Ernest Belfort Bax

The Woman Question

(27 July 1895)

The Woman Question, Justice, 27th July, 1895, p.6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Taking a hint from the suggestion of “TATTLER” a few weeks ago in Justice that it is time above question was fairly thrashed out among Socialists the editor of Justice has invited me to briefly state my views.

Up till quite recently Socialists like Radicals other advanced persons, were supposed, as a matter of course, to swallow that conventional lie of modern civilisation – the theory of “woman the victim of man’s oppression.” This dogma, which, like the doctrine of Manchester school, that the ideal of human liberty is attained under the capitalistic regime of free industrial and commercial competition, has dominated the thought of the Anglo-Saxon race for two generations and has been the chief instrument in effecting a revolution which has placed the whole judicial and administrative machinery of the country at the disposal of one sex oppress the other (in all causes, i.e. into which the sex question prominently enters.) Let us look at the present condition of this so-called “victim.”

While under our present marriage laws the wife is under no obligation to maintain the husband, not even though she have money and he be destitute (saving the ratepayer’s right to be recouped for his maintenance in the workhouse) the husband is bound at criminal law to maintain his wife in comfort under all circumstances. Hitherto exception has been made in the case of adultery on the part of wife. Now, in a Bill before Parliament this last reservation is proposed to be virtually abrogated by a “caoutchouc” paragraph which enforces “alimony” where the husband can be shown by his defect or “misconduct to have contributed to the adultery. “

Thus, if a man has ever had a dispute with his wife or even come home late, as in a recent case, he will presumably have, “by defect or misconduct, contributed to the adultery;” just as now if a man ever had words with his wife and raised his voice above its normal pitch or come home late he may deemed to have committed technical cruelty entitling the said wife to separation or divorce with “alimony.”

2. A wife is perfectly free to leave her husband at will, and he has no remedy (Jackson case). If a husband leaves his wife she can compel him to surrender to her a third of his income or earnings, and for desertion, i.e., for leaving her without money, he can be punished with hard labour.

3. A husband is further liable for her debts and her civil delinquencies (torts).

4. A husband cannot obtain relief against a wife for any act, negligence, or language of hers, while for any one of these considerations she can get judicial separation, exclusive rights over the children, if any, and a third of his income or earrings for herself, with so much per head in addition for each child. Thus if a man gives his wife an unfriendly pat on the cheek with his open hand she can get established comfortably for life on the fruits of his labour; if, on the contrary, she smashes his head in with a poker she may be fined five shillings which the injured husband has to pay; and should he succeed in obtaining a separation it is only on, condition of his keeping the virago in comfortable idleness.

A little illustration will bring home to the reader this complete serfdom of the husband to the wife under our marriage laws. A man, not long ago, obtain the offer of employment in America. His wife did wish him to go. Not having any money or work home he insisted. The wife who had money of own, and to whom he moreover gave £25 with promise of more on his arrival at his destination, went straight to the Guardians, had him arrested on board ship at Southampton, dragged before the magistrate, and sentenced to three months hard labour. The sentence was subseqently quashed after the man had been in gaol and was ruined. Most feudal barons would surely have been satisfied with such powers as this over their “villeins.”

At criminal law it is a well-known fact which anyone may verify by the records of the courts that women enjoy an almost complete immunity for all offences committed against men, as such. For assault, perjury, and blackmailing practised on men, women are virtually never even prosecuted, let alone convicted. On the other hard, savage and vindictive laws, savagely and vindictively enforced by judges are dealt out to men for the most trifling assaults or other offences committed against women. In fact it seems that the express aim of the modern political woman and her “Women’s” Associations is to deprive men of the last shred of protection against criminal women with a view of giving the latter every facility for exercising their calling.

If one looks at the matter fairly, one surely cannot be surprised at occasional violence committed on women – wife assaults, wife murders, &c. Legalised tyranny and inequality has always throughout history led to sporadic outbursts of brutality on the side of its victims. It is always so, and always will be so.

Such is the present position of advantage enjoyed by women by virtue of their sex. Such are the facts as opposed to the popular “legend” on the subject. Space forbids my further analysing the present subjection at law of men to women in this article, which is the more unnecessary as I have elaborated the subject in further detail elsewhere.

Of course, under Socialism, the side of the question based on property falls away. Our existing infamous marriage laws must disappear when both sexes are alike economically free. When once this is so, a perfectly free marriage, without let or hindrance, would necessarily result. Should, as Herbert Burrows seems to have suggested, a bastard “public opinion” try any games on of attempting by ostracism to supply the place of the defunct coercive legal bond in enforcing any special form of marriage, such as monogamy, we shall have to do our best to strangle that “public opinion” as quickly as possible. If driven to it, even opponents might combine in an association whose members pledged themselves (like the Oneida Creekers), to marital relations strictly limited to a fixed period, say six months. To thus raise anti-monogamy to the level of a principle would surely be a pity as a result of the “cussedness” of trying to compel outward conformity to monogamy among people whose temperaments were unsuited to it. In using the ugly word “lust” for any form of marriage he does not like, Herbert Burrows resembles the respectable bourgeois of my boyhood’s days who used to stigmatise every form of liberty he did not like (e.g., the right of workmen to combine) as “licence.” No, friend Herbert, I trust a society even half-way into Socialism will be past being caught with that sort of chaff.

At the same time I regard it as highly probable that for a long while to come voluntary monogamy (voluntary, in fact, and not in name merely) will be the dominant form of the sexual relation. The attempt to enforce it, however, whether by law or “public opinion,” will I am equally convinced be contrary to the whole spirit of a reasonable society. To make out that there is an absolute and immutable moral superiority in monogamy irrespective of temperament or circumstances over every other form of sexual relation is surely absurd. Only by society encouraging perfect freedom can the most perfect form of the sexual relation, that best adapted to human needs, be wrought out. Monogamy, like every other institution, will have to make good its case by showing its superiority to other forms, and not by the aid of external tyranny, whether juridical or social.

Before concluding this article I would point out what is liable to be overlooked, viz., that the coercive effect of “public opinion” could only be operative in a Socialist society when the whole community was practically unanimous in condemning a course of conduct and not in defence of any arbitrary dogma, however strongly held by a section of the community. The case is different under capitalist conditions when a man can be forced to wear a “pot” hat against his will, owing to the “public opinion” of the class on whom he is dependent for his livelihood insisting on it.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 26.5.2004