Voltairine de Cleyre, “Relation of Sex in Humanity” (1894)



By Voltairine de Cleyre.

A Lecture Delivered before the Ladies Liberal League, Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 12, ’93, in Reply to Professor Cope.

Before proceeding to state my own position on the subject of the relation of sex, I will very briefly restate the principal points of Professor Cope’s argument. He viewed the question from the two standpoints of biology and sociology, beginning with the former which, he declared, furnishes the foundation facts from which sociological conclusions are to be drawn. And having done so, arrived at the conclusion that the natural position of woman in society is that of the type-preserver, the housekeeper, and child-bearer; but never the competitor of man. Under the head of biological facts some points were given regarding the sexual instinct in men and women, and what are called the secondary sexual characteristics; vis: a difference of voice between male and female, in the size and shape of the skull, the pelvis, and in muscular power. There are, of course, a number of others, but I suppose the Professor laid particular stress on those as affecting the relations of sex more than others. In speaking of sexual instinct he stated that the prevalent idea is that women are less amative than men, although his own observations have not led him to so conclude.

In giving my own opinion on that point, I beg at the start, that no one, especially no one who thinks as the Professor does, will prejudge me as having arrived at that opinion by looking through colored spectacles, or, as a member of the “third sex,” as the Professor rather sarcastically designates the female portion of the community who eschew marital relations, and devote themselves to an independent life. I take it for granted that you accept the human race as bi-sexual; that it is ridiculous to be ashamed of a fact; that you have bodies which are sexed, and none the less pure on that account. My own sentiments are summed up by Walt Whitman when he says:

“Without shame the man I like knows and avows his sex;
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.”

Nor am I irrevocably fixed in my present opinion; because I realize that while I have striven to form it solely from facts, it is a very hard matter to get at those facts, especially from both sides of the case. As a woman, I am, of course, more liable to hear the woman’s side than man’s, just as, I suppose, Professor Cope’s opportunities for investigation have been greater among his own sex than the opposite. But while this is true, it is also true that I do not put unlimited faith in what the women tell me; upon that subject the most truthful women are prone to lie. And the explanation is very simple and natural. The religious and social education of women, (and these I hold are always molded by conditions) has been such as to render sex a subject never to be spoken of in a voice louder than a whisper. A young girl generally feels a burning shame when she first realizes that she does experience an undeniable sexual attraction; she believes it is a torture of the Evil One, a temptation allowed by God, to whom she prays most fervently for strength to resist it. She will not speak of it to anyone; she thinks herself the most guilty and vile of sinners; and imagines that all her friends and companions would despise and shun her, if they suspected it, (as indeed they probably would, by way of showing their own virtue, though each might inwardly be fighting the same battle.) This first feeling of horror might be modified in time; nevertheless the conviction that it is an impure and shameful desire, never on any account to be admitted, remains. I am told that it is not so much the case with young men; that while a large proportion of them do look upon such feelings as impure, they rather accept it as one of the evils incident to being an animal, and are not adverse to admitting its existence among themselves. Still when they marry they prefer, as a rule, just those girls I have mention; i. e., those who are too undeveloped to have experienced such attraction, or having experienced it, deny it, even to themselves. This mental attitude towards women is due to the same religious and social superstitions which foster the ideas of women in regard to the subject, and which are again the direct outcome of those material conditions which render women dependent upon men for support. So long, therefore, as marriage shall be, as Professor Cope declared it, “a business arrangement;” so long as it constitutes the chief commercial transaction of women, (which it surely does) do long will this supply of shame-faced women be produced to fill the demand of would-be husbands, that is, proprietors. (I use the word advisedly. Professor Cope himself declared that a man’s wife and children are, in a way, his property—not as his house, or his ox, but still his.)

Women thus educated enter marriage quite ignorant; as as a result of ignorance on both sides, the experiences of marriage are such as to disgust, and eventually kill that passion which, unconsciously to themselves perhaps, first drew man and woman together. I believe that the lack of physical adaptation, and the inconsiderate brutality of experienced husbands to inexperienced wives has spoiled more honeymoons than it would be easy to count, and produced in women a real horror in place of the imaginary one previously existing in regard to the sex-relation. Hence the testimony which I have been able to obtain from women is vitiated, first by religious and social superstition, and second by those deplorable experience of false marriage which destroy natural feelings.

