Woman and Labour, by Olive Schreiner

Chapter II. Parasitism (continued).

Is it to be, that, in the future, machinery and the captive motor-forces of nature are largely to take the place of human hand and foot in the labour of clothing and feeding the nations; are these branches of industry to be no longer domestic labours? — then, we demand in the factory, the warehouse, and the field, wherever machinery has usurped our ancient labour-ground, that we also should have our place, as guiders, controllers, and possessors. Is child-bearing to become the labour of but a portion of our sex? — then we demand for those among us who are allowed to take no share in it, compensatory and equally honourable and important fields of social toil. Is the training of human creatures to become a yet more and more onerous and laborious occupation, their education and culture to become increasingly a high art, complex and scientific? — if so, then, we demand that high and complex culture and training which shall fit us for instructing the race which we bring into the world. Is the demand for child-bearing to become so diminished that, even in the lives of those among us who are child-bearers, it shall fill no more than half a dozen years out of the three-score-and-ten of human life? — then we demand that an additional outlet be ours which shall fill up with dignity and value the tale of the years not so employed. Is intellectual labour to take ever and increasingly the place of crude muscular exertion in the labour of life? — then we demand for ourselves that culture and the freedom of action which alone can yield us the knowledge of life and the intellectual vigour and strength which will enable us to undertake the same share of mental which we have borne in the past in physical labours of life. Are the rulers of the race to be no more its kings and queens, but the mass of the peoples? — then we, one-half of the nations, demand our full queens’ share in the duties and labours of government and legislation. Slowly but determinately, as the old fields of labour close up and are submerged behind us, we demand entrance into the new.

We make this demand, not for our own sakes alone, but for the succour of the race.

A horseman, riding along on a dark night in an unknown land, may chance to feel his horse start beneath him; rearing, it may almost hurl him to the earth: in the darkness he may curse his beast, and believe its aim is simply to cast him off, and free itself for ever of its burden. But when the morning dawns and lights the hills and valleys he has travelled, looking backward, he may perceive that the spot where his beast reared, planting its feet into the earth, and where it refused to move farther on the old road, was indeed the edge of a mighty precipice, down which one step more would have precipitated both horse and rider. And he may then see that it was an instinct wiser than his own which lead his creature, though in the dark, to leap backward, seeking a new path along which both might travel. (Is it not recorded that even Balaam’s ass on which he rode saw the angel with flaming sword, but Balaam saw it not?)

In the confusion and darkness of the present, it may well seem to some, that woman, in her desire to seek for new paths of labour and employment, is guided only by an irresponsible impulse; or that she seeks selfishly only her own good, at the cost of that of the race, which she has so long and faithfully borne onward. But, when a clearer future shall have arisen and the obscuring mists of the present have been dissipated, may it not then be clearly manifest that not for herself alone, but for her entire race, has woman sought her new paths?

For let it be noted exactly what our position is, who today, as women, are demanding new fields of labour and a reconstruction of our relationship with life.

It is often said that the labour problem before the modern woman and that before the unemployed or partially or almost uselessly employed male, are absolutely identical; and that therefore, when the male labour problem of our age solves itself, that of the woman will of necessity have met its solution also.

This statement, with a certain specious semblance of truth, is yet, we believe, radically and fundamentally false. It is true that both the male and the female problems of our age have taken their rise largely in the same rapid material changes which during the last centuries, and more especially the last ninety years, have altered the face of the human world. Both men and women have been robbed by those changes of their ancient remunerative fields of social work: here the resemblance stops. The male, from whom the changes of modern civilisation have taken his ancient field of labour, has but one choice before him: he must find new fields of labour, or he must perish. Society will not ultimately support him in an absolutely quiescent and almost useless condition. If he does not vigorously exert himself in some direction or other (the direction may even be predatory) he must ultimately be annihilated. Individual drones, both among the wealthiest and the poorest classes (millionaires’ sons, dukes, or tramps), may in isolated cases be preserved, and allowed to reproduce themselves without any exertion or activity of mind or body, but a vast body of males who, having lost their old forms of social employment, should refuse in any way to exert themselves or seek for new, would at no great length of time become extinct. There never has been, and as far as can be seen, there never will be, a time when the majority of the males in any society will be supported by the rest of the males in a condition of perfect mental and physical inactivity. “Find labour or die,” is the choice ultimately put before the human male today, as in the past; and this constitutes his labour problem. (The nearest approach to complete parasitism on the part of a vast body of males occurred, perhaps, in ancient Rome at the time of the decay and downfall of the Empire, when the bulk of the population, male as well as female, was fed on imported corn, wine, and oil, and supplied even with entertainment, almost entirely without exertion or labour of any kind; but this condition was of short duration, and speedily contributed to the downfall of the diseased Empire itself. Among the wealthy and so-called upper classes, the males of various aristocracies have frequently tended to become completely parasitic after a lapse of time, but such a condition has always been met by a short and sharp remedy; and the class has fallen, or become extinct. The condition of the males of the upper classes in France before the Revolution affords an interesting illustration of this point.)

