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Voluntary Motherhood

c. February 22-25, 1891 —  National Council of Women of the United States


“The truth it, we are in the midst of such terrible error on the subject of woman and her veritable rights that it is frightful to think of.”
— Tolstoi’s Kreutzer Sonata

The difficulty of approaching the subject of the relation of the sexes is tenfold, if the prerogatives of the dominant sex are challenged. It it because of its attack upon men that Tolstoi’s ” Kreutzer Sonata” has raised so much opposition. To decry this last publication of the Russian novelist as immoral is merely a little dust-throwing to blind women to the truths in the book, and it is to be hoped that neither this abase nor the author’s own religious beliefs and Eastern philosophy will obscure for his readers the gospel set forth. True, Tolstoi is extreme; but humanity has been so misguided by the average man’s thought, or rather passion, that it is scarcely ground for wonder that a sensitive thinker should regard as an ideal, entire continence.

Tolstoi aims to reach a solution of life for men; as to the feelings of women, he admits he is not informed. In this object he resembles most writers who deal with the relation of the sexes; for all look at this matter from the man’s point of view, and seldom if ever from the side of the rights and duties of the mother and the interests of the child. Toot weighty considerations are buffeted about according to the opinions open other subjects held by the persons handling them. The political economist of the Mill school tells the working-man that his trouble does not come from unequal distribution of wealth, but from his large family. The labor market is overstocked, and poverty results. The Malthusian, while foretelling terrible consequences if human increase is not limited, advocates various artificial checks, not to human license, but to race productivity. Many a socialist denies all these forebodings, and proclaims that even England now “has too small a population for a really high civilization.”

Now, these contradictory theories resemble one another in one particular, — those who propound them think that economic considerations alone should settle this matter of population. In contrast to this, the man’s commercial view of race production, stands the woman’s intuition backed by reason. She asks, first, will the child be welcome? second, what will be its inheritance of physical, mental, and moral character? third, can the child be provided for in life? Every conscientious mother replies to the socialist and to the Malthusian that satisfactory answers must be given to the woman’s first and second demands, and that with satisfactory answers to those questions the third consideration may safety be left to take care of itself.

In animal life, as soon as we get conscious motherhood, the strides is evolution become greater and more rapid.

Below the birds “the animal takes care of himself as soon as he begins to live. He has nothing to learn, and his career is a simple repetition the careers of countless ancestors.” Among higher birds and mammals a great change takes place: the life of the creature becomes so varied and complex that habits cannot be fully organized in the nervous system before birth. The antenatal period is too short to allow of such development:. So we get a period of infancy, a time of plasticity, of teachableness. Of this time Fiske truly says, ” The first appearance of infancy in the animal world heralded the new era which was to be crowned by the development of man.” From this point in evolution the period of infancy lengthens, — indeed, this is the condition of progress. To reach a higher stage of development a longer time must be given to immaturity or growth, and that period will be one of greater or less dependence according as the adult being is of higher or lower species. What chiefly distinguishes the human being from the lower animals is the increase in the former of cerebral surface and organization, and the necessary accompaniment of this development, a lengthened period of infancy.

Now, this increased time of immaturity is a direct tax upon the mother in any species; so to her is due each step in evolution. Men talk of the sacredness of motherhood, but judging from their acts it is the last thing that is held sacred in the human species. Poets sing and philosophers reason about the holiness of the mother’s sphere, but men in laws and customs have degraded the woman in her maternity. Motherhood is sacred, — that is, voluntary motherhood; but the woman who bears unwelcome children is outraging every duty she owes the race. The mothers of the human species should turn to the animals, and from the busy care takers, who are below them in most things, learn the simple truths of procreation. Let women but understand the part unenforced maternity has played in the evolution of animal life, and their reason will guide them to the true path of race development. Let them note that natural selection has carefully fostered the maternal instinct. The offspring of the fondest females in each animal species, having of course the most secure and prolonged infancy, are ” naturally selected” to continue their kind. The female offspring gains by inheritance in philoprogenitiveness, and thus is built up the instinct which prepares the females of a higher species for a more developed altruism. Through countless ages mother-love has been evolved and been working out its mission; surely women should recognize the meaning of the instinct, and should refuse to prostitute their creative powers, and so jeopardize the progress of the human race. Upon the mothers roust rest in the last instance the development of any species.

In this work women need not hope for help from men. The sense of obligation to offspring, men possess but feebly; there has not been developed by animal evolution an instinct of paternity. They are not disinherited fathers; they are simply unevolved parents. There is no ground for wonder that this is so; for in but a few species among the lower animals is even a suggestion of paternal instinct found. The male bird often occupies itself with the hatching and feeding of the brood, and the lion is a pattern father; but usually we find no hint of paternal instinct in the male, and sometimes antagonism towards the young of the species. Evidently nature tried her hand on paternity, it did not fulfil the hopes she had of it, and she turned a cold shoulder upon its development. The paternal instinct is not a factor in evolution.

