August Bebel. Woman and Socialism
Woman in the Present Day

Chapter VII.
Woman as a Sex Being.

1. – The Sexual Impulse.

In present-day bourgeois society woman holds the second place. Man leads; she follows. The present relation is diametrically opposite to that which prevailed during the matriarchal period. The evolution from primitive communism to the rule of private property has primarily brought about this transformation.

Plato thanked the gods for eight favors they had bestowed upon him. The first was that he had been born a free-man instead of a slave, and the second was that he had been born a man instead of a woman. A similar thought is expressed in the morning prayer of the Jews. They pray: “Be thou praised God out Lord and Lord of the earth, who hast not created me a woman.” In the prayer uttered by the Jewish women the corresponding passage is worded: “Who hast created me according to thy will.” The contrast in the respective positions of the sexes could not be more forcibly expressed than in this utterance of Plato and the prayer of the Jews. Man is the real human being according to numerous passages in the Bible, and both the English and French languages furnish proofs of this conception, since the word “man” denotes both male and human being. When speaking of the people we usually think of men only. Woman is a factor of slight importance, and man is her master. Men generally consider this state of affairs quite proper, and the majority of women still accept it as a divine ordinance. In this prevailing conception the present position of woman is reflected.

Regardless of the question whether woman is oppressed as a proletarian, we must recognize that in this world of private property she is oppressed as a sex being. On all sides she is hemmed in by restrictions and obstacles unknown to the man. Many things a man may do she is prohibited from doing; many social rights and privileges enjoyed by him, are considered a fault or a crime in her case. She suffers both socially and as a sex being. It is hard to say in which respect she suffers more, and therefore it only seems natural that many women wish they had been born men instead of having been born women.

Of all the natural desires that are a part of human life, beside the desire for food in order to live, the sexual desire is strongest. The impulse of race preservation is the most powerful expression of the “will to live.” This impulse is deeply implanted in every normally developed human being, and upon attaining maturity its satisfaction is essential to physical and mental welfare. Luther was right when he said: “He who would thwart the natural impulse, seeks to prevent nature from being nature, fire from burning, water from moistening, man from eating and drinking and sleeping.” These words ought to be engraved above the portals of our churches in which the “sinful flesh” is so vehemently denounced. No physician or physiologist could more accurately express the necessity of satisfying the human desire for love.

If the human organism is to develop normally and healthfully it is essential that no portion of the human body should be neglected, and that no natural impulse should be denied its normal satisfaction. Every organ should perform the functions which it has been destined by nature to perform, unless the whole organism is to suffer. The laws of the physical development of man must be studied and observed as well as the laws of mental development. The mental activity of a human being depends upon the physiological condition of his organs. Physical and mental vigor are closely linked. An injury to one has a detrimental effect upon the other. The so-called animal instincts are not inferior to mental requirements. Both are products of the same organism and are mutually interdependent. This applies to both man and woman. Hence it follows that knowledge of the nature of the sexual organs is as necessary as that of all other organs, and that the same attention should be bestowed upon their care. We ought to know that organs and impulses implanted in every human being constitute a very important part of our existence, that they as a matter of fact predominate during certain periods of life, and that therefore they must not be objects of secrecy, false shame and complete ignorance. It follows furthermore that among both men and women knowledge of the physiology and anatomy of the various organs and their functions should be as widely diffused as any other branch of human knowledge. Endowed with an exact knowledge of his physical nature, man would take a different view of many circumstances. This knowledge would lead to the removal of many evils that society at present passes by silently, in solemn awe, but that nevertheless claim consideration in almost every family. In regard to all other matters knowledge is considered a virtue; it is regarded as the loftiest, most desirable human aim. But we decry knowledge pertaining to those matters that are most closely linked with our own “ego” and are at the bottom of all social development.

Kant says: “Man and woman together form the full and complete human being; one sex supplements the other.” Schopenhauer says: “The sexual impulse is the most complete expression of the will to live, it is the concentration of will”; and long before these Buddha thus expressed himself: “The sexual impulse is sharper than the prod by means of which wild elephants are tamed; it is hotter than flames; it is like an arrow driven into the soul of man.”

Such being the intensity of sexual impulse, it is not to be wondered at that with both men and women sexual abstinence frequently leads to serious disorders of the nervous system, and in some cases even to insanity and suicide. Of course, not all natures manifest an equally strong sexual impulse. It can also be restrained to a great extent by education and self-control, especially by avoiding the stimulant of lewd conversation and literature, alcoholism, etc. It is held that the sexual impulse is weaker among women than among men, and that sometimes women even feel revulsion against sexual contact. But these constitute a small minority whose physiological and psychological dispositions are peculiarly constituted.

