The Coöperative Family

WE may lay it down as a general principle that the first symptom of the approaching settlement of a social or ethical question is its serious discussion by persons who recognize that it has two sides worth presenting. As long as one view of it is alone in evidence, its definite decision is as far off, for all practical purposes, as when it lay dormant in men’s minds, unrecognized as a possible problem. This is what inspires a faith in some of us that we are in a fair way to get to the bottom of the divorce question, and to hear the last word on the question of woman’s right to the ballot. But there is a perennial topic for papers read at women’s clubs and contributed to women’s periodicals that involves a nice question of domestic obligation, the adequate settlement of which may be fraught with peace and happiness for hundreds of households, yet on which nothing is heard save on one side, — the side of complaint against conditions as they exist. I refer to the subject of the wife’s interest in the family exchequer.

For years I have not seen in print any general discussion of feminine affairs without coming across some allusion to the uniform habit of husbands of doling out to their wives sundry small sums at uncertain intervals for necessary expenses, and to the universal desire of wives to receive a regular allowance, however modest, of money which they could use for such purposes, with the privilege of keeping for their own whatever balance might remain. If any champion has espoused the cause of the husbands, or even ventured to express a doubt of the wisdom of granting the prayer of the wives for an allowance, it has escaped my observation. The question raised has gone undebated, and the habits of the husbands have continued without change. In the hope of breaking the spell of this mortal apathy, and advancing the prospect of some sort of a solution, I propose to inquire whether there is not another view of the subject worth considering.

Let me set out with the assertion that I am a strong individualist in property matters. I believe that a married woman has as good a right as a married man to hold what is hers in her own right, and to have her say, if she so wishes, about the disposal of it. If she comes into an inheritance, for instance, why shall she not spend it as she chooses ? The consequences ought to be fairly laid before her by some one who presumptively knows more of the sordid world than she does, so that her choice of courses in any given situation may be intelligently made; but, that done, I can see no reason why she should not be as free to save her substance or to waste it as anybody else. We educate a boy in the handling of business by letting him handle some; why not the married woman, especially if the principal sufferer from any mistakes she makes is going to be herself? If she exercises her discretion by turning over a part of her property to her husband because she prefers to do so, that is of course her privilege; but what a vast difference there is between such an act of grace and the same thing done under compulsion or by way of yielding to unendurable importunities! The husband with any chivalry in his soul treats such a grant as a sacred trust, and would sacrifice everything he owns rather than let anything impair the interests of his ward.

Now, reverse this order and suppose the money to be, as it commonly is among the class whose income depends upon their own efforts, on the husband’s side: why should any different rule apply ? Will compulsion, browbeating, pressure, or wheedling, be as effective for promoting a fair division, with good feeling, as leaving him to be governed by his generous impulses ? In other words, would not a fixed stipend, extorted from a man by force, either legal or moral, be obtained at a cost of something beside which all the money, and all the satisfaction resulting from its possession, would dwindle into worthlessness ? There is that in every man who deserves the name, which revolts at any attempt to dragoon him into a gratuity of a single dollar, though he may stand ready to give thousands in a cause which appeals to his business sense. As this question of an allowance is not one of abstract right, but one of preference or expediency, it cannot be considered from the same point of view as some of the other questions affecting family or sex. The woman who argues for liberal divorce laws has at least the excuse of working for the protection of herself and her children; one who claims such recognition of her equality as is conveyed by admission to the polls can base her logic upon the ideal of non-discrimination between citizens; but does not she do more to postpone the day of concession than to advance it, who berates her husband as unjust because he does not choose to set apart a certain portion of his income every month as capital for her free use ? For is not this an effort to force him to be generous — a paradox in terms ?

That the indifference of husbands in general to such demands is not due to any settled objection among men to the liberal treatment of wives, is obvious from the prompt response called forth by every such appeal as that clothed in the farm ballad, “ Betsy and I are Out.” The mass of the people, who are not finical in their literary tastes but who love best a theme and expression which touch their own inner experience, are full of the spirit winch animated that bit of verse. A good many years ago I was interested in some litigation which involved the sale of the property of an old Mohawk Valley farmer, and was present when his attorney questioned him as to the disposal of the proceeds. He was an unlettered man, and, from what we drew from him later, it was plain that he knew no more of Will Carleton than of Ben Jonson or Edmund Spenser. “ What are you to do with the money ? ” he echoed; “ why, give half on ’t to me and half on’t to her ” — meaning his wife.

