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Ch. 15: Social Parentage

The mother does her duty by her children as best she can. The father does his duty by his children. But we do not do our duty by our children. The relation of the State to the child is little thought of, much less understood. We have discussed it only as an alternative to the parental relation, involving the removal of the child from the home and family, and the substitution of civic for domestic care. Such a proposal naturally excites the hot opposition of parental love and instinct, and cannot stand. It has been tried more or less thoroughly, as in Sparta, but does not appeal to the human heart or head, and is not in the least what is here under discussion. The true relation of the State to the child includes the parental relation, and in no way controverts the love and instinct of those invaluable public functionaries.

It is not necessary, or in any way desirable, for the State to remove the child from the parent. Parents are evolved for the purpose of rearing children, and possess highly specialised and urgent impulses in that direction,—far too useful forces to be ignored.

But the civilised human parent lives as part of an elaborate society,—a State; and, as a member of the State, he holds a new relation to his child—she holds a new relation to her child: they—and they are the State—hold a new relation to their children. This is what we so generally ignore.

The individual parents do their individual duty fairly well; but the collective parents, who constitute society, fail shamefully in their collective duties. What is a society? It is an organisation of human beings, alive, complex, exquisitely developed in co-ordinate inter-service. What is it for? It is for development, growth, progress, like any other living thing. How does a society improve? By combinations of individuals evolving social processes which react favourably upon the individual constituents, and develope in them better social faculties. For instance, early combinations of individuals evolve low forms of legal protection for the citizens of the early State. Under those protective enactments, citizens grow up in comparative peace, and become capable of enacting further and superior laws.

In recent and particular instance, our American forefathers established a system of public education under which many citizens were developed to a degree of intelligence sufficient to see the need and the means of extending and improving that education. Education is a social process, impossible—in any human degree—among detached individuals.

The education of children is a distinctly social process. Much of it may be carried on by the parents, but it is for social improvement and as a member of society that they do this. Here is where our parents, who constitute society, fail to see the nature and extent of their work. They have an exaggerated idea of "parental responsibility" to the child, and no idea at all of social responsibility to the child. That social development which has enlarged the mind and soul of the beast-savage to our present capacity for love and service we still imagine to be purely parental, and endeavour to concentrate it all on our own children, failing utterly in our duty to each other's children.

No such gross error can work good results. This disproportionate concentration of feeling on the individual child, and neglect of the child in general, produces a world full of people with a congested family life, full of morbid sensitiveness and potential difficulty and suffering, and a weak, anĉmic social life, full of mutual neglect and dereliction of duty.

The well-known illustration of education can be used again still farther to show this. Suppose a small community, wherein the parents are all very anxious for the education of their own children and profoundly indifferent to the education of anybody's else children. Suppose these parents all labour religiously to buy books, pictures, statues, music, and to have the best of tutors for their own children.

It can be seen without much mathematical effort how inferior would be the supplies purchasable by the individual parent's funds compared to those purchasable by their collective funds. Separately, they could not compass a good teacher to each family, nor good pictures, nor many books and instruments, nor any statuary and music to speak of. Collectively and for less money, they could have all these things in far higher degree of excellence.

It is social parentage, such as we have, which gives us the school as we have it. It is the weakness and irresponsibility of our social parentage which leaves the school as it is, and fails to push on to something far fuller and better. What thought, what care, what service, does the average mother give to other people's children? None. She does not imagine it to be her duty. She imagines that her duty lies only toward her own children, and that it is no faintest fault of hers if other children suffer. If she sees little ones visibly neglected and injured, she merely blames their individual parents, and gives no further thought to the matter.

Now, once for all, what is the advantage of living in a society instead of living alone? It is that we do not have to spend all our time and strength in very imperfectly taking care of ourselves, as the separate individual would be obliged to do, but are more and more perfectly taken care of by one another. We all share in the advantages of living together,—the protection not only of numbers, but of our specialised defenders, civil and military; the vast accumulations of knowledge and skill acquired by many and transmitted to all; the increasing measure of mutual love, in which we thrive and grow. The more perfectly a society can distribute these advantages to all its citizens, the more swiftly and healthfully does it advance and improve.

