Charlotte Perkins Gilman
When we are offered a “woman’s” paper, page, or column, we find it filled with matter supposed to appeal to women as a sex or class; the writer mainly dwelling upon the Kaiser’s four K’s—Kuchen, Kinder, Kirche, Kleider. They iterate and reiterate endlessly the discussion of cookery, old and new; of the care of children; of the overwhelming subject of clothing; and of moral instruction. All this is recognized as “feminine” literature, and it must have some appeal else the women would not read it. What parallel have we in “masculine” literature?
“None!” is the proud reply. “Men are people! Women, being ‘the sex,’ have their limited feminine interests, their feminine point of view, which must be provided for. Men, however, are not restricted—to them belongs the world’s literature!”
Yes, it has belonged to them—ever since there was any. They have written it and they have read it. It is only lately that women, generally speaking, have been taught to read; still more lately that they have been allowed to write. It is but a little while since Harriet Martineau concealed her writing beneath her sewing when visitors came in—writing was “masculine”—sewing “feminine.”
We have not, it Is true, confined men to a narrowly construed “masculine sphere,” and composed a special literature suited to it. Their effect on literature has been far wider than that, monopolizing this form of art with special favor. It was suited above all others to the dominant impulse of self-expression; and being, as we have seen essentially and continually “the sex;” they have impressed that sex upon this art overwhelmingly; they have given the world a masculized literature.
It is hard for us to realize this. We can readily see, that if women had always written the books, no men either writing or reading them, that would have surely “feminized” our literature; but we have not in our minds the concept, much less the word, for an overmasculized influence.
Men having been accepted as humanity, women but a side-issue; (most literally if we accept the Hebrew legend!), whatever men did or said was human—and not to be criticized. In no department of life is it easier to contravert this old belief; to show how the male sex as such differs from the human type; and how this maleness has monopolized and disfigured a great social function.
Human life is a very large affair; and literature is its chief art. We live, humanly, only through our power of communication. Speech gives us this power laterally, as it were, in immediate personal contact. For permanent use speech becomes oral tradition—a poor dependence. Literature gives not only an infinite multiplication to the lateral spread of communion but adds the vertical reach. Through it we know the past, govern the present, and influence the future. In its servicable common forms it is the indispensable daily servant of our lives; in its nobler flights as a great art no means of human inter-change goes so far.
In these brief limits we can touch but lightly on some phases of so great a subject; and will rest the case mainly on the effect of an exclusively masculine handling of the two fields of history and fiction. In poetry and the drama the same influence is easily traced, but in the first two it is so baldly prominent as to defy objection.
History is, or should be, the story of our racial life. What have men made it? The story of warfare and conquest. Begin at the very beginning with the carven stones of Egypt, the clay records of Chaldea, what do we find of history?
“I Pharaoh, King of Kings! Lord of Lords! (etc. etc.), went down into the miserable land of Kush, and slew of the inhabitants thereof an hundred and forty and two thousands!” That, or something like it, is the kind of record early history gives us.
The story of Conquering Kings, who and how many they killed and enslaved; the grovelling adulation of the abased; the unlimited jubilation of the victor; from the primitive state of most ancient kings, and the Roman triumphs where queens walked in chains, down to our omni present soldier’s monuments: the story of war and conquest—war and conquest—over and over; with such boasting and triumph, such cock-crow and flapping of wings as show most unmistakably the natural source.
All this will strike the reader at first as biased and unfair. “That was the way people lived in those days!” says the reader.
No—it was not the way women lived.
“O, women!” says the reader, “Of course not! Women are different.”
Yea, women are different; and men are different! Both of them, as sexes, differ from the human norm, which is social life and all social development. Society was slowly growing in all those black blind years. The arts, the sciences, the trades and crafts and professions, religion, philosophy, government, law, commerce, agriculture—all the human processes were going on as well as they were able, between wars.
The male naturally fights, and naturally crows, triumphs over his rival and takes the prize—therefore was he made male. Maleness means war.
Not only so; but being male, he cares only for male interests. Men, being the sole arbiters of what should be done and said and written, have given us not only a social growth scarred and thwarted from the beginning by continual destruction; but a history which is one unbroken record of courage and red cruelty, of triumph and black shame.
As to what went on that was of real consequence, the great slow steps of the working world, the discoveries and inventions, the real progress of humanity—that was not worth recording, from a masculine point of view. Within this last century, “the woman’s century,” the century of the great awakening, the rising demand for freedom, political, economic, and domestic, we are beginning to write real history, human history, and not merely masculine history. But that great branch of literature—Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and all down later times, shows beyond all question, the influence of our androcentric culture.
Literature is the most powerful and necessary of the arts, and fiction is its broadest form. If art “holds the mirror up to nature” this art’s mirror is the largest of all, the most used. Since our very life depends on some communication; and our progress is in proportion to our fullness and freedom of communication; since real communication requires mutual understanding; so in the growth of the social consciousness, we note from the beginning a passionate interest in other people’s lives.
The art which gives humanity consciousness is the most vital art. Our greatest dramatists are lauded for their breadth of knowledge of “human nature,” their range of emotion and understanding; our greatest poets are those who most deeply and widely experience and reveal the feelings of the human heart; and the power of fiction is that it can reach and express this great field of human life with no limits but those of the author.
When fiction began it was the legitimate child of oral tradition; a product of natural brain activity; the legend constructed instead of remembered. (This stage is with us yet as seen in the constant changes in repetition of popular jokes and stories.)
Fiction to-day has a much wider range; yet it is still restricted, heavily and most mischievously restricted.
What is the preferred subject matter of fiction?
There are two main branches found everywhere, from the Romaunt of the Rose to the Purplish Magazine;—the Story of Adventure, and the Love Story.
The Story-of-Adventure branch is not so thick as the other by any means, but it is a sturdy bough for all that. Stevenson and Kipling have proved its immense popularity, with the whole brood of detective stories and the tales of successful rascality we call “picaresque” Our most popular weekly shows the broad appeal of this class of fiction.
All these tales of adventure, of struggle and difficulty; of hunting and fishing and fighting; of robbing and murdering, catching and punishing, are distinctly and essentially masculine. They do not touch on human processes, social processes, but on the special field of predatory excitement so long the sole province of men.
It is to be noted here that even in the overwhelming rise of industrial interests to-day, these, when used as the basis for a story, are forced into line with one, or both, of these two main branches of fiction;—conflict or love. Unless the story has one of these “interests” in it, there is no story—so holds the editor; the dictum being, put plainly, “life has no interests except conflict and love!”
It is surely something more than a coincidence that these are the two essential features of masculinity—Desire and Combat—Love and War.
As a matter of fact the major interests of life are in line with its major processes; and these—in our stage of human development—are more varied than our fiction would have us believe. Half the world consists of women, we should remember, who are types of human life as well as men, and their major processes are not those of conflict and adventure, their love means more than mating. Even on so poor a line of distinction as the “woman’s column” offers, if women are to be kept to their four Ks, there should be a “men’s column” also; and all the “sporting news” and fish stories be put in that; they are not world interests; they are male interests.
Now for the main branch—the Love Story. Ninety per cent. of fiction is In this line; this is preeminently the major interest of life—given in fiction. What is the love-story, as rendered by this art?
It is the story of the pre-marital struggle. It is the Adventures of Him in Pursuit of Her—and it stops when he gets her! Story after story, age after age, over and over and over, this ceaseless repetition of the Preliminaries.
Here is Human Life. In its large sense, its real sense, it is a matter of inter-relation between individuals and groups, covering all emotions, all processes, all experiences. Out of this vast field of human life fiction arbitrarily selects one emotion, one process, one experience, as its necessary base.
“Ah! but we are persons most of all!” protests the reader. “This is personal experience—it has the universal appeal!”
Take human life personally then. Here is a Human Being, a life, covering some seventy years; involving the changing growth of many faculties; the ever new marvels of youth, the long working time of middle life, the slow ripening of age. Here is the human soul, in the human body, Living. Out of this field of personal life, with all of its emotions, processes, and experiences, fiction arbitrarily selects one emotion, one process, one experience, mainly of one sex.
The “love” of our stories is man’s love of woman. If any dare dispute this, and say it treats equally of woman’s love for man, I answer, “Then why do the stories stop at marriage?”
There is a current jest, revealing much, to this effect:
The young wife complains that the husband does not wait upon and woo her as he did before marriage; to which he replies, “Why should I run after the street-car when I’ve caught it?”
Woman’s love for man, as currently treated in fiction is largely a reflex; it is the way he wants her to feel, expects her to feel; not a fair representation of how she does feel. If “love” is to be selected as the most important thing in life to write about, then the mother’s love should be the principal subject: This is the main stream. This is the general underlying, world-lifting force. The “life-force,” now so glibly chattered about, finds its fullest expression in motherhood; not in the emotions of an assistant in the preliminary stages.
What has literature, what has fiction, to offer concerning mother-love, or even concerning father-love, as compared to this vast volume of excitement about lover-love? Why is the search-light continually focussed upon a two or three years space of life “mid the blank miles round about?” Why indeed, except for the clear reason, that on a starkly masculine basis this is his one period of overwhelming interest and excitement.
If the beehive produced literature, the bee’s fiction would be rich and broad; full of the complex tasks of comb-building and filling; the care and feeding of the young, the guardian-service of the queen; and far beyond that it would spread to the blue glory of the summer sky, the fresh winds, the endless beauty and sweetness of a thousand thousand flowers. It would treat of the vast fecundity of motherhood, the educative and selective processes of the group-mothers; and the passion of loyalty, of social service, which holds the hive together.
But if the drones wrote fiction, it would have no subject matter save the feasting of many; and the nuptial flight, of one.
To the male, as such, this mating instinct is frankly the major interest of life; even the belligerent instincts are second to it. To the female, as such, it is for all its intensity, but a passing interest. In nature’s economy, his is but a temporary devotion, hers the slow processes of life’s fulfillment.
In Humanity we have long since, not outgrown, but overgrown, this stage of feeling. In Human Parentage even the mother’s share begins to pale beside that ever-growing Social love and care, which guards and guides the children of to-day.
The art of literature in this main form of fiction is far too great a thing to be wholly governed by one dominant note. As life widened and intensified, the artist, if great enough, has transcended sex; and in the mightier works of the real masters, we find fiction treating of life, life in general, in all its complex relationships, and refusing to be held longer to the rigid canons of an androcentric past.
This was the power of Balzac—he took in more than this one field. This was the universal appeal of Dickens; he wrote of people, all kinds of people, doing all kinds of things. As you recall with pleasure some preferred novel of this general favorite, you find yourself looking narrowly for the “love story” in it. It is there—for it is part of life; but it does not dominate the whole scene—any more than it does in life.
The thought of the world is made and handed out to us in the main. The makers of books are the makers of thoughts and feelings for people in general. Fiction is the most popular form in which this world-food is taken. If it were true, it would teach us life easily, swiftly, truly; teach not by preaching but by truly re-presenting; and we should grow up becoming acquainted with a far wider range of life in books than could even be ours in person. Then meeting life in reality we should be wise—and not be disappointed.
As it is, our great sea of fiction is steeped and dyed and flavored all one way. A young man faces life—the seventy year stretch, remember, and is given book upon book wherein one set of feelings is continually vocalized and overestimated. He reads forever of love, good love and bad love, natural and unnatural, legitimate and illegitimate; with the unavoidable inference that there is nothing else going on.
If he is a healthy young man he breaks loose from the whole thing, despises “love stories” and takes up life as he finds it. But what impression he does receive from fiction is a false one, and he suffers without knowing it from lack of the truer broader views of life it failed to give him.
A young woman faces life—the seventy year stretch remember; and is given the same books—with restrictions. Remember the remark of Rochefoucauld, “There are thirty good stories in the world and twenty-nine cannot be told to women.” There is a certain broad field of literature so grossly androcentric that for very shame men have tried to keep it to themselves. But in a milder form, the spades all named teaspoons, or at the worst appearing as trowels—the young woman is given the same fiction. Love and love and love—from “first sight” to marriage. There it stops—just the fluttering ribbon of announcement, “and lived happily ever after.”
Is that kind of fiction any sort of picture of a woman’s life? Fiction, under our androcentric culture, has not given any true picture of woman’s life, very little of human life, and a disproportioned section of man’s life.
As we daily grow more human, both of us, this noble art is changing for the better so fast that a short lifetime can mark the growth. New fields are opening and new laborers are working in them. But it is no swift and easy matter to disabuse the race mind from attitudes and habits inculcated for a thousand years. What we have been fed upon so long we are well used to, what we are used to we like, what we like we think is good and proper.
The widening demand for broader, truer fiction is disputed by the slow racial mind: and opposed by the marketers of literature on grounds of visible self-interest, as well as lethargic conservatism.
It is difficult for men, heretofore the sole producers and consumers of literature; and for women, new to the field, and following masculine canons because all the canons were masculine; to stretch their minds to a recognition of the change which is even now upon us.
This one narrow field has been for so long overworked, our minds are so filled with heroes and heroes continually repeating the one-act play, that when a book like David Harum is offered the publisher refuses it repeatedly, and finally insists on a “heart interest” being injected by force.
Did anyone read David Harum for that heart interest? Does anyone remember that heart interest? Has humanity no interests but those of the heart?
Robert Ellesmere was a popular book—but not because of its heart interest.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin appealed to the entire world, more widely than any work of fiction that was ever written; but if anybody fell in love and married in it they have been forgotten. There was plenty of love in that book, love of family, love of friends, love of master for servant and servant for master; love of mother for child; love of married people for each other; love of humanity and love of God.
It was extremely popular. Some say it was not literature. That opinion will live, like the name of Empedocles.
The art of fiction is being re-born in these days. Life is discovered to be longer, wider, deeper, richer, than these monotonous players of one June would have us believe.
The humanizing of woman of itself opens five distinctly fresh fields of fiction: First the position of the young woman who is called upon to give up her “career”—her humanness—for marriage, and who objects to it; second, the middle-aged woman who at last discovers that her discontent is social starvation—that it is not more love that she wants, but more business in life: Third the interrelation of women with women—a thing we could never write about before because we never had it before: except in harems and convents: Fourth the inter-action between mothers and children; this not the eternal “mother and child,” wherein the child is always a baby, but the long drama of personal relationship; the love and hope, the patience and power, the lasting joy and triumph, the slow eating disappointment which must never be owned to a living soul—here are grounds for novels that a million mothers and many million children would eagerly read: Fifth the new attitude of the full-grown woman who faces the demands of love with the high standards of conscious motherhood.
There are other fields, broad and brilliantly promising, but this chapter is meant merely to show that our one-sided culture has, in this art, most disproportionately overestimated the dominant instincts of the male—Love and War—an offense against art and truth, and an injury to life.