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In Defense of Women by H. L. Mencken

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no more apologize. than a man apologizes today.


The Lady of Joy

Even prostitution, in the long run, may become a more or less
respectable profession, as it was in the great days of the Greeks.
That quality will surely attach to it if ever it grows quite
unnecessary; whatever is unnecessary is always respectable, for
example, religion, fashionable clothing, and a knowledge of Latin
grammar. The prostitute is disesteemed today, not because her
trade involves anything intrinsically degrading or even disagreeable,
but because she is currently assumed to have been driven into it by
dire necessity, against her dignity and inclination. That this
assumption is usually unsound is no objection to it; nearly all the
thinking of the world, particularly in the field of morals, is based
upon unsound assumption, e.g., that God observes the fall of a
sparrow and is shocked by the fall of a Sunday-school
superintendent. The truth is that prostitution is one of the most
attractive of the occupations practically open to the sort of women
who engage in it, and that the prostitute commonly likes her work,
and would not exchange places with a shop-girl or a waitress
for anything in the world. The notion to the contrary is
propagated by unsuccessful prostitutes who fall into the hands of
professional reformers, and who assent to the imbecile theories of
the latter in order to cultivate their good will, just as convicts in
prison, questioned by tee-totalers, always ascribe their rascality to
alcohol. No prostitute of anything resembling normal intelligence is
under the slightest duress; she is perfectly free to abandon her trade
and go into a shop or factory or into domestic service whenever the
impulse strikes her; all the prevailing gabble about white slave jails
and kidnappers comes from pious rogues who make a living by
feeding such nonsense to the credulous. So long as the average
prostitute is able to make a good living, she is quite content with her
lot, and disposed to contrast it egotistically with the slavery of her
virtuous sisters. If she complains of it, then you may be sure that
her success is below her expectations. A starving lawyer always
sees injustice, in the courts. A bad physician is a bitter critic of
Ehrlich and Pasteur. And when a suburban clergyman is forced out
of his cure by a vestry-room revolution be almost invariably
concludes that the sinfulness of man is incurable, and
sometimes he even begins to doubt some of the typographical errors
in Holy Writ.

The high value set upon virginity by men, whose esteem of it is
based upon a mixture of vanity and voluptuousness, causes many
women to guard it in their own persons with a jealousy far beyond
their private inclinations and interests. It is their theory that the loss
of it would materially impair their chances of marriage. This theory
is not supported by the facts. The truth is that the woman who
sacrifices her chastity, everything else being equal, stands a much
better chance of making a creditable marriage than the woman who
remains chaste. This is especially true of women of the lower
economic classes. At once they come into contact, hitherto socially
difficult and sometimes almost impossible, with men of higher
classes, and begin to take on, with the curious facility of their sex,
the refinements and tastes and points of view of those classes. The
mistress thus gathers charm, and what has begun as a sordid sale of
amiability not uncommonly ends with formal marriage. The
number of such marriages is enormously greater than appears
superficially, for both parties obviously make every effort to
conceal the facts. Within the circle of my necessarily limited
personal acquaintance I know of scores of men, some of them of
wealth and position, who have made such marriages, and who do
not seem to regret it. It is an old observation, indeed, that a woman
who has previously dispose of her virtue makes a good wife. The
common theory is that this is because she is grateful to her husband
for rescuing her from social outlawry; the truth is that she makes a
good wife because she is a shrewd woman, and has specialized
professionally in masculine weakness, and is thus extra-competent at
the traditional business of her sex. Such a woman often shows a
truly magnificent sagacity. It is very difficult to deceive her
logically, and it is impossible to disarm her emotionally. Her revolt
against the pruderies and sentimentalities of the world was evidence,
to begin with, of her intellectual enterprise and courage, and her
success as a rebel is proof of her extraordinary pertinacity,
resourcefulness and acumen.

Even the most lowly prostitute is better off, in all worldly ways, than
the virtuous woman of her own station in life. She has less
work to do, it is less monotonous and dispiriting, she meets a far
greater variety of men, and they are of classes distinctly beyond her
own. Nor is her occupation hazardous and her ultimate fate tragic.
A dozen or more years ago I observed a some what amusing proof
of this last. At that time certain sentimental busybodies of the
American city in which I lived undertook an elaborate inquiry into
prostitution therein, and some of them came to me in advance, as a
practical journalist, for advice as to how to proceed. I found that all
of them shared the common superstition that the professional life of
the average prostitute is only five years long, and that she invariably
ends in the gutter. They were enormously amazed When they
unearthed the truth. This truth was to the effect that the average
prostitute of that town ended her career, not in the morgue but at
the altar of God, and that those who remained unmarried often
continued in practice for ten, fifteen and even twenty years, and
then retired on competences. It was established, indeed, that fully
eighty per cent married, and that they almost always got husbands
who would have been far beyond their reach had they
remained virtuous. For one who married a cabman or petty pugilist
there were a dozen who married respectable mechanics, policemen,
small shopkeepers and minor officials, and at least two or three who
married well-to-do tradesmen and professional men. Among the
thousands whose careers were studied there was actually one who
ended as the wife of the town's richest banker--that is, one who
bagged the best catch in the whole community. This woman had
begun as a domestic servant, and abandoned that harsh and dreary
life to enter a brothel. Her experiences there polished and civilized
her, and in her old age she was a grande dame of great dignity.
Much of the sympathy wasted upon women of the ancient
profession is grounded upon an error as to their own attitude toward
it. An educated woman, hearing that a frail sister in a public stew is
expected to be amiable to all sorts of bounders, thinks of how she
would shrink from such contacts, and so concludes that the actual
prostitute suffers acutely. What she overlooks is that these men,
however gross and repulsive they may appear to her, are measurably
superior to men of the prostitute's own class--say her father
and brothers--and that communion with them, far from being
disgusting, is often rather romantic. I well remember observing,
during my collaboration with the vice-crusaders aforesaid, the
delight of a lady of joy who had attracted the notice of a police
lieutenant; she was intensely pleased by the idea of having a client of
such haughty manners, such brilliant dress, and what seemed to her
to be so dignified a profession. It is always forgotten that this
weakness is not confined to prostitutes, but run through the whole
female sex. The woman who could not imagine an illicit affair with
a wealthy soap manufacturer or even with a lawyer finds it quite
easy to imagine herself succumbing to an ambassador or a duke.
There are very few exceptions to this rule. In the most reserved of
modern societies the women who represent their highest flower are
notoriously complaisant to royalty. And royal women, to complete
the circuit, not infrequently yield to actors and musicians, i.e., to
men radiating a glamour not encountered even in princes.


The Future of Marriage

The transvaluation of values that is now in progress will go on
slowly and for a very long while. That it will ever be quite complete
is, of course, impossible. There are inherent differences will
continue to show themselves until the end of time. As woman
gradually becomes convinced, not only of the possibility of
economic independence, but also of its value, she will probably lose
her present overmastering desire for marriage, and address herself to
meeting men in free economic competition. That is to say, she will
address herself to acquiring that practical competence, that high
talent for puerile and chiefly mechanical expertness, which now sets
man ahead of her in the labour market of the world. To do this she
will have to sacrifice some of her present intelligence; it is
impossible to imagine a genuinely intelligent human being becoming
a competent trial lawyer, or buttonhole worker, or newspaper
sub-editor, or piano tuner, or house painter. Women, to get upon
all fours with men in such stupid occupations, will have to commit
spiritual suicide, which is probably much further than they will ever
actually go. Thus a shade of their present superiority to men
will always remain, and with it a shade of their relative inefficiency,
and so marriage will remain attractive to them, or at all events to
most of them, and its overthrow will be prevented. To abolish it
entirely, as certain fevered reformers propose, would be as difficult
as to abolish the precession of the equinoxes.

At the present time women vacillate somewhat absurdly between
two schemes of life, the old and the new. On the one hand, their
economic independence is still full of conditions, and on the other
hand they are in revolt against the immemorial conventions. The
result is a general unrest, with many symptoms of extravagant and
unintelligent revolt. One of those symptoms is the appearance of
intellectual striving in women--not a striving, alas, toward the
genuine pearls and rubies of the mind, but one merely toward the
acquirement of the rubber stamps that men employ in their so-called
thinking. Thus we have women who launch themselves into party
politics, and fill their heads with a vast mass of useless knowledge
about political tricks, customs, theories and personalities. Thus, too,
we have the woman social reformer, trailing along ridiculously
behind a tatterdemalion posse of male utopians, each with
something to sell. And thus we have the woman who goes in for
advanced wisdom of the sort on draught in women's clubs--in brief,
the sort of wisdom which consists entirely of a body of beliefs and
propositions that are ignorant, unimportant and untrue. Such banal
striving is most prodigally on display in the United States, where
superficiality amounts to a national disease. Its popularity is due to
the relatively greater leisure of the American people, who work less
than any other people in the world, and, above all, to the relatively
greater leisure of American women. Thousands of them have been
emancipated from any compulsion to productive labour without
having acquired any compensatory intellectual or artistic interest or
social duty. The result is that they swarm in the women's clubs, and
waste their time, listening to bad poetry, worse music, and still
worse lectures on Maeterlinck, Balkan politics and the
subconscious. It is among such women that one observes the
periodic rages for Bergsonism, the Montessori method, the twilight
sleep and other such follies, so pathetically characteristic of
American culture.

