Our Better Halves (1888)

Lester Frank Ward delivered this his first major essay on Gynæcocentrism Theory in 1888, entitled Our Better Halves. The speech was delivered at the Fourteenth Dinner of the Six O’clock Club in Washington on April 26, 1888, at Willard’s Hotel, where Sex Equality was selected as the evening’s topic. Distinguished women in Washington on that day were invited to the Club, among them being Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Miss Phoebe Couzins, Mrs. Croly (Jennie June), Mrs. N. P. Willis, and a number of others equally well known. – PW


But let us now inquire what grounds there are for accepting this mental and physical inferiority of women as something inherent in the nature of things. Is it really true that the larger part taken by the female in the work of reproduction necessarily impairs her strength, dwarfs her proportions, and renders her a physically inferior and dependent being? In most human races it may be admitted that women are less stalwart than men, although all the stories of Amazonian tribes are not mere fictions. It is also true, as has been insisted upon, that the males of most mammals and birds exceed the females in size and strength, and often differ from them greatly in appearance.

But this is by no means always the case. The fable of the hedgehog that won the race with the hare by cunningly stationing Mrs. Hedgehog at the other end of the course, instructed to claim the stakes, is founded upon an exception which has many parallels. Among birds there are cases in which the rule is reversed. There are some entire families, as for example the hawks, in which the females exceed the males. If we go further down the scale, however, we find this attribute of male superiority to disappear almost entirely throughout the reptiles and amphibians, with a decided leaning toward female supremacy; and in the fishes, where male rivalry does not exist, the female, as every fisherman knows, is almost invariably the heavier game.

But it is not until we go below the vertebrate series and contemplate the invertebrate and vegetable worlds that we really begin to find the data for a philosophical study of the meaning of sex. It has been frequently remarked that the laws governing the higher forms of life can be rightly comprehended only by an acquaintance with the lower and more formative types of being. In no problem is this more true than in that of sex.

In studying this problem it is found that there is a great world of life that wholly antedates the appearance of sex—the world of asexual life—nor is the passage from the sexless to the distinctly male and female definite and abrupt. Between them occur parthenogenesis or virgin reproduction, hermaphroditism, in which the male being consists simply of an organ, and parasitic males, of which we shall presently speak, while the other devices of nature for perpetuating life are innumerable and infinitely varied. But so far as sex can be predicated of these beings, they must all be regarded as female. The asexual parent must be contemplated as, to all intents and purposes, maternal. The parthenogenetic aphis or shrimp is in all essential respects a mother. The hermaphrodite creature, whatever else it may be, is also necessarily a female. Following these states come the numberless cases in which the female form continues to constitute the type of life, the insignificant male appearing to be a mere afterthought.

The vegetable kingdom, except in its very lowest stages, affords comparatively few pointed illustrations of this truth. The strange behavior of the hemp plant, in which, as has long been known, the female plants crowd out the male plants by overshadowing them as soon as they have been fertilized by the latter, used to be frequently commented upon as a perverse anomaly in nature. Now it is correctly interpreted as an expression of the general law that the primary purpose of the male sex is to enable the female, or type form, to reproduce, after performing which function the male form is useless and a mere cumberer of the ground. But the hemp plant is by no means alone in possessing this peculiarity.

I could enumerate several pretty well known species that have a somewhat similar habit. I will mention only one, the common cud-weed, or everlasting ( Antennaria plantaginifolia ), which, unlike the hemp, has colonies of males separate from the females, and these male plants are small and short-lived. Long after their flowering stalks have disappeared the female plants continue to grow, and they become large and thrifty herbs lasting until frost.

In the animal kingdom below the vertebrates female superiority is well-nigh universal. In the few cases where it does not occur it is generally found that the males combat each other, after the manner of the higher animals, for the possession of the females. The cases that I shall name are such as all are familiar with. The only new thing in their presentation is their application to the point at issue.

The superiority of the queen bee over the drone is only a well-known illustration of a condition which, with the usual variations and exceptions, is common to a great natural order of insects. The only mosquito that the unscientific world knows is the female mosquito. The male mosquito is a frail and harmless little creature that swarms with the females in the early season and passes away when his work is done.

There are many insects of which the males possess no organs of nutrition in the imago state, their duties during their ephemeral existence being confined to what the Germans call the Minnedienst.1 Such is the life of many male moths and butterflies. But much greater inequalities are often found. I should, perhaps, apologize for citing the familiar case of spiders, in some species of which the miniature lover is often seized and devoured during his courtship by the gigantic object of his affections. Something similar, I learn, sometimes occurs with the mantis or “praying insect.”

