1920s >> 1920 >> no-194-october-1920

As it was not in the beginning. A chapter on the relationship of the sexes

A letter appeared in the “Daily News” of August 13th last, by Miss Jane Burr, described as “the young American novelist and poet.” It concerned the relationship of the sexes, and evoked considerable interest and a number of replies.


Miss Burr condemns marriage without qualification, and calls for a new relationship of the sexes. “All women are sick to death of marriage. Our mothers are sick of it and their mothers were before them.” In an interview on the same subject, the “Daily News” quotes her as saying : “I have no use for marriage. What I want is romance—and marriage just knocks that on the head.” Dame Clara Butt in the same correspondence declares: “Marriage is a free institution which has been ruined by the laws being too one-sided.” The burden of Miss Burr’s other critics is that all marriages are not failures, that none need be, in fact, would young people study the physical implications of marriage, the care of children, and the exercise of mutual tolerance and consideration.


It will be seen that Miss Burr and her critics equally make the mistake of viewing matrimonial relationships as isolated from other social relations, and capable of being treated without reference to them. To those who have adopted the materialist conception of history it is apparent that marriage is a social institution which, like all others—the structure of the law, the established church, social amusements, and so on—reflects material conditions. Every fundamental change in the organisation of the production of wealth revolutionises the institutions of social life, so that they correctly represent the new relationships between members of the community. Marriage relations under modern capitalism are very different to those which existed during the period of chattel slavery, and different again from those of tribal communism.


It is therefore, well that anyone who finds undesirable features in present-day marriage should consider how far they arise from the nature of marriage in general, and therefore would be common to all forms of the family, and how far they are peculiar to the special form which marriage takes at this point of its development. It is self-evident, for example, that in any continued and intimate human intercourse, much tolerance is necessary to secure harmony ; indeed, we may say that happiness in co-operation is in proportion to the common willingness to subordinate individual well-being to that of the group—whether the group be of two or two millions.


Common sense dictates, likewise, a clear understanding of those physical functions which lie to some extent within the control of the human will, that of generation among the most important; and the greatest possible efficiency in all work which we desire to do well, the care of children being such work in the eyes of most men and women. Such requirements of married life, therefore, as are insisted on by Miss Burr’s critics, are common to all forms of the family in all ages; and their absence mars alike the household of the Australian aborigine and the cultured European.


Miss Burr’s charge against the institution of marriage, however, points immediately to a feature not common to all stages of development. Her complaint is that present-day marriage is a bond not to be severed at will— that inability to support herself and the necessity of caring for her children make a wife dependent upon her husband ; and he, similarly, because she is his wife and the mother of his children, is bound to support her. “We’ve got to quit working the men on that threadbare business of being the mothers of their children. We’ve got to quit working the men at all. We’ve got to be trained to jobs, and we’ve got to learn how to be cast aside.”


It is true Miss Burr confuses her argument by exaggerated and ambiguous phrases. That “all women are sick to death of marriage,” for instance, is obviously incorrect, and gives most of her opponents an excuse for paying no attention to her main argument.


Again, she says : “If only men will permit us to print the truth about life instead of keeping that knowledge within their sacred circles we women might be able to promise them a square deal in future.” But she does not define what she means by “the truth about life.” What is this knowledge of which men have the monopoly, and, by implication, do not allow women to print ? And how do they prevent it ?


Miss Burr’s condemnation of marriage rests on economic grounds, as we have seen, and of the force of economic pressure both sexes are equally cognizant. Besides, she demands: “Is it safety to push our boys and girls off into something that we know beforehand has made us wretched ?” So, after all, it appears that one sex is not so much better acquainted with “the truth about life” (whatever it may be) than the other.


For all that her main charge, as stated is definite, and obviously it is applicable only to a system where the married woman is dependent on her husband. That is to say, where care of the household and the bearing of children are not a concern of society as a whole, but the private business of the male head of each family. Plainly, too, it is an evil that will only vanish when the vital functions of maternity and housewifery again become a public service —when not the monogamous family, but the individual human being, is the economic unit of society.


The scope of our enquiry, then, must be this: Out of what system of production did the family as we know it arise, and what is its logical future development ?


Let us briefly glance at the origin and growth of the human family, as made known by the research of many scientists. In this direction one name stands pre-eminent—that of Lewis Morgan, Miss Burr’s countryman. By a different road he arrived at the same result as Marx —the formulation of the theory that the foremost dynamic factor in history is the reproduction of the material requirements of life. During the 43 years since his main work was published further investigation has but confirmed his principle findings.


According to Morgan, during the period of savagery, when property consisted of the simplest of articles, and none owned accumulations of wealth which they might wish their children to inherit, group marriage existed. This was itself a development from an earlier condition of unrestricted sexual intercourse within the tribe, and constituted every woman within the group the wife of every man, and vice versa. At its earliest appearance the groups were very broad; as one set of relatives after another was excluded from sexual intercourse, they narrowed. Obviously in such groups only female lineage could be traced ; therefore women, as the acknowledged parents of children, were held in high respect. When the continued narrowing of marriage groups resulted in the pairing family within the communal house-hold, the women still ruled there. But with the rearing of herds and keeping of slaves during barbarism, came the accumulation of private property in the tools of production, which, according to the division of labour, and consequently of property, belonged to the man. This ownership gave the husband the superior position in the household, but according to the traditional custom, his wealth was inherited, not by his children (for he was not acknowledged their parent) but by certain of his relatives on his mother’s side.


Therefore in widely different nations and times, so soon as the means of production became private property in the hands of men, was the “maternal law” overthrown. The wife became the bearer of her husband’s children, the superintendent of his slaves. Nominally either party could still dissolve the marriage at pleasure, but actually, of course, the woman was bound to the man who held the food and instruments for producing food.


In the monogamous family, which next developed, and which among the Greeks attained its severest form, even this nominal freedom of the wife disappeared. The marriage was made permanent, and the wife bound to chastity by severest penalties—even under pain of death. Not so the husband. He had the right to demand the surrender of his females slaves, and intercourse with prostitutes was by no means condemned. “Supremacy of the man in the family, and generation of children that could be his offspring alone and were destined to be the heirs of his wealth—these were openly avowed by the Greeks to be the sole objects of monogamy,” (Engels. “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” p. 79.)


We see, then, that with the passing of tribal communism and the development of private property in the means of life, the monogamous family became the economic unit of society. “In the ancient communistic household, comprising many married couples and their children, the administration entrusted to women was just as much a public function, a socially necessary industry, as the procuring of food by men.” (Engels. “Origin of the Family,” p. 89.) In the transition to monogamy this social character of women’s work disappeared. Hers became a private service within the unit—the monogamous family. It was no longer the business of society, but of the husband, to supply her with the necessaries of life; and this dependence bound her to him more effectually than legal ties, though these, as we well know, speedily came into existence.


Appearing on the threshold of civilisation, and being the form of the family generally corresponding to it, monogamy has endured through feudalism up to capitalism, with legal changes conforming first to feudal, then to capitalist, ideology. And its character of being monogamy only for women, stamped upon it by the practice of “enjoying” young female slaves, persists also to the present day. This by no means signifies that chastity among men is unknown, but simply that it is not necessary to the form, and that sexual irregularities are judged more leniently in a man than in a woman. The nominal denunciation of prostitution by the present-day ruling class is mainly confined to the women who practice it, and seldom touches the men who employ them.


This shows by how much Dame Butt’s remark, quoted above, misses the truth. The “one-sided laws” of which she complains are not the cause of the subjection of married women; on the contrary, the economic conditions which involved that degradation created a sex relationship which found its expression in “one-sided laws.”


We have pursued our enquiry so far with respect to conditions during married life, and it may perhaps have been assumed that in the actual coming together of young people there has usually been a freedom of choice which was a kind of guarantee of marital happiness. Unfortunately, the facts do not confirm this assumption. In the stage of the pairing family (where separation began for the first time to be difficult of accomplishment), the marriage was arranged by the mothers of the bride and bridegroom, without their consent and often without their knowledge. In the succeeding patriarchal family, the agreement was between the fathers, and with usually quite other aims than the happiness of the betrothed.


