Saturday, June 5, 2010

Feminism in 1926

While I was scanning my collection of antique newspapers, one article that caught my eye was this one by Edith Shackleton. It seems to embody what we think of as "modern" feminism, wherein we oppose gender stereotyping, but equally support women who choose to embrace maternal values. Thoughts?

"The Soul of A Girl"
An 'Archbishop's Presumption.
Woman's Future.
Maternal instincts as a "Nuisance."
By Edith Shackleton

The primate of Hungary has forbidden the formation of Girl Guides among his flock on the grounds that such organisations pursue masculine aims, and "are opposed to the very sould of a girl."

With the primate's misstatement of fact I am not concerned. Officers of the Girl Guides have already pointed out that their organisation does not pursue masuline or military aims. The interesting point is that the primate should have been able to make up his mind so firmly on a point which baffles most of us. He thinks he knows, clearly, just what "the very soul of a girl" is like, and just where it differs from the very soul of a boy.

One would like to know how he arrived at his conclusion, for scientific evidence of the temperamental differences between boys and girls is rare.

Even if we admit that the smallest girl has a gentle, conservative instinct implanted because of her potential motherhood, and that every boy has a natural appetite for danger and combat this is not to say -- and it is specially not for primates and other vicars of Christ to say -- that these instincts should be fostered and heightened.

It is certainly not to say that in either case they constitute the "very soul" of either boy or girl. Only the most elementary religions allow for sex in souls. What most of us mean by the soul of a splendid woman has no qualities which could not equally occur in the soul of a splendid man.

In some primitive state where the men must all fight and the women all attend to farming and housewifery a wide difference in training between girls and boys might have been practical. It is not practical for the higher civilisations of Western Europe to-day. Indeed, we do our children an injury if we lead them to expect and desire highly specialised lives according to their sex.

What would the Primate of Hungary say to a generation of girls who had been brought up to believe that only the hearthstone and the cradle could be there appropriate concerns or express their genius when these girls discovered that in fact they were required to work at machinery and figures, that perhaps a third of them must remain celibate, and that those who married would be thought shiftless and anti-social if they produced as many children as possible?

Parents and guardians often have trouble with boys who declare that they must "life a man's life" and so run away to sail in windjammers or to join mining camps in Canada or do some other rough work for which they may be unsuited.

This is a difficult enough problem, but it is simplicity itself compared to that which would arise if great numbers of girls felt themselves equally entitled to "live a woman's life" in the same primitive sense, and clamoured for husbands and babies at any costs.

This, of course, is not what the primate desires when he calls for the preservation of the "very soul" of a girl, but it is where too much brooding on instinct and sex differentiation would lead us.

Our present proud array of beautiful and healthy young children is living proof that it is not necessary to burden little girls by too early a sense of their maternal potentialities or to fill their minds with deceits and inhibitions in the names of feminine modesty and delicacy.

Many of the mothers of these children are young enough to have been Girl Guides themselves, to have been sensibly dressed, to have learned thoroughness in games, and to have escaped the Victorian nursery theories that girls were nearly all sneaks and boys were nearly all bullies, and yet they find their feminine souls soon enough when their husbands come to them for comfort and their babies for care.

It is folly to suppose that because the maifestations of the monther insitnct can at their best seem so noble, and because for nearly two thousand years the figures of the Mother and child have stood as a symbol of divine beauty, that the maternal instinct cannot be over-indulged like any other.

It could easily be made into a social nuisance and to a slight extent it is sometimes a nuisance.

Employers are sometimes nauseated by the devotion which their women secretaries shed on them, or even on their desks and files.

Many lives are to-day made miserable because of the excessively maternal women who imagine that their grown-up sons and daughters still belong to them and should be under their control -- the sort of women who would talk of "giving" their thirty-year-old sons in a war and consider themselves personally martyred when their own daughters get married. They do not encourage us to specialise in girlish shapes and sizes of soul.

From The Sunday Express, 6th June 1926

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