In Defense of Women

Author: H. L. Mencken

38. Pathological Effects

This feminine craving for martyrdom, of course, often takes on a downright pathological character, and so engages the psychiatrist. Women show many other traits of the same sort. To be a woman under our Christian civilization, indeed, means to live a life that is heavy with repression and dissimulation, and this repression and dissimulation, in the long run, cannot fail to produce effects that are indistinguishable from disease. You will find some of them described at length in any handbook on psychoanalysis. The Viennese, Adler, and the Dane, Poul Bjerre, argue, indeed, that womanliness itself, as it is encountered under Christianity, is a disease. All women suffer from a suppressed revolt against the inhibitions forced upon them by our artificial culture, and this suppressed revolt, by well known Freudian means, produces a complex of mental symptoms that is familiar to all of us. At one end of the scale we observe the suffragette, with her grotesque adoption of the male belief in laws, phrases and talismans, and her hysterical demand for a sexual libertarianism that she could not put to use if she had it. And at the other end we find the snuffling and neurotic woman, with her bogus martyrdom, her extravagant pruderies and her pathological delusions. As Ibsen observed long ago, this is a man’s world. Women have broken many of their old chains, but they are still enmeshed in a formidable network of man-made taboos and sentimentalities, and it will take them another generation, at least, to get genuine freedom. That this is true is shown by the deep unrest that yet marks the sex, despite its recent progress toward social, political and economic equality. It is almost impossible to find a man who honestly wishes that he were a woman, but almost every woman, at some time or other in her life, is gnawed by a regret that she is not a man.

Two of the hardest things that women have to bear are (a) the stupid masculine disinclination to admit their intellectual superiority, or even their equality, or even their possession of a normal human equipment for thought, and (b) the equally stupid masculine doctrine that they constitute a special and ineffable species of vertebrate, without the natural instincts and appetites of the order—to adapt a phrase from Hackle, that they are transcendental and almost gaseous mammals, and marked by a complete lack of certain salient mammalian characters. The first imbecility has already concerned us at length. One finds traces of it even in works professedly devoted to disposing of it. In one such book, for example, I come upon this: "What all the skill and constructive capacity of the physicians in the Crimean War failed to accomplish Florence Nightingale accomplished by her beautiful femininity and nobility of soul." In other words, by her possession of some recondite and indescribable magic, sharply separated from the ordinary mental processes of man. The theory is unsound and preposterous. Miss Nightingale accomplished her useful work, not by magic, but by hard common sense. The problem before her was simply one of organization. Many men had tackled it, and all of them had failed stupendously. What she did was to bring her feminine sharpness of wit, her feminine clear-thinking, to bear upon it. Thus attacked, it yielded quickly, and once it had been brought to order it was easy for other persons to carry on what she had begun. But the opinion of a man’s world still prefers to credit her success to some mysterious angelical quality, unstatable in lucid terms and having no more reality than the divine inspiration of an archbishop. Her extraordinarily acute and accurate intelligence is thus conveniently put upon the table, and the amour propre of man is kept inviolate. To confess frankly that she had more sense than any male Englishman of her generation would be to utter a truth too harsh to be bearable.

The second delusion commonly shows itself in the theory, already discussed, that women are devoid of any sex instinct—that they submit to the odious caresses of the lubricious male only by a powerful effort of the will, and with the sole object of discharging their duty to posterity. It would be impossible to go into this delusion with proper candour and at due length in a work designed for reading aloud in the domestic circle; all I can do is to refer the student to the books of any competent authority on the psychology of sex, say Ellis, or to the confidences (if they are obtainable) of any complaisant bachelor of his acquaintance.


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Chicago: H. L. Mencken, "38. Pathological Effects," In Defense of Women, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in In Defense of Women (New York: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1906), Original Sources, accessed October 3, 2022,

MLA: Mencken, H. L. "38. Pathological Effects." In Defense of Women, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in In Defense of Women, Vol. 22, New York, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1906, Original Sources. 3 Oct. 2022.

Harvard: Mencken, HL, '38. Pathological Effects' in In Defense of Women, ed. . cited in 1906, In Defense of Women, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 October 2022, from