The Transitional American Woman
WHAT is this curious product of today, the American girl or woman ? Does the heroine of any American novel fitly stand as a type of what she is? and, furthermore, is it possible for any novel, within the next fifty years, truly to depict her as a finality, when she is still emerging from new conditions in a comparatively old civilization, when she does not yet understand herself, and when her actions are often the awkward results of motives, complex in their character, unconsciously to herself ? Pessimists speak of woman’s foibles as constitutional, and displayed alike in all ages and countries. Optimists, accepting this statement, add to it the factor of evolution, and believe that just as the race has been modified physically by climate and conditions of life, so will the former type of woman, by elimination of the weaker elements and survival of the fittest, be essentially modified into something larger and better than has yet been. But as in all modifications something valuable is often lost, there is danger that many of the present tendencies amongst women will be developed into undue and harmful prominence.
The expression in the faces of the past and present woman indicates a change. A certain noted physician, on receiving a new case, always calls for earlier and later photographs of his patient, that he may compare the changes wrought in the course of years, which may have contributed to the present condition. Such a gallery of portraits might help in a diagnosis of our modern woman. The peace and equipoise, the hauteur, united with unconsciousness of self, are all gone. The face of to-day is stamped with restlessness, wandering purpose, and self-consciousness. The religious aspect has vanished from conversation. A modern “ lunch ” affords opportunity for testing ordinary feminine talk, which is never bad or vulgar, on the whole not even frivolous, but is marked by superficiality in its discussion of novels and subjects, though showing great familiarity with all known and to be known publications. Each woman could talk far better than she does, if she were not hampered by self-consciousness. An Englishwoman said, “ At home politics and party measures are discussed at our ladies’ lunches, but in America one must first go to a circulating library before accepting a noonday invitation.” Latterly, suffrage has become a feature of conversation with us, but in a humorous or questioning vein rather than in an argumentative or serious manner, except with the one-ideaed, earnest souls who can feel no charm in the “ touchand-go ” style of refined society. Gossip —not scandal — and allusions to conventional modes of philanthropy take the place of discussion of yesterday’s sermon or the last congressional debate. If one wishes a foreigner to form a favorable opinion of women, apart from any special vocation they may have, he should be invited to a ladies’ lunch, pure and simple, and he will be compelled to admit that our American women are easy, brilliant, kindly, cultivated, and altogether charming. But he will read restlessness in many a face, will notice an empressement of manner, a little hurry in the gait, quick tones of voice, a business air, suggestive of the surmise that all these women are “ in ” or “ at something.’’ The leisurely, graceful element is wanting.
Society has grown so complex in both town and country that it is difficult to assert any universal predicates of either, without fear of contradiction. The New England woman should be taken as the largest representative of the whole country, because the Southern woman is minus her driving qualities, plus an added grace and piquant deportment; and the Western woman is minus the Southern charm and the New England selfconsciousness and morbid conscientiousness, plus an active self-assertion that has already resulted in successful individual and concerted measures. In all these women, however, “ progressive desire,” the one characteristic that separates the human from the animal race, has made havoc, till now we have a few marked features, constituting the battleground on which will be fought out the results of this emancipation from old lines of conduct.
As justification of this new departure, it must be remembered that we are no longer living in an age marked by a dominant cause. Work, government, society, knowledge, philanthropy, yearly grow more specialized, whilst our foremothers had above them their faith in the special providences of God, and around and below them a daily struggle for material needs. Life was grave and tender in these women, who felt that they were the founders of a new race. And just as they were beginning to realize that less praying and less manual labor would obtain their daily bread and make them heroic mothers of men, whose motto was yet to be Renunciation, came the Revolution, to give them another unified impulse towards simplicity of life, dignity of thought, and trust in God. All women in these two periods thought and fought alike for the same reason. Subdivision in feminine interests was just creeping into slight notice, when our last war again united women in a single cause; but the country had grown larger, and faith in public prayer, church-going, special providences, less. The material comforts of the last fifty years had disintegrated simplicity of life, and rendered possible a speedy arrival at modern complexity ; and there was rarely an ineffaceable stamp of dignity left on those who nobly had borne their part in hospital and field and sanitary work, North and South. Now thousands make temperance their holy cause, a few thousands consider female suffrage as such, and then the female hosts break up into companies of one or more hundreds each, all clamoring for their special hobby, cause, work.
