A Reply to Victor (1888)

by Sarah Elizabeth Holmes

(writing as Zelm)

See the Victor Yarros piece to which Holmes is responding

WQ.1 “Independent men and women, in independent homes, leading separate and independent lives, with full freedom to form and dissolve relations, and with perfectly equal opportunities to happiness, development, and love.” I leave out the word “rights,” doubtful I can use it without being misunderstood. Perhaps I can succeed in dispensing with its use altogether. This ideal, so stated, is attractive to me and completely in harmony with my idea of the course in life which will best further human happiness.
WQ.2 I am not sure that I quite understand Victor’s position in regard to the number of children desirable in the future family, yet this seems to me so essential an item in the consideration of the social problem of the future that it must be dealt with at the outset. If the greatest amount of happiness can only be secured by obedience to the “natural” sexual instincts, unrestrained by consideration of any other pleasures which are renounced for their sake, then I can but admit that there seems no escape from the perpetual dependence of woman upon man. Of whatever form the new organization of society may be, it is not likely to be one in which one can “have his cake and eat it too.” And, allowing considerable margin for the “certain period” at which, Victor claims, “variety is only a temporary demand,” it is not too much to suppose, on his theory of life, that every Apollo will find his Venus before she is older than twenty-five. She has twenty years of child-bearing possibilities before her, and the simply gratification of by no means abnormal sexual impulses might result in her giving birth to ten children. During twenty years of her life she will have held, borne, and nursed these children. And yet his plan involves that, during this time, when, he asserts, she “needs the care, support, and service of others and is therefore unable to support herself,” she is nevertheless “educating the children and surrounding her lover with comfort,” it seems to me that, if I have not misunderstood him in this, he has been looking at the subject from a man’s standpoint.
WQ.3 But I do not see why we should let this sexual impulse lead us where it may. All our life is a foregoing what we are inclined to do for the sake of a future happiness we may thereby gain or a future pain we thereby avoid. I do not always eat whenever I see appetizing foods; I refrain from sitting in a drought and drinking ice-water when I am too much heated; I sometimes get up when I am still sleepy; and I do not stay in the ocean long enough to risk a chill. And I know the consequences of following the simple sexual impulses to be more serious than any others.
WQ.4 I may consider many of nature’s methods exceedingly wasteful and clumsy, and I may believe that, if I had made the world, I would have made it otherwise; that I would have made our simple, spontaneous, first, a most keenly-felt desires those which, if blindly followed, would result in the greatest conceivable happiness. But nature and the laws of the universe and of our own selves are facts which we cannot alter and to which we can only study to adjust ourselves. “If God exists, he is man’s enemy”; woman’s even more. Finding no escape from this conclusion, I no longer treat nature as my friend when she betrays me. I do not even insist upon trying all experiments for myself. When they are too costly, I am sometimes content to learn from the experience of others. Now, for the woman, the consequences of simply obeying the sexual impulses are the bearing of children. That means risking her life. It also means the endurance of intense suffering, such suffering as she has never before been able to conceive. In the future social condition I believe every girl will be taught this. Nevertheless, I believe there will still be children in the world. I believe that, when a woman no longer looks upon bearing children as either a duty or a slave’s necessity in the service of her master, it is not impossible that she will consider it the greatest privilege life may hold out to her. And with her claim to this child which has cost her so much once recognized by all men and women, why may it not be that she would choose this luxury rather than other “opportunities”? A woman will no longer look upon children as a more or less unfortunate natural consequence of the satisfaction of a strong desire, but as a blessing – yes, the very greatest in life to any woman with the mother-instinct – to be secured with full purpose and careful choice, with a complete understanding of all else that must be given up for its sake. Victor has not made it clear to my mind that the woman is the loser who chooses this. It is hard to find the measure of other development or luxury that will be compensation for a woman’s loss of this possibility.
