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The Case Of Woman VS. Orthodoxy -Voltairine de Cleyre (1896)

“I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thy desire shall be unto thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

Thus descended the anathema from the voice which thundered upon Sinai; and thus has the curse gone echoing from away backthere in the misty darkness before the morning of history rose upon men. Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow—and oh! how many million voices wail, wail endlessly.

“Sorrow is my portion and pain is my burden; for so it was decreed of the Lord God, the Lord God who ruleth and whose creature am I. But oh, the burden is heavy, very heavy. I have been patient; I have borne it long; I have not complained; I have not rebelled; if I have wept, it has been at night and alone; if I have stumbled, I have gone on the faster. When I have lain down in the desert and closed my eyes and known no more, I have rebuked myself. I have remembered my mother, and been patient and waited, waited. But the waiting is very long.”

This is the cry of the woman heard in the night of the long ages; ghostforms flitting through the abyss, ghost-hands wrung in the ancient darkness come close and are laid upon the living, and the mournful cadence is reintoned from the dead by the quick, and the mournful, hopeless superstition which bound the hearts and the souls of our foremothers, lengthens out its weary chain and binds us, too. Why it should be so, why it has done so for so long, is one of the mysteries which a sage of the future may solve, but not I. I can see no reason, absolutely none, why women have clung to the doom ofthe gods. I cannot understand why they have not rebelled. I cannot imagine what they ever hoped to gain by it, that they should have watered their footsteps with tears, and borne their position with such abnegation. It is true that we are often offered explanations, and much force may be in them, but these explanations may serve only to account for the position. They do not account for woman’s centurian acceptance of, and resignation to, it. Women are, we know, creatures of their environments, the same as are men; and they react on their environment in proportion to their capacities.

We know that women are not now, and, with some few tribal exceptions,probably never were, as strong as men are physically. But why in commonsense sorrow should therefore be their lot, and their husbands should rule over them, and why they should uncomplainingly accept this regime, is one of the, to me, incomprehensible phenomena of human history. Men,enslaved, have, to speak expressively, “kicked”—kicked vigorously, even when the kicking brought to them heavier chains; but we have never, till very recently, had anything like a revolt of women. They have bowed, and knelt and kissed the hand which smote them. Why? Notwithstanding all of its pretensions to be the uplifter and the glorifier of women, there ever has been, there never will be, anything for them in orthodoxy but slavery. And whether that slavery is of the sordid, gloomy, leaden, work-a-day sortor of the gilded toy-shop variety, whether it be the hard toil and burden of work women or the canary-bird style of the upper classes, who neither toil norspin, the undertone and the overtone are still the same: “Be in subjection;for such is the Lord’s will.” In order to maintain this ideal of the relation of master and of subject between men and women, a different method of education, a different code of morals and a different sphere exertion were mapped out for women, because of their sex, without reference to individual qualifications. If a horse is designed to draw wheels because it is a horse,so have women been allotted certain tasks, mostly menial, because they are women. The majority of men actually hold to that analogy, and without in the least believing themselves tyrannical or meddle-some, conceived themselves to be justified in making a tremendous row if the horse attempted to get over the traces.

That splendid old veteran of Freethought, George Jacob Holyoake, in a recent article, one of a series running in the Open Court, has pertinently observed that the declaration that thought is by its very essence free is an error, because as long as speech, which is the necessary tool of thought, is not free, the intellect is as much hampered in its effort to think as a shoemaker without tools is in attempting to make a pair of shoes. By this same method, viz., the denial of the means of altering it, was the position of woman sustained, by subordinating her physical development to what was called delicacy, which ought to have been called by its proper name, weakness, by inculcating a scheme of morals which made obedience the first virtue, suppression of the will in deference to her husband (or father, or brother, or,failing these, her nearest male relative) the first deduction there from, by a plan of education which omitted all of those branches of knowledge whichrequire the application of reason and of judgment, by all of these deprivals of the tools of thinking the sphere was circumscribed and guarded well. And by the penalties inflicted for the breaking through of these prescriptions,whether said penalties were legal or purely social and voluntary, the little spirit which was left in woman by these limitations was almost hopelessly broken. It is apparent, therefore, that if in all these ages of submission have hopelessly accepted that destiny, if they have never tried to break these forbidding barriers, they will not do so now, with all of theiradded centuries of inheritance, unless the relentless iron of circumstance drives them across. (Later, it will be my endeavor to show that this iron is already pressing down).

It may not be flattering to have this conviction thrust upon us; but it may be less disagreeable if I explain what I mean. In former times, when people trod upon the toes of gods every time they turned about, moral ideals and social ideals were looked upon as things in themselves descended from on high, the gift of the gods, Divine patterns laid down without reference to climate, to race, to social development, or to other material things, matters of the soul without relation to bodily requirements. But now that gods speaking the tongues of men have vanished like vapors at sunrise, it is necessary, since it is evident that morality of some sort exists everywhere,of very different sorts under different conditions, to find some explanation of these psychic phenomena correlated with the explanation of physical phenomena. For souls are no longer perceived as monarchs of bodies laying down all manner of laws for the bringing into subjection of the physical members, but rather soul, or mind, or whatever name may be given to the psychological aspect of the bundle called an ego, is one with the body, subject to growth, to expansion and to decay, adapting itself seasonably to time and to circumstances, modified always by material conditions, intimately connected with the stomach, indissolubly related to the weather, tothe crops, and to all other baldly commonplace things. In contemplating this revised version of the soul one will, according to the bent of one’s nature,regard this view as a descent from spiritual heights, rendering things coarse and gross, or, on the other hand, he will see all things clothed in the gloryof superb equality, he will not say: “I am sunken to the indignity of a cabbage,”but “this common plant is my brother and the brother of things greater than I, serving equally well his part; there is no more or less, smalleror greater; Life is common to us all.”

Now, therefore, upon this basis, the basis of the perpetual relation between physical foundations and ethical superstructures, it is seen that if this be an acting principle now, so it has ever been, and will be as long asmind and matter constitute reality. Hence the ethics said to have been delivered by Jehovah upon Sinai was truly the expression of social ideas compatible with the existing physical conditions. Not less so the ethics of bees, of ants, of birds, and of the Fiji Islanders; and not less so the ethics of to-day, which, despite the preservation of the outward shell of the decalogue,are indeed vastly changed.

The conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing in regard to the status of woman is this:—Material conditions determine the social relations of men and women; and if material conditions are such as to make these relations impossible of maintenance, they will be compelled to assume others. This is the explanation of the expression, “driven across the barriers.” What no amount of unseasonable preaching can accomplish material necessity will force even in the face of sermons to the contrary. Not that I undervalue the service of the advance guard, the preaching of new thought. On the contrary, the first and best of praise is due to the “voice crying in the wilderness.” And I say that such a voice is the first faint vibration of the world-soul in response to the unease of world-body created by the shifting of conditions,—whether it so proclaims or not, whether it cries wisely or not. I say that those who call for the breaking of the barriers will always precede the general action of the masses; but I add that were it not for the compulsion of material necessity the preaching would be barren. What I wish to express in order to illustrate my point clearly is, first, that the orthodox view of the ethics of woman’s relations and her social usefulness was a view compatible with a tribal organization, narrow geographical limits,the reign of muscular force, the necessity of rapid reproduction; second,that those conditions have given place to others demanding an utterly different human translation.

Before the invention of the means of transportation, when, according to the story, it took forty years for the Israelites to explore a tract some 300 miles in length (though one may perhaps venture to credit them with better time than they credit themselves with), when, at any rate, a high mountain was a serious obstacle and a good-sized river a natural boundary for tribal wanderings, people were necessarily very ignorant of the outside world. Within the limits valuable pasture and farm lands were debatable grounds, debatable by different tribes, in terms of hue and cry, of slingshot and arrows, and other such arguments. War was a constant condition, the chief occupation of men. Now we who are evolutionists know that those tribes and species survived in the world which obeyed the fundamental necessity of adaptation; and it is easy to see that with a rapid rate of mortality and anon-correspondent rate of increase a tribe must have rapidly gone to the wall. Any nation which might have put its mothers up in battle would have been weeded out simply because the part played by the mother in reproduction requires so much longer a period than that played by the father. To produce warriors—that was the chief purpose of a woman’s existence! Nothing in herself, she became everything when regarded as the race preserver.Therein lay her great usefulness; and in reading the sometimes nauseating accounts of the behavior of women in ancient times in Judah, the phase of human development in its entirety should be borne in mind. The mothers of Isaac and of Ishmael, Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, the daughters of Lot, should never be viewed from the standpoint of nineteenth century morals, but from that of the tribal organization and the tribal necessities, which forced upon them the standard of “Multiply and replenish the earth” as the highest possible conception of conduct.

