Review of Sex and Society
"SEX AND SOCIETY."
A Womanís Rational View of Prof. Thomasís Much Discussed Book — Women Should Read It Before the Condemn It.*
Written for the The New York Times Saturday Review of Books by Hildegarde Hawthorne.
The race is to the swift and the battle to the strong is the tag which might be subjoined to Prof. Thomasís book, "Sex and Society." Of course it is more difficult to convict the slow and the weak of this than any others. They have their own notions about it, and whether they triumphantly refute the whole question with that one crushing response, "Because," or whether they content themselves with stating that the goal is different from what the swift supposed or the battle more thoroughly won in its loss than in its gain, they will not hesitate in the long run to remain unconvinced.
Woman has been the object of philosophical attack ever since she first gave birth to a philosopher.
A superficial opinion would tend to the idea that women and philosophers ought by rights to be the best of friends, since both are without the hurly-burly of life and the fiercer conflict of the struggle for existence. Each lives to some extent separate from what is popularly called the real world. But their enmity — if we may employ so terrible a word in conjunction with so gentle a creature as either a woman or a philosopher — is after all fundamentally inescapable. At one end of the matter stands She, judging life from her emotions, and at the other, He, judging life from accumulations — of bones and ideas.
Having built up an intricate Palace of Truth from the frozen blocks hewn out of the great reservoir of human knowledge, what patience can the philosopher possibly have for the little creature who comes toward him with the cup of her hands filled with a few escaping drops and chattering of green grass and bubbling springs?
* * *
The old story tells us that it was woman who ate first of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is possible that a slight tinge of jealousy lingers in Adamís bosom for that small space of time when she knew more than he. Or if the story is told to intimate that it is only through the emotional side of his nature that man learns anything work knowing, worth paying the uttermost price for, sill woman may find more cause for comfort than for those pangs of shame she has so far suffered on Eveís account. But have we fallen from out high estate?
We are all familiar with the unconscious humor of the brain that proved to be smaller than the average female brain after spending its active existence in proving the latterís inferiority on the great ground of its slighter proportions. Since then the weight of the brain has lost its value as a proof of wisdom. Prof. Thomas in the present book tells us that the Chinese brain is apt to be some seventy grams heavier than that possessed by Occidentals, and advances other reasons to show that it is quality, not size, that counts, with brains as with oysters. No sooner, however, does woman draw a comfortable breath over this happy conclusion than she finds herself attacked in a new quarter.
Equipped with the same amount of gray matter as man, we may yet come out at very different ends of the horn; it seems to be an apparent truth that this is just what we have done. For it is the use to which we put our possessions that tells in the game, or the tragedy, according as you may view life.
* * *
A couple of years ago or so a young German brought out a book in which he essayed to prove that woman was not a real existence, a thing occupying space on its own account. She was simply the reflex action of man; she was because he thought her. Neither good nor evil because incapable of an individual act or conception, she was fit neither for praise nor blame. Possibly because the book opened up an alluring future utterly free from all responsibility, possibly for other reasons, edition after edition was sold. In the meanwhile Herr Weininger had satisfied right-thinking minds by going out and shooting himself. This act, so serious to himself, somehow detracted from the seriousness of his book.
Lately and advance chapter of Prof. Thomasís book was published in The American Journal of Sociology. Woman, accustomed to being struck in one spot, and noting the title of the chapter, "Mind of Woman and of the Lower Races," felt the knife turn again. Once more the old enemy and the familiar attack. She didnít read the chapter — hadnít she heard it all before ? — but she flung out a defensive hand and uttered a protesting shriek.
On the whole, she might better have read it — or better still, have waited for the book itself. Prof. Thomas is not at al in the galPre with the defunct German boy. Among other attributes missing from the make-up of that precipitate youth, the professor has a decided twinkle in his eye, far-seeing as that member undoubtedly is. When he speaks of a comradeship existing in happy marriages which in not a true comradeship of the mind, but rather an extension of the mother instinct in woman and an outgrowth on the part of man of that "nurture and affection which it is in his nature to give to all pets and all helpless (and preferably dumb) creatures," we like the professor all the better and feel that here is a real human being who has felt the stress of life.
* * *
The book is extremely interesting. It is written with clearness and charm, an in spite of its scientific character, it moves with the speed and life of a narrative. Prof. Thomas gives us women a fighting chance. He tells us we have the same weapons as man, only we have allowed them to rust. We must use the intellect we possess, measure ourselves against realities, cease from living walled up in a more or less spacious cell. Surely no more hopeful or inspiring volume on the much-debated woman question has lately come to hand. The professor does not hesitate to rap the knuckles of modern existence sharply enough. He draws a fair picture of the life a great many among us lead. It is a condition, as he shows, brought about by man himself. Representing the more restless and energetic half of humanity, man, sharing about equally with woman in providing the working basis of life during the early history of the race, could not but turn his attention, when the necessities for warfare and hunting disappeared, to those more domestic employments until then monopolized by woman. Gradually from being helpmate woman was "reduced by man to a condition of parasitism which , in our middle and so-called higher classes, has profoundly affected her physical, mental and moral life. * * * There has in fact been developed a peculiar code of morals to cover the peculiar case of woman. This may be called a morality of the person and of the bodily habits, as contrasted with the commercial and public morality of man. * * * Morality, in the most general sense, represents the code under which activities are best carried on, and is worked out in the school of experience. It is pre-eminently an adult and a male system, and men are intelligent enough to recognize that neither women nor children have passed through this school." Speaking of the changeableness, the exacting, unsatisfied, and absurd characteristics of some women, Prof. Thomas says: "There is, therefore, a basis of truth in Popeís hard saying, "Woman has no character at all." Because their problem is not to accommodate to the solid realities of the world of experience, but to adjust themselves to the personality of men, it is not surprising that they should assume protean shapes."
