Saturday, May 17, 2008
The Forerunner (1:1): Our Androcentric Culture; or, The Man-Made World, "As to Humanness" (Serial Non-fiction, Chapter I, Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
Let us begin, inoffensively, with sheep. The sheep is a beast with
which we are all familiar, being much used in religious imagery; the
common stock of painters; a staple article of diet; one of our main
sources of clothing; and an everyday symbol of bashfulness and
In some grazing regions the sheep is an object of terror, destroying
grass, bush and forest by omnipresent nibbling; on the great plains,
sheep-keeping frequently results in insanity, owing to the loneliness of
the shepherd, and the monotonous appearance and behavior of the sheep.
By the poet, young sheep are preferred, the lamb gambolling gaily;
unless it be in hymns, where "all we like sheep" are repeatedly
described, and much stress is laid upon the straying propensities of the
To the scientific mind there is special interest in the sequacity of
sheep, their habit of following one another with automatic imitation.
This instinct, we are told, has been developed by ages of wild crowded
racing on narrow ledges, along precipices, chasms, around sudden spurs
and corners, only the leader seeing when, where and how to jump. If
those behind jumped exactly as he did, they lived. If they stopped to
exercise independent judgment, they were pushed off and perished; they
and their judgment with them.
All these things, and many that are similar, occur to us when we think
of sheep. They are also ewes and rams. Yes, truly; but what of it?
All that has been said was said of sheep, genus ovis, that bland
beast, compound of mutton, wool, and foolishness. so widely known. If
we think of the sheep-dog (and dog-ess), the shepherd (and
shepherd-ess), of the ferocious sheep-eating bird of New Zealand, the
Kea (and Kea-ess), all these herd, guard, or kill the sheep, both rams
and ewes alike. In regard to mutton, to wool, to general character, we
think only of their sheepishness, not at all of their ramishness or
eweishness. That which is ovine or bovine, canine, feline or equine, is
easily recognized as distinguishing that particular species of animal,
and has no relation whatever to the sex thereof.
Returning to our muttons, let us consider the ram, and wherein his
character differs from the sheep. We find he has a more quarrelsome
disposition. He paws the earth and makes a noise. He has a tendency to
butt. So has a goat--Mr. Goat. So has Mr. Buffalo, and Mr. Moose, and
Mr. Antelope. This tendency to plunge head foremost at an
adversary--and to find any other gentleman an adversary on
sight--evidently does not pertain to sheep, to genus ovis; but to any
male creature with horns.
As "function comes before organ," we may even give a reminiscent glance
down the long path of evolution, and see how the mere act of
butting--passionately and perpetually repeated--born of the beliggerent
spirit of the male--produced horns!
The ewe, on the other hand, exhibits love and care for her little ones,
gives them milk and tries to guard them. But so does a goat--Mrs. Goat.
So does Mrs. Buffalo and the rest. Evidently this mother instinct is
no peculiarity of genus ovis, but of any female creature.
Even the bird, though not a mammal, shows the same mother-love and
mother-care, while the father bird, though not a butter, fights with
beak and wing and spur. His competition is more effective through
display. The wish to please, the need to please, the overmastering
necessity upon him that he secure the favor of the female, has made the
male bird blossom like a butterfly. He blazes in gorgeous plumage,
rears haughty crests and combs, shows drooping wattles and dangling
blobs such as the turkey-cock affords; long splendid feathers for pure
ornament appear upon him; what in her is a mere tail-effect becomes in
him a mass of glittering drapery.
Partridge-cock, farmyard-cock, peacock, from sparrow to ostrich, observe
his mien! To strut and languish; to exhibit every beauteous lure; to
sacrifice ease, comfort, speed, everything--to beauty--for her
sake--this is the nature of the he-bird of any species; the
characteristic, not of the turkey, but of the cock! With drumming of
loud wings, with crow and quack and bursts of glorious song, he woos his
mate; displays his splendors before her; fights fiercely with his
rivals. To butt--to strut--to make a noise--all for love's sake; these
acts are common to the male.
We may now generalize and clearly state: That is masculine which belongs
to the male--to any or all males, irrespective of species. That is
feminine which belongs to the female, to any or all females,
irrespective of species. That is ovine, bovine, feline, canine, equine
or asinine which belongs to that species, irrespective of sex.
In our own species all this is changed. We have been so taken up with
the phenomena of masculinity and femininity, that our common humanity
has largely escaped notice. We know we are human, naturally, and are
very proud of it; but we do not consider in what our humanness consists;
nor how men and women may fall short of it, or overstep its bounds, in
continual insistence upon their special differences. It is "manly" to
do this; it is "womanly" to do that; but what a human being should do
under the circumstances is not thought of.
