E. Belfort Bax

Some Current Fallacies on the Woman Question

(July 1897)

E. Belfort Bax, Some Current Fallacies on the Woman Question, Social Democrat, July 1897, pp.201-205.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Essays In Socialism, New & Old, 1907, pp.119-123.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the following remarks on the above subject, I should premise that my intention is only to appeal to those persons whose minds are warped in favour of Feminism [1] by certain plausible-sounding arguments, which they have been in all sincerity accepting because their fallacy has never been pointed out to them. The rack of hysterical molluscs, who are imposed upon by hollow sentimental whines anent their “mothers and their sisters” (why not their grandmothers, their aunts, their female cousins, or their mothers-in-law?), may be fairly left to stew in their own rather thin juice. As for myself, when I hear of injustice, say, of prison brutalities practised on men (brutalities from which women are exempt), my indignation, I say, is intensified, when I think it is the sex to which my father and my brother belong (or did belong) who are their victims. But I should never think of trotting out this purely personal sentiment as an argument for the special favouring of men in this connection, in any discussion on the relative treatment of men and women. I therefore propose confining myself to certain popular statements which one commonly hears and which are supposed to make for the views promulgated by women’s rights advocates – statements which, if they were true, or if the implication conveyed in them were true, world undoubtedly afford some grounds for a serious consideration of the conventional view of this question put forward by the aforesaid advocates. They are, in fact, the only semblance of argument which the latter seem able to produce.

These argumentative statements consist very largely of variations on two main contentions – both of them, as I maintain, in the nature of false analogies. The first is the assumption that the relative position of the sexes bears some analogy (it is commonly represented as a very close analogy) with the relation between employer and workman – the employer representing the man and the workman the woman. The talk about “the proletarian in the household” is founded on this assumption. Now, as I have often pointed out before, the very basis of an analogy is wanting in this case. The difference between man and woman is not all economical or social one: it is an organic or biological distinction from which, as contended by non-Feminists, is deducible the difference in capacity between men and woman, both as to quantity and quality. The distinction between capitalist and proletarian is, on the other hand, not biological, but purely social, being simply one of class, based on economical circumstance. But what is further amusing is the way in which this preposterous analogy is worked, so that the woman is represented as the oppressed side of the equation in the case. Now, it is quite clear that if we are to fake up an analogy at all between sexes and classes, it is the man whose labour is exploited and not the women. It is the duty of the husband to maintain his wife, not the wife her husband. The husband is compelled, by custom and by law, to do corvée, or to yield up such portion of his earnings as may enable his wife to live in comfort – just as the villein was compelled to do corvée, or to pay his lord a proportion of the produce of the fields worked by his labour. The lord had the practical monopoly of the villein’s means of existence – the land. Under the most favourable circumstances, he exacted from him a toll, in the shape of rent in kind or money, and other dues, for the privilege of working the land. The woman possesses the monopoly of what is, if not a primary, at least a secondary necessary of life to the great majority of men – the means of sexual satisfaction, her body; and for allowing him access to which the law entitles her to demand a rent and dues in the shape of food, clothes, shelter – in short, provision in accordance with the station of life occupied by her “villein,” the husband, without any exertion on her part. But, it may be said, she has her duties to perform in the household, which may sometimes involve not inconsiderable labour. But so had the feudal lord his duties to perform. He had to go out to battle to protect his tenants against foes from without – an operation which might easily cost him his life – and to see that justice was administered on his estate. It is true there was often no adequate power to prevent the lord from neglecting the welfare of his tenants, but there is no power at all in modern English law to prevent the wife from neglecting her duties to her husband and family. The husband remains even more hopelessly the slave of a worthless wife than the mediaeval serf was of a tyrannical and rapacious baron. I do not press the foregoing parallel myself, as I consider the whole attempt to establish an analogy between class and sex-opposition to be fallacious, ab initio. But I think I have sufficiently shown that if we are to have the analogy forced upon us at all, it will work out in quite a different sense to the “proletarian-in-the-home” theory.

