Open main menu










"Aujourdhui la femme commence, et si quelqu'un l'approuve c'est bien moi,
à ne plus faire du mariage son seul but, et de l'amour son seul idéal."

A. Dumas, Fils.

[Reprinted,by permission, from The Westminster Review, with Additions.]


Whom Nature Leadeth. By G. Noel Hatton. Longmans, Green & Co. 1884.

Nora. By H. Ibsen. Translated from the Swedish by Frances H. Lord. Griffith & Farran. 1883.

EXCEPTING the very few reformers whose vision has swept clean above the head of local passing fears, and of the small anxieties of those who keep one eye on the truth and the other restlessly watching what the world says—excepting from such teachers we have never had any bold, unconditional claims made on behalf of women; there has always been a tone of apology or assurance of continued good conduct after the accordance of the desired privilege; always has there been an anxious pointing to examples of women who were excellent wives and mothers, and also, in parentheses, distinguished artists, writers, and so forth.

First and foremost, they say, women must be wives, mothers, housekeepers; after that they may with propriety, and even with merit, become something more.

"If you have true genius," they assert, the trifling interruptions of a family, household cares, social claims that every individual is free to make upon a woman—will not seriously interfere with the development of your powers. Do not urge that such things not only swallow up your time, but make it impossible to secure the needful conditions or experience for the cultivation of your art. We know better. Genius laughs at obstacles. If you allow these things to crush you, it shows you are weak; if you fail, we shall have another instance of unfounded claims of women to equality with men.

To do any consecutive work, to avoid the terrible waste of energy, wear and tear upon the health consequent on interrupted mental labour, a single life is almost necessary for a woman. She must refuse all that a man can freely, accept and enjoy; he accepts it not only without risk of having to pay for it too dearly, but with positive gain and impetus to his career. Where the husband derives support and spur to his labour, wholesome relaxation, and the inspiration of affection and happiness—a woman is crushed and annihilated; marriage demands from her, with almost savage jealousy and greed, that every thought, every talent, every power and project should be subordinated to its overwhelming claims."

We rejoice to find these views ably illustrated by G. Noel Hatton, and also in Frances H. Lord's beautiful highly finished translation of "Nora." The latter ought to be read and pondered over by every young wife.

To-day blows fall fast and thick upon the old assumptions that condemned every woman to be a wife and a mother, and stamped the unmarried with reproach. The first effect of the emancipation of women is that they are gradually liberated from the thraldom of such dogmas.

A process is going on in civilized communities which is called by some timorous spirits the decomposition of Society. It is true that even these fearful ones grant that "so far the decomposition has done only good; the women who will be, for several generations to come, most influenced by the movement, will be the very best of which our race is capable … in them may be embodied the historic climax of the English race. So far the inherent 'organic' characteristics of physical and moral womanhood will not have been touched by the decomposing elements of the new movement. The women brought under its influence will have a wider horizon, the range of their sympathies will be enlarged, they will have more dignity and more happiness in their lives than the average woman of the old régime, their intercourse with women will be free from littleness, their manner towards men from ungraceful extremes of reserve or freedom—in a word, we shall see the utmost expansion of which the female nature is capable."[1]

The process may be more truly described as the differentiation of a portion of its members from the whole mass; this process indicates a state not of decay, but of growth or progress in a certain special direction.

"The best definition of Progress ever given is Von Baer's, which rests on the amount of differentiation and specialization of the several parts of the same being." His definition refers to organic advancement, but it applies with equal force to social progress. It follows from this definition that in proportion as a young Society increases in size and number, its special characteristics will become more marked. As it grows larger the individuals that compose it will tend to become grouped into different classes, each class having its own work to do. Or to reverse the statement, the whole work that has to be done in the community tends to become subdivided, and each kind of work is the special function of a group of persons, and ceases to be the general duty of all. In a young community each individual is able to do a little of everything—fishing, hunting, cooking, making implements, &c.; later on the cooking is all done by one person, the fishing by another, the making of implements by a third.

It stands to reason that this subdivision is necessary, because, as a society grows in size and its elements become more heterogeneous, a more perfect organization becomes an administrative necessity. It is under the influence of this principle that a certain body of women appear to be led away from marriage and domestic life towards social and public work.

All women are modified by progress generally, as are all men, but this special process of differentiation, to which we now refer is modifying the lives—not as some people fear of all women—but only of a certain number, in the direction of public usefulness. Speaking broadly, women have up to the present time been excluded from the operation of this law of differentiation. It has been legitimate for them to fulfil one function alone, that of race preservation. Wifehood and motherhood—or whatever function that might be which was involved in their relations with men—have hitherto been considered the function of all women.

Now the great fact of life is womanhood, with all its possibilities and varieties—wifehood and motherhood are incidental parts, which may or may not enter into the life of each woman. Womanhood and wifehood are not co-extensive, but up to this time we have acted as though they were. It is true that there always existed a small class who have led isolated lives in convents, and whose function was religious; but there has never until to-day been found an appreciable number of celibate women who have filled worthily a wide sphere of social and public usefulness. Hitherto celibacy has meant conventual life for women; to-day it means something entirely different, and it is this difference that we ought to consider. This is all the more necessary, because many among us still fail to grasp the true significance of the new movement for the emancipation of women; many are still under the yoke of old opinion, and they fail to recognize the more healthy nature of the new type of celibate women as compared with that of former days.

Mr. Lecky says:—

"The complete suppression of the conventual system was very far from a benefit (!) to women or to the world. It would be impossible to conceive any institution more needed than one which should furnish a shelter for the many women who, from poverty or domestic unhappiness or other causes, find themselves cast alone and unprotected into the battle of life … it would largely mitigate the difficulty of providing labour and means of livelihood for single women,which is one of the most pressing, and in our own day one of the most appalling, of social problems. Most unhappily for mankind,this noble conception was from the first perverted."[2]

Although, according to Mr. Lecky, the convent became the perpetual prison of the daughter whom a father was disinclined to endow, yet, he concludes, "There is no fact in modern history more deeply to be deplored than that the reformers should have levelled to the dust, instead of attempting to regenerate, the whole conventual system of Catholicism." The single women of the future or of the present day will not join in Mr. Lecky's regrets. However hard the battle of life may be, we all prefer to have our share in it. It could only be taken as a sign of weakness and the degradation of the spirit of women if they feared to meet the ordinary ills of life, or if they welcomed a deliverance from them by any such artificial and unwholesome scheme as a regenerated conventual system.

We maintain that the present condition, imperfect as it is, is better than the old; we maintain, too, that the mere struggle to secure improved conditions is a bracing and wholesome stimulus for the character. The discipline of ordinary life, the invaluable lessons of experience, are as necessary to the development of a woman's character as of a man's; their instinct has led them, in common with men, to hail the modern awakening in national feeling. The increasing power of public spirit has touched and profoundly modified their nature, it has made a breach in the old condition of things which relegated them to a life of domestic duty or to the convent, and denied to any of them a share in public responsibility But this change is not an abrupt departure from the old lines. It is a logical necessary sequence of what has gone before, as are all profound and extensive modifications of society. The change has been anticipated by many writers. Mr. Lecky himself points a prophetic finger in the direction of an important variation in the types of womanhood.

"A very large and increasing proportion of women are left to make their way in life without any male protector, and the difficulties they have to encounter through physical weakness have been most unnaturally and most fearfully aggravated laws and customs, which, by that resting on the old assumption every woman should be a wife, habitually deprive them of the pecuniary and educational advantages of men, exclude them absolutely from very many of the employments in which they might earn a subsistence, encumber their course in others by a heartless ridicule, or by a steady disapprobation, and consign in consequence many thousands to the most extreme and agonizing poverty, and perhaps a still larger number to the paths of vice. At the same time, a momentous revolution has taken place in the chief spheres of female industry that remain. The progress of machinery has destroyed its domestic character. That the pursuits and education of women will be considerably altered, that these alterations will bring with them some modifications the type of character may be of safely predicted."[3]

Individual women of exceptional powers have stood apart from the majority at all times of the world's history, but never before has there been a common impulse amongst influential women of different countries to claim an important share in public affairs. The original impulse was given by the teaching of Christ that there are duties outside the home for every one. Until very lately their non-domestic work has been limited to charitable or parochial matters, chiefly to establishing organizations for relief of distress which too often did more harm than good; everything was done by isolated individuals; there was no national unity or spirit of co-operation between the many independent workers. But now the principle of organization has spread like a network over the country, the necessity of mutual help and co-operation is everywhere recognized. This change has had its effect on women. The nature of their duties and work has been lifted, not by conscious effort on the part of any one, but by natural circumstances from the domain of private enterprise to that of national usefulness.

