Helen Gardener: Nature Isn't Sexist. Why Are Men?
Thirteenth in a series commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.
In her many public speeches, author, political activist, and behind-the-scenes suffrage strategist Helen Hamilton Gardener took on the hypocrisies and double standards built into gender roles.
In her March 18, 1893, address at the Chicago World’s Fair, she attacked the deeply ingrained notion that men were the societal norm or standard -- and women merely an “annex.”
Five years earlier, Gardener had gained national attention with another powerhouse speech, “Sex in Brain,” in which she relied on her own extensive research to demolish the then-popular fiction that women were not as intelligent as men -- and therefore not qualified to vote -- because their brains were significantly smaller than men’s.
Gardener knew the value of evidence-based inquiry. When she died, she donated her brain to science.
Memorial Art Palace, World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago
If it were not often tragic and always humiliating, it would be exceedingly amusing to observe the results of a method of thought and a civilization that has proceeded always upon the idea that man is the race and that woman is merely an annex to him, and exists because of his desires, needs, and dictum.
Strangely enough, the bigotry of sex bias and pride does not carry this theory below the human animal. According to scientists and evolutionists, and indeed even according to the religious explanations of the source and cause of things, the male and female of all species of animals, birds, and insects come into life and tread its path together as equals.
The male tiger does not assume to teach his mate what her “sphere” is, and the female hippopotamus is supposed to have sufficient brain-power of her own to enable her to live her own life and plan her own occupations; to decide upon her own needs, and generally regulate her own existence without being compelled to call upon the gentlemen of her family in particular and all of the gentlemen of her species in general to decide for her when she is doing the proper thing. The laws of their species are not made and executed by one sex for the other, and the same food, sun, covering, education, and general conduct and opportunities of life which open to the one sex are equally open to the other. No protective tariff is put upon masculine prerogative to enable him to control all the necessaries of life for both sexes, to assure him all the best opportunities, occupations, education, and results of achievement which are the common need of their kind. In short, the female is in no way his subordinate.
In captivity it is the female which has been as a rule most prized, best cared for and preserved. In the barnyard, field, and stable alike it is deemed wise to kill most of the males. They are looked upon as good food, so to speak, but not as useful citizens. What they add to the world is not thought so much of -- their capacities for future services are less valued than are those of the other sex. Even the manmade religious legends bring all these animals into life in pairs. Neither has precedence of the other; neither is subject to the other.
But when it comes to the human animal, “the final blossom of creative thought,” as religionists word it, or of universal energy, as scientists put it, the male for the first time becomes the whole idea. A helpmeet for him is an after-thought, and according to man’s teaching up to the present time an after-thought only half-matured and very badly executed.
In spite of all the practice on other pairs, one of each sex, it remained for the Almighty, or Nature, to make the mistake, for the first time, of creating a race with one of its halves a mere “annex” to the other — a subject, a subordinate, without brains to do its own thinking, without judgment to be its own guide.
In the case of all other animals each sex has its own brain-power, with which it directs its own affairs, makes its own laws of conduct, and so preserves its own individuality, its personal liberty, its freedom of action and of development.
I am not ignorant of the scientific facts that in nature among ants, birds, and beasts, there are tribes and communities where some are slaves, or are subject to others; but what I do assert is this, that this is not a sex distinction or degradation. It is not infrequently the males who are the subjects in those communities where liberty is not equal, and where, therefore, the very basic principle of equality is impossible or unknown.
Nowhere in all nature is the mere fact of sex made a reason for fixed inequality of liberty; for subjugation, for subordination, and for determined inferiority of opportunity in education, in acquirement, in position — in a word, in freedom. Nowhere until we reach man!
Here, for the first time in nature, there enter artificial social conditions and needs. These artificial demands, coupled with the great fact of maternity under sex subjugation, linked with financial dependence upon the one not so burdened, have fixed this subordinate status upon that part of the race which is the producer of the race.
This fact alone is enough to account for the slow, the distorted, the diseased, and the criminal progress of humanity. Subordinates can not give lofty character. Servile temperaments can not blossom into liberty-loving, liberty-breathing, liberty-giving descendants.
Many of the lower animals destroy their young if they are born in captivity. They demand that their offspring shall be free; free from man’s conditions or captivity, as it always has been free from the tyranny of sex control in their own species.
It is the fashion in this country nowadays to say that women are treated as equals. Some of the most progressive and best of men truly believe what they say in this regard. One of our leading daily papers, which insists that this is true, and even goes so far as to say that American gentlemen believe in and act upon the theory that their mothers and daughters are of a superior quality, and are always of the first consideration to men, recently had an editorial headlined “UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE THE BIRTHRIGHT OF THE FREE-BORN.” I read it through, and, would you believe it, the writer has so large a bump of sex arrogance that he never once thought of one-half of humanity in the entire course of an elaborate and eloquent two-column article! “Universal” suffrage touched but one sex. There was but one sex “free-born.” There was but one born with “rights.” The words, “persons,” “citizens,” “residents of the State,” and all similar terms were used quite freely, but not once did it dawn upon the mind of the writer that every one of those words, every argument for freedom, every plea for liberty and justice, equality and right applied to the human race, and not merely to one-half of that race.
Sex bias, sex arrogance, sex pride, sex assumption is so ingrained that it simply does not occur to the male logician, scientist, philosopher, and politician that there is a humanity! They see, think of, and argue for and about only a sex of man, with an annex to him -- woman. They call this the race, but they do not mean the race; they mean men. They write and talk of “human beings” -- of their needs, their education, their capacities, and development --but they are not thinking of humanity at all. They are planning for and executing plans which subordinate the race, the human entity, to a subdivision, the mark and sign of which is the lowest and most universal possession of male nature -- the mere procreative instinct and possibility.
This has grown to be the habit of thought until in science, in philosophy, in religion, in law, in politics -- one and all -- we must translate all language into other terms than those used. For the word “universal” we must read: male. For the “people,” the “nation,” we must read: men. The “will of the majority -- majority rule” -- really means the larger number of masculine citizens. And so with all our common language. It is mere democratic, verbal gymnastics, clothing the same old monarchical, aristocratic, mental beliefs with “the divine right” of man, and making woman his subject and perquisite.
It does not mean what it says, and it does not say what it means. Our thoughts are adjusted to false forms, and so the thoughts do not ring true. They are mere hereditary forms of speech. All masculine thought and expression up to the present time have been in the language of sex and not in the language of race; and so it has come about that the music of humanity has been set in one key and played on one chord.
It has been well said that an Englishman cannot speak French correctly until he has learned to think in French. It is far more true that no one can speak or write the language of human liberty and equality until he has learned to think in the language, and to feel without stopping to argue with himself that right is not masculine only and that justice knows no sex.
Were the claim to superior opportunity, status, and position based upon capacity, character, or wealth, upon perfection of form or grace of bearing, one could understand if not accept the reasonableness of the position; for it would then rest upon some sort of recognized superiority; but while it is based upon sex, a mere accident of form, carrying with it a brute instinct, which is not even glorified by the capacity and willingness to produce, surely no lower, less vital, or more degraded basis could possibly be chosen. Not long ago a heated argument arose here in Chicago over the teaching of German in the public schools. This argument was used by one of the leading contestants in one of the leading journals:
“The whole amount of education that 95% of our public school pupils receive is lamentably small. It is far less than we could wish it to be. Most of these children, who are to be the citizens and by their ballots the rulers of this nation, can often remain but a few years in the schoolroom. For the average American citizen who is not a professional man, or who is not destined for diplomatic service abroad, English can afford all the mental and intellectual pabulum needed.”
Now here is an amusing, and also a humiliating, illustration of the way these matters are always handled, and it is for that reason only that I have introduced a local question here. “Ninety-five per cent of our public school pupils,” etc., “by their ballots are to be the rulers of the nation,” etc., “future citizens,” forsooth! Now it simply did not occur to the gentleman who wrote that, and to the hundreds who so write and speak daily, that the most of those 95% have no ballot, do not “rule,” are not the “future citizens,” but that they belong to the proscribed sex -- have committed the crime of being girls even before they entered the public schools, and so have permanently out-lawed themselves from citizenship in this glorious republic of “equals.”
But his entire argument, made upon so large a per cent, really rests upon a much smaller number; but the girls made good ballast for the argument. They answered to fill in the “awful example,” but they are not allowed the justice of real citizenship, nor to be the future “rulers” for and because of whom the whole argument is made -- for whose educational rights and needs alone, because of their future ballots, he cares so tenderly. It will not do to attempt to avoid this issue by the hackneyed expression, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” Everyone knows that this is not true in the sense in which it is used. It is true, alas, in a sense never dreamed of by politician and publicist.
It is true that the degraded status of maternity has ruled and does rule the world, in that it has been, and is, the most potent power to keep the race from lofty achievement. Subject mothers never did, and subject mothers never will, produce a race of free, well-poised, liberty-loving, justice-practicing children.
Maternity is an awful power. It blindly strikes back at injustice with a force that is a fearful menace to mankind. And the race which is born of mothers who are harassed, bullied, subordinated, and made the victims of blind passion or power, or of mothers who are simply too petty and self-debased to feel their subject status, cannot fail to continue to give us the horrible spectacles we have always had of war, of crime, of vice, of trickery, of double-dealing, of pretense, of lying, of arrogance, of subservience, of incompetence, of brutality, and, alas, of insanity, idiocy, and disease, added to a fearful and unnecessary mortality. To a student of anthropology and heredity it requires no great brainpower to trace results to causes.
We need only remember that the mental as well as the physical conditions, capacities, and potentialities are inherited to understand how the dead level of hopeless mediocrity must be preserved as the rule of the race, so long as the potentialities of that race must be filtered always through and take its impetus from a mere annex to man’s power, ambition, desires, and opinions.
Let me respond right here to those who will, who always do, insist that woman is not so held today, at least in England and America; that her present status is a dignified, an equal, or even superior one. I will illustrate. In a recent speech by the Hon. William Ewart Gladstone he pleaded most eloquently and earnestly for the right of Irishmen to rule and govern themselves. Among many other things he said:
“The principal weapons of the opposition are bold assertion, persistent exaggeration, constant misconstruction, and copious, arbitrary, and baseless prophecies. True, there are conflicting financial arrangements to be dealt with, but among the difficulties nothing exists which ought to abash or terrify men desirous to accomplish a great object. For the first time in 90 years the bill will secure the supremacy of Parliament as founded upon right as well as backed by power.”
Had these remarks been made with an eye single to the “woman question,” they could not have been more exactly descriptive of the facts in the case; but with Irishmen only on his mind he continued thus:
“The persistent distrust of the Irish people despite all they can do comes simply to this, that they are to be pressed below the level of civilized mankind. When the boon of self-government is given to the British colonies is Ireland alone to be excepted from its blessings? To deny Ireland home rule is to say that she lacks the ordinary faculties of humanity.”
He said, “Irish people,” but he meant Irish men only. But see to what his argument leads! He says it is “pressing them below the level of civilized mankind” to deny them the right to stand erect, to use their own brains and wills in their own government; and a great party in his own country, and a great party in this country, echo with mad enthusiasm his opinions. They call it mankind; they mean one-half of mankind only, for not even Mr. Gladstone is able to rise high enough above his sex bias to see that the denial of all self-government, all representation in the making of the laws she is to obey, “presses woman below the level of civilized mankind.”
Words cease to have par value, even with the stickler for verbal accuracy, the instant their own arguments are applied to the other sex. Eloquently men can and do portray the wrongs, the outrages, the abuses which always have arisen, which always must arise, from class legislation -- from that condition which makes it impossible for one class or condition of citizens of a country to make their needs, desires, preferences, and opinions felt in the organic and statute law of their country on an equal and level footing with their fellows.
Men have needed no great ability to enable them to prove that tyranny unspeakable always did and always will follow unlimited power over others, so long as their arguments applied between man and man; but the instant the identical arguments are used to apply between man and woman, that instant their whole attitude changes. That instant words lose all par value. That instant all men, including those who have just waxed eloquent over the injustice and the real danger of permitting inequality before the law, become aristocrats. Claiming to be the logical sex, man throws logic to the winds! Claiming to have fought and bled to enthrone “liberty,” he forgets its very name! Asserting that in his hand alone can the scales of justice be held level, he makes of justice, of liberty, of equality, a mockery and a pretense. He has so far read all of those words in the masculine form only. He has not yet learned to think them in a universal language. He stultifies his every utterance and makes of his mind a jailer, and of his laws slave-drivers for all who cannot by physical force wrench from him the right to their own liberty and to the human status of equality of opportunity.
Men have everywhere grown to believe that they rule women by divine right. Woman is a mere annex to and for man’s glory. She exists for him to rule, to think for, to adore, to tolerate, or to abuse as he sees fit, according to his type of nature. Her appeal must not be to an equal standard of justice which she has helped to frame, administer, and live by, but it must be to his generosity, his tenderness, his toleration, or his chivalry -- in short, to his absolute power over her.
“No people can be free without an equal legal footing for all of its citizens!” exclaims the statesman; and drums beat, and trumpets blare, and men march and countermarch in enthusiastic response to the sentiment. “We must have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is cheered to the echo wherever heard, and nobody realizes that what is meant always is a government by men, for men, and of men, with woman as an annex. Only three weeks ago all of our papers had leaders, editorials, and cablegrams to announce that “Universal suffrage has been granted in Belgium.”
They all grew enthusiastic over it. One of our leading New York editors said -- and I use his editorial simply because it is a very good example of what almost all of our important journals said:
“The triumph of the Belgium democracy is an event of the first significance. The masses had long appealed in vain for a removal of the property qualification which restricted the right of suffrage to one hundred and forty thousand persons out of a population of over six millions, but the Chambers, dominated by the wealthy classes, resolutely refused to comply with the demand until a dangerous revolution was inaugurated. Even now the change in the constitution granting universal suffrage is coupled with the right of plural voting by the property owners; but it is quite certain this obnoxious feature will be soon abandoned by the Chambers, and universal suffrage will prevail, as in the adjoining nations of France and Germany. When these newly enfranchised electors choose the next Legislature, important changes may be expected in the laws applicable to the employment of labor, which have hitherto been framed solely in the interest of the mine-owners and the manufacturers.
“Fortunately for the king, he seems to be in sympathy with this effort of the masses to acquire a fair representation in the government. In the recent riots the hostility of the people was directed against the Assembly rather than against the crown.
“It is very evident that the democratic spirit is gaining ground throughout Europe. Its influence is manifest in the home rule movement in England, in the hostility to the army bill in Germany, and in the rapid changes in the ministries of France. It steadily advances in every direction, and never loses ground once acquired. It progresses peacefully if it can, but forcibly if it must. Its triumph in Belgium is one of the signs of the times in the Old World.”
“The people” are all male in Belgium, in France, Germany, and America, or else all of these statements are mere figures of speech -- are wholly untrue -- for the women of Belgium, of France, of Germany, and, alas, of democratic America, were not even thought of when the words “people,” “citizen,” “masses,” “laborers,” etc., were used.
They are counted in the estimates of the population as all of these. They are used to fill vacancies, to swell estimates, to round out statistics; but in the result of these arguments and statistics, in the victories won for liberty to the individual, woman has no part. She is the one outlaw in human progress. In a recent magazine this passage occurs:
“Austria. -- On April 2d, Dr. Victor Adler, a Socialist leader, spoke to about four thousand working-men in favor of universal suffrage. He said that two-thirds of the adult men had not the suffrage. Only half-civilized countries like Russia and Spain now placed their citizens in such inequality before the law. The working-man of Austria had never before this winter suffered such hardships, and now in Vienna twenty-six thousand workmen were without shelter.”
Yet there is no report that Doctor Adler, or the editor of the magazine, who waxed eloquent over it, saw any special “hardship” or “inequality” in a degraded status for all women. “Universal suffrage” indeed! And has Austria no women citizens? Were the working women who have not the ballot better sheltered than the men? Or do they need no shelter? Another editor says:
“Don’t talk about a free ballot while the bread of the masses is in the giving of the classes.” Yet had a venturesome girl type-setter made it read, “Don’t talk about a free ballot, a democracy, or freedom while the bread of women is in the giving of men,” the editor would have said, “She is insane — and besides that, she is talking unwomanly nonsense.”
It is the same in science, in literature, in religion. All estimates are made on and for the “human race,” “the people of a country,” etc. The “will of the people” is spoken of; we are told all about the size, capacity, convolutions, etc., of the brain of the different peoples; we hear learned discussions about it all, and when you sift them, woman -- one-half of the race talked about -- is used always simply and only as ballast, as filling, to make a point in man’s favor. She does not figure in the benefits. He is the race -- she is his annex.
Not long ago an amusing illustration of this came to my knowledge. In life insurance there is more money invested than in any other financial enterprise. This is the way insurance experts look at the woman question. The estimates of longevity, desirability of risk, etc., are based upon male standards. This is not in itself unnatural nor unreasonable, since men have been the chief insurers; but few companies, indeed, being willing to insure women at all. But not long ago a woman applied for a policy on her life in a first-class company. She had three little children for whom she wished to provide in case of her death. She believed that she could properly support them so long as she lived.
To her surprise she was told that the rate at which she must pay was $5 on each $1,000 more than her brother had to pay at the same age. She asked the actuary -- a very profound man -- why this was so. He told her that women had been found to be not so good risks as men, since they were subject to more dangers of death than were men, and to make the companies safe it had been found necessary to charge women a higher rate. She had heard much her life long of the dangers to men’s lives, of the shielded, sheltered state of feminine humanity, and she had never dreamed that it was, from a mortuary point of view, “extra hazardous” to be a woman. She assumed, however, that it must be so, and paid her “extra hazardous” premium -- just as if she belonged to the army, or was a blaster, or miner, or “contemplated going up in a balloon.” A short time afterward her mother, an elderly lady, had some money to invest. She did not wish to care for it herself, as she had never had the least business experience. She applied to the same actuary to know how much of an annual income, or annuity, she could buy for the sum she had. He figured on it for a while, and told her. It was a good deal less than a man could get for the same amount. She had the temerity to ask why. “Well,” said the actuary, gazing benignly over his glasses at her in a congratulatory fashion, “you see, women live longer than men do, and…”
“But you told my daughter that they did not live so long; and so she pays at a higher rate on insurance to make you safe, lest she should die too young. Now you charge me more for an annuity on the theory that a woman lives longer than a man.”
“Well,” said he, readjusting his glasses and going carefully over the mortuary tables again, “that does seem to be the fact. If a woman assures her life, she beats the company by dying sooner than a man, and if she takes an annuity she beats us by living longer than he would. Don’t know how it happens, but we charge extra to cover the facts as we find ’em.”
Such is male logic upon female perversity even in death. Yet men say that they understand us and our needs so much better than we do ourselves, that they abandon all of their reasoning, logic, enthusiasm, and belief, on the great fundamental principles of justice, equality, liberty, and law the moment their own arguments are applied to women instead of to “labor,” the “Irish question,” or to any phase of class legislation as applied between man and man.
The fact is simply and only this: The arrogance of sex power and perversion is now so thoroughly ingrained that man really believes himself to be, by divine right, the human race, and that woman is his perquisite. He has no universal language. He thinks in the language of sex. But more than this, and worse than this, he insists upon no one being allowed to think in the language of humanity, and to translate that thought into action.
Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, a historical résumé for popular circulation of the World’s Congress of Representative Women, convened in Chicago on May 15, and adjourned on May 22, 1893, under the auspices of the Woman’s branch of the World’s congress auxiliary, Vol. III, ed. May Eliza Wright Sewall, (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company), 1893, pp. 488-500.