The labour of the man may not always be useful in the highest sense to his society, or it may even be distinctly harmful and antisocial, as in the case of the robber-barons of the Middle Ages, who lived by capturing and despoiling all who passed by their castles; or as in the case of the share speculators, stock-jobbers, ring-and-corner capitalists, and monopolists of the present day, who feed upon the productive labours of society without contributing anything to its welfare. But even males so occupied are compelled to expend a vast amount of energy and even a low intelligence in their callings; and, however injurious to their societies, they run no personal risk of handing down effete and enervated constitutions to their race. Whether beneficially or unbeneficially, the human male must, generally speaking, employ his intellect, or his muscle, or die.

The position of the unemployed modern female is one wholly different. The choice before her, as her ancient fields of domestic labour slip from her, is not generally or often at the present day the choice between finding new fields of labour, or death; but one far more serious in its ultimate reaction on humanity as a whole — it is the choice between finding new forms of labour or sinking slowly into a condition of more or less complete and passive sex-parasitism! (It is not without profound interest to note the varying phenomena of sex-parasitism as they present themselves in the animal world, both in the male and in the female form. Though among the greater number of species in the animal world the female form is larger and more powerful rather than the male (e.g., among birds of prey, such as eagles, falcons, vultures, &c., and among fishes, insects, &c.), yet sex-parasitism appears among both sex forms. In certain sea-creatures, for example, the female carries about in the folds of her covering three or four minute and quite inactive males, who are entirely passive and dependent upon her. Among termites, on the other hand, the female has so far degenerated that she has entirely lost the power of locomotion; she can no longer provide herself or her offspring with nourishment, or defend or even clean herself; she has become a mere passive, distended bag of eggs, without intelligence or activity, she and her offspring existing through the exertions of the workers of the community. Among other insects, such, for example, as certain ticks, another form of female parasitism prevails, and while the male remains a complex, highly active, and winded creature, the female, fastening herself by the head into the flesh of some living animal and sucking its blood, has lost wings and all activity, and power of locomotion; having become a mere distended bladder, which when filled with eggs bursts and ends a parasitic existence which has hardly been life. It is not impossible, and it appears, indeed, highly probable, that it has been this degeneration and parasitism on the part of the female which has set its limitation to the evolution of ants, creatures which, having reached a point of mental development in some respects almost as high as that of man, have yet become curiously and immovably arrested. The whole question of sex-parasitism among the lower animals is one throwing suggestive and instructive side-lights on human social problems, but is too extensive to be here entered on.)

Again and again in the history of the past, when among human creatures a certain stage of material civilisation has been reached, a curious tendency has manifested itself for the human female to become more or less parasitic; social conditions tend to rob her of all forms of active, conscious, social labour, and to reduce her, like the field-tick, to the passive exercise of her sex functions alone. And the result of this parasitism has invariably been the decay in vitality and intelligence of the female, followed after a longer or shorter period by that of her male descendants and her entire society.

Nevertheless, in the history of the past the dangers of the sex-parasitism have never threatened more than a small section of the females of the human race, those exclusively of some comparatively small dominant race or class; the mass of women beneath them being still compelled to assume many forms of strenuous activity. It is at the present day, and under the peculiar conditions of our modern civilisation, that for the first time sex-parasitism has become a danger, more or less remote, to the mass of civilised women, perhaps ultimately to all.

In the very early stages of human growth, the sexual parasitism and degeneration of the female formed no possible source of social danger. Where the conditions of life rendered it inevitable that all the labour of a community should be performed by the members of that community for themselves, without the assistance of slaves or machinery, the tendency has always been rather to throw an excessive amount of social labour on the female. Under no conditions, at no time, in no place, in the history of the world have the males of any period, of any nation, or of any class, shown the slightest inclination to allow their own females to become inactive or parasitic, so long as the actual muscular labour of feeding and clothing them would in that case have devolved upon themselves!