One of the evil effects of this tendency I have hitherto descanted
upon, to wit, the growing disposition of American women to regard
all routine labour, particularly in the home, as infra dignitatem and
hence intolerable. Out of' that notion arise many lamentable
phenomena. On the one hand, we have the spectacle of a great
number of healthy and well-fed women engage in public activities
that, nine times out of ten, are meaningless, mischievous and a
nuisance, and on the other hand we behold such a decay in the
domestic arts that, at the first onslaught of the late war, the national
government had to import a foreign expert to teach the housewives
of the country the veriest elements of thrift. No such instruction
was needed by the housewives of the Continent. They were simply
told how much food they could have, and their natural competence
did the rest. There is never any avoidable waste there, either in
peace or in war. A French housewife has little use for a garbage
can, save as a depository for uplifting literature. She does her best
with the means at her disposal, not only in war time but at all times.

As I have said over and over again in this inquiry, a woman's
disinclination to acquire the intricate expertness that lies at the
bottom of good housekeeping is due primarily to her active
intelligence; it is difficult for her to concentrate her mind upon such
stupid and meticulous enterprises. But whether difficult or easy, it is
obviously important for the average woman to make some effort in
that direction, for if she fails to do so there is chaos. That chaos is
duly visible in the United States. Here women reveal one of their
subterranean qualities: their deficiency in conscientiousness. They
are quite without that dog-like fidelity to duty which is one of the
shining marks of men. They never summon up a high pride in
doing what is inherently disagreeable; they always go to the galleys
under protest, and with vows of sabotage; their fundamental
philosophy is almost that of the syndicalists. The sentimentality of
men connives at this, and is thus largely responsible for it. Before
the average puella, apprenticed in the kitchen, can pick up a fourth
of the culinary subtleties that are commonplace even to the chefs on
dining cars, she has caught aman and need concern herself about
them no more, for he has to eat, in the last analysis, whatever
she sets before him, and his lack of intelligence makes it easy for her
to shut off his academic criticisms by bald appeals to his emotions.
By an easy process he finally attaches a positive value to her
indolence. It is a proof, he concludes, of her fineness of soul. In
the presence of her lofty incompetence he is abashed.

But as women, gaining economic autonomy, meet men in
progressively bitterer competition, the rising masculine distrust and
fear of them will be reflected even in the enchanted domain of
marriage, and the husband, having yielded up most of his old rights,
will begin to reveal anew jealousy of those that remain, and
particularly of the right to a fair quid pro quo for his own docile
industry. In brief, as women shake off their ancient disabilities they
will also shake off some of their ancient immunities, and their
doings will come to be regarded with a soberer and more exigent
scrutiny than now prevails. The extension of the suffrage, I believe,
will encourage this awakening; in wresting it from the reluctant male
the women of the western world have planted dragons' teeth, the
which will presently leap up and gnaw them. Now that women
have the political power to obtain their just rights, they will begin to
lose their old power to obtain special privileges by sentimental
appeals. Men, facing them squarely, will consider them anew, not
as romantic political and social invalids, to be coddled and caressed,
but as free competitors in a harsh world. When that reconsideration
gets under way there will be a general overhauling of the relations
between the sexes, and some of the fair ones, I suspect, will begin to
wonder why they didn't let well enough alone.


Effects of the War

The present series of wars, it seems likely, will continue for twenty
or thirty years, and perhaps longer. That the first clash was
inconclusive was shown brilliantly by the preposterous nature of the
peace finally reached--a peace so artificial and dishonest that the
signing of it was almost equivalent to anew declaration of war. At
least three new contests in the grand manner are plainly insight--one
between Germany and France to rectify the unnatural tyranny of a
weak and incompetent nation over a strong and enterprising
nation, one between Japan and the United States for the mastery of
the Pacific, and one between England and the United States for the
control of the sea. To these must be added various minor struggles,
and perhaps one or two of almost major character: the effort of
Russia to regain her old unity and power, the effort of the Turks to
put down the slave rebellion (of Greeks, Armenians, Arabs,
etc.)which now menaces them, the effort of the Latin-Americans to
throw off the galling Yankee yoke, and the joint effort of Russia and
Germany (perhaps with England and Italy aiding) to get rid of such
international nuisances as the insane polish republic, the petty states
of the Baltic, and perhaps also most of the Balkan states. I pass
over the probability of a new mutiny in India, of the rising of China
against the Japanese, and of a general struggle for a new alignment
of boundaries in South America. All of these wars, great and small,
are probable; most of them are humanly certain. They will be
fought ferociously, and with the aid of destructive engines of the
utmost efficiency. They will bring about an unparalleled butchery of
men, and a large proportion of these men will be under forty
years of age.

