September 3rd, 2013
THIS MONTH IN HISTORY:
The Degeneracy of Women’s Suffrage: 1895. For many decades, the word “degenerate” took on a very specific meaning: gay people were “degenerates,” as were almost anyone else who radically deviated (negatively) from what was considered normal and wholesome. Everyone — doctors (see Aug 2), police investigators (see May 19, Jun 1), newspaper columnists (see Mar 23), housewives (see Jun 29) and Newsweek (see Oct 10) — thought nothing of using the word “degenerate,” and by the middle of the twentieth century its usage became much more specific to describe gay people.
But what was lost by that time was a recollection of where the word “degenerate” came from. It was the last vestige of a proto-scientific theory which had been universally accepted by social scientists, doctors and early geneticists in the nineteenth century. Degeneracy Theory described a body of beliefs which was a kind of a theory of evolution, but in reverse. Darwin’s theory held that as species reproduced, the process of natural selection would help to weed out the lesser copies of the offspring, while the more capable versions would survive to reproduce again. Degeneracy Theory pondered what would happen if natural selection was not such a strong force, thanks to advances in science, medicine, and civilization in general, in the development of the human race.
While there are a number parallels between Degeneracy Theory and Evolution, Degeneracy Theory actually pre-dated Darwin’s theory by about five decades. According to Degeneracy Theorists, human beings, through the natural course of evolution, would naturally produce children who “de-generated” some of their parent’s characteristics in an imperfect form — think of a xerox copy of a xerox copy. Degeneracy didn’t always yield lesser children; geniuses were examples of a kind of positive “de-generation.” They may have greater powers of reasoning than others, but they nevertheless deviated from the norm, and that deviancy was a sign of degeneration. Besides, geniuses often had other quirks as part of their personalities, and those quirks were seen as offsetting signs of degeneracy, a price, if you will, paid for their genius. It was also believed that degenerates, whether their degeneration was positive or negative, also bore physical markers, known as the “stigmata of degeneration,” in the form of various skull shapes, facial features, and other bodily characteristics which, if one looked closely enough, might provide further evidence of degeneracy. That’s why detailed physical descriptions were an important part of the scientific literature. In fact, those descriptions were considered so important and became so commonplace that the practice lasted well the 1960s, long after the very theories which required such descriptions were long dead and forgotten.
The product of this degeneracy was called the “reversion to the atavistic type” — in other words, a natural tendency of a species to return to a more primitive state. For humans, it would mean a descent into poverty, ignorance and criminality of which nineteenth-century inner-city tenements, according to Degeneracy Theorists, provided ample proof. But as pessimistic as the theory went, it did have its positive contributions: it spawned the hygiene movement which began mandating safe housing, clean food, proper sanitation, limitations in child labor and other protections, and universal education. In the glass-half-empty category, Degeneracy Theory marked the beginning of the shift from regarding homosexuality as a crime to be severely punished, but as a malady to be addressed “scientifically” — namely by the nation’s doctors and insane asylums, along with the brave few who countered that gay and gender-variant people harmed no one and should be left alone. But far more darkly, Degeneracy Theory would soon give rise to Eugenics, which would cast an especially dark shadow over much of the early twentieth century.
So to give you an example of “degenerates” who had nothing to do with gay people, the September 1895 edition of The American Naturalist included a classic anti-femininst tract, steeped in Degeneracy Theory. Dr. James Weir, Jr.’s, article, “The effects of female suffrage on posterity,” argued that feminism (which was then focused on voting rights and the prohibition of alcohol) was just another result of ongoing degeneracy in society. Weir argued that if women were given the right to vote, it would cause further “regression to the atavistic state” in civilization, which, he argued, included matriarchy ( “female government”), communism, “free love,” and homosexuality. He began his monograph, in typical Degeneracy Theory fashion, by describing the atavistic swamp from which modern society first arose:
In the very beginning woman was, by function, a mother; by virtue of her surroundings, a house-wife. Man was then as now, the active, dominant factor in those affairs outside the immediate pale of the fireside. Life was collective; “communal was the habitation, and communal the wives with the children; the men pursued the same prey, and devoured it together after the manlier of wolves; all felt, all thought, all acted in concert.” Primitive men were like their Simian ancestors which never paired, and which roamed through the forests in bands and troops. This collectivism is plainly noticeable in certain races of primitive folks which are yet in existence, notably the Autocthons of the Aleutian Islands. Huddled together in their communal Kachims, naked, without thought of immodesty, men, women and children share the same fire and eat from the-same pot.
Weir’s description of atavistic societies then became rather contradictory and confusing:
Frequent wars must have occurred between hostile tribes of primitive men, during which, some of them (physically or numerically weaker than their opponents) must have been repeatedly vanquished, and many of their females captured, for, in those old days (like those of more recent times, for that matter) the women were the prizes for which the men fought. Under circumstances like these, the few remaining women rmust have served as wives for all the men of the tribe; and, in this manner polyandry had its inception.
