GHDI logo

Helene Stöcker, "Marriage as a Psychological Problem" (1929)

In 1905, pacifist, women’s rights advocate, and sexual reformer Helene Stöcker (1869-1943) co-founded the Bund für Mutterschutz und Sexualreform [Association for the Protection of Mothers and Sexual Reform], which sought to improve the legal and social position of unmarried mothers and their children. This article is taken from the magazine Die Neue Generation [The New Generation], which Stöcker published under that name starting in 1908. The magazine served as a platform for her “new ethics,” which emphasized a woman’s right to control her own body. Consequently, Stöcker advocated not only for the protection of mothers, but also for contraception and the legalization of abortion. In this text, she discusses the institution of marriage, the social and private meaning of which seemed to be declining in the face of shifting gender relations in the 1920s.

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 3

Marriage as a Psychological Problem

If one compares the present Congress for Sexual Reform with Sexual Reform work twenty or twenty-five years ago it is possible to note some progress. When twenty-five years ago we began the Mutterschutz movement, and when in 1911 we held the first Congress for Sexual Reform in Dresden, we had to have two separate congresses. One was concerned with sexual reform in the narrower sense, while birth control had to be dealt with separately.

Today it has at least become clear that these problems are intimately related. But most of the problems are still unsolved, and it requires all our energy and mental integrity, all our enthusiasm for the higher development of civilization, to solve them.

It is out of the question that the institutions that have arisen from the absolute sexual dominance of men in former times should continue to exist unchanged amid the changed political, cultural, and economic conditions of today. This being an age of transition, there are peculiar difficulties and conflicts, and proposals have been made to deal with these by new forms of marriage. Thus we have proposals for trial marriage; for companionate marriage; for three-party marriage; even four-party marriage. Another proposes marriage in youth, another marriage for a term. A seventh would like to embrace the whole world in love. The German-American Ruedebusch proposes erotic relations with unlimited numbers. But beyond all these reformers we have the groups who differ widely from one another but agree in regarding every divorce as the destruction of the true ideal of marriage.

I venture to ask a question that will no doubt be regarded as heretical in this assembly. Are not all these proposals for changes in the form of marriage, or for increasing facilities for divorce, no matter how instructive and valuable they may be—are not all these proposals, in the last analysis, unimportant?

The important question is: What is the nature of the human being who is to live in marriage? How does he try to play his part in marriage? Whatever reforms and changes we suggest we must always come to a point when the individual has to impose a limit on his own desires, either for his own sake or for the sake of another. And is it not better to do this before we have eliminated from life all profound ethical values and moral responsibility?

No sort of marriage reform will ever comfort the broken heart or reconcile human beings who have real emotions to giving up the intimate contact, the feeling of unity with another person, which is a world in itself. Marriage for three is conceivable as an exceptional arrangement for exceptional people and ethically tolerable. Goethe’s “Stella” is a picture of such an arrangement. But if marriage stands for love, for an intimate physical and spiritual contact, then it does not seem to me that there is much to be expected from this sort of reform in the way of an improvement of human life or an increase in happiness.

The demand for polygamy, as in the three-party marriage proposal, or in Ruedebusch’s universal sexual love, is based on a recognition of the fact that sexual desire is promiscuous, but this is a long way from love in the real sense.

Georges Anquetil (a French author) is responsible for the three-party marriage proposal, but his book rests on an idea which is psychologically superficial. It is a grotesque fact that even in the Orient, in Russia, and in Turkey, polygamy is regarded as out of date; and now Western Europeans propose to introduce it again! What psychological and ethical differences there are between people living in the same country at the same time!

[ . . . ]

The progress towards a final understanding between man and woman is very slow because it is only in very recent times that women themselves have begun to take any part in the study of sex problems. Fortunately even the blindest can see today that a change is taking place in the distribution of power between the sexes. In literature and science we still find that many men cannot get rid of the limitations of sex in themselves although in politics and daily life these have already disappeared. But science has known for some time that male and female exist in all of us in varying degrees, and that in actual life there is no such thing as the theoretical types man and woman.

first page < previous   |   next > last page