Such diversity of interests has some advantages, but it also prevents that directness and universality of aim which made our great-grandmothers such devoted, honoring wives and such mothers filled with the spirit of the Lord, and has reacted unfavorably, to a large extent, upon the home. Not only are the four orthodox kinds of Thanksgiving pies in groaning larders gone, not only has the skeptical feeling arisen that turkeys may be roasted and pumpkin pies eaten before the canonical November day, but the mother-spirit that stuffed the turkey and strained the pumpkin is going, and a new theory arising, that husbands and children ought not to like pies, and that if perchance such taste is inherited, it must be supplanted by the notion that the wife and mother is made for something beyond catering to appetites uncoutent with plain apples and cheese for dessert.
Men naturally care less for the home when the wife does not first render service unto it; for, being married, it has become her duty, voluntarily assumed, but sanctioned by the state and sealed with marriage vows. Not long ago, a man and woman, swinging each other’s fingers, were wending their way to the altar, when a dispute arose as to which one should purchase the cooking-stove. “You,” quoth the man, “for you will do the cooking.” “ Not so,” said the woman. “ I am not going to do all the cooking.” The dispute waxed hot, and separation ensued.
Not only are pies in the home decreasing, but affection for it is also on the wane, as the need of individuality within it becomes more definite. But few sons and daughters have yet learned to sweeten the necessary transit from their early submission to their parents to later equality with the father and mother, or to a still later guardianship of them, with reverence for the parental relation in itself. Women do not care for their home as they did; it is no longer the focus of all their endeavors ; nor is the mother the involuntary nucleus of the adult children. Daughters must have art studios outside of their home ; authoresses must have a study near by; and aspirants to culture must attend classes or readings in some semipublic place. Professional women have found that, however dear the home is, they can exist without it. Many still remain at home, but ask, in their midnight musings, why it should be right for a man to accept that position which the woman, on account of her home, must refuse. The query itself could not have arisen half a century since. Many men refrain from marriage, fearing that the homes offered by them will not be the chief delight of the wife, who will be capable of finding pleasure and occupation in other avenues of interest. It may be a selfish and man-like feeling, yet it exists; and after women have adjusted their position men may readjust themselves to it. The simple fact is that women have found that they can have occupation, respectability, and even dignity disconnected from the home. The tendency is that in the discovery of this possibility they are losing somewhat of filial tenderness, of the loyalty of kinship, and of close, concentrated affection, and acquiring more of selfassertion and universal expansiveness.
The day of religious diaries and confessions is past, but a moral and intellectual self-consciousness remains, fostered by our system of education and public examination, which is much to be deplored. Very few are free from it, for it is an indigenous product, and only by education can be altered into the educated unconsciousness of middle life, or stamped out by rare buoyancy of health and spirits. What was woman made for ? was the former question; and the quick answer came, For the glory of God and the solace of man. Now the question reads, as put by the teacher and society, What is she made of? The school-girl answers, So much per cent. ; the belle says, So much beauty of head and shoulders poised at such an angle, plus certain inflections of voice and grades of manner to friends and the populace; and the earnest “ committee woman ” answers, Of executive force, insight, and sensible views. They all know their professions and their wants: some stifle the smile, lest it be unconventionally broad ; others repress their enthusiasm, lest it argue a lack of savoir faire; and those who apparently are natural know they are natural. It is all a knowing. They are not, perhaps, unhappy by result of unfavorable comparisons, because dignity compels acceptance of the inevitable ; but there is little of happy humility and a great deal of indignant dignity in thought and manner. Our public schools, our seminaries or colleges, train the pupils to meet an audience ! No wonder that the managers of the Children’s Pinafore found no timidity in its infantile performers. They were of the public schools.
With this growth of modern internal interviewing has come a loss of grace. Stiffness and hardness of manner was a Puritan characteristic, after a time softening into grace of posture, slowness of gait. But now one quarter of the feminine world walks forth on high heels, balancing its shoulders like scales; another quarter steps squarely on broad soles, and lo, the world knoweth thereof ; and one half rush as if making 2.40 time : grace is wanting in all. Go from the streets to the drawing-rooms; how few move, look, or speak gracefully!