As a result there will be a shortage of husbands in Christendom, and
as a second result the survivors will be appreciably harder to snare
than the men of today. Every man of agreeable exterior and easy
means will be pursued, not merely by a few dozen or score of
women, as now, but by whole battalions and brigades of them, and
he will be driven in sheer self-defence into very sharp bargaining.
Perhaps in the end the state will have to interfere in the business, to
prevent the potential husband going to waste in the turmoil of

Just what form this interference is likely to take has not yet appeared
clearly. In France there is already a wholesale legitimization of
children born out of wedlock and in Eastern Europe there has been
a clamour for the legalization of polygamy, but these devices do not
meet the main problem, which is the encouragement of monogamy
to the utmost. A plan that suggests itself is the amelioration of the
position of the monogamous husband, now rendered increasingly
uncomfortable by the laws of most Christian states. I do not think
that the more intelligent sort of women, faced by a perilous
shortage of men, would object seriously to that amelioration.
They must see plainly that the present system, if it is carried much
further, will begin to work powerfully against their best interests, if
only by greatly reinforcing the disinclination to marriage that already
exists among the better sort of men. The woman of true discretion,
I am convinced, would much rather marry a superior man, even on
unfavourable terms, than make John Smith her husband, serf and
prisoner at one stroke.

The law must eventually recognize this fact and make provision for
it. The average husband, perhaps, deserves little succour. The
woman who pursues and marries him, though she may be moved by
selfish aims, should be properly rewarded by the state for her
service to it--a service surely not to be lightly estimated in a military
age. And that reward may conveniently take the form, as in the
United States, of statutes giving her title to a large share of his real
property and requiring him to surrender most of his income to her,
and releasing her from all obedience to him and from all obligation
to keep his house in order. But the woman who aspires to
higher game should be quite willing, it seems to me, to resign some
of these advantages in compensation for the greater honour and
satisfaction of being wife to a man of merit, and mother to his
children. All that is needed is laws allowing her, if she will, to
resign her right of dower, her right to maintenance and her
immunity from discipline, and to make any other terms that she may
be led to regard as equitable. At present women are unable to make
most of these concessions even if they would: the laws of the
majority of western nations are inflexible. If, for example, an
Englishwoman should agree, by an ante-nuptial contract, to submit
herself to the discipline, not of the current statutes, but of the elder
common law, which allowed a husband to correct his wife
corporally with a stick no thicker than his thumb, it would be
competent for any sentimental neighbour to set the agreement at
naught by haling her husband before a magistrate for carrying it out,
and it is a safe wager that the magistrate would jail him.

This plan, however novel it may seem, is actually already in
operation. Many a married woman, in order to keep her
husband from revolt, makes more or less disguised surrenders of
certain of the rights and immunities that she has under existing laws.
There are, for example, even in America, women who practise the
domestic arts with competence and diligence, despite the plain fact
that no legal penalty would be visited upon them if they failed to do
so. There are women who follow external trades and professions,
contributing a share to the family exchequer. There are women
who obey their husbands, even against their best judgments. There
are, most numerous of all, women who wink discreetly at husbandly
departures, overt or in mere intent, from the oath of chemical purity
taken at the altar. It is a commonplace, indeed, that many happy
marriages admit a party of the third part. There would be more of
them if there were more women with enough serenity of mind to see
the practical advantage of the arrangement. The trouble with such
triangulations is not primarily that they involve perjury or that they
offer any fundamental offence to the wife; if she avoids banal
theatricals, in fact, they commonly have the effect of augmenting
the husband's devotion to her and respect for her, if only as the
fruit of comparison. The trouble with them is that very few men
among us have sense enough to manage them intelligently. The
masculine mind is readily taken in by specious values; the average
married man of Protestant Christendom, if he succumbs at all,
succumbs to some meretricious and flamboyant creature, bent only
upon fleecing him. Here is where the harsh realism of the
Frenchman shows its superiority to the sentimentality of the men of
the Teutonic races. A Frenchman would no more think of taking a
mistress without consulting his wife than he would think of standing
for office without consulting his wife. The result is that he is
seldom victimized. For one Frenchman ruined by women there are
at least a hundred Englishmen and Americans, despite the fact that a
hundred times as many Frenchmen engage in that sort of recreation.
The case of Zola is typical. As is well known, his amours were
carefully supervised by Mme. Zola from the first days of their
marriage, and inconsequence his life was wholly free from scandals
and his mind was never distracted from his work.