* * *
It is in this lack of connection with reality that Prof. Thomas finds the explanation for the modern and especially the American womanís restlessness, dissatisfaction, even ill-health. "Human nature was made for action; and perhaps the most distressing and disconcerting situation which confronts it is to be played on by stimulations with the ability to function. * * * The human mind was formed and fixed one and for all in very early times, through a life of action and emergency, when the species was fighting, contriving and inventing its way up from the subhuman condition; and the ground patterns of interest have never been and probably never will be changed. Consequently all pursuits are irksome unless they are able, so to speak, to assume the guise of the early conflict for life in connection with which interests and modes of attention were developed. * * * The gamester, adventuress, and criminal are not usually abnormal in a biological sense, but have failed through defective manipulation of their attention to get interested in the right kinds of problems."
A practical and normal activity for women would, the professor thinks, relieve the strain on the matrimonial situation, "a situation which is at present abnormal and nearly impossible." He alone among the arraigners of our sex maintains that it is not lack of power but a superimposed inability to make use of that power which imprisons us. Many women will argue that we are no longer prisoners, and will loudly point, if the expression may be permitted, to their own achievements as proof. To be sure, some of us are no longer in cages and may sing what notes we choose or be silent at our will. But the professor is speaking of woman in the mass. He says: "Not only are women unable and unwilling to be communicated with directly, unconventionally, and truly on many subjects, but men are unwilling to talk to them. * * * Even the most serious women of the present day stand, in any work they undertake, in precisely the same relation to man that the amateur stands in relation to the professional in games. They may be desperately interested and may work to the limit of endurance at times; but, like the amateur, they get into the game late and have not had a lifetime of practice, or they do not have the advantage of that pace to be gained
( 9) only by competing with players of the very first rank. No one will contend that the amateur in billiards has a nervous organization less fitted to the game than the professionalís; it is admitted that the difference lies in the constant practice. * * * A group of women would make a sorry spectacle in competition with a set of men who made billiards their lifework. But how sad a showing a group of philosophers would make in the same competition."
That puts Prof. Thomasís attitude in the proverbial nutshell. His book is in sooth a tract for the mental enfranchisement of woman. How far he would go in this matter of making woman more like man is not quite apparent. Are their pursuits to become identical, their participation in the rough games the same? Several pages in the earlier part of the book are taken up in proving conclusively that no matter what her physical training, woman is inferior in strength and agility to man; but than in endurance she surpasses him. This physical difference must, it seems to use, shadow a corresponding mental difference. That we women are not as well-developed, as fin, or as efficient as we might be is beyond doubt. But that we should look forward to an identical mental efficiency with that possessed by man admits of much. Prof. Thomas in his concluding paragraph admits this. But to the old argument that child bearing renders it impossible for woman to do continuous or hard work he opposes the statement "that no work is without interruption, and childbirth is an incident in the life of normal woman of no more significance, when viewed in the aggregate and from the standpoint of time, than the interruption in the work of men by their in and out door games. The important point in all work in not to be uninterrupted, but to begin again."
There is a certain insouciance in the professorís attitude here to which women may possibly not subscribe.
Citing many curious and interesting customs relative to the intercourse of the sexes prevailing among savage and semi-civilized races, Prof. Thomas goes on to say that "chivalry, chaperonage, and conventions are the persistence of the old race habit of contempt for women and of the intellectual sequestration." We should approach life more simply and directly than we do, not taking it second-hand from man as a moving row of shadow-shapes, but fresh and warm and breathing. The professor has a smiling contempt for unnecessary conventions and false ideals. He has a way of sticking his finger through them and pointing out their distant sources in the misty background of primitive life which must jar on their sensibilities.
It might perhaps be maintained that woman, in the simple and sometimes terrible reality of her bodily and emotional life, does come near to what is actual, vital and enduring; nearer than man can possibly come. And confirmation is found for this in the fine wisdom, the insight, and comprehension of many women. For it is not alone by way of the intellect that wisdom is achieved. But many among us avoid this single road to actuality for one or another reason. We lose ourselves in a crowd of insignificant and useless things. We are afraid of life, and our attitude toward it is an unhealthy attitude. Prof. Thomas is a sincere and intelligent man, and his book is a faire and useful addition to the literature on the subject. Women had better read it with sympathy rather than hysteria; it will do us good. H. H. New York, February, 1907.