In Defense of Women

Author: H. L. Mencken

42. The Transvaluation of Values

The gradual emancipation of women that has been going on for the last century has still a long way to proceed before they are wholly delivered from their traditional burdens and so stand clear of the oppressions of men. But already, it must be plain, they have made enormous progress—perhaps more than they made in the ten thousand years preceding. The rise of the industrial system, which has borne so harshly upon the race in general, has brought them certain unmistakable benefits. Their economic dependence, though still sufficient to make marriage highly attractive to them, is nevertheless so far broken down that large classes of women are now almost free agents, and quite independent of the favour of men. Most of these women, responding to ideas that are still powerful, are yet intrigued, of course, by marriage, and prefer it to the autonomy that is coming in, but the fact remains that they now have a free choice in the matter, and that dire necessity no longer controls them. After all, they needn’t marry if they don’t want to; it is possible to get their bread by their own labour in the workshops of the world. Their grandmothers were in a far more difficult position. Failing marriage, they not only suffered a cruel ignominy, but in many cases faced the menace of actual starvation. There was simply no respectable place in the economy of those times for the free woman. She either had to enter a nunnery or accept a disdainful patronage that was as galling as charity.

Nothing could be, plainer than the effect that the increasing economic security of women is having upon their whole habit of life and mind. The diminishing marriage rate and the even more rapidly diminishing birth rates how which way the wind is blowing. It is common for male statisticians, with characteristic imbecility, to ascribe the fall in the marriage rate to a growing disinclination on the male side. This growing disinclination is actually on the female side. Even though no considerable, body of women has yet reached the definite doctrine that marriage is less desirable than freedom, it must be plain that large numbers of them now approach the business with far greater fastidiousness than their grandmothers or even their mothers exhibited. They are harder to please, and hence pleased less often. The woman of a century ago could imagine nothing more favourable to her than marriage; even marriage with a fifth rate man was better than no marriage at all. This notion is gradually feeling the opposition of a contrary notion. Women in general may still prefer marriage, to work, but there is an increasing minority which begins to realize that work may offer the greater contentment, particularly if it be mellowed by a certain amount of philandering.

There already appears in the world, indeed, a class of women, who, while still not genuinely averse to marriage, are yet free from any theory that it is necessary, or even invariably desirable. Among these women are a goodman somewhat vociferous propagandists, almost male in their violent earnestness; they range from the man eating suffragettes to such preachers of free motherhood as Ellen Key and such professional shockers of the bourgeoisie as the American prophetess of birth-control, Margaret Sanger. But among them are many more who wake the world with no such noisy eloquence, but content themselves with carrying out their ideas in a quiet and respectable manner. The number of such women is much larger than is generally imagined, and that number tends to increase steadily. They are women who, with their economic independence assured, either by inheritance or by their own efforts, chiefly in the arts and professions, do exactly as they please, and make no pother about it. Naturally enough, their superiority to convention and the common frenzy makes them extremely attractive to the better sort of men, and so it is not uncommon for one of them to find herself voluntarily sought in marriage, without any preliminary scheming by herself—surely an experience that very few ordinary women ever enjoy, save perhaps in dreams or delirium.

The old order changeth and giveth place to the new. Among the women’s clubs and in the women’s colleges, I have no doubt, there is still much debate of the old and silly question: Are platonic relations possible between the sexes? In other words, is friendship possible without sex? Many a woman of the new order dismisses the problem with another question: Why without sex? With the decay of the ancient concept of women as property there must come inevitably a reconsideration of the whole sex question, and out of that reconsideration there must come a revision of the mediaeval penalties which now punish the slightest frivolity in the female. The notion that honour in women is exclusively a physical matter, that a single aberrance may convert a woman of the highest merits into a woman of none at all, that the sole valuable thing a woman can bring to marriage is virginity—this notion is so preposterous that no intelligent person, male or female, actually cherishes it. It survives as one of the hollow conventions of Christianity; nay, of the levantine barbarism that preceded Christianity. As women throw off the other conventions which now bind them they will throw off this one, too, and so their virtue, grounded upon fastidiousness and self-respect instead of upon mere fear and conformity, will become afar more laudable thing than it ever can be under the present system. And for its absence, if they see fit to dispose of it, they will no more apologize. than a man apologizes today.


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Chicago: H. L. Mencken, "42. The Transvaluation of Values," In Defense of Women, trans. Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946 in In Defense of Women (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1920), Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022,

MLA: Mencken, H. L. "42. The Transvaluation of Values." In Defense of Women, translted by Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946, in In Defense of Women, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1920, Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022.

Harvard: Mencken, HL, '42. The Transvaluation of Values' in In Defense of Women, trans. . cited in 1920, In Defense of Women, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from