We thus come to the three steps in the history of celibacy: first, the isolated life in the convent or the temple of ancient times; second, the less restricted sphere of individual or private work; third, the fullest development of all the powers consequent on co-operation in national aims. In illustration of the last two stages, we may note that elementary schools were formerly supported, managed, and assisted very largely by women, these schools were private or parochial. On the passing of the Elementary Education Act, those interested in them became, as managers of Board schools, part of a great national system under Government control. The work of women as Poor-Law guardians is another instance, from administering charitable relief privately, they now apply their parochial knowledge and experience in connection with Poor Law Administration. Thus it is that by almost imperceptible changes have been brought about those steps towards higher organization and differentiation which exercise so great an influence in a civilized society and on the single women of to-day.

The old-fashioned tyranny which allowed to women no real life but marriage is truly passing away, and it begins to be recognized that special qualities are necessary for married life which all people do not possess.

There still exists however a very large number of persons whose intolerance of celibacy is only equalled by the religious intolerance of former days. It comes as a new and startling fact to them that there are women in England at this day who, having weighed the advantages and disadvantages of married and single life, deliberately choose the latter. The intolerance of society, on what is after all a matter of taste, is so overbearing, that if a woman frankly states her preference, she is told that celibacy being distasteful to her neighbour cannot be agreeable to herself.

As we remarked a little time ago,[4] "If the normal condition of woman is to be a wife and a mother, as such she is heavily weighted in the industrial market, but this only applies where the woman chooses to allow herself to be thus handicapped. She may or may not prefer what is called the normal condition. There is nothing to prevent her enjoying what Mr. Higginson calls an industrial picnic in solitude. It appears to us that the proportion of women who like to enjoy their industrial picnic in solitude is increasing, and, moreover, that it is voluntarily increasing and not as of necessity. It is also very capable of contention that this applies to those of the female sex who are intellectually superior to the average man or woman."

The normal condition of wifehood and motherhood, with the multifarious domestic duties involved, is a serious drawback to industrial, public, or professional life; such employments may be, and are, successfully carried on occasionally by those who are married and have children to care for. A married woman is happier for having some congenial non-domestic pursuit, some interest which relieves her from the monotony of household cares, but these are exceptional cases. The principle of race-preservation, which is fundamental in a society, and which has hitherto been common to all women, has by differentiation now become the prime function of those women who have chosen marriage and motherhood; they carry out this aim to which, for them, all others are subservient, and to which they are especially fitted by character and taste; therefore it can only be in spite of great difficulties that outside interests are maintained by married women.

No one denies that the conditions under which race-preservation is carried on are open to reform. Some of them could be immediately improved, others need greater knowledge of the laws of health in civilization than we already possess. If marriage is a natural condition, it ought to be a pleasurable and painless one; if it is not pleasurable and painless, we may conclude that our ignorance and negligence are leading us into grave error. Perhaps the necessary preliminary to such improved conditions is a woman's freedom of choice, the power of a woman to refuse marriage with advantage to herself. So long as marriage was the one alternative, so long as all women were pressed into it by necessity, moral or social or pecuniary, there seemed little reason why the lords of creation should trouble themselves to make marriage comfortable and easy for any one but themselves. The pains and penalties which Nature, or rather our own ignorance of Nature, impose upon a woman in marriage, have been mercilessly and wantonly aggravated by selfish laws, and by the careful cultivation of a public opinion which made it disreputable or ridiculous for a married woman to be anything but a slave to her husband.

The moment a woman marries she is more or less the subject of every existing authority. Conventional society dictates to her how, where, and in what manner it is proper for her to live. In the eyes of the law her personal liberty and her status are nil, her husband may lock her up and refuse her friends access to her, the guardianship of her children is not hers; again, marriage involves her in personal discomfort, suffering, and danger to life. She is not able, however much she may deplore it, to continue those habits of physical exercise and healthy recreation which maintain the elasticity and vigour of her unmarried sister; she cannot command for herself those conditions of life which conduce to health.

It is often argued that statistics show a higher death-rate for the unmarried than the married, and it is concluded that married life is most conducive to health; but such statistics may be interpreted as proving nothing more than that beauty and health being attractive, well-favoured persons marry sooner than illfavoured, delicate ones. This difference between the married and the single is in no sense caused by, but on the contrary, precedes marriage; therefore the conclusion, in so far as it is based on these statistics, that the health of married women is greater than that of single women, is not necessarily correct.

We ought to apply to both sexes the words which Mr. Stevenson[5] seems almost inclined to apply only to men. He says, "Marriage if comfortable is not at all heroic. It certainly narrows and damps the spirits of generous men. In marriage a man becomes slack and selfish, and undergoes a fatty degeneration of his moral being." It is not surprising then that celibacy, whatever may be its disadvantages, should become attractive to women of a certain temperament, and that they should feel that their highest, noblest, and strongest characteristics can only be developed and maintained in conditions of liberty. It is objected that their highest qualities are tenderness and motherly love, &c., that these can only be developed through marriage, and that therefore an unmarried woman is undeveloped and incomplete. This objection is based on two assumptions—first that marriage includes the highest love; second that marriage gives a woman complete development. We will deal with the second assumption first. It is granted that when a young woman is kept by her friends in a state of enforced idleness, of strict tyrannical tutelage, is denied all healthy interest in life, all engrossing occupation and mental activity, it is granted that wifehood and motherhood would mean for her an added interest—a certain amount of development. To her marriage would be a gain. The starvation of her life requires immediate satisfaction at whatever cost. But this is not true of the unmarried woman who has interests and occupations of her own, and who has no personal preference for marriage.

The assumption that marriage offers to a woman the highest development is open to question. The married woman develops the special qualities of wifehood and motherhood often, almost always, at the cost of her general development; in proportion as her strength, her thought, her whole life is given to the special duties of race-preservation, they are necessarily withdrawn from the general duties of humanity. Thus a married woman may grow in the direction of wife and mother while her individuality is weakened and sometimes absolutely effaced. Although marriage sometimes develops the character in both sexes, in women it may secure this special development at a greater cost of general growth than is justifiable. When we are studying the development of the character for its own sake, and not for the sake of some special end, the nearest approach to a perfect character is reached by cultivating the faculties generally. If the absence of the special experiences of wife and mother are a loss to a woman, the loss may be more than compensated by the general knowledge of the world which her personal liberty places within her reach. "Aujourdhui la femme commence à ne plus faire du mariage son seul but, et de l'amour son seul idéal."

Speaking of the new order of women A. Dumas says: "Elle peut se passer de l'homme pour conquérir la liberté; elle commence a l'entrevoir, sans pour cela faire abandon de sa pudeur et de sa dignité; tout au coutraire, en développant son intelligence, en élargissant son domaine; et la liberté qui lui viendra par le travail sera bien autrement réelle et complête que la liberté purement nominale qui lui venait par le mariage. Une fois la fortune et la liberté acquises, que leur représentera le mariage sinon une dépossession, le mari étant le chef de la communanté, et un esclavage, la femme devant obeissance au mari?" If this is true of a single woman in France much more true is it in England. Bacon says, "The most ordinary cause of a single life is liberty, especially in certain self-pleasing and humorous minds, which are so sensible of every restraint, as they will go near to think their girdles and garters to be bonds and shackles."

The mental life of a single woman is free and untrammelled by any limits except such as are to her own advantage. Her difficulties in the way of development are only such as are common to all human beings. Her physical life is healthy and active, she retains her buoyancy and increases her nervous power if she knows how to take care of herself, and this lesson she is rapidly learning. The unmarried woman of to-day is a new, sturdy, and vigorous type. We find her neither the exalted ascetic nor the nerveless inactive creature of former days. She is intellectually trained and socially successful, her physique is as sound and vigorous as her mind. The world is before her in a freer, truer, and better sense than it is before any individual male or female. Her tastes are various and refined, her opportunities for cultivating them practically unlimited. Whether it be in the direction of society, or art, or travel, or philanthropy, or public duty, or a combination of many of these, there is nothing to let or hinder her from following her own will, there are no bonds but such as bear no yoke, no restrictions but those of her own conscience and right principle. She feels that it is in no sense her duty, since it is not her choice, to devote herself to securing the happiness of some one individual, nor to add to our difficulties of over-population. From her stronghold of happiness and freedom she can help the weak and protect the poor. She is fitted to fill a place which has always stood empty in the history of the world, that of a loving and tender woman armed with official power to redress the wrongs of women and children, to stand as their representative before the nation, the creator of their rights, and the shield of their weakness; those whose nature and necessities are known only to her, and to her only because she is a woman, have found in her a guardian, an advocate, and a friend. While losing none of the fun and frolic and gaiety of life, she is called by a deep religious conviction to stand face to face and hand in hand with suffering; it is her holy mission to grapple with some of the most painful problems of modern civilization.

"So may life its solemn mysteries unfold
 To eyes not shy to see them nor too bold."

A really happy woman of this type is an object of envy to many—to those who have gained something but lost freedom in marriage, to unmarried colourless women who deny our right at once to be virtuous and happy, to those men whose past has been for ever robbed of the bloom which is life's sweetest gift.

It may be asked whether the community loses when she thus studies the welfare and full development of her own nature. Those principles of self-preservation and race-preservation which underlie all communities are the necessary elements of the permanent existence of a society. When once that permanence is secured, these principles it is found, are gradually replaced by others, the original law which pitilessly sacrificed the individual to the community is no longer needed, the community is established, and the welfare of the individual becomes first possible, then necessary, as a condition of communal health.

The relative importance of the principles of social and industrial liberty becomes reversed. In a young society, self-preservation of the whole is the primary necessity. Industrial welfare is and must be sacrificed to it; thus the aim to be reached is a maximum of social strength, and a minimum of individual freedom; but as the community grows, its self-preservation is secured, and the aim gradually changes in character, it seeks to combine the maximum of individual liberty compatible with social existence. Marriage was in early times the only or the most powerful bond that united the wandering, incoherent tendencies of peoples. It identified the interests of the individual with that of the community, and made him willing to sacrifice his own welfare for the general good. It therefore maintained a justly high place as a political institution. Now marriage is no longer the only incentive to peace and order.

A new factor has shown itself, exercising the same uniting influence—this is the social spirit or public conscience which makes self-government possible. When this stage of evolution is reached, the conditions are changed; the greater the number of persons, male or female, admitted to a share in the administration of law, the more public spirit is utilized in binding society together; every woman and every man that takes her or his share of social duty becomes a cementing element in society. When the class or sex hitherto excluded is admitted to these responsibilities, the first effect is and must be an increase of solidarity and unity throughout the nation. Such increased solidarity is always preceded by a process of differentiation. Every individual who desires to profit by this change in the social relations has the power to do so in his own hands, more or less. Those who through the circumstances of their life are able to minimize to the utmost the interference of law or society upon their actions, are fully able to do so, while strictly maintaining their ground as members of society. Not very long ago the bonds of conventionality were so galling that such liberty was difficult to all, impossible to a woman. It appears, therefore, that those women whose temperament leads them into new paths of usefulness, who are differentiated in the direction of general activity, are in no way bringing an element of danger or disruption into the community, but on the contrary, while extending its civil and social limits, they increase its solidarity and efficiency. The development of their own powers of public work, as distinguished from the special qualities required for race preservation, is consistent with the definition of progress given at the commencement of this paper, and merely results from the natural selection of those who live in conditions of liberty. Jefferson says:—"It is unfortunate that the efforts of mankind to secure the freedom of which they have been deprived should be accompanied with violence and even with crime." But the liberty for which women strive will be stainless. They use the weapons that Nature has given them of persuasion and agitation. "Agitation is an old word with a new meaning. Sir Robert Peel, the first Englishman who felt himself its tool, defined it to be 'marshalling the conscience of a nation to mould its laws.' The means are reason and argument —no appeal to arms. Wait patiently for the growth of public opinion. That secured, then every step taken is taken for ever."[6]

Finally, does such a life of liberty and purity tend to destroy or create feelings of tenderness and loving sympathy in a woman? To be loving and tender is a woman's nature, but love and tenderness do not reach their highest expression in the personal relations; the highest, widest, and deepest love is the love which is attracted by the highest, widest, and grandest object. It may express itself in passionate devotion to truth or goodness, or in that love of humanity which at once compassionates the weakness of humanity and worships its sublime possibilities.

