The Vision of George Drysdale, Parts IV and V




Margaret Sanger Microfilm Edition, Smith College Collections S70:1019
Birth Control Review, Oct. 1923, pp. 258-261


This is the final article in a five-part series. For parts I to III see July 1923, Aug. 1923, and Sept. 1923.


Drysdale, George




The Vision of George Drysdale

Part IV.

Bound up with this illuminating and suggestive idea of joy and sorrow as the natural guides to the understanding of health and disease, is Drysdale's inspiring yet thoroughly well based comprehension of woman's nature and needs. His feminism is not based upon sentimental chivalry or romantic ardor. His defense of women is the logical outgrowth of his penetrating understanding of sexual science and human nature. Just as the age-long ignorance and stupidity concerning sex have held men's minds in bondage and subjected their bodies to pain and disease, so their waste of the great creative power of women has hindered their own mental and physical development. Mankind, wrote Drysdale, can never have a comprehensive view of any subject until the mind of woman, equally with that of man, has been brought to bear upon it. He foresaw the danger of attempts to lessen or minimize constitutional differences in men and women. The two sexes have different points of view, different thoughts, feeling and modes of judgement; and no theory of life, nor of any part of it, it was his contention, can be complete until the distinct views of each have been formed on it, and mutually compared. In enslaving and degrading woman, in limiting her sphere of activity, men in ages past just as surely enslaved and degraded themselves. Freedom, for Drysdale, is its own reward; and if men could only be brought to realize how much they would benefit by freeing women from ancient bondage, there could be no opposition to political, economic and psychological emancipation. " No religion, no moral or physical code, proposed by one sex for the other," Drysdale wrote, "can be really suitable; it must work out its laws for itself in every department of life." Much of our contemporary propaganda defeats itself or remains purely superficial, because it confines its activity to methods devised by men. Women, as Drysdale says, must work out the laws of their own nature in every department of life. Women continue to regard themselves and the universe through men's eyes, Drysdale pointed out. They have developed their own natures most imperfectly. The great need is for them to discover their own moral, intellectual and physical relations to all parts of nature. While there is no subject which man has conceived or shall conceive and pursue that shall not be open to woman, nevertheless into all these fields she must bring her own individual and feminine power. "Innocence, purity, chastity, delicacy–-let us rather read, ignorance, morbidity, disease and misery! How long shall these symbols of moral character hang about the neck of woman?"

Drysdale's vision of the new woman, the creature of a new and healthy race, was first of all as person in the deepest sense of this word, and individual of dignity, liberty and independence; and, as such, equal companion both of men and of children. He protested as vigorously as anyone who has since written or thought on the subject, against the terrific waste of women's lives and energy. Generations of women enslaved by education and tradition, by the crippling idea of chastity and female decorum which bound them like a chain wherever they moved, and prevented them from daring to think, feel or act freely or impulsively! "She must not do this. She must not study that. She has nothing to do with a knowledge of her own frame or its laws. She must not read the works nor acquire the knowledge that is open to men. She must not sport, not play boisterously, nor go out unattended, nor in the evening walk along the street, nor travel alone, nor make use of a thousand and one privileges which are open to the more fortunate sex." Customs have surely changed in the sixty-six years since these words were written; yet in the deepest, most important phases of women's lives, women have not yet attained the essential and all-important freedom. Drysdale at least saw that no true feminine morality could be based on an existence spent in hiding from the inevitable–which, in spite of convention, meets us at every step through life. By their enslavement to man-made conventions, he saw sorrow and mental disease blighting the young women of his time. Of the slow, wasting tortures endured for centuries by humanity there was none more painful for George Drysdale to contemplate than those endured by generation after generation of women.

He saw everywhere the same poignant tragedy; everywhere happy young girls, full of life and hope, entering womanhood–-and year after year condemned to an aimless existence without any outlet for the expression of their passions and affections. He saw their natural beauty and enjoyment of life in innumerable cases droop and fade, replaced by uneasy, discontented and unnatural restraint. He saw fretfulness and capriciousness take the place of buoyancy and health. He saw hysteria and all the gloomy train of sexual disease claim these women as their prey. He saw their short-lived dream of romance and poetic love converted into the dull reality of a monotonous and unhappy existence. He saw the iron of their invisible chains eat into their very souls.

He saw women doomed to the futile attempt of animating and making real the meaningless "virtues" imposed upon them by men, when they should have been filling their birthright of expression and creation. He wanted to substitute for this shadowy sentimentality and other-worldliness "a healthy and happy worldliness." "Here is the scene of all our human joys and sorrows, our real trials and triumphs," he was led to exclaim, "not for women only, but for all of us is Mother Earth our paradise, our everlasting abode, our heaven and our infinity! It is not by leaving it and our real humanity behind us and sighing to be anything but what we are that we can become ennobled or immortal. Is this our gratitude for all that has been done for us, for the grandeur and sublimity with which our life is surrounded?"

"We cannot be happy," Drysdale cried to the men of his time, "unless women be happy, and it is impossible for women to be so if they cannot study and reverence their relation to all the rest of nature."

The great thing for women, as well as for men, to realize was, according to this Victorian heretic, that nothing can come to us from another. Everything we have we must owe to ourselves. Our own spirit must vitalize it. Our own heart must feel it. We are not passive machines–-women any more than men–-who can be lectured, guided, molded this way or that. We are living beings with will, joys and comprehension to be exercised for ourselves at every step in life.

All the sciences, all the arts, wait at present woman's hand and thought to give them new life and impulses, and none solicits her attention more imperatively than medicine. We are just beginning to realize the deeper truth of this statement of Drysdale's. But he did not, we must emphasize, believe that woman's freedom, physical as well as mental, could ever be attained merely by political action, by the exercise of suffrage, or any of the other steps that have since been publicly taken. Women, he knew, must awaken themselves, must voice and create new demands and new interests. He saw that after the first flame of self-reliance and independence had been kindled by her intense feelings there usually ensued a period of doubt. Irresolution, long passive habits, and traditional attendance upon the opinions of others usually reassert themselves after a short and agonizing struggle. Even the woman who has asserted her freedom often falls back into the accustomed beaten tracks, and her noble aspirations for the unknown and untried are dissolved like melting vapor. Man has been for ages shaping his model of the female, physically and psychically, dwelling upon and endeavoring to elevate and perfect this ideal, as it appeared to him, instead of permitting woman to develop and express her own inherent nature.

Just as we can only arrive at a true and complete understanding of our psychic nature through a complete understanding of sex in its most unpleasant as well as its sublimest forms, so woman can only attain complete understanding of herself by facing the realities of life. Drysdale thought that the study of medicine would be of the greatest advantage to women. The mysteries of the body with its thorough study of its decays, its putrescences, all of these subjects from which woman's uncultivated imagination had hitherto shrunk in alarm or disgust, would be, he realized, with great spiritual insight, the surest and most complete way to break down the wall of restraint and inhibition which had bound her.

Woman must learn to shrink from nothing and from no human being; she must learn to regard all with love and reverence, totally irrespective of their actions, for in this consists the true character of the physician of the soul or the body–-not to hate and reproach any, but to love and succor all.

Many of Drysdale's ideals are already well on the road to becoming realities. He was one of the earliest Victorians to protest against the system of education which prevailed in those days for girls, and which was derided, as we know, by most of the great novelists. He knew that this educational system must be scrapped. The first essential, he thought, for girls and young women was that their bodies should be strengthened, just as those of boys and young men, by active sports and exercises such as all young people delight in. "They should be taught that physical strength, courage and blooming health are as excellent and desirable in women as in men, and they should learn to take as much pride in the physical as in the mental virtues. It is not for themselves alone that they love their bodily powers, but for their future offspring also. Pale and sickly mothers beget pale and sickly children." He protested against the ignorance and spurious delicacy artificially created and fostered in women, and which necessitated the same deplorable qualities in men. Freedom is the dynamic motive in everything that Drysdale advocates, and he comes back again and again to the necessity for absolute freedom in the discussion of sex. Woman, he emphasized, must be able to discuss the great central facts of life equally with man, because to her they are more essential than any other. It is imperative that woman's point of view must be considered more predominantly than man's. If girls are thus trained, in possession of a powerful and healthy frame, a healthy mind invigorated by sound knowledge for their guidance in life, they will enter upon womanhood with the fairest prospect of happiness, development and self-expression.


It is not necessary to interpret Drysdale's championship of Birth Control and neo-Malthusianism, except in so far as he reveals it as a method of individual physical and psychic emancipation. This phase of his work is full of suggestion and anticipates our modern point of view, but throughout the nineteenth century, beginning with Malthus and John Stuart Mill, men and women were thoroughly in the habit, in dealing with this subject, of thinking and speaking in the terms of politics and economics. They spoke of the "population" question that stemmed from Malthus and the Malthusian doctrine; and whatever interest they had in individual and feminine emancipation was rather with the object of making the Malthusian theory workable and adaptable than of approaching the idea of Birth Control from the point of view of inherent human needs and deep-rooted desire.

Drysdale himself was perhaps not thoroughly conscious of the immense advance he himself had made over his predecessors and contemporaries; yet throughout his book there is ample evidence that he realized the futility of purely political action or even economic and industrial action in preventing and curing widespread poverty. He fully realized the futility of organized charities or the Christian virtues in meeting this growing and complex problem of the human race. It is useless to narcotize any others with the opiate of Christian resignation. We cannot dissolve the realities of human misery, and steep ourselves in emotional idealism–-"we may form wild dreams of socialism, universal brotherhood, red republics or inexplicable revolutions. We may struggle and murder each other; we may persecute and despise those whose sexual necessities force them to break through our unnatural moral codes. . . we may break our own and our neighbors' hearts against the adamantine laws that warn us, but not one step, not one, shall we advance till we acknowledge these laws, and adopt the only possible mode in which they can be obeyed."

Drysdale foresaw the danger of the proletariat's attempt to shift the blame of its own distress to its environment or to the external industrial structure. He saw that it is useless to blame the low rate of wages, to accuse the community for its tardy and scanty assistance, to decry the avarice of the rich, and, in short, to get into the injurious habit of looking upon itself and its too numerous family as the victims of external circumstances. In this way, as Drysdale realized, the working man develops an unhealthy and debilitating spirit. "The last person he would think of accusing is himself, on whom, in fact, the principal blame rests, principally because in bringing a too numerous family into the world he is following the advice given by the very people he holds responsible for his miseries."

Drysdale foresaw as keenly as most advanced thinkers today that political efforts, however firmly based they might be upon social idealism, are inevitably foredoomed to failure if they seek to realize themselves in a milieu of over-population and fluctuating masses of humanity. It is because of this, he pointed out, that free governments tend constantly to their own destruction, that so many efforts in the cause of freedom have failed, and that almost every revolution, after a long and bloody struggle, has ended in military despotism. When an established government has been destroyed and a new political constitution has been set in operation, the poor, finding their evils unabated, turn their resentment against the new conquerors of political power. Political remedies, according to this point of view, have too often been based upon a short-sighted optimism, upon the belief that there is some self-adjusting power in nature or some merciful guiding providence by which human ills all work for good, and are ultimately, by the blind chance of evolution, to be overcome. There is hidden in our natures, a pernicious belief with which we console ourselves, that the human constitution will gradually undergo a change in our favor. These optimists bid us to wait helplessly till the stream of misery has flowed past us. Then we shall enter the promised millennium. We might as well expect, George Drysdale warned us, that the river will return to its source, or that the seas cover the mountain tops, as that the fundamental character of the human frame will alter. However little we may expect of human progress, our first necessity is to base our efforts upon an understanding of human instinct and human behavior, not as these express themselves under special and favorable conditions, but as the inherent and dynamic mainsprings of all human activity.

In ignoring the physiological and psychical aspects of life, socialism, he found, was not less short-sighted than other claims of progress. The socialism of this time, we should remember, confined itself to various methods of increasing the products of human industry and of equalizing distribution. But in ignoring the fundamental factor of overpopulation socialism failed to recognize that its aims were foredoomed to inevitable cancellation.

In short, the reader of the "Elements of Social Science" will discover that George Drysdale sought to justify the principle of Birth Control, not merely upon the ground of economics and politics, but essentially as a physiological and psychological necessity of the human race. This phase of his work has been forgotten or neglected; and even the defenders and exponents of family limitation continued practically until our own century to defend it solely in the terms and language of economic and political policy. Unlike most of those who preceded him and followed him, Drysdale possessed a keen perception of the fundamental fallacy of looking for advance upon the basis of any program which confined its endeavors to religious or political action or to economic and industrial panaceas.

Whatever amelioration or revolution we may expect or hope for, he has taught us that it must be based not upon propagation of any single doctrine in the political or economic field, but must be the outgrowth of the direction, the control, and the development of our deepest interests and desires.

The peculiar error of the socialists of Drysdale's time was that they attributed to the constitution of society and to competition (as politicians do to forms of government and theologians to man's original sin) the evils which really spring from unchecked and uncontrolled breeding. Socialism, as he saw it, fell into the inveterate and almost universal error of ascribing the chief ills of mankind to human institutions, instead of to uncontrolled instincts. "It urges the adoption of a complete change in our social fabric, but to what end? After all this trouble there would not be one of the great human difficulties removed."

Not that Drysdale was in any sense a pessimist or a reactionary. He was as intransigeant and as relentless a critic of society as any of the earlier or later sociologists, but he had a deeper and more widespread knowledge of human nature. He saw that all those celebrated Victorian poets, writers, statesmen, orators and moralists were themselves suffering and limited by the inhibitions of tradition. "We ask for bread and they give us a stone, for love and they give us a futile or religious shadow of it. Poetry, painting, architecture, fine writing, oratory, religion, to a world plunged in population worries are like music in the ears of a drowning man. They may dazzle our judgment and they may gild, but they cannot cheat our miseries. It is the necessaries of life; it is food, love and leisure that are at present for every human being, man or woman, necessaries; it is of little avail to talk of luxuries."