“ But it all belongs to you,” interposed the lawyer, “ and I did not know whether you wanted it paid to you in cash here, or mailed to you in a draft.”

“ P’rhaps the law does give all on ’t to me,” persisted the old man; “you know more ’bout that ’n I do. But it ain’t my way ’v lookin’ at it. All I got in the world she helped me save up, ’n’ if the law don’t give her half on’t, then the law ain’t fair.”

Nothing could modify his conclusion on this point, and he had the satisfaction of hearing his learned counselor say, as they shook hands at parting, —

“ Mr. B—, the law is as I stated it; but I agree with you that the law is not fair when it leaves the wife’s sacrifices out of account.”

I did not care to mar so sympathetic an understanding, so I forebore to obtrude my views. If I had, I should, as a moralist, have put in a word of excuse for the law; for to have compelled a division of profits under such conditions would have rendered impossible the charm of that voluntary surrender.

Human nature is much the same wherever we find it. In its original form the federal statute providing for the allotment of lands in severalty to Indians assigned a double acreage to the head of a family, on the theory that, their unmarried offspring having been separately cared for, every married Indian would recognize his obligation to use his farm for the support of himself and his wife, and that such an arrangement would tend to cement their union. Had the authors of this provision been familiar with conditions actually existing in the Indian country they would have been more cautious, for when an Indian divorced his wife, with or without reason, she was left with nothing. So the statute was amended to give the husband an allotment of normal acreage and the wife a separate one of equal extent. Meanwhile, however, a good many married male Indians had received allotments under the original dispensation, and it became necessary to induce each of these to relinquish one-half his farm in favor of his wife. The interesting feature of the case for present purposes is the ready response of the husbands to the suggestion that they deal generously with the women concerned, regardless whether they still held them in marital bonds or not. Indeed, the only grumbling I have heard on this score has been at the government’s compelling them by law to accept the smaller acreage so that the women could have each a big piece of land. What they were universally willing to concede as a free gift, these men seemed loath to grant under the rule of “ thou shalt.”

So much for what we may term the externals of the topic. Now, what effect has the allowance system upon the wife ? It is a familiar psychological law that an arbitrary limitation is a constant temptation to extremes. The creditor who has been almost willing to forgive a debt feels a sudden craving to collect it, on discovering that the date when the statutory bar wall apply is close at hand. One fence, marking a trespass line, arouses an appetite for fruit in the boy who could pass a dozen unprotected orchards without thinking of apples. In like manner, the notice to a beneficiary that he will have a thousand dollars to spend next year, but not a cent more, is a pretty sure forecast of the expenditure of that sum and a deficit or a debt of some hundreds besides. As a college student, I was myself put on an allowance; and although it was yearly increased because the last year’s amount seemed to have fallen short. I never succeeded in keeping my expenses within it; and I knew scores of other boys, no more conscious spendthrifts than I, whose experience was the same.

Since I have had children of my own, I have listened with interest to the confessions of other fathers. Said one to me, “ My daughter is on an allowance which is supposed to cover everything but her ‘ clothing; ’ but I notice that she includes in this category her jewelry, her toilet appliances, and numberless other things which contribute indirectly to her presentable appearance in public. All told, they swell by twenty or thirty per cent the sum I had figured on.” Said another, “ I have a boy at college who is supposed to take care of himself on a fixed stipend exclusive of tuition, books, and furniture. But he crowds into his book list two or three hundred dollars’ worth of what he calls ‘ supplementary reading; ' and every time a table or a desk shows any marks of hard usage it goes to the auction room, and I am expected to replace it with a new article while he pockets the proceeds of the sale.” These men and others who have told me similar stories candidly faced the fact that they were dealing, not with a personal idiosyncrasy, but with a widespread human trait; and instead of holding their children to a strict responsibility they charged to profitand-loss the difference between expectation and realization, and thanked Heaven that it was no worse.

Moreover, when we set boundaries to anything which is to be enjoyed by another, even as a privilege, we are apt to establish in his mind the correlative idea of a right. At first it is merely an inchoate impression, but time hardens it into a principle which we cannot question, much less violate, without exciting him to defensive resistance. No one who has had much to do with charitable relief work has failed to discover that a definite service offered once in a spirit of benevolence is usually expected thereafter with almost automatic certainty, either periodically or whenever the same conditions recur. The court records teem with stories of families wrecked because, having lived in prosperous times at the rate of so many thousand a year, they have been unable in a period of financial stress to cut their expenditures down to half that amount. The trouble with all of us is that whatever is good and pleasant and prohtable in our lives we come to count upon as sure to continue forever; and the more clearly fixed are the limits of this enjoyment, the more our innate optimism reaches over them in the hope of getting something yet better.

