E. Belfort Bax 1902

Feminism in extremis

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. 6. No. 12, December 1902, pp. 361-367;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It is an undeniable fact that many Socialists hold their social creed to involve the doctrine of what is called sex-equality, by which is commonly meant, not merely the freeing of the female sex from certain arbitrary, economic and social disabilities, equal reward for equal work, the right to follow, in general, any pursuit for which qualification can be shown, & c., but the same rights as man in all things, political, economic, domestic or what-not, supplemented by certain sex privileges and immunities, airily defended on the vague ground of physical weakness. Now in order to maintain this position it is necessary to assume the complete intellectual and moral equality of women with men, while judiciously conceding their physical inferiority. A desire, conscious or unconscious, on the part of these Socialists, as of other advocates of Feminism, is to make out a claim for women to all that is honourable and agreeable in the functions of human life, while safeguarding them from any obligation to accept rough or dangerous duties. Thus Bebel, in his “Frau und der Sozialismus,” while maintaining that no social function filled by men ought to be inaccessible to women, since any seeming unfitness in the latter is only the result of certain cruel oppression at the hands of vile man, yet is careful to guard his fair clients from the danger of being called upon for military purposes, even of defence. Now if we are to assume the physiological possibility of the results of oppression being inherited through one sex only, it would seem somewhat singular that only the physical inferiority should be inherited, and not the mental, since there is no obvious reason for assuming that while one is the result of oppression, the other is of original constitution. The consequence, however, shows itself in that while it is deemed only reasonable to regard women as unfitted for soldiering, it is in the eyes of the Feminists crass and blind male prejudice to deem them unfitted for responsible political office.

The best-known Socialistic exponent of Feminism is, of course, August Bebel, but in his book, i.e., in those portions of it treating of the woman question, the violent prejudice is so obvious and the apparatus of argument so plainly coloured by parti pris that some Feminists are prepared partially to surrender Bebel in conceding his argumentation to be “doubtless open to criticism.” In the present article, therefore, I prefer to take as an exponent of the Feminist position an undoubtedly able and eminently sober-minded English publicist, and to constitute as my text an article of Mr. J.M. Robertson in No. 362 of the Reformer, consisting of a criticism of Enrico Ferri’s position on the subject of the equality of woman and man, a position shared by the present writer.

As already said, this question of moral and intellectual equality between the sexes is the key of the situation as regards Feminism, and hence it is to this point I shall address myself chiefly in the following paragraphs.

Mr. Robinson accuses Enrico Ferri of being “unscientific.” This means, as we shall see, merely that Mr. Robertson disagrees with Enrico Ferri. In a long footnote (pp.20-22 of the English translation of “Socialismo e scienza positiva”) Ferri points out that the tendency of some Socialists to make the equality of man and woman an article of faith is due to a mental habit surviving from utopian Socialism. He might have said that it is also, and perhaps chiefly, due, as I have repeatedly pointed out, to the confusion between sex and class – i.e., a primarily biological category with a social and economic category. However, Enrico Ferri goes on to show how recent investigations have tended to confirm the fact of the physiological and psychological inferiority of woman to man. Now Mr. Robertson falls foul of Ferri on the ground of his using the general terms “woman” and “man,” his plea being that these terms are abstract, and, therefore, “medieval” (as he calls it) since no two concrete men and no two concrete women are exactly alike. I confess, on reading this, I fairly gasped at the straits to which Feminist advocates can be reduced for an argument, and the recklessness with which a usually telling and logical thinker will throw his reputation into the breach on behalf of the cause he has espoused – when it is that of the fair sex. To read Mr. Robertson one would think he were in a state resembling Mr. Jourdain’s, before he had discovered that he had been talking prose all his life without knowing it. For Mr. Robertson writes as if he were altogether unaware that the form of the Concept, at the basis of what is known in Logic as the “class-name,” is not only the primary essential of all human thought and language, but is a crucial factor even in our perceptive consciousness. In all his walk and conversation, Mr. Robertson, like the rest of us, has been employing this “abstraction,” the logical class-name, ever since he arrived at self-consciousness at all, and has, accordingly, to adopt his own phrase, been “medievalising” all his life. Our critic now suddenly makes the astonishing discovery (which, by the way, every mediaeval schoolboy could have revealed to him) that the class-name is an abstraction in that it never covers the entirety of the qualities of the particulars or individuals falling under it, which hence may differ inter se. But the still more astounding deduction he draws from his discovery would seem to be that we should abandon the use of the “general term” or “ class-name altogether, and so we suppose become Jogis, doing our level best to divest ourselves of all logical thought and human language. Yet no! This would be a too hasty view of Mr. Robertson’s position. He knows mercy and will still allow us to talk, even in scientific conversation, of dogs and horses, Hottentots and Russians and the like, and to predicate things concerning them, without branding us with the terrible stigma of being unscientific mediaeval survivals – and this, notwithstanding that no two dogs (not even of the same breed) are exactly alike any more than any two horses, or two Russians, or even two Hottentots. No, where he draws the line is at human sex. if you speak of “man” or “woman” in general terms, if you employ the class-name in this case, then his anathema descends on you; then you are, indeed, a mediaeval survival discussing an abstract “man” and “woman” having no counterpart in “reality,” but being merely the coinage of a medieval brain. Mind you, I repeat, if you are a zoologist or a veterinary surgeon, you are not unscientific in differentiating between a greyhound and a spaniel, notwithstanding that no two greyhounds or spaniels are “concretely” alike. Similarly, if you are an ethnologist, you may talk of the race-characteristics of Hottentots and Slavs without even a stain on your scientific character! In this case the abstraction is all right; but, if you are a sociologist, and venture to distinguish sex, i.e., human sex, or to discuss the general characteristics of “woman” as distinguished from “man,” then woebetide you! Is the suspicion unnatural, that the sudden desire to confound the harmless and necessary class-name or logical “universal” is due to the fear lest its normal use should in this case lead to conclusions derogatory to the claims of emancipated womanhood.

When Mr. Robertson talks about his million female college graduates (he would have a difficulty in getting a million together, I fancy) as against a million grooms or sailors, with a view of upsetting comrade Ferri, he is simply trying on the old dodge of placing exceptions against exceptions to subvert a rule. The female graduate is an exceptionally gifted woman, the groom in most cases an exceptionally non-intellectual man. Granted that a clever and well-trained dog might show more intelligence than a neglected human idiot, it would not bring us any nearer to a proof of the intellectual equality of man and dog. Place the groom from childhood under the same educational circumstances as the Girton girl, or vice versa, and you might have the basis for a comparison, but as the argument is stated by Mr. Robertson it is, I submit, simply an evasion of the issue. Brought up under special conditions, I believe, cats have been trained to eat grass, and sheep mutton chops, but this fact is not usually regarded as rendering the man unscientific or medieval who describes the former as carnivorous and the latter as herbivorous animals, and who proceeds to argue on this basis. In violation alike of physiology and ordinary observation, Mr. Robertson, in order to save the situation for feminism, would apparently maintain the thesis that the sexual system plays as important a part in the general intellectual and emotional life of the average man as it does in that of the average woman. Says Ferri, “all the physiological characteristics of woman are the consequences of her great physiological function, maternity.” “This is as good as saying,” observes our critic, that “man’s characteristics are not thus consequent on sex,” to which I reply, certainly they are not, at least to anything approaching the same extent. The whole mental life of the average woman is completely dominated by her sexual organisation. It determines her attitude in every question and in every department of life. Her sexual relation to man is the fulcrum moving her whole life until she becomes a mother, when this is, of course, modified by the maternal relation. With man, on the contrary, sex is only an element, generally even, by no means the strongest, in determining his general mental life. It exists more as something per se; it may be strong or it may be weak, but in only exceptional pathological cases does it infiltrate that mental life in the same way that it normally does in woman.

As I have elsewhere put it, we are justified in referring to normal woman as being a sex (in common language, woman is spoken of as “the sex”), and to normal man as having a sex. The actual sexual instinct or passion may (if you will) be stronger in man than in woman, but, even if so, it does not in the same way interpenetrate his entire life. It is not the fulcrum on which his whole mental constitution turns. To deny, as is apparently done by Mr. Robertson, that a woman’s mental processes are consequent on her sex-function to an extent and in a sense in which men’s most assuredly are not is, I repeat, a procedure so flagrantly in contradiction with physiology and ordinary observation that Mr. Robertson can hardly expect us to accept it without more ado, even on his authority.

Mr. Robertson, like other Feminist advocates, would, as we have seen, deny that there are causal elements in the female constitution, physical and psychical, that are sui generis. To do so, he says, is “reducing psychology to chaos.” What he means by this I do not profess to know. All I can say is, if the recognition of a self-evident fact is to reduce psychology to chaos, the sooner this happens the better, since so much the sooner will poor psychology have a chance of being reconstructed on a more reasonable basis – a basis which will include all facts, however distasteful they may be to the individual psychologist.

Pursuing his extraordinary line of argument, the first condition of which, like that of most Feminists, seems to be the denial or ignoring of patent truths, Mr. Robertson goes on to emphasise his point, alleging that Ferri’s contention as to the influence of the sexual system on women could not be true except on the hypothesis that every woman were in a continual state “of pregnancy, parturition or lactation"! And this is a critic who veritably runs amuck with the word “unscientific” among all whose science leads them to results uncongenial to the Feminist mind. We note by the way that Mr, Robertson writes as though he had never heard of menses as the most constant and hence in the long run most severe manifestation of the female sex-organism. Mr. Robertson actually goes so far as to allege that the sex-function apart from maternity is more of a drain on men’s than on women’s strength! To what length of absurdity will parti pris not carry us! But the really startling fallacy of our author lies in the assumption that the peculiar sexual-organisation of women can only affect their general bodily and mental structure and functions during the period of its special activity. That the mere fact of this sexual organisation being present, the whole system otherwise having to contribute to its maintenance, he apparently regards as quite immaterial. Yet it is precisely on the existence of this sexual system as such and on the demands it makes that Ferri’s argument is primarily based, and not merely, or even chiefly, on its special periods of activity.

Ferri’s critic is fond of using the expression “bluff” respecting controversial statements he does not like. But if there ever was an instance of “bluff” in argument, I submit the article under discussion about “takes the cake.” Mr. Robertson, as we have seen, begins with a piece of logical “bluff,” endeavouring to bamboozle those unversed in the “Tree of Porphyry” anent the proper use of the “class-name” or logical “universal.” He next tries on a physiological piece of bluff – the assumption that the action of the sexual system in man and woman respectively on the general life is comparable in kind and amount. He emphasises this by a further piece of bluff – viz., the assumption that Ferri’s argument, as based on the peculiar characteristics of the female sex-system, could only be applicable during the periods of the latter’s special activity. He goes on making the astoundingly “bluffing” assertion, unbacked by any proof, an assertion refuted by common experience, that the sexual function, apart from maternity, is more of a drain on men’s than on women’s strength – and so on.

Mr. Robertson is naturally prepared to grant the inherent muscular weakness of women as compared with men. But he is careful to point out that physical or muscular strength and intellectual capacity are seldom united in the same individual. This is very true, only, unfortunately, it does not help the Feminist position. The problem for Feminism is to maintain the mental equality of woman with man, while speciously conceding the physical inferiority. Hence this observation as to the respective proportion of physical and mental capacity present between individuals of the same sex is made to do duty as an argument when the question is of one sex with another. The (logical) class or category called man contains a general potential capacity that may actualise itself either in physical or mental capacity. But this is, says Mr. Robertson, often distributed in inverse proportions between individual men, the mentally strong man being often the physically weak, and vice versa. Hence, he argues that the physical inferiority of women does not presumptively imply their intellectual inferiority.

The fallacy here is obvious. A fact which applies between the individuals of one category he would make apply as between two distinct categories. The sex-category man, say for the sake of argument, possesses a certain general potential energy, capacity or power. This may actualise itself in any given individual man as mental power (at the expense of physical) or as physical (at the expense of mental). But over the whole range of men both are present. If, however, you admit in the case of woman that there is a persistent inferiority throughout the whole sex, of one form of actualised capacity, the physical, the presumption is surely strong that the total capacity, mental as well as physical, in the sex-category woman is less than that in man, and it is, I submit, a presumption which will require a good deal of rebutting. No mere reference to the distribution between individual men, as regards the physical and psychical sides of the total potential capacity of man as a whole (i.e., as a sex), will suffice to effect this since the basis of an analogy is wanting. For a gentleman, however, who has such a sovereign contempt for logical forms as Mr. Robertson we suppose it would be too much to expect that he should recognise this.

But, says the Feminist, the intelligence of woman may be different from that of man but not necessarily inferior. The whole of the evidence available, I answer, points to woman’s inferiority as an organism. In addition to the facts brought forward by Ferri we have a mass of cumulative proof which is overwhelming. Let us enumerate some of the main points in connection with this.

1. The smaller average size of the organism, otherwise, in the main, the same in essentials as that of man.

2. The proportionately inferior mass and quality of the brain matter (as shown by anatomists).

3. The special character of the female sexual-system and its functions, especially menstruation, which necessarily tends to draw off strength from the brain, the nervous and muscular systems.

4. The earlier ripeness of the female organism as compared to that of the man (it is well known that, other things equal, an organism inferior in the order of evolution reaches perfection sooner than a superior organism).

5. The lesser susceptibility to pain proved of women by the experiments of Lombroso and others, and the greater constitutional toughness of vitality in women than in men, characteristics at least strongly suggesting a lower form of evolutionary type.

6. The liability of women to hysteria in one or other of its forms, one woman in four or five, or according to some estimates even a higher percentage, being affected by it to a greater or less extent, varying as it does from slight and unimportant nervous symptoms to positive insanity (a remarkable illustration of how this tendency handicaps women in all occupations demanding close attention is afforded by the recent report concerning the employment of women in Post Offices and other Government departments in Germany.)

7. The fact that, even in those directions (e.g., art and literature) where no special prejudice or barrier has stood in the way, women have, with one, or two exceptions, never achieved anything noteworthy.

8. The fact admitted by every observant person who has not taken a brief in the Feminist cause, of the usual comparative absence in women of the foundation of all morality, the sense for abstract justice, of a regard for truth, and of the capacity for forming an objective and disinterested judgment.

In conclusion, I would once more call attention to the singular circumstance that, whether really so or not, while, on the face of things, women are inferior to men mentally as well as physically, yet the Feminist, while readily accepting the second kind of inferiority as essential to women, storms and raves at the bare suggestion that the first kind of inferiority may also be necessarily part of the equipment of the female sex. To deny essentiality for either would be at least consistent, but then what would become of woman’s privileges based on her supposed weakness? Mr. Robertson’s desperate attempt to confound the distinction between Men as such, and Women as such, in endeavouring to maintain that the difference between the average man and the average woman is no more than that between one man and another, or one woman and another, is too thin to pass muster outside the brotherhood and sisterhood of sworn Feminists.

I think I have shown that Mr. Robertson’s science, whatever it may be at other times, when infected with Feminist parti pris, does not amount to much. On the other hand, what has Mr. Robertson done to show anything unscientific in Enrico Ferri’s “note” in Socialismo e scienza positiva? He sets up sundry assertions contrary to received physiology and certainly contrary to the results of ordinary observation, in opposition to certain of Ferri’s statements. The only score he makes is over a slip or misprint of the word no where the word few was quite obviously intended. In Sahara one is thankful for anything in the shape of moisture, and, considering the hopelessness of our critic’s case otherwise, I do not grudge him the capital he seeks to make out of a typographical error. This error is, in the opinion of Mr. Robertson, sufficient to entitle the “Feminist” to deny him (Ferri) any further hearing! When we have to deal with woman’s rights champions, it is clear we must look sharp after our proof-sheets after this.

For the rest, I venture to say that to any impartial person the “note” criticised will be found to be as rigorously scientific as the nature of a brief statement admits. The characterisation, moreover, of women “as ranking between the child and the adult male” seems as happily to hit off the case as presented to common observation as it is possible to do in a short sentence. And now our last word on the relation of Feminism to Social-Democracy. As Dr. Möbius, in his remarkable pamphlet, truly says, “if Social-Democrats allow themselves to be caught by the Feminist fallacy, they are only injuring their own cause.” The same author also justly points out that the proletarian woman-movement has no necessary connection with the so-called “woman’s rights” or Feminist movement, which is rather individualist or anarchist. The aim of the latter is, in a word, to obtain for the female sex men’s rights combined with women’s privileges, and this goal, I am afraid, also seems at the back of certain Socialist pronouncements on the woman question.