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article number 671
article date 06-29-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
American Woman in Transition, 1914, Part 1: Woman’s Traditional Roles
by Ellen Key

MADAME KEY is probably the most distinguished feminist in the world. She is wise enough to be both the most
radical and the most conservative, picking out the best from either side.

In this series she has given her views of the way women have met the changed conditions with which they are confronted and especially the points at which the feminists have lived up to their promises and where they have failed.

In the present article she describes the old fashioned woman, her origin, her virtues and defects and the reason for her peace and happiness.

* * *

WHEN we speak of women and morals we must consider the subject in two ways, the morality which originated from the fact that woman was the property of father, husband and family, and the morality which arose and is yet growing because this condition is being gradually abolished.

Rousseau has said:

“It is for women to discover what might be called experimental morality, and for us to reduce it to a system. Woman has greater intuition and man greater genius. Woman observes and man reasons, and from this collaboration we get the clearest light and most complete science of which the human mind is capable; in other words the surest knowledge of one’s self and of others which it is possible for humanity to have.”

This truth all great women have confirmed through their lives and by what they have said. Women’s strength is not that of creative genius. Their contribution to moral growth has been their wisdom in the realm of experience, quick sympathy for individual cases rather than understanding of the theory of ethics.

The word morals is here used to mean the stored-up experience which we have gained through pain and joy and the actions which make for the greater enhancement of life for ourselves as well as for others. Whatever increases the life of the body and soul is good; whatever retards it is evil.

WOMEN have not been founders of religions (if we except the modern Theosophic and Christian Science movements), nor have they formed systems of the philosophy of ethics. Had they had a chance to be lawmakers they probably should not have written great works of law.

But when it comes to applying to life the laws and morals which do exist, woman, because of her receptiveness and her adaptability combined with her stubbornness, has exerted an immeasurable influence for good.

On the other hand, woman, in encouraging the non-morality of men, both in private and public life, has sometimes held back the growth of morals and sometimes led it astray.

In the legends of Iceland we hear of a day when men began to allow manslaughter in a family feud to be redeemed with fines, while the women, with tears and scorn, spurred them on to blood revenge. In our own day the British women approved of the stand taken by their own country in the Boer War.

I have heard it said that men have created the code of laws, women the code of convention, the unwritten laws which are stronger than the written ones. We need only recall man’s idea of a “debt of honor “—a gambling debt, for instance, compared with his feeling toward the debt he owes the woman he has betrayed, or how sensitive is his honor that prompts him to duels compared with his care for the illegitimate children he has brought into the world.

Knightly honor and warrior pride, business integrity and artist’s conscience are a few of the unwritten laws which go to show that man in his sphere as much as woman in hers, has been a maker of conventions, objectionable and otherwise.

It is in the home and society that woman has fashioned the customs, both as to what we ought to do and what we ought not to do, from table manners to the behavior that expresses presence or absence of love. The unceasing surge of her feelings has rounded our sharp-edged moral commandments.

Woman’s stubborn tenacity is one with her best traits, tenderness, faithfulness and piety. But it is one of her weakest points in her dislike of the serious mental work involved in thinking out new ideas, her indifference to the quest for truth, and her lack of desire for objective knowledge. These weaknesses, while they are being modified by the growth of culture, have for a long time made woman a fanatic defender of blind prejudices and outgrown moral laws.

But this same conservatism has done much in times of transition toward keeping what was good in the old ways from being swept away by the spring flood of new ideas.

Strand. The home of Ellen Key.

EACH individual must draw the hair-splitting line between self-assertion that is a virtue and that which
is selfishness. Women have always asserted their human nature on the side of altruism and sympathy. The noblest women in life or literature are those who have reached the peace and harmony possible only when a spiritual balance has been realized in their lives.

That harmony is more easily obtained when the balance has been long established and observed. That is why the old fashioned woman offers the loveliest picture which we have yet seen. To these women the duty of self-sacrifice has become happiness. They were at peace with their own conscience as well as with the patriarchal family and the Christian religion.

From the conflict between duty to himself and duty to the world with which the man’s conscience was so often torn, the woman has been spared. If the conflict were a religious one she has had only to make a choice between one authority and another. If she has rebelled within herself against the patriarchal family right, the rebellion has reached only her mind, not her conscience.

For women were not allowed to change the authority of religion or of the family, nor did they question their own inability to do so, and conscience is the recognition of the gulf between what life ought to be and what it is.

But more than all, women have been at peace and happy because they knew that motherhood, which was their greatest joy, was also their most important duty. In other words, the most important work of a woman’s world had nothing whatever to do with changes which called for new needs, aims or efforts. Her home was a closed circle, touched only faintly by the world’s evolution.

To protect the young and tend the old, to cherish and comfort, guide and restore, to teach and love, to give pleasure and to help, remained the one undisputed necessity through all the world’s changes in government, religion and economics.

Thus in a woman’s life, theory and practice were the same and what she ought to do was also what she wanted to do.

ALL theories of the origin and development of morals agree on one point, that the family is the root out
of which sympathy and the social virtues have grown, however religion and social laws may have varied. What is right in married life is like that which is right in the larger life of society. What the strong find useful becomes a duty to the weak.

Although some morals have had a religious beginning, the morals that have sprung from life and its needs are the ones which have endured. Religious codes of morals have only remained important when they have adapted themselves to social life in its changing forms.

Family life has naturally resulted in a division of labor. It is the man’s duty to defend and support the family and the woman’s to care for the children.

This has developed two sets of virtues: the manly virtues involve duty to ourselves, the womanly, duty to others. The lower the morality of the people, the greater is the gulf between these two spheres of duty. The whole spiritual history of man is a record of the struggle to combine these two fundamental human needs.

In many ways the so-called weaker sex has had the easier task. The fear of punishment when the woman did wrong or displeased her master, very swiftly and effectively developed the woman’s sense of duty.

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When new economic conditions and new religions changed men’s ideas of right and wrong, all woman had to do was to obey the new code instead of the old. She did not have to make decisions for herself. In the age of cannibalism, women considered it right to be used as food, in savagery as a beast of burden, in barbarism as a slave.

Step by step the treatment of women, like the treatment of male prisoners of war, has changed. In both cases because of the owners’ new ideas as to the most profitable use of his possession. Marriage brought was brought about first through spoil, then by purchase, finally through gift.

Because the wife was the man’s property, unfaithfulness was looked upon as theft. Men were at liberty to sell or lend their wives to other men. It was not the sharing of the wife to others which outraged the husband but sharing her without any profit to him.

AS a rule, the chastity of women has not been due to woman’s nature as such but to mortal fear which adultery brought in its trail. In many savage tribes unmarried women live loosely while wives remain faithful to their husbands.

Moreover, married as well as unmarried woman have lacked all continence when men have not expected it of them.

But in one sphere the ethics of women have developed naturally without any pressure from without. The helplessness and sweetness of the child has brought out a tenderness and sympathy in the mother which created the first beginning of a social order. Through motherliness, woman has made her great contribution to civilization.

Through the children also have men’s morals developed. The great forward step in his growth has been the desire to protect the wife and children dependent upon him.

Among primitive peoples, woman has seldom been as barbarously treated as most people think. The woman carries the pack because the man has to be prepared at all times for armed battle and not because he is selfish.

Through her motherhood, woman’s sexual nature becomes gradually purer than man’s. The child becomes more and more the center of her thoughts and her deeds. The strength of her passions diminishes, the depth of her tenderness for her children and their father grows.

Out of this tenderness and out of the admiration for the manly qualities which the father shows in defence of herself and her children, gradually arises and erotic feeling for this man alone. Thus, in early days, love began.

Blind forces have been at work for centuries in improving marriage, but it was not until the last century that woman has entered directly the great battle for better morals. Her part before had been through the indirect influence of her desirableness and her opinion as mother and wife, daughter and sister.

The influence of Christianity had also been at work. Heathendom glorifies the masculine virtues, Christianity the feminine ones. The worship of the Madonna has increased the reverence for woman, especially the mother.

But what the Church gave with one hand, it took back with the other. The ancient world looked on marriage as a duty to the race and to the nation. Pauline Christianity allows it, but only as a necessary resource against temptation.

Like other Oriental religions, Christianity considers sexual life as impure and only celibacy absolutely without taint. When even the marriage sanctified by the Church was looked upon as a lower state, it stand to reason that when woman outside of marriage tempted man to unchastity, she was looked upon as "the gate of the devil," to use the expression of an apostolic father.

The Church has encouraged monogamy but this benefit has been offset by the heavy debt which the Church owes to illegitimate children and to unhappily married couples held together against their will.

The Church has much to answer for, besides this sacrifice of the innocents in the entire false view of sex which grew out of the ecclesiastical attitude.

A woman’s virtue came to mean her virginity before marriage and her faithfulness afterward. To be sure, a woman’s sins against property and character were punished like a man’s and her strength and courage were praised, but she was seldom obliged to show these virtues or to resort to crime for self-preservation, as the man protected her.

But man’s virtue consisted in courage, energy, pride, honor and business ability, while his sexual morality had nothing to do with his "honor" and "virtue."

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SLAVERY in marriage gave woman all the vices which men call woman’s nature. She gained all the blessings of life—motherhood, honor as a housewife, support, protection and pleasure, if a man were enough pleased with her to marry her.

First in the home of her parents, then under her husband’s care, a woman got everything she wanted by being docile and flattering.

The average woman could hardly escape hypocrisy. Self control forced on a human being from without may make good habits but it may also make pretended ones. Woman became a coward because she was not allowed to act on her own responsibility or to take her own risks.

Weather freedom will cure these woman vices remains to be seen but the women of the present give a fair promise that it will. Self indulgence, luxury, gossip and scandal are neither womanly nor manly. They spring in either sex from a low degree of culture.

With the advance of culture, women are learning the love of truth, intellectual honesty and unselfish perseverance. These same ideas are carried over into their private lives.

