150 Years Of The Atlantic June 2006

Women’s Empowerment

This is the fifth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Terry Castle, a professor of English at Stanford. Her books include The Apparitional Lesbian and Courage, Mon Amie
June 1926

Six years after the Nineteenth Amendment had given American women the right to vote, Atlantic contributor Faith Fairfield pointed to an ongoing double standard in other areas.

The progress of man has never been impeded by preconceived ideas regarding his abilities, his proper interests, and his appropriate activities. Woman has always been so hampered. For generations her existence was narrowly prescribed because she was considered an inferior creature lacking a soul and possessing but a rudimentary intellect … Woman … is repeatedly reminded that the greatest scientists, musicians, and artists have never been numbered among her sex …

The average woman must still choose between domesticity and a career … In exceptional cases a woman continues her work without interruption after marriage, her home life being as subordinated to her career as a man’s would be. The work these women accomplish is often exceptionally valuable, perhaps because they are emotionally as well as intellectually satisfied. This solution of the modern social problem … is probably most efficacious in giving woman an opportunity to develop her possibilities …

An intellectual man may be married to a low-grade moron with the sanction of society, but the husband of a woman of unusual ability is considered an object for pity or merriment unless his accomplishments equal or excel hers.

Volume 137, No. 6, pp. 801–804

May and June 1938

In 1938, Virginia Woolf, a champion of equal opportunity for women and the author of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and A Room of One’s Own, responded scathingly in the pages of The Atlantic to a written solicitation she had received in the mail asking “the daughters of educated men” to join in the cause against war. What women really ought to lobby for, she argued, is equal opportunity and better pay for themselves.

One does not like to leave unanswered so remarkable a letter as yours—a letter perhaps unique in the history of human correspondence, since when before has an educated man asked a woman how, in her opinion, can war be prevented? Therefore let us now make the attempt, even if it is doomed to failure …

The fact is indisputable—scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman’s rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us.

How, then, are we to understand your problem, and if we cannot, how can we answer your question, how to prevent war? The answer based upon our experience and our psychology—Why fight?—is not an answer that would be of the least use to you …

Some more energetic, some more active method of expressing our belief that war is barbarous, that war is inhuman,—that war, as Wilfred Owen put it, is insupportable, horrible, and beastly,—seems to be required. But, rhetoric apart, what active method is open to us?

You, of course, could once more take up arms—in Spain, for example—in defense of peace. But that presumably is a method that you have rejected. At any rate that method is not open to us; both the Army and the Navy are closed to our sex. Nor, again, are we allowed to be members of the Stock Exchange. Thus we cannot use either the pressure of force or the pressure of money. We cannot preach sermons or negotiate treaties. Then again, although it is true that we can write articles or send letters to the press, the control of the press,—the decision what to print and what not to print,—is entirely in the hands of your sex. It is true that for the past twenty years we have been admitted to the Civil Service and to the Bar; but our position there is still very precarious and our authority of the slightest …

There is [a] way in which [women can help the anti-war cause]. And that is by earning their own livings; by continuing to earn those livings while the war is in progress. History is at hand to assure us that this method has a psychological influence, a strong dissuasive force upon war-makers. In the last war the daughters of working men proved it by showing that they could do their brother’s work in his absence. They thus roused his jealousy and his anxiety lest his place should have been filled in his absence, and provided him with a strong incentive to end the war.

It follows that an Outsider must make it her business to press for a living wage in all the professions now open to her sex; further, she must create new professions in which she can earn the right to an independent opinion. Therefore she must bind herself to press for a money wage for the unpaid worker in her own class—the daughters and sisters of educated men who are now paid on the truck system, with food, lodging, and a pittance of forty pounds a year. But above all she must press for a wage to be paid by the State legally to the mothers of educated men. It is the most effective way in which we can ensure that the married woman shall have a mind and a will of her own, with which, if his mind and will are good in her eyes, to support her husband, if bad to resist him—in any case to cease to be “his woman,” and to be herself.

Volume 161, Nos. 5–6, pp. 585–594 and 750–759

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