Woman and Labour, by Olive Schreiner

Chapter III. Parasitism (continued).

We have seen that, in the past, no such thing as the parasitism of the entire body or large majority of the females inhabiting any territory was possible. Beneath that body of women of the dominant class or race, who did not labour either mentally or physically, there has always been of necessity a far more vast body of females who not only performed the crude physical toil essential to the existence of society before the introduction of mechanical methods of production, but who were compelled to labour the more intensely because there was a parasite class above them to be maintained by their physical toil. The more the female parasite flourished of old, in one class or race, the more certainly all women of other classes or races were compelled to labour only too excessively; and ultimately these females and their descendants were apt to supplant the more enervated class or race. In the absence of machinery and of a vast employment of the motor-forces of nature, parasitism could only threaten a comparatively small section of any community, and a minute section of the human race as a whole. Female parasitism in the past resembled gout — a disease dangerous only to the over-fed, pampered, and few, never to the population of any society as a whole.

At the present day, so enormous has been the advance made in the substitution of mechanical force for crude, physical, human exertion (mechanical force being employed today even in the shaping of feeding-bottles and the creation of artificial foods as substitutes for mother’s milk!), that it is now possible not only for a small and wealthy section of women in each civilised community to be maintained without performing any of the ancient, crude, physical labours of their sex, and without depending on the slavery of, or any vast increase in the labour of, other classes of females; but this condition has already been reached, or is tending to be reached, by that large mass of women in civilised societies, who form the intermediate class between poor and rich. During the next fifty years, so rapid will undoubtedly be the spread of the material conditions of civilisation, both in the societies at present civilised and in the societies at present unpermeated by our material civilisation, that the ancient forms of female, domestic, physical labour of even the women of the poorest classes will be little required, their place being taken, not by other females, but by always increasingly perfected labour-saving machinery.

Thus, female parasitism, which in the past threatened only a minute section of earth’s women, under existing conditions threatens vast masses, and may, under future conditions, threaten the entire body.

If woman is content to leave to the male all labour in the new and all-important fields which are rapidly opening before the human race; if, as the old forms of domestic labour slip from her for ever and evitably, she does not grasp the new, it is inevitable, that, ultimately, not merely a class, but the whole bodies of females in civilised societies, must sink into a state of more or less absolute dependence on their sexual functions alone. (How real is this apparently very remote danger is interestingly illustrated by a proposition gravely made a few years ago by a man of note in England. He proposed that a compulsory provision should be made for at least the women of the upper and middle classes, by which they might be maintained through life entirely without regard to any productive labour they might perform, not even the passive labour of sexual reproduction being of necessity required of them. That this proposal was received by the women striving to reconstruct the relation of the modern woman to life without acclamation and with scorn, may have surprised its maker; but with no more reason than that man would have for feeling surprise who, seeing a number of persons anxious to escape the infection of some contagious disease, should propose as a cure to inoculate them all with it in its most virulent form!)

As new forms of natural force are mastered and mechanical appliances perfected, it will be quite possible for the male half of all civilised races (and therefore ultimately of all) to absorb the entire fields of intellectual and highly trained manual labour; and it would be entirely possible for the female half of the race, whether as prostitutes, as kept mistresses, or as kept wives, to cease from all forms of active toil, and, as the passive tools of sexual reproduction, or, more decadently still, as the mere instruments of sexual indulgence, to sink into a condition of complete and helpless sex-parasitism.

Sex-parasitism, therefore, presents itself at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth in a guise which it has never before worn. We, the European women of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, stand therefore in a position the gravity and importance of which was not equalled by that of any of our forerunners in the ancient civilisation. As we master and rise above, or fall and are conquered by, the difficulties of our position, so also will be the future, not merely of our own class, or even of our own race alone, but also of those vast masses who are following on in the wake of our civilisation. The decision we are called on to make is a decision for the race; behind us comes on the tread of incalculable millions of feet.

There is thus no truth in the assertion so often made, even by thoughtful persons, that the male labour question and the woman’s question of our day are completely one, and that, would the women of the European race of today but wait peacefully till the males alone had solved their problem, they would find that their own had been solved at the same time.

Were the entire male labour problem of this age satisfactorily settled tomorrow; were all the unemployed or uselessly employed males at both ends of societies, whom the changes of modern civilisation have robbed of their ancient forms of labour, so educated and trained that they were perfectly fitted for the new conditions of life; and were the material benefit and intellectual possibilities, which the substitution of mechanical for human labour now makes possible to humanity, no longer absorbed by the few but dispersed among the whole mass of males in return for their trained labour, yet the woman’s problem might be further from satisfactory solution than it is today; and, if it were affected at all, might be affected for the worse. It is wholly untrue that fifty pounds, or two thousand, earned by the male as the result of his physical or mental toil, if part of it be spent by him in supporting non-labouring females, whether as prostitutes, wives, or mistresses, is the same thing to the female or to the race as though that sum had been earned by her own exertion, either directly as wages or indirectly by toiling for the man whose wages supported her. For the moment, truly, the woman so tended lies softer and warmer than had she been compelled to exert herself; ultimately, intellectually, morally, and even physically, the difference in the effect upon her as an individual and on the race is the difference between advance and degradation, between life and death. The increased wealth of the male no more of necessity benefits and raises the female upon whom he expends it, than the increased wealth of his mistress necessarily benefits mentally or physically a poodle because she can give him a down cushion in place of one of feathers, and chicken in place of beef. The wealthier the males of a society become, the greater the temptation, both to themselves and to the females connected with them, to drift toward female parasitism.

The readjustment of the position of the male worker, if it led to a more equitable distribution of wealth among males, might indeed diminish slightly the accompanying tendency to parasitism in the very wealthiest female class; but it would, on the other hand, open up exactly those conditions which make parasitism possible to millions of women today leading healthy and active lives. (The fact cannot be too often dwelt upon that parasitism is not connected with any definite amount of wealth. Any sum supplied to an individual which will so far satisfy him or her as to enable them to live without exertion may absolutely parasitise them; while vast wealth (unhealthy as its effects generally tend to be) may, upon certain rare and noble natures, exert hardly any enervating or deleterious influence. An amusing illustration of the different points at which enervation is reached by different females came under our own observation. The wife of an American millionaire was visited by a woman, the daughter and also the widow of small professional men. She stated that she was in need of both food and clothing. The millionaire’s wife gave her a leg of mutton and two valuable dresses. The woman proceeded to whine, though in vigorous health, that she had no one to carry them home for her, and could not think of carrying them herself. The American, the descendant of generations of able, labouring, New England, Puritan women, tucked the leg of mutton under one arm and the bundle of clothes under the other and walked off down the city street towards the woman’s dwelling, followed by the astonished pauper parasite.

The most helpless case of female degeneration we ever came into contact with was that of a daughter of a poor English officer on half-pay and who had to exist on a few hundreds a year. This woman could neither cook her own food nor make her own clothes, nor was she engaged in any social, political, or intellectual or artistic labour. Though able to dance for a night or play tennis for an afternoon, she was yet hardly able to do her own hair or attire herself, and appeared absolutely to have lost all power of compelling herself to do anything which was at the moment fatiguing or displeasing, as all labour is apt to be, however great its ultimate reward. In a life of twenty-eight years this woman had probably not contributed one hour’s earnest toil, mental or physical, to the increase of the sum total of productive human labour. Surrounded with acres of cultivable land, she would possibly have preferred to lie down and die of hunger rather than have cultivated half an acre for food. This is an extreme case; but the ultimate effect of parasitism is always a paralysis of the will and an inability to compel oneself into any course of action for the moment unpleasurable and exhaustive.)

That the two problems are not identical is shown, if indeed evidence were needed, by the fact that those males most actively employed in attempting to readjust the relations of the mass of labouring males to the new conditions of life, are sometimes precisely those males who are most bitterly opposed to woman in her attempt to readjust her own position. Not even by the members of those professions, generally regarded as the strongholds of obstructionism and prejudice, has a more short-sighted opposition often been made to the attempts of woman to enter new fields of labour, than have again and again been made by male hand-workers, whether as isolated individuals or in their corporate capacity as trade unions. They have, at least in some certain instances, endeavoured to exclude women, not merely from new fields of intellectual and social labour, but even from those ancient fields of textile manufacture and handicraft, which have through all generations of the past been woman’s. The patent and undeniable fact, that where the male labour movement flourishes the woman movement also flourishes, rises not from the fact that they are identical, but that the same healthy and virile condition in a race or society gives rise to both.

As two streams rising from one fountain-head and running a parallel course through long reaches may yet remain wholly distinct, one finding its way satisfactorily to the sea, while the other loses itself in sand or becomes a stagnant marsh, so our modern male and female movements, taking their rise from the same material conditions in modern civilisation, and presenting endless and close analogies with one another in their cause of development, yet remain fundamentally distinct. By both movements the future of the race must be profoundly modified for good or evil; both touch the race in a manner absolutely vital; but both will have to be fought out on their own ground, and independently: and it can be only by determined, conscious, and persistent action on the part of woman that the solution of her own labour problems will proceed co-extensively with that of the other.

How distinct, though similar, is the underlying motive of the two movements, is manifested most clearly by this fact, that, while the male labour movement takes its rise mainly among the poor and hand-labouring classes, where the material pressure of the modern conditions of life fall heaviest, and where the danger of physical suffering and even extinction under that pressure is most felt; the Woman Labour Movement has taken its rise almost as exclusively among the wealthy, cultured, and brain-labouring classes, where alone, at the present day, the danger of enervation through non-employment, and of degeneration through dependence on the sex function exists. The female labour movement of our day is, in its ultimate essence, an endeavour on the part of a section of the race to save itself from inactivity and degeneration, and this, even at the immediate cost of most heavy loss in material comfort and ease to the individuals composing it. The male labour movement is, directly and in the first place, material; and, or at least superficially, more or less self-seeking, though its ultimate reaction on society by saving the poorer members from degradation and dependency and want is undoubtedly wholly social and absolutely essential for the health and continued development of the human race. In the Woman’s Labour Movement of our day, which has essentially taken its rise among women of the more cultured and wealthy classes, and which consists mainly in a demand to have the doors leading to professional, political, and highly skilled labour thrown open to them, the ultimate end can only be attained at the cost of more or less intense, immediate, personal suffering and renunciation, though eventually, if brought to a satisfactory conclusion, it will undoubtedly tend to the material and physical well-being of woman herself, as well as to that of her male companions and descendants.

The coming half-century will be a time of peculiar strain, as mankind seeks rapidly to adjust moral ideals and social relationships and the general ordering of life to the new and continually unfolding material conditions. If these two great movements of our age, having this as their object, can be brought into close harmony and co-operation, the readjustment will be the sooner and more painlessly accomplished; but, for the moment, the two movements alike in their origin and alike in many of their methods of procedure, remain distinct.

It is this fact, the consciousness on the part of the women taking their share in the Woman’s Movement of our age, that their efforts are not, and cannot be, of immediate advantage to themselves, but that they almost of necessity and immediately lead to loss and renunciation, which gives to this movement its very peculiar tone; setting it apart from the large mass of economic movements, placing it rather in a line with those vast religious developments which at the interval of ages have swept across humanity, irresistibly modifying and reorganising it.

It is the perception of this fact, that, not for herself, nor even for fellow-women alone, but for the benefit of humanity at large, it is necessary she should seek to readjust herself to life, which lends to the modern woman’s most superficial and seemingly trivial attempts at readjustment, a certain dignity and importance.

It is this profound hidden conviction which removes from the sphere of the ridiculous the attitude of even the feeblest woman who waves her poor little “Woman’s rights” flag on the edge of a platform, and which causes us to forgive even the passionate denunciations, not always wisely thought out, in which she would represent the suffering and evils of woman’s condition, as wrongs intentionally inflicted upon her, where they are merely the inevitable results of ages of social movement.

It is this over-shadowing consciousness of a large impersonal obligation, which removes from the sphere of the contemptible and insignificant even the action of the individual young girl, who leaves a home of comfort or luxury for a city garret, where in solitude, and under that stern pressure which is felt by all individuals in arms against the trend of their environment, she seeks to acquire the knowledge necessary for entering on a new form of labour. It is this profound consciousness which makes not less than heroic the figure of the little half-starved student, battling against gigantic odds to take her place beside man in the fields of modern intellectual toil, and which, whether she succeed or fail, makes her a landmark in the course of our human evolution. It is this consciousness of large impersonal ends to be attained, and to the attainment of which each individual is bound to play her part, however small, which removes from the domain of the unnecessary, and raises to importance, the action of each woman who resists the tyranny of fashions in dress or bearing or custom which impedes her in her strife towards the new adjustment.

It is this consciousness which renders almost of solemn import the efforts of the individual female after physical or mental self-culture and expansion; this, which fills with a lofty enthusiasm the heart of the young girl, who, it may be, in some solitary farm-house, in some distant wild of Africa or America, deep into the night bends over her books with the passion and fervour with which an early Christian may have bent over the pages of his Scriptures; feeling that, it may be, she fits herself by each increase of knowledge for she knows not what duties towards the world, in the years to come. It is this consciousness of great impersonal ends, to be brought, even if slowly and imperceptibly, a little nearer by her action, which gives to many a woman strength for renunciation, when she puts from her the lower type of sexual relationship, even if bound up with all the external honour a legal bond can confer, if it offers her only enervation and parasitism; and which enables her often to accept poverty, toil, and sexual isolation (an isolation even more terrible to the woman than to any male), and the renunciation of motherhood, that crowning beatitude of the woman’s existence, which, and which alone, fully compensates her for the organic sufferings of womanhood — in the conviction that, by so doing, she makes more possible a fuller and higher attainment of motherhood and wifehood to the women who will follow her. It is this consciousness which makes of solemn importance the knock of the humblest woman at the closed door which shuts off a new field of labour, physical or mental: is she convinced that, not for herself, but in the service of the whole race, she knocks.

It is this abiding consciousness of an end to be attained, reaching beyond her personal life and individual interests, which constitutes the religious element of the Woman’s Movement of our day, and binds with the common bond of an impersonal enthusiasm into one solid body the women of whatsoever race, class, and nation who are struggling after the readjustment of woman to life.

This it is also, which in spite of defects and failures on the part of individuals, yet makes the body who these women compose, as a whole, one of the most impressive and irresistible of modern forces. The private soldier of the great victorious army is not always an imposing object as he walks down the village street, cap on side of head and sword dangling between his legs, nor is he always impressive even when he burnishes up his accoutrements or cleans his pannikins; but it is of individuals such as these that the great army is made, which tomorrow, when it is gathered together, may shake the world with its tread.

Possibly not one woman in ten, or even one woman in twenty thousand among those taking part in this struggle, could draw up a clear and succinct account of the causes which have led to the disco-ordination in woman’s present position, or give a full account of the benefits to flow from readjustment; as probably not one private soldier in an army of ten or even of twenty thousand, though he is willing to give his life for his land, would yet be able to draw up a clear and succinct account of his land’s history in the past and of the conditions which have made war inevitable; and almost as little can he often paint an exact and detailed picture of the benefits to flow from his efts. He knows his land has need of him; he knows his own small place and work.

It is possible that not one woman in ten thousand has grasped with scientific exactitude, and still less could express with verbal sharpness, the great central conditions which yet compel and animate her into action.

Even the great, central fact, that with each generation the entire race passes through the body of its womanhood as through a mould, reappearing with the indelible marks of that mould upon it, that as the os cervix of woman, through which the head of the human infant passes at birth, forms a ring, determining for ever the size at birth of the human head, a size which could only increase if in the course of ages the os cervix of woman should itself slowly expand; and that so exactly the intellectual capacity, the physical vigour, the emotional depth of woman, forms also an untranscendable circle, circumscribing with each successive generation the limits of the expansion of the human race; — even this fact she may not so clearly have grasped intellectually as to be able to throw it into the form of a logical statement. The profound truth, that the continued development of the human race on earth (a development which, as the old myths and dreams of a narrow personal heaven fade from our view, becomes increasingly for many of us the spiritual hope by light of which we continue to live), a development which we hope shall make the humanity of a distant future as much higher in intellectual power and wider in social sympathy than the highest human units of our day, as that is higher than the first primeval ancestor who with quivering limb strove to walk upright and shape his lips to the expression of a word, is possible only if the male and female halves of humanity progress together, expanding side by side in the future as they have done in the past — even this truth it is possible few women have exactly and logically grasped as the basis of their action. The truth that, as the first primitive human males and females, unable to count farther than their fingers, or grasp an abstract idea, or feel the controlling power of social emotion, could only develop into the Sapphos, Aristotles, and Shelleys of a more expanded civilisation, if side by side, and line by line, male and female forms have expanded together; if, as the convolutions of his brain increased in complexity, so increased the convolutions in hers; if, as her forehead grew higher, so developed his; and that, if the long upward march of the future is ever to be accomplished by the race, male and female must march side by side, acting and reacting on each other through inheritance; or progress is impossible. The truth that, as the existence of even the male Bushman would be impossible without the existence of the analogous Bushwoman with the same gifts; and that as races which can produce among their males a William Kingdon Clifford, a Tolstoy, or a Robert Browning, would be inconceivable and impossible, unless among its females it could also produce a Sophia Kovalevsky, a George Eliot, or a Louise Michel; so, also, in the future, that higher and more socialised human race we dream of can only come into existence, because in both the sex forms have evolved together, now this sex and then that, so to speak, catching up the ball of life and throwing it back to the other, slightly if imperceptibly enlarging and beautifying it as it passes through their hands. The fact that without the reaction of interevolution between the sexes, there can be no real and permanent human advance; without the enlarged deep-thinking Eve to bear him, no enlarged Adam; without the enlarged widely sympathising Adam to beget her, no enlarged widely comprehending Eve; without an enlarged Adam and an enlarged Eve, no enlarged and beautified generation of mankind on earth; that an arrest in one form is an arrest in both; and in the upward march of the entire human family. The truth that, if at the present day, woman, after her long upward march side by side with man, developing with him through the countless ages, by means of the endless exercise of the faculties of mind and body, has now, at last, reached her ultimate limit of growth, and can progress no farther; that, then, here also, today, the growth of the human spirit is to be stayed; that here, on the spot of woman’s arrest, is the standard of the race to be finally planted, to move forward no more, for ever:— that, if the parasite woman on her couch, loaded with gewgaws, the plaything and amusement of man, be the permanent and final manifestation of female human life on the globe, then that couch is also the death-bed of human evolution. These profound underlying truths, perhaps, not one woman in twenty thousand of those actively engaged in the struggle for readjustment has so closely and keenly grasped that she can readily throw them into the form of exact language; and yet, probably, not the feeblest woman taking share in our endeavour toward readjustment and expansion fails to be animated by a vague but profound consciousness of their existence. Beyond the small evils, which she seeks by her immediate, personal action to remedy, lie, she feels; large ills of which they form but an off-shoot; beyond the small good which she seeks to effect, lies, she believes, a great and universal beatitude to be attained; beyond the little struggle of today, lies the larger struggle of the centuries, in which neither she alone nor her sex alone are concerned, but all mankind.

That such should be the mental attitude of the average woman taking part in the readjustive sexual movement of today; that so often on the public platform and in literature adduces merely secondary arguments, and is wholly unable logically to give an account of the great propelling conditions behind it, is sometimes taken as an indication of the inefficiency, and probably the ultimate failure, of the movement in which she takes part. But in truth, that is not so. It is rather an indication which shows how healthy, and deeply implanted in the substance of human life, are the roots of this movement; and it places it in a line with all those vast controlling movements which have in the course of the ages reorganised human life.

For those great movements which have permanently modified the condition of humanity have never taken their rise amid the chopped logic of schools; they have never drawn their vitality from a series of purely intellectual and abstract inductions. They have arisen always through the action of widely spread material and spiritual conditions, creating widespread human needs; which, pressing upon the isolated individuals, awakens at last continuous, if often vague and uncertain, social movement in a given direction. Mere intellectual comprehension may guide, retard, or accelerate the great human movements; it has never created them. It may even be questioned whether those very leaders, who have superficially appeared to create and organise great and successful social movements, have themselves, in most cases, perhaps in any, fully understood in all their complexity the movements they themselves have appeared to rule. They have been, rather, themselves permeated by the great common need; and being possessed of more will, passion, intensity, or intellect, they have been able to give voice to that which in others was dumb, and conscious direction to that which in others was unconscious desire: they have been but the foremost crest of a great wave of human necessity: they have not themselves created the wave which bears themselves, and humanity, onwards. The artificial social movements which have had their origin in the arbitrary will of individuals, guided with however much determination and reason, have of necessity proved ephemeral and abortive. An Alexander might will to weld a Greece and an Asia into one; a Napoleon might resolve to create of a diversified Europe one consolidated state; and by dint of skill and determination they might for a moment appear to be accomplishing that which they desired; but the constraining individual will being withdrawn, the object of their toil has melted away, as the little heap of damp sand gathered under the palm of a child’s hand on the sea-shore, melts away, scattered by the wind and washed out by the waves, the moment the hand that shaped it is withdrawn; while the small, soft, indefinite, watery fragment of jelly-fish lying beside it, though tossed hither and thither by water and wind, yet retains its shape and grows, because its particles are bound by an internal and organic force.

Our woman’s movement resembles strongly, in this matter, the gigantic religious and intellectual movement which for centuries convulsed the life of Europe; and had, as its ultimate outcome, the final emancipation of the human intellect and the freedom of the human spirit. Looked back upon from the vantage-point of the present, this past presents the appearance of one vast, steady, persistent movement proceeding always in one ultimate direction, as though guided by some controlling human intellect. But, to the mass of human individuals taking part in it, it presented an appearance far otherwise. It was fought out, now here, now there, by isolated individuals and small groups, and often for what appeared small and almost personal ends, having sometimes, superficially, little in common. Now it was a Giordano Bruno, burnt in Rome in defence of abstract theory with regard to the nature of the First Cause; then an Albigense hurled from his rocks because he refused to part with the leaves of his old Bible; now a Dutch peasant woman, walking serenely to the stake because she refused to bow her head before two crossed rods; then a Servetus burnt by Protestant Calvin at Geneva; or a Spinoza cut off from his tribe and people because he could see nothing but God anywhere; and then it was an exiled Rousseau or Voltaire, or a persecuted Bradlaugh; till, in our own day the last sounds of the long fight are dying about us, as fading echoes, in the guise of a few puerile attempts to enforce trivial disabilities on the ground of abstract convictions. The vanguard of humanity has won its battle for freedom of thought.

But, to the men and women taking part in that mighty movement during the long centuries of the past, probably nothing was quite clear, in the majority of cases, but their own immediate move. Not the leaders — most certainly not good old Martin Luther, even when he gave utterance to his immortal “I can no otherwise” (the eternal justification of all reformers and social innovators!), understood the whole breadth of the battlefield on which they were engaged, or grasped with precision the issues which were involved. The valiant Englishman, who, as the flames shot up about him, cried to his companion in death, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall by God’s grace this day light such a candle in England, as shall never be put out!” undoubtedly believed that the candle lighted was the mere tallow rushlight of a small sectarian freedom for England alone; nor perceived that what he lighted was but one ray of the vast, universal aurora of intellectual and spiritual liberty, whose light was ultimately to stream, not only across England, but across the earth. Nevertheless, undoubtedly, behind all these limited efforts, for what appeared, superficially, limited causes, lay, in the hearts of the men and women concerned, through the ages, a profound if vague consciousness of ends larger than they clearly knew, to be subserved by their action; of a universal social duty and a great necessity.

That the Woman’s Movement of our day has not taken its origin from any mere process of theoretic argument; that it breaks out, now here and now there, in forms divergent and at times superficially almost irreconcilable; that the majority of those taking part in it are driven into action as the result of the immediate pressure of the conditions of life, and are not always able logically to state the nature of all causes which propel them, or to paint clearly all results of their action; so far from removing it from the category of the vast reorganising movements of humanity, places it in a line with them, showing how vital, spontaneous, and wholly organic and unartificial is its nature.

The fact that, at one point, it manifests itself in a passionate, and at times almost incoherent, cry for an accredited share in public and social duties; while at another it makes itself felt as a determined endeavour after self-culture; that in one land it embodies itself mainly in a resolute endeavour to enlarge the sphere of remunerative labour for women; while in another it manifests itself chiefly as an effort to reco-ordinate the personal relation of the sexes; that in one individual it manifests itself as a passionate and sometimes noisy struggle for liberty of personal action; while in another it is being fought out silently in the depth of the individual consciousness — that primal battle-ground, in which all questions of reform and human advance must ultimately be fought and decided; — all this diversity, and the fact that the average woman is entirely concerned in labour in her own little field, shows, not the weakness, but the strength of the movement; which, taken as a whole, is a movement steady and persistent in one direction, the direction of increased activity and culture, and towards the negation of all possibility of parasitism in the human female. Slowly, and unconsciously, as the child is shaped in the womb, this movement shapes itself in the bosom of our time, taking its place beside those vast human developments, of which men, noting their spontaneity and the co-ordination of their parts, have said, in the phraseology of old days, “This thing is not of man, but of God.”

He who today looks at some great Gothic cathedral in its final form, seems to be looking at that which might have been the incarnation of the dream of some single soul of genius. But in truth, its origin was far otherwise. Ages elapsed from the time the first rough stone was laid as a foundation till the last spire and pinnacle were shaped, and the hand which laid the foundation-stone was never the same as that which set the last stone upon the coping. Generations often succeeded one another, labouring at gargoyle, rose-window, and shaft, and died, leaving the work to others; the master-builder who drew up the first rough outline passed away, and was succeeded by others, and the details of the work as completed bore sometimes but faint resemblance to the work as he devised it; no man fully understood all that others had done or were doing, but each laboured in his place; and the work as completed had unity; it expressed not the desire and necessity of one mind, but of the human spirit of that age; and not less essential to the existence of the building was the labour of the workman who passed a life of devotion in carving gargoyles or shaping rose-windows, than that of the greatest master who drew general outlines: perhaps it was yet more heroic; for, for the master-builder, who, even if it were but vaguely, had an image of what the work would be when the last stone was laid and the last spire raised, it was easy to labour with devotion and zeal, though well he might know that the placing of that last stone and the raising of that last spire would not be his, and that the building in its full beauty and strength he should never see; but for the journeyman labourer who carried on his duties and month by month toiled at carving his own little gargoyle or shaping the traceries in his own little oriel window, without any complete vision, it was not so easy; nevertheless, it was through the conscientious labours of such alone, through their heaps of chipped and spoiled stones, which may have lain thick about them, that at the last the pile was reared in its strength and beauty.

For a Moses who could climb Pisgah, and, though it were through a mist of bitter tears, could see stretching before him the land of the inheritance, a land which his feet should never tread and whose fruit his hand should never touch, it was yet, perhaps, not so hard to turn round and die; for, as in a dream, he had seen the land: but for the thousands who could climb no Pisgah, who were to leave their bones whitening in the desert, having even from afar never seen the true outline of the land; those who, on that long march, had not even borne the Ark nor struck the timbrel, but carried only their small household vessels and possessions, for these it was perhaps not so easy to lie down and perish in the desert, knowing only that far ahead somewhere, lay a Land of Promise. Nevertheless, it was by the slow and sometimes wavering march of such as these, that the land was reached by the people at last.

For her, whose insight enables her to see, through the distance, those large beatitudes towards which the struggles and suffering of the women of today may tend; who sees beyond the present, though in a future which she knows she will never enter, an enlarged and strengthened womanhood bearing forward with it a strengthened and expanded race, it is not so hard to renounce and labour with unshaken purpose: but for those who have not that view, and struggle on, animated at most by a vague consciousness that somewhere ahead lies a large end, towards which their efforts tend; who labour year after year at some poor little gargoyle of a Franchise Bill, or the shaping of some rough little foundation-stone of reform in education, or dress a stone (which perhaps never quite fits the spot it was intended for, and has to be thrown aside!); or who carve away all their lives to produce a corbel of some reform in sexual relations, in the end to find it break under the chisel; who, out of many failures attain, perhaps, to no success, or but to one, and that so small and set so much in the shade that no eye will ever see it; for such as these, it is perhaps not so easy to labour without growing weary. Nevertheless, it is through the labours of these myriad toilers, each working in her own minute sphere, with her own small outlook, and out of endless failures and miscarriages, that at last the enwidened and beautified relations of woman to life must rise, if they are ever to come.

When a starfish lies on the ground at the bottom of a sloping rock it has to climb, it seems to the onlooker as though there were nothing which could stir the inert mass and no means for taking it to the top. Yet watch it. Beneath its lower side, hidden from sight, are a million fine tentacles; impulses of will from the central nerve radiate throughout the whole body, and each tiny fibre, fine as a hair, slowly extends itself, and seizes on the minute particle of rough rock nearest to it; now a small tentacle slips its hold, and then it holds firmly, and then slowly and slowly the whole inert mass rises to the top.

It is often said of those who lead in this attempt at the readaption of woman’s relation to life, that they are “New Women”; and they are at times spoken of as though they were a something portentous and unheard-of in the order of human life.

But, the truth is, we are not new. We who lead in this movement today are of that old, old Teutonic womanhood, which twenty centuries ago ploughed its march through European forests and morasses beside its male companion; which marched with the Cimbri to Italy, and with the Franks across the Rhine, with the Varagians into Russia, and the Alamani into Switzerland; which peopled Scandinavia, and penetrated to Britain; whose priestesses had their shrines in German forests, and gave out the oracle for peace or war. We have in us the blood of a womanhood that was never bought and never sold; that wore no veil, and had no foot bound; whose realised ideal of marriage was sexual companionship and an equality in duty and labour; who stood side by side with the males they loved in peace or war, and whose children, when they had borne them, sucked manhood from their breasts, and even through their foetal existence heard a brave heart beat above them. We are women of a breed whose racial ideal was no Helen of Troy, passed passively from male hand to male hand, as men pass gold or lead; but that Brynhild whom Segurd found, clad in helm and byrne, the warrior maid, who gave him counsel “the deepest that ever yet was given to living man,” and “wrought on him to the performing of great deeds;” who, when he died, raised high the funeral pyre and lay down on it beside him, crying, “Nor shall the door swing to at the heel of him as I go in beside him!” We are of a race of women that of old knew no fear, and feared no death, and lived great lives and hoped great hopes; and if today some of us have fallen on evil and degenerate times, there moves in us yet the throb of the old blood.

If it be today on no physical battlefield that we stand beside our men, and on no march through no external forest or morass that we have to lead; it is yet the old spirit which, undimmed by two thousand years, stirs within us in deeper and subtler ways; it is yet the cry of the old, free Northern woman which makes the world today. Though the battlefield be now for us all, in the laboratory or the workshop, in the forum or the study, in the assembly and in the mart and the political arena, with the pen and not the sword, of the head and not the arm, we still stand side by side with the men we love, “to dare with them in war and to suffer with them in peace,” as the Roman wrote of our old Northern womanhood.

Those women, of whom the old writers tell us, who, barefooted and white robed, led their Northern hosts on that long march to Italy, were animated by the thought that they led their people to a land of warmer sunshine and richer fruitage; we, today, believe we have caught sight of a land bathed in a nobler than any material sunlight, with a fruitage richer than any which the senses only can grasp: and behind us, we believe there follows a longer train than any composed of our own race and people; the sound of the tread we hear behind us is that of all earth’s women, bearing within them the entire race. The footpath, yet hardly perceptible, which we tread down today, will, we believe, be life’s broadest and straightest road, along which the children of men will pass to a higher co-ordination and harmony. The banner which we unfurl today is not new: it is the standard of the old, free, monogamous, labouring woman, which, twenty hundred years ago, floated over the forests of Europe. We shall bear it on, each generation as it falls passing it into the hand of that which follows, till we plant it so high that all nations of the world shall see it; till the women of the humblest human races shall be gathered beneath its folds, and no child enter life that was not born within its shade.

We are not new! If you would understand us, go back two thousand years, and study our descent; our breed is our explanation. We are the daughters of our fathers as well as of our mothers. In our dreams we still hear the clash of the shields of our forefathers as they struck them together before battle and raised the shout of “Freedom!” In our dreams it is with us still, and when we wake it breaks from our own lips! We are the daughters of those men.

But, it may be said, “Are there not women among you who would use the shibboleth, of freedom and labour, merely as a means for opening a door to a greater and more highly flavoured self-indulgence, to a more lucrative and enjoyable parasitism? Are there not women who, under the guise of ‘work,’ are seeking only increased means of sensuous pleasure and self-indulgence; to whom intellectual training and the opening to new fields of labour side by side with man, mean merely new means of self-advertisement and parasitic success?” We answer: There may be such, truly; among us — but not of us! This at least is true, that we, ourselves, are seldom deceived by them; the sheep generally recognise the wolf however carefully fitted the sheepskin under which he hides, though the onlookers may not; and though not always be able to drive him from the flock! The outer world may be misled; we, who stand shoulder to shoulder with them, know them; they are not many; neither are they new. They are one of the oldest survivals, and among the most primitive relics in the race. They are as old as Loki among the gods, as Lucifer among the Sons of the Morning, as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, as pain and dislocation in the web of human life.

Such women are as old as that first primitive woman who, when she went with her fellows to gather wood for the common household, put grass in the centre of the bundle that she might appear to carry as much as they, yet carry nothing; she is as old as the first man who threw away his shield in battle, and yet, when it was over, gathered with the victors to share the spoils, as old as cowardice and lust in the human and animal world; only to cease from being when, perhaps, an enlarged and expanded humanity shall have cast the last slough of its primitive skin.

Every army has its camp-followers, not among its accredited soldiers, but who follow in its train, ready to attack and rifle the fallen on either side. To lookers on, they may appear soldiers; but the soldier knows who they are. At the Judean supper there was one Master, and to the onlooker there may have seemed twelve apostles; in truth only twelve were of the company, and one was not of it. There has always been this thirteenth figure at every sacramental gathering, since the world began, wherever the upholders of a great cause have broken spiritual bread; but it may be questioned whether in any instance this thirteenth figure has been able to destroy, or even vitally to retard, any great human movement. Judas could hang his Master by a kiss; but he could not silence the voice which for a thousand years rang out of that Judean grave. Again and again, in social, political, and intellectual movements, the betrayer betrays; — and the cause marches on over the body of the man.

There are women, as there are men, whose political, social, intellectual, or philanthropic labours are put on, as the harlot puts on paint, and for the same purpose: but they can no more retard the progress of the great bulk of vital and sincere womanhood, than the driftwood on the surface of a mighty river can ultimately prevent its waters from reaching the sea.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schreiner/olive/woman/chapter3.html

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