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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 24a

The Subjection of Women

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'The Subjection of Women.

Printed for Private Clrculatlon Only. Melbourne: 1870.

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The Subjection of Women.

Most people are aware that Mr. John Stuart Mill has recently published a little book entitled "The Subjection of Women," in which he has effectively proved this position—" that the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the sexes—the legal subordination of the one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other." Mr. Mill has restricted himself mainly to showing most forcibly that the position of abject slavery in which women are now held, is utterly unjust, being based on the principle that might makes right; and he argues strongly for the abolition of all the legal disabilities of women.

Some might wish that he had extended his plan, and entered upon the natural history of this subjection, and its causes; as well as exhibited more fully its pernicious result. But he probably rightly thought that his book would be much more widely read in its present shape, and also that it would meet with less antagonism. Possibly for these reasons it is calculated to do most good, and to influence the largest number to a greater or less extent. But I imagine that the page 4 members of this Association are so much more advanced in liberal principles, that less reserve is necessary in dealing with the general question here, than Mr. Mill thought desirable towards the British public; and I think I should have his support in advocating in such a field as this, a much more radical reform of the relation of the sexes.

But I prefer to base my objections to those relations, upon the principle of utility, rather than that of justice; and for the following reasons:—Justice appears to me to be not only a wholly inadequate test of right and wrong, but by being made to supersede and obscure the true one, to become a mischievous delusion; and I undertake to show that those who nominally make it the test of right and wrong, actually, though unconsciously, make utility, real or imaginary, the criterion of justice. The principle of utility is thus of anterior and superior value. I must however explain this. We hang a murderer. Why? we cannot restore the dead .to life, as strict justice would require; and if some of the ancients sacrificed the murderer to the manes of the deceased, we have long since quite relinquished the notion that we can annul a crime by imitating or repeating it. We recognise that the deceased cannot be affected by our act, and we hang the murderer solely for our own security; to deter intending murderers from following the example set them. By so doing, we recognise the principle of utility; and also, that men's future acts will be affected thereby—that they are, in fact, produced by circumstances. Hence it follows that circumstances produced the murderer's act, which was the indirect or direct result of his constitution, state of knowledge, and collateral events combined; severally constituting causes culminating in the murder as their effect. This is an important point, and is, in fact, the key to all page 5 moral questions. "We all, practically, admit that every event is the necessary effect of its antecedents or causes. For all knowledge is nothing but the apprehension of various applications of the axiom, that under given conditions, the same result must inevitably follow. To suppose any fact to have occurred differently, involves that its causes must have been different also—their causes also again, and so on, throughout the preceding eternity. Nothing, therefore, could have happened, or can happen otherwise than as it did—or does. Either this is infallibly true, or else experience can furnish no certainty or even a balance of probabilities, as to the consequences of events, and knowledge is impossible and absurd. Every intelligent act, however, is based upon invincible conviction of the uniformity and inviolability of causation, and experience consistently justifies this confidence. This being the case, however, to punish a murderer who is but the tool of circumstances, would be distinctly unjust, in the moral meaning of the word; and the murderer should go altogether free, if on the principle of utility, we were not to make a scarecrow of him, to deter probable or possible future murderers from murdering. Thus, where the principle of justice fails us, we instinctively fall back upon that of utility, which is also the real basis of justice, where that principle serves our turn.

Now I grant that Mr. Mill has irrefragably proved on the principle of justice, that our treatment of women is cruelly unjust, but I think he has scarcely given sufficient prominence to the pernicious consequences which thence ensue to society generally, and to man in particular. Condorcet, nearly eighty years ago, anticipated Mr. Mill's views, and mine also, in a noble passage of his Sketch of the Progress of the Human Intellect. He considered that one of the most page 6 essential requisites to human happiness and progress, was the destruction of those prejudices which establish between the sexes an inequality of rights, which is disastrous even to the one that it appears to favor. He asserted that that inequality originates solely in the abuse of force, which no sophistry can excuse. He held that men would never be well educated till their mothers were so also; that equality would abolish many crimes caused by present relations of the sexes, and would produce an improvement of manners—impossible while the criteria were false modesty and religious terrorism. Now I think that this view of the origin of the inequality, in the abuse of force, requires a little revision. It seems to me that the word abuse is applicable rather to the maintenance than to the origin of the inequality. It would be more discriminative and accurate to say, that ignorant man, emerging from savagery, on first acquiring ideas of property, desired to monopolise the services and the person of woman, being naturally ignorant of one of the last and greatest discoveries of modern civilisation; namely, that the state of equality, of absence of restriction, was best for both, being favorable and necessary to the highest state of activity of each. Being ignorant, and the strongest, he naturally enslaved woman, and to the same extent he demoralised himself as a necessary consequence. To say he abused his force, implies that he consciously oppressed poor woman, and profited by doing so; whereas the injury to her was as unintentional as the equal if not greater injury to himself;—both were the inevitable results of ignorance. That ignorance to a lamentable extent still exists, and Mr. Mill and others are laboring to expose and abolish it.

