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Stein’s degenerating women

Introduction and Text

Gertrude Stein’s paper “Degeneration In American Women” first appears in the Appendix to biographer Brenda Wineapple’s 1996 book Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein. Wineapple writes:

I found the following essay in a nondescript folder tucked among the miscellaneous papers of Mary Mackall Gwinn Hodder.* Eight pages long, typed on legal-sized paper, and titled “Degeneration in American Women,” the piece was written probably for publication, perhaps in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It is anonymous, but its clean, legible corrections are unmistakable: they are the handiwork of Gertrude Stein.

*Editor’s note: Hodder taught at Bryn Mawr and had been involved in a romantic triangle with Carey Thomas (the dean) and the former Harvard philosopher, Alfred Hodder. The story is the basis for Stein’s Fernhurst. How exactly Mary Gwinn Hodder came into the possession of the typescript is unclear.

Wineapple offers various textual and circumstantial reasons for believing the typescript was the work of Gertrude Stein. It is consistent with Stein’s views at the time. The essay appears to have been written near the end of 1901 or during the first part of 1902. She had not entirely abandoned the idea of a medical career. More importantly, for our purposes, in general, if perhaps not in detail, it is consistent with her mature views as well. It goes a long way toward explaining her receptive reading of Otto Weininger some years later, in the Winter of 1907-1908, when her brother Leo brought Sex and Character to her attention (Katz). It helps explain why she was scarcely shocked or offended by anything written by Weininger—“the Viennese lunatic” as one of her feminist friends described him (Mellows, Wineapple). She found in his writing many points of contact with her own ideas. It helps explain why she so eagerly pressed Weininger’s book into the hands of her friends as though to say: to understand her they would need to read this (Wineapple).

The connection with Weininger introduces us to something about Stein that might not be obvious from reading this essay. She seems to argue in the essay that it was a bad thing at the time that so many women were choosing to have fewer or no children. Weininger thought differently, the fewer, the better. Indeed, the only path to the true emancipation of women, according to him, was to stop procreation in its tracks.* So what could Stein have seen in Weininger?

*Editor’s note: As Luno once put it, “there was a snowball’s chance in hell of that ever happening which, nevertheless, says nothing about this not being what morality demands.” And a certain conception of morality drives genius, he adds, something discernible in Stein, Weininger and Wittgenstein. Each of these figures was an independent inspiration for Luno, but the full force of the link between them was nothing short of a revelation.

Here I think it is helpful to briefly reiterate something critical to understanding Weininger (and, as we will see, Stein, too): It matters not a whit from the standpoint of the moral vision Weininger describes how many of us there are, only that those of us there are, men and women alike, be occupied with perfecting their conscious humanity. We mistake our being here with a right to be here, he seems to be saying. We shall never justify our existence by increasing our presence. Squatter’s rights have no moral basis. His book was about morality from start to finish, that of men more than that of women. Enough so that women had none to speak of. He repeatedly characterizes them as amoral, akin to flora or fauna (or, as Luno often says, “the landscape in war”). To the philosophically unsophisticated, amorality and immorality are easily conflated, so we should probably stress here that one has to be capable of being moral before one can be accused of being immoral and vice versa. Women are excused from this mutual entailment. This is what being amoral means. The character of the normativity tended by the feminine is outside the bounds of the masculine conception that obsessed Weininger. It is only maleness that aspires to great genius, but it is only maleness that typically sinks into criminality. (See our forthcoming notes on Baumeister for a contemporary, somewhat guarded, repetition of this old saw.)

Strictly speaking, Weininger was addressing the masculine moral vision which, he also argues, is not coextensive with the class of men. Since the masculine and feminine principles were distributed across all women and men (the pure woman or man are only theoretical entities), we would expect a measure of and an appreciation for this element even in women. And nothing prevents there being only a modicum of such in any given man. But, as Stein enjoyed repeating, most horses led to water drink. Stein herself was concerned with fathoming normality, not the exception. She thought forests needed some appreciating at the expense of trees—perhaps, only because odd ones (to lose the metaphor) so easily distract and fuel the obfuscation necessary for a great deal of immorality—or “fathering,” as she would come to call it. Immorality is male. I think she would agree with Weininger: there is no other kind. The language to properly speak of what plays the role corresponding to morality in women was—and, largely, still is—absent. But the absence of theory notwithstanding, insofar as women introduce normativity into the world—most strikingly in the compulsion to give birth—there are shoulds and oughts that needed repeating.

