Not long ago I read with pious misgivings a book on Anarchism, by Emma Goldman. It contained—as I expected—much that was objectionable, wild, and shocking. But it also contained some very stimulating observations and reflections. I was deeply impressed by a powerful chapter on marriage, in which the author protested against the ugly fact that, under modern social and economic conditions in the United States, particularly in New England, very many women are denied the natural right of motherhood. A painful picture was drawn of the many thousands of over-strained, atrophied women doomed to live out their lives unmated and deprived of their rightful inheritance.
Statistics show that one out of every twelve women remains unmarried between the years of forty-five and sixty-four; one out of ten between thirty-five and forty-four; and one out of five between twenty-five and thirty-four. Among the men, one out of ten remains unmarried between the ages of forty-five and sixty-four; one out of six between thirty-five and forty-four; and one out of every three between twenty-five and thirty-four. Something must be decidedly wrong with our civilization, to permit such a state of affairs.
It is evident that this extraordinary problem concerns the unmarried man quite as much as the unmarried woman. The man who has never known the dignity, the responsibilities, and the deep satisfaction of fatherhood is also an atrophied, abnormal member of society. As an unreconciled bachelor, I have wrestled hard with the problem and have reached certain conclusions, which, I fear, are regarded by some of my friends as most heretical.
I recognize, of course, that economic conditions are partly responsible for this abnormal situation; but I believe that this difficulty could be surmounted without much trouble if it were not for other much more serious influences. The necessity of earning a living, in order to care for dependents; the struggle to acquire an education in law and medicine, as well as in other professions—all this often compels a lamentable delay, or an indefinite postponement of marriage. This delay is itself frequently tragic in the strain of inhibitions and the consequent ills it imposes on both sexes, at the time when Nature is calling imperatively for her unquestioned rights.
But I am thinking primarily of those who never marry, who bravely put up a cheerful front, but whose hearts are never free from a sense of irremediable loss. I am thinking of those who cannot stand this strain, and who collapse, either mentally or morally. Economic reasons may in some cases absolutely preclude marriage; but I believe that other causes are of much greater weight.
First of all, I accuse the spirit of Puritanism for having fostered a false attitude toward the sex-instinct. Many a boy and girl brought up in a Puritan environment have come to regard the first attractions of sex as something utterly unholy. They have resisted these inclinations and brooded morbidly over them, until they have felt damned beyond redemption. They have turned to ascetic discipline and severe torments of the soul, until their outlook has become badly distorted, even at times to the extreme of insanity.
These unhappy victims of Puritanism have been prevented from realizing that Nature is only asking her own: that she rejoices in the instinctive revelations of sex; that adolescence is as natural as breathing, and must not be too long ignored.
Among simple primitive folk, who have mercifully been spared the dark shadow of Puritanism on their sex-relations, the process of mating and of reproduction is rightly regarded as Nature's richest gift. They do not affront Nature by pleading for a delay, or feel guilty when obeying the imperious demands of mature adolescence. As for that matter, even our Puritan ancestors were in this respect more normal and more moral than is the case to-day, in favoring early marriages and in welcoming the rather abundant harvests of such unions.
Puritanism, in its peculiar definition of moral purity and its gloomy approach to marriage, has created a stuffy atmosphere in which it is excessively difficult for men and women to meet naturally. There is a restraint and a prudery that render courtship difficult or illicit love easy. Desperate measures are necessary under such conditions. Severe admonitions or cruel jests either kill budding affections or provoke to acts not infrequently unfortunate in their consequences.
And this preposterous attitude lasts after marriage, when many a young mother finds herself condemned to a painful reticence and evasion at a time when she should be boldly exultant in her supreme realization of Nature's greatest miracle. Puritanism has seemed to associate with this great joy something abhorrent and shameful! I remember how I once shocked a cousin by remarking that one of our relations was expecting a baby; and how, later on, she admitted her inability to under stand why she should have felt shocked.
The answer, of course, was this strange thing called Puritanism, which has cast a dreadful pall on the most joyous and natural instinct of mankind.
Next to Puritanism I accuse the spirit of Romanticism—an odd partner in crime—for rendering marriage so difficult to achieve. Poetry and fiction have done their worst to foster fantastic notions concerning love and matrimony. Preachers, moralists, psychologists, and writers of various kinds have all united to represent the sex-instinct as exotic and unreal. The native hue of passion has been sicklied o'er by a very pale cast of thought. Youths and maidens have attended theoretical courses in correspondence schools on the subject of matrimony. They have been encouraged to subject their emotions to a compound microscope, to try to discover by analysis whether these feelings are as described in the books. They have been led to be hypercritical to such an extent that they become morbidly introspective. And all the time two sound hearts may have been calling loudly to each other in vain! In their search for a great romance, for the proper stage-setting for courtship, they become utterly confused and hysterical at times. They play on each other's nerves until something is bound to happen; but what happens is too often a tragedy. Nature is scornful of playacting in matters of the heart, and visits fearful penalties on the actors. Nature cannot but have a grudge against this Romanticism, which blinds people to realities and impels them to pursue an ignis factus in an utterly unreal world of intellectual creation.
