THE OLD PROBLEM INTENSIFIED BY THE DISPROPORTION OF THE SEXES
“There has arisen in society, a figure which is certainly the most mournful, and in some respects the most awful, upon which the eye of the moralist can dwell. That unhappy being whose very name is a shame to speak; who counterfeits with a cold heart the transports of affection, and submits herself as the passive instrument of lust; who is scorned and insulted as the vilest of her sex, and doomed for the most part to disease and abject wretchedness and an early death, appears in every eye as the perpetual symbol of the degradation and sinfulness of man. Herself the supreme type of vice, she is ultimately the most efficient guardian of virtue. But for her the unchallenged purity of countless happy homes would be polluted, and not a few who, in the pride of their untempted chastity, think of her with an indignant shudder, would have known the agony of remorse and despair. She remains while creeds and civilisations rise and fall, the eternal priestess of humanity, blasted for the sins of the people.”
Lecky’s History of European Morals, Chap. V.
One of the many problems which have been intensified by the war is the problem of the relations of the sexes. Difficult as it has always been, the difficulty inevitably becomes greater when there is a grave disproportion—an excess in numbers of one sex over the other. And in this country, whereas there was a disproportion of something like a million more women than men before the war broke out, there is now a disproportion of about one and three-quarter millions.
This accidental and (I believe) temporary difficulty—a difficulty not “natural” and necessary to human life, but artificial and peculiar to certain conditions which may be altered—does not, of course, create the problem we have to deal with: but it forces that problem on our attention by sheer force of suffering inflicted on so large a scale. It compels us to ask ourselves on what we base, and at what we value the moral standard which, if it is to be preserved, must mean a tremendous sacrifice on the part of so large a number of women as is involved in their acceptance of life-long celibacy.
There is no subject on which it is more difficult to find a common ground than this. To some people it seems to be immoral even to ask the question—on what are your moral standards based? To others what we call our “moral standards” are so obviously absurd and “unnatural” that the question has for them no meaning. And between these extremes there are so many varieties of opinion that one can take nothing as generally accepted by men and women.
I want, therefore, to leave aside the ordinary conventions—not because they are necessarily bad, but because they are not to my purpose, which is to discover whether there is a real morality which we can justify to ourselves without appeal to any authority however great, or to any tradition however highly esteemed: a morality which is based on the real needs, the real aspirations of humanity itself.