The moral world of women is essentially distinct. Its internal description Weininger steered clear of, content to leave it logical space: the space of the amoral. This fact is seldom appreciated in the literature on Weininger. A fully developed feminine normative theory would have to wait to be supplied by future generations of “emancipated” women thinkers, but there were hints of an understanding of this fact even by Weininger’s feminist contemporaries, Stein among them. Others would include Rosa Mayreder, Dora Marsden, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Vita Sackville-West, even Virginia Woolf—all manifest readers of Weininger with the possible exception of Woolf (though there is circumstantial evidence that she, too, must have gotten more than a whiff of him).

To get back to Stein, what was she up to in this essay?

She perceives and reacts to a “moral degeneration” in the women of her time. Women, by and large, are not merely abandoning traditional motherhood as a principle around which to structure their lives, the newer emancipative models are not proving constructive either. And not only that, but even where the old ideal of maternity is still pursued, it has become decadent. (These themes pervade her early writing from “QED” and Fernhurst to The Making of Americans.)

The climate of the First Wave of feminism, as Stein saw it, seems to have brought about a certain inflated sense of capability on the part of the typical woman. The pervasive sense that she could step in and simply do anything traditionally done by a man as well as or better than he was a distortion. In abandoning the vocation that nature had best suited her for and the wisdom that went with it, she morally degrades herself. The strain of going against the grain was taking its toll on her nervous system and, subsequently, her fecundity. The effect was both physiological and psychological. One cause was clearly sociological: the currency of notions of feminine superiority or suggestions that civilization, long steered by masculine virility and served by feminine compliance, could stand a radical fluidity of roles.

One might think that Stein, herself, thought we needed more lusty children in the arms of self-satisfied mothers than we needed ersatz men. Perhaps she thought motherhood just suited most women—exceptions, like herself, aside and necessarily rare—quite apart from any question about needing more people in the world and quite apart from any improvement that might entrain a feminine suffusion of the masculine world.

Perhaps there was simply not enough respect for reality or too little faith in the order of things.

That men were obsessed by quite different things than women and that this was evident “from baby on” in boys and girls and that this platitude needed repeating seems to be Stein’s principle concern. Men, she knew, could do amazing things, but she was never blind to their shortcomings (e.g., their tendency to “father” non-baby things like wars and egos). That what women naturally did was every bit on a par with his greatest cultural achievements was perhaps so obvious to her that the idea that some women wanted to abdicate this essential aspect of their womanhood to imitate men must have bordered on a kind of abomination: not against a religious ideal (a masculine notion if there ever was one), nor against tradition just because it ought to be inviolate (tradition thrives on periodic violation), nor even against nature (which must have struck her as beside every point), but against a sense of character or identity rooted in what one irremedially was, a metaphysical orientation.* For women, this entailed a relation to the generation and tending of life. (For men, read Weininger: usually, he is read with a view to cataloging his list of things women were not, but it was what men needed to be and were not that really exercised him.)

*Editor’s note: Rather often this is dismissed as “essentialism,”—not that it isn’t, but that the negative connotations of that notion have become rather knee-jerk. The thoughtlessness of the ascription has blinded us to the shortcomings of whatever we oppose to it.

Furthermore, if you were going to be a mother, you had better do it right. Oddly enough, it is possible and at times not even uncommon (maybe, to the point of half the time!) that mothers try too hard at it. They want to sculpt creations of their own flesh and blood that incarnate too faithfully their own failings and prejudices. It was never supposed to be easy to get the right measure of that intervention that defines mothering.

