and not a picked assembly of the more athletic?"

"Certainly," he replied; "all the youth in their twenty-third year who live in this ward are here to-day, with perhaps two or three exceptions on account of some special reason."

"But where are the cripples, the deformed, the feeble, the consumptive?"

"Do you see that young man yonder in the chair with so many of the others about him?" asked the doctor.

"Ah! there is then at least one invalid?"

"Yes," replied my companion: "he met with an accident, and will never be vigorous. He is the only sickly one of the class, and you see how much the others make of him. Your cripples and sickly were so many that pity itself grew weary and spent of tears, and compassion callous with use; but with us they are so few as to be our pets and darlings."

At that moment a bugle sounded, and some scores of young men and women dashed by us in a foot race. While they ran, the bugle continued to sound a nerve-bracing strain. The thing that astonished me was the evenness of the finish, in view of the fact that the contestants were not specially trained for racing, but were merely the group which in the round of tests had that day come to the running test. In a race of similarly unselected competitors in my day, they would have been strung along the track from the finish to the half, and the most of them nearest that.

"Edith, I see, was third in," said the doctor, reading from the signals. "She will be pleased to have done so well, seeing you were here."

The next event was a surprise. I had noticed a group of youths on a lofty platform at the far end of the amphitheater making some sort of preparations, and wondered what they were going to do. Now suddenly, at the sound of a trumpet, I saw them leap forward over the edge of the platform. I gave an involuntary cry of horror, for it was a deadly distance to the ground below.

"It's all right," laughed the doctor, and the next moment I was staring up at a score of young men and women charging through the air fifty feet above the race course.

Then followed contests in ball-throwing and putting the shot.

"It is plain where your women get their splendid chests and shoulders," said I.

"You have noticed that, then!" exclaimed the doctor.

"I have certainly noticed," was my answer, "that your modern women seem generally to possess a vigorous development and appearance of power above the waist which were only occasionally seen in our day."

"You will be interested, no doubt," said the doctor, "to have your impression corroborated by positive evidence. Suppose we leave the amphitheater for a few minutes and step into the anatomical rooms. It is indeed a rare fortune for an anatomical enthusiast like myself to have a pupil so well qualified to be appreciative, to whom to point out the effect our principle of social equality, and the best opportunities of culture for all, have had in modifying toward perfection the human form in general, and especially the female figure. I say especially the female figure, for that had been most perverted in your day by the influences which denied woman a full life. Here are a group of plaster statues, based on the lines handed down to us by the anthropometric experts of the last decades of the nineteenth century, to whom we are vastly indebted. You will observe, as your remark just now indicated that you had observed, that the tendency was to a spindling and inadequate development above the waist and an excessive development below. The figure seemed a little as if it had softened and run down like a sugar cast in warm weather. See, the front breadth flat measurement of the hips is actually greater than across the shoulders, whereas it ought to be an inch or two less, and the bulbous effect must have been exaggerated by the bulging mass of draperies your women accumulated about the waist."

At his words I raised my eyes to the stony face of the woman figure, the charms of which he had thus disparaged, and it seemed to me that the sightless eyes rested on mine with an expression of reproach, of which my heart instantly confessed the justice. I had been the contemporary of this type of women, and had been indebted to the light of their eyes for all that made life worth living. Complete or not, as might be their beauty by modern standards, through them I had learned to know the stress of the ever-womanly, and been made an initiate of Nature's sacred mysteries. Well might these stony eyes reproach me for consenting by my silence to the disparagement of charms to which I owed so much, by a man of another age.

"Hush, doctor, hush!" I exclaimed. "No doubt you are right, but it is not for me to hear these words."

I could not find the language to explain what was in my mind, but it was not necessary. The doctor understood, and his keen gray eyes glistened as he laid his hand on my shoulder.

"Right, my boy, quite right! That is the thing for you to say, and Edith would like you the better for your words, for women nowadays are jealous for one another's honor, as I judge they were not in your day. But, on the other hand, if there were present in this room disembodied shades of those women of your day, they would rejoice more than any others could at the fairer, ampler temples liberty has built for their daughters' souls to dwell in.

"Look!" he added, pointing to another figure; "this is the typical woman of to-day, the lines not ideal, but based on an average of measurements for the purpose of scientific comparison. First, you will observe that the figure is over two inches taller than the other. Note the shoulders! They have gained two inches in width relatively to the hips, as compared with the figure we have been examining. On the other hand, the girth at the hips is greater, showing more powerful muscular development. The chest is an inch and a half deeper, while the abdominal measure is fully two inches deeper. These increased developments are all over and above what the mere increase in stature would call for. As to the general development of the muscular system, you will see there is simply no comparison.

"Now, what is the explanation? Simply the effect upon woman of the full, free, untrammeled physical life to which her economic independence opened the way. To develop the shoulders, arms, chest, loins, legs, and body generally, exercise is needed--not mild and gentle, but vigorous, continuous exertion, undertaken not spasmodically but regularly. There is no dispensation of Providence that will or ever would give a woman physical development on any other terms than those by which men have acquired their development. But your women had recourse to no such means. Their work had been confined for countless ages to a multiplicity of petty tasks--hand work and finger work--tasks wearing to body and mind in the extreme, but of a sort wholly failing to provoke that reaction of the vital forces which builds up and develops the parts exercised. From time immemorial the boy had gone out to dig and hunt with his father, or contend for the mastery with other youths while the girl stayed at home to spin and bake. Up to fifteen she might share with her brother a few of his more insipid sports, but with the beginnings of womanhood came the end of all participation in active physical outdoor life. What could be expected save what resulted--a dwarfed and enfeebled physique and a semi-invalid existence? The only wonder is that, after so long a period of bodily repression and perversion, the feminine physique should have responded, by so great an improvement in so brief a period, to the free life opened up to woman within the last century."

"We had very many beautiful women; physically perfect they seemed at least to us," I said.

"Of course you did, and no doubt they were the perfect types you deemed them," replied the doctor. "They showed you what Nature meant the whole sex to be. But am I wrong in assuming that ill health was a general condition among your women? Certainly the records tell us so. If we may believe them, four fifths of the practice of doctors was among women, and it seemed to do them mighty little good either, although perhaps I ought not to reflect on my own profession. The fact is, they could not do anything, and probably knew they couldn't, so long as the social customs governing women remained unchanged."

"Of course you are right enough as to the general fact," I replied. "Indeed, a great writer had given currency to a generally accepted maxim when he said that invalidism was the normal condition of woman."

"I remember that expression. What a confession it was of the abject failure of your civilization to solve the most fundamental proposition of happiness for half the race! Woman's invalidism was one of the great tragedies of your civilization, and her physical rehabilitation is one of the greatest single elements in the total increment of happiness which economic equality has brought the human race. Consider what is implied in the transformation of the woman's world of sighs and tears and suffering, as you know it, into the woman's world of to-day, with its atmosphere of cheer and joy and overflowing vigor and vitality!"

"But," said I, "one thing is not quite clear to me. Without being a physician, or knowing more of such matters than a young man might be supposed to, I have yet understood in a general way that the weakness and delicacy of women's physical condition had their causes in certain natural disabilities of the sex."

"Yes, I know it was the general notion in your day that woman's physical constitution doomed her by its necessary effect to be sick, wretched, and unhappy, and that at most her condition could not be rendered more than tolerable in a physical sense. A more blighting blasphemy against Nature never found expression. No natural function ought to cause constant suffering or disease; and if it does, the rational inference is that something is wrong in the circumstances. The Orientals invented the myth of Eve and the apple, and the curse pronounced upon her, to explain the sorrows and infirmities of the sex, which were, in fact, a consequence, not of God's wrath, but of man-made conditions and customs. If you once admit that these sorrows and infirmities are inseparable from woman's natural constitution, why, then there is no logical explanation but to accept that myth as a matter of history. There were, however, plentiful illustrations already in your day of the great differences in the physical conditions of women under different circumstances and different social environments to convince unprejudiced minds that thoroughly healthful conditions which should be maintained a sufficiently long period would lead to a physical rehabilitation for woman that would quite redeem from its undeserved obloquy the reputation of her Creator."

"Am I to understand that maternity now is unattended with risk or suffering?"

"It is not nowadays an experience which is considered at all critical either in its actual occurrence or consequences. As to the other supposed natural disabilities which your wise men used to make so much of as excuses for keeping women in economic subjection, they have ceased to involve any physical disturbance whatever.

"And the end of this physical rebuilding of the feminine physique is not yet in view. While men still retain superiority in certain lines of athletics, we believe the sexes will yet stand on a plane of entire physical equality, with differences only as between individuals."

"There is one question," said I, "which this wonderful physical rebirth of woman suggests. You say that she is already the physical equal of man, and that your physiologists anticipate in a few generations more her evolution to a complete equality with him. That amounts to saying, does it not, that normally and potentially she always has been man's physical equal and that nothing but adverse circumstances and conditions have ever made her seem less than his equal?"


"How, then, do you account for the fact that she has in all ages and countries since the dawn of history, with perhaps a few doubtful and transient exceptions, been his physical subject and thrall? If she ever was his equal, why did she cease to become so, and by a rule so universal? If her inferiority since historic times may be ascribed to unfavorable man-made conditions, why, if she was his equal, did she permit those conditions to be imposed upon her? A philosophical theory as to how a condition is to cease should contain a rational suggestion as to how it arose."

"Very true indeed," replied the doctor. "Your question is practical. The theory of those who hold that woman will yet be man's full equal in physical vigor necessarily implies, as you suggest, that she must probably once have been his actual equal, and calls for an explanation of the loss of that equality. Suppose man and woman actual physical equals at some point of the past. There remains a radical difference in their relation as sexes--namely, that man can passionally appropriate woman against her will if he can overpower her, while woman can not, even if disposed, so appropriate man without his full volition, however great her superiority of force. I have often speculated as to the reason of this radical difference, lying as it does at the root of all the sex tyranny of the past, now happily for evermore replaced by mutuality. It has sometimes seemed to me that it was Nature's provision to keep the race alive in periods of its evolution when life was not worth living save for a far-off posterity's sake. This end, we may say, she shrewdly secured by vesting the aggressive and appropriating power in the sex relation in that sex which had to bear the least part of the consequences resultant on its exercise. We may call the device a rather mean one on Nature's part, but it was well calculated to effect the purpose. But for it, owing to the natural and rational reluctance of the child-bearing sex to assume a burden so bitter and so seemingly profitless, the race might easily have been exposed to the risk of ceasing utterly during the darker periods of its upward evolution.

"But let us come back to the specific question we were talking about. Suppose man and woman in some former age to have been, on the whole, physically equal, sex for sex. Nevertheless, there would be many individual variations. Some of each sex would be stronger than others of their own sex. Some men would be stronger than some women, and as many women be stronger than some men. Very good; we know that well within historic times the savage method of taking wives has been by forcible capture. Much more may we suppose force to have been used wherever possible in more primitive periods. Now, a strong woman would have no object to gain in making captive a weaker man for any sexual purpose, and would not therefore pursue him. Conversely, however, strong men would have an object in making captive and keeping as their wives women weaker than themselves. In seeking to capture wives, men would naturally avoid the stronger women, whom they might have difficulty in dominating, and prefer as mates the weaker individuals, who would be less able to resist their will. On the other hand, the weaker of the men would find it relatively difficult to capture any mates at all, and would be consequently less likely to leave progeny. Do you see the inference?"

"It is plain enough," I replied. "You mean that the stronger women and the weaker men would both be discriminated against, and that the types which survived would be the stronger of the men and the weaker of the women."

"Precisely so. Now, suppose a difference in the physical strength of the sexes to have become well established through this process in prehistoric times, before the dawn of civilization, the rest of the story follows very simply. The now confessedly dominant sex would, of course, seek to retain and increase its domination and the now fully subordinated sex would in time come to regard the inferiority to which it was born as natural, inevitable, and Heaven-ordained. And so it would go on as it did go on, until the world's awakening, at the end of the last century, to the necessity and possibility of a reorganization of human society on a moral basis, the first principle of which must be the equal liberty and dignity of all human beings. Since then women have been reconquering, as they will later fully reconquer, their pristine physical equality with men."

"A rather alarming notion occurs to me," said I. "What if woman should in the end not only equal but excel man in physical and mental powers, as he has her in the past, and what if she should take as mean an advantage of that superiority as he did?"

The doctor laughed. "I think you need not be apprehensive that such a superiority, even if attained, would be abused. Not that women, as such, are any more safely to be trusted with irresponsible power than men, but for the reason that the race is rising fast toward the plane already in part attained in which spiritual forces will fully dominate all things, and questions of physical power will cease to be of any importance in human relations. The control and leading of humanity go already largely, and are plainly destined soon to go wholly, to those who have the largest souls--that is to say, to those who partake most of the Spirit of the Greater Self; and that condition is one which in itself is the most absolute guarantee against the misuse of that power for selfish ends, seeing that with such misuse it would cease to be a power."

"The Greater Self--what does that mean?" I asked.

"It is one of our names for the soul and for God," replied the doctor, "but that is too great a theme to enter on now."

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