The parasitism of the human female becomes a possibility only when a point in civilisation is reached (such as that which was attained in the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome, Persia, Assyria, India, and such as today exists in many of the civilisations of the East, such as those of China and Turkey), when, owing to the extensive employment of the labour of slaves, or of subject races or classes, the dominant race or class has become so liberally supplied with the material goods of life, that mere physical toil on the part of its own female members has become unnecessary. It is when this point has been reached, and never before, that the symptoms of female parasitism have in the past almost invariably tended to manifest themselves, and have become a social danger. The males of the dominant class have almost always contrived to absorb to themselves the new intellectual occupations, with the absence of necessity for the old forms of physical toil made possible in their societies; and the females of the dominant class or race, for whose muscular labours there was now also no longer any need, not succeeding in grasping or attaining to these new forms of labour, have sunk into a state in which, performing no species of active social duty, they have existed through the passive performance of sexual functions alone, with how much or how little of discontent will now never be known, since no literary record has been made by the woman of the past, of her desires or sorrows. Then, in place of the active labouring woman, upholding society by her toil, has come the effete wife, concubine, or prostitute, clad in fine raiment, the work of others’ fingers; fed on luxurious viands, the result of others’ toil, waited on and tended by the labour of others. The need for her physical labour having gone, and mental industry not having taken its place, she bedecked and scented her person, or had it bedecked and scented for her, she lay upon her sofa, or drove or was carried out in her vehicle, and, loaded with jewels, she sought by dissipations and amusements to fill up the inordinate blank left by the lack of productive activity. And as the hand whitened and frame softened, till, at last, the very duties of motherhood, which were all the constitution of her life left her, became distasteful, and, from the instant when her infant came damp from her womb, it passed into the hands of others, to be tended and reared by them; and from youth to age her offspring often owed nothing to her personal toil. In many cases so complete was her enervation, that at last the very joy of giving life, the glory and beatitude of a virile womanhood, became distasteful; and she sought to evade it, not because of its interference with more imperious duties to those already born of her, or to her society, but because her existence of inactivity had robbed her of all joy in strenuous exertion and endurance in any form. Finely clad, tenderly housed, life became for her merely the gratification of her own physical and sexual appetites, and the appetites of the male, through the stimulation of which she could maintain herself. And, whether as kept wife, kept mistress, or prostitute, she contributed nothing to the active and sustaining labours of her society. She had attained to the full development of that type which, whether in modern Paris or New York or London, or in ancient Greece, Assyria, or Rome, is essentially one in its features, its nature, and its results. She was the “fine lady,” the human female parasite — the most deadly microbe which can make its appearance on the surface of any social organism. (The relation of female parasitism generally, to the peculiar phenomenon of prostitution, is fundamental. Prostitution can never be adequately dealt with, either from the moral or the scientific standpoint, unless its relation to the general phenomenon of female parasitism be fully recognised. It is the failure to do this which leaves so painful a sense of abortion on the mind, after listening to most modern utterances on the question, whether made from the emotional platform of the moral reformer, or the intellectual platform of the would-be scientist. We are left with a feeling that the matter has been handled but not dealt with: that the knife has not reached the core.)

Wherever in the history of the past this type has reached its full development and has comprised the bulk of the females belonging to any dominant class or race, it has heralded its decay. In Assyria, Greece, Rome, Persia, as in Turkey today, the same material conditions have produced the same social disease among wealthy and dominant races; and again and again when the nation so affected has come into contact with nations more healthily constituted, this diseased condition has contributed to its destruction.

In ancient Greece, in its superb and virile youth, its womanhood was richly and even heavily endowed with duties and occupations. Not the mass of the woman alone, but the king’s wife and the prince’s daughter do we find going to the well to bear water, cleansing the household linen in the streams, feeding and doctoring their households, manufacturing the clothing of their race, and performing even a share of the highest social functions as priestesses and prophetesses. It was from the bodies of such women as these that sprang that race of heroes, thinkers, and artists who laid the foundations of Grecian greatness. These females underlay their society as the solid and deeply buried foundations underlay the more visible and ornate portions of a great temple, making its structure and persistence possible. In Greece, after a certain lapse of time, these virile labouring women in the upper classes were to be found no more. The accumulated wealth of the dominant race, gathered through the labour of slaves and subject people, had so immensely increased that there was no longer a call for physical labour on the part of the dominant womanhood; immured within the walls of their houses as wives or mistresses, waited on by slaves and dependents, they no longer sustained by their exertion either their own life or the life of their people. The males absorbed the intellectual labours of life; slaves and dependents the physical. For a moment, at the end of the fifth and beginning of the fourth century, when the womanhood of Greece had already internally decayed, there was indeed a brilliant intellectual efflorescence among her males, like to the gorgeous colours in the sunset sky when the sun is already sinking; but the heart of Greece was already rotting and her vigour failing. Increasingly, division and dissimilarity arose between male and female, as the male advanced in culture and entered upon new fields of intellectual toil while the female sank passively backward and lower in the scale of life, and thus was made ultimately a chasm which even sexual love could not bridge. The abnormal institution of avowed inter-male sexual relations upon the highest plane was one, and the most serious result, of this severance. The inevitable and invincible desire of all highly developed human natures, to blend with their sexual relationships their highest intellectual interests and sympathies, could find no satisfaction or response in the relationship between the immured, comparatively ignorant and helpless females of the upper classes, in Greece, and the brilliant, cultured, and many-sided males who formed its dominant class in the fifth and fourth centuries. Man turned towards man; and parenthood, the divine gift of imparting human life, was severed from the loftiest and profoundest phases of human emotion: Xanthippe fretted out her ignorant and miserable little life between the walls of her house, and Socrates lay in the Agora, discussing philosophy and morals with Alcibiades; and the race decayed at its core. (See Jowett’s translation of Plato’s “Banquet”; but for full light on this important question the entire literature of Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. should be studied.) Here and there an Aspasia, or earlier still a Sappho, burst through the confining bonds of woman’s environment, and with the force of irresistible genius broke triumphantly into new fields of action and powerful mental activity, standing side by side with the male; but their cases were exceptional. Had they, or such as they, been able to tread down a pathway, along which the mass of Grecian women might have followed them; had it been possible for the bulk of the women of the dominant race in Greece at the end of the fifth century to rise from their condition of supine inaction and ignorance and to have taken their share in the intellectual labours and stern activities of their race, Greece would never have fallen, as she fell at the end of the fourth century, instantaneously and completely, as a rotten puff-ball falls in at the touch of a healthy finger; first, before the briberies of Philip, and then yet more completely before the arms of his yet more warlike son, who was also the son of the fierce, virile, and indomitable Olympia. (Like almost all men remarkable for either good or evil, Alexander inherited from his mother his most notable qualities — his courage, his intellectual activity, and an ambition indifferent to any means that made for his own end. Fearless in her life, she fearlessly met death “with a courage worthy of her rank and domineering character, when her hour of retribution came”; and Alexander is incomprehensible till we recognise him as rising from the womb of Olympia.) Nor could she have been swept clean, a few hundred years later, from Thessaly to Sparta, from Corinth to Ephesus, her temples destroyed, her effete women captured by the hordes of the Goths — a people less skilfully armed and less civilised than the descendants of the race of Pericles and Leonidas, but who were a branch of that great Teutonic folk whose monogamous domestic life was sound at the core, and whose fearless, labouring, and resolute women yet bore for the men they followed to the ends of the earth, what Spartan women once said they alone bore — men.

In Rome, in the days of her virtue and vigour, the Roman matron laboured mightily, and bore on her shoulders her full half of the social burden, though her sphere of labour and influence was even somewhat smaller than that of the Teutonic sisterhood whose descendants were finally to supplant her own. From the vestal virgin to the matron, the Roman woman in the days of the nation’s health and growth fulfilled lofty functions and bore the whole weight of domestic toil. From the days of Lucretia, the great Roman dame whom we find spinning with her handmaidens deep into the night, and whose personal dignity was so dear to her that, violated, she sought only death, to those of the mother of the Gracchi, one of the last of the great line, we find everywhere, erect, labouring, and resolute, the Roman woman who gave birth to the men who built up Roman greatness. A few centuries later, and Rome also had reached that dangerous spot in the order of social change which Greece had reached centuries before her. Slave labour and the enjoyment of the unlimited spoils of subject races had done away for ever with the demand for physical labour on the part of the members of the dominant race. Then came the period when the male still occupied himself with the duties of war and government, of legislation and self-culture; but the Roman matron had already ceased for ever from her toils. Decked in jewels and fine clothing, brought at the cost of infinite human labour from the ends of the earth, nourished on delicate victuals, prepared by others’ hands, she sought now only with amusement to pass away a life that no longer offered her the excitement and joy of active productive exertion. She frequented theatres or baths, or reclined on her sofa, or drove in her chariot; and like more modern counterparts, painted herself, wore patches, affected an artistic walk, and a handshake with the elbow raised and the fingers hanging down. Her children were reared by dependents; and in the intellectual labour and government of her age she took small part, and was fit to take none. There were not wanting writers and thinkers who saw clearly the end to which the enervation of the female was tending, and who were not sparing in their denunciations. “Time was,” cries one Roman writer of that age, “when the matron turned the spindle with the hand and kept at the same time the pot in her eye that the pottage might not be singed, but now,” he adds bitterly, “when the wife, loaded with jewels, reposes among pillows, or seeks the dissipation of baths and theatres, all things go downward and the state decays.” Yet neither he nor that large body of writers and thinkers who saw the condition towards which the parasitism of woman was tending to reduce society, preached any adequate remedy. (Indeed, must not the protest and the remedy in all such cases, if they are to be of any avail, take their rise within the diseased class itself?)

Thoughtful men sighed over the present and yearned for the past, nor seem to have perceived that it was irrevocably gone; that the Roman lady who, with a hundred servants standing idle about her, should, in imitation of her ancestress, have gone out with her pitcher on her head to draw water from the well, while in all her own courtyards pipe-led streams gushed forth, would have acted the part of the pretender; that had she insisted on resuscitating her loom and had sat up all night to spin, she could never have produced those fabrics which alone her household demanded, and would have been but a puerile actor; that it was not by attempting to return to the ancient and for ever closed fields of toil, but by entering upon new, that she could alone serve her race and retain her own dignity and virility. That not by bearing water and weaving linen, but by so training and disciplining herself that she should be fitted to bear her share in the labour necessary to the just and wise guidance of a great empire, and be capable of training a race of men adequate to exercise an enlightened, merciful, and beneficent rule over the vast masses of subject people — that so, and so only, could she fulfil her duty toward the new society about her, and bear its burden together with man, as her ancestresses of bygone generations had borne the burden of theirs.

That in this direction, and this alone, lay the only possible remedy for the evils of woman’s condition, was a conception apparently grasped by none; and the female sank lower and lower, till the image of the parasitic woman of Rome (with a rag of the old Roman intensity left even in her degradation!)— seeking madly by pursuit of pleasure and sensuality to fill the void left by the lack of honourable activity; accepting lust in the place of love, ease in the place of exertion, and an unlimited consumption in the place of production; too enervated at last to care even to produce offspring, and shrinking from every form of endurance — remains, even to the present day, the most perfect, and therefore the most appalling, picture of the parasite female that earth has produced — a picture only less terrible than it is pathetic.

We recognise that it was inevitable that this womanhood — born it would seem from its elevation to guide and enlighten a world, and in place thereof feeding on it — should at last have given birth to a manhood as effete as itself, and that both should in the end have been swept away before the march of those Teutonic folk, whose women were virile and could give birth to men; a folk among whom the woman received on the morning of her marriage, from the man who was to be her companion through life, no contemptible trinket to hang about her throat or limbs, but a shield, a spear, a sword, and a yoke of oxen, while she bestowed on him in return a suit of armour, in token that they two were henceforth to be one in toil and in the facing of danger; that she too should dare with him in war and suffer with him in peace; and of whom another writer tells us, that their women not only bore the race and fed it at their breasts without the help of others’ hands, but that they undertook the whole management of house and lands, leaving the males free for war and chase; of whom Suetonius tells us, that when Augustus Caesar demanded hostages from a tribe, he took women, not men, because he found by experience that the women were more regarded than men, and of whom Strabo says, that so highly did the Germanic races value the intellect of their women that they regarded them as inspired, and entered into no war or great undertaking without their advice and counsel; while among the Cimbrian women who accompanied their husbands in the invasion of Italy were certain who marched barefooted in the midst of the lines, distinguished by their white hair and milk-white robes, and who were regarded as inspired, and of whom Florus, describing an early Roman victory, says, “The conflict was not less fierce and obstinate with the wives of the vanquished; in their carts and wagons they formed a line of battle, and from their elevated situation, as from so many turrets, annoyed the Romans with their poles and lances. (The South African Boer woman after two thousand years appears not wholly to have forgotten the ancestral tactics.) Their death was as glorious as their martial spirit. Finding that all was lost, they strangled their children, and either destroyed themselves in one scene of mutual slaughter, or with the sashes that bound up their hair suspended themselves by the neck to the boughs of trees or the tops of their wagons.” It is of these women that Valerius Maximus says, that, “If the gods on the day of battle had inspired the men with equal fortitude, Marius would never have boasted of his Teutonic victory;” and of whom Tacitus, speaking of those women who accompanied their husbands to war, remarks, “These are the darling witnesses of his conduct, the applauders of his valour, at once beloved and valued. The wounded seek their mothers and their wives; undismayed at the sight, the women count each honourable scar and suck the gushing blood. They are even hardy enough to mix with the combatants, administering refreshment and exhorting them to deeds of valour,” and adds moreover, that “To be contented with one wife was peculiar to the Germans; while the woman was contented with one husband, as with one life, one mind, one body.”

It was inevitable that before the sons of women such as these, the sons of the parasitic Roman should be swept from existence, as the offspring of the caged canary would fall in conflict with the offspring of the free.

Again and again with wearisome reiteration, the same story repeats itself. Among the Jews in the days of their health and growth, we find their women bearing the major weight of agricultural and domestic toil, full always of labour and care — from Rachel, whom Jacob met and loved as she watered her father’s flocks, to Ruth, the ancestress of a line of kings and heroes, whom her Boas noted labouring in the harvest-fields; from Sarah, kneading and baking cakes for Abraham’s prophetic visitors, to Miriam, prophetess and singer, and Deborah, who judging Israel from beneath her palm-tree, “and the land had rest for forty years.” Everywhere the ancient Jewish woman appears, an active sustaining power among her people; and perhaps the noblest picture of the labouring woman to be found in any literature is contained in the Jewish writings, indited possibly at the very time when the labouring woman was for the first time tending among a section of the Jews to become a thing of the past; when already Solomon, with his seven hundred parasitic wives and three hundred parasitic concubines, loomed large on the horizon of the national life, to take the place of flock-tending Rachel and gleaning Ruth, and to produce amid their palaces of cedar and gold, among them all, no Joseph or David, but in the way of descendant only a Rehoboam, under whose hand the kingdom was to totter to its fall. (The picture of the labouring as opposed to the parasitic ideal of womanhood appears under the heading, “The words of King Lemuel; the oracle which his mother taught him.” At risk of presenting the reader with that with which he is already painfully familiar, we here transcribe the passage; which, allowing for differences in material and intellectual surroundings, paints also the ideal of the labouring womanhood of the present and of the future:—

“Her price is far above rubies,

The heart of her husband trusteth in her,

And he shall have no lack of gain,

She doeth him good and not evil

All the days of her life,

She seeketh wool and flax,

And worketh willingly with her hands,

She is like the merchant ships;

She bringeth her food, from afar,

She riseth up while it is yet night

And giveth meat to her household,

And their task to her maidens,

She considereth a field, and buyeth it;

With the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.

She girdeth her loins with strength,

And maketh strong her arms.

She perceiveth that her merchandise is profitable;

Her lamp goeth not out by night,

She layeth her hands to the distaff,

And her hands hold the spindle.

She spreadeth out her hand to the poor:

Yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy,

She is not afraid of the snow for her household,

For all her household are clothed with scarlet.

She maketh herself carpets of tapestry;

Her clothing is fine and purple.

Her husband is known in the gates,

When he sitteth among the elders of the land,

She maketh linen garments and selleth them,

And delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

Strength and dignity are her clothing;

And she laugheth at the time to come.

She openeth her mouth with wisdom,

And the law of kindness is on her tongue,

She looketh well to the ways of her household,

And eateth not the bread of idleness.

Her children rise up and call her blessed,

Her husband also, and he praiseth her, saying,

Many daughters have done virtuously,

But thou excellest them all,

Give her the fruit of her hand,

And let her works praise her in the gate.”

In the East today the same story has wearisomely written itself: in China, where the present vitality and power of the most ancient of existing civilisations may be measured accurately by the length of its woman’s shoes; in Turkish harems, where one of the noblest dominant Aryan races the world has yet produced, is being slowly suffocated in the arms of a parasite womanhood, and might, indeed, along ago have been obliterated, had not a certain virility and strength been continually reinfused into it through the persons of purchased wives, who in early childhood and youth had been themselves active labouring peasants. Everywhere, in the past as in the present, the parasitism of the female heralds the decay of a nation or class, and as invariably indicates disease as the pustules of smallpox upon the skin indicate the existence of a purulent virus in the system.

We are, indeed, far from asserting that the civilisations of the past which have decayed, have decayed alone through the parasitism of their females. Vast, far-reaching social phenomena have invariably causes and reactions immeasurably too complex to be summed up under one so simple a term. Behind the phenomenon of female parasitism has always lain another and yet larger social phenomenon; it has invariably been preceded, as we have seen, by the subjugation of large bodies of other human creatures, either as slaves, subject races, or classes; and as the result of the excessive labours of those classes there has always been an accumulation of unearned wealth in the hands of the dominant class or race. It has invariably been by feeding on this wealth, the result of forced or ill-paid labour, that the female of the dominant race or class has in the past lost her activity and has come to exist purely through the passive performance of her sexual functions. Without slaves or subject classes to perform the crude physical labours of life and produce superfluous wealth, the parasitism of the female would, in the past, have been an impossibility.

There is, therefore, a profound truth in that universal saw which states that the decay of the great nations and civilisations of the past has resulted from the enervation caused by excessive wealth and luxury; and there is a further, and if possible more profound, truth underlying the statement that their destruction has ultimately been the result of the enervation of the entire race, male and female.

But when we come further to inquire how, exactly, this process of decay took place, we shall find that the part which the parasitism of the female has played has been fundamental. The mere use of any of the material products of labour, which we term wealth, can never in itself produce that decay, physical or mental, which precedes the downfall of great civilised nations. The eating of salmon at ten shillings a pound can in itself no more debilitate and corrupt the moral, intellectual, and physical constitution of the man consuming it, than it could enervate his naked forefathers who speared it in their rivers for food; the fact that an individual wears a robe made from the filaments of a worm, can no more deteriorate his spiritual or physical fibre, than were it made of sheep’s wool; an entire race, housed in marble palaces, faring delicately, and clad in silks, and surrounded by the noblest products of literature and plastic art, so those palaces, viands, garments, and products of art were the result of their own labours, could never be enervated by them. The debilitating effect of wealth sets in at that point exactly (and never before) at which the supply of material necessaries and comforts, and of aesthetic enjoyments, clogs the individuality, causing it to rest satisfied in the mere passive possession of the results of the labour of others, without feeling any necessity or desire for further productive activity of its own. (Of the other deleterious effects of unearned wealth on the individual or class possessing it, such as its power of lessening human sympathy, &c., &c., we do not now speak, as while ultimately and indirectly, undoubtedly, tending to disintegrate a society, they do not necessarily and immediately enervate it, which enervation is the point we are here considering.)

The exact material condition at which this point will be reached will vary, not only with the race and the age, but with the individual. A Marcus Aurelius in a palace of gold and marble was able to retain his simplicity and virility as completely as though he had lived in a cow-herd’s hut; while on the other hand, it is quite possible for the wife of a savage chief who has but four slaves to bring her her corn and milk and spread her skins in the sun, to become almost as purely parasitic as the most delicately pampered female of fashion in ancient Rome, or modern Paris, London, or New York; while the exact amount of unearned material wealth which will emasculate individuals in the same society, will vary exactly as their intellectual and moral fibre and natural activity are strong or weak. (It is not uncommon in modern societies to find women of a class relatively very moderately wealthy, the wives and daughters of shopkeepers or professional men, who if their male relations will supply them with a very limited amount of money without exertion on their part, will become as completely parasitic and useless as women with untold wealth at their command.)

The debilitating effect of unlaboured-for wealth lies, then, not in the nature of any material adjunct to life in itself, but in the power it may possess of robbing the individual of all incentive to exertion, thus destroying the intellectual, the physical, and finally, the moral fibre.

In all the civilisations of the past examination will show that almost invariably it has been the female who has tended first to reach this point, and we think examination will show that it has almost invariably been from the woman to the man that enervation and decay have spread.

Why this should be so is obvious. Firstly, it is in the sphere of domestic labour that slave or hired labour most easily and insidiously penetrates. The force of blows or hireling gold can far more easily supply labourers as the preparers of food and clothing, and even as the rearers of children, than it can supply labourers fitted to be entrusted with the toils of war and government, which have in the past been the especial sphere of male toil. The Roman woman had for generations been supplanted in the sphere of her domestic labours and in the toil of rearing and educating her offspring, and had long become abjectly parasitic, before the Roman male had been able to substitute the labour of the hireling and barbarian for his own, in the army, and in the drudgeries of governmental toil.

Secondly, the female having one all-important though passive function which cannot be taken from her, and which is peculiarly connected with her own person, in the act of child-bearing, and her mere sexual attributes being an object of desire and cupidity to the male, she is liable in a peculiarly insidious and gradual manner to become dependent on this one sexual function alone for her support. So much is this the case, that even when she does not in any way perform this function there is still a curious tendency for the kudos of the function still to hang about her, and for her mere potentiality in the direction of a duty which she may never fulfil, to be confused in her own estimation and that of society with the actual fulfilment of that function. Under the mighty aegis of the woman who bears and rears offspring and in other directions labours greatly and actively for her race, creeps in gradually and unnoticed the woman who does none of these things. From the mighty labouring woman who bears human creatures to the full extent of her power, rears her offspring unaided, and performs at the same time severe social labour in other directions (and who is, undoubtedly, wherever found, the most productive toiler known to the race); it is but one step, though a long one, from this woman to the woman who produces offspring freely but does not herself rear them, and performs no compensatory social labour. While from this woman, again, to the one who bears few or no children, but who, whether as a wife or mistress, lives by the exercise of her sex function alone, the step is short. There is but one step farther to the prostitute, who affects no form of productive labour, and who, in place of life, is recognised as producing disease and death, but who exists parasitically through her sexual attribute. Enormous as is the distance between the women at the two extremes of this series, and sharply opposed as their relation to the world is, there is yet, in actual life, no sharp, clear, sudden-drawn line dividing the women of the one type from those of the other. They shade off into each other by delicate and in sensible degrees. And it is down this inclined plane that the women of civilised races are peculiarly tempted, unconsciously, to slip; from the noble height of a condition of the most strenuous social activity, into a condition of complete, helpless, and inactive parasitism, without being clearly aware of the fact themselves, and without society’s becoming so — the woman who has ceased to rear her own offspring, or who has ceased to bear offspring at all, and who performs no other productive social function, yet shields the fact from her own eyes by dwelling on the fact that she is a woman, in whom the capacity is at least latent. (There is, indeed, an interesting analogous tendency on the part of the parasitic male, wherever found, to shield his true condition from his own eyes and those of the world by playing at the ancient ancestral forms of male labour. He is almost always found talking loudly of the protection he affords to helpless females and to society, though he is in truth himself protected through the exertion of soldiers, policemen, magistrates, and society generally; and he is almost invariably fond of dangling a sword or other weapon, and wearing some kind of uniform, for the assumption of militarism without severe toil delights him. But it is in a degenerate travesty of the ancient labour of hunting (where, at terrible risk to himself, and with endless fatigue, his ancestors supplied the race with its meat and defended it from destruction by wild beasts) that he finds his greatest satisfaction; it serves to render the degradation and uselessness of his existence less obvious to himself and to others than if he passed his life reclining in an armchair.