I am also aware that many noted writers hold to the opposite opinion from that which Prof. Cope declares prevalent, asserting that women are more amative than men; and they have, no doubt, reasons for so judging.

Having prefaced this much, I must say that at present it appears to me that the sexual instinct is much less strong, as a rule, in women than in men, all things being equal; and that the cause thereof lies in the different functions of the reproductive organs in the male and female. As Prof. Cope once point out in an article on this subject in the Monist, according to the law of conservation of energy if a certain amount of force is utilized in one way, just that amount is lost to any other utilization; hence the force expended in gestation and nursing, as well as the periodical waste to which woman is subject from the ages of thirteen or fourteen to forty-five or fifty must be lost to her individual organism. I know that there are many experiences of women which appear to contradict this. Some women are more energetic and capable at such periods than at any others. Still the general experience seems to indicate that the sexual instinct is less powerful during such periods of taxation stated; and of course men are exempt from that taxation.

It is a somewhat startling comment on civilization (at least at a superficial glance) that the more highly enlightened a nation becomes the weaker become the reproductive instincts. Prof. Cope’s own little complaint that the Americans don’t seem to care enough about perpetuating their stock is a case in point. We are fond of considering ourselves about the smartest people on the face of the globe; and yet the undiluted American family is constantly becoming smaller. The great exponents of pessimism, of whom Prof. Cope disposes by gracefully turning them over to the doctors to be treated for dyspepsia, maintain that sterility will be the logical outcome of our intellectual development. I do not concern myself about it, as I am willing to let the 30th century take care of itself. The only questions to me are:

I. Is the reproductive instinct in civilized women as compared with civilized men, becoming relatively weaker than in savage women as compared with savage men?

II. If so what effect will that have on the relations of the sexes?

III. Granting it to be the case, do the same causes which operate to produce it, also produce the constantly increasing accentuation of the secondary sexual characteristics?

IV. Are the factors in civilization which produce these effects permanent, apparently, or are they evidently transitory?

V. If transitory to what is the change tending, and how will that effect the relations of the sexes?

In reply to the first question as to the relative strength of the productive instinct in civilized men and women as compared with savages, I can only utter an “I believe,” accompanied by a profound, “but I don’t know.” I believe that it is; but I admit that my reasons for so believing are theoretical, rather than deductions of observation. My reading of such works as might enlighten me is far from being as extensive as I would wish, and as to personal knowledge of save tribes, of course I have none. Therefore, I am careful to keep from a fixed opinion. Such as they are, however, I give my reasons. The conditions of savage tribes are very much nearer those of the lower animals than are those of civilized races, and it does not appear in the generality of the lower animals that this instinct is stronger in the male than in the female. Among the more immediate animals, there is no dependence of the female upon the male during the period of nursing, owing probably to the fact that their food is principally fruit and may be obtained by simply stretching out their arms and taking it. In those countries where the human race is supposed to have originated, and where civilization remains in what we of a more rigorous and exacting climate, are wont to consider a low stage of development, the same easy mode of getting a living prevails, hence the primary division of labor, that of the sexes, has not yet come into existence, nor, of course, begun to produce its specific results upon the reproductive instincts.

The function of reproduction in the female, while more or less exhausting, is not accompanied, either in the lower animals or in savage races, by the long continued discomfort and incapacity of pregnancy, or the intense physical pain of parturition so disagreeably prominent in the lives of primitive women. I judge, therefore, that the mode of civilized life is such as to heighten those causes which render the sexual instinct in woman weaker than in man; and, as there does not appear to be a corresponding or proportionate pressure of the civilized environment (if I may be permitted the expression) upon the male, the conclusion appears irresistible that the instinct must weaken faster in woman than in man. Another fragment of straw indicating the way the wind blows, is the rather hysterical cry of the scientific oracles, that if the present progress, or, as they consider it regress of woman continues, we shall have a world of old maids and old bachelors. They do not hint that the men will thus willingly plunge the race into suicide, but that the women will, by reason of their increasing incapacity and disinclination for wifehood and motherhood. I repeat, I do not know; but if it be as I am inclined to think it is the question arises as to how this change must react on the relation of the sexes. Prof. Cope’s friends, the pessimists, declare it means decrease in marriages and a growing ratio of self-supporting, intellectual women, accompanied by an increased rate of prostitution, and an abnormal society in consequence; and finally, race extinction; this last a consummation devoutly to be wished from the pessimists’ standpoint, but not from the Professor’s. Being something of a pessimist myself the bug-bear of extinction does not frighten me much. Nevertheless, while that may be the ultimate destiny of man. I cannot see that it is likely to result in any period of time which the human mind is able to grasp.

