The Wisdom of Mother Bees, or “The Reform of Reforms”
“The agitation of all reforms is useful and necessary, but…the reform of reforms, is that which will restore to woman her natural right of self‐ownership.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Moses Harman’s Lucifer, the Light‐Bearer was never without its critics. While his critics from outside the relatively small Free Love, individualist‐feminist community posed the threat of violence and prison, his more sympathetic critics generally confined themselves to the polite (though sharp) letter‐to‐the‐editor. In the following example from March 1897, reader and subscriber Lillie White wrote Harman to criticize the editor’s flirtations with “the Malthus superstition.” Ms. White refers to Lucifer issue number 640, in which Harman lashed out at a poor woman who could no longer pay for her subscription. Harman stated that the woman could easily continue reading Lucifer if she did not have to support so many children. White was aghast at the notion that any child could be considered a “misfortune,” or the idea that Nature failed to produce the resources necessary to support all human lives and needs. If Harman was so displeased at the cancelation of a single subscription, perhaps, White suggested, he should lay the blame in its proper quarters.
Harman’s bristly response argues first that the comment referred to was made somewhat offhandedly and obviously outside of a full attempt to explain poverty in the United States. Moreover, Harman believed that economic and political questions were essentially secondary to larger moral forces in society. He argues that while his critic demands immediate economic relief for suffering mothers, the demand is made entirely in vain. Economics and politics can only change when the sex question has been properly addressed and women properly empowered. Women’s greatest power–in Harman’s reckoning, at least–lay in their reproductive capacity. Should women refuse to exercise their peculiar power to procreate, they could place men in a Malthusian trap of woman’s own making. Once Woman was thus awake to her full self‐ownership, “the destiny of the race, for weal or woe, is in her hands.”
By Lillie D. White
Lucifer, The Light‐Bearer Third Series, Vol. 1, No. 9, 3 March 1897
“The Other Side”
Mr. Harman has long sustained the attitude of a champion of womanhood and motherhood and is deservedly known by a good many people as a firm friend and defender of their cause. But I do not know of a worse slap in the face from the enemy than Mr. Harman gave to motherhood in Lucifer 640 in commenting on a letter from a Massachusetts correspondent who requested her paper stopped because her “misfortune was a fine growth of healthy, loving and fairly happy children without a growth of income.”
I do not know of a meaner insult to woman nor a greater presumption on the part of man than the old idea that woman’s duty is to bear all the children she possibly can, regardless of her own feelings in the matter, unless it is the equally presumptuous claim that she does wrong in bearing children she wants because her income is not sufficient to support them and in addition keep her subscription paid to her family paper.
It is not because of the number of her children that she and they must be denied the necessaries and comforts of life, but because all the resources of life are gobbled up by a few men (with numerous progeny) who by various means have gained an advancement over the masses of people by which they rob men and women without as well as with children.
There is an unlimited source of every thing needed to sustain life and make it enjoyable enough that every child born may be fully and amply supplied with all it requires to be healthy and happy, if opportunities and resources were free to all who are born.
It is useless, however, to repeat the arguments that Mr. Harman has doubtless heard over and over again during his advocacy of the Malthus superstition. But just as the superstition that woman is in duty bound to God, church, society and the race must be met again and again so we must meet over and over the superstition that the children born will outnumber the “places and nature’s table.” In my opinion it is positively pernicious for reformers to teach the limiting of children from this standpoint.
To teach women that they owe no duty of maternity to gods or men, that they should have entire control of the matter is well and good. But the claim that women should not have children because the robber class has not left enough in their hands to support them belongs with such economic rot as “the improvement of the working people can be accomplished by learning how to live on a dollar a week.”
There are a good many economic wiseacres trying to teach the people how to fit their necks to the yokes put upon them, but it all helps only to make the yoke heavier and tighter.
I wonder just what number of children over‐balances the cost of the “favorite family paper.” I know a number of people with five or six or more children who find it easy to pay for all the papers they wish to read, also families or one or two or three children who find it impossible to pay for more than the barest necessaries. I have but two children and I find it impossible to pay for papers I would like to read. I presume the expense that one of them has been would pay several yearly subscriptions, but I pity the person capable of showing such poor taste as to hint to me that I had made a bad bargain in bearing and caring for my children instead of keeping paid the subscription price to Lucifer.
Mr. Harman’s correspondent speaks of her children as a “misfortune,” but I don’t believe she means it or would take it kindly to have any one else say it, for she says they are fine, loving and fairly happy. Such children are not a “misfortune” to any one nor to the world and if the mother does think they are and imbibed that idea from her ten years reading of Lucifer, she might as well have stuck to the Bible; she is mislead by both.
I hope Mr. Harman will tell us how many children a woman may have and avoid the necessity of doing without Lucifer. It will not do to say only as many as they can comfortably support for there is nothing certain about that.
Many parents in good circumstances have had families of one, two or three children and become stranded and penniless, unable to support their children or to pay for Lucifer. Men and women are crushed and beaten in the struggle for existence who never had any children at all and never paid Lucifer a cent.
On the other hand large families of ten or fifteen children have been born in poverty and privation who have prospered and grown rich, occupy high places and can well afford to pay for Lucifer.
Let us know how we may acquire financial independence and not be denied the reading of Lucifer, by restricting the number of children.
By Moses Harman
I have little liking for personal controversy, and more especially when that controversy takes the form of irony and sarcasm, or of lofty assumptions of superior knowledge, superior candor or superior intellectual honesty. Whether such assumption is indication of maturity of mind and breadth of thought I leave others to judge.
But Lucifer’s platform is the freest of the free, and we all know that the most important knowledge is self‐knowledge, and that the best if not the only way to get self‐knowledge is through seeing ourselves as others see us, and therefore Lucifer gladly welcomes all candid criticisms, whether from friend or foe.
Whether Mrs. White considers herself a friend or a foe to Lucifer and its editor is difficult to make out from the treatment she gives us in the foregoing letter. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, however, and judging from her helpful co‐operation in the past I shall assume that she writes as a friend and not as an enemy. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” says the old adage, and therefore I now submit my intellectual shoulders to her castigations, with as much cheerfulness and docility as a somewhat rebellious juvenile temper will allow.
Ignoring the assumption of superior wisdom, or of superior intellectual honesty, so very apparent in the tone and manner of my critic I will ask our readers to re‐read the offending article in Lucifer No. 640, and see for themselves how much ground there is for her animadversions. If the said issue is not to be found we still have copies that will be sent on application. But for those not familiar with Lucifer’s attitude on the economic question I will here recapitulate a little.
First. Lucifer does not give to questions of economic reconstruction the first place in its discussions, not because we consider these of little importance; far from it, but simply because economics are not first in the order of nature. “The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment,” is a very true saying, not matter who it was that first said it. There is little difference of opinion among reformers as to the evils of our present economic system. Thousands of papers, books and pamphlets, and hundreds of thousands of orators agree substantially as to the necessity of change in the system, and all demand equal freedom and equal right to nature’s opportunities, but where and how to begin the work of practicalizing economic reform is something upon which all are not agreed. Some say we must have better economics before we can have better people; other say we must have better people before we can have better economics. Both are doubtless true, but not equally true.
As often said before in these columns, man–the people–is first, in the order of nature, then the institutions of man–his economic systems. Economics do not make men, although they react powerfully upon their makers, men, and upon all those who endure them–women and children as well.
Our economic and governmental systems, bad as they are, are no worse than the people who make, or who endure them. Evidently then the only natural way to get better economics is to get better people, and the only sure way of getting better people is through natural generation or birth. Second birth–regeneration–has always proved a failure and always must.
Lucifer does not deny the natural right of women to become mothers. On the contrary Lucifer’s editor has always insisted on this right–in fact has more than once gone to prison in defense of woman’s natural right to own her maternal functions and to practicalize that right without supervision by church or state authority. But Lucifer denies the moral right of woman to bring children into the world when there is no reasonable prospect that they can be born well, or that they can properly be provided for after they are born. On general principles I oppose killing anything that has sentient life, but it is often more criminal to give life than to take it.
Admitting all that has ever been claimed as to the necessity of economic reform, still I ask, how will you obtain it? Under present system of populating the earth economic evils are self‐perpetuating! Born of improvident mothers, submissive mothers, enslaved mothers, the undersigned, the haphazard production of the unfit, furnishes the plutocrats with the necessary material for perpetuating their reign. Hence the persistence with which church and state oppose the freedom of woman as wife and mother. Hence the law‐enforced ignorance in regard to the reproduction of the race.
Lucifer advocates no “Malthus superstition.” Lucifer is no follower of any man or of any woman, but simply asks mothers, prospective mothers, to wake up to a rational sense of their own responsibility in the matter of populating the earth.
All that women need to do to obtain a reconstruction of our present plutocratic economic system, on an equitable basis, is to demand such reconstruction as a condition precedent to further reproduction. A strike of the producers of men would be the most promptly effective of all strikes.
When the queen bee discovers that no honey is being stored in the hive for future use she promptly stops propagating. Though there may be plenty of food in sight for immediate use, and for the near future, her provident instinct tells her it is not safe to go on propagating until production and storing of food is resumed.
Cannot the mothers of men be as wise and as provident as the mothers of bees?
Fifty years ago or more, in this country, it was not so necessary as now to imitate the provident mother bee. Then, although many mothers were injured by overproduction of children, and though the product was doubtless inferior in quality to what it might or should have been, yet there was little danger that there would not be a place at Nature’s table for all home‐made applicants. Now our paternal government tries to stop immigration of undesirable applicants from foreign lands, but encourages home‐production of the unfit by making sex‐knowledge a crime; and by keeping mothers ignorant in regard to their own reproductive functions, and by enforcing obedience to the will of their lords.
The agitation of all reforms is useful and necessary, but, as some of us see it, the basic reform, the reform of reforms, is that which will restore to woman her natural right of self‐ownership, and that will arouse her to see and to realize that the destiny of the race, for weal or woe, is in her hands.