Mark Twain on the sexual superiority of women and girls

Mark Twain and Dorothy Quick
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Dorothy Quick aboard the Minnetonka (July 1907) – from

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (b. November 30, 1835; d. April 21, 1910), the American writer and humorist better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was a free mind who evolved towards radicalism as he aged, opposing slavery and American imperialism, promoting civil rights and hailing labour unions. Although he was raised as a Presbyterian, he became distrustful of dogma and established religion. He did not publish in his lifetime his most controversial works about religion, and some of them were withheld from publication after his death, because his family disapproved them, notably: the novel The Mysterious Stranger published in 1916, the short story Little Bessie first published in 1972, and the collection of essays Letters From The Earth, written around 1909 and published only in 1962.

The last years of Twain’s life were marked by the deaths of his first daughter Susy in 1896, then of his wife Olivia in 1904, and finally of his third daughter Jean in 1909. Only his second daughter Clara (1874–1962) survived him. On April 17, 1908, he wrote:

After my wife’s death, June 5, 1904, I experienced a long period of unrest and loneliness. Clara and Jean were busy with their studies and their labors and I was washing about on a forlorn sea of banquets and speechmaking in high and holy causes … I had reached the grandpapa stage of life; and what I lacked and what I needed was grandchildren. (Cooley, p. xx)

So in 1907 (at the age of 72), he started “collecting” young girls, whom he nicknamed “angel-fish,” and he called their group the “Aquarium Club.” In an autobiographical dictation of February, 12, 1908, he explained:

I suppose we are all collectors … As for me, I collect pets: young girls—girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent—dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears. (Cooley, p. xvii)

A detailed exposition of this late passion of Twain, with a biography of each girl, was given by Barbara Schmidt.

It is in this context that he wrote Letters from the Earth, probably between 1904 and 1909. This work takes the form of a series of reports written for the archangels Gabriel and Michael by Satan, who has been exiled to Earth. In them he mocks the Bible, presenting the God described in it as a cruel and wicked ruler, its commands as the worst absurdities, and the stories in that book as weird nonsense.

In 1939, Bernard DeVoto, then editor of the Mark Twain papers, selected the essays, edited and sequenced them for a book. However Twain’s last surviving daughter Clara objected to its publication, claiming that it presented a “distorted view” of her father’s ideas and attitudes. Now Twain was held as a literary hero in the Soviet Union, where many translations of his works were published, and Soviet literary critics denounced her refusal as a case of American censorship, claiming that his ideas were being suppressed in the United States. Finally in 1960 Charles Neider, editor of an “Autobiography of Mark Twain,” and Henry Nash Smith, the new editor of the Mark Twain papers, helped Clara change her mind. Also she did not want to feed Soviet propaganda. So she finally agreed to release the papers, because “Mark Twain belonged to the world” and public opinion had become more tolerant. The book was published in August 1962, three months before Clara’s death.

I give here an excerpt from Letter VIII, devoted to the foolishness of man in sexual matters.

The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in woman’s construction is this: There shall be no limit put upon your intercourse with the other sex sexually, at any time of life.

The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in man’s construction is this: During your entire life you shall be under inflexible limits and restrictions, sexually.

During twenty-three days in every month (in absence of pregnancy) from the time a woman is seven years old till she dies of old age, she is ready for action, and competent. As competent as the candlestick is to receive the candle. Competent every day, competent every night. Also she wants that candle — yearns for it, longs for it, hankers after it, as commanded by the law of God in her heart.

But man is only briefly competent; and only then in the moderate measure applicable to the word in his sex’s case. He is competent from the age of sixteen or seventeen thence-forward for thirty-five years. After fifty his performance is of poor quality, the intervals between are wide, and its satisfactions of no great value to either party; whereas his great-grandmother is as good as new. There is nothing the matter with her plant. Her candlestick is as firm as ever, whereas his candle is increasingly softened and weakened by the weather of age, as the years go by, until at last it can no longer stand, and is mournfully laid to rest in the hope of a blessed resurrection which is never to come.

By the woman’s make, her plant has to be out of service three days in the month, and during a part of her pregnancy. These are times of discomfort, often of suffering. For fair and just compensation she has the high privilege of unlimited adultery all the other days of her life.

That is the law of God, as revealed in her make. What becomes of this high privilege? Does she live in free enjoyment of it? No. Nowhere in the whole world. She is robbed of it everywhere. Who does this? Man. Man’s statutes — if the Bible is the Word of God.

Now there you have a sample of man’s “reasoning powers,” as he calls them. He observes certain facts. For instance, that in all his life he never sees the day that he can satisfy one woman; also, that no woman ever sees the day that she can’t overwork, and defeat, and put out of commission any ten masculine plants that can be put to bed to her. He puts those strikingly suggestive and luminous facts together, and from them draws this astonishing conclusion: The Creator intended the woman to be restricted to one man.

So he concretes that singular conclusion into law, for good and all.

And he does it without consulting the woman, although she has a thousand times more at stake in the matter than he has. His procreative competency is limited to an average of a hundred exercises per year for fifty years, hers is good for three thousand a year for that whole time — and as many years longer as she may live. Thus his life interest in the matter is five thousand refreshments, while hers is a hundred and fifty thousand; yet instead of fairly and honorably leaving the making of the law to the person who has an overwhelming interest at stake in it, this immeasurable hog, who has nothing at stake in it worth considering, makes it himself!

You have heretofore found out, by my teachings, that man is a fool; you are now aware that woman is a damned fool.

Twain bases his argument on the well-known physiologic feature of human female sexuality: the female sexual response is separate from reproductive functions, so it can be repeated several times in a day, and remains strong throughout life, in particular before puberty and after menopause.

Since the Victorian era, one usually thinks that the sex drive is stronger in men than in women. However such a view did not prevail in the Middle Ages. The famous witchhunter’s manual Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), published by the Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Institoris in 1487, posits the insatiable sexuality of women as one of the roots of witchcraft. In it, Question 6 asks “why a larger number of sorcerers is found among the delicate female sex than among men,” and it concludes (translation by Christopher S. Mackay, Cambridge University Press, 2009):

Conclusion. Everything is governed by carnal lusting, which is insatiable in them (next to the last chapter of Proverbs [30:15]: “There are three insatiable things . . . and a fourth that never says, ‘It is enough,’” namely the opening of the womb) and for this reason they even cavort with demons to satisfy their lust.

So inquisitors crushed female sexuality by terror, torture and mass burning, and the modern bourgeois men finished their job through their ideology positing the virginal purity of women; all these men were fools, says Twain. But too many women have believed in the superior strength of the male sexual drive, in particular the Victorian “social purity” activists who campaigned for “votes for women, chastity for men,” trying thus to curb male sexuality in the same way as female sexuality had been for centuries. Their contemporary heirs, “victomologists,” view sexuality basically as a story of hapless and powerless women victims of aggressive male sexual drive. Damned fools, says Twain.

One will note that in this text Twain sets the age seven as the time when a girl is competent for coition, a very young age indeed. Past societies had much younger minimum ages for sex than our contemporary one, but I am not aware of any where seven-year-old girls practiced vaginal sex. Following Roman Law, the Catholic Church instituted the minimum age of twelve for marriage of girls. At the beginning of the 19th century, in many European countries the age of consent for girls varied between ten and twelve. Ethnological reports on primitive societies mention often sexual activity of girls aged about ten with adult men, for instance Captain Cook’s Journal During the First Voyage Round the World by James Cook tells about Tahiti:

This day closed with an odd sceen at the Gate of the Fort, where a young Fellow above 6 feet high made love to a little Girl about 10 or 12 years of Age publickly before several of our people and a number of the Natives. What makes me mention this is because it appear’d to be done according to Custom, for there were several women present, particularly Obariea and several others of the better sort, and these were so far from showing the least disapprobation that they instructed the Girl how she should Act her part, who, young as she was, did not seem to want it.

The average age at which a girl would become physically and psychologically ready for penetrative sex, that should be an interesting program of research, probably impossible to implement in our times.

References and further readings:

Mark Twain, Letters From The Earth (1909).

John Cooley, ed., Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence, 1905–1910, University of Georgia Press (1991).

Barbara Schmidt, “Mark Twain’s angel-fish roster and other young women of interest,” TwainQuotes site.

Arthur Gelb, “Anti-Religious Work by Twain, Long Withheld, to Be Published,” The New York Times, August 24, 1962.

Howard Mumford Jones, “The Other Face of the Humorist” [BOOK REVIEW], The New York Times, September 23, 1962.

Mrs. Jacques Samossoud Dies; Mark Twain’s Last Living Child,” The New York Times, November 21, 1962

Ron, “If Worship Be the Right Name: Samuel Clemens,” Pigtails in Paint, May 29, 2017.

Previously published on Agapeta, 2017/11/30.

4 thoughts on “Mark Twain on the sexual superiority of women and girls

  1. Spectacular and very factual. Thank you for posting. Little did he know that all his beliefs on female sexual superiority would be confirmed by numerous sexologists studying the female orgasm and female sexuality!! Very smart man ahead of his time who never negated the sexual capacities of female sexual superiority! I too have confirmed with the many women I have been with the same! She is an ocean of endless pleasures that’s capable of going and going with one intense orgasm after another without true tire and while I always fall behind her innate beautiful abilities, she is there enjoying true infinite pleasure unlike men with our limitations unfortunately! I am not complaining as women are beautiful in all her precious sexual glory! It is an incredible experience to watch her! Thank you once again!

  2. Great and entertaining summary of Mark Twain’s thinking about female sexuality. I think Mr. Clemens would have been proud!

    Let me make a few notes. I think that when he says that the girl “is ready for action” at seven years old, he does not exactly mean that she is already ready for penetrative sex always and in any case, at such a young age. Yes, I think he leaves the door open for that to happen at times, but I don’t think he is saying that is so for every girl, just as he is not saying that men are only competent for penetration between sixteen. and thirty-five years!

    My perception is that he is talking about sexuality in an erotic and lustful sense, not just about vaginal intercourse as such (without denying that penetration is fun!). For Twain, the woman lives with passion and force her erotic desires from the age of seven until her death (“she wants that candle – yearns for it, longs for it, hankers after it”), while the man is much more limited (his sexual zenith is much later and ends earlier). He says that the seven-year-old is already “competent every day” and “yearns in her heart” like “the candlestick longs for the candle” …. Twain speaks of “sex drive” as such, but his language refers to rather, erotic, psychological desire, which is much broader in women than mere penetration (while recognizing that man, due to the phallic essence of his sexuality, is much more limited in this regard).
    In addition, we must not forget that this Letter is written as a protest libel against the puritan mentality and machismo of all times. He is not making a treatise on pedagogy or history of sexuality, but acknowledging a fact that, as a husband, father, and observer of all kinds of girls, he recognizes. And, if you allow me, trying at the same time to provoke certain erotic emotions in the reader (his suggestively phallic language, the passion with which he describes the sexual availability of women and girls until their old age, etc) in the face of an unrecognized reality- culturally repressed. The imperative style leaves no doubt, in my opinion, in that regard. Twain puts the girl’s sexuality before the adult male reader’s eyes and forces him to acknowledge her superiority, flirting even with the erotic genre in his metaphorical style about candles and candlesticks ….
    In any case, as you say, to reach a conclusion would require more scientific studies – currently impossible. Here we have the intuition (and genius) of an artist transcribing an observed reality in literary form … But as an older man myself, raised in a small country village (where everything was much freer and the children were much less watched to go and come where they wanted), in other times I remember how parents went after their daughters trying to avoid all the time that they at an early age were too “daring” in that regard.

    On the other hand, in the history of culture, I only think I remember an example of penetrative sex at such an early age in the Satiricon, where a nuptial night is celebrated with a girl of that age, Panucha (curiously, that word has passed as “panocha “to the Spanish language as a synonym for vagina) and a young man of sixteen me, exactly the ages to which Twain refers!

    Thank you very much for your work on the blog.

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment. I myself was not very specific about the way Mark Twain viewed the sexuality of little girls.

      1. you’re right. surely twain doesn’t want to be too specific either. In this case, I believe that his objective is not the sexuality of the girls as such, but rather the sexual superiority of women in all stages of their lives. But as a good polemicist, adding a few drops of scandal and exaggeration.

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