If the organization of society, which a recent writer in the Monist characterizes as a “heroic effort on the part of man to throw off the yoke of toil” continues in its great purpose;—if every advancing step is one which enables humanity more and more to defy the antagonism of nature, to exploit it with ever increasing ease, and thus to serve in the primary struggle for food, it must at the same time furnish an environment of greater security to offspring; thus serving in the second great struggle for race preservation.

Since Darwin, it has become an old story to say that those organisms whose offspring are greatly exposed to destruction, must produce in large numbers. Those that did not do so went to the wall very speedily. But as the chances of destruction are lessened, the necessity of greater numbers of germs is also lessened. Hence, a strong reproductive instinct in savage tribes is necessary; whereas, among enlightened nations its need constantly gets less. For the purposes of reproduction only, society could profitably dispense with much of its present commerce of the sexes. I say profitably, because we should have a better generation of children—fewer in number but better both physically and mentally—if women and men alike were more continent in this respect. Hence, while I can see that, parallel to the present line of industrial development, a decrease in marriages (especially in early marriages) will take place by reason of a disproportionate weakening of the sex instinct in woman, I do not see that the extinction of the race is therefore to follow. I do see, however, that without a new turn of the economic wheel which should widen the opportunities of self-support to women, the prophesied increase in prostitution certainly would follow the decrease in marriage.

Whether that would be more race degrading than the legal form of it which now prevails, is an open question.

Now as to the causes which operate to produce these differences between civilized man and woman:—Savage people live much more individually than civilized ones; that is, there is not that amount of dependence of one person upon the other that obtains in civilized society; neither the dependence of one sex upon the other. Physical exercise, out-of-door employment, general participation in the affairs of government by both sexes, these things obtain among the savage peoples. Among civilized races, on the contrary, there is less and less power of individual support, and a distinct difference in the environments of the sexes. Until the comparatively recent development of machinery wrought the tremendous change in industry through which we are now passing, a civilized woman’s life was spent principally within the four walls of her husband’s or father’s home. Those conditions which rendered it possible for the Christian religion to become the dominant religion of Europe, upon the downfall of Pagan civilization, served to justify the church’s frightful theory of woman—a thing of scorn and shame, yet base necessity—a thing to hide and keep silence—a piece of property, without a soul.

(Perhaps some of you may be interested in a statement to me by Matilda Joselyn Gage a short time ago, that “Forty years since, when the first Woman’s Suffrage convention was held in this city, a man there present arose and said: ‘Before woman attempts to claim the ballot let her first prove she has a soul.’” Times have changed a little since then; the gentlemen have become somewhat occupied with the query as to whether they themselves have a soul; and as they nevertheless continue to vote, they cannot, consistently, make the doubt of woman having such a possession the basis of denying her the ballot.) The action of material conditions upon the race-minded, so to speak, and the reaction of the mind upon the conditions, served to fix woman’s possession as a housekeeper and child-bearer and nothing more. All else was immodest and sinful. With men the case is quite different; although it is true that civilization has in some respects pressed heavily upon them to their physical deterioration, it is also true that whatever diversity of occupation there has been, men have filled all those diverse channels of energy.

When a man has transplanted himself from one country to another, he has changed his occupation; and with the change has acquired new ideas, developed some unknown part of himself, brought out the individual. Woman has followed her husband around the world and still remained the care-taker of his goods, his—pardon me gentlemen—his watch dog or his poodle according to the circumstances. The more civilized man seems to prefer a poodle, with a yellow sash and a silk string—it’s so aesthetic! In evidence whereof I quote from the Monist, Mr. G. Ferrero: “Grace is the aesthetic side of weakness, and since man seeks this quality in woman, it follows by the well-known psychological law of association, that the perception of grace and the sweet emotions of love become more closely connected the more psychical progress increases.” And again: “The reason why women should not work is the fact that we wish her to be to us beautiful and attractive; here whole person, her dress, manners, her ideas, and her words filled with exquisite grace. ‘Grace,’ said Guyau, ‘is the feminine side of life as strength is the masculine. A perfect woman should be a chef d’oeuvre of grace and refinement, and to this end she must be exempt from toil.’”

The occupations of men, therefore, have been much as to demand a dress permitting freer movement of the limbs—one great requisite of health; they have worked more in the open air: another great requisite of health; they have had more opportunity to develop all their parts proportionately, and proportionate development is the law of normal individuality. True, they have been more exposed to direct accidents than women; but as Prof. Cope himself says in his article on “Inheritance in Evolution,” mutilations are rarely inherited, while the slow, steady pressure which weakens the bodies of women will only act on the organism through adaptation, but through inheritance also.

How much of the differences in secondary sexual characteristics are due to the law of correlation, and how much directly to the influence of environment, it would require a much better informed person than myself to tell. However, it appears to me that some of them can be clearly shown to be due to the latter. I cannot, it is true, account for the deepening of the male voice in the white races as compared with the Mongolian and others. I do not know enough about the facts. But I can point out that those men who are employed in iron-works, saw-mills, all kinds of factories where machinery is in motion, and especially as sailors, have, as a class, much deeper and more powerful voices than clerks, students, and—professors. The reason is too apparent to need pointing out; and I suppose you can make our own application to women. As civilized women are generally using their voices at a much shorter range and in a more confined atmosphere than their progenitors did, it is to be expected that the voice will grow softer. Still I know that the difference cannot be primarily credited to environment, as there are very marked variation in animals in this respect. Neither do I think it of much importance: our voices will not stop us from getting a living.

In regard to the shape of the skull, it is said, and most all of us have observed, that the head is not so large in the frontal region, where the logical and reasoning faculties are supposed to reside, as the male head. Likewise, proportionate to the whole, the part in which the domestic faculties are supposed to be located in woman than in the man, the whole female skull being generally smaller than in the male. And yet, when Helen Gardener consulted the greatest brain specialist in New York, Dr. Spitzks, he declared that of a very large number of brains, male or female, (one hundred, I believe) it was impossible for him to determine the sex. However, granting that these mental characteristics of sex exist, as indicated by the skull, (and I admit that they do though in a much less degree than is generally accounted) I return to my old explanation:—use an organ and it grows strong; let it lie idle, or use it but little, and it will become atrophied. Woman’s environment has not demanded the exercise of her reason except in limited amounts, and even these, within a never varying round of petty affairs, “of microscopic importance,” we are told by the “telescopic” males who have a vast contempt for the infinitely little, except when the steak is burnt, or their clean things are not laid out on the bed; and as long as woman retains the position which Prof. Cope believes to be the only normal one for her, that line of brain development will continue at a constantly accelerating rate; that is, less and less reason, more and more poodle. I do not mean any disrespect for the poodle—he is very affectionate and charming little creature—I like him myself.

The same explanation of variation in use applies with special force to the difference in muscular power, which the Professor stated to be from one and a half times to twice as great in man as in woman. He explained that the only way to arrive at a just estimate was to compare male and female members of the same family and take an average from a large number so compared. In that way you would fairly obtain the effects of sexual inheritance, but what about adaptation? Will you take two animals, born of the same parents, leave one free to hunt his living, and lock the other up in a cage with a small court-yard to walk in once a day, feed him on food of your choosing, and when you find at the end of a certain period of time that there is a deterioration of muscle in the prisoner compared with the other, will you call that a just estimate? That the male is, by virtue of his being a male, somewhat stronger than the female, I do not deny; but that the relative decrease in muscle being greater in woman than in man is due to her surroundings, I also claim. In regard to the increased size of the pelvis in women of the Caucasian race as compared with the inferior races, it is easily accounted for by the fact that the Caucasian head is much larger than the Mongolian, Malay, or Ethiopian head; but as I said of the difference in voice, I do not know that the larger pelvis will operate diametrically to woman in the matter of securing a living.

The fourth question is: (And now I come to the Professor’s sociology which, I am inclined to think, would be improved if he would consider economy as a science instead of a piece of moral and political patchwork.)—What are the factors in civilization which have produced these essentially differences in the material relation of the sexes. We were told by the Professor that the primitive occupations of humanity were hunting, fishing, mining, and agriculture; for none of which, said the Professor, is woman adapted. Nevertheless, we find by the songs and legends of early nations, which are full of poetic allusions to women hunters, that they were so occupied; also, I quote from the Professor’s supporter, Mr. Ferrero. “Among savages we find that the struggle for life, that is to say, war, falls to the lot of man—but labor, and that of the most painful kind, is the portion of woman. Woman builds the dwelling or hut; she it is who plows the field, carries the burdens, and, among tribes that dwell on the borders of the sea or lakes, sometimes rows or fishes.” All of which in the opinion of this writer, is a most deplorable condition of affairs. It may be interesting to know, however, that notwithstanding the learned gentleman’s protestation of horror thereat, the position of the Indian woman, wherever the Indian form of civilization is yet preserved, is relatively better than that of her civilized sister.

I again quote Mrs. Gage. “Until the customs of civilization reached the Indians, their wives, according to Catlin, Schoolcraft, and others, were not called upon to work with half the severity of the women of today; nor had they tradition of children born deaf, dumb or blind. Those kinds of labor pointed to as showing the hardships of the Indian woman’s life, Schoolcraft dismisses very lightly. The lodge built by here is not made of heavy posts and carpentry, but of thin poles bent over at the top, such as a child can lift. When a family changed its residence these poles were not removed; only the thin sheets of birch-bark covering were taken to the new rendezvous. The gathering of the fuel by the women was cutting dry limbs of the forest, not over eighteen inches in length, with a hatchet. The tillage of the fields, shared alike by the old men, women, and the boys, was very light. No oxen to drive, no plow to hold, no wheat to plant or thresh.” And respecting the participation of Indian women in their government she says, “The famous Iroquois Indians, or Six Nations, which at the discovery of America, held sway from the Great Lakes to the Tombigbee River, from the Hudson to the Ohio, and of whom it has been said that another century would have found them master of all the tribes to the Gulf of Mexico on the south and the Mississippi on the west, showed alike in the form of government an in social life, reminiscences of matriarchats. The line of descent, feminine, was especially notable in all tribal relations such as the election of Chiefs and the Council of Matrons, to which all disputed questions were referred for final adjudication. No sale of land was valid without the consent of the squaws, and among the State Archives at Albany, N. Y., treaties are preserved signed by the “Sachems and Principal Women of the Six Nations.” The women also possessed the veto power on questions of war. . . . . The family relation among the Iroquois demonstrated woman’s superiority in power. When an Indian husband brought products of the chase to the wigwam his control over it ceased. In the home the wife was absolute. The sale of the skins was regulated by her. The price was paid to her. If for any cause the Iroquois husband and wife separated the wife took with her all the property she had brought into the wigwam. The children also accompanied the mother, whose right to them was recognized as supreme.”

But in whatever light we may view the position of woman in early civilization, the fact remains attested by Mr. Ferrero himself, that women were, at one time, hunters, fishers, and agriculturalists. How comes it then that having once been employed in the primitive industries she subsequently dropped out of them? Economy replies that, as mankind become more and more quiescent, men forsook the occupation of war and concerned themselves with agriculture, which they took from the hands of woman by reason of their superior strength. That is to say, nations which did accomplish this division of labor in the sexes, rooted out by those which did not; the same with the other occupations by which humanity gains its livelihood. Unless, therefore, some factor had appeared to neutralize this difference in muscular strength, it might have been set down for certain that woman must forever remain in the place to which her physical inferiority had relegated here. That factor, however, has appeared and played general havoc with economic, religious, social, and moral ideas.

And that factor is Machinery! Machinery that has sent the laboring man tramping the earth, and has taken the milk from the breasts of mother to distil into the ambrosia which the rich gods of men get drunk upon!

Will it be objected that men have still the advantage in the operation of machines by reason of physical strength? Let me refer you to Karl Marx. In his chapter on Machinery and Modern Industry, he says: “In so far as machinery dispenses with muscular power, it becomes a means of employing laborers of slight muscular strength, and those whose bodily development is incomplete, but whose limbs are all the more supple. The labor of women and children was, therefore, the first thing sought for by capitalists who used machinery.” That you may satisfy yourself of the correctness of Marx’s statement, I point you to those industries in which machinery is most highly developed; to the wall-paper industry, silk-weaving, silk-winding, manufacture of textile fabrics of all kinds, boots and shoes, hats and caps, and clothing. An examination of the statistics will reveal that a greater proportion of women than men are employed, showing that machines have neutralized entirely the superior physical strength of the latter.

But what, say you, has that to do with agriculture, which is the great fundamental occupation of man? (Hunting and fishing, of course, play relatively small parts in these modern times.)

I have this to say that notwithstanding the United States is an exporting nation in regard to agricultural products, its annual exports of grain, cotton, tobacco, butter, and cheese exceeding by many millions of dollars the value of its imports of tea, coffee, wool, and sugar; notwithstanding this, I say, less than 26 percent of its workers are agriculturalists; and the amount of capital invested in manufacture is very nearly double that invested in agricultural industry; therefore, if women were barred out forever from agriculture, it would not necessarily follow that they could not become self-supporting. Yet the inevitable machine has gone to farming, 80 per cent of farm laborers being already displaced by it, and I do not all think it impossible that women may re-enter that field to some extent, although it would appear that a predominance of men will obtain in that occupation; at least until farming machinery has reached a greater stage of perfection. What is said of agriculture might be applied with equal force to mining.

In my opinion the Professor made a distinction between direct production and exchange which does not exist. Exchange is quite as much a factor in production as land and capital; and the persons who transport the iron from the mine to the mill are quite as necessary in the building of an iron bridge, as the men who go down in the shaft or stand before the furnace; quite as self-supporting. Equally necessary are teachers, doctors, nurses, artists, musicians, actors, and professors; and equally self-supporting. As long as any one can, by physical or mental labor, satisfy the demand of some one else, for which satisfaction he is willing to give a circulating equivalent, so long is he or she self-supporting. Even marriage is to women a way of earning support; but, like Ben. Franklin, she pays a very dear price for a very poor whistle.

It is said that woman’s mental inferiority, like her physical inferiority, must operate against her in the field of the professions; and this time there is no machine. Very well, gentlemen, if we cannot equal you, what are you afraid of?

“Oh, the race! the race! Women will lose their material instinct! Intellectual women become barren!”

The old story. But you cannot bring any proof for it. You cannot prove that where women have had equal chances with men in educational lines they have not competed successfully with you! And as for their non-productivity, the majority of the prominent women of the modern radical movement are mothers. Prof. Cope did not bring up this phase of the question to any extent, that I remember, on the occasion of his delivering the lecture to which I am now replying; although I know, from having read previous articles of his, in different magazines, that he does lay great stress upon the mental inequalities of women. But I shall confine myself to the consideration of those arguments only, which were set forth in his lecture of December 12. I shall endeavor to forestall the objections which will be raised against woman’s present condition in the industrial world; and let none suppose he objects to it more strenuously than do I.

It will be said that the employment of women in factories or stores, where they are obliged to stand many hours in succession, is so detrimental to the female reproductive organs that they become afflicted with all manner of diseases, frequently requiring operations which forever debar them from motherhood. Further, that women neglect their children, dose them with opiates, put them out to incompetent nurses, and so on. I grant all that, but what are you going to do about it? as long as women can live cheaper than men, they can sell their labor cheaper; and the capitalist will buy it in preference. How are you going to stop it? With some petty restrictive law? The politicians have always been setting their houses on fire by playing with matches of that sort. The Czar of Russia attempted to and remedy certain economic troubles by expelling the Jews, and Economy answered the Czar with the Famine and the Plague. (If there are any present who do not understand how that was, I will explain it, if so desired, after the lecture.) If America tries Professor Cope’s experiment of keeping out the Europeans and Chinese, (in the latter case some legislation has already been effected) inside of ten years Economy will give it a slap in the face from which it will take some time, and possibly some very bitter experience, to recover. In this age it is not possible for a nation to be exclusive. Every social phases has its own law, and what was possible five hundred years ago, in the way of statute making, is not possible now. Capitalism requires a world market, and a world market means eventually the amalgamation of identical interests. You might stack laws so high as Ossa piled on Pelion, and you could not stop the international trust of capital; neither that of labor, whether the laborer be Ethiopian, Chinese, Russian, or American. You can meddle and make trouble for yourselves, and you can do the same by making a restrictive law relative to the employment of women; but you cannot cut her out as a factor in competition. These factors then, machinery, capitalism, are the factors which will drive the women out of the household niche where he muscular inferiority placed her; these factors are the very form and function of our civilization, and, as Mr. Ferrero very well says, a law goes for naught if it contradicts the customs and habits of the country.

Now machinery has come to stay; no doubt of that. With all its evil results it is too much of a benefactor of man not to stay. The question is how to keep its benefits and get rid of its evils. That can never be done so long as capitalism lasts! So long as the Capitalist is able to absorb a profit for which he gives nothing in return—for as long as he does that, so long will the machine be a curse to producers, as producers, though it may benefit them as consumers for a time. But capitalism cannot be brought to an end by a “be it enacted,” nor by sociological salves stuck on sore places, such as the Professor’s colonization schemes, which are to be started somewhere out in the wilderness, by a lot of wrecks thrown off by the city’s sea of civilization, who have been furnished transportation by benevolent persons. It would be, indeed, a delightful way to allay the rising storm; and a most delightful and easy way for the robbers to rid themselves of the robbed.

But, fortunately or unfortunately, a system of economy cannot be pieced. If the country is empty, as Prof. Cope declares, assuring us that he had seen thousands of acres of idle land in his travels in America and Europe, it is not, as he asserted, because the people have flocked to the cities in order to enjoy the luxuries of social intercourse—the advantage of lectures, theatres, etc.; it is because mortgages and rents have forced the farming population to crowd more and more into these whirlpools of death; and if the stream ever flows out again it will not be [by] means of benevolent schemes, which serve the two-fold purpose of settling with a seared conscience and removing a threatening danger. It will not be by charitable giving, but by righteous taking—the spontaneous action of the people recognizing their right to the earth, and expropriating those who have sold and exploited them.

Yes, the battle must be waged right where the people are now; and when they have retaken the now monopolized sources of production, there will be a possibility for organization of the workers into co-operative productive groups, which shall get the entire value of their product without parting with any portion of it for nothing. By this means all would be able to work if they wished, and none be obliged to work more than four hours a day. This is not Utopia. If the number of hours actually spent in production to day, be divided by the available working force of a nation, the quotient will prove my statement, and certainly, under our present wasteful plan of production and distribution, there is food enough for all the hungry, clothes enough for all the destitute, if they could get at them

“Well, and after this delightful time arrives, will not the men work eight hours a day and the women return to their old meeting place?”

I do not think so. I think capitalism will have rendered this immense service to civilized woman: It will have proven her the “fittest” in certain fields of industry; that she will realize the possibility of her own individuality; that she will cease to regard marriage and child-bearing as a business for which she is to be paid; that she will come to have as much contempt for prostitution in the legal mask as prostitution in the street—open-faced—wearing the mark of the degradation upon its forehead; that she will utterly refuse to take the position of any man’s property; that if she becomes a mother, it will be through choice and not necessity. As to the form which marriage will then assume, I think it is impertinence for the enslaved men and women of to day to attempt to fasten the chains of their slavery upon the free men and women of the future. We have our ideals—ideal which we believe to be consonant with the historical progress of man; but let us beware how we endeavor to fasten those ideals upon the brains of others. Incalculable mischief has ever been wrought in the name of morality by those who, with the best of purposes, sought to fix the standard of right for all times. I do not propose to fall into this error. While personally I believe in a monogamic ideal, I have no stones to throw at those who believe otherwise. The only point on which I insist is self-support and self-responsibility for women.


Voltairine de Cleyre, “Relation of Sex in Humanity,” Lucifer the Light-Bearer, New Series, 11 no. 12 (April 13, 1894): 1; 11 no. 13 (April 20, 1894): 1; 11 no. 14 (April 27, 1894): 1; 11 no. 15 (May 11, 1894): 1; 11 no. 16 (May 25, 1894): 1; 11 no. 17 (June 1, 1894): 1; 11 no. 18 (June 15, 1894): 1.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.