Women and Economics
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Proem | Preface | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 |
A CONDITION so long established, so widespread, so permanent as the sexuo-economic relation in the human species could not have been introduced and maintained in the course of social evolution without natural causes and uses. No wildest perversion of individual will could permanently maintain a condition wholly injurious to society. Church and State and social forms move and change with our growth, and we cannot hinder them long after the time has come for further progress. Once it was of advantage to society that the sexuo-economic relation should be established. Now that it is no longer of advantage to society, the "woman's movement" has set in; and the relation is changing under our eyes from year to year, from day to day, in spite of our traditional opposition. The change considered in these pages is not one merely to be prophesied and recommended: it is already taking place under the forces of social evolution; and only needs to be made clear to our conscious thought, that we may withdraw the futile but irritating resistance of our misguided will.
The original necessity for this distinctive human phenomenon lies very deep among the primal forces of social life. The relations required to develope individual organisms failed in the further development of the social organism of organization. Co-ordination requires first a common interest, and then the establishment of a common consciousness. It was for the common interest of the individual cells to obtain food easily, and this drew them into closer relation. That relation being established, their co-existence became a unit, an entity, a thing with a conscious life of its own. In the fullest development of the most elaborate organisms, this holds good. There must be a common interest to be served by all this co-ordinate activity; and there must be a common consciousness established, whereby to serve most easily the common interest. When the component cells in our tissues shrink and fail for lack of nutrition, when the several organs weary of inaction and fretfully demand their natural exercise, the man does not say, "My tissues need replenishment" or "My organs need exercise": he says, "I am hungry." And that "I," the personal consciousness directing the smooth interaction of all its parts, goes to work to get food. Social evolution rests on this common interest. Individual men are profited by social relation; and, therefore, they enter into social relation. Such relation requires a common consciousness, through which the co-ordinate action may take place; and the whole course of social development is marked by the constant extension of this social consciousness and its necessary vehicles. Language is our largest common medium, and leads on into literature, which is but preserved speech. The brain of man is the social organ, the organ of communication. Through it flows the current of thought, whereby we are enabled to work together. By so much as our brains hold in common, we can understand each other; and, therefore, some degree of common education is essential to free social development.
At the very beginning of this process, when the human animal was still but an animal,but an individual,came the imperative demand for the establishment of a common consciousness between these hitherto irreconcilable individuals. The first step in nature toward this end is found in the relation between mother and child. Where the young, after birth, are still dependent on the mother, the functions of the one separate living body needing the service of another separate living body, we have the overlapping of personality, the mutual need, which brings with it the essential instinct that holds together these interacting personalities. That instinct we call love. The child must have the mother's breast. The mother's breast must have the child. Therefore, between mother and child was born love, long before fatherhood was anything more than a momentary incident. But the common consciousness, the mutual attraction between mother and child, stopped there absolutely. It was limited in range to this closest relation; in duration, to the period of infancy.
The common interest of human beings must be served by racial faculties, not merely by the sex-functions of the female, or the duties of mother to child. As the male, acting through his natural instincts, steadily encroached upon the freedom of the female until she was reduced to the state of economic dependence, he thereby assumed the position of provider for this creature no longer able to provide for herself. He was not only compelled to serve her needs, but to fulfil in his own person the thwarted uses of maternity. He became, and has remained, a sort of man-mother, alone in creation in his remarkable position. By this common interest, existing now not only between mother and child, but between father, mother, and child, grew up a wider common consciousness. And, as the father served the child not through sex-function, but through race-function, this service was open to far wider development and longer duration than the mother's alone could ever have reached. Maternal energy is the force through which have come into the world both love and industry. It is through the tireless activity of this desire, the mother's wish to serve the young, that she began the first of the arts and crafts whereby we live. While the male savage was still a mere hunter and fighter, expressing masculine energy, the katabolic force, along its essential line, expanding, scattering, the female savage worked out in equally natural ways the conserving force of female energy. She gathered together and saved nutrition for the child, as the germ-cell gathers and saves nutrition in the unconscious silences of nature. She wrapped it in garments and built a shelter for its head as naturally as the same maternal function had loved, clothed, and sheltered the unborn. Maternal energy, working externally through our elaborate organism, is the source of productive industry, the main current of social life.
But not until this giant force could ally itself with others and work co-operatively, overcoming the destructive action of male energy in its blind competition, could our human life enter upon its full course of racial evolution. This is what was accomplished through the suppression of the free action of maternal energy in the female and its irresistible expression through the male. The two forces were combined, and he was the active factor in their manifestation. It was one of nature's calm, unsmiling miracles, no more wonderful than where she makes the guileless, greedy bee, who thinks he is merely getting his dinner, serve as an agent of reproduction to countless flowers. The bee might resent it if he knew what office he performed, and that his dinner was only there that he might fulfil that office. The subjection of woman has involved to an enormous degree the maternalizing of man. Under its bonds he has been forced into new functions, impossible to male energy alone. He has had to learn to love and care for some one besides himself. He has had to learn to work, to serve, to be human. Through the sex-passion, mightily overgrown, the human race has been led and driven up the long, steep path of progress, over all obstacles, through all dangers, carrying its accompanying conditions of disease and sin (and surmounting them), up and up in spite of all, until at last a degree of evolution is reached in which the extension of human service and human love makes possible a better way.
By the action of his own desires, through all its by-products of evil, man was made part mother; and so both man and woman were enabled to become human. It was an essential step in our racial progress, a means to an end. It should not be considered as an extreme maternal sacrifice, but as a novel and thorough system of paternal sacrifice,the male of genus homo coerced by sex-necessity into the expression of maternal energy. The naturally destructive tendencies of the male have been gradually subverted to the conservative tendencies of the female, and this so palpably that the process is plainly to be observed throughout history. Into the male have been bred, by natural selection and unbroken training, the instincts and habits of the female, to his immense improvement. The female was dependent upon the male in individual economic relation. She was in a state of helpless slavery. She was treated with unspeakable injustice and cruelty. But nature's processes go on quite undisturbed among incidents like these. To blend the opposing sex-tendencies of two animals into the fruitful powers of a triumphant race was a painful process, but that does not matter. It was essential, and it has been fulfilled. There should be an end to the bitterness of feeling which has arisen between the sexes in this century. Right as is the change of attitude in the woman of to-day, she need feel no resentment as to the past, no shame, no sense of wrong. With a full knowledge of the initial superiority of her sex and the sociological necessity for its temporary subversion, she should feel only a deep and tender pride in the long patient ages during which she has waited and suffered, that man might slowly rise to full racial equality with her. She could afford to wait. She could afford to suffer.
It is high time that women began to understand their true position, primarily and eternally, and to see how little the long years of oppression have altered it. It was not well for the race to have the conservative processes of life so wholly confined to the female, the male being merely a temporary agent in reproduction and of no further use. His size, strength, and ferocityadmirable qualities in maintaining the life of an individual animalwere not the most desirable to develope the human race. We needed most the quality of co-ordination,the facility in union, the power to make and to save rather than to spend and to destroy. These were female qualities. Acting from his own nature, man could not manifest traits that he did not possess. Throned as woman's master, chained as her servant, he has, through this strange combination of functions, acquired these traits under the heavy law of necessity. Originally, the two worked on divers lines, he spending and scattering, she saving and building. She was the deep, steady, main stream of life, and he the active variant, helping to widen and change that life, but rather as an adjunct than as an essential. Races there were and are which reproduce themselves without the masculine organism,by hermaphroditism and parthenogenesis.
As the evolution of species progressed, we find a long series of practical experiments in males,very tiny, transient, and inferior devices at first, but gradually developed into fuller and fuller equality with the female. In some of the lower forms, as in rotifers, insects, and crustaceans, are found the most inferior males, often none at all; and, where they do exist, they have no use save as an agent in reproduction. The most familiar instance of this is among the bees, where the drone, after fulfilling his functions, dies or is destroyed by the sturdy co-mothers of the hive. The common spider, too, has a tiny male, who tremblingly achieves his one brief purpose, and is then eaten up by his mate. She is the spider, a permanent flycatcher. He is merely a fertilizing agent. The little green aphis, so numerous on our rose-bushes, can reproduce parthenogenetically so long as conditions are good,while it is warm and there is enough to eat; but, when conditions grow hard, males are developed, and the dual method of reproduction is introduced.
