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7 September 2022updated 30 Mar 2023 11:54am

From the NS archive: Sex wars

19 October 1929: Our newspapers are full of sex wars, sex repressions, sex this and sex that.

By Y Y

We might be relieved to hear that, despite centuries of struggle, the writer who signed this piece YY solved the dispute between the sexes in 1929. Here YY proposes we look to nature, where male animals tend to be more violent towards other males than females: “A cock will pursue another cock with hatred, but he is a model of courtesy to the hens.” Surely, human males exhibit the same behaviour? And if a man does react with less chivalry than a chicken he is, of course, not to blame. “Man has more to forgive than any of the other male animals” and should he “have his moods of resentment” it is because no creature’s Garden (or should I say farmyard) of Eden has ever been lost “through feminine foolishness”. Rather, if there is the belief that men are hostile to women, it is only an assumption “of a few feminists”.

There has never been an age in the past history of the world that talked so much about sex and the sexes as the present one. Men have always talked, and often talked critically about women, since Adam was misled in the Garden of Eden. Women have often spoken ill of men but not more often than they have spoken ill of women. But I am sure the word “sex” is used a hundred times today for every time it was used a hundred years ago. Our newspapers are full of sex wars, sex repressions, sex this and sex that. Psychologists can explain to you everything a poet or novelist writes in terms of sex: even poems about horses and machinery are interpreted in this fashion. You would imagine that the present age had discovered sex for the first time and that the division of humanity into male and female was something unknown even as recently as the age of Victoria. Yet, of all the generalisations that are made from day to day about sex and the sexes, it is doubtful if there is one in a thousand that is not either a commonplace or nonsense.

The Bishop of Manchester, I see, is alarmed lest all this talk about sex may “end in something of the nature of a conflict between man and woman”. He believes that there is a danger “lest they should give the younger generation the idea that married life was a long conflict, or, as has been jeeringly remarked, that permanent marriage was a ‘fight to a finish’”. Some other people are equally perturbed by the prospect of a sex war as a result of women’s competition with men for a livelihood. There are even alarmists who go so far as to picture a world in which, as a result of women’s possession of the vote, all the women will vote one side against all men, and, being in a majority, will win. This theory is evidence of an extraordinary belief in the fundamental hostility of men and women – a hostility which Nature, for her own purposes, has made quite impossible.

[see also: Stefan Golaszewski’s Marriage is a stone-cold masterpiece]

That men are hostile to women is an assumption of a few feminists, but not one man in a hundred thousand is conscious of such hostility. And, if we can judge from the behaviour of other animals, the male is much more likely to be hostile to another male than to the female. In the farmyard the cock will pursue another cock with hatred, but he is a model of courtesy to the hens. This may be despised as hypocritical chivalry, but at least it prevents anything like a sex war in the farmyard. Man, it must be admitted, has not always lived up to the farmyard standard of behaviour, but then there is no dark page in the records of the farmyard telling of an Eden lost through feminine foolishness.

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Man has more to forgive than any of the other male animals. He has his moods of chivalry, but it is natural that he should also have his moods of resentment. And it would be idle to attempt to conceal the fact that he has expressed this resentment freely and frequently in his dyspeptic moments – also, probably, attributable to women. If you look up any dictionary of quotations you will find that man, remembering Eden, has said far bitterer things about women than women have said about men. Schopenhauer, for instance, observes that “a woman who is perfectly truthful and does not dissemble at all is perhaps an impossibility”, and, again, that “the fundamental fault in the character of women is that they have no sense of justice”. Tolstoy enters in his diary: “Regard the society of women as a necessary unpleasantness of social life and avoid it as far as possible,” and he is equally unflattering when he jots down: “Woman is more impressionable than man. Therefore, in the Golden Age they were better than men; now they are worse.”

The poets and dramatists are full of such sentences as:

Woman’s love is writ in water,

Woman’s faith is traced in sand;


The souls of women are so small

That some believe they’ve none at all.

But to make up for this, men have also written humanely and enthusiastically about women – “A ministering angel thou”. “Earth’s noblest thing, a woman perfected”:

The man that lays his hand upon a woman

Except in the way of kindness is a wretch,

Whom ’twere gross flattery to name a coward,

and all that sort of thing. Here, I think, men have shown themselves the more generous sex. No female poet has addressed man in general as “a ministering angel thou”. No female poet has ever written a line protesting against husband-beating. Female poets, indeed, do not seem to address poems to man as a generalisation at all. None of them, so far as I can remember, ever began a poem: “O Man”. If any of them had, I do not think it would have been a poem that men would have enjoyed reading.

On the other hand, so many conflicting things have been said by men and women about men and women that it is perfectly impossible to deduce from them that men are hostile to women or that they like women, or that women are hostile to men or that they like men. Nor, indeed, is it possible for any human being, moderately rational, to regard the entire population of the other sex with either hatred or affection.

I confess for myself that, while wishing them well, I regard millions of women with complete indifference. But I regard several millions of men with the same indifference. I mean that, life being short, I should be sorry if they called on me. None of us can really like or dislike more than about a hundred fellow-creatures. For racial or sectarian reasons, we may in a vague way dislike millions of people at a time; but no one can dislike millions of people on account of their sex. There can never be sex antagonism on the grand scale till men and women live in different quarters in the cities and cease to depend on each other both for pleasure and for profit. One can afford to dislike Catholics or Protestants, or Christians or Jews, because one can live apart from them. But men and women cannot get sufficiently separate from each other to have a real sex war.

[see also: The marriage delusion]

That there is more vague hostility between men and women today than a hundred or a thousand years ago is very unlikely. No one can tell, for no one knows the whole evidence either for or against. Ill-tempered men have often said violent things about women in general when they quarrelled with their wives, and ill-tempered women have often said violent things about men in general when they quarrelled with their husbands. It has always been so, and it will always be so. Men and women were unhappily married long before the Georgian novelists revelled in the miseries of home life. The notion that marriage can ever become more of a conflict than it has been in the past need hardly be taken seriously.

Even the increase in the number of divorces does not necessarily mean an increase of antagonism. It may mean merely that more people who are antagonistic to each other escape from each other’s company. If anything, men feel less antagonistic to women today than they have done for centuries. They may dislike them as competitors, when they are looking for a job, but even that dislike does not go very deep. For the rest, they spend more of their time in women’s company than did the domestic Victorians. The club and the public house – those masculine reserves – are no longer what they used to be, and it is to be feared that before long woman will have invaded both of them even more effectively then she does at present. The danger of the future, indeed, is not that there will be a sex war, but that there will be a peace so disastrous to man that he will not have a club or a public house of the old-fashioned kind left wherein to rest his head. But even then, no woman will write poems idealising man, and many men will write poems idealising woman, and everything will be very much as it has been before.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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