FEMINISM AND MORALITY
Feminism has something to say upon the most intimate of human relationships, but it is not easy to express it, and when said it is liable to be much misunderstood. When a man and a woman decide to live together as husband and wife an equal partnership is formed, one in which each partner is necessary for the building up of the perfect home; but in that part of their lives in which they only, and no others, are concerned, a position of natural equality does not exist. No Act of Parliament can make any difference to that outstanding and important fact. The equality in sex-relations for which the collective sense of women yearns must be yielded to them as an act of delicacy, consideration, and high chivalry.
There is nothing in the feminist programme about which the feminist feels so keenly as about the double standard of morality which governs the lives of men and women. The inevitable effect of it is the sad procession of women who nightly prowl about the public streets of every large city in the world. It is variously estimated that there are fifty to eighty thousand of such women in London alone. Probably twenty-five per cent. of these poor creatures can find no other way of earning a living. In times of great trade depression, when competition for work becomes keener, the number of unfortunates increases, thus proving the point, that bad social and industrial conditions drive many to this life. Thousands of others have sunk into the underworld because in a moment of passion or thoughtlessness they did that which society declined to pardon. A large proportion of girls are drawn from a most respectable class-domestic servants, many of whom have been betrayed by their young masters.
The significant fact for the woman who thinks is that the men responsible appear to be able to escape public censure altogether, whilst their victims are permitted to fall lower and lower into a life of infamy. In considering the question of the fallen woman little is ever said or heard about the equally fallen man with whom she fell, though such men as these are a source of grave social danger. A woman need not be a feminist to want to make life cleaner for her sons and safer for her daughters; and she could not do better than begin by refusing to condone this kind of offence in a man as steadily as she has declined to pardon it in a woman.
Pessimists allege that the social problem, as it is called, will never be solved so long as time lasts; but to say this and believe it is to deny the whole gospel of Christianity. To assert that, from the foundations of the world, it was intended that men should tempt and destroy women, and that women, in return, should prey upon and destroy men, and that there is no remedy under the sun, is to convict oneself of atheism of the most practical and terrible sort. All things are possible, and of purity and goodness nothing is impossible which the minds of the best men and women in their most exalted moments have been able to conceive. The pessimists are wrong. The problem will be solved ultimately, but never by dwelling with mournful and wearisome reiteration upon the truly stupendous difficulties in the way.
An enormous step forward will have been taken (one which was never tried before in the history of the struggles to solve this vexed problem) when the women of the world are called in to help by their practical citizenship, and when, by means of their votes, they have removed some of the causes of the evil. A noteworthy and entirely relevant fact which cannot too often be repeated or too strongly impressed, is the plain, unvarnished truth that the work open to women is not sufficient in amount nor sufficiently well-paid to enable them to live in a condition of ordinary comfort and decency. And the sad part of the rescue worker's toil is this: that she cannot point to any solid social advantage the virtuous poor girl enjoys which is not enjoyed by the wicked rich woman. Money appears to cover a multitude of sins, and it is only too patent that without it the most virtuous of girls can go but a very little distance in social spheres.
Parliamentary action and the votes of women could scarcely alter this. Human nature must have its snobbishness eliminated before the doors of the great and wealthy are thrown open to merit and goodness without consideration of worldly power; but Parliament, through the votes of good women and men, can secure a legal minimum wage for every girl and woman worker, a minimum sufficient to procure food and clothing and a moderate amount of simple pleasure. A trade or a business which cannot maintain its workers in a condition of simple decency has no right or title to an existence. Parliament might become the instrument by which the equality of women before the law could be secured—a necessary reform if the value of women in the eyes of men is to be raised. The drink traffic should be seriously dealt with by those in earnest about the social problem, for there is the most intimate connection between it and impurity; and if the price to be paid for a pure womanhood and a clean, strong manhood is the total abstinence of every individual, the price is not too big for a nation of patriots and Christian people. Citizenship should be summoned to clear out the gambling dens and brothels and all such places as contribute to the contamination of youth. It is not suggested that enfranchised women will at once accomplish what men have for so long tried and failed to accomplish; but it is quite certain that this class of question will receive closer attention and deeper scrutiny by the admission of women to political opportunity.
In the meantime the women of the country have power in their hands to do much towards the solution of the moral problem without the aid of the vote, much that the vote most wisely used is powerless to accomplish, and which it would be neither possible nor desirable to embody in an Act of Parliament. It cannot be denied that women have been vastly to blame in the past for the present state of affairs in the world of morals. Their one substantial excuse is that they were kept ignorant, and taught to endure what they were led to believe was in the natural order of Providence.
One thing is obvious to the most casual observer of the city streets—to teach girls the need for self-respect. The things that girls will say and do to attract attention and win a reputation for smartness, presumably with the hope of attaching some young man to themselves, are appalling in their cheapness and vulgarity. Possibly the girls themselves are not to blame so much as those responsible for their early training, who have led them to believe that the end and aim of a woman's existence is to marry. This teaching used to run through all grades of society, and was responsible for many unfortunate marriages and incalculable misery. The right kind of men do not marry the girls of unconventional behaviour who laugh and joke coarsely with them. It matters not what kind of freedom and unconventionality a man permits himself and encourages his woman companion to indulge in, in his heart he dislikes the same kind of behaviour in the woman; and though this is unfair and unreasonable, it is a fact with which the woman must reckon who desires to be the wife of a worthy man.
Will the mothers of the future be wiser than many mothers of the past generation, so foolishly eager to establish their daughters that they paid little heed to the character of the men who proposed to marry them? The hope of the feminist is that they will; that they will refuse to admit to the intimacy of their homes men of doubtful character, who hold themselves free to indulge in vice. By shutting the door on such men and declining to meet them in the houses of other people, women might do more to equalise the moral standard than the best designed Act of Parliament could possibly accomplish. Knowledge is opening the hitherto fast-closed eyes of women; medical science in the hands of women has taught them many sad and sorry things, unrevealed before, of the grave damage to children which comes of moral laxity in either sex. An intelligent concern for the welfare of the race is bringing good men to the side of good women in a common endeavour to erect a new and better standard of conduct for both. These men, under the banner of a newer, finer chivalry, are no longer willing to accept the low standard thought good enough for their sex in the days that are rapidly passing away, but are cheerfully accepting the higher plane of life, and the same standard for the governance of their own lives which through all the ages have been set up for the guidance of women.
It would be an excellent thing if notions of sex antagonism could be banished from the nurseries, and such phrases as 'only a girl' forbidden. Why should restrictions be placed upon the childish actions of the girl-child which are not forbidden to the boy. Each should be permitted to run, jump, skip, climb, tumble, and tear about in the abandoned way that all young creatures have. It is a pity to have dolls for girls and footballs for boys. The maternal instinct has no business to appear in a small girl-child more than in a boy; it surely should not be encouraged in either during very tender years. The game of life has to be played by both boys and girls in later years; but girls, because they are girls and must be petted, indulged, excused, and controlled, are seldom taught the rules of the game. Thus is sex-consciousness ripened in the girl, making her either the victim or the martyr of some one whom she meets and touches at one point of thought and feeling only.
It is greatly to be hoped that women will be prepared in the future more readily to hold out a helping hand when one of themselves takes a false step instead of turning the cold shoulder and leaving her to drift still deeper into the social abyss. Until every woman is assured of a decent livelihood by honourable work, the so-called fallen woman is hot a proper subject for sharp criticism and harsh judgment. Who is to say how far she is responsible for her plight? In all probability her temptation was great and bore no fair proportion to the strength with which she was endowed nor the experience of life she had had. The hand of pity is the fair portion of those who do not wilfully and deliberately choose a life of shame, and everything possible ought to be done by women to save their fallen sisters.
To assure the means of life to all: this is the objective of every social reformer and feminist. The need for this complicates every other problem. Until this is settled, very little can be done to ameliorate suffering, or eliminate selfishness and sin. And until this is done it is impossible to neglect helping those whose need is apparent, however blameworthy they may have been. It is idle to reproach tender-hearted people for their casual and misplaced charity unless they know that poverty is of the unfortunate's own deliberate choice. The unemployed tramp who knocks at the kitchen door may be a thorough scoundrel who would not work in any circumstances; but one is not certain, and he is helped. The beggar in the streets may have neglected to avail himself of many opportunities, or may have brought himself to beggary through drink, but the first cause is unknown and he ought to be helped. The fallen women may be at heart an impure woman who has chosen her own life, but nobody can be sure of this, so she has a claim upon the regard of all. The last word in the feminist programme is the first essential of real progress in any cause—how to reconstruct society so that all who will work may have work and be honourably remunerated for it. Individuals here and there have risen above their circumstances and have climbed to the greatest heights, but they are comparatively few in number. The bulk of their associates have gone down to their graves after lives of half-famished obscurity, and the relentless machine of a grinding commercialism is for ever supplying more and more of these poor victims.
The feminist understands this thing right down to its depths. It is this fact which distinguishes her from the suffragist. The suffragist demands only equality in politics; though she desires to use her vote to help the poor, she has not always, nor even generally, a clear idea of how this is to be done. The feminist knows both what she wants to see accomplished, and the way in which it has to be done. Liberty for women to develop all the perfection of which they are capable, she desires supremely. Equality for men and women she aspires to, in all those matters of their common humanity where sex does not enter and impose an impassable barrier; but she is well aware that neither liberty nor equality, either for men or for women, is possible under the present system of society, and her goal is the establishment of a great co-operative commonwealth in which the good gifts of the earth shall be enjoyed by all the sons and daughters of humanity.