Throwing caution to the wind

At last the women of this country are about to perform a great service—not one of those courtesy services about which so much is so volubly said and so little is done in repayment—but a good sturdy performance, that will probably bring these magnificent men folks right to their knees.

They are going to teach the unfortunates how to live under prohibitions and taboos. Of course there has never been any prodigality of freedom in this country—or any other—but what there was belonged to the men. The women had to take to the home and stay there. So the two sexes adjusted themselves to life with this difference, that the women had to do all the outwitting and circumventing, all the little smart twists and turns, all the cunning scheming by which people snatch off what they want without appearing to, whereas men got their much or little by prosily sticking their hands out for it.

This developed, naturally, not only somewhat diverse temperaments, hut also greatly diverse equipments. When men cannot get what they want now by either asking or paying for it, they have no more resources. Bless them, they must return into the home, where the secret has been perfected for centuries on centuries of how to hoard a private stock and how to find a bootlegger. Under the steadily growing nonsenseorship regime, they are obliged to come and take lessons from the lately despised group of creatures to whom nonsenseorship is a well-thumbed story. If the world outside the home is to become as circumscribed and paternalized as the world inside it, obviously all the advantage lies with those who have been living under nonsenseorship long enough to have learned to manage it.

Thus woman moves over from her dull post as keeper of the virtues to the far more important and exciting post as keeper of the vices. It is not an ideal power which she thus acquires. But then none of this is about ideals. This is just a little practical ‘study in what is going to happen, and why. Taboos never yet have added a cubit to the stature of the soul of humanity. They have nearly always been the chattering children of fear and pure idiocy. They have always tried to throw the race back on to all fours, and have left the nobility of standing upright wholly out of account.

The taboos which have surrounded women time out of mind have been so puerile and imbecile that one quite non-partisanly wonders why on earth they have been allowed to continue. A second thought demonstrates, of course, that fear has had the major part in it, and that skill in cheating has gone so far as practically to nullify the privations of the taboo.

But one must put by this hankering after nobility, and accept the plain fact that fear is the dominant human motive. What the race would do if fear were conquered, or at least faced sternly eye to eye, is staggering to contemplate. Perhaps God looks upon that vision. It may be that which gives Him patience. But man at best gives it one terrified squint in a lifetime. All behavior must take fear into account.

The man who lately brought back from the Amazon Basin news of a fear-dispelling drug used there by a savage tribe, would have been carried home from the steamer on the shoulders of his compatriots if for one moment he had been believed. His drug may do all he claimed for it, but a country which boasts a Volstead in full stride cannot force itself to take him seriously. The only likely part of his story was that the tribes who prepared the drug would put to instant death any woman who happened either to learn how to prepare it or did actually get some of it into her.

We recognize that part as familiar. We have made the same fight here against the fearless woman as the savages made on the Amazon. The only thing we were never smart enough to apply was the moral of the Kipling story about the two greatest armies in the world: the men who believed that they could not die till their time came, against those who wanted to die as soon as possible. It was from one or the other of these two kinds of fearlessness that women have trained themselves in wisdom. This is the wisdom which moves them to secret laughter when they find their brothers in the throes of Volstead and Krafts. And it is from this wisdom that they will teach them all to be happy, though prohibited.

It is an unfortunate fact that humanity will not behave itself. It does not really warm to any of the current virtues. When the Eighteenth Amendment says it must not drink hard liquors, its inner heart’s desire is to drink them, even beyond its normal, and usual capacity. Prohibition is, it is true, one of the strikingly superimposed virtues. It has nothing whatever to recommend it in man’s true feelings, and this is not true of many of the civilized traits, though probably not any of them meets with entire approval. We do think that before anything approaching a real art of living is perfected among us, the present ethical system will be wholly outmoded. Meanwhile, pressure brought to bear on the least welcome of all virtues is merely going to make bad behavior worse. But that is Volstead’s business, not ours. Let him do battle with that octopus, while we bring up reinforcements to his enemies. Women know all about how to be bad and comfortable while the law goes on trying to make them good and otherwise. Just look at a few of the things on which they have cut their teeth.

We do not know, unfortunately, just at what point in her history woman went under the long siege of her taboos. Whether the system of keeping her publicly helpless and interdicted goes before church and state, or was the result of them, there is now no history to tell us. But certainly she always had one supreme power and one supreme weakness, and somewhere in time, her more neutrally equipped male companion played the one against her, to save his own skin from being stripped by the other.

But if the past is foggy, the present is not. We do know what is now, and has for a long time been, a shocking list of what she must not be allowed to do.

She cannot own and control her own property, for instance, except here and there in the world. Perhaps the theory was that she could not create property. But one would have said that such of it as she inherited she had as sound a right to as that that her brother inherited. But no such common sense notion prevailed. No matter how she came by it, it became her husband’s as soon as she married. The law has always behaved as if a woman became a half-wit the moment she married. Seeing what she deliberately lost by it, perhaps the law is right. She lost control of her possessions, including herself. She lost her citizenship, and she lost her name, though this by custom and not by law. And finally, she never could acquire control even over her own children, which certainly she did create. We do not know how many of these disabilities would have been excused on the ground that they were for her own good. It seems likelier that they came under the head of that fine old abstraction, the general good. No longer back than 1914, H. G. Wells, in “Social Forces in England and America” observed that they would probably never be able to give women any real freedom because there were the children to consider. Mr. Wells did not appear to know that he was bridging a horrible conflict in terms with a pretty fatuity. Nor did he later give himself pause when, towards the end of the book, he complained that all the babies were being had by the low grade women, while the high grade ones were quite insensible to their duties.

It was possibly with an unruliness of this kind in contemplation that the law decided that women should know nothing of birth control. Now there’s a taboo for you. Many of our very best people—the moral element, so called—will not even speak the words. But that prohibition, like all the others, has its side door—may one say its small-family entrance? The women who do not know all there is to know about it are just those poor, isolated, and ignorant women economically starved who should be the first to be told.

Consider the quaintest, we think, of all the proscriptions against women—that they cannot have citizenship in their own right. What is citizenship if it is not the assumption, made by the State, that because you were born within it, and had grown used to it and fond of it, and were attached to it by all the associations of blood ties, friendships, and what not, you were therefore entitled to take part in it, and could be called on to give it service? If citizenship is a mere legal figment, by what right do States send their citizens to war? Yet women are theoretically transferred, body and bone, heart, memory, and soul, to whatever country or nation their husbands happen to give allegiance to. Isadora Duncan, born in California, of generations of Californians, and American all her life, has lately married a young Russian poet. Hereafter she must enter her country as an alien immigrant—if it so happens that the quota is not closed. Does anybody in his senses imagine that Isadora Duncan has been changed, or could be changed, for better or worse? An opera singer who was in danger during the war of losing her position at the Metropolitan Opera House because she was an enemy alien, went forth and married an American. By that means she was actually supposed to have been made over into an American. Can naïveté go further?