Dora B. Montefiore, New Age April 1903

Women’s Interests

American comments on President Roosevelt’s message.

Source: New Age, p.266-7, 23 April 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford

In connection with President Roosevelt’s message to women, as conveyed through his recent letter to Mrs. Van Vorst, an article in Young Oxford has been sent me, having for its title “Against Childlessness. President Roosevelt speaks out.” The President’s words seem to have thrown cultured America into a flutter of fussy enquiry into social statistics and some of the results of the enquiry are given in the article just alluded to. Mr. C.W. Eliot, President of the Harvard University, asserts that “College men fail to reproduce themselvesv, falling 2S per cent. short of it”; whilst from among a class of twenty-six women graduates from Bryn Mawr College, ten of whom married, “one child was the net production in fourteen years.” This, as against an average of 4.7 children born to the unacademic American woman. Men and women doctors give their opinions, some urging earlier marriages, and some later, Catherine Waugh M'Calloch remarking; “The world is not suffering from a lack of children so much as it is from the character of the children that are coming into the world just now. I do not believe that people should marry as young as they do. I do not believe they are sufficiently developed or experienced before they reach the age of twenty-five years.” It would seem also that in America there is a considerably larger proportion of unmarried males than females: 60.5 per cent, for the former, as against 55.1 for the latter. All of which results appear to me to be neither very striking nor very new; and certainly are not calculated to cause alarm as to “the non-reproduction in the next generation of blood and brain.” It is an old cry that the working-classes reproduce much more rapidly than do the so-called intellectual classes; and as long as the working classes can reproduce, and rear their children under decent conditions, there is no fear that either good blood or good brains will fail us; for it is from our agricultural and yeoman classes that these very necessary race qualities are mostly derived. When certain writers make an outcry as to the rate at which slum dwellers reproduce, as against the dwellers in better parts of the towns, we women democrats can only retort “Do away with your slums, and you will at once do away with that danger. We women are not responsible for the state of the slums, for you men will neither give us power as voters nor as legislators to change the land laws, nor to sweep away vested interests; neither will you give us power on municipal bodies to destroy insanitary house-property; we have been for generations, and still are, powerless to alter hygienic and external conditions for the undesirable breeders; your appeal for the improvement of the race must therefore be made to men, and to men only.”

Intellectuals have never been prolific.

It is also no new cry that intellectuals, as a rule, fail to reproduce. In an article in the Reformer for December, 1901, Mr. J.M. Robertson writes: “The fact that some women of genius have been either celibate or childless is in no way a sex speciality, seeing that large numbers of men of genius have been either celibates or childless, or both. It may suffice to name Mr. Spencer, Carlyle, J.S. Mill, Buckle, Keats, Leopardi, Poe, Balzac, Comte, Pascal, Ruskin, Macaulay, the younger Pitt, Heine, Francis Bacon, Dante; Spinoza, Kant.” Further on he writes: “If we are really to be so absurd as to decide that all women should become mothers, irrespective of their tastes or physique, we at least can hardly be so irrational as to disregard the necessity for breeding from healthy fathers. Scientific socialism can hardly sink below the level of the commonsense of stock-breeders. I fancy it will rise a good deal higher, and decide that there are quite enough children born without forcing maternity on unwilling or unfit women.” The paragraph ends with an appeal for “a thorough revision of sex ethics and sex science.”

The root of the whole question.

In this last sentence of Mr. J.M. Robertson’s lies the real crux of the whole question. In an age when every branch of science is being revised, coordinated, and brought up to date, what efforts are we making towards a revision of social science on the question of stirpiculture, or the improvement of the race? The first, step towards the building up of a science is the collection of data from which to adduce theories and obtain facts. In the collection of, data relating to the reproduction of the race, the mothers of the race could be supremely helpful. I would ask, what scientifically directed attempt is there being made to collect a continuity of family records as to the physique, the mental and moral aptitudes, the conditions and environment in early years, which helped or hindered the growing human being; what pre-natal conditions affected, for what we call good or evil, its brain and nervous system; what influence later on, education (on its intellectual side) had on that same brain and nervous system; and (most interesting point, which would help us much in criminology, and in the study of neurosis and lunacy) what had been the habits of the parents and grand-parents as regards temperance or over-indulgence in alcohol, tea, coffee, tobacco, or drugs? Our present rule of thumb fashion of keeping family records among the middle class is to record in the family Bible the dates of the marriage of the parents, and of the births of the children. Among the working classes it is exceptional for even such perfunctory records as these to be kept; whilst among the aristocracy the Peerage provides for public information what the family Bible records for private reference. All other facts concerning the family history sink unrecorded into the limbo of the past. What we need as a basis for scientific knowledge is a carefully-prepared list of questions to be answered intelligently by the parents but more especially the mothers) of the present race; it being understood that none of the answers are for publication, and that no names will be attached to the generalisations and facts that may be adduced. Our scientific enquirers would then have some real data on which to found their theories as to the effect of modern intellectual education (a new experience, be it remembered, in the history of the race as a whole; for till within a few generations the mass of the people in Europe were illiterates), of modern town-dwelling, of modern dram drinking, and of modern hurry and high pressure, on the slow undermining of the vitality and virility of the race, rather than on its deliberate suicide.