We may say that the manner in which the natural desires of the sexes are expressed, both in their organic and physical development, in form and in character, marks the degree of perfection of a human being, be it man or woman. Each sex has attained its own highest development. “Among civilized human beings,” says Klenke in his essay on “Woman as a Wife,” “sexual intercourse is controlled by moral principles dictated by common sense. But nothing could ever fully subdue the instinct of race preservation, implanted by nature in both sexes. Wherever healthy male or female individuals failed to fulfill this duty, it was not of their own free will, though they may deceive themselves into believing it, but was a result of social hindrances and restrictions. These hindrances have impeded the laws of nature, have stunted the organs, and have transformed the whole organism into an atrophied type both in appearance and in character and have caused nervous disorders that bring about abnormal, pathological conditions of body and mind. The man becomes effeminate; the woman becomes masculine in form and character, because the sexual contrast has not been realized; because such particular human being remained one-sided, failing to attain his own integration, the full height of his existence. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell says in her essay on “The Moral Education of the Young in Relation to Sex”: “Sexual impulse exists as an inevitable condition of life and the foundation of society. It is the greatest power in human nature. ... While undeveloped it is not an object of the thoughts, but it remains nevertheless the central force of life. This inevitable impulse is the natural guardian against all possibility of destruction.”[1] Practical Luther has positive advice to offer. He advises: “Let him who has no desire for chastity look about him for work and turn to matrimony; a boy at the latest when he is twenty, a girl when she is fifteen or eighteen years of age. Then they are healthy and skillful and trust to God to provide for them and their children. God gives them the children and he will provide for them.” Unfortunately our social conditions make it impossible to follow Luther’s good advice, and neither the Christian state nor Christian society believes in trusting to God to provide for the children.

Science, the views of the philosophers, and Luther’s sound common sense, all are agreed that man is entitled to normal satisfaction of those desires that are part and parcel of his very life. If social institutions or prejudices make this impossible, his development is hampered thereby. The results are well known to our physicians, and can be met with in hospitals, insane asylums, prisons, and in thousands of disrupted families. In a book published in Leipsic we find the following thought expressed: “Sexual impulse is neither moral nor immoral; it is simply natural like hunger and thirst. Nature knows nothing of morality.” But organized society is very far from recognizing the truth of this sentence.

2. – Celibacy and the Frequency of Suicide.

Among physicians and physiologists it is generally assumed that even an imperfect marriage is preferable to celibacy, and this assumption is substantiated by experience. It is a striking fact that the rate of mortality is lower among married than among unmarried people (comparing about 1,000 married persons 30 years old with 1,000 unmarried persons of the same age). The difference is especially marked in the case of men. During some periods of life the rate of mortality among unmarried men is almost twice as great as that among married men. Mortality is likewise very great among men who have become widowers while still young.[2]

It is furthermore claimed that the number of suicides are increased by unsound sexual relations. In all countries suicides are much more frequent among men than among women. The following table shows the ratio in various European countries:

Among 100,000
– suicides. –

Ratio of female to
During the years. Male. Female. male suicides.
Germany 1899-1902 33.0 8.4 25.5
Austria 1898-1901 25.4 7.0 27.6
Switzerland 1896-1903 33.3 6.4 19.2
Italy 1893-1901 9.8 2.4 24.5
France 1888-1892 35.5 9.7 27.3
Netherlands 1901-1902 9.3 3.0 32.3
England 1891-1900 13.7 4.4 32.1
Scotland 1891-1900 9.0 3.2 35.6
Ireland 1901 2.3 1.2 52.2
Norway 1891-1900 10.0 2.5 25.0
Sweden 1891-1900 21.1 8.6 40.8
Finland 1891-1900 7.8 1.8 21.1
European Russia 1885-1894 4.9 1.6 32.7

During the years 1898 to 1907 we find the following ratio of suicides in the German Empire:

Year. Total. Male. Female. Year. Total. Male. Female.
1898 10,835 8,544 2,291 1902 12,336 9,765 2,571
1899 10,761 18,460 2,301 1904 12468 9,704 2,764
1900 11,393 8,987 2,406 1907 12,777 9,753 3,024

For each 100 male suicides there were female suicides: During 1898, 26.8; during 1899, 27.2; during 1900, 26.8; during 1904, 28.5; during 1907, 31. But during the period of life from the fifteenth to the thirtieth year, the rate of suicide is higher among women than among men.

