If you were browsing in a used bookstore and encountered a tome called In Defense of Women, you might immediately dismiss it as the handiwork of a male feminist and drop it like a turd. Author H.L. Mencken, however, was anything but a white knight, and his observations on “the woman problem,” though made a century ago (the book was originally published in 1918 and an updated edition was published four years later) when the women’s suffrage movement was in full swing, are still insightful and relevant today.
Mencken, was a huge literary celebrity in his day. The books and articles he wrote were considered cutting edge, as were The American Mercury and The Smart Set, the literary magazines he edited. As a young man, he took it upon himself to read great works of literature. He honed his distinctive prose style as a journalist in his hometown of Baltimore. In 1919, he turned out The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, the definitive work on American English at that point in the nation’s history, and remained relevant enough to go through three more editions. Pretty good for a guy who never spent a day in a college classroom.
Despite his abbreviated formal education, Mencken was a culture hero to generations of college students. His April 1926 visit to Boston (because an issue of The American Mercury was literally banned in Boston) drew throngs of admiring college students. Collections of his papers are housed at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins.
Mencken’s paper trail was not only lengthy but littered with verbiage sure to distress modern-day social justice warriors. An appearance by the likes of Mencken at any of the aforementioned colleges today would result in false fire alarms, bullhorn-wielding activists, virtue-signaling faculty members, and slogan-chanting mobs.
As much as Mencken criticized, vilified, or simply poked fun at people, collectively or individually, he did not take sides. If he tore into a Republican incumbent, that did not mean he was endorsing the Democratic challenger. If he berated captains of industry, that did not mean he was a champion of the working man. He simply called ‘em as he saw ‘em, and the battle of the sexes was no exception. As biographer Fred Hobson (Mencken: A Life published in 1995) , put it, “Depending on the position of the reader, he was either a great defender of women’s rights or, as a critic labeled him in 1916, ‘the greatest misogynist since Schopenhauer.’”
Mencken defies categorization, but today he would probably be most at home in the classical liberal or libertarian camps. Interesting to note that The H.L. Mencken Club, founded in 2008, bills itself as “a Society for the Independent Right.”
Mencken was sympathetic to Nietzchean philosophy (Mencken was born in 1880, so Nietzsche’s writings were still fresh when he was young) and detested democracy and egalitarianism as he felt that they allowed lesser men (think beta males) to impose their will upon “first-rate men” (think alpha males), a phrase he used often.
Unlike elitists today, however, Mencken did not seek to manipulate the masses or impose his values on them. He was no reformer. Statism as a vehicle for social engineering was just getting started (Prohibition and women’s suffrage both took effect in 1920) in America. Russia was much more “progressive” in those days.
The American manosphere was a very different place 100 years ago…or was it? True, a lot of the terminology in common parlance today wasn’t around back then, but consider these quotes from In Defense of Women pertaining to:
They [women] are harder to please, and hence pleased less often.
Not one woman in a hundred ever marries her first choice among marriageable men.
The woman of true discretion, I am convinced, would much rather marry a superior man, even on unfavourable terms, than make John Smith her husband, serf and prisoner at one stroke.
The most civilized man is simply that man who has been most successful in caging and harnessing his honest and natural instincts – that is, the man who has done most cruel violence to his own ego in the interest of the commonweal. The value of this commonweal is always overestimated. What is it at bottom? Simply the greatest good to the greatest number – of petty rogues, ignoramuses and poltroons.
It is difficult, in all history, to find six first-rate philosophers who were married men.
Nine men out of ten would be quite happy, I believe, if there were no women in the world, once they had grown accustomed to the quiet.
PATRIARCHY AND RAPE CULTURE:
There are, of course, women who spend a great deal of time denouncing and reviling men, but these are certainly not genuine man-haters; they are simply women who have done their utmost to snare men, and failed. Of such sort are the majority of inflammatory suffragettes of the sex-hygiene and birth-control species. The rigid limitation of offspring, in fact, is chiefly advanced by women who run no more risk of having unwilling motherhood forced upon them than so many mummies of the tenth dynasty.
The woman who is not pursued set up the doctrine that pursuit is offensive to her sex, and wants to make it a felony. No genuinely attractive woman has any such desire. She likes masculine admiration, however violently expressed, and is quite able to take care of herself.
All the more intelligent women that I know, indeed, are unanimously of the opinion that no girl in her right mind has ever been actually seduced since the world began.
Oldish men are so often taken by girls in their teens. It is not that age calls maudlinly to youth, as the poets would have it; it is that age is no match for youth, especially when age is male and youth is female.
FAMILY LAW COURT INJUSTICE:
Under the contract of marriage, all the duties lie upon the man and all the privileges appertain to the woman.
Let him [the husband] undertake the slightest rebellion, over and beyond mere rhetorical protest, and the whole force of the state comes down upon him .… She is under no legal necessity whatsoever to carry out her part of the compact at the altar of God, whereas he faces instant disgrace and punishment for the slightest failure to observe its last letter.
THE MALE GAZE:
I give you my word that there were not five women at either national convention [in 1920] who could have embraced me without first giving me chloral. Some of the stateswomen on show, in fact, were so downright hideous that I felt faint every time I had to look at them.
The average man, whatever his stupidity, is at least keen enough in judgment to prefer a wink from a genuinely attractive woman to the last delirious favors of the typical suffragette.
The way to put an end to the gaudy crimes that the suffragist alarmists talk about is to shave the heads of all the pretty girls in the world, and pull their teeth, and put them in khaki, and forbid them to wriggle on dance-floors, or to wear scents, or to use lip-sticks or to roll their eyes.
Now don’t infer from the above that Mencken believed in male superiority. On the contrary, he thought that the average woman was superior to the average man. He might have been observing the effects of the bell curve in which more women than men gravitate towards the mean. At any rate, here are his thoughts on the subject:
I am convinced that the average woman, whatever her deficiencies, is greatly superior to the average man. The very ease with which she defies and swindles him in several capital situations of life is the clearest proof of her general superiority.
The very fact that marriages occur at all is a proof, indeed, that they [women] are more cool-headed than men, and more adept in employing their intellectual resources, for it is plainly to a man’s interest to avoid marriage as long as possible, and as plainly to a woman’s interest to make a favourable marriage as soon as she can.
His inherent sentimentality is the chief weapon in the hand of his opponent. …it makes him, above all, see a glamour of romance in a transaction which, even at its best, contains almost as much gross trafficking, at bottom, as the sale of a mule.
“The woman problem” Mencken wrote about 100 years ago is small potatoes compared to what it is today. Indeed, these days we are more likely to hear about “the man problem.” I would not presume to put words in Mencken’s mouth, but if he were around today he would likely have nothing flattering to say about either sex.
His opinions about women aside, Mencken’s celebrity status assured he did not lack for female attention. A lifelong proponent of bachelorhood, he finally tied the knot at age 50. Predictably, his critics said he was a traitor to the cause. Well, he married a woman 22 years his junior (a writer/English professor), so even he was not immune to neoteny. Ironically, his wife was not in good health, and he outlived her by 21 years. He chose not to marry again.
Mencken should serve as a posthumous spokesman for the manosphere. Like any contemporary MRA, he saw the legal injustices perpetrated against men and pointed them out, all the while leading a MGTOW lifestyle.
Most importantly, Mencken not only championed free speech, he was its most eloquent practitioner. In today’s world of tweets, texting, and sound bites, a dose of Mencken is a reminder that there used to be such a thing as a prose style. If you don’t believe it, just type in his name at any of the internet sites devoted to famous quotes. Or you can read the complete text of In Defense of Women by going to www.gutenberg.org.
It’s a first-rate read by a first-rate writer and a first-rate man.