Merely mentioning the extreme case of Sphaerularia, in which the female is several thousand times as large as the male, I may surely be permitted to introduce the barnacle, since it is one of the creatures upon which Prof. Brooks lays considerable stress in the article to which I have referred. Not being myself a zoologist, I am only too happy to quote him. He says:

Among the barnacles there are a few species the males and females of which differ remarkably. The female is an ordinary barnacle, with all the peculiarities of the group fully developed, while the male is a small parasite upon the body of the female, and is so different from the female of its own species, and from all ordinary barnacles, that no one would ever recognize in the adult male any affinity whatever to its closest allies.

The barnacle, or cirripede, is the creature which Mr. Darwin so long studied, and from which he learned so many lessons leading up to his grand generalizations. In a letter to Sir Charles Lyell, dated September 14, 1849, he recounts some of his discoveries while engaged in this study. Having learned that most cirripedes, but not all, were hermaphrodite, he remarks:

The other day I got a curious case of a unisexual instead of hermaphrodite cirripede, in which the female had the common cirripedial character, and in two valves of her shell had two little pockets in each of which she kept a little husband. I do not know of any other case where a female invariably has two husbands. I have one still odder fact, common to several species, namely, that though they are hermaphrodite, they have small additional, or, as I call them, complemental males. One specimen, itself hermaphrodite, had no less than seven of these complemental males attached to it.

Prof. Brooks brings forward facts of this class to demonstrate that the male is the variable sex, while the female is comparatively stable. However much we may doubt his further conclusion that variability rather than supplementary procreative power was the primary purpose of the separate male principle, we must, it would seem, concede that variability and adaptability are the distinguishing characteristics of the male sex everywhere, as the transmitting power and permanence of type are those of the female. But this is a very different thing from saying that the female sex is incapable of progress, or that man is destined to develop indefinitely, leaving woman constantly farther and farther in the rear. Does the class of philosophers to which reference has been made look forward to a time when woman shall become as insignificant an object compared to man as the male spider is compared to the female? This would be the logical outcome of their argument if based upon the relative variability of the male sex.

We have now seen that, whether we contemplate the higher animals, among which male superiority prevails, or the lower forms, among which female superiority prevails, the argument from biology that the existing relations between the sexes in the human race are precisely what nature intended them to be, that they ought not to be disturbed and cannot be improved, leads, when carried to its logical conclusion, to a palpable absurdity. But have we, then, profited nothing by the thoughtful contemplation of the subject from these two points of view?

Those who rightly interpret the facts cannot avoid learning a most important lesson from each of these lines of inquiry. From the first the truth comes clearly forth that the relations of the sexes among the higher animals are widely abnormal, warped, and strained by a long line of curious influences, chiefly psychic, which are incident to the development of animal organisms under the competitive principle that prevails throughout nature. From the second comes now into full view the still more important truth with which we first set out, that the female sex is primary in point both of origin and of importance in the history and economy of organic life. And as life is the highest product of nature and human life the highest type of life, it follows that the grandest fact in nature is woman.

But we have learned even more than this, that which is certainly of more practical value. We have learned how to carry forward the progress of development so far advanced by the unconscious agencies of nature. Accepting evolution as we must, recognizing heredity as the distinctive attribute of the female sex, it becomes clear that it must be from the steady advance of woman rather than from the uncertain fluctuations of man that the sure and solid progress of the future is to come. The attempt to move the whole race forward by elevating only the sex that represents the principle of instability, has long enough been tried. The many cases of superior men the sons of superior mothers, coupled with the many more cases of degenerate sons of superior sires, have taught us over and over again that the way to civilize the race is to civilize woman. And now, thanks to science, we see why this is so.

Woman is the unchanging trunk of the great genealogic tree; while man, with all his vaunted superiority, is but a branch, a grafted scion, as it were, whose acquired qualities die with the individual, while those of woman are handed on to futurity. Woman is the race, and the race can be raised up only as she is raised up. There is no fixed rule by which Nature has intended that one sex should excel the other, any more than there is any fixed point beyond which either cannot further develop. Nature has no intentions, and evolution has no limits. True science teaches that the elevation of woman is the only sure road to the evolution of man.


[1] Service of love.