Now, whoever enjoys a bounded privilege asserts therein an interest adverse to the interest of some one else, for the only limitation on our freedom is the line that marks the beginning of the rights of others. Hence it seems to me worth inquiring whether, when the bread-winner binds himself to set apart a certain proportion of his estimated income each year as a gratuitous allowance to his wife, he does not by that act call into being an interest adverse to his own, and endow with it the one person who ought to be in the highest sense his partner ? And if this concession is wrested from him in contempt of his preferences, by persistent importunities or thinly veiled rebellion, does it strengthen or weaken the tie between the pair ?

But on such a subject an argument which is not constructive as well as destructive is of little value, and I can well understand the reader’s demand to know what plan I would offer as a substitute for the allowance system to which I find so many objections. In a family with whose internal affairs circumstances have made me uncommonly familiar, and whose head I will designate, for the purposes of this paper, the Philosopher, a practice prevails which thus far has developed no weak points, but fits into the general scheme of things with a cleanness that speaks much for its logical basis.

When the Philosopher married, he reasoned that a woman who was worthy to be trusted with his happiness in a partnership for life was at least as fit to share his cash balance as some man whom he had tied to his fortunes by written articles of agreement. Besides, he had a squeamish sense that the marriage ritual meant something, and that, when a woman pledged herself to love, honor, and obey him as long as they both should live, in response to his endowment of her with all his worldly goods, the one promise in the compact was just as binding as the other. So, as his wife felt the same way, they clubbed their modest belongings in a common fund, opened a joint bankaccount, and set themselves up in the business of home-making and familybuilding as partners, in the broadest acceptation of that term.

Like most young women of her time brought up in a household with father and brothers, the wife had not been trained in practical affairs. She did not know how to draw or indorse a check, to fill out a draft or a note, to buy a bond or sell a share of stock. She had never even purchased a railway ticket or checked a trunk. From the bottom up, therefore, the Philosopher had to undertake her instruction in such matters. Naturally, she made a good many mistakes at first, but they were trivial; and she was so grateful for a chance to learn, and he was so patient, that these primary lessons seemed almost like a renewal of their honeymoon. In later years his work carried him away from home for a considerable period now and then, and during his absences she had to pay the bills of their little establishment, negotiate with the landlord and the coal baron, as well as with the butcher and baker and candlestick-maker, and, in short, be for the nonce the man of the house. Again and again the wives of her husband’s friends came to Mrs. Philosopher in distress . their lords had gone away, the modicum of money left with them for expenses had given out, and they were faced with the alternative of borrowing from their neighbors or telegraphing for remittances.

It was then that she felt the greatest pride in her husband’s solution of the domestic fiscal problem, and this stimulated afresh her sense of responsibility for the trust reposed in her. She would have gone without the fondest luxury on her list at any time rather than disappoint him in her administration as the “ resident partner ” of the firm.

In due course, children came. With the birth of each, or as soon thereafter as the baby was named, the Philosopher opened in the savings bank a hundreddollar account for John or Emily. That was to be the nest-egg for the little one. And as the children grew into recognizable boys and girls, were they put upon an allowance? By no means. From the time that they began to show any capacity whatever for practical usefulness, they were offered a chance to do something, and paid for it at the same rate that an equal service would have commanded for an outsider. The money thus earned was their own, to do with absolutely what they pleased. No demon of a penny bank brooded over the mantelpiece ; no such miracle menaced the young capitalists as is sometimes witnessed on a farm when Sonny’s calf grows into Papa’s cow. If one boy wished to save his earnings till he had enough to pay his way on a hunting expedition, he was free to do that; if his brother preferred to hie to the candy-shop the moment a dime came into his possession, he was equally free. Whatever lessons were learned as to the consequences of wise or foolish acts in their small financiering were not memorized as precepts, but driven home by experience, and “ stayed learned.”

Presently the young folk passed from childhood into the adolescent stage where the higher education made too severe demands upon their time to permit of their longer earning their pin-money. Did the allowance come into play then ? No. The Philosopher reasoned that the family, not the individual, is the unit of our social order; that the boys and girls were now sufficiently mature to be able to do some pretty fair thinking; and that, having been bred in an atmosphere of mutual love and confidence, they would recognize their responsibility to and for each other, not by any cold intellectual process, but by an unconsciously cultivated instinct. So the family purse was kept in common, and every member understood that it was not plethoric. Each knew — and, what was better, felt — that anything he took for himself meant the reduction, to that extent, of the resources open to the rest, so that an extra bonnet at Easter for Bessie might require Ann to refurbish her last year’s walking suit. The lad at college joined in the rational pleasures of his class, but excesses of frivolity were checked by the remembrance that there were partners at home. The tendency of the whole system was to put all the brothers and sisters upon their mettle, to think first of the others’ interests; and their satisfaction at seeing their instinctive little acts of selfdenial bear fruit was greater, I venture to say, than the pleasure they would have got from spending double the family income on themselves.

Yet I would not leave you with the impression that they were prigs in any way whatever. On the contrary, their small sacrifices were sometimes so cautiously planned that no one suspected them for years afterward. It was the real thing they were after — not the superficial show; and they were as far from goodygoodyism on the one hand as from smugness on the other.

Thus the group grew up, and some of its members have laid foundations for homes and households of their own. The family bond is as strong as ever, and any of them would to-day gladly deny himself the most cherished desire of his heart to insure the happiness of the others. What one has is at the command of any of the rest who need his help. The social gossips will never be treated to an account of the quarrels of these brothers and sisters over money matters, broken wills, or punitive codicils. Is not theirs a pleasant picture to look upon, if only as a relief from another sort which is continually forced under our eyes ? I leave it to carry its own moral.

This does not mean that I am unprepared for the comment which will come from a dozen sources at once : that I have ignored the human equation, and outlined an ideal state of things which could not be duplicated in one family out of every hundred. Not so fast, friends! Have I set up a single condition which any of you would condemn as impracticable in your own case? Then, I regret to say, you must confess to a bad failure somewhere in your domestic career. Perhaps, sir, you do not think your wife could be trusted with the freedom of a common check-book ? Do not you trust her with your honor, which you value more than all the wealth that could be piled in all the banks ? Are you so doubtful of her judgment, dismissing any question of her honesty, that you have warned your tradesmen against selling her anything on credit without your special authorization ? If not, she has substantially carte blanche now by tacit consent of all parties; pray, then, in how much greater peril would you stand if you enabled her to draw, as her needs require, upon a fund kept in bank in your joint names and for your joint benefit?

Responsibility feeds on freedom. That tailor of Sheridan’s knew human nature, who, after dunning the easy-going playwright for a year to liquidate his I O U, tore up the note in his presence, and received the cash at once, because the debt at law had thus been converted into a debt of honor. The man, woman, or child who is incessantly kept under restraint, whether it be mamma’s apron-string, or the forbidden night-key, or the banknote irregularly doled out, or even the stated periodical allowance, will never learn to stand up straight and walk a right line for the mere satisfaction there is in being one’s own master.

Or suppose, madam, that that daughter of yours appears to be incapable of comprehending the value of money or cultivating any common sense in spending it: are you going to make over her entire nature by inducing her father to give her a certain stated sum each year, beyond which she is not to let her self-indulgent whims have play ? Depend upon it, if she seems bound to waste every dollar she can lay hands on, you are not going to teach her better manners by telling her just how many dollars she may waste in a given period. If she is past your power to change, she will find some means of getting hold of more, or of running the family into debts which you wall rather pay out of court than in it; but if, on the other hand, she has in her any right instinct, — no matter how far down in her soul it may be hidden, — she will respond far more promptly to an appeal to her affection for you and her father than to any threats or warnings of arbitrary restrictions with which you may be tempted to beset her.

That better conditions are possible, I have shown you by a true story of a single family. You will hardly be rash enough to deny, without the test of a trial, that it can be repeated in other families similarly situated. All the experiment requires is that the husband shall carry into his married life the same unquestioning faith he carried into his courtship; that the wife shall cease demanding as a right a limited privilege which at best could be granted only as an act of grace, and approach her husband on the side of his generosity, his chivalry, and his confidence in her; and that both, if children come, shall do for them willingly, and in time to influence their whole future lives, what it may otherwise be necessary to do at a later stage in order to save the good repute of the family. Is it too much to ask that any reader, who is faced with the domestic exchequer problem, give these tentative suggestions a little sober thought, and see what sort of programme for his own life he can work out of them ?