Mr. Mill remarks that the progress of civilisation has brought about a very slow but constant amelioration of the condition of woman; not I think, from page 7 any feeling in man of justice, but rather from an unconscious instinctive selfishness, or more enlightened self-interest; the only thing indeed in him, from which she has anything to hope. To a savage, civilised or uncivilised, she is a mere beast of burthen. It is curious (and all the more so when we remember that at the time to which I am about to allude, our ancestors were very far behind the Hindoos in civilisation), to regard poor woman's status according to the earliest records that I have lately been able to find of the then highest phases of refinement. In the ancient Brahminic laws these sentences occur among others even more opprobrious, too much so to quote:—"A man, both day and night, must keep his wife so much in subjection, that she by no means be mistress of her own actions; if the wife have her own free will, notwithstanding she be sprung from a superior caste, she will yet behave amiss." Again—" Women have six qualities; first, an inordinate desire for jewels and fine furniture, handsome clothes, and nice victuals; the second, immoderate lust; the third, violent anger; the fourth, deep resentment, (i.e., no person knows the sentiments concealed in their heart); the fifth, another person's good appears evil in their eyes; the sixth, they commit bad actions." Yet—even in that condition of society, the law distinctly provided that a woman should hold property in many ways in which in England now, she cannot ! Let us remark here that these laws were those of a priesthood, a class which has always refined and disguised tyranny, by availing itself of the most powerful of all the engines of terrorism—the imagination of the weak-minded, the one to which unfortunately enslaved woman is naturally most susceptible. Hear, to the same effect, a distinguished modern divine, who adopts Condoreet's idea of woman's degradation being the result of an abuse page 8 of force, and corroborates my own, that religion has always been a principal means of effecting it. (Theodore Parker's "Theism, Atheism, and the Popular Theology," p. 135). "In all forms of religion that I know, from the book of Moses to the book of Mormon, from Confucius to Calvin, woman is degraded before man; for in all forms of religion hitherto force has been preferred above all things, and the great quality which has been ascribed to God has been an omnipotence of force. That is the thing which Christendom has worshipped these many hundred years,—not love; a mighty head, a mighty arm,—not a mighty heart. As force is preferred before all things in God, so in man; hence in religion; thence in all human affairs. And as woman has less force than man, less force of muscle, less force of mind, has more fineness of body, superior fineness of intellect, has eminence of conscience, eminence of affection, eminence of the religious power, eminence of soul; as she is inferior to man in his inferior elements, and superior in his higher,—so she has been prostrated before him. Her right of nature has been trodden under foot by his might of nature. This degradation of woman is obvious in all forms of religion; it is terribly apparent in the Christian church. The gospels Paul and Peter, the book of Revelation, have small respect for woman, little regard for marriage. The Bible makes woman the inferior of man, his instrument of comfort, his medium of posterity; created as an afterthought, for an 'help-meet' for man, because, 'it was not good for man—to be alone.' Marriage in the New Testament is only for time; in the kingdom of heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage;' it is a low condition here; celibacy is the better of the two; it is not good to marry; only—all men cannot receive this saying. The Christ was represented as page 9 born with no human father—his birth a slap at wedlock. The Christian church has long taught that marriage is a little unholy; and woman was bid to be ashamed of that part of her nature which made her a daughter first, and afterwards a wife and mother. What do Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, and the Popes say of connubial love? They have Paul as warrant for their unnatural creed. All this depreciation of woman comes from the idea of a god with whom might is more than right; the idea of a god that is mighty in his head, in his outstretched arm, but feeble in his conscience, and feeble in his heart; a most unmotherly god !"

Observe how Theodore Parker himself, with true priestly cunning, flatters poor woman to the top of her bent—but his own God was a Male after all! The ancient Greeks made no such invidious distinction; they deified their standards of excellence without regard to sex.