WQ.5 But I do not admit that she must needs sacrifice her independence to secure this end. Under normal conditions a woman is by no means unfitted for any productive labor during pregnancy. It would be an exceptional case in which she would be unable to perform the three hours’ daily work necessary for self-support during the whole period. This is adding one hour to the limit set in the “Science of Society,” in which Mr. Andrews claims that two hours’ daily labor will be more than sufficient to support each individual in average comfort. I do not even admit that the woman “has to depend upon the man whom she made the father of her child.” All that is needful is that she have the service and help of some one. It is even impossible that he can give her the real sympathy of one who can understand just this. I think it must have been the experience of every mother, however tenderly cared for by her husband, that, after all, only some other mother could or did understand, and that all his offered sympathy was really only pity.
WQ.6 After the birth of a child, a woman may be unfitted for any productive labor for two months. And we must add to the list of expenses the support of a nurse during this time and the physician’s fee. During another seven months she will nurse her child and, perhaps, will do no other work except directly caring for him. But I am taking this for granted rather from a desire not to underestimate the needful expense of child-bearing than because it seems to me surely the better way. There is a strong feeling among advanced people that a woman ought to do nothing whatever during pregnancy and child-nursing but fold her hands and look at beautiful pictures and listen to beautiful music. But I think this as largely reactionary. The pendulum has swung quite over. It is like saying: “Women have done too much; therefore they should do nothing.”
WQ.7 It is a safe estimate, it seems to me, to say that it will cost not more than half as much to support a child for the first ten years of its life as to support an adult. That is, a woman will be obliged to work four hours and a half a day instead of the three for ten years in order to support each child. And she must have previously saved money enough for the child-bearing expenses which I have just indicated. After ten years, in the new order of economic life, a child may be self-supporting.
WQ.8 I cannot see how all this can seem to any one an impossibility or even an undesirability. When the nursing period is at an end, the mother engages in the four and a half hours’ daily employment, leaving for this time her child in the care of others. These others may be friends who assume this care because it is to them a delight and a rest. Or, in the absence of such friends, it may be simply trustworthy people who would find in it, not rest, but attractive labor, for which they would receive due remuneration. I am almost certain of encountering on this point a remonstrance in the minds of many women. A true mother will never leave a young child, they will say. But I am almost as certain that every mother who is thoroughly honest with herself will admit that it would have been better, both for herself and her child, if she could have left him in safe hands for a few hours each day.
WQ.9 Victor’s plan involves the education of children by the mother, and I am quite sure that he is positive about every true mother desiring to educate her children herself, and that it will be her most ardent wish. I am less confident about that being the case. I can only admit that it may be her greatest desire that they be well educated. But the ideal mother, in my mind, is one whose most ardent desire is to be her children’s closest, dearest, best friend; that, in all their life, in all trouble and sorrow, they will look first to her with that sweet serenity of confidence that can only come of having never looked in vain. And I hold it to be a simple utter impossibility for most women to stand in this closest and best relation in a child’s after-life if, throughout its childhood, she had wasted herself in attempting to be its sole educator. If the mother’s arms must ache for every hour of rest the child enjoys, if the tired, dull brain must be worried and strained to answer the many, many eager, carefree questions which are so easy to ask, so hard to answer, – there is nothing left for sympathy with the young, fresh, growing life. And the mother who, because of all the long, close first life with the baby heart and because of all which that little baby has inherited of her own nature, might stand in a special, peculiar relation to the little growing individual, is often farther off, actually, than any other friend. And I believe it to be a truth that many, perhaps most people, will silently verify that, when the stress, when the crises of life come, however much the mother may yearn to help, however sorry she may be for all the pain her child must bear, the sympathy she has to offer is not that which alone has worth, – the sympathy of an understanding heart.
WQ.10 Although, in a sense, education begins at birth, we may speak of it now beginning with a child’s first questions, and, from this time, to secure its best possible development, it should have the help of real educators. Now, real educators are born, not made. And there are very few born. The ability to bear healthy, strong, beautiful children by no means argues any ability whatever to educate them. I do not say that any mother may not be able to answer a child’s questions somehow, but to answer them truthfully and in a manner fitted to the child’s just-dawning understanding is another matter. And that is education. It is a well established belief among the most advanced minds that the best teachers are needed most in kindergarten. Older children are better able to dispense with the best of guidance. But this belief is a new, not an old idea; a product of evolution. A still later product, I believe, will be the discovery that the best of teachers are needed to answer a child’s first questions, and that the mother of any special baby is as little likely to be possessed of the requisite qualifications for success in that direction as she is to be able to teach the higher mathematics.
WQ.11 The feeling is sometimes expressed that it is hard and unjust for a mother to pay all the cost of her children. That is, I think, because, in family life as it has always existed, except in those cases where the mother has been left a widow, she has never known what it was to have what she had purchased. Consequently, in the minds of most people, there is no conception of the reward that might be hers. All that a woman may hope for, under present conditions, is that the father will be so occupied with outside cares that he will be content to leave the control of the children in her hands. But the fact that he is their father and supports both herself and them leaves him in no doubt as to his right to interfere. The suffering she endured in bringing them into the world is a cost which he can never estimate. Even if he has once witnessed it, and if it has made such an impression on him that he would never risk another such possibility for her, he does not consider it as giving her a right to anything.
WQ.12 Now, I do not feel that it is a blessing to a woman to bear children whom she cannot control. I believe that their existence is a joy to her only just so far as their existence is a happy one. That to be forced to see them harshly or unjustly treated, or even treated in any way other than what she conceives the best, is to be forced to endure greater suffering than could come to her in any other way. “Mothers never do part bonds with babies they have borne. Until the day they die, every quiver of their life goes back straight to the heart beside which it began.”
WQ.13 Suppose, some day, little Frank throws his ball through the window. It is papa’s window, bought with the money earned by his own labor. Frank has been told not to throw his ball in that room. And papa thinks he will never remember not to do it again until he is whipped. So he whips him. Mamma does not agree with papa about this. Indeed, when they used to talk about how children should be treated, papa was always quite sure that a child should never be whipped. But in this emergency he has abandoned this theory of education and adopted a new one. It is not enough to put this illustration by with the reflection that a more careful investigation into the possibility and probabilities inherent in papa’s nature would have avoided the difficulty. It is impossible that a woman can know what any man will do in any position until she has seen him just there. We all know that no theory of education exactly fits all children; that is, in actual life, circumstances are constantly arising where the long cherished theory must be set aside for this individual child in just this individual case. And I am not claiming that a mother can ever secure herself against witnessing some suffering on the part of her child. It is only that if, in all cases, the course followed is chosen by her, unconditionally, uninfluenced by consideration for any other opinion than her own, she may then feel confident that, whatever pain has been caused, a greater has been avoided; and in that reflection lies her comfort and compensation.
WQ.14 On any theory of mutual control and paternal support, or maternal control and paternal support, or mutual control and mutual support, how will these questions be answered? Is Frank to be put to bed in a room by himself and obliged to lie there till sleep comes, or is he to be rocked and sung to? When he is sick, are physicians and drugs to be summoned, or is heroic cold water and hygienic treatment to be solely relied on? Shall he be vaccinated? Shall all attention be paid to his physical development for the first few years, or shall he be given early opportunities for mental discipline? Shall he be allowed without remonstrance to follow his own will, or is he to be resisted when he becomes an invader? Shall this resistance be offered when he makes the first attempt to possess himself of another’s property, or must one wait until he threatens to throw the looking-glass out of the window? May he pick berries and chop wood for the neighbors if he prefers it to attending school? Must he learn to swim or go into the water first? Is he to have both a bicycle and a pony, or to go barefooted in summer? Is he to dress in crimson velvet or in dark blue overalls? Is he to be fitted for a surgeon or a book-agent? Is he to have a private tutor and a hundred dollar microscope, or to go the village-school?
WQ.15 Even apart from the consideration of definite questions, it seems to me impossible that any but the most self-controlled man who has any claim, even a fancied one, shall refrain from continually interposing more well-meant suggestions which must oftener bewilder and hopelessly entangle the originally clear plan of the mother than serve any useful purpose.
WQ.16 This theory of independent living does not seem to me to involve any loss of the “home” which the family relation has always, it is assumed, been alone able to secure. There would always be, for the little children, the safe, sure mother-home. And, besides this, there would be the father-home, somewhere else, and as many friend-homes as there were dear friends, to which the little children would lend their sunshine whenever their wish so to do met with the mother’s consent.
WQ.17 I cannot readily understand anyone but a communist being ready to favor “a sort of communism between lovers.” In every other social relation an Individualist would have the strongest faith in every plan which conduced to the greatest development of individuality as most certain to bring happiness. But in this relation, in which, of all others in life, mistakes result in the sharpest suffering, this general principle is set aside, and the development of individuality, at least of womanly individuality, less carefully considered than the securing, for her, of certain luxuries and other material advantages. It is true that, when one is in love, it is impossible to conceive happiness in any other form than the constant presence of the loved one. Nevertheless, I believe that neither the finest nor the keenest happiness lovers are capable of yielding each other will result from following this wish blindly, without reason or thought. I am even disposed to find fault with Victor’s saying that “between true lovers who are really devoted to each other the relations are ideal.” I do not think that “devotion” is any element of an ideal relation between grown-up people. A mother or father or adult friend may be devoted to the helpless baby, to a child, or to a weak, sick, afflicted man or woman. But only weakness has need of devotion, or desires it. What strong men and women want, in either the relation of friendship or in that fervid, passion-full form of friendship known as love, is simply to feel the “home in another’s heart”; a home not made, but found. Apollo’s Venus is doubtless altogether lovely in his eyes, but that fact is only tiresome or amusing to the rest or the world, and must inevitably tend to fill Venus with a narrow vanity which effectually checks all desire or capacity for growth. I no more admire a blind love than a blind hatred. Either is below the plane on which developed men and women will find themselves. That youth is inconstant is proverbial, but not all proverbs are quite true. Youth is the age of hero-worship, and the tendency of that period is to idealize the object of love. Today young people, experimenting in love, begin by finding an Apollo or Venus in every beautiful face, and end – in what? In finding the true one at last? Not at all. In finding that they were mistaken, but in concluding that this one will do. Having reached this conclusion, their inconstancy hides itself from public view under the veil of married life, and these young people become constant, but not always constant in their love. My prophecy of the future is that, after love has been left free long enough (I do not mean an individual man or woman, but all men and women), Apollo will find that he has no Venus. Because it seems to me that, as human life advances and human beings differentiate, there becomes less and less possibility of finding any one with whom one is completely in sympathy.
WQ.18 Nevertheless, I believe there will always be love. Indeed, I believe in love. I do not see why hating should be so free and so – it would seem – comparatively virtuous. If one hates, it is a matter of course. But if one loves, it is something to be looked into, and there is probably something wrong about it. Now, I am going to assume, in spite of all public sentiment to the contrary, that love is not a bad thing, but a good thing; that it is a normal, healthful, strength-giving, developing force among the conditions of human existence; that it is called forth by the perception of lovable, admirable, fine qualities, wherever they exist; that in its intrinsic nature it is a blessing, and not a curse, wherever it exists; that it does not need to be sanctified by a marriage rite or even by the approval of friends; that if, in its results, it leads to suffering, it is because our own reason, not the authority of others, has not rescued us.
WQ.19 When a man “makes a home” for a woman in the way Victor proposes, he makes it impossible that either shall know any other love without calling upon the other to bear a certain amount of deprivation. For me, any arrangement which would involve the love of only one at a time would be sufficient to condemn it. Not to be free to love is the hardest of all slavery. But marriage is like taking a path in which there is only room for two. And a man and woman cannot take up a position before the world as dearest friends or lovers – call the relation by any name you choose – without by that action cutting themselves off from all fullness and spontaneity of other love and friendship. By the very announcement of their mutual feeling – in whatever form the announcement may be made – they have said: “Everything in my life is to be subordinated to this.” To voluntarily and deliberately “make a home” is to say that nothing foreign to either can enter.
WQ.20 The result in life today is commonly this: Of the old friends of either only those enter the new home who have a sufficient number of qualities that are equally attractive to both to make them welcome and who can be content to continue friendship on the basis of those qualities. If John does not like music, Ellen gives up her musical friends. Why should he be asked to hear the piano, when it is only so much noise to him, or even hear music discussed, when it is a bore to him? Why should Ellen be called upon to breathe tobacco-perfumed air, because John and certain of John’s friends feel restless and uncomfortable without their after-dinner cigar? Things are mainly either pleasurable or painful; not indifferent. If John and Ellen are honest with each other, they will discover that John dislikes music and Ellen dislikes tobacco, and that to lay aside their sensitivities on one occasion may be a slight matter, but that to be called upon to lay them aside at any time is a really serious matter. But Victor perhaps thinks the home need not be like that. John may have his smoking-room and Ellen her music-room. In that case the smoking-room would be, after dinner, John's home, and the music-room Ellen's home. The place where we are free, – that is home. That is perhaps the secret of all home feeling. The presence of our dearest friends helps it only when their mood meets ours.
WQ.21 But this is not “making a home.” To make a home, in the popular sense, is to buy land and build a house which is ours, buy dishes and furniture which are ours, agree to have children which are ours, and to make no change in our life arrangements except by mutual consent.
WQ.22 Victor puts the case simply, and it sounds easy: “When they cease to be happy together, they separate.” Is it so simple? It is not enough to say: We are not bound together one hour longer than our mutual love lasts. Mutual love does not come and go, keeping step like well-trained soldiers.
WQ.23 As the first flush of love passes away, people begin to discover each other. After all, they were not one. In very many cases it was only the blinding force of the sex element which retarded this discovery. There was no conscious deceit. But the discovery is apt to be a painful one. And the old hunger for sympathy in all things returns. If we are still free to seek it, no harm comes. There may even be no pain in the slow discovery that in no one other soul can it be found. But if we are not free, and if, by some chance, one, not both, comes to believe that the love was founded on a mistake? Jealousy is only pain at a loss suffered or threatened. It need not be angry pain. We have come to apply the word only to angry pain, but the anger is in the individual and not an inevitable result of the condition. And people are not commended, do not receive the support of public sentiment, when they are angry at the loss of something to which they have never claimed a right, – or more, have never believed they possessed a right. We all understand that in What’s To Be Done the marriage of Vera Pavlovna and Loponkhoff was simply a form, demanded by conditions of their environment which they were helpless to resist. Law and custom necessitated her going through the form of making herself his slave. Being a slave in her own father-and-mother home, it was only on that condition that he could give her liberty. Later, when he discovered her feeling for Kirsanoff, his love for her liberty was greater than his desire to preserve an outward form of home from which the home has fled. Both he and Kirsanoff saw or dimly felt that she was not a woman who would love more than one at once. Their future showed that she could not even believe in a love she could not understand. In the fullness of her lighthearted content with Kirsanoff, she decides quite positively that Loponkhoff really did not love her. We are all a little inclined to the view that real love is only that which we feel or have felt.
WQ.24 It is very true of love that we know not whence it comes or whither it goes. It is sometimes more sadly true, and makes one of life’s problems far more intricate, that we know not when it comes or when it goes. Its death is as incomprehensible as its birth. Sometimes it is drained away, silently and unsuspectedly, by the thousand wearing trifles inevitably attendant upon that constant companionship which the torrent of newborn love so imperiously demands. Sometimes it is swept away in one instant by the discovery of some quality of character of whose existence we have never dreamed. Sometimes, as in What’s To Be Done? the constant need of one is identical only with the temporary need of the other, and discovery can not possibly be made until the temporary need has passed. All life is either growth or decay, – that is, change. And with every change in the individual there is change in his love. In the happiest lives and the longest loves its proportion and depth and character are perpetually changing.
WQ.25 Victor says: Variety may be as truly the mother of duality as liberty is the mother of order. Has he forgotten that this mother does not die in giving birth to her daughter, and that this child does not thrive well without the mother?

Liberty 5.21, no. 125 (26 May 1888), pp. 6-7.

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