The only time when we do recognize what we call "common humanity" is in
extreme cases, matters of life and death; when either man or woman is
expected to behave as if they were also human creatures. Since the
range of feeling and action proper to humanity, as such, is far wider
than that proper to either sex, it seems at first somewhat remarkable
that we have given it so little recognition.
A little classification will help us here. We have certain qualities in
common with inanimate matter, such as weight, opacity, resilience. It
is clear that these are not human. We have other qualities in common
with all forms of life; cellular construction, for instance, the
reproduction of cells and the need of nutrition. These again are not
human. We have others, many others, common to the higher mammals; which
are not exclusively ours--are not distinctively "human." What then are
true human characteristics? In what way is the human species
distinguished from all other species?
Our human-ness is seen most clearly in three main lines: it is
mechanical, psychical and social. Our power to make and use things is
essentially human; we alone have extra-physical tools. We have added to
our teeth the knife, sword, scissors, mowing machine; to our claws the
spade, harrow, plough, drill, dredge. We are a protean creature, using
the larger brain power through a wide variety of changing weapons. This
is one of our main and vital distinctions. Ancient animal races are
traced and known by mere bones and shells, ancient human races by their
buildings, tools and utensils.
That degree of development which gives us the human mind is a clear
distinction of race. The savage who can count a hundred is more human
than the savage who can count ten.
More prominent than either of these is the social nature of humanity.
We are by no means the only group-animal; that ancient type of industry
the ant, and even the well-worn bee, are social creatures. But insects
of their kind are found living alone. Human beings never. Our
human-ness begins with some low form of social relation and increases as
that relation develops.
Human life of any sort is dependent upon what Kropotkin calls "mutual
aid," and human progress keeps step absolutely with that interchange of
specialized services which makes society organic. The nomad, living on
cattle as ants live on theirs, is less human than the farmer, raising
food by intelligently applied labor; and the extension of trade and
commerce, from mere village market-places to the world-exchanges of
to-day, is extension of human-ness as well.
Humanity, thus considered, is not a thing made at once and unchangeable,
but a stage of development; and is still, as Wells describes it, "in the
making." Our human-ness is seen to lie not so much in what we are
individually, as in our relations to one another; and even that
individuality is but the result of our relations to one another. It is
in what we do and how we do it, rather than in what we are. Some,
philosophically inclined, exalt "being" over "doing." To them this
question may be put: "Can you mention any form of life that merely 'is,'
without doing anything?"
Taken separately and physically, we are animals, genus homo; taken
socially and psychically, we are, in varying degree, human; and our real
history lies in the development of this human-ness.
Our historic period is not very long. Real written history only goes
back a few thousand years, beginning with the stone records of ancient
Egypt. During this period we have had almost universally what is here
called an Androcentric Culture. The history, such as it was, was made
and written by men.
The mental, the mechanical, the social development, was almost wholly
theirs. We have, so far, lived and suffered and died in a man-made
world. So general, so unbroken, has been this condition, that to
mention it arouses no more remark than the statement of a natural law.
We have taken it for granted, since the dawn of civilization, that
"mankind" meant men-kind, and the world was theirs.
Women we have sharply delimited. Women were a sex, "the sex," according
to chivalrous toasts; they were set apart for special services peculiar
to femininity. As one English scientist put it, in 1888, "Women are not
only not the race--they are not even half the race, but a subspecies
told off for reproduction only."
This mental attitude toward women is even more clearly expressed by Mr.
H. B. Marriot-Watson in his article on "The American Woman" in the
"Nineteenth Century" for June, 1904, where he says: "Her constitutional
restlessness has caused her to abdicate those functions which alone
excuse or explain her existence." This is a peculiarly happy and
condensed expression of the relative position of women during our
androcentric culture. The man was accepted as the race type without one
dissentient voice; and the woman--a strange, diverse creature, quite
disharmonious in the accepted scheme of things--was excused and
explained only as a female.
She has needed volumes of such excuse and explanation; also, apparently,
volumes of abuse and condemnation. In any library catalogue we may find
books upon books about women: physiological, sentimental, didactic,
religious--all manner of books about women, as such. Even to-day in the
works of Marholm--poor young Weininger, Moebius, and others, we find the
same perpetual discussion of women--as such.
This is a book about men--as such. It differentiates between the human
nature and the sex nature. It will not go so far as to allege man's
masculine traits to be all that excuse, or explain his existence: but it
will point out what are masculine traits as distinct from human ones,
and what has been the effect on our human life of the unbridled
dominance of one sex.
We can see at once, glaringly, what would have been the result of giving
all human affairs into female hands. Such an extraordinary and
deplorable situation would have "feminized" the world. We should have
all become "effeminate."
See how in our use of language the case is clearly shown. The
adjectives and derivatives based on woman's distinctions are alien and
derogatory when applied to human affairs; "effeminate"--too female,
connotes contempt, but has no masculine analogue; whereas
"emasculate"--not enough male, is a term of reproach, and has no
feminine analogue. "Virile"--manly, we oppose to "puerile"--childish,
and the very word "virtue" is derived from "vir"--a man.
Even in the naming of other animals we have taken the male as the race
type, and put on a special termination to indicate "his female," as in
lion, lioness; leopard, leopardess; while all our human scheme of things
rests on the same tacit assumption; man being held the human type; woman
a sort of accompaniment aud subordinate assistant, merely essential to
the making of people.
She has held always the place of a preposition in relation to man. She
has been considered above him or below him, before him, behind him,
beside him, a wholly relative existence--"Sydney's sister," "Pembroke's
mother"--but never by any chance Sydney or Pembroke herself.
Acting on this assumption, all human standards have been based on male
characteristics, and when we wish to praise the work of a woman, we say
she has "a masculine mind."
It is no easy matter to deny or reverse a universal assumption. The
human mind has had a good many jolts since it began to think, but after
each upheaval it settles down as peacefully as the vine-growers on
Vesuvius, accepting the last lava crust as permanent ground.
What we see immediately around us, what we are born into and grow up
with, be it mental furniture or physical, we assume to be the order of
If a given idea has been held in the human mind for many generations, as
almost all our common ideas have, it takes sincere and continued effort
to remove it; and if it is one of the oldest we have in stock, one of
the big, common, unquestioned world ideas, vast is the labor of those
who seek to change it.
Nevertheless, if the matter is one of importance, if the previous idea
was a palpable error, of large and evil effect, and if the new one is
true and widely important, the effort is worth making.
The task here undertaken is of this sort. It seeks to show that what we
have all this time called "human nature" and deprecated, was in great
part only male nature, and good enough in its place; that what we have
called "masculine" and admired as such, was in large part human, and
should be applied to both sexes: that what we have called "feminine" and
condemned, was also largely human and applicable to both. Our
androcentric culture is so shown to have been, and still to be, a
masculine culture in excess, and therefore undesirable.
In the preliminary work of approaching these facts it will be well to
explain how it can be that so wide and serious an error should have been
made by practically all men. The reason is simply that they were men.
They were males, avid saw women as females--and not otherwise.
So absolute is this conviction that the man who reads will say, "Of
course! How else are we to look at women except as females? They are
females, aren't they?" Yes, they are, as men are males unquestionably;
but there is possible the frame of mind of the old marquise who was
asked by an English friend how she could bear to have the footman serve
her breakfast in bed--to have a man in her bed-chamber--and replied
sincerely, "Call you that thing there a man?"
The world is full of men, but their principal occupation is human work
of some sort; and women see in them the human distinction
preponderantly. Occasionally some unhappy lady marries her
coachman--long contemplation of broad shoulders having an effect,
apparently; but in general women see the human creature most; the male
creature only when they love.
To the man, the whole world was his world; his because he was male; and
the whole world of woman was the home; because she was female. She had
her prescribed sphere, strictly limited to her feminine occupations and
interests; he had all the rest of life; and not only so, but, having it,
insisted on calling it male.
This accounts for the general attitude of men toward the now rapid
humanization of women. From her first faint struggles toward freedom
and justice, to her present valiant efforts toward full economic and
political equality, each step has been termed "unfeminine" and resented
as an intrusion upon man's place and power. Here shows the need of our
new classification, of the three distinct fields of life--masculine,
feminine and human.
As a matter of fact, there is a "woman's sphere," sharply defined and
quite different from his; there is also a "man's sphere," as sharply
defined and even more limited; but there remains a common sphere--that
of humanity, which belongs to both alike.
In the earlier part of what is known as "the woman's movement," it was
sharply opposed on the ground that women would become "unsexed." Let us
note in passing that they have become unsexed in one particular, most
glaringly so, and that no one has noticed or objected to it.
As part of our androcentric culture we may point to the peculiar
reversal of sex characteristics which make the human female carry the
burden of ornament. She alone, of all human creatures, has adopted the
essentially masculine attribute of special sex-decoration; she does not
fight for her mate as yet, but she blooms forth as the peacock and bird
of paradise, in poignant reversal of nature's laws, even wearing
masculine feathers to further her feminine ends.
Woman's natural work as a female is that of the mother; man's natural
work as a male is that of the father; their mutual relation to this end
being a source of joy and well-being when rightly held: but human work
covers all our life outside of these specialties. Every handicraft,
every profession, every science, every art, all normal amusements and
recreations, all government, education, religion; the whole living world
of human achievement: all this is human.
That one sex should have monopolized all human activities, called them
"man's work," and managed them as such, is what is meant by the phrase
Originally published in Forerunner: 1:1 (November 1909).
Etext from Project Gutenberg.
This public domain text has been presented as found (with some minor format changes); this website and its owners are not responsible for errors, substantive and/or minor.