To be or not to be a mother—and if to be, how to go about it? These moral questions are distinctly feminine. Their gravitas should hold its own against any masculine abstraction about how to use or waste his time on earth.

Stein, like Weininger, was interested in reminding us that before we understand what it means to be human—and it is a unjustified presumption that we ever get that far—we start out boys and girls, then women and men. And whatever the possibilities for boys and girls, not anything goes for women and men.

—Iaia Gombrowicz


The following text is from Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein, Brenda Wineapple. (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996), pp. 411-4. The bracketed material, including sics, in the text that follows are Wineapple’s.


[Gertrude Stein]
Degeneration In American Women

In an article published In the Journal of the American Medical Association October 5, 1901, Dr. Engellman [sic, the spelling of Engelmann’s name varies throughout] discusses the alarming increase in sterility among American women. He finds that in the United States there is a higher sterility and a lower fecundity than in any other country outside of France and for the native American population the condition is worse than in France. The data that he uses are his own experience in private practice and in the dispensaries of St. Louis consisting of 1700 cases, series of carefully compiled statistics from Boston, Massachusetts and Michigan and the census records.

The facts are as follows:

The normal rate of sterility in foreign countries is eleven percent. In America over twenty percent of the women are childless. The highest fecundity among American born is to be found in St Louis and that consists of 2.1 children to a marriage a lower rate of fecundity than than [sic] is to be found anywhere outside of Paris. In Boston the fecundity is 1.7 & in Michigan it is in the last few years 1.8. It has been slowly decreasing in every state in the union. This can be profitably contrasted with Franklin’s estimate for his contemporaries of eight children to a normal marriage and Malthus’s estimate of 5.2 children to a marriage in America.

In private practice in St. Louis Engelmann finds among the Americans of American parentage 1.7 children to a marriage and Americans of foreign parentage 1.9 children to a marriage. Among college women the results are still worse the average number of children to a marriage being 1.3 children to 1.6 while the non college woman of the same class and in the same city gives a record of 2.1. In England we find the same result among college women the average college woman’s manage producing 1.5 children while the non-college women in the same class of society average 4.2 children to a marriage.

Engelmann divides his cases among the laboring classes into those of foreign birth and those born in America. Among the foreign population the percent of sterility is 17 while in one generation of residence in America it rises to 26 percent and in the second generation becomes the apparent normal percentage for the modern American that is about 23 percent. In private practice in St. Louis he finds it to be about 23 percent and for college graduates 25. In Massachusetts we find the same discrepancy between the foreign and the native born population. The foreign born portion of the community shows 13.3 percent of the women sterile while the native population shows 20.3 which in Boston runs up to 23.7. Now let us contrast these figures with those of foreign countries. In Paris the percentage of sterility is 27.3, in Berlin the sterility among the higher classes is 25.7 while among the laboring classes it is only 15 percent. These figures are rather appalling for these two cities have always been considered the most complete type of degeneration from the standpoint of fecundity and yet Berlin shows a better percent and Paris only a slightly worse one than obtains throughout America among the native population. From England we get the following figures, among the higher classes 16.4 percent among villagers 9.6 percent and among college alumnae 27.6 percent.

About 25 percent of all this sterility can be attributed to disease caused by the male for the rest as Dr. Engellmann concludes the barrenness in the large majority of cases is independent of physical causes as evidenced by the astonishing increase in sterility in this country with the marked increase in progress of gynecology which should control sterility were it due to disease and physical causes. Instead of that we have


passed to a fecundity less and a sterility greater than any country except France. In considering the question of the causes for the marked increase in sterility among American women one fact cannot be too often dwelt upon. The fact that the normal period of fertility for a woman is from her eighteenth to her forty fifth year and that unless labor has so to speak cleared a passage, from her twenty fifth year on there is a gradual hardening of all her genitalia making conception rarer, miscarriages more frequent and labor much more dangerous. The first labor of a woman at thirty is always a much more serious matter than in the case of a young woman. This fact is one that must be kept constantly in mind when one is considering the causes of sterility among American women.

In considering the causes of sterility it is best to divide them into two classes,

  1. Physiological sterility.
  2. Voluntary sterility.

These two classes must again be divided into

A. Absolute sterility by which we mean women who have never conceived.

B. Relative sterility that is women who have never come to term. The causes of phisiological [sic] sterility of the absolute variety are the impotence on the part of the male, anatomical malformation on the part of the female, gonnorheal [sic] infection of the female and gynecological operations. The relative physiological sterility is due either to a syphilitic infection of the female or to congenital weakness. All these causes together with miscarriages due to obscure puerperal infections combine to make up the eleven percent sterility that one may call the normal sterility among civilized races and which is known as Simpson’s law of sterility. In addition to these causes for physiological sterility which we may perhaps call the normal causes of sterility among civilized peoples there are a set of causes bringing about physiological sterility both of the absolute and relative type which are due to the education and habits of life that obtain among the American women of to day.

The first point is that of the prevailing tendency to delay marriages until a woman’s period of fertility is almost half over and the dangers and difficulties of conception and labor have become markedly increased. The second point is that in our modern system of education the heaviest mental strain is put upon the girl when her genitalia is making its heaviest physical demand and when her sexual desires are being constantly stimulated without adequate physiological relief, a condition that obtains to a very considerable extent in our average American college life. All these causes induce of necessity a weakening of the genitalia and a consequent increase of absolute and relative physiological sterility. The third point is the incessant strain and stress that the modern woman endeavoring to know all things, do all things and enjoy all things undergoes. This condition of life must of necessity lead to weakness and inadequacy of the genitalia as the whole physical scheme of the woman is directed toward fitness for propagation.

If these conditions only obtained among the upper classes in this country one might deplore but one could afford to disregard them for after all a nation never depends upon its upper classes but as will be noted in the statistics given by Engellmann there is not that immense difference in the percentage of sterility and fecundity in this country between the upper and lower classes that we find in all European countries. In America what the upper classes do the middle classes do and what is true of the middle class holds for the laboring classes and so we find in this country a uniform sterility and lack of fecundity varying very little from the top to the bottom.

The second and more important class of sterility is the voluntary type. It is this kind of sterility and lack of fecundity that that [sic] is so markedly increasing in America


among all classes of the population. This type of sterility is of course all due to moral causes and these are so numerous [sic] that one can hardly do more than give the headings.

Voluntary sterility consists first of the absolute type that due to methods of prevention of conception and the relative type that of the criminal abortion. As both these types of sterility are due to the same moral causes they may be considered together.

Two classes of the community I imagine are chiefly responsible for the increased knowledge of methods of prevention among the laboring classes. On the one hand the charity workers with misdirected zeal and false ideals have spread as far as in them lay the knowledge of methods of prevention. The constantly increasing use of the dispensaries and the knowledge there obtained has helped to spread this feeling that prevention should be indulged in. As one old negress put it, “I had twenty children I would not do that now any more I know too much.” Let us now consider a few of the causes that have led to the disrepute into which the ideal of maternity has fallen and see what can be said for them.

In the first place among the educated classes in this country, that is among the educated women and among the pseudo educated women there is a strong tendency to what we may call the negation of sex and the exaltation of the female ideal of moral and methods and a condemnation and abhorrence of virility.

By this statement is meant the tendency of the modern American woman to mistake her education her cleverness and intelligence for effective capacity for the work of the world. In consequence she underestimates the virile quality because of its apparent lack of intelligence. In the moral world she also finds herself the superior because on account of the characteristic chivalry of the American man the code of morality which her sheltered life has developed seems adequate for the real business of life and it is only rarely that she learns that she never actually comes in contact with the real business and that when she does the male code is the only possible one. All this of course leads to a lack of respect both for the matrimonial and maternal ideal for it will only be when women succeed in relearning the fact that the only serious business of life in which they cannot be entirely outclassed by the male is that of child bearing that they will once more look with respect upon their normal and legitimate function. Of course it is not meant that there are not a few women in every generation who are exceptions to this rule but these exceptions are too rare to make it necessary to subvert the order of things in their behalf and besides if their need for some other method of expression is a real need there is very little doubt but that the opportunity of expression will be open to them.

Another very important cause for the low rate of fecundity lies in the modern morbid responsibility for offspring. This is true in America for both parents. There is a foolish conviction abroad that the parents can raise one or two children better than half a dozen can raise themselves. This fallacy is due to the same cleverness of the American woman which has just ben [sic] mentioned and makes her mistake a knowledge of facts for training in method and makes her believe it possible for her to learn by a few lectures the things one only gets after years spent day after day in the daily round of working, listening and waiting. This conviction produces the type that is the terror to the trained professional mind, the intelligent mother. When this generation learns over again the truth that the training of children should on the one hand consist of a back ground in the home of a tradition that stands for honesty and right living and that for the rest it should in the hands of the trained professional the morbid responsibility, for the offspring will dissappear [sic].*

*Editor’s note: Perhaps this sentence was intended to read like this: “When this generation learns over again the truth that the training of children should on the one hand consist of a back ground in the home of a tradition that stands for honesty and right living and that for the rest it should (be left) in the hands of the trained professional(,) the morbid responsibility for the offspring will disappear.” —I. Gombrowicz

On the paternal side the responsibicity [sic] takes the form of the onviction [sic] that one should bear children only


when you can remove them as far as humanly possible from the normal conditions of a struggle for existence.

Editor’s note: Stein’s complaint seems more focused on the proper upbringing of children, and the shaping of generations, than on pressing a specifically anti-feminist agenda. As such, her argument is moral, not political. Contrary to some popular understandings, these are not the same.

The prevailing pessimism that characterizes the modern community and carries with it a ceaseless desire for amusement and a consequent incrnase [sic] in the expense of living is another of the important causes for the marked increase in sterility. The American population seems to have completely lost sight of the fact that the exercise of ones [sic] normal functions of living, walking, talking, thinking, being, eating and drinking is an endless joy of a healthy human being. As Jasper Petulengro puts it in answer to Lavengro’s melancholy “There’s night and day brother both sweet things. sun moon and stars brother all sweet things, there is likewise the wind on the heath. Life is very sweet brother who would wish to die.” No in the developement [sic] of the play instinct and the feeling of joy in the world one must look for a counteracting force against the prevailing pessimism and the consequent voluntary sterility. Another important element to be considered is the characteristic inefficiency in household matters of the lower class American woman. She is incapable for the most part of cooking sewing or any of the household duties for which her European sisters are famous. Her housekeeping is expensive and the food she supplies her family is not for the most part nutritious. Besides she does not want to increase her labors by her normal maternal functions. Just to cite one case that is extremely characteristic. A woman the wife of a railroad conductor and a very worthy person has been married for five years. Her husband is very fond of children and wants them the woman however refuses on account of the bother. She has within the last two years voluntarily brought about two miscarriages. This is not an isolated case but can be matched in any street and house in any city in the union. It is this point that cannot be too much insisted upon that this condition does not prevail among the better classes alone but that it is true of every class of the American population and that there is in no portion of the community that lives its fair quota of population except the foreign and this virtue is lost by the first generation born in America.

George de Forest Brush - Mother and Child, 1902
Mother and Child (1902) / George de Forest Brush (American, 1855 -1941), Corcoran Collection

To conclude: unless the American woman can be made once more to realize that the ideal of maternity is the only worthy one for her to hold, until she can be made to realize that no work of hers can begin to compensate for the neglect of that function we are going the same way as France except that with true American push we are going France considerably better and a few years are showing a worse record than she has after ages of degenerative civilization. In discussing this subject one inevitably thinks of the picture of Brush in the Boston museum that of the mother with the lusty child in her arms. She is worn and weary but the vigorous struggling baby in her arms transfigures her weariness and changes it from a sacrifice to the purest pride.

Posted by iaia in Stein, philosophy and sex, motherhood, feminism, Weininger (Wednesday March 25, 2009 at 1:06 pm)

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