On Yorkshire moors today may be seen walls of sod, behind which hide certain human males, while hard-labouring men are employed from early dawn in driving birds towards them. As the birds are driven up to him, the hunter behind his wall raises his deadly weapon, and the bird, which it had taken so much human labour to rear and provide, falls dead at his feet; thereby greatly to the increase of the hunter’s glory, when, the toils of the chase over, he returns to his city haunts to record his bag. One might almost fancy one saw arise from the heathery turf the shade of some ancient Teutonic ancestor, whose dust has long reposed there, pointing a finger of scorn at his degenerate descendant, as he leers out from behind the sod wall. During the the later Roman Empire, Commodus, in the degenerate days of Rome, at great expense had wild beasts brought from distant lands that he might have the glory of slaying them in the Roman circus; and medals representing himself as Hercules slaying the Nemean lion were struck at his orders. We are not aware that any representation has yet been made in the region of plastic art of the hero of the sod wall; but history repeats itself — and that also may come. It is to be noted that these hunters are not youths, but often ripely adult men, before whom all the lofty enjoyments and employments possible to the male in modern life, lie open.)

These peculiarities in her condition have in all civilised societies laid the female more early and seriously open to the attacks of parasitism than the male. And while the accumulation of wealth has always been the antecedent condition, and the degeneracy and effeteness of the male the final and obvious cause, of the decay of the great dominant races of the past; yet, between these two has always lain, as a great middle term, the parasitism of the female, without which the first would have been inoperative and the last impossible.

Not slavery, nor the most vast accumulations of wealth, could destroy a nation by enervation, whose women remained active, virile, and laborious.

The conception which again and again appears to have haunted successive societies, that it was a possibility for the human male to advance in physical power and intellectual vigour, while his companion female became stationary and inactive, taking no share in the labours of society beyond the passive fulfilment of sexual functions, has always been negated. It has ended as would end the experiment of a man seeking to raise a breed of winning race-horses out of unexercised, short-winded, knock-kneed mares. No, more disastrously! For while the female animal transmits herself to her descendant only or mainly by means of germinal inheritance, and through the influence she may exert over it during gestation, the human female, by producing the intellectual and moral atmosphere in which the early infant years of life are passed, impresses herself far more indelibly on her descendants. Only an able and labouring womanhood can permanently produce an able and labouring manhood; only an effete and inactive male can ultimately be produced by an effete and inactive womanhood. The curled darling, scented and languid, with his drawl, his delicate apparel, his devotion to the rarity and variety of his viands, whose severest labour is the search after pleasure, and for whom even the chase, which was for his remote ancestor an invigorating and manly toil essential for the meat and life of his people, becomes a luxurious and farcical amusement; — this male, whether found in the later Roman Empire, the Turkish harem of today, or in our Northern civilisations, is possible only because generations of parasitic women have preceded him. More repulsive than the parasite female herself, because a yet further product of decay, it is yet only the scent of his mother’s boudoir that we smell in his hair. He is like to the bald patches and rotten wool on the back of a scabby sheep; which indeed indicate that, deep beneath the surface, a parasite insect is eating its way into the flesh, but which are not so much the cause of disease, as its final manifestation.

As we have said it is the power of the human female to impress herself on her descendants, male and female, not only through germinal inheritance, through influence during the period of gestation, but above all by producing the mental atmosphere in which the impressionable infant years of life are passed, which makes the condition of the child-bearing female one of paramount interest of the race. It is this fact which causes even prostitution (in many other respects the most repulsive of all the forms of female parasitism which afflicts humanity) to be, probably, not more adverse to the advance and even to the conservation of a healthy and powerful society, than the parasitism of its child-bearing women. For the prostitute, heavily as she weights society for her support, returning disease and mental and emotional disintegration for what she consumes, does not yet so immediately affect the next generation as the kept wife, or kept mistress, who impresses her effete image indelibly on the generations succeeding. (It cannot be too often repeated that the woman who merely bears and brings a child into the world, and then leaves it to be fed and reared by the hands of another, has performed very much less than half of the labour of producing adult humans; in such cases it is the nurse and not the mother who is the most important labourer.)

No man ever yet entered life farther than the length of one navel-cord from the body of the woman who bore him. It is the woman who is the final standard of the race, from which there can be no departure for any distance for any length of time, in any direction: as her brain weakens, weakens the man’s she bears; as her muscle softens, softens his; as she decays, decays the people.

Other causes may, and do, lead to the enervation and degeneration of a class or race; the parasitism of its child-bearing women must.

We, the European women of this age, stand today where again and again, in the history of the past, women of other races have stood; but our condition is yet more grave, and of wider import to humanity as a whole than theirs ever was. Let us again consider more closely why this is so.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29