The Eternal Romance

But whatever the future of monogamous marriage, there will never
be any decay of that agreeable adventurousness which now lies at
the bottom of all transactions between the sexes. Women may
emancipate themselves, they may borrow the whole bag of
masculine tricks, and they may cure themselves of their present
desire for the vegetable security of marriage, but they will never
cease to be women, and so long as they are women they will remain
provocative to men. Their chief charm today lies precisely in the
fact that they are dangerous, that they threaten masculine liberty and
autonomy, that their sharp minds present a menace vastly greater
than that of acts of God and the public enemy--and they will be
dangerous for ever. Men fear them, and are fascinated by them.
They know how to show their teeth charmingly; the more
enlightened of them have perfected a superb technique of
fascination. It was Nietzsche who called them the recreation of the
warrior--not of the poltroon, remember, but of the warrior. A
profound saying. They have an infinite capacity for rewarding
masculine industry and enterprise with small and irresistible
flatteries; their acute understanding combines with their capacity for
evoking ideas of beauty to make them incomparable companions
when the serious business of the day is done, and the time has come
to expand comfortably in the interstellar ether.

Every man, I daresay, has his own notion of what constitutes perfect
peace and contentment, but all of those notions, despite the
fundamental conflict of the sexes, revolve around women. As for
me--and I hope I may be pardoned, at this late stage in my inquiry,
for intruding my own personality--I reject the two commonest of
them: passion, at least in its more adventurous and melodramatic
aspects, is too exciting and alarming for so indolent a man, and I am
too egoistic to have much desire to be mothered. What, then,
remains for me? Let me try to describe it to you.

It is the close of a busy and vexatious day--say half past five or six
o'clock of a winter afternoon. I have had a cocktail or two, and am
stretched out on a divan in front of a fire, smoking. At the edge of
the divan, close enough for me to reach her with my hand, sits
a woman not too young, but still good-looking and
well-dressed--above all, a woman with a soft, low-pitched, agreeable
voice. As I snooze she talks--of anything, everything, all the things
that women talk of: books, music, the play, men, other women. No
politics. No business. No religion. No metaphysics. Nothing
challenging and vexatious--but remember, she is intelligent; what
she says is clearly expressed, and often picturesquely. I observe the
fine sheen of her hair, the pretty cut of her frock, the glint of her
white teeth, the arch of her eye-brow, the graceful curve of her arm.
I listen to the exquisite murmur of her voice. Gradually I fall
asleep--but only for an instant. At once, observing it, she raises her
voice ever so little, and I am awake. Then to sleep again--slowly
and charmingly down that slippery hill of dreams. And then awake
again, and then asleep again, and so on.

I ask you seriously: could anything be more unutterably beautiful?
The sensation of falling asleep is to me The most exquisite in the
world. I delight in it so much that I even look forward to death itself
with a sneaking wonder and desire. Well, here is sleep poetized and
made doubly sweet. Here is sleep set to the finest music in the
world. I match this situation against any that you ran think of. It is
not only enchanting; it is also, in a very true sense, ennobling. In
the end, when the girl grows prettily miffed and throws me out, I
return to my sorrows somehow purged and glorified. I am a better
man in my own sight. I have grazed upon the fields of asphodel. I
have been genuinely, completely and unregrettably happy.


Apologia in Conclusion

At the end I crave the indulgence of the cultured reader for the
imperfections necessarily visible in all that I have here set
down--imperfections not only due to incomplete information and
fallible logic, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to certain
fundamental weaknesses of the sex to which I have the honour to
belong. A man is inseparable from his congenital vanities and
stupidities, as a dog is inseparable from its fleas. They reveal
themselves in everything he says and does, but they reveal
themselves most of all when he discusses the majestic mystery
of woman. Just as he smirks and rolls his eyes in her actual
presence, so he puts on apathetic and unescapable clownishness
when he essays to dissect her in the privacy of the laboratory.
There is no book on woman by a man that is not a stupendous
compendium of posturings and imbecilities. There are but two
books that show even a superficial desire to be honest--"The
Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage," by Sir Almroth
Wright, and this one. Wright made a gallant attempt to tell the
truth, but before he got half way through his task his ineradicable
donkeyishness as a male overcame his scientific frenzy as a
psychologist, and so he hastily washed his hands of the business,
and affronted the judicious with a half baked and preposterous
book. Perhaps I have failed too, and even more ingloriously. If so,
I am full of sincere and indescribable regret.

Book of the day: