Woman and Labour, by Olive Schreiner

Chapter V. Sex Differences.

If we examine the physical phenomenon of sex as it manifests itself in the human creature, we find, in the first stages of the individual’s existence, no difference discernible, by any means we have at present at our command, between those germs which are ultimately to become male or female. Later, in the foetal life, at birth, and through infancy though the organs of sex serve to distinguish the male from the female, there is in the general structure and working of the organism little or nothing to divide the sexes.

Even when puberty is reached, with its enormous development of sexual and reproductive activity modifying those parts of the organism with which it is concerned, and producing certain secondary sexual characteristics, there yet remains the major extent of the human body and of physical function little, or not at all, affected by sex modification. The eye, the ear, the sense of touch, the general organs of nutrition and respiration and volition are in the main identical, and often differ far more in persons of the same sex than in those of opposite sexes; and even on the dissecting-table the tissues of the male and female are often wholly indistinguishable.

It is when we consider the reproductive organs themselves and their forms of activity, and such parts of the organism modified directly in relation to them, that a real and important difference is found to exist, radical though absolutely complemental. It is exactly as we approach the reproductive functions that the male and female bodies differ; exactly as we recede from them that they become more and more similar, and even absolutely identical. Taking the eye, perhaps the most highly developed, complex organ in the body, and, if of an organ the term may be allowed, the most intellectual organ of sense, we find it remains the same in male and female in structure, in appearance, and in function throughout life; while the breast, closely connected with reproduction, though absolutely identical in both forms in infancy, assumes a widely different organisation when reproductive activity is actually concerned.

When we turn to the psychic phase of human life an exactly analogous phenomenon presents itself. The intelligence, emotions, and desires of the human infant at birth differ not at all perceptibly, as its sex may be male or female; and such psychic differences as appear to exist in later childhood are undoubtedly very largely the result of artificial training, forcing on the appearance of psychic sexual divergencies long before they would tend spontaneously to appear; as where sports and occupations are interdicted to young children on the ground of their supposed sexual unfitness; as when an infant female is forcibly prevented from climbing or shouting, and the infant male from amusing himself with needle and thread or dolls. Even in the fully adult human, and in spite of differences of training, the psychic activities over a large extent of life appear to be absolutely identical. The male and female brains acquire languages, solve mathematical problems, and master scientific detail in a manner wholly indistinguishable: as illustrated by the fact that in modern universities the papers sent in by male and female candidates are as a rule absolutely identical in type. Placed in like external conditions, their tastes and emotions, over a vast part of the surface of life, are identical; and, in an immense number of those cases where psychic sex differences appear to exist, subject to rigid analysis they are found to be purely artificial creations, for, when other races or classes are studied, they are found non-existent as sexual characteristics; as when the female is supposed by ignorant persons in modern European societies to have an inherent love for bright colours and ornaments, not shared by the male; while experience of other societies and past social conditions prove that it is as often the male who has been even more desirous of attiring himself in bright raiment and adorning himself with brilliant jewels; or as when, among certain tribes of savages, the use of tobacco is supposed to be a peculiarly female prerogative, while, in some modern societies, it is supposed to have some relation to masculinity. (The savage male of today when attired in his paint, feathers, cats’ tails and necklaces is an immeasurably more ornamented and imposing figure than his female, even when fully attired for a dance in beads and bangles: the Oriental male has sometimes scarcely been able to walk under the weight of his ornaments; and the males of Europe a couple of centuries ago, with their powdered wigs, lace ruffles and cuffs, paste buckles, feathered cocked hats, and patches were quite as ridiculous in their excess of adornment as the complementary females of their own day, or the most parasitic females of this. Both in the class and the individual, whether male or female, an intense love of dress and meretricious external adornment is almost invariably the concomitant and outcome of parasitism. Were the parasite female class in our own societies today to pass away, French fashions with their easeless and grotesque variations (shaped not for use or beauty, but the attracting of attention) would die out. And the extent to which any woman today, not herself belonging to the parasite class and still labouring, attempts to follow afar off the fashions of the parasite, may be taken generally as an almost certain indication of the ease with which she would accept parasitism were its conditions offered her. The tendency of the cultured and intellectually labouring woman of today to adopt a more rational type of attire, less shaped to attract attention to the individual than to confer comfort and abstain from impeding activity, is often spoken of as an attempt on the part of woman slavishly to imitate man. What is really taking place is, that like causes are producing like effects on human creatures with common characteristics.)

But there remain certain psychic differences in attitude, on the part of male and female as such, which are inherent and not artificial: and, in the psychic human world, it is exactly as we approach the sphere of sexual and reproductive activity, with those emotions and instincts connected directly with sex and the reproduction of the race, that a difference does appear.