Yet it is in the class of argumentation of which this theory is a specimen that it is considered incumbent upon all democrats to champion the pitch-forking of women into every sphere of activity which, from its lucrative or honour-bearing character, happens to excite their envy, quite irrespective of their suitability therefor. As against this, all that is contended by myself, and other democrats and Socialists who think with me, is that the cumulative experience of the human race through at least three thousand years establishes a case for what is termed, in legal phraseology, a “presumption” that the woman is less capable than the man in those spheres of activity in which she has hitherto not shone. It is true that this presumption is rebuttable, and has in individual cases been rebutted. But the onus of rebuttal, it is contended, rests with the individual woman who aspires to the post or occupation in question. If she has given clear and unmistakable proof of her capacity, it would be absurd to exclude her on the ground of her sex alone.

But, on the other hand, one swallow does not make a summer, and the fact that an occasional woman is to be found to which the presumption will not apply is not by any means sufficient to rebut it as a general principle. Therefore, it is insisted, such isolated cases ought not to be regarded as establishing a precedent for reversing a practice resting on such a widely established induction as that of the inferiority of women to men in so many departments of executive and directive activity. The induction referred to is strengthened rather than weakened by the theory, so dear to woman’s rights advocates, that gyneocracy (the supremacy of the female) was universal in the earliest stages of human society. There is, of course, another theory, that the so-called gyneocracy was peculiar to certain races, and hence cannot be regarded like other institutions belonging to the same period as forming an essential stage in social evolution generally. But, assuming the former theory to be right, it is obvious that women in primitive times enjoyed a governmental and executive authority which they were unable to maintain, presumably owing to inherent incapacity, since the fall of gyneocracy wherever it has existed, is too widespread a phenomenon to be accounted for by local or special causes and the hypothesis that the victory of private over tribal or communal property-fielding had anything to do with it is manifestly absurd when we consider that personal property holding and inheritance is just as possible through females as through males, a state of things which actually obtained concurrently with other gyneocratic institutions, in some cases long after the ancient primitive communism had broken down (e.g., in Lykia, as also to a large extent in Egypt), and yet that, in spite of all, either the gyneocratic institutions perished, or the races subjected to them went under before non-gyneocratic civilisations. If the above be in any way admitted, it follows that the appeal to democratic sentiment and democratic analogies in support of the so called “claims” of women is entirely beside the mark. It yet remains to be proved that women have any “claim” at all to the exercise, say, of the suffrage, or of any other responsible function. It may be an open question if you like, but it cannot be decided off hand on the basis of “natural rights,” “social equality,” or any of those grounds which are urged in the case of classes, or of nations on approximately the same level of development.

Would people but abstain from quite going off their heads, in considering this question, they would be compelled to admit that women have never been oppressed as subject classes have been by dominant classes, or even as subject races have been by dominant races. The superficial disabilities to which women have been subject have always been more than compensated by other privileges. The woman has always been queen in her own sphere. She has always had very substantial rights, and exercised authority in a very substantial manner. The distinction of rights between the sexes has always been more as between spheres of influence rather than as between domination and subjection. Nevertheless, that an organically inferior being should not be in certain matters subject to the relatively superior, is a proposition which I for one am not prepared to endorse off-hand. But the inferiority of women has not been proved, it will be said! True, but as already pointed out, the course of history, from primitive times upward, makes out a strong case of presumption in favour of the inferiority. And that presumption has certainly never been, as such, rebutted. Those who doubt this may be referred to the painfully-laboured special-pleadings of Bebel in a certain chapter of Die Frau. The forlorn defence of an able advocate is always the best indictment of all untenable position.

As things are, women, by considering themselves in the light of a class, and agitating, not for equality, but for supremacy (the “equality” is a mere pretence) in class-fashion, are really creating a sex-antagonism which ultimately means the sacrifice of their strongest weapons. They are flinging away that moral power by which they have hitherto, for good or for evil, swayed men, wholly unchallenged, for the sake of a brute force wielded by men in their favour, which they may lose at any time. They are resigning the psychological magic by which they have bent men to their will for the privilege of being allowed to invoke the brute force of the policeman, the prison warder, the judge, and the bailiff. The fact would seem to indicate a female degeneracy, if that were possible, since the exchange, one would think, could only benefit women who united in their persons the attributes of badness, ugliness, and stupidity. The absence of any one of these qualities has generally sufficed, hitherto, to enable them to work the oracle themselves. They have now invoked the phantom of the brute force of the state to settle their quarrels with men, thereby calling into existence a sex-hostility which will one day recoil on them as sure as men are men and women are women.

Meanwhile, middle-class public opinion still continues in favour of the oppression of men, and the immunity of women from all control. It is a “revolting injustice” to subject public women to sanitary measures. It is perfectly in order to mutilate men who have contracted disease from these unexamined women. It is a monstrous iniquity that a man should exercise any power over his wife’s property or earnings. The latest “right” claimed by the “advanced” political women of New Zealand is the confiscation for the wife’s exclusive use of half the husband’s property on marriage! Sir John Bridge, doubtless, aptly expresses public sentiment when, in discharging a young man against whom a bogus charge had been brought by a prostitute, after she had first of all assaulted him, admonishes the young man – that he give the sweet creature ten shillings compensation! Truly a nice way of fulfilling a police magistrates duty of protecting harmless citizens on their way home at night! Another police magistrate, Mr. Francis, is severely hauled over the coals by certain hysterical Feminist organs for not passing a vindictive sentence on a husband charged with administering to his wife what, for aught they knew, may have been a thoroughly well-deserved thrashing. As the same magistrate said, when dealing with another similar case, if all husbands were sent to gaol for trivial assaults on their wives, there would not be enough prisons to contain then. Yet this is exactly what our Feminists are aiming at. The chief function of the magistrate, according to them, ought to be to act as assistant-bully to brow-beating wives. We have already got some way in this direction. A friend of mine heard a manifestly bogus charge – of indecently assaulting a daughter – tried (the prisoner apparently being only convicted owing to a misunderstanding of the jury), where the judge put it to the wife whether it would not inconvenience her to be deprived of the labour of her husband-slave, and, on the creature answering in the negative, sentenced him to a month’s “hard.”

The second main-root of a number of fallacies as to the possible capacities of women, both as regards quantity and quality, in various departments where they have not hitherto distinguished themselves, is expressed in the view that modern woman is the product of “centuries of oppression,” and hence cannot be expected, at present, to show forth the latent glories of her intellectual and moral character. Now, for my own part, I should certainly demur to the fact of the centuries of oppression, but the granting of them does not help the Feminist case. In the first false analogy we had the confusion between sex and class; here we have the confusion between sex and race. For the advocates of the theory forgot that, were it true that women have suffered under a special oppression as women, the effects of such oppression would necessarily, on the average, be divided equally between both sexes of their descendants, and could not possibly be inherited after the manner of what someone has called a “hent-ail,” in the female line only, and hence could not affect women more than men. Women no more constitute a race or species by themselves than they do a class by themselves. Nevertheless, this preposterous argument has been repeated over and over again, until to many people it is an unassailable truth upon which it is perfectly safe to base speculation as to an infinite vista of untold feminine achievements. Really Feminists would do well to drop argument, and confine themselves to blithering about “mothers and sisters”! It is so touching!

In addition to the foregoing sources of fallacy, there is a fooling among Socialists, in itself perfectly natural and legitimate, to the effect that the change from Capitalism to Socialism must involve considerable alteration in the condition of women. So it certainly will, but it by no means follows that the changes involved will he along the lines of the modern Feminist movement, as so many take for granted. That the position of women must change is obvious; but to assume that it must take the form of the female prerogative prevailing in. the more advanced capitalist states of to dry, or even of a mechanical equality which takes no account of organic differences, is a mere assumption which the wave of Feminist sentiment has hitherto allowed to pass unchallenged within the ranks of our party on the Continent as well as here. It is this assumption which will have, in the future, to be subjected to a rigorous criticism, a criticism very different from the one-sided plaidoyer for the Feminist position contained in the, in other respects, excellent book of August Bebel, Die Frau und der Sozialismus. Men will perhaps learn in time to approach this woman question with an open mind, unbiassed by that blind hatred of their own, and blind worship of the other sex, which at present characterises Rebel as well as so many other writers on the subject.


E. Belfort Bax



1. It seems to be decided now by the usage of the majority that the above, and not “Femininism,” is the correct form of this word.


Last updated on 13.1.2006