In the two great activities of life, self-preservation and race-preservation, the female in these lower species is better equipped than the male for the first, and carries almost the whole burden of the second. His short period of functional use is as nothing compared to her long period of gestation, and the services she performs, in many cases, in providing for her young after their birth. Race-preservation has been almost entirely a female function, sometimes absolutely so. But it has been proven better for the race to have two highly developed parents rather than to have one. Therefore, sexual equality has been slowly evolved, not only by increasing the importance of the male element in reproduction, but by developing race-qualities in the male, so long merely a reproductive agent. The last step of this process has been the elevation of the male of genus homo to full racial equality with the female, and this has involved her temporary subjection. Both her physical and psychical tendencies have been transplanted into the organism of the male. He has been made the working mother of the world. The sexuo-economic relation was necessary to raise and broaden, to deepen and sweeten, to make more feminine, and so more human, the male of the human race. If the female had remained in full personal freedom and activity, she would have remained superior to him, and both would have remained stationary. Since the female had not the tendency to vary which distinguished the male, it was essential that the expansive forces of masculine energy be combined with the preservative and constructive forces of feminine energy. The expansive and variable male energy, struggling under its new necessity for constructive labor, has caused that labor to vary and progress more than it would have done in feminine hands alone. Out of her wealth of power and patience, liking to work, to give, she toils on forever in the same primitive industries. He, impatient of obstacles, not liking to work, desirous to get rather than to give, splits his task into a thousand specialties, and invents countless ways to lighten his labors. Male energy made to expand itself in performing female functions is what has brought our industries to their present development. Without the economic dependence of the female, the male would still be merely the hunter and fighter, the killer, the destroyer; and she would continue to be the industrious mother, without change or progress. "What the children of Israel delighted in making
The children of Egypt delighted in breaking," runs the old rhyme; but there is small gain in such a process. In her subordinate position, under every disadvantage, through the very walls of her prison, the constructive force of woman has made man its instrument, and worked for the upbuilding of the world. As his energy was purely individualistic, and only to be controlled by the power of sex-attraction, it needed precisely this form of union, with its peculiar exaggeration of sex-faculty, to hold him to his task. Woman's abnormal development of sex, restrained and imprisoned by every law, has acted like a coiled spring upon the only free agent in society,man. Under its intense stimulus he has moved mountains. All the world has seen it; and we have always murmured admiringly, "Oh, 'tis love, 'tis love, 'tis love that makes the world go round." It has done so, indeed, or, at least, has driven man round the world in one long range of struggle and conquest, of work and war. And every man who loves, and says, "I am yours: do with me what you will," knows the power, and honors it.
Human development thus far has proceeded in the male line, under the force of male energy, spurred by sex-stimulus, and by the vast storage battery of female energy suppressed. Women can well afford their period of subjection for the sake of a conquered world, a civilized man. In spite of the agony of the process, the black, long ages of shame and pain and horror, women should remember that they are still here; and, thanks to the blessed power of heredity, they are not so far aborted that a few generations of freedom will not set them abreast of the age. When the centuries of slavery and dishonor, of torture and death, of biting injustice and slow, suffocating repression, seem long to women, let them remember the geologic ages, the millions and millions of years when puny, pygmy, parasitic males struggled for existence, and were used or not, as it happened, like a half-tried patent medicine. What train of wives and concubines was ever so ignominiously placed as the extra husbands carried among the scales of the careful female cirriped, lest she lose one or two! What neglect of faded wives can compare with the scorned, unnoticed death of the drone bee, starved, stung, shut out, walled up in wax, kept only for his momentary sex-function, and not absolutely necessary for that! What Bluebeard tragedy or cruelty of bride-murdering Eastern king can emulate the ruthless slaughter of the hapless little male spider, used by his ferocious mate "to coldly furnish forth a marriage breakfast"! Never once in the history of humanity has any outrage upon women compared with these sweeping sacrifices of helpless males in earlier species. The female has been dominant for the main duration of life on earth. She has been easily equal always up to our own race; and in our race she has been subjugated to the male during the earlier period of development for such enormous racial gain, such beautiful and noble uses, that the sacrifice should never be mentioned nor thought of by a womanhood that knows its power. For the upbuilding of human life on earth she could afford to have her own held back; andcloser, tenderer, lovelier servicefor the raising of her fierce sex-mate to a free and gentle brotherhood, for the uplifting of the human soul in her dear son, she could have borne not only this, but more,borne it smilingly, ungrudgingly, gladly, for his sake and the world's.