If, then, the law of natural selection is of weight, we should expect to find very little, if any, instinct of paternity in the male of the human species. Not only by such a priori reasoning is this conclusion reached, but a posteriori reasoning emphasizes the same troth. Men like to accumulate, and hand down their accumulations with their name. This is a method of securing some sort of immortality, and gives rise to the neglect of illegitimate children, the preference of male to female offspring, the law of primogeniture, and the selection, in case of male heirs failing, of m distant relation to inherit the property provided he will adopt the name of his benefactor. The masculine tendencies which have crystallized themselves in these customs bear no resemblance to paternal love. Area does not discriminate between her legitimate and illegitimate child; d had mothers been instrumental in making legal codes there would not have been a law of entail.

But perhaps the strongest proof of the feebleness of philoprogenitiveness in men is the existence of their system of prostitution, with its accompanying thoughtlessness in which parenthood is risked, and the indifference with which rich fathers leave their children to a life of hardship, if not of crime. When Henry Ward Beecher made his famous assertion, in the Presidential campaign of ’88, that if all the men who, like Grover Cleveland, had carried on illicit relations with women, voted for him, the Democratic candidate would sweep New York by an overwhelming majority, his words called forth no resentment. But goes such a statement, if it be a fact, imply a more vital truth? It means that but a handful of men could solemnly swear that they are certain no child of theirs is rotting out its life in some tenement or gutter. Could there be a more unanswerable argument against the existence of paternal feelings than the brief statement, that of the seventy thousand illegitimate children born each year in France, only five thousand are acknowledged by the fathers? And our very attitude towards men of the type of the other sixty thousand shows that we do not expect strong paternal feeling in men. No one feels that George Eliot drew an abnormal creature in Godfrey Cass. When he fails to acknowledge his child and leaves it with the despised weaver, the author does not describe his conduct as that of a brutal man. Again, no thoughtful person could fail to be struck in reading Darwin’s Life and Letters, by the fact that the greatest student of heredity of our time, though himself the victim of an incurable and hereditary disease, never questioned his right to become the father of many children. And yet he was fully aware of the probability of ill health for his offspring; for in letters to friends he pours out his fears: ” My dread is hereditary ill health. Even death is better for them.” Is it only a woman’s logic that would lead to the opposite conclusion: Better had they never been born? “  Now, no one could say that Darwin was a bad man; on the contrary, if report speaks truly, we may look upon him as exceptionally good. The conclusion then forces itself upon us that even the best of men are lacking in that nice conscience which recognizes the sacredness of life responsibility of its creation. But humanity would suffer the minimum of evil from this cause, were not laws based upon the extraordinary assumption that, “by the law of nature and the law of God,” the father is the  sole guardian of the child, and the suicidal custom followed of giving the power of legislation and the social dominance, in all sex matters, into the hands of that half of the race which is unfitted by nature for any just comprehension of these questions.

Ever since the patriarchate was established, there has been a tendency to cramp the mother in her maternal rights; so we see no race improvement comparable with our advance in material science. Those who could improve humanity have been hindered by those who prefer to improve steam-engines. The sex which has been laboriously evolved by nature for the arduous work of race-building is handicapped; so more and more the best women turn from the work of motherhood and join the ranks of competitive labor, or seek in society and politics a field for the free play of their ambitions. And now certain of our thinkers forebode evil for a people whose women turn from the home to the frivolities of fashion and the excitement of the political arena. Their forebodings are not without foundation; but the remedy does not lie in depriving women of public freedom, but in according them absolute domestic liberty. The world must act, as well as talk, as if motherhood were important and sacred, before women will give full allegiance to that office. But so to act requires a complete right-about-face.

Frances Galton says, “It seems to me most essential to the well-being of future generations that the average standard of ability of the present time should be raised. We are in crying want of a greater fund of ability in all stations of life; for neither the classes of statesmen, philosophers, artisans, nor laborers are up to the modern complexity of their several professions. Our race is overweighted, and appears likely to be dragged into degeneracy by demands that exceed its powers.” The need is that the race be lifted up. But how is a species raised? Always by lengthening the period of infancy. And at whose expense must this be done? At the mother’s; more and more of her thought, more and more of her time must be given to the period of immaturity in her offspring; later and later should the child be brought into contact with the practical demands of life. This work requires as its first condition voluntary maternity; for the unwelcome child is mentally and physically below the average; and it is a direct drag upon the mother in the efficient performance of already assumed maternal duties. The evolution of humanity and enforced maternity are antagonistic.

A second condition of race-improvement is a broader education for women. It is amazing that the nineteenth century holds that any sort of education is good enough for girls. It indicates, too, how low an opinion we have of motherhood, that when a woman does receive superior training it is considered lost, unless she enters upon a competitive career. In a recent speech before a girls’ school, Mr. Gladstone, commenting on the success women had achieved in education, said that as a result places of work would have to be thrown open to them; that “of course they could not be given the training, and be debarred from the use of that training.” But surely is it not equally a matter of course that era if women were debarred from public life, they would not be debarred a very important use for all the knowledge of the universe in their sphere of race-builders? The fact is, few women and fewer men regard maternity in its true light; traced down to finalities, the birth of most human beings is a sexual accident. Of course, the person playing the chief rile in this game of haphazard is neither self-respecting nor respected; for a mother of chance is never held as holy, however much poets and philosophers, popes and bishops may declare the reverse.

A third condition of race progress is that women should divide with no other person authority over the child. When the work of race-building is left wholly to women, we may look for better results; for then the ambition of the best mothers will find a congenial field for action in their so-called “sphere.” As the human being is always of more real value than the work, so to rear an astronomer is perchance a higher labor than to discover a comet. Who would not rather know the work of old Frau Goethe — viz., Goethe himself — than the child of his brain, Faust?

If nature has intended women for a special career, the way to defeat the object is to limit their responsibility and authority so completely that they turn to freer fields of work. May the time come when women, fully educated, will be left free to use their creative powers as a lever for raising humanity to a nobler type.

The first step towards making maternity voluntary is to secure for all women financial independence. There are those who think this can be done by women entering the world of competitive work. Now, there is no doubt that the female of the human race could win her way, if free of artificial hinderances. The female among the lower animals supports herself and her offspring; she is competent both as bread-winner and mother. Under present sex relations women have been enfeebled in two ways, — they have lost the mental training gained in bread-winning, and have been physically depleted by playing the double rôle of mother and mistress. But undoubtedly in freedom, women could again be self-supporting and efficient mothers, just as they were in the time of the matriarchate; but we may well doubt whether, in our dire need for the elevation of our species, it would be economy to make the mothers of the race enter the field of competition to gain their bread and cheese. However, if the choice lies between this and the financial dependence of one woman upon one man, then every well-wisher to the race must say, let the woman be self-supporting. But educated thought upon this subject will desire to make better terms with women, and the latter will finally make better terms with civilization. Undoubtedly the tendency at present is to seek independence by undertaking competitive work, rather than to demand that work done in the home shall be recognized and command money return. Just where this tendency is to lead is not plain; but if with self- support should come an increasing neglect of maternal duties, the result will be race decadence; but if self-support leads women to the conditions, in some co-operative form, of life in the time of the Mutterrecht, human improvement may be carried to a high point of perfection. But the field of race production is so fundamental in its importance, so broad in its possibilities, it opens an arena so wide for the play of the loftiest ambitions and of the most varied talents, that time and leisure to be secured, on honorable terms, to those cultivating this field, seems but justice the most meagre and wisdom the most evident.

The solution most often offered for our social difficulties is divorce. But it is a solution which does not touch the real source of the trouble, and its agitation diverts attention from more vital questions. It is because divorce merely shifts the disease from one home to another, because it in no way lessens our trouble — the financial dependence of women, and enforced maternity — that the carrying of legislation upon the lines of easier dissolution of the marriage contract proves but a barren victory. Any one visiting the States of the American Union where the freest divorce laws have been passed, will be forced to the conclusion that in Indiana and in Illinois people suffer from the same social evils as in England, for there, as here, no solution of the knotty problem of the money independence of women has been attempted, and the child of the West as seldom as in Europe receives its birthright of a hearty welcome to the world. Divorce does not overcome these two difficulties, difficulties which, until they are met and overcome, will destroy peace in domestic relations and progress in race development. As public opinion grows upon our two great needs, legislation will probably take more the line of securing to the woman her fair share of the family income, and giving her absolute right to her children.

What the final relation of man and woman may be it is futile to prophesy; but we may be sure, if there is an ideal relation, it is to be reached by honesty, not by pretence. As a race we talk much of monogamy, and practise it very little. Monogamy implies one marriage, and no more. And that means no prostitution, no divorce, no second marriage. A second sex-relation is just as promiscuous, physiologically speaking, whether the first partner is literally buried in the graveyard or only figuratively so in the far West of America. But yet every Christian church sanctions second marriage, most civilized states grant divorce for some cause, and in every nation society winks at prostitution. It would be becoming in us, then, to claim to be no more than agnostics in the philosophy of the true relation of the sexes. But while we hesitate to foretell finalities, we must take cognizance of the undeniable fact that each day is adding to the number of thoughtful men and women who see the discrepancy between our theories and human needs and practices; each day the birth-rate of girls is rising in England upon that of boys, and already the number of women exceeds that of men by one million, and yet each day adds to the number of free, self-supporting women, women, too, who haw lost none of their strong maternal instinct. We need not stop to prophesy the sex-relation of the future; we can only hope that an enlightened humanity may see that we must be true

To higher allegiance, higher than our lore,

and that we could have no more inspiring religious motto than the words of Froebel, —

Let us live for our children.



Source: Transactions of the National Council of Women of the United States, Assembled in Washington D.C, February 22 to 25, 1891, ed. Rachel Foster Avery (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1891), pp. 278-285.