The most flagrant example of woman’s immorality in the present is the countless women among the rich who, released from all work, are parasites upon the father or husband, satisfying their craving for pleasure or luxury, without accomplishing anything to pay back what they received from society. Because of their parasitic state, sex has become the whole content of life to these women.

In many women, erotic life is over-developed because of the centuries of their sex slavery and we still possess a class of women whose love-life is only a desire for sensual gratification. When women have reached this stage, sex hatred is very near. There are no more dangerous enemies to the feminist than these parasites.

IF, as some men think, the faults we have been discussing were the only results of the sex slavery of the
past, we might well hasten from the past to future, but there has been good as well as evil.

In the first place, motherhood has developed a whole set of virtues which man has seldom even noticed because they seem to him just as natural as the milk which flowed from the mother’s breast to the lips of the child.

Kant’s definition of virtue is that which is difficult. Because woman’s sex virtue was difficult, it was looked upon as her only true virtue.

Her other attainments—patience, gentleness, thrift—were taken for granted and like the air we breathe, were only noticed when absent. All the qualities developed in the care of children, and in farming, housework and craft were no more inborn than the vices produced by sex slavery.

During all the time of this one-sided moral training the sexual self mastery which once she disliked was becoming at last her happiness. She realized that if the man’s children were certainly his own, he loved them more and was more faithful to her. She knew that illegal motherhood deprived her children of their father’s protection, so that the outward demand for faithfulness met with her inner approval.

The close relationship, physical and mental, which exists between the mother and child is the innermost reason why chastity is second nature with women, but this chastity was also made easy because women’s emotional life was scattered over family life and household duties. And the cooler they grew, erotically the more sensitive did they become in regard to their sexual integrity.

Thus out of animal sex instinct has grown human love and the soul and senses of one person dedicated entirety to another. In her love for her husband, as earlier than in the love of her child, were focused all the noblest virtues of woman.

Thus, in a woman’s life the demands from without and the desire from within, nature and conscience, the needs of society and her own needs were the same. When this is true, morals are unnecessary, for it is impossible to break the law.

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Because woman knew that her morality was more important to the race than that of man, she allowed the double standard to exist. Men still judged women and women judged each other, according to sex morality.

The fallen woman was not she who lied or betrayed, hated or plotted, or she who made her home a hell for its inmates, not even she who stole and murdered, but the woman, who, outside of marriage, allowed herself the natural expression of one side of her life, even if the most soulful love caused her so-called fall.

This point of view has lowered man’s respect for the woman he has seduced or for the woman who has freely given herself to him. His conscience has remained asleep, for neither public opinion nor his mistress have awakened it.

Female criminals are everywhere less numerous than male, partly because their position is more protected than the man’s, but especially because where a man, unable or unwilling to work, becomes a thief, a woman becomes a prostitute.

ANOTHER result of the double standard is that woman’s ideas of right and honor in ordinary social questions are just as dull as man s in regard to sexual questions. The offhand way in which women secretly break the law has often struck man with amazement. He ought instead to be surprised that women’s social morals are not worse.

It is much more amazing to find women, citizens in many important matters, absolutely without rights in others. On the great occasions in the life of many nations, woman has shown herself fully equal to man in the sense of duty and the willingness of self-sacrifice. Many mothers have sent their sons to battle for their country, many women have become martyrs for the truth.

In our day the working women among Socialists have developed a sacrificing spirit and a solidarity which shows that they understand progress as well as the men. But the soul of the average person obeys the law of least resistance, even in the case of woman’s morals. These have been focused on her family because her sense of duty never has had a chance to develop in any other way.

The greatest heights that men have reached, sacrifices for unselfish aims, fearless search for truth, burning desire for justice, have once in a while been achieved by woman, but few women have attained these heights, because few women have had the chance.

In times of distress, woman has been called upon to make sacrifices for her country, but in every-day life her duty has never been too wide to be embraced within her arms. The idea for which the struggles of the present age are raging, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, woman has always been able to accomplish in her little world. What her conscience has demanded her heart has wanted; her reason has harmonized with her desire.

The strong democratic movement born in the English Civil War and the French Revolution which took hold of people and commonwealth included freedom for women. The struggles which have followed have brought about much moral confusion, but confusion is feared only by him who does not know that growth awakens needs and desires which in their turn lead toward better conditions than the old ones.

In looking back over a transition period we often find values which we had thought lost forever, merely changed in form. Ever since freedom for women came upon the worlds stage, women have begun to share deliberately in the changing of morals.

For a century women have labored with increasing energy for the improvement of the relation between the sexes.

At the same time, their new position as wage earners has indirectly changed many old ideas and customs. No gain is ever made without loss of some old good. Lamentations over the new times are justified only when it can be proved that a better organized and richer life has not grown out of the confusion.

* * *

In the next article Madame Key will tell of the moral life of woman as it has been changed to meet new conditions. Where it is better and where worse than before and what women should do about it.

Ellen Key as she looks today. Photograph by Becker and Maass, Berlin.
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