Public peace and safety, public justice, public education, the public hall, the public road, the public library and gallery and museum and bath,—these are what react so favourably upon the individual, and make better homes and citizens. The father is, to some extent, awake to the duties of social parentage; the mother, hardly at all. The difference is this: the father serves his children by means of serving other people; the mother serves her children personally, with her own hands. Suppose a number of families (we cannot call it a community, because it would not be one), wherein the fathers endeavoured to serve their children personally with their own hands only, each man building, weaving, farming, fishing, blacksmithing, making dishes and tools and instruments, and trying in all ways to meet the family needs himself personally.

It will readily be seen how little the families of these men would have. The time, strength, and skill of one man do not go far, if he tries to do all things himself. Why do women imagine that their time, strength, and skill severally will serve better than in combination? Why are they content to give their children only what they can do themselves alone, thus depriving them of the rich possibilities of civilised motherhood, combined, collective, mutually helpful?

The term "city fathers," and its painful lack of companionship in city mothers, shows the wide gulf between the development of social parentage in men and women. The accidents to little children from electric and cable cars are pitifully numerous. What mother has taken any steps to prevent these accidents? Individually, each tries to protect her own, as does the animal or savage. Collectively, they do nothing; yet it is the lack of this collective motherhood which makes our cities so unsafe for children. The idea that, if each takes care of her own, all will be cared for, is as false for women as it is for men. If each man took care of his own, and not of the others, we should have no soldiers, no policemen, no government, no society, only that social chaos called anarchy.

Social health and progress demand collective action, the largest mutuality, the care and service of all, which is the only guarantee of safety and prosperity to each. Our fatherhood is to a considerable degree socialised. Our motherhood is flatly anarchistic, refusing all co-ordination.

An earnest—hotly earnest—woman once disputed this suggestion of mutual service in motherhood, thus: "When I make the bed for my child, I put some of my personality between the sheets. My child sleeps better if I make his bed for him." I gazed at her calmly.

"Does your child walk better if you make his shoes for him?" I asked.

It is a pretty sentiment that the mother's love in some mysterious way makes all she does for the child superior to what another could do. But apply the test of fact. Can she, with all her love, make as good a shoe as the shoemaker? as good a hair-brush, tooth-brush, tumbler, teacup, pie-plate, spoon, fork, or knife, as the professional manufacturers of these things? Does mother-love teach her to be a good barber? Can she cut her darling's hair so as to make him happy? Can she make a good chair or table or book or window? How silly it is to imagine that this "personality" inserted between the sheets makes the bed more conducive to healthy sleep than any other clean, well-aired, well-made bed!

Let the mother put the child to bed by all means, if she wishes. In the last sweet words and the good-night kiss is truly the place for personality. That is a mother's place, and not a tradesman's. But there is no more need for maternal personality between the sheets of a bed than between the leaves of a book or the bricks of a wall.

In our narrow-mindedness we have assumed that to care for any other children would mean to neglect our own. As if the human heart, the mother-heart, could love but one or six, and not more! As a matter of fact, we neglect our own by not caring for others. That is, we fail to take those general measures for the protection and development of all children which would so greatly benefit our particular children. Only to-day, at last, we see in some few advanced communities the mothers' club and congress, the women's civic associations, and other forms of union for the improvement of social conditions, all helping to enlarge the application of mother-love, and set that great force free to bring on the better day for children. These clubs and societies are jeered at by the majority of mothers, who proudly say that they are too busy taking care of their children to go to a mothers' congress and learn how.

Imagine, again, a majority of men, each saying he was too busy teaching his children to go to a school meeting and plan for the education of them all! It is not a shifting of duty that is required,—to cease to take care of one's own in order to take care of others instead. So ingrained are our primitive habits, so unable are we to conceive of anything but the one-woman method, that our only idea of change is a simple exchange of responsibility. It is not exchanging that is needed, but an enlarging, an embracing of the less in the greater.

