Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Economic Relations of Sex” (1891)



To the Editor of The Open Court:

POSSESSED of rather more than ordinary interest in the sex question, and agreeing with Professor Cope that any proposition for the amelioration of the condition of women should be discussed and decided by women, I am moved to certain remarks suggested by his article on “The Material Relations of Sex” in the first number of The Monist.[note]Article reproduced below.—Editor.[/note]

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

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

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

Is economic independence for woman a possible ideal?

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

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

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

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

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

Voltairine de Cleyre.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Economic Relations of Sex,” The Open Court 5 no. 11 (May 7, 1891): 2801.

To the Editor of The Open Court:—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

E. D. Cope.

E. D. Cope, “The Economic Relations of Sex,” The Open Court 5 no. 11 (May 7, 1891): 2801-2802.


MUCH interest is displayed at present in the development of woman, both as to her personal characteristics, and in her relations to her surroundings in human society. It is justly said that the civilisation of a nation may be measured by the degree of humanity displayed by its men towards its women. This is for the reason that, since women are the weaker sex, man has only ethical reasons for self-restraint in his treatment of her. Nowhere is the sex-interest under better ethical control than in the United States; and it is in this country also that we hear the most of reforms which are necessary in order that woman may attain a further development, and assume a higher position in relation to the state. This being the case, it is extremely important that the foundation facts, or in other words the necessary natural conditions, under which the sexes co-operate in society, should be fully understood. That they are not understood, or that they are intentionally ignored in some quarters, is evident to any one who reads the current literature of the subject.

The relation of the male man to his environment involves the usual struggle for existence more or less active. His piece de resistance is the mineral and vegetable world and its atmosphere, and his antagonist is his fellow man. The former generally yields more or less abundantly to his solicitations. What he gets from his fellow man is acquired through the necessities of the latter, and the benefit may be mutual, or it may be all on one side. His best friend may unconsciously and unintentionally, in the regular order of trade, reduce him to beggary, or compel him, as an alternative, to emigrate to a distant land. Such results are more frequent as population increases. To maintain himself against the destructive forces of nature, such as cold, heat, rains, tempests, fires, blights, etc., is his necessary occupation. If he pursue a profession, or if he be in trade, he must supply the actual needs of his fellow man, and beware that competition and monopoly do not deprive him of all return for his labor.

Woman, considered by herself, is subject to identical conditions. Her needs are the same and her environment is the same. But she is not so well endowed as man to supply the one or to meet the other. Her disabilities are of two kinds, physical and mental. The physical are : first, inferior muscular strength, and secondly, childbearing. The latter means more or less incompetence for active work at monthly periods, or several months of gestation and lactation, and some years of care of children. The mental disabilities are : first, inferior power of mental co-ordination) and secondly, greater emotional sensibility, which interferes more or less with rational action.[note]This is, of course, only true where the sexes of the same subspecies or race are compared.[/note]

From these facts it is evident that, were woman of the same sex as man, that is, were she simply another kind of man, she would soon be eliminated from the earth under the operation of the ordinary law of the survival of the fittest. This need not be through any agencies different from those now actually in operation among men under the circumstances of peaceful trade. And such is often the actual history of male men who possess marked feminine characteristics. It does not follow from this, that some women might not sustain themselves apart from men, in agriculture, trade, and the professions. This is especially possible where the struggle is not very severe ; but in the cases which exist, few are really independent of male assistance, which has furnished the capital, either of cleared land, money, or as an appointing power. The general result, as above stated, is self-evident from the facts.

Remedies for this disability are frequently proposed. A higher education, while an unquestioned advantage, does not remove it. The ballot would only result in removing any disability of an artificial character which might exist, but could not effect those imposed by nature. There is no method of human contrivance by which the natural difficulty may be overcome.

But Nature has supplied a most effective remedy. Woman not being of the same sex as man, supplies a necessity which is almost universal, so that she is placed, if she exercise reasonable care, in a position better than that of man in relation to the struggle for existence. The antagonist of man, his fellow man, is eliminated from the list of the antagonists of woman, and that is an advantage which cannot be overestimated. Not only is man removed from the field as a competitor, but he becomes an active helper in resisting the forces of nature. More than this, he is willing under the circumstances, to divide with her what he extracts from both man and nature. Were these the only benefits that woman derives from man they would constitute a sufficient reason for the usual preference which she displays for his protection, rather than for a life of independence. But she is herself possessed of a sex-interest which is satisfied by such a relation. Not only this, but her love of children constitutes a further inducement, which is highly effective in bringing about her customary relation with man.

It is self-evident then that any system which looks to a career for women independent of man, such as man pursues, is abnormal, and injurious to her interests.

The support and protection given by man to woman is then clearly rendered as an equivalent for the services she renders him in the capacity of a wife. It is universally implied, if not distinctly stated in the contract between them, that she shall not be the wife of some other man, and that the children she bears shall be also those of the male party to the contract, or the husband. It is not necessary that any such obligation should be entered into by the man, for the obvious reason that he does not bear children. If the woman violates this contract, the man is under no moral or legal obligation to support her. If the man has other wives he does not thereby forfeit protection and support of the wife, since she has none to offer him. This general fact would not prevent a woman possessed of wealth who supported a husband, from withdrawing such support in case he should become polygamous. But such a situation is so exceptional as to deserve but a passing notice in a consideration of the whole question.

It is frequently insisted that responsibility of man to woman in the matter of monogamic relations, is ethically the same as that of woman to man. This has not been the view of mankind generally, and it is distinctly negatived by the facts in the case. The marriage relation is clearly a contract in which the consideration on one side is support and protection, and the consideration on the other is monogamic wifehood, or the definite paternity of children and their care and education. The immediate reason why particular men and women marry particular women and men, is, or ought to be, love and affection ; but these admirable sentiments, are the offspring of natural conditions of sex, without which woman, and especially man, would not marry at all. And these natural conditions are clearly satisfied by the maintainance of the contract as above described. In order to further enforce this position I merely refer to the well-known fact that man cannot commit marital infidelity in the same sense that woman can, on account of his physical diversity. His unfaithfulness introduces no new blood into a family, and makes no defect in the inheritance, as does the same act on the part of the woman. The woman is in a position of trust, precisely like the responsible officers of a bank. It is in the power of both to defraud those who trust them. Hence it is that woman has been always held to stricter account in this matter than man, and always must be. For this reason the jealousy displayed by husbands is more justifiable than that displayed by wives ; and the result of marital infidelity on the part of wives is usually more disastrous to the offending parties. It is in consequence of these facts that there exists some difference in the ethical feelings of the sexes on this question. It is undoubtedly true that there are more women willing to live in polygamy than men willing to live’in polyandry, in spite of the verbal objections that women make to such a system in modern times. I do not now refer to promiscuity, in which the affections are in no wise concerned. In this everyway inferior relation, men are the most numerous offenders. It is for the reasons above stated that women are more monogamous in their tendencies than men. Not only does the question of support and protection during child-bearing and at other times make it more to their interest to be so, but they are more inclined to attach themselves to particular persons than men, on account of their superior affectional endowments. This is an inevitable result of their occupation in the family and with the family for countless ages, and is as much a product of their evolution, as is the superior rationality and self-control of the male sex.

The above picture may seem to some persons of progressive views on “the woman question” somewhat onesided. But the relation of man to the contract is not yet completely described. Meanwhile I refer to a sentiment attributed to a single woman, a teacher in a girls’ school, I believe near Pittsburg, quoted by a lady writer in the Popular Science Monthly, several months ago. This lady, believing that the strength of the emotional elements of character in women constitutes a disability, and stands in the way of her so-called equality with man, had resolved to suppress that part of her nature, and to live a life free from its consequences. She hoped thus to attain a condition not only equal, but superior to that of men, and was prepared to teach the girls committed to her care that this was their duty to themselves and to the world. For this reason she would not marry. The fallacy in this reasoning consists in the omission of certain important premises. The principal one” of these is, that neither she nor any other woman can exterminate in a life-time, the heritage which woman has derived from the entire history of the human species, to say nothing of the inheritance from the ancestors of mankind, where the same traits exist in the diminished ratio of a smaller mentality. In order to accomplish this change in female character, it would be necessary that the same course should be pursued by many successive generations of women ; how many, it is impossible to calculate. This would require that such women should marry, which is what the lady whose views are referred to above, desired to avoid. In fact it is typical women who will marry, and typical women will be therefore produced to the end of time, unless some new system of sex relations shall be introduced.

It is sometimes suggested that a change in intersex relations is desirable in order to effect a fuller emancipation of women from present conditions. With the remark in passing, that the natural restraints imposed by the present marriage system on woman are not greater than those imposed on man, although different, we may refer to the alternative arrangement which has been sometimes adopted. This is that woman should be free from all obligation to fidelity to any particular man, and that man should be free from the obligation to support any particular woman. In other words it is sometimes proposed that we return to the primitive state of human society. Such a system has descended to us from ancient times, and it only needs to be mentioned to satisfy us that woman is the loser by it to a degree that is disastrous to the interests of society in every respect. It is only a being devoid of the developed traits of womanhood who could succeed in a polyandrous career, since she must renounce the pleasures of family life, even if she is exceptionally able to accumulate the means of support for her self and children in later years.

A second alternative, that woman may secure the support of one man, while her marital relations are polyandrous, is an impossible dream of the imagination. This could be only possible under the condition that the child-bearing sex should be the stronger sex, and fully capable of self-support and self-protection ; a condition which is not found in mankind.

A third alternative is the communistic relation where the state supports women and children, without inquiry as to parentage, and without reference to the monogamic or promiscuous relation of the sexes. Such a system, could it continue long enough, would result in the breaking up of the sentiment of conjugal affection which now characterises our race, and the destruction of marital fidelity. The question is whether or not this system would be preferable to that of monogamic marriage above described. As it is a proposition for the amelioration of the present condition of women, the decision should rest with them. The women of the white race would probably declare against it by a very large majority, were a vote to be taken. This vote would be, however, largely influenced by custom, and not by a deliberate conclusion derived from experience. Since experience of such system cannot be had at present, we are compelled to rely on such knowledge as we possess in the premises.

It may be safely assumed that the monogamic tendency is constitutional with the majority of women. In spite of curiosity and other inducements, the idea of love for a single person is deeply ingrained in her nature. It is an ideal to be realised somehow and at some time, and anything short of it is a disaster only to be endured through some irresistible necessity. No normal woman would hazard the risks to person and property involved in indefinite matrimonial relations. The idea of the family becomes the more fixed in proportion as it is realised in actual experience. In spite of pessimists and unfortunates, the mutual love of man and woman is a sentiment deeply seated in the nature of both. Its strength is attested by the enormous popularity of the literature of which it forms the theme, and of the drama where its history and vicissitudes are depicted. Men and women who underrate its power, or who attempt to resist its effects, are like dead leaves before the winds. Would men and women be satisfied with a system which should place these affections in constant suspense, and which should afford no safeguard for the protection of inexperience, or defense against the temporary effects of superficial attractions and repulsions? I suspect not, for more would be lost than gained by such possibilities. Relief from unfortunate connections is certainly proper, but this can be had in such a way as to render it certain that the best interests of both parties are subserved, by a system of time contracts of marriage, such as I crudely suggested in The Open Court for November 1888. But the emotions of sex cannot be safely left without safeguards derived from the experience of mankind. This is not only on account of the force of these passions themselves, but because of the material necessities which are so intimately involved with them. The element of paternal interest will have to be eliminated from the man, and of conjugal fidelity from the woman before a communal system can be possible. And the absence of these traits is only characteristic of some of the lower races of men at the present time. Evolution has not weakened, but has greatly strengthened them, and it is not likely that our race will go backward in this respect.

Of course it may be asserted that this evolution has taken the wrong direction, and is not an improvement. I think the contrary may be shown to be true. The paternal instinct is as important to the adolescent stages of man as the maternal is for the period of infancy. Paternity stimulates the man to labor for the support and education of his children, and for their general well-being. Without such support many would die, reach an imperfect development, or become feeble members of society. The fidelity of the woman develops the same trait in man, and it stimulates him to the greatest exertions to secure her well-being also. Such forces as these cannot be withdrawn from society without infinite loss. It is the knowledge that this is my wife and that these are my children, that sustains more than half of human industry. With a communistic system these inducements would be withdrawn, and mankind would sink into comparative apathy, were it possible for the system to endure long enough.

It is evident that monogamic and polygamic systems are the only ones possible to modern society. The polygamic requires little notice because the general equality in numbers of the sexes deprives it of foundation. It is only possible where women are in excess, and where they are willing to sustain it. No man who is successfully married is likely to incur the additional obligations which it imposes. It may be therefore dismissed from notice with the further remark that it is not on the other hand deserving of the obloquy cast upon it by certain persons who are evidently “compounding for sins they have a mind to by damning those they’re not inclined to.”

The monogamic relation having been defined in the preceding paragraphs I recur to some of its obligations. I have spoken of the infidelity of woman as of a higher degree of criminality than that of man, and have shown the basis of justice on which this general sentiment rests. But it must not be forgotten that while he who hires a murderer, and he who receives stolen goods does not commit the actual crime, he is highly culpable, and shares in the condemnation which should follow it. In the case of the marital infidelity of the woman, he may be the greater criminal of the two, as the instigator to a deed which would not have been otherwise even suggested. In any case his folly is extraordinary, as he takes his life in his hands, and risks that of his partner; for men are wont to preserve their family rights by summary process. It would be incredible that such risks should be taken were it not that history and contemporary literature offer many examples. The few cases where palliating circumstances could be claimed would chiefly occur in countries where divorce laws do not exist.

The advantages to woman, arising from the monogamic relation, are then, support and protection, and undivided affection if she deserve it, together with the satisfaction of the conjugal and maternal instincts. In order to secure these advantages she must pursue a course towards her husband in some degree comparable to that by which her husband secures the confidence arid esteem of his fellow man. Faithfulness in adhering to contracts, and personal complaisance cover much of the ground. As regards the man, he must see to it, that he does nothing that tends to the disintegration of the family relations of other men. The ill disguised laudation of the infidelity of wives which is so prominent in French literature, is a mark of a low civilisation, and it rightly excites the disgust of all men who have any respect for their own rights. It looks as though certain French literature had been written by boys. Men who are responsible for such invasion of the rights of others, cannot expect better treatment themselves, and they must not be surprised if they are repaid in their own coin. While the preservation of the rights of the marriage contract lies primarily with woman, for natural reasons ; man is held by his fellow man to a strict accountability, and he attempts any invasion of them at his personal peril.

The principles above laid down are those out of which have grown our laws on the subject. Some women and men appear to think them unjust to women. It is true that in some respects, woman is at a disadvantage. This disadvantage is, however, of natural origin and cannot be overcome. On the other hand, she has a full equivalent in the advantages which she also derives from. the natural order of things. The result is that there is no real cause of complaint, unless it be that sometimes the gallantry of men towards women whom they do not know, leads them to do injustice to man in cases of dispute. And here is an advantage to women which is an offset to the injustice which they sometimes experience from the same source.. The correction of these faults is a part of the process of ethical development which is going on in human society. And perhaps the most effective agency in this development is the relation of the members of the family to each other, where affection takes the place of force, since it is the source of our deepest pleasures and our severest pains.

E. D. Cope.

E. D. Cope, “On the Material Relations of Sex in Human Society,” The Monist 1 no. 1 (October, 1890) 38-47.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.