I accuse also the Feminist movement for its part in bewildering society regarding the relations of the sexes. Many excellent women, in their devotion and martyrdom to the cause of equal suffrage, have practically taken vows of celibacy, like nuns. At least, the effect is the same, by reason of the emphasis they place on the entering of women into the various professions, their right to economic independence, and their obligation to demonstrate their absolute freedom. The making of a home, the rearing of children, seem to be regarded by the Feminists as, at best, nothing but an evil necessity, to be borne under protest and to be avoided if possible. This attitude in some amounts virtually to an angry revolt against Nature for having been outrageously unjust in placing a heavier burden on women than on men. The way some of these Feminists talk would lead one to infer that they desired legislation from on high, to impose on men part of the task of bearing children!
Another and more sinister effect of Feminism has been the hideous reaction of the argument against a double standard of morality for men and women. Instead of inducing men to be more moral, the tendency would seem decidedly to make women more lax, and even cynical on the subject. I have known women who, ignoring the sententious and incontrovertible argument of Franklin concerning the double standard, have frankly asserted the right of a woman to have her 'fling' as well as a man. There are various sets where an amused tolerance condones moral delinquencies, or fosters a most dangerous attitude toward marriage. As in the case of certain social or stage celebrities, marriage becomes a joke, or a meaningless formality, well characterized by a shrewd Turkish observer as 'consecutive polygamy.'
It is to be hoped, and in fact is to be expected, that, after this exaggerated, movement of protest by the Feminists has spent its force, we shall have a return to a sane and natural attitude toward the marriage relation and all that it implies in obligations and ultimate contentment.
And out of Puritanism, Romanticism, and Feminism, as well as from prevailing economic conditions, have grown false standards of happiness. Nature says to a man and woman: 'Unite, make a home, have children, cherish them, and build for their future, if you would know true contentment.' Modern civilization says: 'Do not think of marriage until after you have had a chance to enjoy yourselves in a life of independence; until you have sufficient means, a fine house, an automobile or two, and a mate with whom to continue your good time. Do not think of having children if they interfere in the least with your good time; certainly do not have more than one or two. And do not stay married for a moment if anything disagreeable occurs to mar your happiness.'
Or many a high-minded young man or girl is thinking of perfect bliss in marriage, of an ideal union of kindred souls, that will ensure eternal harmony and contentment. Their conception of domestic happiness is too exacting and unreal; it cannot allow for strain and stress. It renders marriage either more difficult to achieve or impossible to maintain.
I recall an observation by a statesman of note, when addressing a group of college girls, to the effect that it was much better for a woman never to marry than to marry unhappily. This sounds rather reasonable, but requires, first of all, a clear definition of married happiness. Such a definition, under modern conditions, is becoming increasingly difficult. Many a girl would be rendered unhappy by being deprived of certain comforts and privileges she has enjoyed in her home. At least, she may think so, and thus avoid matrimony and, very probably, miss true happiness. Other girls, who could readily endure such privations, may be made miserably unhappy to discover that their glorious ideal of marriage cannot be fully realized.
Here is the difficulty: what constitutes true happiness and absolute contentment? Many a man and woman have learned the answer by simple living in accordance with the demands of Nature. They have discovered that the standards of happiness set by modern civilization in literature, theatre, college, and social conventions are grotesquely false. Yes, many a woman possessing that greatest of gifts—an understanding heart—has achieved supreme happiness through 'the simple round, the daily task,' through the home loyalties and loving services. I have known women whose love and devotion have enabled them, not only to endure fearful humiliations at the hands of unworthy husbands, but actually to redeem them to a fine manhood in a sanctified and reconsecrated home. I have known men whose patience and tenderness have endured the nagging of thoughtless wives, their extravagances, their follies, yes, their faithlessness; and have brought them back to a beautiful and sane realization of true contentment. I have seen such men and women learn, through the strain and stress of married life, that the greatest happiness, after all, lies in sacrifice; that the basic principle of our Western civilization is the obligation to build for others. The home is the cornerstone of that civilization and of true contentment.
In the light of this standard of happiness I venture to reply to the superficial observation on marriage by the statesman to whom I have alluded, that it is better by far to have known the joys with the ills and sacrifices of motherhood than to live in a fancied single blessedness. To live as Nature ordained, though with many a concern and many a chagrin, is infinitely preferable to living in relative ease and serenity, in opposition to Nature's demands.
There is good reason to view with disgust and alarm certain tendencies of the rising generation. The mode of dress that exposes rather than discloses feminine charms; the dance that exacts vulgar postures and familiarities; the 'petting' that arouses sexual emotions—all this, I take it, lamentable as it is, may perhaps be regarded in part as a reaction from those unnatural conditions which have militated against the wholesome relations of the sexes. It is a pity that the pendulum should swing so violently to a dangerous extreme; but I am hopeful that we may yet find a golden mean, which will result in a greater general happiness.
Such a golden mean I find on the other side of the Atlantic, where the sex-instinct and marriage are regarded more sanely and naturally than on this side. Everything there—nature, parents, and society in general—unites to encourage young people to mate and nest early. No exaggerated intellectual refinements, no romantic fancies, no social conventions stand in the way of a free response to the 'cosmic urge.'
In the case also of Europeans of means and education, marriage is relatively easy, even when delayed for one reason or another. It is erroneous to think that Continental marriages are simply a matter of negotiations, irrespective of the sentiments and preferences of those directly concerned. If sentiment and desire should not coincide with interest, either side may freely use the right of veto. I recall several German friends living away from Germany, who were precluded by this fact and other circumstances from an early marriage. When the time arrived that they felt free to marry, it was a simple matter to let the home folks know of this desire. They in turn found it easy to pass along the word to someone in their circle of friends, who likewise had the desire to do her part in the making of a home. When the prospective lovers came together, there was no constraint, either of Puritanism or of Romanticism. On their finding each other congenial, the engagement was shortly entered into, and marriage followed soon after. In the cases I have in mind there was every evidence in later years of tender devotion and contentment.
I hope it will not be thought that I am arguing in favor of marriages de convenance as against sentiment and romance. There is nothing finer than some of the truly romantic and idyllic courtships it has been my privilege to witness. The grande passion does come to some, and is greatly to be desired. I am merely arguing that where such extraordinary experiences seem unlikely or unattainable,—as I fear they are in most cases,—obedience to the demands of nature should compel one to admit that marriage is not only desirable but imperative. I am contending for a saner attitude on the part of society in general toward the whole subject. I am writing as frankly as I can, out of the depths of experience,—sweet as well as bitter,—to try to help others to think more clearly on this vital problem.
Society should do all in its power, in my opinion, to render marriage easier, in order to restore it to its rightful place as the basic and primordial fact of life itself. We should feel much greater concern over the unpleasant fact of the large numbers of unmarried members of society. And early marriages should be facilitated, in recognition of the fact that delay can hardly be good, either for the individual or for society in general. The home is the basis of our civilization, and the more homes, the better the community. Whether early or late, marriage should be the immediate and the most serious concern of society at large.
All that has been said thus far should not be interpreted as minimizing in the least the sacramental nature of marriage as it rightfully is regarded by the Church. To those who think deeply, there is hardly anything in life that may not properly be deemed sacred. In fact, it is this sense of the sanctity, beauty, and dignity of human relationships that brings the greatest joy in life. But it does not follow, because marriage is sacramental, that courtship is to be considered as of divine origin, more than any of the many other human relationships. What really matters is the specific act of consecration. The mating of man and wife may be elemental, a most natural response to an imperative and irresistible command; but God may not have joined them together unless they themselves have solemnly laid their plighted troth on his altar.
This to me is the true significance and beauty of the marriage service, so often missed, alas, amid the pomp and theatricals of elaborate church weddings. The thoughtless and the cynics, occupied with thoughts of how the bride looked or the groom behaved, are often too unmindful of the fact that here are two souls who have dared present themselves to dedicate their union before God and in the sight of man. They have solemnly pledged in prayer that, come what may, they are determined to show each other patience, reasonableness, charity, forgiveness, loyalty, and the love that pardoneth all things, throughout the trials and vicissitudes of their wedded life.
Whether in a religious or a civil ceremony, this is what all reasonable beings should pledge. It is a solemn acknowledgment of the fundamental fact that falling in love is not nearly of as great importance as the sacred act of marriage itself. The emphasis should be placed, not simply by the Church, but by all society, on the sacramental nature of married life.
Confucius said: 'A man and his wife should be as guests to each other.' Could anything more profound or more exquisite be said of the marriage relation? Unfailing courtesy and deferential consideration, thoughtful and delicate attentions, rare patience and charity, all that the hospitality of one soul to another implies—is not this the final answer to the whole problem of marriage and divorce?
This, it seems to me, is the attitude society should aim to foster: a more natural approach to the sex-relation, freedom from fantastic notions and artificial restraints, a shifting of emphasis from the search for romantic courtships to the necessity of a daily courtship after marriage; in sum, insistence on a simpler and deeper conception of happiness, based on home loyalties, sacrifices, and joyous revelations of life's mysteries, 'until Death us do part.'