The following table shows the ratio between the 15th and 20th, and between the 21st and 30th year:

15th to 20th year. 21st to 30th year.
During the years. Male. Female. Male. Female.
Prussia 1896-1900 5.3 10.7 16.0 20.2
Denmark 1896-1900 4.6 8.3 12.4 14.8
Switzerland 1884-1899 3.3 6.7 16.1 21.0
France 1887-1891 3.5 8.2 10.9 14.0[3]

The following table shows the ratio of male and female suicides in Saxony between the 21st and 30th year:

Men. Women.
1854-1868 14.95 18.64
1868-1880 14.71 18.79
1881-1888 15.30 22.30

We find an increased number of suicides among widowed and divorced persons also. In Saxony among divorced men the rate of suicide is seven times as high, among divorced women three times as high, as the average rate of suicide among men and women. Also suicide is more frequent among those widowed or divorced men and women who are childless. Among the unmarried women who are driven to suicide between the 21st and 30th year, there are many who have been betrayed in love or have “gone wrong.” Statistics show that an increase of illegal births is generally accompanied by an increase of female suicides. The rate of female suicides between the 16th and 21st year is exceptionally high, which also points to the conclusion that ungratified sexual impulse, love-sorrow, secret pregnancy or the deceit of men constitute frequent causes.

In regard to the position of woman as a sex being, we find the following thought expressed by Professor Krafft-Ebing[4]: “One source of lunacy among women that should not be underrated, is their social position. Woman is by nature more desirous of love than man, at least in the ideal sense, and she has no honorable means of gratifying this desire except marriage (Mandsley). Marriage is, furthermore, her only means of livelihood. Through countless generations her character has been developed in this direction. !Even the little girl is mother to her doll. Modern life with its increased demands is constantly diminishing the prospects of satisfaction through marriage. This is especially true of the upper classes where marriages are contracted less frequently and later in life.

“While man owing to his greater physical and intellectual force and his free social position, readily obtains satisfaction of his sexual impulse, or at least finds an equivalent in some life’s work that requires all his strength, these paths are barred to the unmarried women of the upper classes. This leads, consciously or unconsciously, to dissatisfaction with one’s self and the world and to morbid brooding. For some time compensation is sought in religion, but in vain. The religious fanaticism, with or without masturbation, leads to a number of nervous disorders that frequently culminate in hysteria or insanity. This explains the fact that unmarried women fall victims to insanity most frequently between the 25th and 35th year of life. It is that period when the bloom of youth fades and hope fades with it; while among men insanity most frequently occurs between the 35th and 50th year, the period during which the struggle for existence makes its greatest demands upon their strength.

“It is not a mere coincidence that with the decline in the marriage rate the question of the emancipation of women is becoming more and more urgent. I regard it as a signal of distress showing that woman’s position in modern society is steadily becoming more unbearable. It is a just demand that woman should be given an equivalent for that which has been assigned to her by nature and of which she is being deprived by modern social conditions.”

In speaking of the effect of ungratified sexual impulse on unmarried women, Dr. H. Ploss says: “It is a noteworthy fact, of interest not only to the physician but to the anthropologist as well, that an infallible remedy exists whereby the process of fading bloom, so manifest in old maids, cannot only be arrested, but the already vanished bloom of youth can even be reinstated, partly at least, if not in its entire charm. Unfortunately our social conditions rarely permit its application. This remedy is a regular, orderly, sexual intercourse. We can often observe that when an elderly girl is still fortunate enough to attain matrimony, a marked change in her appearance takes place shortly after her marriage. Her shape obtains its former roundness, the roses return to her cheeks, and her eyes regain their former brightness. Marriage then is a real fountain of youth to the female sex. Thus nature has its fixed laws that inexorably demand obedience, and every unnatural mode of life, every attempt to adapt the organism to conditions of life that are not in keeping with the laws of nature, inevitably leaves marked traces of degeneration. This is true of both the animal and the human organism.”

The question now presents itself: Does society fulfill the demands for a rational mode of life, especially in the woman’s case? If it does not, we are confronted by a second question: Can society fulfill them? If this question also must be answered in the negative, a third question ensues: How can they be fulfilled?


1. E. Blackwell, “Essays in Medical Sociology.” Page 177. London, 1906.

2. Dr. G. Schnapper-Arndt: “Social Statistics,” Leipsic, 1908.

3. H. Krose, “Causes of the Frequency of Suicide.” Freiburg, 1906.

4. “Text-book of Psychiatry” – Stuttgart 1883.