But I wish to point out that our sexual customs are not our own invention or selection; they are no achievement of modern knowledge or perfected civilization, but are merely a legacy from local savagery; the very strength of the deeply-rooted popular prejudices on the subject is ample proof that we inherit them from the most remote and uncouth barbarism through countless prehistoric ages. Christianity attempted no alteration, or at any rate effected no improvement in the tyranny it found already firmly established. It has certainly made woman more powerless and hopeless than before, by rivetting the fetters of marriage upon her for life, and depriving her of the small rights to property yielded elsewhere; and the poor consolation of a little extra flattery—of merely verbal adulation—I can only regard as the addition of insult to injury. Monogamy we received from Paganism in frigid page 10 Europe; where it was adopted, sanctified, and called its own by exploitering Christianity, which exaggeratedits principle of tyrannical monopoly to establish and confirm the slavery in which it held both mind and body. Polygamy is indigenous to warmer Asia, and is just as much inculcated and utilised by priestcraft for its own purposes. Evil as both are—the one being a concentrated, the other an extended tyranny—the principle of monopoly, the pernicious basis of both, is older than cither, and will therefore be more difficult to subvert. But subverted it must be, by civilisation, reason, and time. Man will at last see that to the same extent that he enslaves or monopolises woman, and restricts her freedom, he demoralises himself. The principle laid down in Wilhelm von Humboldt's "Sphere and Duties of Government," is becoming daily more widely apprehended and popular:—that the State should promote intellectual activity, and do so solely by removing obstacles to activity. To restrict one class to benefit another, must really be disastrous to both. Buckle has expressed this in very strong terms, and confirmed it powerfully by illustrations. He says the only laws which ever did unmixed good, are those which repealed others. Both authors concur in recommending the abolition of everything like restriction upon free action, and in showing how enactments of the kind inevitably defeat their own purposes. Buckle, in particular, shows lucidly how the laws in England respecting oaths are a source of national corruption, have diminished the value of human testimony, and shaken the confidence which men naturally place in their fellow creatures; how legislators in every attempt to uphold particular principles, have not only failed, but have brought about results diametrically opposite to those which they proposed. He shows that their laws in favor of industry have injured in page 11 dustry; those in favor of religion have favored hypocrisy, those to secure truth have encouraged perjury, and those enacted to prevent usury and keep down the interest of money have invariably increased usury and raised interest. And this is true of, and applicable to, every department of social regulation—of conventional custom as well as of law. Thus—by arrogating to himself a monopoly of one or more women, and maintaining the idea that infringement of it is a kind of sacrilege, man precludes himself from remedying any matrimonial mistake he may have made in his inexperienced, mistaught, and precipitate youth. By making women slaves generally, he has caused himself to inherit the degraded feelings and aborted capacities of a slave. Mr. Mill has abundantly shown the enormous evil results of constant association with our slaves; and that association on any other than equal terms must be injurious and fatal to both, and most deteriorating to the superior. I shall here, therefore, only strongly recommend his book to careful attention. But by the factitious notions of modesty which man has invented and encouraged to enthrall the minds as well as the bodies of the other sex, he has made himself, as well as them, the victims of dreadful diseases from which few are exempt; while by superadding exclusive permanent monogamy; he has succeeded in producing—in Prostitution, a mental and physical evil which exceeds everything else in the appalling degradation in which both male and female participators are involved.

But what is modesty? In any notion of modesty, is not indecency an essential element or part? Is it not altogether a mystic creation of a morbid imagination? "To him that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him (and to him only) it is unclean." Thus modesty suggests and Creates its own opposite:

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There is also another essentially vitiating constituent of the idea of modesty, which I feel can never be compensated by any or all of the advantages which may be imagined to flow from it. The conception of modesty involves that acts may be good and virtuous if done in secret, that arc dishonorable and vile, if done in the light of day and before the world. This is inseparable from the idea of modesty; and this alone would make me suspect and contemn it as the very antithesis and foe of all ingenuousness and truth,—even if I were wholly ignorant of the gigantic evils which are its direct results. Morally,—by a morbid fear of misplaced shame, which regards external reputation instead of intrinsic worth, it saps truth and honesty from the hearts of men and women, imposing itself upon (hem by the hypocritical assumption of sanctity and virtue. Physically,—it exposes both sexes through the ignorance which it enforces, to life-destroying diseases, precluding their prevention as well as their cure; and, worst of all, it imposes insuperable barriers to the acquisition of the most important knowledge, by those most interested in obtaining it. This is what stamps it as essentially evil in its nature; and what compensation has it to offer, beyond a morbid gratification in restricting by uncharitable criticism, the natural actions of our neighbours, and imputing to them the uncleanness which it has really produced in our own ideas? We not only approve, but we admire and even envy, the innocent unconsciousness of any such feeling as modesty in an infant or young child. Thus is proved—not only that the feeling is not natural, or more than a mere conventionalism, but that it comes only with the loss of innocence, real or supposed; that, in fact, there is no basis for it outside a morbid and depraved imagination. The operation of modesty as a pernicious embargo on knowledge, is obviously only page 13 a relic of the esoteric principle upon which those who of old held the monopoly of all knowledge, deemed it best, if not necessary to govern the ignorant by means of their ignorance, instead of dissipating it, and so making government superfluous.

Modesty and chastity arc certainly not products of modern civilisation, or even of Christianity; but their genesis and highest development are easily recognised and traced in the same universal cradle of senseless asceticism and visionary mysticism, from the sacred books of which I have already quoted a disgusting libel on female character. To quote the least offensive precept of the kind in the same code—"A woman must always veil her face whenever she laughs!" How unspeakable should be our gratulation that this law is inoperative here! The absurd distinctions of metaphorical cleanness and uncleanness have their origin in the same nursery of superstition, but have proved too puerile for more adult humanity. In fact, M. Jacolliot has lately traced a surprising number of our most uncouth and barbarous customs, laws, and superstitions to the same source. The clumsy plagiarisms in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, from the ancient. Hindoo books, he has identified with great clearness and minuteness. Time and the diffusion of knowledge are gradually dissipating the thraldom in which these inherited superstitions have held the human intellect for so many centuries, but much progress can never be made, until utility be recognised as the sole valid criterion of good and evil. "When the vast mass of mankind was sunk in the grossest ignorance, the demand for checks and restrictions upon its rude inexperienced energy doubtless created the supply. But the history of the world shows that as knowledge increases, the doubtful necessity for restrictions upon activity disappears, and even proves all page 14 abnormal restrictions upon activity to be absolutely pernicious. Public opinion and our more æsthetic morality will inevitably have to undergo an eliminating process similar to that to which our religions or superstitions have been subjected. Mr. Mill's proposals amount to conferring upon woman, rights, as regards property, fully equal to those of men; and the reduction of all marriage to a legal partnership dissoluble at will. Recognition of the perfect individual right to exercise natural personal functions without subjection to impertinent obloquy, when the consequences are not clearly injurious to society, must I think follow the knowledge of the fact that abstinence is as evil in its consequences, and therefore as vicious, as excess. Though I am more than sanguine of the best results from such knowledge, and action based upon it, still in the absence of experience, their strong probability is all that can be contended for. But on the other hand an opponent of my views is quite as incompetent for the same reason to assert them to be erroneous. Were I, however, to argue upon the principle of justice, I should point out that for society to prohibit any individual from the moderate exercise of a natural function, precautions being taken to guard against injury to society, is merely to enforce a vicious tyrannical monopoly; by which an unappropriated slave must not dare to infringe upon the possible future monopoly of each possible proprietor,—no, not even to save life or health, until some one of them shall please to assume possession. Could anything be more accurately the opposite of justice?*

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I shall now only touch upon one point. Our knowledge in the past, though comparatively small, sufficed to advance us in the path of progress to the point we have attained. Can anyone who contemplates the geometrically increasing ratio of the expansion of our knowledge, fear to place now in the hands of individuals, power which was possessed by our ignorant savage ancestors? or to remove restrictions upon individual activity imposed by comparative ignorance? Knowledge is spreading, and must spread; and its rapid dissemination creates the demand for power, the exercise of which, well or ill, produces the most valuable knowledge. To those who fear that this knowledge or power may possibly be dangerous, I would point out that knowledge and its results comprise all the advantages which place the civilised man above the savage or the child. I certainly recognise a reason for insisting on the dissemination of political knowledge before conferring political power. For his own experience may suffice for an individual, but that of all civilisation is necessary for a nation, and the ignorant are numerically and physically the strongest in every known state. But the young, particularly of the female sex, are physically and numerically the weakest, and are at even a greater disadvantage from the prohibition upon the knowledge they most want. But it should not be overlooked that it is less liberty or power, than knowledge simply, that I desire to confer; or, rather, merely to remove the pernicious restrictions imposed upon it. Knowledge on the subject of sexual relations is very different from political knowledge, in being all-important to every private person. Individual liberty is also very different from political liberty, as the happiness of the individual only is involved in the former,—that page 16 of society in the latter; and so far as the happiness of society is concerned, the more liberty the individual has, the better; yes—whether he exercise it to his own best advantage or not. If he do, all are benefitted; if he do not, society learns an invaluable lesson at his expense. There appear to be no reasons for apprehending evil—or any but the best results, from the widest dissemination of the most complete knowledge on sexual subjects among all classes, but most especially among those by whom it is most required—the female sex. Innovations seldom occur to the human imagination before changes are required; and even if possibly premature, unlike that worst of evils—stagnation, they necessarily tend to correct their own defects. Activity alone seems to be the one constant desirable condition, whether of mind or of body,—of individual or of race. As I once before took occasion to observe before this Association, Activity is virtue, and reason is its highest form.

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E. Bell, Steam Printer, 97 Little Collins Street East.

* In casting about for an adequate illustration of the tyrannical monopoly enforced by male society over an unmarried woman the fable of the dog in the manger naturally occurred to me. Though it falls immeasurably short of the conditions of the case, it appears though not perfect, really not unapt. The lover fairly represents the cow, and every other man, or society, the dog; while the person principally concerned, occupies no more-important position than the straw! I think this represent the justice of the case with singular felicity.