So in monogamy, during the middle ages, marriage contracts were arranged in the interest of the house or realm, to which individual preference had to bow. Such submission was regarded as the duty of young people. Feudalism passing away, capitalist ideas required that both contracting parties should be free, and theoretically gave to both women and men the right of choice. Yet it is well known that in practice marriages of choice in the ruling class are the exception. In capitalist countries where a portion of the parental wealth is legally assured to the children, the consent of parents to a marriage must be obtained; and in capitalist countries where consent is not necessary, the children may be disinherited. Individual preference here has little more opportunity to assert itself than under any previous social system; and if, as often happens, the match is an ill-sorted one, and one partner wishes to dissolve it, the dependence of the woman forbids it, and consolation has to be sought, if at all, outside the marriage tie.


These are the results of the subjection of women, to the ruling class of our day. What of the proletarians ?


At first glance they appear happier, in that they have greater freedom of choice—the parents of young workers having nothing to gain by the marriage—and because most industries are now open to women, with the result that they can leave their husbands, and support themselves, if necessary, as do the men, by selling their labour-power to the capitalists.


But immediately on the appearance of children the position is changed. The working-class mother who wishes to tend her own children has no alternative but to remain dependent on her husband.


We have now arrived at the condition against which Miss Burr rebels. She sees only one remedy — the professional mother, who will care for the children of working women in order to leave them free to enter the labour market ; and naturally draws impassioned protest from women who want to ”mother” their children themselves. She sees only one remedy because she assumes the indefinite continuance of the capitalist system, within which, we have seen, a woman cannot be a wife and mother and remain free.


But this system is not immutable. Like those out of which it grew, it will break down so soon as the possibility of a more highly developed form of production has developed within it. The new form will be the collective organisation of production— realised by transforming the privately-owned means of life into common property, which process will abolish the subjection of women to men, as it will abolish the subjection of employed to employer.


With the disappearance of the conditions which made the monogamous family the economic unit —private property and inheritance— it will cease to function as such, and the unit will again be what it was under primitive communism — the individual human being. The freedom and equality of that early society will be restored, but in the stead of the tribe will stand the world-wide community ; the simple social tasks which satisfied the few needs of early mankind will have been replaced by a complex system of industry, competent to provide the manifold necessities and luxuries of modern life. No man holding the power to starve another, no man can then bind his fellows to be his industrial slaves, nor a woman to be his domestic slave.


In the Socialist Commonwealth, where the products of all labour will be the common wealth, the work of a wife and mother will be as highly valued as the work of a ploughman or a goldsmith. The making of a strong and beautiful citizen will be as important as the making of a strong and beautiful ship. Her service will be a social service, rewarded by society.


Thus will the New Relationship which Miss Burr so desires be realised. Only voluntarily will a woman surrender herself; with no thought but of happiness in the union will a man take her. If the union prove unhappy either will be free to dissolve it, for neither is dependent upon, nor responsible for, the other in the material sense. If we are honest we shall frankly grant here, that not all men and women are temperamentally disposed to lifelong constancy. Some love sincerely and ardently for a period only, and when that period has passed, separation is natural and reasonable. Such pain as a separation causes to the partner who may be more constant, though keen, is not worse than would be felt by the other in remaining.


On the other hand, the sordid cases which now embitter the domestic life of the proletarians will be absent, leaving much less room for disillusionment and mutual impatience. True constancy (as distinct from its present-day apology where a union endures under force of necessity) will probably be usual.


Like other social institutions—the law, no longer used to protect exploiters; education, no more directed to the purpose of producing docile and capable wage slaves ; art, dependent never again upon the scant appreciation of poor men with minds blunted by ignorance and toil, and rich men with heads full of rubber, oil, or soap—marriage will reflect the free and comradely relations of economic life.


Love, which in degrading conditions is a weakly thing, will then grow radiant and strong, and marriage no longer fall like a curtain on romance.