Sarah Elizabeth Holmes

The Study of A Silenced Woman

An excerpt from Individualist Feminism of the Nineteenth Century: Collected Writings and Biographical Profiles

By Wendy McElroy

Traditionally, American feminism has been a by-product of broader social movements in which women have played supportive but background roles. The activities and attitudes of these women generally became feminist in reaction to the slights they received from male counterparts. That is, the women tended to split away in disillusionment and organized among themselves. For example, the the pivotal Seneca Falls Conference (1848) directly resulted from the public shunning female abolitionists had received from male counterparts at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Conference in London. Equally, Second Wave feminism -- the feminism that erupted in the '60s -- was fueled by the resentment women activists felt toward their anti-war anti-establishment male counterparts who viewed them as typists and bed-warmers, not as equals.

After achieving a platform of their own, the voices of these emerging feminists often resounded with pent-up talent, passion, and idealism. Until then, however, many of the best minds in radicalism -- that is, the women -- labored in the background, never receiving the acknowledgement they deserved. Those women brave enough to stand up and voice their opinions were often ridiculed or ignored by those who should have encouraged them: namely, the men beside whom they labored.

Sarah Elizabeth Holmes, a contributor to Liberty, is an example of one woman who was silenced by her male counterparts -- that is, by the group of radical individualist men who gathered around Benjamin Tucker's periodical. Her dismissal is all the more egregious because Holmes was one of the few activists whose contributions -- whether prominently or behind the scenes -- spanned almost the twenty-seven years of Liberty's publication. Perhaps her brief role as Tucker's "intimate" prevented others from taking her seriously -- a fate that has befallen the partners of many men.

Before appearing within Liberty in her own voice, Holmes made significant contributions to the literature of liberty through her translations and her publication of the works of others. In 1887, for example, Holmes published Olive Schreiner's feminist prose-poem "Three Dreams in a Desert" in pamphlet form, and a four page tract, the 'Socialistic Letter' by Ernest Lesigne under the title "The Two Socialisms: Governmental and Anarchistic." Two years earlier, Holmes had translated from the French a work by George Sauton entitled "Ireland", which had run serially in Liberty in 1885. This was followed by her translation "The Wife of Number 4,237" by Sophie Kropotkin -- wife of famed French anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon -- serialized in 1886, then "The Political Theory of Mazzini and the International" by Michael Bakounine, serialized in 1886 and 1887. These publications often constituted the first appearance of key political tracts in America.

In terms of original material, Holmes' first contribution to Liberty was an article entitled "Shall Woman Beg for Liberty?" (February 25, 1888). Holmes took another woman contributor, 'Henrietta,' to task for admitting that she desired the "social support of respectable society." Holmes' article ended with a ringing cry for the 'plumb-line' approach so favored by Tucker who was renowned for demanding absolute adherence to principle. Refusing to credit the opinions of society, Holmes wrote, "Either our ideas are better or worse than those of society. If worse, let us submit without complaint to our deserved doom. If better, let us not apologize for them, or beg society to excuse and tolerate us in spite of our living on a higher plane than the rest of the world." Even Gertrude B. Kelly -- known for taking the hardest of hard lines on theory -- had paid more homage to the psychological role that social ridicule played in intimidating women into silence.

Holmes' most important original contribution to the literature of individualism appeared on May 26th, 1888 under the pseudonyn Zelm. Tucker enthusiastically endorsed the article, "For an article compact with original, suggestive, valuable, and lofty ideas on one of the most delicate of questions read Zelm's "Reply to Victor"..." The exchange between Holmes and Victor Yarros -- a co-editor of Liberty -- was widely read and became a 'classic', assuming a life of its own beyond the pages of Liberty. For example, ten years later, Tucker announced that a Berlin publisher had just issued a seventeen-page pamphlet in German entitled "Die Frauenfrage. Eine Discussion zwischen Victor Yarros and Sarah E. Holmes." It constituted a German translation and reprint of the exchange.

The opening volley of the dialogue between Zelm and Victor had started on May 12, 1888, with Yarros' article entitled "The Woman Question." Yarros began by describing the condition of women as an "economic slavery" more acute than that experienced by men. Given the current political system, he posed the following dilemma: If "Women must enjoy equal rights and equal freedom, and must in all respects be the equal of man", then how can they "attain and presumably maintain this condition" if they could not sustain themselves? Without independence, he believed women would be "the property, tool, and plaything of man" without "power to protest against the use, nor remedies against the abuse, of their persons by their male masters."

Having posed a dilemma, Yarros answered it by returning to the opening assumption that men and women must be equals. He questioned whether this assumption was valid. Arguing from the ideology of Stirnerite egoism -- from the principle that "might makes right" -- Yarros concluded that by the standard of "might" women were severely disadvantaged. He was not merely pointing to the greater size and strength of men. Yarros claimed that woman's reproductive functions weaken her position in society. "In order to enter into one of her strongest natural desires [sex]," he explained, "she is compelled to enter into relations with man of which the burdensome and painful consequences she alone has to bear. While man's part in the relation is pleasurable throughout, woman purchases her enjoyment at an enormous price."

The price was children, and their existence placed the mother who was responsible for their care at a great economic disadvantage. At this point, Victor contended that the woman's "equality of powers for self-support" along with "all other equalities" disappeared. A woman with children became inherently unequal to and weaker than man.

Yarros briefly considered that the inequality created by motherhood might be solved by "fewer children" -- that is, by the woman using birth control. He quickly dismissed the solution as ineffective and, perhaps, undesirable.

Instead of pursuing a solution further, Yarros announced that he was leaving the question for others to resolve in the stated belief that many arrangements would spring up in a free society, each depending upon "the temperaments and tastes of the individual persons." Nevertheless, Yarros ended the article with a clear indication of his preference in arrangements. "[W]hy a man should not 'make a home' for the woman he loves, I am unable to see. While he is providing the means, she is educating the children and surrounding him with comfort. When they cease to be happy together, they separate."

The subsequent issue of Liberty carried the lengthy response from Zelm (Holmes). Entitled "A Reply to Victor," it would become a classic within individualist feminist literature. Holmes immediately introduced a harsh note of practical reality into Yarros' vague musings on sexuality. She demanded the discussion deal from the outset with "the number of children desirable in the future family" which was "so essential an item in the consideration of the social problem of the future."

Oddly, Holmes did not raise the question of contraception even though the repressive Comstock laws, which prohibited the spread of birth control information, had made it a prominent issue within radical circles for over a decade. Instead, Holmes chose to comment on Yarros' almost pastoral analysis of a brutal reality: women were forced to bear children whom they could not support. With reference to Yarros' poetic waxing about Apollo and Venus, she observed, "on his [Yarros'] theory of life...every Apollo will find his Venus before she is older than twenty-five." Holmes pointed out that this meant Venus would have twenty years more of fertility, and would be likely to have as many as ten children. Nevertheless, Yarros still expected her to educate them and to surround him "her lover with comfort!" Holmes concluded wryly, "if I have not misunderstood him in this, he has been looking at the subject from a man's standpoint."

Most of Zelm's "Reply" focused on similar down-to-earth issues, such as the specific arrangement which provided the best education for children, and whether the right to control the children should rest with the mother or the father. Although the her discussion often slipped into romanticized language as well, Holmes remained practical enough to offer an extremely early feminist defense of day care centers for working mothers. Indeed, when Charlotte Perkins Gilman made much the same recommendation over a decade later in her book Women and Economics, she created a sensation. Holmes anticipated this reaction as well. Regarding the suggestion that working mothers leave their children with trained strangers, she predicted she would "encounter on this point a remonstrance in the minds of many women" who believed a true mother would never leave her child, except with family. Nevertheless, Holmes insisted it might be best to look outside the family structure for "trustworthy people who would find in it [child care]...attractive labor, for which they would receive due remuneration."

Unfortunately, Holmes' budding argument for day care centers was ignored in a reply entitled "The Rights of Babies," written by fellow Liberty contributor A. Warren. Warren picked up on a more fundamental questions raised by Holmes, a question that haunts the issue of children's rights to this day. Warren addressed the issue of who should control the child. Clearly, an infant required someone to exercise protective control even though control would clearly be a violation of right if applied to an adult.

Holmes had claimed that such control should be vested in the mother alone. Warren replied, "I do not deny the right of the mother to control her child...; but it is not her exclusive right. Control of the child could not only be rightfully exercised by the father, but by third parties as well. He reasoned in the following manner, "If freedom is to be universal, children are sovereign from the moment of birth. If not, then who shall say when their freedom shall begin? But if the child is sovereign, the mother can have no authority to control it, any more than can any other person." If the child is not sovereign, then anyone could act to protect it.

In a patronizing tone that contained no sarcasm, Warren went on to compliment Holmes on the 'sensitivity' that caused her to overlook the rights of children. "Her soul went out to the mother only," Warren explained Holmes' oversight. "I am sure that, when she comes to turn her attention to this branch of the subject, she will agree with me."

Holmes' immediate reply was unresponsive to Warren's main argument, but a more thoughtful article by her appeared several issues later. By then, her "Reply to Victor" had been roundly criticized within Liberty and Holmes seemed acutely sensitive to the backlash. With a diplomacy rare in anarchist circles, Holmes confessed "my own words express my thoughts so clumsily, it may easily be that theirs [her critics] have at least in some degree failed also in revealing their own conceptions. That is, we may have mistaken each other." She graciously refused to consider an odd argument advanced by the veteran anarchist J.Wm. Lloyd in which he contended that a child be required "to pay for its life," preferring instead to believe that "Mr. Lloyd was dreaming of a glorious anarchical future..."

On the heels of a public criticism that clearly embarrassed her, another distressing situation emerged. The event may well have convinced Holmes to contribute little else to a forum in which she was treated with disrespect. Tucker explained the offending situation, "It was agreed between Victor and Zelm...that she should write a statement of his views on the subject in question, and submit it in manuscript to Zelm; that she should then write a statement of her views as a contrast to his, and in turn submit it to him; that he should then revise his manuscript in the light of hers...that she then should have a similar privilege; and so on, until each should be content to let his or her statement finally stand for comparison with the other's... [T]he original articles were to end the matter between Victor and Zelm."

Nevertheless, and knowing that Holmes would not have "entered into the arrangement" had she known it would become an extended debate, Tucker published a follow-up piece by Yarros, in which he further critiqued Holmes' article. She declined to contribute a second piece, perhaps hoping to cut short an acrimonious dispute. Her strategy did not work. In the following issue, Yarros felt it necessary to provide yet another commentary entitled "A Word of Explanation," in which he defended himself against the comments Tucker had made about his last article. Yarros stated that the misunderstanding "was not my fault, sure, but her [Holmes'] own."

With such bitterness following her major appearance in Liberty, Holmes published very little of her own work in the periodical thereafter. Instead, she contributed to Liberty through her translations and the publication of various pamphlets, most of which were advertised in the periodical. For example, she published a second edition of Stephen Pearl Andrews' libertarian classic The Science of Society.

Sadly, Holmes' withdrawal from discussion about the control of children probably doomed the early seed of a debate on children's rights within Liberty to wither. Other women fared no better in their attempts to discuss children's rights within Tucker's periodical. Clara Dixon Davidson, editor of the short-lived periodical L'Enfant Terrible, broached the issue anew in a Liberty article entitled "Relations Between Parents and Children". Davidson returned to the key question: what of infants who are too young to care for themselves? "Who shall decide upon the permissible degree of freedom? Who shall adjust the child's freedom to its safety so that the two shall be delicately, flawlessly balanced?" Davidson contended that parents had no inherent or legal duty to support their children. Their only duty was to not aggress against them.

Abiding strictly by the principle of equal liberty, she reasoned, "While a cursory glance at the subject may seem to show a denial of equal freedom in the refusal of a parent to support his child, a more careful study will reveal the truth that, so long as he does not hinder the activities of any one nor compel any other person or persons to undertake the task which he has relinquished, he cannot be said to violate the law of equal freedom. Therefore, his associates may not compel him to provide for his child, though they may forcibly prevent him from aggressing upon it."

Tucker declared the issue in which Davidson's article appeared to be 'devoted to' the question of the status of the child under Anarchy. Yet Tucker's dismissive attitude toward women was evidenced even when he attempted to praise Davidson. Announcing that her article had laid unopened in an envelope "for several months", he patronizingly confessed to being "delighted to find that a woman had written such a bold, unprejudiced, unsentimental, and altogether rational essay on a subject which women are especially prone to treat emotionally."

After year's of slighting 'the woman question,' Liberty seemed poised on the brink of exploring In the next breath, however, Tucker pushed the issue of children's rights into the background of Anarchism by observing, "In one view the question of the status of the child under Anarchy is a trivial one" whose chief value lay "in the light which it throws on the matter of equal freedom."

The issue 'devoted to children' occasioned little comment.Another piece by free love advocate Lillian Harman that questioned age-of-consent laws also sparked little controversy despite its provocative content. Even the well reasoned article by Mona Caird, entitled "Ideal Marriage", did not prompt debate. Caird argued that mothers had a superior "claim" over their offspring: that is, a claim superior to that of the father who, in turn, had a claim superior to that of a third party:

"[O]ver and above...unpaid labor, the wife has borne and reared the children, and from the very nature of the case has therefore a superior claim. An uncle or a friend might work for the children far harder than the father ever works, but he could not by that means assume rightful authority to direct their career, although the parents would naturally take the benefactor into their counsels. The mother's right rests upon her unique relationship to the child...The bread-winner, of course, has a strong claim to be consulted..."

Again, Caird's article stirred little interest. In short, although it was the women of Liberty who broached subjects of vital interest to women, such as the status of children under Anarchy, the real exchanges arose independent of and despite their efforts. The women were ignored or treated disrespectfully. When a full-blown debate over children's rights finally erupted within Liberty, it was conducted by -- or, perhaps, more accurately abandoned to -- the men. And, so the discussion centered around the ideological points of concern to them: Stirnerite egoism v. natural rights. Holmes was still a presence at Liberty, but she did not join the debate. She did imbue it with the humanity and common sense, which she had brought to the earlier discussion. later debate lacked.