And now that the long strain is over, now that the time has come when neither he nor the world is any longer benefited by her subordination, now that she is coming steadily out into direct personal expression, into the joy of racial action in full freedom, of power upon the throne instead of behind it, it is unworthy of this supreme new birth to waste one regret upon the pain that had to be.
Thus it may be seen that, even allowing for the injury to the individual and to society through the check to race-development and the increase of sex-development in woman, with its transmitted effects; allowing, further, that our highly specialized motherhood cannot be shown to be an advantage to humanity,still it remains true that our sexuo-economic relation, with its effect of carrying on human life through the male side only, in activities driven by intensified sex-energy, has reacted to the benefit of the individual and of the race in many ways, as already suggested: in the extension of female function through the male; in the blending of faculties which have resulted in the possibility of our civilization; in the superior fighting power developed in the male, and its effects in race-conquest, military and commercial; in the increased productivity developed by his assumption of maternal function; and by the sex-relation becoming mainly proportioned to his power to pay for it. Even motherhood has been indirectly the gainer in that, although the mother herself has been checked in direct maternal service, serving the race far more through her stimulation of male activities than through any activities of her own; yet the child has ultimately profited more by the materno-paternal services than he would have done by the maternal services alone.
All this may be granted as having been true in the past. And many, reassured by this frank admission, will ask, if it is so clear that the subjection of woman was useful, that this evil-working, monstrous sexuo-economic relation was after all of racial advantage, how we know that it is time to change. Principally, because we are changing. Social development is not caused by the promulgators of theories and by the writers of books. When Rousseau wrote of equality, free France was being born,the spirit of the times thrilled through the human mind; and those who had ears to hear heard, those who had pens to write wrote. The condition of chattel slavery, working to its natural end, roused Garrison and Phillips and Harriet Beecher Stowe. They did not make the movement. The period of women's economic dependence is drawing to a close, because its racial usefulness is wearing out. We have already reached a stage of human relation where we feel the strength of social duty pull against the sex-ties that have been for so long the only ties that we have recognized. The common consciousness of humanity, the sense of social need and social duty, is making itself felt in both men and women. The time has come when we are open to deeper and wider impulses than the sex-instinct; the social instincts are strong enough to come into full use at last. This is shown by the twin struggle that convulses the world to-day,in sex and economics,the "woman's movement" and the "labor movement." Neither name is wholly correct. Both make a class issue of what is in truth a social issue, a question involving every human interest. But the women naturally feel most the growing healthful pain of their position. They personally revolt, and think it is they who are most to be benefited. Similarly, since the "laboring classes" feel most the growing healthful pain of their position, they as naturally revolt under the same conviction. Sociologically, these conditions, which some find so painful and alarming, mean but one thing,the increase of social consciousness. The progress of social organization has produced a corresponding degree of individualization, which has reached at last even to women,even to the lowest grade of unskilled labor. This higher degree of individualization means a sharp personal consciousness of the evils of a situation hitherto little felt. With this higher growth of individual consciousness, and forming a part of it, comes the commensurate growth of social consciousness. We have grown to care for one another.
The woman's movement rests not alone on her larger personality, with its tingling sense of revolt against injustice, but on the wide, deep sympathy of women for one another. It is a concerted movement, based on the recognition of a common evil and seeking a common good. So with the labor movement. It is not alone that the individual laborer is a better educated, more highly developed man than the stolid peasant of earlier days, but also that with this keener personal consciousness has come the wider social consciousness, without which no class can better its conditions. The traits incident to our sexuo-economic relation have developed till they forbid the continuance of that relation. In the economic world, excessive masculinity, in its fierce competition and primitive individualism; and excessive femininity, in its inordinate consumption and hindering conservatism; have reached a stage where they work more evil than good.
The increasing specialization of the modern woman, acquired by inheritance from the ceaselessly specializing male, makes her growing racial faculties strain against the primitive restrictions of a purely sexual relation. The desire to producethe distinctive human qualityis no longer satisfied with a status that allows only reproduction. In our present stage of social evolution it is increasingly difficult and painful for women to endure their condition of economic dependence, and therefore they are leaving it. This does not mean that at a given day all women will stand forth free together, but that in slowly gathering numbers, now so great that all the world can see, women in the most advanced races are so standing free. Great advances along social lines come slowly, like the many-waved progress of the tide: they are not sudden jumps over yawning chasms.