The mothers of the world are responsible for the children of the world; the mothers of a nation, for the children of a nation; the mothers of a city, for the children of a city. We may ignore and deny this claim; but it is there none the less, and, because we do not do our duty as social parents, a corrupt society injures our children continually. The diseases of other children infect ours. What have the mothers ever done to prevent these diseases? They nurse their own sick little ones religiously, and bury them with tears; but what do they do before or after to learn the cause and prevention of these "family afflictions," to spread their information, and enforce measures to put a stop to them? The bad habits of other children affect ours,—their ignorance, their ill manners, their sins. Our children suffer individually from bad social conditions, but cannot be saved individually.

When the Philadelphia water supply is so foul as to poison young and old, mothers are responsible for not doing their share to make the city water fit for their families to drink. It is not a private filter on a private faucet that will do it, but public purity in the public works.

In Boston in 1899 the Society of Collegiate Alumnĉ exposed a disgracefully insanitary condition in the public schools,—undisturbed filth in cellar and vault, unwashed floors, a slovenly neglect of the commonest sanitary decency worthy of an Oriental slum. Any mother in Boston would have been filled with shame to have such an exposure of her own private housekeeping. There is room for shame at this exposure of their public housekeeping, school-house-keeping, city-keeping.

Like an ostrich with his head in the sand, the mother shuts herself up in the home and imagines that she is safe and hidden, acting as if "the home" was isolated in space. That the home is not isolated we are made painfully conscious through its material connections,—gas-pipes, water-pipes, sewer-pipes, and electric wires,—all serving us well or ill according to their general management. Milk, food, clothing, and all supplies brought in bring health or disease according to their general management. The mere physical comfort of the home needs collective action, to say nothing of the psychic connection in which we all live, and where none is safe and clean till all are safe and clean.

How far does the duty of the State extend, and how much should be left to individual responsibility? This is the working point to which this discussion tends. A more serious sociological question could hardly be propounded.

Seeing that progress is the law of nature, that the human race is under pressure of every force—conscious and unconscious—to go on, to improve, to grow better, and that we, as social beings, move forward through social improvement, the main weight of care seems to rest on society rather than the individual. It is astonishing to see how far this has gone already. Whereas once the beast father and mother were the only ones to protect or serve the young, now society does far more for the child than the parents. The father does more than the mother, and that by means of his social relation. He provides for his child by being a carpenter, lawyer, mason, or other social functionary. In this social relation he is able to provide for it the comfort and safety of a modern society. Out of that relation he would be able to provide for it only with his bare hands alone, and less competent than the hardy savage.

We need not be alarmed at some new overtures on the part of society, if we but look at what society is doing now. That we do not think of this is due to our tradition that we "take care of ourselves." We do not. No civilised man "takes care of himself." We take care of each other. But, granting this to some degree, we have heretofore supposed that the benefits of civilisation belonged only to adults,—for that matter only to adult males!—and were to be distributed to children through the individual parent. Thus, if the parent was inferior, the child was expected not only to inherit his inferiority, but to suffer from it always through inferior maintenance, breeding, and education.

The gradual reaching out of society to protect and care for the child is one of the most interesting lines of historic development. The parent had power to kill a child. The State denied the right, and protected the child against the parent. The parent had power to sell the child. The State denied that. The parent might cast off and neglect the child. The State compels him to maintain it, if he can; and, if not, the State supports the child. The parent might teach the child, have it taught, or leave it untaught. Now the State orders that the child must be taught, either at home or at school, and furnishes the school free. So far the line of advance has been from absolute parental control to a steadily enlarging State control, from absolute parental support to more and more of State support. The question of more or less in present details may be debated indefinitely to no conclusion. The principle is what we should study.

The condition of childhood in our human sense, the long period of immaturity, is a social condition. As we advance in social relation, becoming more and more highly specialised, the gulf between infancy and maturity increases. The young animal and the adult animal are far more alike than a Gladstone and his baby.

It does not take very long to mature the group of faculties required for maintaining individual life. It does take long to mature the group of faculties required to maintain social life. To rear a man—i.e., an adult male of genus homo—is no very difficult task. It is accomplished by Bushmen, Hottentots, Eskimo, every living kind of human creature. To rear a physician, an engineer, a chemist,—this takes longer. Incidentally, this is one reason why a girl's "majority" is placed at eighteen, a boy's at twenty-one. She is supposed to need only individual maturity,—physical maturity. He is supposed to take more time to become a man because he is a member of society, and so has to learn more things. It is not a question of adolescence, of physiological change. The boy of eighteen could be a father as well as the girl a mother; but he is not as well able to take his social position, to serve mankind in his craft, art, trade, or profession. Note here the early maturity and marriage of the less developed grades of society, filling those simpler social functions which require less specialisation, and the proportionate postponement of this period in the more highly specialised. Our long period of immaturity is a social condition, and not an individual one. That we may reach the full growth needed in the advanced member of society, we must be minors longer than would be necessary if we were not members of society. The exceeding childishness of the civilised child is also a social condition.

The nearer we are to the animals, the more capable and bright the very little ones. In the South it was common to set a little black child to take care of an older white one: the pickaninny matures much more rapidly. So, again, in our own lower social grades the little children of the poor are sharper, better able to care for themselves, than children of the same age in more developed classes. It is no proof of greater intelligence in the adult. It is retrogression,—a mark of bad social conditions.

Civilised society is responsible for civilised childhood, and should meet its responsibilities. The sweet confidence of a modern child, as compared to the alert suspicion of a baby savage, shows what ages of social safe-guarding have done. In the beautiful union of our civilised growth, even so far, we have made possible the Child; and it is for us still further to protect and develope this most exquisite social product,—this greatest social hope and power. Society's relation to the child is impersonal. It is not limited by parenthood. The parental relation is lower, more limited. Parentally, we care only for our own: socially, we care for all. Parentally, we are animals: socially, we learn to love one another. We become, approximately, Christians.

Christianity is a social condition. In our present degree of social progress, we produce by our specialised co-ordinate activities that safe and comfortable material environment, those comparatively developed virtues which we call "civilisation." But, in applying this common product to the advancement of the child,—which is our best and quickest way to incorporate progress in the race itself,—we allow the incapacity of the individual parent to limit the child's advantages. We deny to the child the conditions necessary to his best development, unless his particular father is able to provide them. Our theory here is that the father would not work so hard if the State provided for his child; some thinkers combating even the public school and public library on this ground. This is an outworn economic fallacy. The inferior father cannot work beyond a certain grade because he has not the capacity; and, if the child has only the advantages the inferior father can provide for him, he grows up to be another inferior father and low-grade worker. The most deadly result of this foolish neglect of the young citizen is seen in the ensuing action of the biological law, "Reproduction is in inverse proportion to specialisation." Because we leave the child to grow up unspecialised, untrained, save for the puny efforts of his single low-grade parent, therefore he, in turn, helps fill the world with very numerous and very inferior progeny.

We are hampered by the rapid reproduction of the very lowest classes of society, weighted down by their defects and limitations, forced to wait—the most advanced of us—for the great rear-guard of the population. We must wait because a society is alive, and includes all its members. It cannot outstrip its own inferior parts, however neglected and behindhand they may be. And their numbers—numbers resultant from their low condition—complicate the problem hopelessly. That is, hopelessly on this old fallacious notion that the child can have no help from all the strong, rich world, save what his father and mother can filter through their personal limitations. We are beginning to change this by our efforts at free public education. We shall change it more and more as we grow consciously awake to our true social responsibility to the child.

We cannot afford to have one citizen grow up below the standards of common comfort, health, and general education. To the scared cry, "But, if you take the responsibility off these people, they will simply flood the world with wretched babies!" comes the answer of natural law, "Improve the individual, and you check this crude fecundity." It is because they are neglected and inferior that they have so many children. Make higher-class people of the children, and you check this constant influx of low-grade life, and gradually introduce a better-born population.

When the wise, beneficent parental love of Human Society for its young really does its duty, tenderly removing obstructions from the path of all our little ones, we shall give to them those common human advantages without which they cannot grow to the happiness which is their right, the usefulness which is their duty. All parents who are able to do more for their children would be free to do so, as those who can afford private schools, or educate their little ones at home, are not compelled to send them to the public schools.

As now society provides the school for the young citizen, on the ground of public advantage, without regard to the inability of the parent, so we must learn to provide a far richer and more complete education, and all else that the parent falls short in, because it is necessary for the good of society, and because we love our children.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman