The Present Position of Women
c. July 26-29, 1911 — First Universal Races Congress, University of London, London, England
General Considerations. — It would be useless to attempt any comparative study of human institutions, apart from the ideals of which they are the expression. In every social evolution, whether of the modern American, the Hottentot, the Semitic, or the Mongolian, the dynamic element lies in the ideal behind it. For the student of sociology, the inability to discover this formative factor in any given result constitutes a supreme defect. To assume, as is so often done, that one people has moulded itself on a moral purpose, clearly perceived, while in the minds of others the place for such purpose is blank, and they are as they have happened to occur, is purely anarchic and pre-scientific. Yet some such conception is only too common amongst those writers to whom we are compelled to go for the data of racial sociology. This is an unfortunate consequence of the fact that, for the most part, we are only impelled to the international service of humanity by a strong accession of sectarian ardour.
Another error to be avoided in a comparative statement is that of endowing the more or less antithetic ideals and tendencies which we do disentangle with a false rigidity and distinctiveness. It is easy to argue backwards, from institutions to ideals, in such a way as to tabulate whole realms of poetry and aspiration inexorably closed to certain peoples. But ideals are the opportunity of all, the property of none; and sanity of view seems to demand that we should never lose sight of the underlying unity and humanness of humanity. Thus nothing would appear at first sight more fixed, or more limiting, than the polyandry of Thibet. We might well assume, a priori, that to look for certain standards and perceptions amongst a populace so characterised were vain. That such a view would be untrue, however, is shown at once by Sven Hedin in his recent work, Trans-Himalaya, where he tells of a Thibetan gentleman imploring him never to shoot the wild geese, for these birds are known to have human hearts. Like men, they mate but once; hence, in killing one, we may inflict on another a long life of perpetual sorrow. This one incident is sufficient to remind us of the high potentialities of the human spirit everywhere, however unpromising may be the results of a superficial glance. Again, we all know something of the marvels of constructive and self-organising power shown by modern Europe. When we look behind the symptom for the cause, we may feel impelled to the opinion that the master-fact in this regard is the influence of the genius of ancient Rome, acting first in the Empire, then in the Church, and lastly seen in the reaction of nationalities to-day. But of that fundamental Roman genius itself it is increasingly difficult to make any statement that does not almost immediately commend itself to us as equally applicable to China as the great leader of the Yellow Races. The actual difference between Europe and Asia, in spite of the analogy between Rome and the people of Han, may perhaps be found explicable on the basis of the differing place and materials on which these two instincts had to work. Perhaps the very foundation-stone of sociological truth lies in that unity of humanity which such considerations illustrate.
And lastly, we have to remember the widely differing values of different classes of evidence. It is important always, if possible, to make a people speak for themselves. Identical material may be oppositely handled, as all will admit, by different persons; but we cannot go far wrong in demanding that in all cases original evidence shall have a wide preference over the report of his personal observations and opinions made by a foreigner. It would also be well to stipulate for the same rights of scrutiny, over even original evidence, as would be exercised by competent persons in weighing testimony with regard, say, to physical experiments or a case in a court of law. Statements made, even by the natives of a given country, with the direct intention of witnessing or ministering to some partisan position will not, on the face of it, have the same value as if it can be shown that they were made with no idea of a particular question having arisen. For instance, we may refer to the matter of the position of the Chinese woman in marriage. We are assured by most modern writers of authority that this is most depressing. In theory, the wife is completely subordinated, while in fact the man always exploits to the full the opportunity thus given him. That marriage can be brutalised is doubtless as true in the case of China as in that of England. All that we have a right to ask is, whether it has also the opposite possibility, and in what degree and frequency. I assume that we are all familiar with the relation between the general development of a society and its impulse to recognise an individual poet and accord him fame. Bearing this relation in mind, we shall be able to measure the significance of a couple of little poems translated by Martin in his tiny posthumous work, La Femme en Chine. Of these, one may be given here. It is by the poet Lin-Tchi to his wife:
“Nous vivons sous le même toit, chère compagne de ma vie;
Nous serons ensevelis dans le même tombeau, et nos cendres confondues
Eterniseront notre union.
Tu as bien voulu partager mon indigence, et m’aider par ton travail,
Que ne dois-je pas faire pour illustrer nos noms par mon savoir,
Et te rendre en gloire tes bons exemples et tes bienfaits?
Mon respect, ma tendresse, te l’ont dit tous les jours!”
Is it not true that one genuine utterance from the heart of a people is testimony that outweighs a whole volume of opinions, however honest, about them? The historical process, as manifested in different countries, may have led to the selection of various ideals as motives of organisation, but an open examination of data will make us very doubtful of statements that would deny to any nationality a given height of spirituality or refinement.
Classification. — The first point to be determined in dealing with the proper subject of this paper, the present position of the civilised woman, is the principle of classification to be followed. We might divide women into Asiatic and European; but, if so, the American woman must be taken as European par excellence. And where must we place the woman of Japan? The terms Eastern and Western are too vague, and modern and mediæval too inexact. Nor can we afford to discard half of each of these generalisations and classify woman as, on the one hand, Western — whether Norse, Teuton, Slav, or Latin — and on the other Mongolian, Hindu, or Mussulman. Such a system of reference would be too cumbersome. Perhaps the only true classification is based on ideals, and if so, we might divide human society, in so far as woman is concerned, into communities dominated by the civic, and communities dominated by the family, ideal.
The Civic Ideal. — Under the civic ideal — imperfectly as particular women may feel that this has yet been realised — both men and women tend to be recognised as individuals, holding definite relations to each other in the public economy, and by their own free will co-operating to build up the family. The civitas tends to ignore the family, save as a result, like any other form of productive co-operation, and in its fullest development may perhaps come to ignore sex. In America, for instance, both men and women are known as “citizens.” No one asks, “Are you a native, or a subject, of America?” but always “Are you an American citizen?” The contemporary struggle of the Englishwoman for the rudiments of political equality with men is but a single step in the long process of woman’s civic evolution. It is significant of her conscious acceptance of the civic ideal as her goal. The arrival of this moment is undoubtedly hastened by the very marked tendency of modern nations towards the economic independence of woman; and this process, again, though born of the industrial transformation from manual to mechanical, or mediæval to modern, is indirectly accelerated, amongst imperial and colonising peoples, by the gravitation of the men of the ruling classes towards the geographical confines of their racial or political area. One factor, amongst the many thus brought into play, is the impracticability of the family as their main career for some of the most vigorous and intelligent of women. These are thrown back upon the civitas for the theatre of their activities and the material of their mental and emotional development. Such conditions are much in evidence in the England of to-day, and must have been hardly less so in Imperial Rome. Nero’s assassination of his mother might conceivably be treated as the Roman form of denial of the suffrage to women.
Regarding the civic evolution of woman as a process, it is easy to see that it will always take place most rapidly in those communities and at those epochs when political or industrial transformation, or both, are most energetic and individuating. The guiding and restraining influences which give final shape to the results achieved are always derived from the historical fund of ideals and institutions, social, æsthetic, and spiritual. It is here that we shall derive most advantage from remembering the very relative and approximate character of the differentiation of ideals. The more extended our sympathies, the more enlarged becomes the area of precedent. If the Anglo-Saxon woman, rebelling in England, or organising herself into great municipal leagues in America, appears at the moment to lead the world in the struggle for the concession of full civic responsibility, we must not forget the brilliance of the part played by women in the national history of France. Nor must we forget the mediæval Church, that extraordinary creation of the Latin peoples, which, as a sort of civitas of the soul, offered an organised super-domestic career to woman throughout the Middle Ages, and will probably still continue, as a fund of inspiration and experience, to play an immense part even in her future. Nor must we forget that Finland has outstripped even the English-speaking nations. Nor can we, in this connection, permit ourselves to overlook the womanhood of the East. The importance of woman in the dynastic history of China, for example, during the last four thousand years, would of itself remind us that, though the family may dominate the life of the Chinese woman, yet she is not absolutely excluded from the civic career. Again, the noble protest of his inferior wife, Tchong-tse, to the Emperor in 556 B.C., against the nomination of her own son as heir to the throne, shows that moral development has been known in that country to go hand in hand with opportunity. “Such a step,” she says, “would indeed gratify my affection, but it would be contrary to the laws. Think and act as a prince, and not as a father.” This is an utterance which all will agree, for its civic virtue and sound political sense, to have been worthy of any matron of Imperial Rome.
But it is not China alone, in the East, that can furnish evidence to the point. In India, also, women have held power, from time to time, as rulers and administrators, often with memorable success. And it is difficult to believe that a similar statement might not be made of Mohammedanism. There is at least one Indo-Mussulman throne, that of Bhopal, which is generally held by a woman. Perhaps enough has been said to emphasise the point that while the evolution of her civic personality is at present the characteristic fact in the position of the Western woman, the East also has power, in virtue of her history and experience, to contribute to the working-out of this ideal. To deny this would be as ignorantly unjust as to pretend that Western women had never achieved greatness by their fidelity, tenderness, and other virtues of the family. The antithesis merely implies that in each case the mass of social institutions is more or less attuned to the dominant conception of the goal, while its fellow is present, but in a phase relatively subordinate, or perhaps even incipient.
The civic life, then, is that which pertains to the community as a whole, that community — whether of nation, province, or township ¾ whose unity transcends and ignores that of the family, reckoning its own active elements, men or women as the case may be, as individuals only. Of this type of social organisation public spirit is the distinctive virtue; determined invasion of the freedom or welfare of the whole, in the interest of special classes or individuals, the distinctive sin. The civic spirit embodies the personal and categorical form of such ideals as those of national unity or corporate independence. Its creative bond is that of place, the common home — as distinguished from blood, the common kin — that common home whose children are knit together to make the civitas, the civic family, rising in its largest complexity to be the national family.
The characteristic test of moral dignity and maturity which our age offers to the individual is this of his or her participation in civic wisdom and responsibility. Our patriotism may vary from jingoism to the narrowest parochialism, but the demand for patriotism, in some form or other, we all acknowledge to be just. Different countries have their various difficulties in civic evolution, and these are apt to bear harder on that of the woman than of the man. The study of woman in America, where society has been budded, so to speak, from older growths and started anew, with the modern phase, in a virgin soil, is full of illustrations. It would be a mistake to attribute the regrettable tendency towards disintegration of the family, which we are undeniably witnessing in that country to-day, to any ardour in the pursuit of civic ideals. High moral aims are almost always mutually coherent. Weakening of family ties will not go hand in hand, in a modern community, with growth of civic integrity. Both the progressive idea of the civitas and the conservative idea of the family are apt to suffer at once from that assumption of the right to enjoyment which is so characteristic of the new land, with its vast natural resources still imperfectly exploited. Various American States exhibit a wide range of institutions, domestic and political. Some have long conceded the right of female suffrage, while in others the dissolution of marriage is notoriously frivolous. But we may take it as an axiom that the ethics of civitas and of family, so far as woman is concerned, are never really defiant of each other; that neither battens on the decay of its fellow, but that both alike suffer from the invasions of selfishness, luxury, and extravagance; while both are equally energised by all that tends to the growth of womanly honour and responsibility in either field. Even that movement, of largely American and feminist origin, which we may well refer to as the New Monasticism — the movement of social observation and social service, finding its blossom in university settlements and Hull Houses — is permeated through and through with the modern, and above all with the American, unsuspiciousness of pleasure. It is essentially an Epicurean movement — always remembering, as did Epicurus, that the higher pleasures of humanity include pain — not only in the effort it makes to brighten and enliven poverty and toil, but also in the delicate and determined gaiety of spirit of those engaged in it, who have never been heard to admit that the hair-shirt of social service, with all its anxiety and labour, affords them anything but the keenest of delight to don.
The Family Ideal. — The society of the East, and therefore necessarily its womanhood, has moulded itself from time immemorial on the central ideal of the family. In no Eastern country, it may be broadly said — the positive spirit of China and the inter-tribal unity of Islam to the contrary notwithstanding — has the civic concept ever risen into that clearness and authority which it holds in the modern West. As a slight illustration of this, we have the interesting question of the sources amongst different peoples of their titles of honour. In China, we are told, all terms of courtesy are derived from family relationships. The same statement is true of India, but perhaps to a less extent; for there a certain number of titles are taken from the life of courts, and also from ecclesiastical and monastic organisations. The greatest number and variety of titles of honour, however, is undoubtedly to be found amongst Mussulman nations, who have been familiar from the beginning with the idea of the alien but friendly tribe. In all countries, as well in Asia as in mediæval Europe, individual women, owing to the accidents of rank or character, have occasionally distinguished themselves in civil and even in military administration. If France has had her saintly queen, Blanche of Castile, China has had a sovereign of talents and piety no less touching and memorable in Tchang-sun-chi, who came to the throne in 626 A.D. as wife of Tai-tsoung; and military greatness and heroism have more than once been seen in Indian women. In spite of these facts, the civitas, as the main concern of women, forms an idea which cannot be said ever to have occurred to any Eastern people, in the sense in which it has certainly emerged during the last hundred years amongst those nations which inherit from Imperial Rome.
In the West to-day there are large classes of unmarried women, both professional and leisured, amongst whom the interest of the civic life has definitely replaced that of the domestic life. The East, meanwhile, continues to regard the family as woman’s proper and characteristic sphere. The family as the social unit determines its conception of the whole of society. Community of blood and origin, knitting the kinship into one, becomes all-important to it as the bond of unity. The whole tends to be conceived of in Eastern countries as the social area within which marriages can take place. That combination of conceptions of race and class which thus comes into prominence constitutes caste, rising in its multiplicity into the ecclesia or samaj. Throughout the art of Eastern peoples we can see how important and easily discriminated by them is the difference between mean and noble race. The same fact comes out even in their scientific interests, where questions of ethnology have always tended to supplant history proper. And in geography their attention naturally gravitates towards the human rather than the economic aspects of its problems. As a compensating factor to the notion of birth, the East has also the more truly civic idea of the village community, a natural norm for the thought of nationality. But left to themselves, undisturbed by the political necessities engendered by foreign contacts, Oriental communities would probably have continued in the future, as in the past, to develop the idea of a larger unity, along the lines of family, caste, samaj, and race, the culmination being the great nexus of classes, sects, and kinships bound together by associations of faith and custom for the maintenance of universal purity of pedigree. The West, on the other hand, though not incapable of evolving the worship of blood and class, tends naturally to the exaltation of place and country as the motive of cohesion, and thus gives birth to the conception of nationality as opposed to that of race.
Racial unity tends to modification, in the special case of the Mussulman peoples, by their dependence on a simple religious idea, acting on an original tribal nucleus, as their sole and sufficient bond of commonalty. Islam encourages the intermarriage of all Mussulmans, whatever their racial origin. But it would be easy to show that this fact is not really the exception it might at first appear. The race has here, in an absolute sense, become the church, and that church is apostolic and proselytising. Thus the unit is constantly growing by accretion. It remains fundamentally a racial unit, nevertheless, though nearer than others to the national type. In the case of Chinese civilisation, again, the race-idea would seem to be modifiable by Confucian ethics, with their marvellous common-sense and regard for the public good, creating as these do a natural tendency towards patriotism and national cohesion. Yet it is seen in the importance of ancestor-worship as the family bond. The sacrament of marriage consists in the beautiful ceremony of bringing the bride to join her husband in the offering of divine honours to his forefathers.
Amongst Hindus the same motive is evidenced in the notion that it is the duty of all to raise up at least one son to offer ceremonies of commemoration to the ancestors. The forefathers of an extinct family go sorrowful, and may be famine-stricken, in the other world. In my own opinion this is only an ancient way of impressing on the community the need for maintaining its numbers. This must have been an important consideration to thoughtful minds amongst early civilised peoples, faced as they were by the greater numbers of those whose customs were more primitive. Only when a man’s place in his community was taken by a son could he be free to follow the whims of an individual career.
The Family in Islam. — The family is, in all countries and all ages, the natural sphere for the working-out of the ethical struggle, with its results in personal development. The happiness of families everywhere depends, not on the subordination of this member or that, but on the mutual self-adjustment of all. In the large households and undivided families of Eastern countries this necessity is self-evident. The very possibility of such organisation depended in the first place on the due regimentation of rank and duties. Here we come upon that phenomenon of the subordination of woman whose expression is apt to cause so much irritation to the ardent feminists of the present day. Yet for a permanent union of two elements, like husband and wife, it is surely essential that one or other should be granted the lead. For many reasons this part falls to the man. It is only when the civic organisation has emerged as the ideal of unity that husband and wife, without hurt to their own union, can resolve themselves into great equal and rival powers, holding a common relation to it as separate individuals. The premier consideration of family decorum involves the theoretical acceptance, by man or woman, of first and second places respectively. In the patriarchal family — and the matriarchate is now exceptional and belated — the second place is always taken by woman; but the emphasis of this announcement is in proportion to the resistance offered to its first promulgation. That is to say the law was formulated at the very birth of patriarchal institutions, when it sounded as if it were nothing more than a paradox. It is this fact, and not any desire to insult or humiliate women as such, that accounts for the strength of Eastern doctrines as to the pre-eminence of man. Semitic institutions, and especially the characteristic polygamy of Mussulman peoples, are a testimony to this enthusiasm for fatherhood at the moment of the rise of the patriarchate. To a fully individualised and civicised womanhood, the position of wife in a polygamous family might well seem intolerable. Such an anomaly is only really compatible with the passionate pursuit of renunciation as the rule of life, and with the thought of the son, rather than the husband, as the emotional refuge and support of woman. Polygamy, though held permissible in India and China for the maintenance of the family, does not receive in either country that degree of sanction which appears to be accorded to it in Islam. It is at once the strength and the weakness of Islamic civilisation that it seems to realise itself almost entirely as a crystallisation of the patriarchal ideal, perhaps in contrast to the matriarchal races by whom early Semitic tribes were surrounded. In the spontaneous Islamic movement for progressive self-modification which our time is witnessing, under the name of Babisnt, or Behai-ism, great stress is laid on the religious duty of educating and emancipating woman as an individual.
The Family in China. — China, though seemingly less dependent on the super-natural for the sources of her idealism than either India or Arabia, appears to have an intellectual passion for the general good. She appreciates every form of self-sacrifice for the good of others, but is held back, apparently by her eminently rational and positive turn of mind, from those excesses of the ideal which are to be met with in India. She judges of the most generous impulse in the light of its practical application. As an example, her clear conception of the importance of perfect union between a wedded couple never seems to have led her to the practice of child marriage. The age of twenty for women and thirty for men is by her considered perfect for marrying. Nor has any inherent objection ever been formulated in China to the education of woman. On the contrary, the National Canon of Biography, ever since the last century B.C., has always devoted a large section to eminent women, their education and their literary productions. Many famous plays and poems have been written by women. And as a special case in point, it is interesting to note that one of the dynastic histories, left unfinished on the death of its author, was brought to a worthy conclusion by his accomplished sister.
The fact that a woman shares the titles of her husband, and receives with him ancestral honours, points in the same direction of respect and courtesy to woman as an individual. We are accustomed to hear that filial piety is the central virtue of Chinese life; but it is essential that we should realise that this piety is paid to father and mother, not to either alone — witness in itself to the sweetness and solidarity of family life. I have heard a translation of a long Chinese poem on the discovery of the vina, or Oriental violin, in which we see a maiden sigh over her weaving, and finally rise from the loom and don man’s attire, in order to ride forth, in place of her aged father, to the wars in the far north. It is on her way to the seat of action that she comes across the instrument which is the soul of song, and sends it back to her father and mother, that its music may tell how her own heart sighs for them day and night! All writers seem to agree in admitting that the devotion of children to parents here extolled is fully equalled by the love of Chinese parents for their children.
The essential part of the ceremonies of ancestral worship must be performed, in a Chinese family, by the sons. Woman may assist, it seems, but can never replace, man in this office. In the year 1033 the Dowager-Empress, in the office of Regent, as a protest against the exclusion of women, insisted on herself performing the state worship to the ancestors rendered necessary by the advent of a comet. This bold innovation proved, however, merely exceptional. Again, the rule that a child shall be born in its father’s house is one of unbending rigour, in spite of the great liberality with which women are often allowed, after marriage, to revisit the paternal roof. These facts mark the memory of an energetic transition from matriarchate to patriarchate, which has failed, nevertheless, to obliterate all traces of the earlier. Chinese society ascribes the end of the matriarchate, that is to say, the institution of marriage, to the mythical emperor Fou-hi, some two and a half millenniums before the Christian era. In confirmation of the tradition, this emperor himself is said to have been of virgin birth, that is to say, his mother was unwedded, a common characteristic of the ancient Chinese saints and heroes. A similar persistence of the memory of the matriarchate is seen in Southern China, in the prevalence of the worship of goddesses, and notably of Kwan-Yin, Queen of Heaven. It should be said that throughout Asia the worship of goddesses is vastly older than that of gods, and may be held one of the best means of studying the matriarchate. The Chinese ideograph for clan-name is a compound of woman and birth, a distinct relic of the period when descent was reckoned through the mother. And finally, the persistence of matriarchal influence is seen, not only in the frequent political importance of the Dowager-Empress, or Queen-Mother, but also in humbler ranks of society, by the vigilance which seems to be exercised by the woman’s family, and even by her native or ancestral village, over the treatment accorded to her in marriage. According to Dr. Arthur Smith, it is this which is effective in staving off divorce as long as possible and in punishing cruelty or desertion. Thus the woman’s kindred enjoy a remarkable unwritten power, as a sort of opposite contracting party in the treaty of marriage, and exercise a responsibility and care unexampled in Europe.
Nor is pure idealism altogether unrepresented in the life of Chinese women. This is seen in the tendency of girls to take the vow of virginity; in the respect felt for women who marry only once; and in the public honours accorded to such as, before sixty years of age, complete thirty years of faithful widowhood. Both Buddhism and Tao-ism include orders of nuns, amongst whom the Tao-ist communities are said at present to enjoy the greater social prestige. A regrettable feature of these ideals — which may play a part, however, in impelling Chinese society forward upon the exaltation of the civic life for women — is the fact that girls sometimes band themselves together under a secret vow of suicide in common, if any of their number should be forced into marriage. Writers on the subject attribute this reverence for the idea of virginity to the percolation of Indian thought into China, and such may possibly be its origin. But it is easy to understand that it might have arisen spontaneously, from those high conceptions of womanly honour that are inseparable from the stability of patriarchal institutions, joined to that historic commemoration of the heroic women of the matriarchate which has already been mentioned.
The Family in India. — In India, as in China, the perpetuation of the family is regarded as the paramount duty of the individual to the Commonwealth. There is a like desire for male posterity, made universal by a similar rule that only a son can offer the sacraments of the dead to the spirits of his forefathers. But the practice of adoption is very frequent, and the intervention of a priestly class, in the form of domestic chaplains, makes this element somewhat less central to the Hindu system than to the Chinese, amongst whom the father is also the celebrant.
As throughout Asia, the family is undivided, and in the vast households of this type domestic matters are entirely in the governance of women. Servants are few in the inner or women’s apartments, and even women of rank and wealth give more time, and contribute more personal energy, to the tasks of cooking, nursing, and cleansing than we should think appropriate. Child-marriage, which, though decreasing, is still more or less the representative custom, renders the initial relations of the young bride to her husband’s people somewhat like those of a Western girl to her first boarding-school. But it is not to be forgotten that the woman shares in the rank and titles of her husband, hence the path of her promotion to positions of honour and priority is clearly marked out from the beginning. The advent of motherhood gives her an access of power, and this recognition culminates in the fact that in the absence of sons she is her husband’s heir, and always the guardian of her children during their minority. As a widow, she has also the very important right of adoption. The personal property of a mother goes to her daughters.
Anything more beautiful than the life of the Indian home, as created and directed by Indian women, it would be difficult to conceive. But if there is one relation, or one position, on which above all others the idealising energy of the people spends itself, it is that of the wife. Here, according to Hindu ideas, is the very pivot of society and poetry. Marriage, in Hinduism, is a sacrament, and indissoluble. The notion of divorce is as impossible as the re-marriage of the widow is abhorrent. Even in Orthodox Hinduism this last has been made legally possible, by the life and labours of the late Pundit Iswar Chunder Vidyasagar, an old Brahminical scholar, who was one of the stoutest champions of individual freedom, as he conceived of it, that the world ever saw. But the common sentiment of the people remains as it was, unaffected by the changed legal status of the widow. The one point that does undoubtedly make for a greater frequency of widow-remarriages is the growing desire of young men for wives whose age promises maturity and companionship. A very pathetic advertisement lately, in one of the Calcutta dailies, set forth such a need on the part of a man of birth and position, and added, “Not one farthing of dower will be required!” Probably this one social force alone will do more than any other to postpone the age of marriage and ensure the worthy education of woman. It is part of the fact that Hinduism sees behind the individual the family, and behind the family society, that there is no excuse made for the sin of abandoning the husband and deserting the burdens and responsibilities of wifehood. If one does this, the East never plays with the idea that she may have fled from the intolerable, but gravely makes her responsible for all the ensuing social confusion. There was indeed a movement of religious revivalism in the fifteenth century¾a sort of Hindu Methodism — which asserted the right of woman as equal to that of man to a life of religious celibacy. But ordinarily, any desertion of the family would be held to be unfaithfulness to it. And all the dreams of the Indian people centre in the thought of heroic purity and faith in wifehood.
There is a half-magical element in this attitude of Hindus towards women. As performers of ritual-worship they are regarded as second only to the professional Brahmin himself. I have even seen a temple served by a woman, during the temporary illness of her son, who was the priest. Our prejudice in favour of the exclusive sacramental efficacy of man, instinctive as it may seem to us, is probably due to Semitic influences. Even Rome had the Vestal Virgins! In the non-Brahminical community of Coorg the whole ceremony of marriage is performed by women, and even amongst Brahmins themselves, the country over, an important part of the wedding rites is in their hands. A woman’s blessing is everywhere considered more efficacious than a man’s in preparing for a journey or beginning an undertaking. Women are constituted spiritual directors, and receive the revenues and perform the duties of a domestic chaplaincy during the incumbent’s minority without the matter even exciting comment. A little boy is taught that whatever he may do to his brothers, to strike his sister would be sacrilege. A man is expected to love his mother above any other created being. And the happiness of women is supposed to bring fortune in its train. The woman-ruler finds a sentiment of awe and admiration waiting for her, which gives her an immense advantage over a man in the competition for enduring fame. These facts are of course partly due to the intense piety and self-effacement of the lives led by women at large; but still more to the dim memory of a time when they were the matriarchs and protectors of the world. There is no free mixing of the sexes outside the family in any one of the three great Asiatic societies ¾ Chinese, Indian, or Islamic. But the degree of woman’s cloistered seclusion varies considerably in different parts, being least in those provinces of India where the communal institutions of primitive society have been least interfered with by contact with Mohammedanism, and at its strictest, probably, amongst the Mussulman peoples.
The Economic Standing of Women in the East. — Even a cursory study of the position of woman is compelled to include some mention of her economic standing. In societies where the family furnishes her main career, she is generally of necessity in a position of dependence, either on father or husband. Amongst Hindus, this is mitigated by a dot, consisting of jewels, given at marriage and after. This property, once given, becomes the woman’s own, not to be touched even by her husband, and in case of widowhood, if there is no other fund, she is supposed to be able to sell it and live on the interest. Amongst Mohammedans a dower is named, and deeds of settlement executed by the husband at marriage. It is said that every Mussulman cabman in Calcutta has undertaken to provide for his wife a dower of thousands of rupees. To pay this is obviously impossible, yet the institution is not meaningless. In case he wishes for divorce a man can be compelled to pay to the uttermost, and God Himself, it is said, will ask, on the Day of Judgment, where is the amount that he left in default. It is easy to see how this is calculated to protect the wife. The custom gives point also to the beautiful story of Fatima, daughter of Mohammed and wife of Ali, who was asked by her father what dower she would wish named, and answered, “The salvation of every Mussulman!” Leaving her own future thus unprotected in the risks of marriage, God Himself would not be able to refuse her dower on the Day of Judgment.
I have not been able to discover what provision is made by the Chinese for a woman, in case of a long and lonely widowhood. Doubtless, in China as in India, the most substantial part of her provision lies in the solidarity of the family as a whole. If her husband’s relatives cannot support her, a woman falls back upon her own father or brothers. As long as either family exists, and is able to support her, she has an acknowledged place. If she have sons, both she and they must remain with the husband’s people.
The whole East understands the need of a woman’s having pin-money. In China, it is said, the proceeds of cotton-picking, and no doubt also what comes of the care of silkworms; in India, such matters as the sale of milk, cattle, and fruit; and among Mohammedans, eggs, chickens, and goat’s milk, are all the perquisites of the mistress of the household. Like the French, the Eastern woman is often of an excessive thrift, and her power of saving, by the accumulation of small sums, is remarkable. That the women require, in the interests of the home itself, to have a store of their own, probably every man would admit. Of course, where the circumstances of the family are of a grinding poverty, this cannot be.
It must be understood that the present age, in the East even more than amongst ourselves, is one of economic transition. Fifty years ago there, as a hundred and fifty years ago amongst ourselves, the main occupation of all women, and especially of those of gentle birth, was spinning. I have met many a man of high education whose childhood was passed in dependence on the secret earnings of, say, a grandmother. Such a possibility no longer exists, and perhaps one of the saddest consequences, East and West, is the amount of unfruitful leisure that has taken its place. Instead of the old spinning and its kindred arts, the Western woman, as we all know¾owing to the growth of luxury and loss of efficiency — has become still more dependent on her husband than she was. The main economic advance of woman among ourselves lies in the striking-out of new professions and careers by unmarried women. This is not yet a factor of great importance in the East. In India, we have a few women-doctors and writers; and a growing perception of the need of modern education is raising up a class of teachers, who are training themselves to assist in the spread of instruction amongst women. Besides this, in a lower social class, the old household industries are giving place to the factory organisation, and in many places woman is becoming a wage-earner. This change is of course accompanied by great economic instability, and by the pinch of poverty in all directions. It is one of the many phases of that substitution of civilisations which is now proceeding. This substitution is a terrible process to watch. It is full of suffering and penalties. Yet the East cannot be saved from it. All that service can attempt is to secure that institutions shall not be transplanted without the ideals to which they stand related. Accepting these, it is possible that Eastern peoples may themselves be able to purify and redeem the new, transforming it to the long-known uses of their own evolution.
Incipient Developments. — India, it should be understood, is the headwater of Asiatic thought and idealism. In other countries we may meet with applications, there we find the idea itself. In India, the sanctity and sweetness of family life have been raised to the rank of a great culture. Wifehood is a religion, motherhood a dream of perfection; and the pride and protectiveness of man are developed to a very high degree. The Ramayana — epic of the Indian home — boldly lays down the doctrine that a man, like a woman, should marry but once. “We are born once,” said an Indian woman to me, with great haughtiness; “we die once. And likewise we are married once!” Whatever new developments may now lie before the womanhood of the East, it is ours to hope that they will constitute only a pouring of the molten metal of her old faithfulness and consecration into the new moulds of a wider knowledge and extended social formation.
Turning to the West, it would appear that the modern age has not unsealed any new springs of moral force for woman in the direction of the family, though by initiating her, as woman, into the wider publicity and influence of the civic area it has enormously increased the social importance of her continuing to drink undisturbed at the older sources of her character. The modern organisation, on the other hand, by bringing home to her stored and garnered maternal instinct the spectacle of the wider sorrows and imperfections of the civic development, has undoubtedly opened to her a new world of responsibility and individuation. The woman of the East is already embarked on a course of self-transformation which can only end by endowing her with a full measure of civic and intellectual personality. Is it too much to hope that, as she has been content to quaff from our wells in this matter of the extension of the personal scope, so we might be glad to refresh ourselves at hers, and gain therefrom a renewed sense of the sanctity of the family, and particularly of the inviolability of marriage?
Source: “Papers on Inter-Racial Problems,” A Record of the Proceedings of the First Universal Races Congress, Held at The University of London, July 26 to 29, 1911 (London: P.S. King & Son), 1911, pp. 86-99.