The slow dignity and the careless ease are alike mannered. Every one knows that every one else is looking. Selfconsciousness, frivolity, and also earnestness are banishing graceful badinage, easy postures, lingering tones. A brilliant woman becomes satirical, with relapses into humor; the humor collapses into extravagant statements. Timidity or decision in a woman speaker or presider recalls the fact that it is a woman who is before one ; her decision often appearing like a heavy borrowed article. The charm of being, of simply being one’s self, apart from having a “mission ” or “ views,” is lost in the intensity with which women are seizing upon the new fields of usefulness thrown open to them.
Every one must be or want a definite something. Two instances may serve as illustrations. The wife of a literary man, herself a writer, came to this country, and was dined and lunched. “ What does she want ? ” asked the earnest women. “ Nothing ! ” was the indignant reply of her society friend. Again, a sculptor went back to Rome and told how he had called to see a certain lady because he liked her, when, on his third visit, she asked, welcoming him, “ Is there anything I can do for you ? ” “ As if,” he said, “ a man could not see a Boston woman without her wishing to aid him. Can’t they just be themselves, and let us like them, and not eternally have objects, views?”
The value of existence is becoming the outward bête noir that is stamping itself on the face, voice, and gait of woman. Do something, be of worth in yourself, form opinions, is the imperative mood in which the times address modern women, whose likenesses will be recognized at a future day by this dignity of “ woman’s-mission ” look, — a gallery of photographed “ causes.”
Instead of grace, there has come in many women an affectation of mannishness, as is shown in hats, jackets, long strides, and a healthful swinging of the arms in walking. Somehow, readymade clothing for women seems to have finished their emancipation from the rôle of women of the past; for with a much lessened need of sewing has increased a readiness to show a so-called superiority to attractiveness, which as independence has certainly succeeded.
More pronounced than any mannerisms is the difference in the goal of past and present ambition. Formerly, to be a good housekeeper, an anxious mother, an obedient wife, was the ne plus ultra of female endeavor, — to be all this for others' sakes. Now, it is to be more than one is, for one’s own sake. Knowledge is valued as an end rather than as a means. Of course there is much attainment of knowledge among women that is purely philanthropic ; but also there is a vast amount of culture that is purely selfish. Such societies as the one for the Encouragement of Studies at Home, and many others, and also the growing number of women scientists, disprove the first statement. But add to these those who must study in order to teach for a livelihood, there still remains a large class with whom culture is merely a shibboleth, the fancied creature of their needs. This class have a provoking knack at using all their knowledge ; the politeness of others forbidding inquiry as to its date of acquirement. They willingly seem more learned than they are. They “ do ” books as some travelers “do ” Europe.
From knowing enough to leave home and try their fortune elsewhere, from the desire and ability for a profession, arises a dogmatism in speaking and thinking, a certainty of conviction where others disagree, that is amusing and aggravating. I accept your premises, but doubt your conclusion, is a simple statement ; but it suggests memories of authoritativeness and slight philosophical acumen. Then, women quote, quote, quote, and say, “ Don’t you remember ? ”
At a literary dinner this quotation had grown overpowering to a thoughtful friend of only moderate memory, and when repeatedly addressed with “Don’t you know?” said apologetically, “Oh, I can only think.” There was silence.
Because culture can make life nobler, it is supposed that it can do it alone. A modern middle-aged girl’s division of time embraces many classes, and with most girls the work is true and honest, and they do know more than their parents ; but yet other people know more than they, whom they have not had the discipline of meeting. This dogmatism is not so apt to show itself on special points as in the general way of regarding the universe, for the fact of being a product of this age confers the supposed intellectual power which hovers in the atmosphere. “ To him that hath shall be given ” is literally believed. “ I can,” instead of “I’ll try,” expresses much of modern feeling. The ability to make much out of little is not confined, however, to American women, and is in itself power. It is always more striking to make a point than to see the whole of an idea, and answers better for the short demands of society not of life. Our grandmothers would stand aghast at the aphorisms, quaintnesses, points, of the lady conversationalist of to-day, and would miss the old-time calmness, fervor, and acceptance of life’s duties.