But, besides this first plain perception that our strange relation is coming to an end, we may see how in its own working it developes forces which must end it or us. The method of action of our peculiar cat's-paw combination of the sexesthe mother-father doing the work of the helpless creature he carries on his back; the parasite mate devouring even when she should most feedhas been this, as repeatedly shown: because of sex-desire the male subjugates the female. Lest he lose her, he feeds her, and, perforce, her young. She, obtaining food through the sex-relation, becomes over-sexed, and acts with constantly increasing stimulus on his sex-activities; and, as these activities are made economic by their relation, she so stimulates industry and all progress. But,and here is the natural end of an unnatural position, a position that serves its purpose for a time, but holds in itself the seeds of its own destruction,through the unchecked sex-energy, accumulated under the abnormal pressure of the economic side of the relation, such excess is developed as tends to destroy both individual and race; and such psychic qualities are developed as tend also to our injury and extinction.
A relation that inevitably produces abnormal development cannot be permanently maintained. The intensification of sex-energy as a social force results in such limitless exaggeration of sex-instinct as finds expression sexually in the unnatural vices of advanced civilization, and, socially, in the strained economic relation between producer and consumer which breaks society in two. The sexuo-economic relation serves to bring social development to a certain level. After that level is reached, a higher relation must be adopted, or the lifting process comes to an end; and either the race succumbs to the morbid action of its own forces or some fresher race comes in, and begins the course of social evolution anew.
Under the stimulus of the sexuo-economic relation, one civilization after another has climbed up and fallen down in weary succession. It remains for us to develope a newer, better form of sex-relation and of economic relation therewith, and so to grasp the fruits of all previous civilizations, and grow on to the beautiful results of higher ones. The true and lasting social progress, beyond that which we have yet made, is based on a spirit of inter-human love, not merely the inter-sexual; and it requires an economic machinery organized and functioned for human needs, not sexual ones. The sexuo-economic relation drives man up to where he can become fully human. It deepens and developes the human soul until it is able to conceive and fulfil the larger social uses in which our further life must find expression. But, unless the human soul sees these new forces, feels them, gives way to them in loyal service, it fails to reach the level from which all further progress must proceed, and falls back. Again and again society has so risen, so failed to grasp new duties, so fallen back.
To-day it will not so fall again, because the social consciousness is at last so vital a force in both men and women that we feel clearly that our human life cannot be fully lived on sex-lines only. We are so far individualized, so far socialized, that men can work without the tearing spur of exaggerated sex-stimulus, work for some one besides mate and young; and women can love and serve without the slavery of economic dependence,love better and serve more. Sex-stimulus begins and ends in individuals. The social spirit is a larger thing, a better thing, and brings with it a larger, nobler life than we could ever know on a sex-basis solely.
Moreover, it should be distinctly understood, as it is already widely and vaguely felt, that the higher development of social life following the economic independence of women makes possible a higher sex-life than has ever yet been known. As fast as the human individual rises in social progress to a certain degree of development, so fast this primitive form of sex-union chafes and drags: it is felt to be unsatisfying and injurious. This is a marked feature in modern life. The long, sure, upward trend of the human race toward monogamous marriage is no longer helped, but hindered by the economic side of the relation. The best marriage is between the best individuals; and the best individuals of both sexes to-day are increasingly injured by the economic basis of our marriage, which produces and maintains those qualities in men and women and their resultant industrial conditions which make marriage more difficult and precarious every day.
The women's movement, then, should be hailed by every right-thinking, far-seeing man and woman as the best birth of our century. The banner advanced proclaims "equality before the law," woman's share in political freedom; but the main line of progress is and has been toward economic equality and freedom. While life exists on earth, the economic conditions must underlie and dominate each existing form and its activities; and social life is no exception. A society whose economic unit is a sex-union can no more develope beyond a certain point industrially than a society like the patriarchal, whose political unit was a sex-union, could develope beyond a certain point politically.
The last freeing of the individual makes possible the last combination of individuals. While sons must bend to the will of a patriarchal father, no democracy is possible. Democracy means, requires, is, individual liberty. While the sexuo-economic relation makes the family the centre of industrial activity, no higher collectivity than we have to-day is possible. But, as women become free, economic, social factors, so becomes possible the full social combination of individuals in collective industry. With such freedom, such independence, such wider union, becomes possible also a union between man and woman such as the world has long dreamed of in vain.
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