In his 1903 essay “Why Not Abolish It?,” Mark Twain argues that the age of consent for extramarital relations should be abolished for women. Twain’s underlying premises are that young women are not responsible enough to make their own decisions about sex, that once a girl has engaged in sexual relations she is “dragged down into the mud and into enduring misery and shame,” and that, worst of all, so is her family. Why the family? Because she does not own herself. Rather, she is property of her family: “There is no age at which the good name of a member of a family ceases to be a part of the property of that family – an asset, and worth more than all its bonds and moneys.”
So a woman is an object of economic value, pure and simple, and remains so throughout her life. I have to admit that even though I understand that this was the prevailing dogma in 1903 (indeed, my father rattled off many of the same sentiments 60 years later, when I started dating), and that Clara Clemens’s propensity to gallivant around Europe unchaperoned probably triggered Twain’s paternal anxieties, his smug conviction that women of any age should have no say over their own bodies has always infuriated me. I wonder how Clara responded, as well as her sister, Jean. And even Twain’s wife, Livy, then nearing her end. Did the girls’ push for freedom from parental constraints prompt a more measured response from their mother than it did from their famous father? Were women in the family embracing the 20th century, even while “Papa” harked back to the 19th?
Twain wasn’t such a Luddite on other feminist issues. In 1897, during the dreary London winter following Susie’s death, Jean and Clara talked both parents into allowing them to buy bicycles – a daring new activity for women. In 1909 Twain told the New York Sun that he had supported women’s right to vote for fifty years. And indeed, in 1874 he had published a letter to the editor of the London Evening Standard, in which he averred that he had been “persuaded that in extending the suffrage to women this country could lose absolutely nothing & might gain a great deal.” By 1909 he had taken his conviction a step farther, commenting that women should do “what they deem necessary to secure their rights.” Politically at least, Twain had come to understand that women could be a powerful force in the public sphere.
Nevertheless I think Twain’s view of women’s sexual freedom tells us a lot about his struggle to deal with the new and often frightening social changes that were catapulting Americans into the new century. Middle class women were gaining more freedom (working women had always had more freedom because they had to earn money) – freedom that was manifested in their ability to leave the house unchaperoned, to live alone, to work, to meet men outside their families’ social circles. But to many people, these changes meant that society was unraveling. Because the image of the pure woman, the moral center of hearth and home, had been so powerful earlier in the century, the image of the New Woman, mounted on a bicycle and off to meet a man her parents did not know, signaled social upheaval and the corruption of domestic values. The issue came to be framed in terms of female sexuality and its “value” to the culture. Twain was not alone in his assumption that female “purity” equaled “controlled sexuality” – controlled through systematic social shaming. It was the culture’s way of keeping women within bounds, and women as well as men participated in the social policing.
We remain a culture frightened of our own trajectory, and we are still trying to solve society’s problems by controlling women’s sexuality. Twain saw men as sexual predators, and he sought laws to punish men who robbed women of their “purity.” We see some of the legacies of his argument in our current legal wrangling over rape and what constitutes “consent,” especially on college campuses. But “consent” is no longer the dominant arena for control over women’s bodies. Instead the desire to restrain women focuses on women’s reproductive health.
Those who attack agencies like Planned Parenthood pretend that their target is abortion services, but such proposals also deny women access to routine gynecological exams, to contraception, and to pre- and post-partum health services. Congress’s recent proposal to drop maternity care from the nation’s priority list of “essential” health services means a return to the inequities of the 20th century, when women routinely paid more for health insurance than men. (One of our esteemed Congressmen recently testified that he thought prenatal care shouldn’t be an essential service because “he had never used it.” I would love to hear Twain’s comments on that one.)
But the reversal doesn’t stop with money. Control over reproduction has been the linchpin of women’s progress in the public sphere for the last one hundred years. If women are denied access to contraception, to safe pregnancies, and to maternity leave, we will lose our footing in the working world. We will return to Twain’s time, forced either to foreswear sexuality (and hence pregnancy) altogether or else to be confined to the home and dependent on men for support, including access to healthcare. Retreat from the work world – and from the power that being actors in the public sphere provides – in turn encourages increased sexual harassment when women do venture forth from home – the kind of behavior that prompted Twain’s essay in the first place. Those of us who dare to show ourselves in public will be prey for men who can seduce, grope, harass, and then shame us – and walk away to boast about their “conquests” on social media. Yes, we still have problems with predatory men, but the solution isn’t to yank us out of the public sphere, to strip us of control over our bodies, to deny us essential services. Do we really want to return to the days when we didn’t own ourselves?
Susan K. Harris is Distinguished Professor Emerita at University of Kansas and author of numerous books on 19th-century American literature and culture, including The Courtship of Olivia Langdon & Mark Twain.