Annie Besant in To-day August 1887
Source: Today August 1887, pp. 51-56;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Proofread: by Andy Carloff 2010.
Most sensible women who perused Mr. Belfort Bax’s deliverance on “The Woman Question,” in the last issue of this magazine, will have been conscious of the uprisal of a mingled feeling, which, on analysis, turned out to be composed of one-fourth irritation, and three-fourths amusement. The irritation was a passing emotion, and was quickly followed by the recognition that some truths quite worth the telling had been told, though in an eminently unpleasant way; but the amusement is permanent, for it arises from the unconscious self-revelation of the writer in the course of his splenetic attack, and is purified by pity for a man who has evidently been most unfortunate in his woman-acquaintances and friends, or is temporarily in acute depression due to some too fair foe. Thus might Romeo have written ere the memory of Rosaline’s charms had faded in the light of Juliet’s eyes; thus might Eros have raged when faithless Psyche’s too curious lamp at once burned his shoulder, and shrivelled his love-dreams; thus – for are not loving souls the same in all ages? – might helmeted Robert discourse when inconstant Mary Jane has turned from blue to scarlet. Under the influence of personal feeling and the sting of personal suffering, does not the universe become one vast cave for the echoing of our complaint?
It is pleasant, however, to notice that Mr. Bax is on the road to recovery, for he occasionally betrays a humourous sense of the absurdity of his own diatribes, as when he tells the merry anecdote of the young woman who “experienced but slight constitutional disturbance after jumping from the Clifton Suspension Bridge, a height of some 800 feet.” Mr. Bax is, of course, perfectly aware that the height from the water to the bridge is only 245 feet, and the Munchausen-like touch manifested in throwing in an additional 555 feet, with no greater result than a “slight constitutional disturbance,” at once convinces us that Mr. Bax does not wish to be taken seriously. And this conviction is strengthened when we read of a second young woman who after the removal of an internal tumour, and “the removal and replacement of a portion of the intestines,” was “in a few weeks ... better than she had ever been before” in her pre-tumourous days. The story is a wee bit ghastly in its humour, and suggests that Holbein’s “Dance of Death,” may have, been the companion of Mr. Bax’s sorrowful hours during his late attack of misogyny, but it has its use in keeping up the level of bantering perversity. Under such conditions, if I urged that the English birthrate of 100 females to 105 males, or the European of 100 female to 106 males, scarcely warrants the allegation that the male births are “enormously in excess” of the female, Mr. Belfort Bax might well retort: “Why do you adduce vulgar figures to clog my airy and irresponsible imagination?” To bring arguments from facts or statistics against Mr. Bax’s variegated rhetoric would indeed be to crush with the Nasmyth hammer the gay fluttering wings of a peacock butterfly.
But let us pretend to be serious, and see if we can find anything in Mr. Bax’s paper which may pass for argument. The trinity of dogmas of the “advanced” faith in the woman question would not, I fancy, be accepted by any defender of “woman’s rights.” “Natural equality of the sexes” is a perfectly meaningless phrase. It has always seemed to me to be the idlest of pastimes to divide the human race into two halves, differing sexually, and then to squabble about their “equality.” Equality in what? That which we claim is equality before the law, equality of opportunity; there is no more “natural equality” between the sexes than between man and man. As well might we dispute whether fair men are cleverer than dark ones. Mr. Bax asserts that there is a palpable intellectual inequality between men and women; but that is only his headlong way of stating the case. If he had said that no woman has scaled the heights on which sit transfigured the throned Immortals of intellect; that no woman treads those Elysian fields in which Shakspeare wanders with Aeschylus, and Milton turns sightless orbs towards sightless Homer, where Murillo smiles to Buonarotti, and! Beethoven welcomes the coming of Wagner with thunderous chords of melodic greeting; if he had thus spoken, he would have said naught but truth. But below these loftiest ones men and women sit mingled side by side, and no wholesale placing of one sex above or below the other, has any fact answering to it in nature.
Dogma number two has the truth in it, that women have been oppressed as a sex – not as a class – and this historical fact cannot be questioned by any one who is even superficially, acquainted with the laws and customs of savage, semi-civilised, and civilised states. Before man had reached the lofty pinnacle of sexlessness on which he stands to-day in Mr. Bax’s theory of society, he was wont to use his superior physical strength to secure sexual gratification, and he was apt to regard as his property the persons of those who afforded him what he needed. Even Mr. Bax would hardly deny that the marriage laws, as existing in England a few years ago, were oppressive as they affected women, or that the exclusion of women from the more highly paid professions was not a sex-disability.
Dogma number three is strongly and even vehemently rejected by most advocates of women’s rights. I cordially agree with Mr. Bax in his attack on the “chivalry” which has made a sham deference to “women as women” replace between the sexes honest discussion and strenuous argument. “Privileges” have been granted to us with thinly veiled contempt, and polished courtesy has been the veneer of male self-conceit. But all this has been confined to a very narrow circle of “ladies and gentlemen,” and affects a comparatively small number. I can assure Mr. Bax from personal knowledge that most of those who would abolish artificial sex disabilities are quite ready to resign the privilege of walking out of a room in front of a man. The women who cling to sex privileges are usually bitterly opposed to “women’s rights.” The only reasonable meaning that can now be attached to the word chivalry is the ready aid given by strength to weakness, and that is not, as Mr. Bax very truly says, a matter of sex. One cold wet day last winter I was in an omnibus which was full inside, and an old man wanted to get in; I gave him my place and went outside, merely on the ground that he was older than I, and was thinly clad while I had on a fur cloak. I think a young man should do the same for an old man or an old woman, and especially for a poor person of either sex who is in thin clothes, not from “chivalry,” but from the simple sense of human brotherliness which is so sorely lacking in the scramble we call society.
There is a good deal of truth in Mr. Bax’s allegation that woman is too much identified with the sex-idea, though as usual he spoils a sensible statement by exaggeration and ill-humour. I readily grant that the shutting of women out of public life, the restraints imposed on girls, and the constant insistence on the hideous doctrine that “womanliness” implies hanging on to some man for subsistence, have resulted in making the majority of the women of the middle and upper classes regard marriage as the only career open to them for a living. Girls of these classes have not been taught any means of livelihood during their youth; they have been trained to look to marriage as the one object of life, and their thoughts are necessarily centred on it. For this the men of their own class are to blame more than the women, for the men have fostered the notion of female dependence because it meant female subordination; a man can bully his wife or his sister as he would never dare to bully a male friend, and they must submit to his insolence and ill-humour because they are dependent on him for bread. If Mr. Bax were in the habit of associating with working women he would find that sex is a much less prominent matter with them than among the women of his own social grade; the business of life, the interests outside the home, have educated the former into human beings. Mr. Bax generalises from too circumscribed an acquaintance with women.
But the really delightful thing about Mr. Bax is the naively lofty view he takes of his own sex. Sex with man is only “an accident;” an inseparable one, surely, and often a far too intrusive one. And with melancholy emphasis I can assure Mr. Bax that the incapacity of the average man to abandon himself to interest in any impersonal question is fully equal to the incapacity of the average woman, and that it is often a sore burden to his female acquaintances. The one solitary subject on which every man can be eloquent is himself; the dullest of male conversationists responds in music when that chord is touched by a skilful hand. For the sufferings of Mr. Bax in drawing-rooms I have the profoundest sympathy, but why does he go to them? The ordinary drawing-room is intended as a place in which one sex may simper at the other, and why should not the habitants of that sphere amuse themselves in their own way? The average young man likes to simper at the average young woman, and he does not want her to look at him as if she were his grandmother or his elderly aunt; he hopes that his little essays in wit and satire will be tenderly welcomed and admired, and his happiness would be marred if he were treated to a discourse on the lost house of Israel, when his thoughts are full of the last garden party. Imagine his horror, if in answer to his blushing greeting, “I do hope you were not too tired the other night,” she responded, “Oh, no thank you, Mr. Graham; but do tell me whether you consider Spencer’s Postulate valid?” Besides there is one difficulty that Mr. Bax may have encountered in seeking for a woman above sex. His opinions on women are pretty well known, and if a clever woman began to talk to him it is not impossible – so frail a thing is woman – that she might take a mischievous delight in playing up to his idea of her. It is such fun when a man is very superior and talks down to you, to make yourself out a greater fool than he thinks you, and to know that while he smiles sweetly as he descends to your level he is inwardly muttering, “and they call this woman clever!” A woman is sometimes like Jehovah; she “taketh the wise in.”
I am inclined to agree with Mr. Bax as to woman’s “constitutional frailty.” It is mostly a sham, and is only assumed to please men who want to protect women, and who could not pose as protectors unless women posed as frail. It is a piece of delicate sex-flattery of male stalwartness. More boys than girls die under the age of five, and women, on the whole, are more tenacious of life than men. They shew also more vitality in the way in which they face pain and disease. And it is well that it should be so, for only imagine what life would be if women made as much fuss when their finger ached as men do.
Mr. Bax falls into the very common blunder of thinking that women ought to be contented with their lot if they are well fed and clothed by the men who own them. “Women,” he says, “have had the lion’s share at the banquet of life.” This is only true of the minority of well-to-do women, and, when true, is utterly irrelevant. Our complaint is that we have been kept dependent on men, and that what we have had we have received by their grace, and not by our own work. This state of things is passing away, but, even now, a woman who determines to be self-dependent has usually “a very hard row to hoe” before she frees herself from family and social tyranny. None the less it is a woman’s own fault now if she does not make herself independent, except in the cases of some of the older women to whom the social and legal changes have come too late to be of use. The legal oppression of women is very nearly, if not wholly, a thing of the past, and her future development lies in her own hands.
Were it not for my already-expressed view that Mr. Bax does not mean to be taken seriously, I would challenge him to give a single instance in which a man has been given six months’ hard labour for staying the uplifted conjugal arm, weaponed with a flat iron or a poker. On the other hand, I could give him several in which a husband has received but a few weeks’ imprisonment for inflicting the most serious injuries on his wife. But what would that prove? We all know that brutal men and brutal women exist. Why use the existence of bad women as an impeachment of women in general?
The fact is that on this matter, while Mr. Bax thinks himself heterodox he is merely reactionary, and, for a clever man, he makes a very successful attempt at writing nonsense. For some unknown reason he has against women what is sometimes called a feminine spite, and it is as idle to argue with him on the Woman Question as it would be to argue with a fashionable lady in fit of hysterics. And, in all seriousness, I venture to say to him that it is a lamentable thing to see a man of intellect and literary power prostitute his talents in railing and raving at one half of the human race. Not by shrewish carping and bitter taunts, but by patient co-operation and loyal friendship, shall humanity rise out of the slough of its past, and climb the mountains of happiness which lie before it. Woman and Man have their special weaknesses, but they have also their special strengths, and the redemption of the race lies not in the hands of either sex alone. With all our faults, Humanity has need of us, and those will deserve best of posterity who strive to ennoble, and not to degrade, the mothers and the mates of men.