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The Female is Human Plus

September 15 – October 24, 1919 — First International Conference of Women Physicians, YWCA, 600 Lexington Avenue, New York City


They asked me to speak on the community conservation of women’s strength. I suppose most of us think of legal benefits, limiting hours and improving conditions for women in industry. That is good, necessary for women and men, and should be promoted, but I wish to treat the subject in a larger way, showing the effect of the community on woman’s strength, through our social psychology, through the general idea and belief about women, the things that little girls grow up into, because of the belief of the community; and, further, in the effect upon woman’s strength of their almost total lack of the social advantages of organization, specialization, exchange of labor.

First, a few words as to the psychology. In the addresses this morning about menstruation, a speaker told of how women had an unfortunate opinion of it, that they had such a dislike for it. I wish to carry that back into the past, to the cruel and unjust judgment upon women as unclean. That did not come from the woman, but from the man of olden times, was put upon them as an affliction and a disgrace long before they would have thought of such a thing themselves, and has come down to us through the ages — the feeling that we were unclean and that we were the weaker sex. Now, on that side, there is rising to-day in the biological knowledge of the world the recognition that the female is the race type, that she is not a later accessory and assistant to the male, but that she was the original form of the race; if there is a question of time, of precedence, she comes first; and, further — this is a little idea of my own that I think will please some of you — that in the evolution of the species and the improvement of the processes of life, the greatest steps were those which led to a higher form of birth, to better nourishment for the young. When the power of laying eggs was developed, that was a great step; when the young were born alive, that was great and, finally, when proper food came with the young, when the mother was able, not only to carry the child and care for it, but to feed it after it came, all the higher species are based on that main feature, all the highest grade of life. Now, that development, which involves the introduction and transmission of new organs and functions, all that development has come through the female alone. We are the “order mammalia.”

Yet, so complete has been the social prejudice against women that these superior powers have been discussed as “feminine disabilities.” They are not disabilities. They are superabilities. The female is human plus. She is a human being and also a female, and note there that her being a female is temporary, she outgrows it and then becomes pure human-the only pure human type, as the male does not outgrow the disability of sex until he reaches an advanced age.

Accepting this view that the woman is not weaker, she is not secondary, she is not an assistant, she is a type of the human race fully equal with the male, we have then to face the existing conditions of relative weaknesses in certain classes among certain people. What is the cause of this relative weakness of woman? Is it necessary? Do we find it invariably among women? No. Where conditions are equal and the girl and boy have the same training and the same freedom, the girl is the stronger. She is able to perform activities other than those of sex throughout life if she is a normal woman.

When we study the conditions of women in industry, with their effect upon motherhood and the effect upon the child, we are all too likely to forget some of the conditions. We speak of industry as it is, as if that was a law of nature, whereas, the question should be: is a normal women able to work at any kind of work which she likes, for a reasonable number of hours under good conditions? Does that hurt her as a mother?

Then we make another assumption, which is equally impossible. We speak of the woman at work and the woman at home, as if the woman at home did not work. We are always speaking of the terrible effects of the factory, the mill, upon the woman. We do not speak of the effect of the kitchen upon the woman. The farmer’s wife and the workman’s wife work longer hours than any woman works in any mill. Then, again, we speak of the woman going to work and leaving the home, the effect on the children of having the mother gone from the home. We speak as if the home was necessarily left empty and forlorn or full of helpless children. That is not necessary. One of the speakers this morning spoke on the idea of suitable care for children, little children, while the mother is working, and the speaker from China said that in her country they provided the working mother with time to nurse the baby. You would think anyone would have sense enough for that. The baby must be nursed, but the mother need not nurse the baby for three or four or five hours. Industry must be made to conform to womanhood.

Quite outside of the existing conditions in industry, I wish to speak most on the effect upon woman, her health, her strength, her happiness and her development, of the uniform requirements of one kind of work — or a half dozen kinds of work at once, housework, which the great majority of women are expected to perform in addition to the work of the mother and teacher of children at home. One of the most injurious factors in human life is having to do work for which you are not fitted. It is injurious to man and woman alike. If all men were required to practice one trade they would be injured by it and they would be inevitably held to the grade of that one trade. The majority of women by trade are still domestic servants. They may not be paid servants, but the service is just the same. The effect on the body, the effect on the mind of the person working is from the work, not from what it is called.

Now, if you will think of the effect on the race — if all men were in the position of butlers and footmen and cooks, all of them, whether they liked it or not, you see something of what I mean of the effect upon woman. It prevents the development of faculties that could be used in higher work; it puts a premium on the low grade woman and a discount on the high grade woman. I do not speak with any prejudice. I have done housework all my life and am doing it yet.

It is not a matter of personal feeling; it is a judgment upon the effect on the human race of keeping one sex as the servant of the other. It is not good for the health or the happiness or the strength of race. What has the community done for the conservation of the strength of man? Why is it that men to-day are able to dig the Panama Canal, to put up a building like this, to fill the world with all the works that art and science have given to us? How do they do it? Does any one man do it alone with his hands in one room? It is all the result of specialization, organization, interchange of labor. Men have risen and risen in every organized community service and we have not. Women are doing to-day the same kind of work that they did ten centuries ago, twenty centuries ago, thirty centuries ago, or one hundred thousand years ago, except as benefited by certain inventions which they did not make.

The difference in the strength of men — I put it here arithmetically so that it may make an impression on those who are arithmetically minded — is like this: where one man alone, as a separate animal, could do something equal, say, to five, as a member of society his efficiency is squared by association, twenty-five; cubed by the advantage of labor, 125; raised to the fourth power by the tool, 625; to the fifth power by the machine, 3,125; to the sixth, by the use of natural forces, 15,625. This is just an extreme illustration of what makes one man with the machinery able to do the work of a thousand, where one woman, with her own hands and some few improvements, is doing just what one woman used to do in the dim past.

What would be the gain to the service and the strength of woman, if this work came under the advantages of social organization? If the work that woman now does alone, as an amateur, every one doing the same, could be done by organized groups of highly specialized, skilled women, with a chance to rise in their profession, to be known in the town and State and country and in the world as leading in that particular line and properly paid for it, what would be the advantage to the woman and to the children and to the husband? Instead, we live by one of those ancient theories, one of those deep-rooted traditions that has come down to us from the remotest past, that the home is an institution that cannot be changed.

Monogamous marriage is an institution that cannot be changed without injury to the human race. Our species, like many another animal, is benefited by monogamy. The biological basis for monogamy is this: when it is to the advantage of the young of a species to have the continued care of two parents, then you have monogamy, whether it is birds or animals or people. Civil, social and religious laws are built on that.

Is there any law of nature that requires a certain kind of industry to be performed at home? Many say they think there is, but what kind?

In the beginning all industry was done at home and done by the woman. They were the beginners, the inventors, the originators of our industry. For ages they led the world because they could work while the man could only hunt and fight. But since then man’s work has risen and woman’s has remained at its primitive stage.

Now, if it were organized, the first gain would be the saving of labor to the woman, and that saving would be from seventy-five to eighty per cent. At present, we have one woman to cook for three or four or five other people. One person can cook for from thirty to fifty, three cooks could easily cook for one hundred, four cooks could easily cook for one hundred and fifty, five for two hundred. With organization, with mechanical appliances, you save labor. We at present waste seventy-five per cent. of the labor of women, the strength of women, by having them all do these things alone and separate.

With that saying in the labor would come an equal saving in expenses. We waste ninety per cent in the plant in our domestic industry, one hundred kitchens for one hundred families, where in one-tenth the space we could do the work of the hundred; and ninety per cent. in the fuel, which is a heavy part of household expenses. We may fairly say that between seventy-five and eighty per cent. for the labor and up to ninety per cent for the fuel and the plant is wasted in the housework of women.

Besides that waste of labor and that waste of money, another waste appears in the purchasing of all the small supplies for all separate kitchens, when they could be bought in bulk. Against all this waste stands the increase to the family income if both members of the family are earning; and besides that comes the gain in the health and happiness of women when each of them can do the work she best enjoys and is, therefore, best able to do. And besides that again comes the service to humanity of all the talent, the power that is now buried in the million kitchens where women do their duty as best they can, but are never able to do the work for which they are naturally fitted.

Now, the immediate demand, following any such proceeding as this, is, what are we to do. How can it be done? Can it be worked? Is it possible?. It is perfectly possible to prepare hot food in a shop and serve it in the home. This has been done ever since there was any kind of civilization. The cook has been a human functionary just as long as any other. Away back in Pharaoh’s time, you remember, the baker was there at his work. To prepare food and send it to the home is just as practicable as to have the cow milked a good many miles away and the milk brought to the home. It is being done in many places. They have just started a new, what they call a community kitchen, in Evanston, Illinois. They have a fine one flourishing now in New York and in different places throughout the country. If you remove the kitchen, you take out all the grease and most of the ashes.

There then remain the children. Our present theory, our absolute belief-heaven knows what we base it on is that little children are best taken care of by their own individual mothers, whether the mothers know anything or not. The doctor, the nurse and the teacher know better. Motherhood per se — the bearing of a child, the nursing of a child — that belongs to every normal woman. The training of little children, the care which begins at the very cradle, is a social function, and not a sex function. Not every mother is, therefore, a teacher. But the teacher, the high-grade, trained, specialized teacher who loves children, not merely her own, the care of such teachers should be given to every baby.

Now, we will say, how is that to be done. How can it be done? We still think of the home, each one separate and apart, with the mother and the children, but the father can go to his work and the mother can go to her work. She can take the baby with her and leave it at the “nursery school,” which somebody spoke of this morning, while she is at work. I think every woman should be able to take a year off for each baby. Even the working women, when they are organized, can do it and pay for it themselves. The trouble with them is that they are alone; they are separate; they do not have one another’s help and they never can until they are united as men have united.

Now, those are the main points I wish to give, that the strength of woman should be conserved, by legislation, by improving conditions, by improving wages, by the training of all the girls, training them in hygiene and all the suitable exercises. We all agree to that. But the biggest problem is how to establish a standard of health and happiness for the woman who works at home, who works ten, twelve, fourteen and sixteen hours a day, who does not sleep well at night, with the care of the babies and children, and who never gets any rest from it unless she breaks down completely and then has to go away from home for a rest.

If we had every one trained to specialize in some preferred branch of the work, every kind would be important. The standard of cooking, the standard of our food service — and the doctors know how low that is at present would be raised through that specialization.

The standard of child care would be raised and, again, the doctors know how low that standard is at home. All the standards of life are lifted when you lift the woman, when her strength is saved and spent in the right channels, in the best service that she herself prefers. Those who prefer to cook, let them cook and be well paid for it, work eight hours a day, stop and go home. Those who prefer to be housecleaners, let them run cleaning establishments and make a handsome living from it. Those who really like the care of babies enough to give their lives to it should give their lives to it and study and learn for the first time how to take care of little children. At present we say we must teach the mothers, and what are we to teach them and where are we to learn?  I think some women care enough for children to devote their whole lives to the care of babies. There should be some method for collecting data from which to establish the science of child culture. We do not know it now.



Source: Proceedings of the International Conference of Women Physicians, Vol. I,  General Problems of Health (New York: The Woman’s Press), pp. 257-264.