Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Humanness of Women - c. 1909-1910

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
January 01, 1910
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Gilman gave this speech several times in New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut from 1909-1910.

A woman by the river's brim,
A wife and servant is to him­
And she is nothing more.

WE HAVE made mistakes, as old as humanity, about the world, and about women. First, as to the world:

This we have assumed to be a general battlefield for men to struggle in; a place for free competition; full of innumerable persons whose natural mode of life was to struggle for existence with one another.

This is the individualist view, and is distinctly masculine.

Males are essentially individualistic—born to vary and compete; and an exclusively masculine world must be individualistic and competitive.

We have been wrong. The new Social Philosophy recognizes Society as an orderly life-form, having its own laws of growth; and that we, as individuals, live only as active parts of Society. Instead of accepting this world of warfare, disease, and crime, of shameful, unnecessary poverty and pain, as natural and right, we now see that all these evils may be removed, and we propose to remove them. Humanity is waking up, is beginning to understand its own nature, is beginning to face a new and a possible problem, instead of the dark enigma of the past.

Second, as to the women.

Our mistake about her was a very strange one. No one knows yet how or why it was made; yet there it stands; one of the most colossal blunders ever made by mankind. In the face of all creation, where the female is sometimes found quite self-sufficient, often superior, and always equal to the male, our human race set up the "andro-centric theory," holding that man alone was the race type; and that woman was "his female." In what "Mr. Venus" described as "the vicious pride of his youth," our budding humanity distinguished itself by discrediting its mother. "You are a female," said Ancient Man, "and that's all. We are the People!"

This is the alpha and omega of the old idea about woman. It saw in her only sex—not Humanity.

The New Woman is Human first, last and always. Incidentally she is female; as man is male. As a male he has done his small share in the old physical process of reproduction; but as a Human Creature he has done practically all in the new Social processes which make civilization.

He has been Male—and Human:—She has been Female—and nothing else;—that is, in our old idea.

Holding this idea; absurd, erroneous, and mischievous to a terrible degree; we strove to carry it out in our behavior; and human history so far is the history of a wholly masculine world, competing and fighting as males must, forever seeking and serving the female as males must; yet building this our world as best they could alone.

Theirs is the credit—and the shame—of the world behind us, the world around us; but the world before us was a new element—the Humanness of Woman.

For a little over a century we have become increasingly conscious of a stir, an uprising, and protest among women. The long-suppressed "better half" of humanity has begun to move and push and lift herself. This Woman's movement is as natural, as beneficial, as irresistible as the coming of spring; but it has been misunderstood and opposed from the first by the glacial moraine of old ideas, the inert force of sheer blank ignorance, and prejudice as old as Adam.

At first the women strove for a little liberty, for education; then for some equality before the law, for common justice; then, with larger insight, for full equal rights with men in every human field; and as essential base of these, for the right of suffrage.

Woman suffrage is but one feature of the movement, but it is a most important one. The opposition to it is wholly one of sex-prejudice, of feeling, not of reason; the opposition of a masculine world; and of an individualism also masculine. The male is physiologically an individualist. It is his place in nature to vary, to introduce new characteristics, and to strive mightily with his rivals for the favor of the females. A world of males must fight.

With the whole of history of this combative sort; with masculinity and humanity identical in the average mind; there is something alien, unnatural, even revolting, in the claim of woman to her share in the work and management of the world. Against it he brings up one constant cry—that woman's progress will injure womanhood. All that he sees in woman is her sex; and he opposes her advance on the ground that "as a woman" she is unfit to take part in "a man's world"—and that if she did, it would mysteriously but inevitably injure her "as a woman."

Suggest that she might be able to take part in "a woman's world,"—and has as much right to a world made her way as he has to his man-made world! Suggest that without any such extreme reversal , she has a right to half the world; half the work, half pay, half the care, half the glory!

To all this replies the Male-Individualist:

"The World has to be as it is. It is a place to fight in; fight for life, fight for money. Work is for slaves and poor people generally. Nobody would work unless they had to. You are females and no part of the world at all. Your place is at home; to bear and rear children—and to cook."

Now what is the position toward women of this new philosophy that sees Society as one thing, and the main thing to be considered; that sees the world as a place open to ceaseless change and improvement; that sees the way so to change and improve it that the major part of our poor silly sins and sorrows will disappear utterly for lack of cause?

From this viewpoint male and female fall into two lower positions, both right and proper; useful, beautiful, essential for the replenishment of the race on earth. From this viewpoint men and women rise, together, from that lower relation, to the far higher one of Humanness, that common Humanness which is hers as much as his. Seeing Society as the real life-form; and our individual lives as growing in glory and power as we serve and develop Society; the movement of women becomes of majestic importance. It is the advance of an entire half the race, from a position of arrested development, into full humanness.

The world is no longer seen as a battlefield, where it is true, women do not belong; but as a garden—a school—a church—a home, where they visibly do belong. In the great task of cultivating the earth they have an equal interest and an equal power. Equality is not identity. There is work of all kinds and sizes—and half of it is woman's.

In that vast labor of educating humanity, till all of us understand one another; till the thoughts and feelings necessary to our progress can flow smooth and clear through the world-mind, women have pre-eminent part. They are the born teachers, by virtue of their motherhood, as well as in the human joy of it.

In the power of organization which is essential to our progress we have special need of women, and their rapid and universal movement in this direction is one of the most satisfactory proofs of our advance. In every art, craft and profession they have the same interests, the same power. We rob the world of half its service when we deny women their share in it.

In direct political action there is every reason for women's voting that there is for men's; and every reason for a spreading universal suffrage that there is for democracy. As far as any special power in government is called for, the mother is the natural ruler, the natural administrator and executive. The functions of democratic government may be wisely and safely shared between men and women.

Here we have our great position fairly before us:—the improvement of the world is ours to make; women are coming forward to help make it; women are human with every human power; democracy is the highest form of government—so far; and the use of the ballot is essential to democracy; therefore women should vote!

Against this rises the tottering fortress of the ultra-masculine abetted by a petty handful of witless traitors—those petticoated creatures who also see in women nothing but their sex. They may be, in some cases, honest in their belief; but their honesty does no credit to their intelligence. They are obsessed by this dominant idea of sex; due clearly enough to the long period of male dominance—to our androcentric culture. The male naturally sees in the female, sex; first, last and always. For all these centuries she has been restricted to the exercise of feminine duties only, with the one addition of house-service.

The wife-and-mother sex, the servant sex, she is to him; and nothing more. The woman does not look at men in this light. She has to consider them as human creatures, because they monopolize the human functions. She does not consider the motorman and conductor as males, but as promotors of travel; she does not chuck the bellboy under the chin and kiss the waiter!

Inextricably mingled with the masculine view is the individualist view, seeing the world forever and ever as a place of struggle.

Then comes this great change of our time, the dawning of the Social consciousness. Here is a world of combination, of ordered grouping and interservice. Here is a world now wasting its wealth like water—all this waste may be saved. Here is a world of worse than unnecessary war. We will stop this warfare. Here is a world of hideous diseases. We will exterminate them. Here is a world of what we call "Sin"—almost all of which is due to Ignorance, Ill-health, Unhappiness, Injustice.

When the world learns how to take care of itself decently; when there are no dirty evil places upon it, with innocent children born daily and hourly into conditions which inevitably produce a certain percentage of criminality; when the intelligence and good breeding which now distinguish some of us are common to all of us-we shan't hear so much about sin!

A socially conscious world, intelligent, courageous, earnest to improve itself, seeking to establish a custom of peaceful, helpful interservice—such a world has no fear of woman, and no feeling that she is unfit to participate in its happy labors. The new social philosophy welcomes woman suffrage.

But suppose you are not in any sense Socialistically inclined. Suppose you are still an Individualist, albeit a believer in votes for women. Even so, merely from the woman's point of view, enough can be said to justify the promise of a New World.

What makes the peace and beauty of the Home—its order—comfort—happiness?—the Woman.

Her service is given, not hired. Her attitude is of one seeking to administer a common fund for the common good. She does not set her children to compete for their dinner—does not give most to the strongest and leave the weakest to go to the wall. It is only in her lowest helplessness; under the degrading influence of utter poverty, that she is willing to exploit her children and let them work before their time.

If she, merely as Woman, merely as wife and mother, comes forward to give the world the same service she has given the home, it will be wholly to its advantage.

Go and look at the legislation initiated or supported by women in every country where women vote—and you will see one unbroken line of social service. Not self-interest—not mercenary profit—not competition; but one steady upward pressure; the visible purpose to uplift and help the world. This world is ours as much as man's. We have not only a right to half its management but a duty to half its service. It is our duty as human beings to help make the world better—quickly! It is our duty as Women to bring our Motherhood to comfort and help humanity—our children everyone!

As transcribed in Anderson, J. (1984). Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.