American Nurse and Social Reformer
A selection from
WOMAN AND THE NEW RACE
Narrated by Beth Richmond
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Woman's Struggle for Freedom
Behind all customs of whatever nature; behind all social unrest,
behind all movements, behind all revolutions, are great driving
forces, which in their action and reaction upon conditions, give
character to civilization. If, in seeking to discover the source of a
custom, of a movement or of a revolution, we stop at surface
conditions, we shall never discern more than a superficial aspect of
the underlying truth.
This is the error into which the historian has almost universally
fallen. It is also a common error among sociologists. It is the
fashion nowadays, for instance, to explain all social unrest in terms
of economic conditions. This is a valuable working theory and has done
much to awaken men to their injustice toward one another, but it
ignores the forces within humanity which drive it to revolt. It is
these forces, rather than the conditions upon which they react, that
are the important factors. Conditions change, but the animating force
goes on forever.
So, too, with woman's struggle for emancipation. Women in all lands
and all ages have instinctively desired family limitation. Usually
this desire has been laid to economic pressure. Frequently the
pressure has existed, but the driving force behind woman's aspiration
_toward freedom_ has lain deeper. It has asserted itself among the
rich and among the poor, among the intelligent and the unintelligent.
It has been manifested in such horrors as infanticide, child
abandonment and abortion.
The only term sufficiently comprehensive to define this motive power
of woman's nature is the _feminine spirit_. That spirit manifests
itself most frequently in motherhood, but it is greater than
maternity. Woman herself, all that she is, all that she has ever been,
all that she may be, is but the outworking of this inner spiritual
urge. Given free play, this supreme law of her nature asserts itself
in beneficent ways; interfered with, it becomes destructive. Only when
we understand this can we comprehend the efforts of the feminine
spirit to liberate itself.
When the outworking of this force within her is hampered by the
bearing and the care of too many children, woman rebels. Hence it is
that, from time immemorial, she has sought some form of family
limitation. When she has not employed such measures consciously, she
has done so instinctively. Where laws, customs and religious
restrictions do not prevent, she has recourse to contraceptives.
Otherwise, she resorts to child abandonment, abortion and infanticide,
or resigns herself hopelessly to enforced maternity.
These violent means of freeing herself from the chains of her own
reproductivity have been most in evidence where economic conditions
have made the care of children even more of a burden than it would
otherwise have been. But, whether in the luxurious home of the
Athenian, the poverty-ridden dwelling of the Chinese, or the crude hut
of the primitive Australian savage, the woman whose development has
been interfered with by the bearing and rearing of children has tried
desperately, frantically, too often in vain, to take and hold her
Individual men have sometimes acquiesced in these violent measures,
but in the mass they have opposed. By law, by religious canons, by
public opinion, by penalties ranging all the way from ostracism to
beheading, they have sought to crush this effort. Neither threat of
hell nor the infliction of physical punishment has availed. Women have
deceived and dared, resisted and defied the power of church and state.
Quietly, desperately, consciously, they have marched to the gates of
death to gain the liberty which the feminine spirit has desired.
In savage life as well as in barbarism and civilization has woman's
instinctive urge to freedom and a wider development asserted itself in
an effort, successful or otherwise, to curtail her family.
"The custom of infanticide prevails or has prevailed," says Westermark
in his monumental work, _The Origin and Development of the Moral
Idea_, "not only in the savage world but among the semi-civilized and
When a traveller reproached the women of one of the South American
Indian tribes for the practice of infanticide, McLennan says he was
met by the retort, "Men have no business to meddle with women's
McLennan ventures the opinion that the practice of abortion so widely
noted among Indians in the Western Hemisphere, "must have supervened
on a practice of infanticide."
Infanticide did not go out of fashion with the advance from savagery
to barbarism and civilization. Rather, it became, as in Greece and
Rome, a recognized custom with advocates among leaders of thought and
So did abortion, which some authorities regard as a development
springing from infanticide and tending to supersede it as a means of
getting rid of undesired children.
Athens and Sparta must be regarded as giving very strong indications
that the Grecian women not only approved of family limitation by the
destruction of unwanted children, but that at least part of their
motive was personal freedom.
How desperately woman desired freedom to develop herself as an
individual, apart from motherhood, is indicated by the fact that
infanticide was "the most common crime of Western Europe," in spite of
the fact that some of the most terrible punishments ever inflicted by
law were meted out to those women who sought this means of escape from
the burden of unwanted children. Dr. Werner shows that in Germany, for
instance, in the year 1532, it was the law that those guilty of
infanticide were "to be buried alive or impaled. In order to prevent
desperation, however, they shall be drowned if it is possible to get
to a stream or river, in which they shall be torn with glowing tongs
Notwithstanding the fact that at one time in Germany, the punishment
was that of drowning in a sack containing a serpent, a cat and a
dog—in order that the utmost agony might be inflicted—one sovereign
alone condemned 20,000 women to death for infanticide, without
noticeably reducing the practice.
To-day, in spite of the huge numbers of abortions and the
multiplication of foundlings' homes and orphans' asylums, infanticide
is still an occasional crime in all countries. As to woman's share in
the practice, let us add this word from Havelock Ellis, taken from the
chapter on "Morbid Psychic Phenomena" in his book, _Man and Woman_:
"Infanticide is the crime in which women stand out in the greatest
contrast to men; in Italy, for example, for every 100 men guilty of
infanticide, there are 477 women." And he remarks later that when a
man commits this crime, "he usually does it at the instance of some
Infanticide tends to disappear as skill in producing abortions is
developed or knowledge of contraceptives is spread, and only then. One
authority, as will be seen in a later chapter, estimates the number of
abortions performed annually in the United States at 1,000,000, and
another believes that double that number are produced.
"Among the Hindus and Mohammedans, artificial abortion is extremely
common," says Westermark. "In Persia every illegitimate pregnancy ends
with abortion. In Turkey, both among the rich and the poor, even
married women very commonly procure abortion after they have given
birth to two children, one of which is a boy."
The nations mentioned are typical of the world, except those countries
where information concerning contraceptives has enabled women to limit
their families without recourse to operations.
It is apparent that nothing short of contraceptives can put an end to
the horrors of abortion and infanticide. The Roman Catholic church,
which has fought these practices from the beginning, has been unable
to check them; and no more powerful agency could have been brought
into play. It took that church, even in the days of its unlimited
power, many centuries to come to its present sweeping condemnation of
abortion. The severity of the condemnation depended upon the time at
which the development of the foetus was interfered with.
As it was with the fight of the church against abortion, so it is with
the effort to prevent abortion in the United States to-day. All
efforts to stop the practice are futile. Apparently, the numbers of
these illegal operations are increasing from year to year. From year
to year more women will undergo the humiliation, the danger and the
horror of them, and the terrible record, begun with the infanticide of
the primitive peoples, will go on piling up its volume of human misery
and racial damage, until society awakens to the fact that a
fundamental remedy must be applied.
To apply such a remedy, society must recognize the terrible lesson
taught by the innumerable centuries of infanticide and foeticide. If
these abhorrent practices could have been ended by punishment and
suppression, they would have ceased long ago. But to continue
suppression and punishment, and let the matter rest there, is only to
miss the lesson—only to permit conditions to go from bad to worse.
What is that lesson? It is this: woman's desire for freedom is born of
the feminine spirit, which is the absolute, elemental, inner urge of
womanhood. It is the strongest force in her nature; it cannot be
destroyed; it can merely be diverted from its natural expression into
violent and destructive channels.
The chief obstacles to the normal expression of this force are
undesired pregnancy and the burden of unwanted children. These
obstacles have always been and always will be swept aside by a
considerable proportion of women. Driven by the irresistible force
within them, they will always seek wider freedom and greater
self-development, regardless of the cost. The sole question that society
has to answer is, how shall women be permitted to attain this end?
Are you horrified at the record set down in this chapter? It is well
that you should be. You cannot help society to apply the fundamental
remedy unless you know these facts and are conscious of their fullest
Society, in dealing with the feminine spirit, has its choice of
clearly defined alternatives. It can continue to resort to violence in
an effort to enslave the elemental urge of womanhood, making of woman
a mere instrument of reproduction and punishing her when she revolts.
Or, it can permit her to choose whether she shall become a mother and
how many children she will have. It can go on trying to crush that
which is uncrushable, or it can recognize woman's claim to freedom,
and cease to impose diverting and destructive barriers. If we choose
the latter course, we must not only remove all restrictions upon the
use of scientific contraceptives, but we must legalize and encourage
This problem comes home with peculiar force to the people of America.
Do we want the millions of abortions performed annually to be
multiplied? Do we want the precious, tender qualities of womanhood, so
much needed for our racial development, to perish in these sordid,
abnormal experiences? Or, do we wish to permit woman to find her way
to fundamental freedom through safe, unobjectionable, scientific
means? We have our choice. Upon our answer to these questions depends
in a tremendous degree the character and the capabilities of the
future American race.
More information about Margaret Sanger from Wikipedia
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