No love needs be more tender in its dealings than that which spends itself on the helpless and unfortunate, none needs to be more deep than that which gives where no return is possible. Emerson says:—

"Thus we are put in training for a love which knows not sex, nor passion, nor partiality, but which seeks virtue and wisdom everywhere to the end of increasing virtue and wisdom … There are moments when the affections rule and absorb the man, and make his happiness dependent on a person or persons. But in health the mind is presently seen again, its overarching vault bright with galaxies of unmutable lights, and the warm loves and fear which swept over us as clouds, must lose their finite character, and blend with God to attain their own perfection. But we need not fear that we can lose anything by the progress of the soul. The soul may be trusted to the end."[7]

On our own hypothesis, the unmarried woman who is modified in the direction of general activity "has interests and occupations of her own"—"she has an extended sphere of public usefulness." The causes of liberty, of purity, of temperance, education, the liberation of the slaves in America, the reform of the laws in England, the progress of Liberty in Europe are to a man so many abstract political principles which he may endeavour to further from different motives, and to clothe with life as far as he can—to a woman they mean various expressions of the principle of good, and their obstruction represents to her human suffering in the concrete, which appeals to her with a keenness and urgency that takes no denial. But it is indignantly insisted that such interests as these do not bring out the lovelier side of a woman's nature. Now we are told that a mother's greatest usefulness is in securing better conditions of life to her children than would otherwise fall to their lot, and that the tie between husband and wife, or mother and child, is not in its highest aspect the merely physical one, but that its highest expression is found in the continuous and tender service rendered by each to the other, and in the need that each has of the love of the other.

It certainly is a noble work to improve the condition of the lives of children, but to do this it is not necessary to marry or to be a mother. An unmarried woman is able to secure better conditions of life to a nation of children who are neglected or abandoned, by devoting herself to public duties, to furthering their education, or to enlightening the public on the laws affecting them. Their happiness and welfare become hers, their improved condition is essentially the product of her life, as a mother a woman may benefit two or three, as a single woman she benefits thousands.

If this is the purest and holiest meaning of the love of mother and child, it is also the true meaning of that love and pity for suffering that inspires a woman to give her life for those who have no personal claim on her. If the love of the mother grows by continually rendering services to her child, the love of the woman grows by the protection she gives to the most helpless of humanity, and if the child has need of the mother, has not the unprotected girl much more need of the woman's help? Just as a mother's love leads her to cherish her child, so the woman's love leads her to protect the poor girl that crosses her path, and also to bring justice and mercy to the womanhood of the world. When she throws the weight of her highest gifts, her love, her intellect, her influence, her enthusiasm on the side of the neglected and friendless, she sanctifies those gifts to the noblest purposes of which humanity is capable. The social, legal, political interests of women, children, and young girls are those that specially call for a woman's protection; in this direction will be found the new and sacred function of the femme libre of the future. To protect the helpless and to guard the young, to enlarge the girdle of their liberty, to lay the foundations of their security and to build the house of their industry.

Thus, in rejecting the personal or the grosser form of love, a woman only leaves herself more free to give a larger, holier and deeper love to those who need it most. It is abuse of language to claim that love means only sexual or parental affection; it is false to assert that because a woman feels neither sexual nor parental affection, she is incapable of love.

The two-fold nature of love will be recognized in the future, as it has not been in the past. The love of humanity has still to take its place as the highest of which mankind is capable. Bacon recognized its two-fold nature when he said:—

"Nuptial love maketh mankind, friendly love perfecteth it."

Such a life will bring to a woman a rich harvest of happiness, in that she leaves the world a little better than she found it, and she may join in George Eliot's noble wish:

  "Oh, may I join the choir invisible
  Of those immortal dead who live again,
In minds made better by their presence, live
  In pulses stirred to generosity
  In deeds of daring rectitude,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars.
  So to live is heaven."

  1. Mrs. S. Orr, Nineteenth Century, August, 1878.
  2. "History of European Morals."
  3. "History of European Morals."
  4. See the Westminster Review, January, 1883.
  5. Virginibus puerisque.
  6. Wendell Phillips, "The Scholar is a Republic."
  7. Essay on Love.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.