There is also an increasing tendency, in spite of fashionable and benevolent cookery schools, to disparage housework and sewing. Women hint to each other that they can use their time to greater advantage; that they were born for something better (being of the educated classes) ; and that manual labor is for the unintelligent. Then, when intelligence directs this mass of unintelligence, it thinks it is doing a great deal, and often sighs pityingly over itself. Often from want of manual knowledge these educated housekeepers are compelled constantly to “ change Help ” and have garments altered. It is doubtful whether there is the same patient endurance of the hard conditions of life now as even fifty years ago, whilst there is a growing aristocracy of the intellect which belittles the word.
Advertisements, the higher intelligence offices, and bureaux of labor testify to the presumed value of brain over hand education, although the country is suffering for good handiwork of all kinds. Women who apply for situations want places as teachers, traveling companions, translators, copyists, journalists, lecturers, and orators. One woman wanted some work of “ remunerative beneficence, as the Almighty would be wroth with her if her powers remained unemployed ; and yet she must gain her daily bread whilst awaiting the results of her pen.” Another, clad in dowdy trimmings and frowsy feathers, brought an article “ written in a few moments’ leisure on the stairs, just thrown off ” (she was tending table till something better turned up), as proof of what she could do. A lover of her kind, but no thinker, wishes for paying parlor audiences. Still another craves some large hall, where she can discourse on “ the — is n’t sure what word to use ; something which shows that religion and science don’t exactly contradict each other.” Others have lectures on Sanskrit, and Persian mythology as known through encyclopædias, on the Visions to Be, on the Centripetal Force of all Systems of Philosophies, on Woman’s Duties, Needs, and Missions. All have something to say, and all think they ought to be helped. A friend tells us that within the last two years, of a hundred applications made to her personally, not one has been for work which did not require more or less exercise of brain power; and not in a single case was there evidence that the applicant possessed more than the desire to be cultured, rather than culture itself.
Eloquence is such a noble gift that it is sad to see so many women who have studied oratory, anatomically and physiologically, philosophically and psychologically, desire to make their living by readings and lectures; and if they do “ orate ” well it is often art, not feeling ; they lack the impulse, for truth’s sake, to tell the truth, which alone constitutes eloquence. As some women can speak nobly and well and with no thought of self, and as elocution is a most useful study, it is hard that others must speak and read merely because it is a tendency of the age.
Women are also in a transitional religious condition, as common a state with men as with them, but which does not call forth such careful statements of positions or such deep thinking on their part: partly because it is hard for them to unlearn the lessons of dependence, and partly from social fear, self-distrust, and religious reverence. As some doubt and agnosticism are “ evoluted ” in both sexes, they do not belong here as special feminine developments. Women, however, need beware lest the man, author or preacher, become their guide, rather than the truths he enunciates : a leader clogs as well as clears the road in thinking out a subject.
A serious evil, arising from the greater knowledge about everything of women in general (not of graduated women physicians, who are specialists, and thus excluded from the present remark), is a vast amount of superficial physiological knowledge, based on feelings rather than on facts. Women often harm themselves thereby in body, soul, and mind. No woman not a specialist can generalize on “feelings,” for want of self-control over passions and moods thus arises, and is attributed to physiological causes which either do not exist, or are so slight that they can easily be overbalanced by a calm, steady will. Many occasions for scandal arise from the socalled necessity for yielding to these physiological causes.
As the result of this capacity of woman to exist for herself alone, and to be happy and worthy in such existence, comes a reluctance to look upon marriage as alone producing the highest development of woman. There is a pantheism of the affections as well as of the intellect, and women are feeling that “ causes ” and knowledge are better fitted to ennoble them than the ill adjustments of a marriage which is anything less than perfect love, entire trust, and mutual honor,— motherhood and discipline no longer being considered equivalents for the crosses that may arise.
Finally, woman’s past condition has not been satisfactory to herself, nor is it wholly a matter of pleasant history for men. Because a few women already have proved that housekeeping and culture, energy and grace, executive force and affection, a profession and a home, can coincide, it does not yet follow that the fulfillment of these tendencies with many more women is not imminent; but just as fast as they become more pronounced must there be a reaction against them, which will eventually establish the balance between the women of the past and the present.
Kate Gannett Wells.