Under circumstances like these, the few remaining women rmust have served as wives for all the men of the tribe; and, in this manner polyandry had its inception. Polyandry gives woman certain privileges which monandry denies, and she is not slow to seize on these prerogatives and to use them in the furtherance of her own welfare. Polyandry, originating from any cause whatsoever, will always end in the establishment of a matriarchate, in which the women are either directly or indirectly at the head of the government.
Weir then ignored the vast preponderancy of male-dominated societies to find a few matriarchal ones (including, specifically, the Nair of India) which, he claimed, proved his point.
Weir then, somewhat abruptly, turned to the subject of genius — “retrogressive genius” in particular — which he said gave rise to feminism:
There are two kinds of genius; the first is progressive genius, which always enunciates new and original matter of material benefit to the human race and which is consequently healthy; the second is retrogressive genius, which is imitative and which always enunciates dead and obsolete matter long since abandoned and thrown aside as being utterly useless. The doctrines of communism and of nihilism are the products of retrogressive genius and are clearly atavistic, inasmuch as they are a reversion to the mental habitudes of our savage ancestors. The doctrines of the matriarchate are likewise degenerate beliefs, and if held by any civilized being of to-day, are in evidence of psychic atavism. Atavism invariably attacks the weak; and individuals of a neurasthenic type are more frequently its victims than are any other class of people. Especially is this true in the case of those who suffer from psychical atavism. The woman of to-day, who believes in and inculcates the doctrines of matriarchy, doctrines which have been, as far as the civilized world is concerned, thrown aside and abandoned these many hundred years, is as much the victim of psychic atavism as was Alice Mitchell who slew Freda Ward in Memphis several years ago [see Jan 25], and who was justly declared a viragint by the court that tried her.
This, of course, is where Weir touched on homosexuality and tied it to the feminist movement. The English language was still relatively bereft of easily understandable terms to describe homosexuality. The love that dare not speak its name was only just then acquiring its name in English when Weir wrote his monograph in 1895 (see May 6), and so the scandalous murder of Freda Ward by her lesbian lover stood in as the widely understood euphemism for lesbianism in particular, and somewhat tenuously, homosexuality in general. And it is here that Weir begins to tie it all together:
I think that I am perfectly safe in asserting that every woman who has been at all prominent in advancing the cause of equal rights in its entirety, has either given evidences of masculo-feminity (viraginity), or has shown, conclusively, that she was the victim of psycho-sexual aberrancy. Moreover, the histories of every viragint of any note in the history of the world, show that they were either physically or psychically degenerate, or both. Jeanne d’Arc was the victim of hystero-epilepsy, while Catharine the Great was a dipsomaniac and a creature of unbounded and inordinate sensuality.
…Viraginity has many phases. We see a mild form of it in the tom-boy who abandons her dolls and female companions for the marbles and masculine sports of her boy acquaintances. In the loud-talking, long-stepping, slang-using young woman we see another form, while the square-shouldered, stolid, cold, unemotional, unfeminine android (for she has the normal human form, without the normal human psychos) is yet another. The most aggravated form of viraginity is that known as homo-sexuality; with this form, however, this paper has nothing to do. Another form of viraginity is technically known as gynandry, and may be defined as follows: A victim of gynandry not only has the feelings and desires of a man, but also the skeletal form, features, voice, etc., so that the individual approaches the opposite sex anthropologically, and in more than a psycho-sexual way.
Even if feminists weren’t lesbians, they were, as far as Weir was concerned, only a few steps away from it, a prospect that he clearly didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about (“…with this form, however, this paper has nothing to do”). Weir had bigger things to worry about. Aside from lesbianism, equal rights for women would bring about all manner of degeneration — moral, psychical, and physical — due to the stresses of increased responsibility:
The effects of degeneration are slow in making their appearance, yet they are exceedingly certain. The longer woman lived amid surroundings calling for increased nervous expenditure, the greater would be the effects of the accruing degeneration on her posterity. …The inherited psychical habitudes handed down through hundreds and thousands of years would prevent the immediate destruction of that ethical purity for which woman is noted, and in the posession [sic] of which she stands so far above man. …(But) there would come a time when the morality of to-day would be utterly lost, and society would sink into some such state of existence as we now find en evidence among the Nairs….
The baneful effects resulting from female suffrage will not be seen tomorrow or next week, or week after next, or next month, or next year, or a hundred years hence, perhaps. It is not a question of our day and generation; it is a matter of involving posterity. The simple right to vote carries with it no immediate danger, the danger comes afterward; probably many years after the establishment of female suffrage, when woman, owing to her increased degeneration, gives free rein to her atavistic tendencies, and hurries ever backward toward the savage state of her barbarian ancestors. I see, in the establishment of equal rights, the first step toward that abyss of immoral horrors so repugnant to our cultivated ethical tastes — the matriarchate. Sunk as low as this, civilized man will sink still lower — to the communal Kachims of the Aleutian Islanders.
[Source: James Weir, Jr. “The effect of female suffrage on posterity.” The American Naturalist 29, no 345 (September 1895): 815-825. Full text available online at Archive.org.]
If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).
And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?
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Part 4: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word "Change" Changes
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