Havelock Ellis

His View of Women's Nature and Position

F W Stella Browne

The Birth Control Review, III/2 Feb 1919

Genius - Especially a trebly complex genius which combines the faculties of logical analysis and intuition with exquisite grace of expression - must ever be difficult to dissect. Yet I think it is evident to any careful student of Havelock Ellis' work, who is also unafraid of life, that his most characteristic quality is the power of seeing things as they are: instead of things as convention, tradition, economic stress, religion, law (to a large extent) and literature complacently assume them to be. This remarkable and unusual quality is most happily and completely expressed in his view of women, their nature and their position in relation to men, and to the social systems of the past, the present and the future.

This view may be summarized as a comprehension alike of women's individuality as human being and of the destructive needs and nature of their sex. It is equally far removed from the imbecile and coarse contempt of the libertine who imagines that he "understands women" because he has frequently consorted with prostitutes, whom he therefore imagines he has the right to despise. At the same time, this view of our great helper, teacher and comrade, is sane and balanced and free from the somewhat sickly idealization of all a woman is and does, an idealization which is not unknown in some "advanced" circles in either England or America, and may be regarded as a degraded relic of the "chivalrous" tradition.

In no direction is Ellis's large sanity and fine-fibred humanity more exemplified than in his attitude towards Birth Control. He has always been a convinced and most effective champion of "intelligent voluntary motherhood." Alike for the child, the mother, and the community. He devotes the most reverent attention to the study of motherhood and the defense of motherhood's right to protection and consideration: but it is a motherhood in harmony with women's intelligence, gravely and gladly adventured, not imposed by alien brutality or carefully cultivated ignorance. There is an extraordinarily poignant and beautiful passage in his "Impression and Comments" on "the mother whose child has no father save God" which may well shame even the puritans into thought and humane action - such of them that is, as are capable of such processes.

Another most striking contribution to the defense of voluntary motherhood is the article on "The Objects of Marriage" written especially for the Birth Control campaign in America, and recently published also in England. Here he maintains that birth control "by rendering easily possible a selection in parentage and the choice of the right time and circumstances for conception is again the chief key to the eugenic improvement of the race", as well as "effecting finally the complete liberation of the spiritual object of marriage."

As a human being, compared and contrasted with man - never in a spirit of sex antagonism, but of earnest human fellowship - Havelock Ellis has studied woman in his volume of the Contemporary Science series, embodying the latest European researches, which appeared in its Sixth Edition before the outbreak of the war. It gives an idea of the immensity and complexity of the work in investigation, annotation and comparison which still needs doing before we can forecast women's most congenial vocation and her probable place in the New Social Order.

He has been found fault with, as a scientific investigator, by some who have not his range and depth of erudition, for a somewhat uncritical attitude towards material of testimony. What this really means is, that his scale of values is not the scale indoctrinated into the academic mind. Ellis learns much from contact with nature and man, and from encyclopaedic readings, and has never taken his views or his facts secondhand. He has observed women as citizens and workers and has received their information and comments on their life and work with sane and noble frankness, neither instructing them as to what they felt nor as to what they ought to feel. He has not only observed the rank and file of womankind: he has also been the friend and fellow worker in social and intellectual fields, of such gifted and distinguished women as his wife, the late Edith Ellis, of Olive Schreiner and Ellen Key. This has kept his standard of conduct and achievement for women high and true. He says in "The Task of Social Hygiene": "Responsibility is now demanded where before only tutelage was possible. A civilized society in which women are ignorant and irresponsible in an anachronism."

Havelock Ellis has spoken excellently of woman the worker and citizen, and woman the mother: and above all, of woman the lover and beloved. In The Birth Control Review was first published an exquisite little historical and psychological sketch called "The Love Rights of Women", in which the whole development of the patriarchal order of society and its reactions on the love nature of men and women respectively, are summarized with consummate learning and perfect sympathy. There is no doubt that Ellis' scientific training and long communing with nature in Australian forests and islands have greatly contributed to his unabashed, reverent and attentive attitude towards sex and all its mysterious processes, psychic and physical: and we know also, on good authority, that the great forerunner, James Hinton (himself also a doctor and a poet, and though with less grip on life and less humour than Ellis) influenced him the same direction. For indeed, to this great high priest of humanity and worker for a beautiful and reasonable social order, women (and men) have revealed their feelings, their perplexities, their joy and grief, sure of his comprehension, his reverence and his sympathy. His knowledge of women's infinite sexual diversity is proved by the wonderful third volume of his "Studies in the Psychology of Sex" which contains an analysis of the special characteristics of the sexual impulse in women, which is unsurpassed in originality and veracity. Again and again, in studying this piece of work, or the chapters on "Marriage," "Prostitution," and "Sexual Morality" and the "Art of Love" in the final volume of the same series ("Sex and Society") one marvels at the profound and delicate knowledge of the most subtle interplay of attraction and repulsion, desire, modesty, affection and love.

These are indeed studies of and revelations in human nature and its glorious possibilities: how different from the dogmatic imbecilities of Acton and Windscheid, to name only two "gynaecologists"! As examples of the justice and profound wisdom of his judgement I may cite the psychological portrait of Ninon de L'Enclos (in Vol. VI of the "Studies") and the analysis of the difference between the general tendency of many highly devoted intelligent women to mental, moral and social independence of men, and their frequent specifically sexual pleasure in submission to and suffering by the beloved man: for "women have the laws of their own nature: their development must be along their own lines and not along masculine lines."

And this "development along their own lines" Havelock Ellis has most brilliantly advocated and foretold; economic independence, free motherhood, birth control, freedom of sexual selection, candour and kindliness between men and women even in the terrible emotional storms of a great love: love, as an art, and as a creative impulse, energising and beautifying all life.

How can one better describe him than in Margaret Sanger's words: "The greatest emancipator of womanhood!"?

Havelock Ellis - Biographical

Tall, a veritable white giant, shy, democratic in manner, simple in thought and taste, the personality of Havelock Ellis is that of the pioneer. Pioneer has been in all his more important pursuits. How much or how little the fact that both his parents came of adventurous, sea-faring families may have to do with the bent of one of the most significant philosophical minds of the present day is an interesting subject for speculation.

Born in Croydon, Surrey, England, February 2, 1859, Henry Havelock Ellis spent much of his childhood at sea. He was educated in private schools and in St Thomas' Hospital. The first profession of his youth was teaching and his pioneering tendency doubtless asserted itself when he became a teacher in the then undeveloped New South Wales. This occupied the years from 1875 to 1879.

Returning to England, he qualified as a medical man, but practised for a short period only, having become absorbed in literary work and original scientific investigations. This step launched him upon the career which was to be so fruitful in its benefits to women and to the race.

In 1887 he began his work as editor of the Mermaid Series of Old Dramatists, which was finished in 1889. The following year saw the first of his important original works in print. This was "The New Spirit", which was followed in the same year by "The Criminal." "Man and Woman," a Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters was issued in 1894.

Then began that monumental series of studies in the Psychology of Sex, which was to be the philosopher's master work. "Sexual Inversion," which was to take its place as the second of the series, appeared in 1897. "Affirmations" was brought out in the same year. "The Evolution of Modesty" which was to become the first volume of the series on sex psychology, was published in 1899. Then came "The Nineteenth Century; A Dialogue in Utopia" in 1900 and "A Study of British Genius" in 1904. In the three years beginning with 1903 were issued Volumes 3, 4, 5 and 6 of his great series under the titles, "Analysis of the Sexual Impulse, "Sexual Selection in Man," "Erotic Symbolism" and "Sex in Relation to Society." In the eight years beginning with 1908 came "The Soul of Spain," "The World of Dreams," "The Task of Social Hygiene" "Comments and Impressions," and "Essays in War-Time." All except the very latest of these works have run through many editions.

While this immense volume of work - the more immense when one considers the original scientific investigations necessary to its preparation - was being done, there was an almost constant flow of articles, short treatises and the like, many of which have been reprinted in pamphlet form and distributed widely. It is perhaps not too much to say that Havelock Ellis never made a book for the safe of making a book, but that every volume has been done with the purpose of putting its stamp upon the life of the times. Nor is it too much to say that in no single case has one of these books failed of that purpose.


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