Much Ado About Women

“We ought to be thankful for the Feminists, no matter what we think of the shrill cries of some of them, and the curious hopes of some others.”

When one or another eminent suffragist has turned up in the divorce court, people have been used to think of it as somehow prejudicial to the suffrage cause. The same thought has occurred to them when they have seen or heard of the breaking-up of families, the separation of man and wife and the distribution of the children to relatives or institutions, even without divorce. When that kind of occurrence seemed to be a result of zeal on the part of the wife and mother for the independent and untrammeled life for women, they have put it down as an evidence of failure. But it begins to suggest itself that perhaps they have been making a mistake, and that possibly these social and domestic catastrophes ought to be rated as evidences of success. For they certainly look like evidences of rebellion, and it seems that rebellion, a universal rebellion of all the women, is what the sincere Feminists want and are practicing to bring to pass.

That is what Mr. George told us in his paper on ