Women and Birth Control
F. W. Stella Browne
From Population and Birth-Control A Symposium edited by Eden and Cedar Paul, 1917
Early in July, 1914, a very subtle artist and humanitarian pioneer pointed out that "the social problem in nearly every department has overtaken the organising efforts of our experts and administrators"; that "the least scientific and the most haphazard branch of our training and education of the young, and of our social organisation, is that of sex"; and finally, that "nothing concerning sex can be rightly dealt with apart from the full equation."(1)
Much blood has flowed under all Europe's bridges since these words were written, and we have had ample opportunities to observe what Geddes has defined as "the tendency to masculine dictature always renewed by war." We are threatened with a more mercilessly systematic exploitation both of women's industry and their reproductive fertility than has ever before been attempted; and the lines on which this artificial stimulation to breed will be essayed are already clearly indicated. They include the extra taxation of bachelors and possibly of self-supporting spinsters; the remission of taxes together with special educational facilities in the case of large families; some municipal or national scheme of maternity insurance or relief; a specialised education for girls, concentrating on the sentimental and the domestic; and a fevered propaganda in favour of what some reactionaries already term "the normal family"; a propaganda in which the licensed imbecilities of the pulpit are backed up by the venal and impertinent irrelevancies of the press and the pomposities of the debating platform, and stiffened by determined attempts to penalise (or at least to restrict) the sale of contraceptives to the poor.(2)
To this propaganda there can be only one answer from the woman who claims to be, not a domestic utensil, but a citizen, a human being, and free in her motherhood and her love.
Let us admit, for the sake of argument, that the bearing of children is women's supreme duty to the state. This duty postulates rights and reciprocal duties. The state as it at present exists, in all the large monetarist and militarist national entities, is a masculine structure exclusively. It gives to women neither equality of opportunity nor adequate special protection. If women are to devote their best energies and the period of their effective womanhood to bearing and rearing children, they must do so under tolerable conditions and with some reasonable probability of a tolerable existence for their children. The realisation of these demands as regards one country alone, namely Great Britain, would include the following indispensable items:
(1) A thorough measure of housing reform on broad and generous lines, giving scope to the social and aesthetic qualities of human nature, and recognising to the full the infinite possibilities of co-operative housekeeping/
(2) The reform, root and branch, of that ancient iniquity, the British system of land tenure.
(3) A really scientific and practical treatment of agriculture.
(4) The safeguarding of the people's food supply and the resolute abolition of efforts towards protectionism.
(5) A national education system which would not be a disgrace to our heads and hearts alike, which would recognise both individual variations and communal needs, and would make some provision for definite sex instruction.
(6) An efficient public health service, including a free supply of all appliances, drugs and services necessary for the care of pregnancy, child-birth and infancy, and equitable and thorough measures for combating venereal diseases.
(7) The reform of the English laws of separation and divorce on the lines suggested by the majority report of the recent Royal Commission (1909-1912).
This is the absolute minimum that should be demanded; justice and common sense suggest, further, the concession that the married mother should be regarded as the legal parent of her child.
(8) The amendment of the English bastardy laws, which are mainly responsible for an infantile death-rate among illegitimate infants twice as high as among those born in wedlock, and for an enormous amount of prostitution, infanticide, and physical deterioration. Teutonic and Scandinavian Europe is far ahead of us in this respect: the German government recognises that, even from the strictly militarist point of view, it is inadvisable to throw away potential cannon-folder; while the recently enacted Norwegian statute "concerning children whose parents have not married each other" is a splendidly sane, fair and courageous measure.
(9) Finally (if the forms of democracy are still honoured), universal adult suffrage - one citizen, one vote.
The government of the state, until it has instituted these necessary steps towards just and decent conditions for its present and future citizens, has not the faintest right to demand a single additional birth. A political system which denies women alike equality of opportunity and adequate special protection; an economic system which is iniquity and waste incarnate; and sexual institutions founded on the needs and preferences of a primitive type of man alone, and now in their debacle, creditable and satisfactory to neither sex - these can have no moral claim on women's bodies as instruments of propagation. And women's side of the case must be put forward with emphasis and persistence, or in their present inferior economic and political status it will be ignored. It has never been safe for women to trust to the gratitude and justice of groups of men. (E.g. in spite of the praise and promises showered on women for their services to the national state in war work, the Barristers' trade union has refused women the entrance into that profession, by an overwhelming vote; and all that is basest and most blatant in the British press is now demanding that women shall be subjected to industrial conscription, before they have even the tiny safeguard of the vote!)
There is one propagandist body in particular, on which there lies a peculiarly heavy responsibility with regard to this matter. The Eugenics Education Society has among its members many most open-minded and truly progressive individuals; but the official policy it has pursued for years has been inspired by class-bias and sex-bias. The society laments with increasing vehemence the multiplication of the less fortunate classes at a more rapid rate than the possessors of leisure and opportunity. (I do not think it relevant here to discuss whether the innate superiority of endowment in the governing class, really is overwhelming as to justify the Eugenics Education Society's peculiar use of the terms "fit" and "unfit".) Yet it has persistently refused to give any help towards extending the knowledge of contraceptives to the exploited classes. Similarly, though the Eugenics Review, the organ of the society, frequently laments the "selfishness" of the refusal of maternity by healthy and educated women of the professional classes, I have yet to learn that it has made any official pronouncement on the English illegitimacy laws or any organised effort towards defending the unmarried mother.
The Women's Co-operative Guild, on the other hand, has pursued a boldly constructive policy. I cordially recommend that deeply poignant and absorbingly interesting collection of personal testimonies from working-class women. Maternity,(3) to all students of social conditions, particularly as affecting women.
Apart, however, from the present laws and customs affecting women, and apart from the hazardous cruelty of bringing numerous human lives into the world as it will be for the next thirty or fifty years, the fundamental question arises whether maternity can ever be a duty towards any outside, entity - state, individual or deity.(4)
I deny that it can.
The maternal relation, like the sexual, is in certain respects peculiar and unique. It is more deeply instinctive, more intensely personal, than any other. Its value, its beauty, its very raison d'etre, depend on its complete spontaneity. In my opinion, an enormous percentage of mental and physical degeneracy, of deficient vitality, and of obscure perversions of instinct and will, are due to the unwilling and unloving conception and gestation of such life. This may be regarded as a fantastic hypothesis, but it is founded on a good deal of personal observation. Remember how intimate is the connection between mother and baby during pregnancy; how the mother's mental as well as physical state may influence the child.(5) Such compulsory breeding is an outrage and a vile cruelty to both mother and child. But, in the past, men's instinctive wonder and idealisation of the physical side of maternity has been untroubled by any questioning of its spiritual content. The ascetic ideas incorporated in Christianity have seized on the pangs of child-birth, as a divinely appointed purgation for the exercise of the sex function - although the particular partner on whom the ordeal of parturition fell may have had very little definite pleasure in the act of intercourse. There has grown up a masculine mythology suppressing and distorting all the facts of women's sexual and maternal emotions. Thus we find even an expert biologist like Walter Heape assuming that sexual gratification is a matter of indifference to women and only of moment to them as an indispensable prelude to motherhood.(6)
It is this complacent blindness and dogmatism which needs to be met by a perfectly candid and explicit statement of the women's point of view. In their individual attitude towards maternity as a matter of choice, women show the very wide range of diversity which is characteristic of them in all the functions and emotions of sex. But when the chance of refusing compulsory motherhood is offered them, women of the most diverse types of temperament (so long as all intelligence and spirit has not been crushed out of them) respond with eager gratitude. Under proper conditions, the majority of women would probably prefer to have more than one child. Even women who were not specially philoprogenitive or domestic, would probably prefer to experience maternity at their own choice of times, circumstances, and father of their child. The birth-control movement, far from being a movement for general sterilisation, is the expression of a more intelligent and discriminative maternal love.
And here the sentimental idolators of motherhood may be reminded that thousands of women of a strongly maternal type, who love children and would be devotedly happy with a child of their own, are condemned by the obsolescent patriarchal system and the sickly chastity tabus consecrated by religion, to remain without their deepest instinctive need. We women are out to smash compulsory sterility, with its tragedy of bitterness and disease, just as much as compulsory maternity.
Our point in regard to this claim has been wantonly obscured by the putrescent remnants of canon law, and by the carefully cultivated ignorance of women concerning their own physiology - an ignorance still responsible for much gratuitous suffering. The right to prevent the conception of life must logically and justly include the right to remove the life-seed which has been fertilised against the mother's will, either through accident or intention.(7) No woman's right is more fundamental than this, and none has been more disregarded. Yet if abortion be procured in the first or second months of pregnancy, no sentient life is destroyed; and if the operation be effected with proper skill and care, under cleanly and sanitary conditions, it need have no injurious effects on the mother. No country, in the past or in the present, has ever succeeded in extirpating abortion by the severest legal penalties: what has been done is to create a criminal occupation, and a largely criminal class; to endow blackmail;(8) and to ruin the health and sanity of many women.
To a really humane and rational age, none of our established sexual or social barbarisms will seem more hideous than this: that even when conception was the result of rape the women's right to abortion was denied. Consider the recent decisions of the French Government, concerning the French women and girls who were with child as a result of abuse by the invading enemy. The most cumbrous methods - change of name and residence, and state rearing of the children (unhappy children whose origin will never be forgotten against them!) - were adopted: rather than that women's right over their own bodies should be officially admitted.
Note that I do not defend the destruction of the life of the unborn child at seven months. But in the early stages of gestation it should be the woman's absolute right to say whether her incipient burden shall develop or not. If her decision is in the negative, the resources of science should be at her disposal for its execution.
The right of abortion is also an indispensable second line of defence, pending the invention and circulation of an absolutely reliable preventive. There is no doubt that existing methods might be greatly improved. Here is a humane field for our constructive experimental chemists.
I do not doubt that in the finer social order for which some of us are working (in however significant and piecemeal a fashion), abortion will be very rare. But it will be recognised, and respected as an individual right.
The hope of any amelioration of sexual habits and of any increase of human happiness in this direction lines in the power to differentiate between the erotic and the reproductive functions, and in bringing the exercise of the latter completely under volitional control. This is also the only line of freedom and a more varied and active life for women. It is a sheer confusion of the issue to maintain that birth-control is synonymous with desexualization. Undoubtedly the patriarchal family tends to produce a profound disparity between the sexual impulse of men and women respectively. The chastity tabu on unmarried women puts a premium on infanticide and enormously fosters secret self-abuse. On the other hand a group of powerful vested interests, and a whole despised and demoralised social class, live on the stimulation of sexual desire, of the crudest type, among men. These conditions do not seem to some of us very admirable, and if they are final and irrevocable we should, on the whole, prefer extinction. No doubt sexual anaesthesia(9)
among a large percentage of "civilised" women presents a cruelly difficult problem to the more refined type of man, who desires an equal and actively responsive mate. The remedy is to make the conditions of women's sex life more dignified and congenial, to free women from that terror of undesired pregnancy which is so often a source of incomplete gratification and nervous ruin.
Excessive and rapid childbearing is also sexually devitalising, and many women have been exhausted by maternity before they were able to enjoy and benefit by sexual relations.
No doubt the quality of the race is not improved when many of its most intelligent, determined, and morally elevated women refuse maternity. But these women will have love and children under conditions which do not offend against their own human dignity, conscience, and reason, or - not at all. Education and social readjustments are necessary here; and an attitude of greater sympathy and consideration for the more diffused and complex sexual requirements of women.
The whole power of voluntary maternity to improve the race is intimately dependent on free sexual selection by women. It should be for them to choose whether they will have children or not: and if so, how many, at what intervals, and with whom.
This will imply revolutionary changes in all departments; but it will also imply the development
of hitherto isolated human harmonies, of intense and vivid variations of faculty and type, in
however remote a future. Meanwhile, the birth-strike is already, and increasingly, practical
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.
1.0Publication No. 1 of the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. Policy and Principles.
2.0Cf. the senile tirades of Sir James Crichton Browne, at the Guildhall, October, 1915: c.f also the "Cape Times," October 30, 1916; and the clerical and capitalist press generally.
3.0Published by George Bell & Sons, London, 1915, 2/6 net
4.0The question has been put very ably, without special reference to women, in the "International Journal of Ethics", October, 1916. Birth Control and Biological Ethics, by Warner Fite
5.0 The increasing number of women who study medicine and biology may bring valuable contributions from their special feminine experience, if they have the courage to refuse the masculine mythology which has gathered round motherhood.
6.0Feminism and Sex Antagonism, by Walter Heape, F.R.S. F.Z.S., London, Constable, 1913.
7.0This right has been vindicated by certain feminists in Scandinavia and Germany.
8.0An appalling case, in which hundreds of women were blackmailed by scoundrels who advertised as pharmacists, is recorded in A History of Penal Methods, by George Ives
9.0In judging this point, women's sexual variability is often forgotten. Apparent sexual anaesthesia may mean constitutional anaemia - and a stupid or clumsy lover.