Yet, singular to observe, co-existent with this very ideal and with the very polygamous practices of the patriarchs, are found records of the most horrible punishments inflicted upon women for the breaking of the seventh commandment. As may be seen in the story of Tamar and Judah, the punishment to be inflicted upon her was burning alive, though nothing is said of Judah’s. The Talmud has many accounts of tests by “the bitter water” for women, while men were subjected to nothing more than a fine. (Bitter water was simply poisoned water; the innocent were supposed not to be injured, the guilty to fall dead in the market-place, exposed to the public gaze.) Nevertheless, such was the stringent necessity for rapid reproductions that women defied danger and instinctively continued to fulfill that race-purpose, though the law of Moses, already codifying the conditions of peace (not as yet existent), recognized war and its accompaniments as transient, and giving place to a stricter moral behavior.

As I said before, I do not perceive for the life of me what the women saw in all of this for them; I don’t see why they should have been interested in the tribal welfare at all, or in the dreary business of bearing sons for other women’s sons to slay. But since the war-environment was the one underwhich they were born and reared, since no other purpose for them had ever been thought of, by either the dead or the living, it is not surprising that they did not see matters at all as I do. Nowadays, that the majority of English and of French speaking peoples at least see that the requisite ethics is the limitation of population within the means of subsistence, these direct descendants of the Judaic ideal are subject rather to a jest among the enlightened of their own race. Thus Zangwill, in the “Children of the Ghetto,” puts this speech in the mouth of one of the Jewish grandmothers: “How is Fanny?”inquired the visitor. “Ah, poor Pesach! He has never done well in business! But blessed be He. I am soon to have my seventh grand-child.” How fearfully potent is the force of heredity may thus be seen, since to this day these women walk through your streets, wan, faded, humped, distorted, hideous women—women all bone and jaw and flabby flesh, grotesque shadows from the past, creatures once trim and beautiful, but whose beauty went long ago to fulfill the order of the Lord of Sinai.

The primal division of labor is thus seen to have been one of sex. The business of men was to fight, of women to produce fighters. To men were the arts of war; to women were those of peace. Later in the time of Solomon, when material conditions among the Jews had already altered, we see the effect of the continuance of this division beyond the epoch which created it. Already monadism has been abandoned; and the settled mode of life has been begun. The conditions of war, though still often maintaining, bore no comparison to former prevalence; and the aforeward warrior was hence frequently idle. Was it thus with woman? Oh, no,

Men may come and men may go,
But she goes on forever

With her work.

Listen to this delectable account in Solomon, said to be the opinion of King Lemuel concerning a truly blessed woman; behold how her duties have gone on increasing. ’Tis the thirty-first chapter of Proverbs; and let no one with an appreciation of the humorous miss it. It begins rather inconsequently with something about wine-drinking, and runs into the question at issue in the tenth verse; just why, no one is able to understand. It bears no relation to what has preceded it. Here it is:

“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.”(You’ll be convinced of that before you’ve done;—diamonds either.)

“The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.” (They don’t generally need much of that if Lemuelmeans the sort of “spoil” which most modern husbands get.)

“She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.” (That’s in general; what follows is specific.)

“She seeketh flax and wool, and worketh willingly with her hands.”(So much for clothes; victuals now.)

“She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth food from afar.” (Goes where she can get it cheap, of course.)

“She riseth also while it is night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.” (Careful that they should not overeat andget sluggish. It is well to keep the girls tolerably hungry if you want them up before daylight.)

“She considereth a field and buyeth it; with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.” (Trades, too, see?)

“She girdeth her loins with strength and strengtheneth her arms.”(Nowadays she’d do that with a bicycle instead of a plow.)

“She perceiveth that her merchandise is good; her candle goeth notout by night.” (That means that she works all night, too; for she wouldn’t burn candles for nothing, being economical.)

“She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.”(The woman is all hands!)

“She stretcheth out her hands to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.” (Hands again!)

“She is not afraid of the snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet.” (How Mephistophelian the whole household must have seemed.)

“She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.” (The woman must have had forty days in a month and thirteen months in a year.)

“Her husband is known in the gates when he sitteth among the elders of the land.” (I thought that he’d be up somewhere about the gates! I thought that he wouldn’t be having much to do but to sit with the elders! I thought that he’d not be stopping about the house much!)

“She maketh fine linen and selleth it, and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.” (I should think that she might send him around delivering.)

“Strength and honor are her clothing, and she shall rejoice in time to come.” (There is certainly not much chance for her to rejoice in the time which has already come.)

“She openeth her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” (Verily, I should have expected her to be shrewish.)

“She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.” (This paragraph was unnecessary; we had reached that conclusion before.)

“Her children arise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.” (Well, in all conscience, ’tis as little as he could do; and heought to do it well, since there is a deal of fine rhetoric usually going about among the elders and around the gates; and he has plenty of leisure to “get onto it.”)

“Many daughters have done virtuously; but thou excellest them all.”(“Sure.”)

“Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth theLord, she shall be praised.” (That is to console her for getting ugly with all of that work.)

“Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.” Oh, thou who hast bought and planted and reaped and sold, spun and woven and girdled and clothed, risen and travelled and gathered and given, borne all, done all, ordered all, saved all, we will “give thee of the fruit of thy hands,” and prate about it up at the gates! Verily, verily, the woman is far above rubies.

But alas for Lemuel and for Solomon, conditions then were also mutable. And perhaps a friend of mine who has expressed herself upon this passage, is right in her judgment that, as men never exalt a thing until it is beginning to wane and to vanish away, therefore it must have been that this sort of woman was on the decrease before Solomon began to repeat Lemuel. It does not lie within the scope of my lecture to trace the economic development which multiplied the diversion of labor, creating classes having separate and conflicting political interests, which will continue to clash until the process has either, by being pushed to its extremity,destroyed itself and reaccomplished independent production, or until some more correct political solution be found than any at present existing. What I wish to observe is merely that up to the dawn of the Revolutionary period this manifold splitting of humanity’s occupations did not affect the primal division of the complementary labors of the sexes. Within the limits set by the original division, however, classes did arise. Among women these classes were principally two; the overworked drudges of the poor, andthe pampered daughters of wealth. Is it not possible to say whose condition was the most lamentable. For to both was still maintained by preacher, by teacher, by lawyer and by doctor the old decree: “Thy husband shall rule over thee.” Of the latter class there were but few previous to the Revolution. The rugged condition of pioneer life in the New World afforded small opportunity for the growth of a purely parasite class; that has arisen since. But in the Old World the women of the landed aristocracy, as likewise those of the developing mercantile class, constituted, though not a majority, yet a good percentage of the whole sex. So large a portion, in fact, that a whole stock of literature, which might have been labelled, “The Gospel of Jesus specially adapted to the use of society women,” arose and flourished; preachers busied themselves with it; doctors wrote scores of verses on the preservation of the beauty and the delicacy of the lazy; rhetoricians frilled and furbelowed the human toy by way of exercising their art; lawyers rendered learned opinions upon “lovely woman”—they all took their turn and they all did her a bad turn. The entire science of life, as laid down in this literature for these women, was to make husband-traps of themselves. Their home training and their educational facilities were inline there with. Nothing solid, nothing to develop or even to awaken thelogical faculties, everything to develop the petty and the frivolous. The art of dressing, the tricks of assumed modesty, the degradation of intellect by continually curbing and straining it in to fit the patterns of God and of his servants—that the servant said that is was God’s pattern—such was the feminine code.

About this time there arose the inevitable protest which conditions were bound to force. It was all very well for the dumb drudges and the well-fed toys; but society has ever between its extremes a middle product which fits in nowhere. This is recruited from both sides, but, at that time mostly from the upper classes being squeezed down into the ranks of the non-possessors. There were women, daughters of the formerly well-to-do, incapable of the very laborious life of the lowly, unable to reascend to their former superior position; upon these were forced the necessity of self support. Most of them regarded it as a hard and bitter lot, and something tobe ashamed of. Even literature, now considered a very fine source of support for women, was then a thing for a woman to keep still about if she engaged in it. The proper thing to do was to lay hold of an honorary sort of husband, support one’s self and him, and pretend that he did it. So disgraceful was social usefulness in woman! Such was the premium on worthlessness!

Now, out of this class one who did not do the proper thing, one who protested against the whole scheme arose,—the woman whose name many now delight to honor as the author of the “Vindication of the Rights of Women,”—Mary Wollstonecraft. One of her biographers, Mrs. Pennel, states that she was the first woman in England who openly followed literature as a means of livelihood. (It is worthy of note that Mr. Jonson, heremployer, was one of the Freethinkers of the time, Paine’s printer, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft’s.)

Nowadays the idea conveyed by the expression, “Women’s Rights” is the idea of casting a ballot. Then it meant the right to be treated as serious beings having some faint claim to comprehension. The orthodox code never had, never has, admitted, and never will admit, anything of the kind until it is forced to do so. It is not surprising, therefore, to know that this woman was not orthodox. She found out that if ever a woman expected to have rights she must first pitch the teachings of the priests overboard. And not only priests, but their coadjutors, men of the scientific “cloth” indeed,who see that priestcraft is all wrong for them, but all right for women—men who hunt scientific justifications for keeping up the orthodox standard.

