Women and War

By Anna Garlin Spencer

[The Independent; January 25, 1915]

Mrs. Anna Garlin Spencer has been a public speaker on educational and reform subjects since 1870. From 1891 to 1908 she was minister of the Bell Street Chapel, an independent parish in Providence, Rhode Island. She is now professor of sociology and ethics at the Meadville Theological School, Meadville, Pennsylvania. At the organization meeting at Washington she was elected a vice-chairman of the Peace Party.—THE EDITOR.

This is the first great war in which the voice of women has had power to make itself heard. During the last one hundred years a radical change in the educational, legal, economic and social condition of women has given them a new sense—of sex solidarity and of responsibility in public affairs. This change in women's position has given men a new respect for the moral and intellectual initiative of women, and is preparing them to welcome women's aid in the solution of world problems.

The awful conditions in Europe today have sharpened that new social consciousness of women to an eager demand on their part to be used in some new and mighty effort to make this war end war. Up to this point the attitude of women in general toward the organized peace movement has been less morally earnest, and less intellectually instructed, than that which they have shown in other great movements for social progress. Altho the cause has been supported by a few women of exceptional breadth of training, it has seemed to many a remote or academic propaganda. The too exclusively masculine directorships and too undemocratic methods of the peace societies and foundations are largely to blame for this indifference of otherwise public-spirited women to the war against war. There is, however, a far deeper-reason. Had women been as earnest to abolish war as they have been earnest to do away with other social evils, they would either have stormed the existing peace societies in such membership numbers as would have compelled suitable recognition on governing boards, or else have started a women's peace movement of their own, of such imposing power as to win the respect of men's associations.

The reason why women have come so much more slowly into the peace cause than into other less fundamental social reforms is clear to the thoughtful. It roots far down in the biologic foundation of human society. Dr. Giddings has aptly described the fundamental element in the development of social structure as "the sense of kinship." It works in primitive human society to make the horde, the clan, the tribe, the group-dominant, within "the ancient city," and the racial or national nucleus intensely loyal to their own "kin;" intensely murderous and hostile toward their "alien enemies." Women, like men; have felt this double attraction and repulsion of the law of kinship. As that law reinforced itself by religious rites, customs and "commandments" from the tribal or the racial or the national gods, women became active instruments in intensifying its power of control. Deborah's song of revengeful victory, still called "sacred;" the public honors paid to a woman who slew and enemy whom she had lured by treachery, as recorded in the Old Testament, into her home; the historic praise of women, of all ages and countries,-who by any form of deceit and cruelty destroyed the "alien enemy"—all these show the power of this narrow kinship idea over the idealism of women, as of men. Modern patriotism that is sure God is on its side, that would uphold "my country, right or wrong," and "My race and its culture divinely ordained to be supreme over all," this, which is but a newer form of the old limitations of the kinship sense, lies in the hearts and lives of men and women alike.

The growth of true civilization is marked, by the ever-widening area of those esteemed as "kin," and to whom, therefore, helpful service is due. But yesterday many of us felt that this ring of kinship encircled the world: today we see it shrink back to the savage area, and to worse than savage expression of fear and hatred. Women, like men, have been submerged by this upsurging of outgrown but deep-rooted sentiments. It is therefore pathetically absurd to say with a recent speaker that "if women had voted we should have had no war." Yet it is true—and the significance of that truth will be increasingly perceived—that for the short period in which women have had the discipline of world interests they have exhibited an amazing rapidity of assimilation of world ethics. It is scarce a hundred years since democracy began to work in women, to develop in them an individual relationship to affairs outside the home; and already the women of many countries have united for moral reforms and philanthropies, and to wipe out, the disqualification of sex in the franchise, in, a way that augurs well for their speedy growth in the international point of view in all the high concerns of life. Men, with ages of political experience, professional leadership and world commerce behind them, have been far slower to respond to that spirit of race unity which transcends national and class limitations. Hence there is reasonable hope that when women have had full citizenship and equal opportunity of social training in longer discipline, they will mightily reinforce men's tardy effort to organize the world's moral forces for general human welfare.

Meanwhile the present situation calls for immediate and effective union of all the work of broad-minded and brave-hearted men and women in a great popular propaganda for world peace. To this end, not chiefly to add to the numbers of those engaged in the war against war, but far more to give vitality, freshness, organizing ability among the common people, power of popular appeal and a more ardent passion of protest against human slaughter, the entrance of women in great numbers into the organized peace movement is the supreme need of the hour.

To stir them to such effort, let the women of the United States and of the world call to mind the special reasons why women should hate war and should fight that militarism that makes for war. All the indictments against these evils that men pacificists have made, women pacificists can make as earnestly. In addition, women have other and still more damning indictments.

Women can charge to the account of war their bitterest slavery to men in the household. The alien man, in the older ages, captured in war, had no rights his victorious enemy was bound to respect. He might be killed, mutilated or condemned to perpetual servitude at will. But the alien woman, torn from her kindred to become the concubine, the slave or the outraged prey of the victor in war, learned what is worse than death, and what is more hopeless than manual servitude. That kinship feeling that in primitive times made women, indeed, the vassal of her clan, but protected her from the unmitigated horrors of personal ownership by a single tyrant, war destroyed, leaving her utterly unprotected. When women trace their long struggle upward from domestic slavery, thru legal but perpetual "minority"' to their present direct relation to the state in "contract power" and in citizenship, let them not forget the part war has played in their subjection. All the forces which have worked toward the emancipation of women from domestic bondage root themselves in social order, in peaceful industry, in reason and in law made just and regnant. And all these forces are rendered feeble and impotent in the clash of arms. It is for this cause that women should hate war with a peculiar hatred.

Moreover, women should hate war for its disastrous effect upon their special functions as wives and mothers. Women bear the chief burden of personal care of the young, the undeveloped, the frail and sick, the aged, the feeble-minded, the socially incompetent. They have had to bear that burden ever since social sympathy forbade the strong to kill the weak by fiat of the state. This process of social protection of the incompetent has unquestionably lowered the average standard in human quality where it has worked unmodified by some science and art of race culture. War—and all that makes for war—is the worst hindrance to the attempt to relieve women of this overmastering burden of administering philanthropy, and to give her time and opportunity for her organic function of teaching and developing the normal and super-excellent specimens of the race. Not only does it destroy uselessly all the common wealth of humanity so terribly needed for projecting and realizing the social control that can truly advance individual life, but it deliberately and monstrously aids that "breeding downward" which is the bane of civilization.

Economic exploitation, bad as it is, destroys the weakest first. War destroys the strongest first. Not only that, but preparation for war in the form of vast armies and navies on a peace footing increases the social diseases most inimical to family life, unfits men for civic usefulness, and tends in all its influences away from that, devotion of life and treasure to the higher interests of human progress on which future generations depend. It is because of women's peculiar functional relation to the social demand for race integrity and race culture that enlightened women must hate war and all that makes for war.

Furthermore, women who know their past in primitive life, and have some realizing sense of the long struggle which has brought women in the more enlightened countries, where they are, must join the war against war because of its power to plunge them back in a moment of social chaos to the foot of the hill up which they have so painfully climbed. War, this incredible war, after all the centuries of so-called civilization, puts the women under its mailed fist back in the area of ceaseless, life-killing drudgery, from which the modern woman has but just emerged. It binds again upon her back less able in muscle and in nerve to bear the burden than was the primitive woman who had not yet learned she had a mind—that ancient burden of beginning an ordered social life once more.

War, and the alien slave-women whom war furnished to ruling households in the older life, gave, indeed, to a select "lady" class the first leisure which women ever gained for intellectual growth and social command. In this sense a privileged caste among women, as among men escaped, by way of war and the slavery of war captives, from the hardest labor. How few, however, the members of the "lady" caste; how innumerable the mass of women of the common people, those mothers of the race, whose overwork and cruel abuse have been the most appalling social waste of all the blundering prodigality of human life!

Man's inventive genius and his superb organization of industry have released the mass of women from that ancient drudgery that warped the body and dwarfed the brain. War plunges women back again into complete absorption of their life in the ruder services to the social need. War makes of woman again, as of old, the "breeder" and the drudge. Witness the announcements of the Associated Press that high dignitaries of state churches in the warring nations offer "great reduction in the cost of marriage ceremonies to all enlisted men who will marry before leaving for the front;" some even suggesting "free services" of this sort. What does this mean? It must often mean wives and mothers bearing the double burden of self-support and child support in widowhood, or helping the state in caring for maimed or invalid men after the war is over.

Man's unbridled passions, his clumsy blundering in statecraft, his greed for lands and gold and markets, his autocracy in government and his secret diplomacy made so often of lies, man's willingness and power in his ruling-castes to plunge the common people into misery, have combined thus to set back the onward moving mothers of the race. It is these things all women of light and leading should oppose with all their new-gained power.

Finally, all enlightened and free women," especially those of neutral countries, should make a protest, compelling in its solemn appeal, against war as the supreme outrage on the moral nature of humanity. On a sure sense of ethical values rests all the permanent progress of the race; war, and the things that make for war, give a dual and self-contradictory direction to the idealism of youth, and to the ethical judgment of maturity.

In civic life one is already required by Conscience to be truthful in word and deed, to have respect for others' rights, to be just and honorable and humane in all relationships, to conserve and add to the common wealth of material gains and mental achievements for the benefit of all humanity. In war and in the training that leads toward war it becomes a duty to cheat the enemy without scruple, to "kill him first" whether or not it is certain that he means to or could kill you; to harry his wife and children and his aged parents; to loot and burn and destroy all that he has earned by generations of peaceful toil. It was said before the Civil War in the United States, "A nation cannot exist; half slave and half free." Can a world of civilization exist with its moral life half human and half fiendish? The dependence upon "the judgment of battle," among nations as among individuals, has long been the supreme atheism; it denies the sovereignty of truth and justice. That atheism undermines all faith in spiritual values; and by this process it not only destroys by violence the temples of law and culture and worship which man has builded, but, most subtle destruction of all, it sinks under waves of bestiality and passion those ideals on which respect for womanhood and tender regard for the child have fibered the later progress of the race. It is because of this blasphemy.

It is because of this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit of truth and righteousness and love that all women should utter a curse from the depths of womanhood, that is very salt and bitter and good, on war and all that makes for war.

Meadville, Pennsylvania

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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