The Woman Movement from the Point of View of Social Consciousness


Jessie Taft

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We are now in a position to take a final survey of the woman movement in its relation to the larger stream of social evolution. The course of the preceding argument has been very briefly as follows: first, the woman movement is the expression of very genuine problems both for the individual woman and for society as a whole; second, those problems are the result of an unavoidable confect of impulses and habits, values and standards, due to the effort of trying to combine, without deliberate and conscious adjustment on the part of society itself, two dissimilar worlds; third, such conflicts are, as a matter of fact, equally real for men and for women as the labor movement testifies, and give evidence of areal dualism of self and social environment, of a genuine inequality between the kind of consciousness actually developed and the type of consciousness required to deal with the complexities of. modern social relations; and finally, the restoration of equality between self and environment depends on the possibility of developing a higher type of self-consciousness whose perfect comprehension of its relations to other selves would make possible a controlled adjustment of those relations from the point of view of all concerned. We endeavored to show that such a conception rests upon a social and dynamic theory of personality and pointed out an actual development in personality throughout history up to the present moment when the wished-for type is not only desired but is being actualized. In this concluding section, the attempt will be to leave an impression of the woman movement stripped bare of the detail of argument as it appears in perspective to one who looks at it from the point of view indicated in the preceding discussion.

The woman movement, viewed not as an isolated phenomenon but as an integral part of the vaster social evolution, is seen to be only the woman's side of what from the man's angle is called the labor movement. It is a reaction against the same conditions and a demand for changes in the social order such that life will once more become harmonious. The accident 'of modern civilization has brought about inevitable conflict in the fundamental human impulses for both men and women. It has apparently allowed for complete, almost over expression of one set of impulses, at the expense of a partial or sometimes complete repression of the other, This has meant, of course, that the set of impulses which was allowed to develop unchecked by the other set was as abnormal and as far from a well-balanced rounded fulfilment as were the unexpressed impulses. The industrial and economic system of today, which

( 54) has come into being more or less unconsciously and accidentally, has so divorced the economic and the social that it is only with a tremendous struggle for more inclusive forms of consciousness that we shall be able to recognize that the split is only apparent and that a system which not only believes in, but insists on, such a separation results in irreconcilable dualism in the lives of the men and women involved, persisting to the point of gigantic social problems, agitations, and movements. Thus the labor movement symbolizes the impossibility of choosing between the fulfilment of the economic impulse and the fulfilment of the impulse to live. Men are granted unlimited opportunities to work, but no provision is made by the system for intelligent parenthood, for good citizenship, for a thoughtful development and use of the sex impulse. A man's parental expression is limited to caring for the economic welfare of his family. His own growth as a person must be sacrificed to the necessity of supporting himself and family. Work must be combined with life, but our system makes little provision for such a combination, hence, forcing into opposition fundamental impulses clamoring for expression. The labor movement demands a new society in which creative, sexual, parental, and other social impulses will have an unquestioned right to fulfilment.

With women, on the other hand, social impulses are the only ones which are overtly recognized. Women are constantly forced into the economic world, but the system ignores that fact and provides in no way for combining the peculiar social function of women with any economic function which they may find desirable or necessary. Such economic expression as has been conceded to them is confined to the home. Like-wise, the other impulses, even the maternal, have no recognized place outside the limits of the individual home. For the woman, the system has no avenues of fulfilment foreseen and provided beforehand for any impulse whatsoever outside the home itself. Everything which has opened up has been at best, even after long and patient effort, only makeshift and haphazard. Society is always emphasizing the obligation of the woman to carry out the sex and maternal impulses at all costs and minimizing the need or value of the economic so far as she is concerned. In the conditions of living which are forced upon her, she is compelled to make the sorry choice of a limited sex and maternal expression or a doubtful and hazardous attempt on the economic side. In either case, she loses so far as society's aid or prevision is concerned. Only by the extra-ordinary force of a powerful personality will she make a signal success at either venture: Society no more makes a thoughtful attempt to

( 55) give the maternal interests the most complete development and employment possible than it makes any pretense at all of using intelligently the natural impulse of the woman to be of economic value in the world. Much less does it offer a rational scheme for combining both motives within a possible form of living for the average normal woman. Thus the woman, even more than the man, faces a perfectly hopeless alternative. Neither side at the present moment is overwhelmingly attractive in itself even apart from the sacrifice of other impulses which its choice involves. What woman would willingly abandon love and children? What normal woman would accept a life in which she gave up all effort at serious work of genuine economic value to society? What woman would attempt without shrinking the almost impossible task of combining the two as affairs stand today? Above all, what woman would under-take wifehood and motherhood with the limitations placed on it by our present social system and feel that those two fundamental parts of herself could ever reach a satisfactory and adequate fulfilment?

That the peculiarly unhappy position of the woman is a reality and not an illusion can be detected in the arguments used to convince woman of her obligation to bear and rear. The element of sacrifice is so obvious that it is even seized upon and treated as a virtue, an added glory for the crown of the wife and mother. Moreover, this notion of necessary sacrifice on the part of the woman and the bare fact of motherhood itself have grown into a sort of fetish. The experiences of motherhood are exalted to the point where they are assumed to be a sufficient compensation for any and all sacrifices. To silence our own doubts and justify our procedure, we have come to believe in the inherent and absolute value to the woman of the mere fact of giving birth to a child, even though the emotions and purposes thus originated are never carried past the instinctive or intuitive level to a rationalized and socialized expression. We are afraid to face the fact that the home in its present unrelated, individual form does demand of women, and men too for that matter, a sacrifice so great as to have lost a large part of its value for spiritual growth, an overwhelming and crushing sacrifice of the possibilities of motherhood and fatherhood that defeats its own end.

All of this hopeless conflict among impulses which the woman feels she has legitimate right, even a moral obligation, to express, all of the rebellion against stupid, meaningless sacrifice of powers that ought to be used by society, constitutes the force, conscious or unconscious, which motivates the woman movement and will continue to vitalize it until some adjustment is made.

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The labor movement and the woman movement do not understand always how close is their relationship, nor do they see clearly that the reason why the obviously stupid and unsuitable social conditions which they combat are so difficult to alter is because human beings have not yet arrived at the stage where they know how to attack and solve social problems. The real goal of both movements is a society whose consciousness shall have reached the social stage and hence is capable of dealing scientifically with social as well as physical problems, a society which no longer leaves the social forms and relationships whereby human impulses are expressed to chance or physical force, but subjects them to rational control.

In the physical world we have at last become conscious of our method and hence have acquired a control over physical conditions which promises to become more and more complete. If the desire arises in a community to do something for which present physical conditions make no allowance, it becomes instantly a problem for the experts and it is only a question of time when a way will be found for the gratification of the felt need. The very basis of the physical problem is the thwarted desire of human beings to do something and the method of obtaining the end is, of course, a full and free admission of the inherent right and value of the desire, a deliberate searching for every element involved in the physical conditions of the problem, and a careful experimental attempt to find the combination which will satisfy all the conditions. We should not consider our problem solved if the scientist said to us, "You do not really want this thing, you only imagine it, and in any case it would be bad for you to have it. You have managed to live all these years without it, why complain now?" Imagine such an answer to the determination to fly in the air. But, supposing, if we persisted in our wish to fly and began to talk about it and clamor for a way to be opened, the authorities were to turn on us, demand silence on pain of arrest and imprisonment, label us socialists or anarchists, and tell us we were rebelling against the fixed and righteous order of things as they are. Should we consider that any attempt had been made at solving our problem of how to make a machine that would fly in the air? Yet, impossible as it may seem, that is thus far the favorite method of dealing with any unsatisfied, insufficiently expressed set of human wants, whose fulfilment would mean change of the social order. First, deny the existence of the want; second, call it wicked, foolish, or injurious to individual and society; third, suppress it by force—and you have dealt with it adequately.[1]

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The chief task of all social movements, then, must be at first to impress upon the rest of society the right of unsatisfied and unexpressed human impulses to constitute a real problem worthy of the same amount of expert attention whether they demand a new way of crossing the Atlantic Ocean or a new combination of work and social expression in the lives of men and women. This they will never bring about until there is a sufficient number of people who are so socially sensitive and adaptable that they feel within themselves as their own the impulses and points of view of all classes and both sexes. Such individuals will be the social scientists who will offer solutions to our social problems because they are able to place themselves at the very heart of these problems and thus to comprehend the conditions, the unsatisfied, conflicting impulses, upon the harmonization and fulfilment of which any solution that has the right to the name must be based. The fundamental purpose of the woman movement, therefore, as of any great social movement, is bound to be the producing of social scientists who will be capable of offering hypotheses that are based on the actual data constituting the problems, and the bringing about of an increasing social consciousness among all people such that they too will become sufficiently aware of the real content of social relationships to be willing to undergo the adjustments of the social order necessary to make actual the theories which promise salvation.


  1. For a complete presentation of this failure of our civilization to handle its social problems see Walter Lippmann's Preface to Politics.

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