The Forerunner (1:1): "A Small God and a Large Goddess" (Essay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

The ancient iconoclast pursued his idol-smashing with an ax. He did not regard the feelings of the worshippers, and they, with similar indifference to his, promptly destroyed him.

The modern iconoclast, wiser from long experience, practices the
kindergarten art of substitution; enters without noise, and dexterously
replaces the old image with a new one.

Often the worshippers do not notice the change. They never spend their
time in discriminating study of their idol, being exclusively occupied
in worshipping it.

The task herein undertaken is not so easy. We can hardly expect to
remove the particular pet deity of millions of people for thousands of
years--an especially conspicuous little image at that, differing from
other gods and goddesses; and substitute another figure, three times his
size, of the opposite sex, and thirty years older--without somebody's
noticing it.

Yet this is precisely what is required of us, by the new knowledge of
to-day. We are called upon to dislodge what is easily the most popular
god in the calendar, albeit the littlest; that fat fluttering small boy,
congenitally blind, with his haphazard archery playthings; that
undignified conception, type of folly change and irresponsible mischief,
which so amazingly usurps the name and place of love. Never was there a
more absurd misrepresentation.

Suppose we worshipped Fire, the great sun for our over-lord, all lesser
lights in varying majesty, each hearth-fire as the genius and guardian
of the home. So worshipping, suppose we chose, as ever present image of
the great idea, to be pictured and sculptured far and wide, to fill all
literature, to be accepted even by science as type and symbol of the
Fire Divine--a match-box!

So slight, so transient, so comparatively negligible in importance, is
the flickering chance-sown spark typified in this pretty chimera of
flying immaturity, compared with the majestic quenchless flame of life
and love we ought to worship.

We have taken the assistant for the principal, a tributary for the main
stream; we have exalted Eros, the god of man's desire, and paid no heed
to that great goddess of mother love to whom young Eros is but a running

We are right to worship love, in all its wide, diverging branches; the
love that is gratitude, love that is sympathy. love that is admiration,
love that is gift and service; even the love that is but hunger--mere

But when we talk of the Life Force, the strong stream of physical
immortality, which has replaced form with form and kept the stream
unbroken through the ages, we ought to understand whereof we speak.

That force is predominant. Under its ceaseless, upward pressure have all
creatures risen from the first beginning. Resistlessly it pushes
through the ages; stronger than pain or fear or anger, stronger than
selfishness or pride, stronger than death. It rises like a mighty tree,
branching and spreading through the changing seasons.

Death gnaws at it in vain. Death destroys the individual, not the race;
death plucks the leaves, the tree lives on. That tree is motherhood.

The life process replaces one generation with another, each equal to,
yes, if possible, superior to, the last. This mighty process has
enlarged and improved throughout the ages, until it has grown from a
mere division of the cell--its first step still--to the whole range of
education by which the generations are replenished socially as well as
physically. From that vague impulse which sets afloat a myriad oyster
germs, to the long patience of a brooding bird; from the sun-warmed eggs
of a reptile to the nursed and guarded young of the higher mammals; so
runs the process and the power through lengthening years of love and
service, lives by service, grows with service. The longer the period of
infancy, the greater the improvement of species.

The fish or insect, rapidly matured, reaches an early limit. He must be
competent to Iive as soon as he begins, and is no more competent at his
early ending. The higher life form, less perfect at beginning, spending
more time dependent on its mother, receives from her more power. First
from her body's shelter, the full, long upbuilding; safety while she is
safe; the circling guard of wise, mature, strong life, of conscious
care, besides the unconscious bulwark of self-interest. Contrast this
with the floating chances of the spawn!

Then the rich, sure food of mother-milk, the absolute adaptation, the
whole great living creature an alembic to gather from without, and
distil to sweet perfection, what the child needs. Contrast this with
the chances of new-born fish or fly, or even those of the bird baby,
whose mother must search wide for the food she brings. The mammal has
it with her.

Then comes the highest stage of all, where the psychic gain of the race
is transmitted to the child as well as the physical. This last and
noblest step in the life process we call education. education is
differentiated motherhood. It is social motherhood. It is the
application to the replenishment and development of the race of the same
great force of ever-growing life which made the mother's milk.

Here are the three governing laws of life: To Be; To Re-Be; To Be
Better. The life force demands Existence. And we strain every nerve to
keep ourselves alive. The life force demands Reproduction. And our
physical machinery is shifted and rearranged repeatedly, with arrayed
impulses to suit--to keep the race alive. Then, most imperative of all,
the life force demands Improvement. And all creation groaneth and
travaileth in this one vast endeavor. Not merely this
thing--permanently; not merely more of this thing--continuously; but
better things, ever better and better types, has been the demand of life
upon us, and we have fulfilled it.

Under this last and highest law, as the main factor in securing to the
race its due improvement, comes that supreme officer of the life
process, the Mother. Her functions are complex, subtle, powerful, of
measureless value.

Her first duty is to grow nobly for her mighty purpose. Her next is to
select, with inexorable high standard, the fit assistant for her work.
The third--to fitly bear, bring forth, and nurse the child. Following
these, last and highest of all, comes our great race-process of social
parentage, which transmits to each new generation the gathered
knowledge, the accumulated advantages of the past.

When mother and father labor and save for years to give their children
the "advantages" of civilization; when a whole state taxes itself to
teach its children; that is the Life Force even more than the direct
impulse of personal passion. The pressure of progress, the resistless
demand of better conditions for our children, is life's largest
imperative, the fullest expression of motherhood.

But even if we confine ourselves for the time being to the plane of mere
replenishment, to that general law under which animals continue in
existence upon earth, even here the brief period of pre-paternal
excitement is but a passing hour compared to the weeks and months, yes,
years, in the higher species, of maternal service, love and care. The
human father, too, toils for his family; but the love, the power, the
pride of fatherhood are not symbolized by the mischievous butterfly baby
we have elected to worship.

Cupid has nothing to do with either motherhood or fatherhood in the
large human sense. His range is far short of the mark, he suggests
nothing of the great work to which he is but the pleasing preliminary.
Even for marriage we must bring in another god little heard of--Master
Hymen. This personage has made but small impression upon literature and
art; we have concentrated our interest on the God of First Sensation,
leaving none for ultimate results.

It is as if we were impressed by the intricate and indispensible process
of nutrition (upon which, as anyone can see, all life continuously
depends) and then had fixed our attention upon the palate, as chief
functionary. The palate is useful, even necessary. Without that eager
guide and servant we might be indifferent to the duty of eating, or
might eat what was useless or injurious, or at best eat mechanically and
without pleasure.

In the admirable economy of nature we are led to perform necessary acts
by the pleasure which accompanies them; so the "pleasures of the palate"
rightly precede the uses of the stomach; but we should not mistake them
for the chief end. In point of fact, this is precisely what we have
done. It not an analogy, it is a real truth. In nutrition as in
reproduction we have been quite taken up with accompaniments and
assistants, and have ignored the real business in hand. That is why the
whole world is so unwisely fed. It considers only the taste of things,
the pleasure of eating them, and ignores the real necessities of the

And why, if this standard of doorstep satisfaction does not really
measure values in food, should we continue to set the same standard for
the mighty work of love? Love is mighty, but little Master Cupid is not
Love. The love that warms and lights and builds the world is
Motherlove. It is aided and paralleled by Fatherlove (that new
development distinctive of our race, that ennobling of the father by his
taking up so large a share of what was once all motherwork).

But why, so recognizing and reverencing this august Power, why should we
any longer be content to accept as its symbol this godlet of transient
sensation? No man who has ever loved a woman fully, as only human
beings can love, through years of mutual care and labor, through
sickness, age, and death, can honestly accept, as type of that long,
strong, enduring Love, this small blind fly-by-night.

There is, unquestionably, a stage of feeling which he fitly represents.
There is an inflammable emotionality in youth and its dreary continuance
into middle life, when as the farcial old governor in the play exclaims,
"Every day is ladies' day to me." Such a state of mind--or body,
rather--is common enough, harmless enough, perhaps, for a few light,
ineffectual years; but it is a poor compliment to call it Love, to let
this state of shuffling indecision, this weather-cock period, this
blindfold chance-shot game of hit or miss, hold such high place in our

The explanation of it all is plain. In those slow, ignorant ages when
the spark of life was supposed to be transmitted by the male, he
naturally was taken to typify the life force. As this force was most
imperious in youth, so youth was taken to represent it. And as, even in
the eyes of the supposed chief actor, his feelings were changeable and
fleeting and his behavior erratic and foolish in the extreme--therefore

Therefore, seeing the continuous unreason of the love-driven male, we
say, "Love is blind"; seeing his light-mindedness, we say, "Love has
wings"; seeing his evident lack of intelligence and purpose, we make him
a mere child; seeing the evil results of his wide license, we
euphemistically indicate some pain by that bunch of baby arrows.

It is easy to see the origin of this deification of the doorstep. It is
not so easy to justify its persistence now that long years of knowledge
show us the great Door.

The Door of Life is Motherhood. She is the gate of entrance. Her work
is the great work as moulder and builder. She carries in her the Life
Power which this absurd infant is supposed to typify; and her love is
greater than his, even as a wise, strong mother is greater than a little

Consider the imperative law that demands motherhood, that gives
motherhood, that holds motherhood to its great continuing task; where
short pleasure is followed by long discomfort crowned with pain; where
even the rich achievement of new-made life is but the beginning of years
of labor and care. Here is the life force. Here is power and passion.
Not the irritable, transient impulse, however mighty, but the staying
power, the passion that endures, the spirit which masters weakness,
slays selfishness, holds its ministrant to a lifelong task.

This is not appetite, hunger, desire. Desire may lead to it, and
usefully. Desire is the torchbearer, Motherhood is the Way.

Give Baby Love his due. He is not evil; he is good. He is a joy
forever. He is vitally necessary in the scheme of things. Happy are
they who in the real great work of life can carry with them this angel
visitant, fluttering free along their path, now close and sweet, now
smiling mischievously at a distance, yet returning ever.

But with all that can be said of him he is out of place as chief deity
in this high temple. Let a little shrine be made at the gate outside
the door. Let him smile there and take his tribute of red roses. But
when we put the shoes from off our feet and enter, we should see before
us, tall and grave, glorious in strong beauty, majestic in her amplitude
of power, the Goddess Motherhood.

Such love should shine from her deep eyes that children would crowd to
that temple and feel at home; learning to understand a little of what
had brought them there. Such beauty in this body of great womanhood that
men would worship as for long they have worshipped her of Melos. Such
high pride that girls, gazing, would feel strong to meet and bear their
splendid task. And such power--such living, overmastering power that
man, woman and child alike should bow in honor and rise in strength.

Then will Love be truly worshipped.

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.

The Forerunner: 1:1 (November 1909): Table of Contents

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