Sober View of "Sex and Society" Shows It to Be Book of Value
Elia W. Peattie
Dr. Thomasí Conclusions Truthful and Thousands of Women Who Found It Out for Themselves Already Have Adopted His Suggestion.
Now that the superfluous resentment awakened by Dr. William I. Thomasí "SEX AND SOCIETY" has died down, and the public in general, and women in particular, have spent their irritation, it is a pleasure to turn to these "studies in the social psychology of sex," as the author designated them, and to quietly examine their import. The biological and historical character of the first four chapters bears witness to the thoroughness with which Dr. Thomas has approached his subject. Here is matter gathered from many sources, and succinctly presented in terms so clear and so simple that the most untrained as well as most studious will be induced to read these careful pages. "Organic Differences in the Sexes," "Sex and Primitive Social Control," "Sex and Social Feeling," "Sex and Primitive Industry" and "Sex and Primitive Morality," awaken unquestioning interest. Here is the curious, involved history of the human race followed step by step. Here are the sexes set over against one another — here is dispassionately reviewed that curious and inevitable warfare between the masculine and feminine portions of humanity — a warfare as characteristic as is the attraction which they have for each other.
But even in these preparatory chapters — if one may venture so to denominate them — are evidences of the postulate which has given offense to many women, and which has awakened interest extraordinary. "There is," says the author, "a point of difference in application of standards of morality in men and women. Morality as applied to men has a larger element of the contractural, representing the adjustment of his activities to those of society at large, or more particularly to the activities of the male members of society; while the morality which we think of in women shows less of the contractural and more of the personal, representing her adjustment to men, mere particularly the adjustment of her person to men."
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In the chapters that follow, "The Psychology of Exogamy" and "The Psychology of Modesty and Clothing," Dr. Thomas approaches by degrees the intensely interesting conclusions expressed in the two chapters around which discussion has centered, "The Adventitious Character of Woman" and "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races." Where there is felt in these chapters the cumulative effects of much reading, and while it was inevitable that the ideas of Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Weininger, and others must have had their influence, yet the benevolence, so to speak, of Dr. Thomasí views bears evidence to the philosophic quality of his mind. That scorn which Schopenhauer evidenced, that mad intolerance of Nietzsche, that inexpressible bitterness of the daemonic Weininger, that curious, brilliant half-knowledge of Rousseau, seem mean and ignoble when set over against the unimpassioned statements of this contemporary student of the problem of sex.
Not to follow his argument step by step it will suffice to say that Dr. Thomas concludes that the position of women is less lacking in reality as civilization advances. Her industrial position decreases in importance with the growing activity, ambition, pride of sex, and ability of men.
"The American woman of the better classes," he says, "has superior rights and no duties, and yet she is worrying herself to death — not over specific troubles but because she has lost her connection with reality. Many women, more intelligent and energetic than their husbands and brothers, have no more serious occupation than to play the house cat, with or without ornament. It is a wonder that more of them do not lose their minds; and that more of them do not break with the system entirely is due solely to the inhibitive effects of early habit and suggestion."
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He remarks: "The world of modern intellectual life is in reality a white manís world. Few women and perhaps no blacks have ever entered this world in its fullest sense. To enter it in its fullest sense would be to be in it at every moment from the time of birth to the time of death, and to absorb it unconsciously as a child absorbs language. When something like this happens, we shall be in a position to judge of the mental efficiency of woman and the lower races."
With unfeigned sympathy with the situation, he says "The remedy for the irregularity, pettiness, ill health, and unserviceableness of modern woman seems to lie along education lines. Not in general and cultural education alone, but in a special and occupational interest for women, married and unmarried. This should be preferably gainful, though not onerous nor incessant. It should, in fact, be a play interest in the sense that the interest of every artist and craftsman who loves his work and functions through it is a play interest. Normal life without normal stimulation answering to the nature of the nervous organization seems best supplied by interesting forms of work."
It has been said that "Sex and Society" arouse the opposition of women. This is, to an extent, the case. But this opposition has been felt chiefly by the women who have read only the excerpts from the book, published in the newspapers or elsewhere, and who, taking these quotations without their context, have imagined themselves to be unfairly treated. Those who have read the book in an open spirit admit the profound truth of Dr. Thomasí conclusions, and are grateful for the practical suggestion he has made. Indeed, the last few years have developed among women of leisure a keen awakening to the casual nature of their position in society. By the thousand they have undertaken handicrafts or artistic activities. With slight encouragement thousands more will mitigate the monotony of their lives in some remarkable way. The perplexed woman of over 40 with her children grown, her abilities at their full, rich in experience, and eager for personal expression, will find avocations of one sort and another. Were she to devote herself to the realm of esthetics, taking up not only house decoration, costume designing, mural decoration, etcetera, but also architecture and landscape gardening, she would find a realm in which to work. Experts in these lines need not object that these occupations require the study of a lifetime. It is sufficient to reply that with feminine interests aroused in these directions American towns and homes might lose the crude and vulgar characteristics which now make our villages and cities the despair of cultivated foreigners. It remains, however, for others to make suggestions. In regard to "Sex and Society," the woman who read it will find it to be one of the most logical, informing and sympathetic books ever written about their much discussed sex. (The Chicago University Press.) Elia W. Peattie.