In the animal world all forms of psychic variations are found allying themselves now with the male sex form, and then with the female. In the insect and fish worlds, where the female forms are generally larger and stronger than the male, the female is generally more pugnacious and predatory than the male. Among birds-of-prey, where also the female form is larger and stronger than the male, the psychic differences seem very small. Among eagles and other allied forms, which are strictly monogamous, the affection of the female for the male is so great that she is said never to mate again if the male dies, and both watch over and care for the young with extreme solicitude. The ostrich male form, though perhaps larger than the female, shares with her the labour of hatching the eggs, relieving the hen of her duty at a fixed hour daily: and his care for the young when hatched is as tender as hers. Among song-birds, in which the male and female forms are so alike as sometimes to be indistinguishable, and which are also monogamous, the male and female forms not only exhibit the same passionate affection for each other (in the case of the South African cock-o-veet, they have one answering love-song between them; the male sounding two or three notes and the female completing it with two or three more), but they build the nest together and rear the young with an equal devotion. In the case of the little kapok bird of the Cape, a beautiful, white, fluffy round nest is made by both out of the white down of a certain plant, and immediately below the entrance to the cavity in which the little female sits on the eggs is a small shelf or basket, in which the tiny male sits to watch over and guard them. It is among certain orders of birds that sex manifestations appear to assume their most harmonious and poetical forms on earth. Among gallinaceous birds, on the other hand, where the cock is much larger and more pugnacious than the female, and which are polygamous, the cock does not court the female by song, but seizes her by force, and shows little or no interest in his offspring, neither sharing in the brooding nor feeding the young; and even at times seizing any tempting morsel which the young or the hen may have discovered.

Among mammals the male form tends to be slightly larger than the female, though not always (the female whale, for instance, being larger than the male); the male also tends to be more pugnacious and less careful of the young; though to this rule also there are exceptions. In the case of the South African mierkat, for instance, the female is generally more combative and more difficult to tame than the male; and it is the males who from the moment of birth watch over the young with the most passionate and tender solicitude, keeping them warm under their persons, carrying them to places of safety in their mouths, and feeding them till full grown; and this they do not only for their own young, but to any young who may be brought in contact with them. We have known a male mierkat so assiduous in feeding young that were quite unrelated to himself, taking to them every morsel of food given him, that we have been compelled to shut him up in a room alone when feeding him, to prevent his starving himself to death: the male mierkat thus exhibiting exactly those psychic qualities which are generally regarded as peculiarly feminine; the females, on the other hand, being far more pugnacious towards each other than are the males.

Among mammals generally, except the tendency to greater pugnacity shown by the male towards other males, and the greater solicitude for the young shown generally by the female form, but not always; the psychic differences between the two sex forms are not great. Between the male and female pointer as puppies, there is as little difference in mental activity as in physical; and even when adult, on the hunting ground, that great non-sexual field in which their highest mental and physical activities are displayed, there is little or nothing which distinguishes materially between the male and female; in method, manner, and quickness they are alike; in devotion to man, they are psychically identical. (It is often said the female dog is more intelligent than the male; but I am almost inclined to doubt this, after long and close study of both forms.) It is at the moment when the reproductive element comes fully into play that similarity and identity cease. In the intensity of initial sex instinct they are alike; the female will leap from windows, climb walls, and almost endanger her life to reach the male who waits for her, as readily as he will to gain her. It is when the bitch lies with her six young drawing life from her breast, and gazing with wistful and anguished solicitude at every hand stretched out to touch them, a world of emotion concentrated on the sightless creatures, and a whole body of new mental aptitudes brought into play in caring for them, it is then that between her and the male who begot them, but cares nothing for them, there does rise a psychic difference that is real and wide. Alike in the sports of puppydom and the non-sexual activities of adult age; alike in the possession of the initial sexual instinct which draws the sex to the sex, the moment active sexual reproduction is concerned, there is opened to the female a certain world of sensations and experiences, from which her male companion is for ever excluded.

So also is our human world: alike in the sports, and joys, and sorrows of infancy; alike in the non-sexual labours of life; alike even in the possession of that initial instinct which draws sex to sex, and which, differing slightly in its forms of manifestation is of corresponding intensity in both; the moment actual reproduction begins to take place, the man and the woman enter spheres of sensation, perception, emotion, desire, and knowledge which are not, and cannot be, absolutely identical. Between the man who, in an instant of light-hearted enjoyment, begets the infant (who may even beget it in a state of half-drunken unconsciousness, and may easily know nothing of its existence for months or years after it is born, or never at all; and who under no circumstances can have any direct sensational knowledge of its relation to himself) and the woman who bears it continuously for months within her body, and who gives birth to it in pain, and who, if it is to live, is compelled, or was in primitive times, to nourish it for months from the blood of her own being — between these, there exists of necessity, towards a limited but all-important body of human interests and phenomena, a certain distinct psychic attitude. At this one point, the two great halves of humanity stand confronting certain great elements in human existence, from angles that are not identical. From the moment the universal initial attraction of sex to sex becomes incarnate in the first concrete sexual act till the developed offspring attains maturity, no step in the reproductive journey, or in their relation to their offspring, has been quite identical for the man and the woman. And this divergence of experiences in human relations must react on their attitude towards that particular body of human concerns which directly is connected with the sexual reproduction of the race; and, it is exactly in these fields of human activity, where sex as sex is concerned, that woman as woman has a part to play which she cannot resign into the hands of others.

It may be truly said that in the laboratory, the designing-room, the factory, the mart, the mathematician’s study, and in all fields of purely abstract or impersonal labour, while the entrance of woman would add to the net result of human labour in those fields, and though a grave injustice is done to the individual woman excluded from perhaps the only field she is fitted to excel in, that yet woman as woman has probably little or nothing to contribute in those fields that is radically distinct from that which man might supply; there would be a difference in quantity but probably none in kind, in the work done for the race.

But in those spheres of social activity, dealing especially with certain relations between human creatures because of their diverse if complementary relation to the production of human life, the sexes as sexes have often each a part to play which the other cannot play for them; have each a knowledge gained from phases of human experience, which the other cannot supply; here woman as woman has something radically distinct to contribute to the sum-total of human knowledge, and her activity is of importance, not merely individually, but collectively, and as a class.

That demand, which today in all democratic self-governing countries is being made by women, to be accorded their share in the electoral, and ultimately in the legislative and executive duties of government, is based on two grounds: the wider, and more important, that they find nothing in the nature of their sex-function which exonerates them, as human beings, from their obligation to take part in the labours of guidance and government in their state: the narrower, but yet important ground, that, in as far as in one direction, i.e., in the special form of their sex function takes, they do differ from the male, they, in so far, form a class and are bound to represent the interests of, and to give the state the benefit of, the insight of their class, in certain directions.

Those persons who imagine that the balance of great political parties in almost any society would be seriously changed by the admission of its women in public functions are undoubtedly wholly wrong. The fundamental division of humans into those inclined to hold by the past and defend whatever is, and those hopeful of the future and inclined to introduce change, would probably be found to exist in much the same proportion were the males or the females of any given society compared: and the males and females of each class will in the main share the faults, the virtues, and the prejudices of their class. The individuals may lose by being excluded on the ground of sex from a share of public labour, and by being robbed of a portion of their lawful individual weight in their own society; and the society as a whole may lose by having a smaller number to select its chosen labourers from; yet, undoubtedly, on the mass of social, political, and international questions, the conclusions arrived at by one sex would be exactly those arrived at by the other.

Were a body of humans elected to adjudicate upon Greek accents, or to pass a decision on the relative fineness of woollens and linens, the form of sex of the persons composing it would probably have no bearing on the result; there is no rational ground for supposing that, on a question of Greek accents or the thickness of cloths, equally instructed males and females would differ. Here sex plays no part. The experience and instructedness of the individuals would tell: their sexual attributes would be indifferent.

But there are points, comparatively small, even very small, in number, yet of vital importance to human life, in which sex does play a part.

It is not a matter of indifference whether the body called to adjudicate upon the questions, whether the temporary sale of the female body for sexual purposes shall or shall not be a form of traffic encouraged and recognised by the state; or whether one law shall exist for the licentious human female and another for the licentious human male; whether the claim of the female to the offspring she bears shall or shall not equal that of the male who begets it; whether an act of infidelity on the part of the male shall or shall not terminate the contract which binds his female companion to him, as completely as an act of infidelity on her part would terminate her claim on him; it is not a matter of indifference whether a body elected to adjudicate on such points as these consists of males solely, or females solely, or of both combined. As it consists of one, or the other, or of both, so not only will the answers vary, but, in some cases, will they be completely diverse. Here we come into that very narrow, but important, region, where sex as sex manifestly plays its part; where the male as male and the female as female have each their body of perceptions and experiences, which they do not hold in common; here one sex cannot adequately represent the other. It is here that each sexual part has something radically distinct to contribute to the wisdom of the race.

We, today, take all labour for our province! We seek to enter the non-sexual fields of intellectual or physical toil, because we are unable to see today, with regard to them, any dividing wall raised by sex which excludes us from them. We are yet equally determined to enter those in which sex difference does play its part, because it is here that woman, the bearer of the race, must stand side by side with man, the begetter; if a completed human wisdom, an insight that misses no aspect of human life, and an activity that is in harmony with the entire knowledge and the entire instinct of the entire human race, is to exist. It is here that the man cannot act for the woman nor the woman for the man; but both must interact. It is here that each sexual half of the race, so closely and indistinguishably blended elsewhere, has its own distinct contribution to make to the sum total of human knowledge and human wisdom. Neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman, the completed human intelligence.

Therefore; — We claim, today, all labour for our province! Those large fields in which it would appear sex plays no part, and equally those smaller in which it plays a part.

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