For a long time the seed sown by the author of the “Rights of Women” lay on seemingly barren ground; and the great prophet of the coming woman was, as usual, maligned, travestied, hissed and hooted, save by the select few. The reason for this is now apparent. Conditions had not so far developed as to create a class of women having none to depend upon except themselves; there were only sporadic specimens here and there, thence the old traditions fortified by the ancient possibilities remained firm. But now that the irresistible tide of economic development is driving women out of the corner wherein they lay drifted for so many thousand years, the case is different. And I, for one, bless the hour when a stinging lash drove women forth into the industrial arena. I know that it is the habit of our labor reformers to bewail the fact that men can no longer “support their wives and their daughters”; it is held up as the chief iniquity of the capitalist that he has broken up the poor man’s family life; the “queen,” poor tinsel queen, has been taken from her realm, the home, into the factory. But while I credit the capitalist with no better motive than that of buying in the cheapest market, I bless him from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot for this unintentioned good. This iron-shod heel has crushed the shell of “woman’s sphere”; and the wings will grow—never fear, they will grow. No one will accuse me of loving the horrors of modern society, no one will suppose that I want them to continue for one moment after the hour whenit is possible to be rid of them. I know all of the evils resultant to woman from the factory system; I would not prolong them. But I am glad that by these very horrors, these gigantic machines which give to me the nightmare with their jaws and teeth, these monstrous buildings, bare and many windowed, stretching skyward, brick, hard and loveless, which daily swallow and spew out again thousands upon thousands of frail lives, each day a little frailer, weaker, more exhausted, these unhealthy, man-eating traps which I cannot see blotting the ground and the sky without itching to tear down, by these very horrors women have learned to be socially usefuland economically independent—as much so as men are. The basis of independence and of individuality is bread. As long as wives take bread from husbands because they are not capable of getting it in any other way, so long will the decree obtain: “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee,” so long will all talk about political “rights” be empty vagaries, hopeless crying against the wind.

There are those who contend that once the strain and the stress of commercialism are over, women will resume their ancient position, “natural,”they call it, of child nurses and home-keepers, being ruled and protected.I say, NO: the broken chain will never be re-forged. No more “spheres,” no more stops or lets or hindrances. I do not say that women will not be nurses and home-keepers at all; but I do say that they will not be such because they have to, because any priest so reads the ancient law—because any social prejudice checks them and forces them into it rather than allowing full, free development of natural bent. I say that the factory is laughing at the church; and the modern woman, who grasps her ownself-hood, is laughing at the priest. I say that the greater half of the case of Orthodoxy vs.Woman is won—by woman; through pain, and misery, and sweat of brow and ache of hand, as all things worth winning are won. I don’t mean that nothing remains to be done; there is as much in pursuing a victory as in winning it in the first place. But the citadel is taken—the right of self-maintenance—and all else must follow.

From the aforetime sterile ground the seeds are springing green. This is the season to pluck life from the tombs, the time of transfiguration when every scar upon the earth changes to glory, when before the eyes of man appears that miracle, of which all traditions of resurrection and of ascension are but faint, dim images, figures passing over the glass of the human mind, the projection of man’s effort to identify himself with the All of Nature. This miracle, this blooming of the mold, this shooting of greenpeas where all was brown and barren, this resurrection of the sunken snowin tree-crowns, these workings, these responses to the knocking of the sunlight, these comings forth from burial, these rendings of shrouds, these ascensions from the graves, these flutterings, these swift, winged shadows passing, these tremolos high up in the atmosphere,—is it possible to feel all of this miracle and not to dream? Is it possible not to hope? The very fact that every religion has some kind of symbolic festival about the returning time of the green, proves that man, too, felt the upspringing in his breast—whether he rightly translates it or not, ‘tis sure that he felt it, like all organic things. And whether it be the festival of a risen Christ, or of the passage of Judah from the bondage of Egypt, or the old Pagan worship of light, ‘tis ever the same—the celebration of the breaking of bonds. We, too,may allow ourselves the poetic dream. Abroad in the April sunlight we behold in every freedom-going spark the risen dead—the flame which burned in the souls of Hypatia, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright, Ernestine L. Rose, Harriet Martineau, Lucretia Mott, that grand old negress, Sojourner Truth, our own brave old Lucy N. Coleman, and all of the beloved unknown whose lives ingrafted on the race what their tongues spoke. We, too, proclaim the Resurrection.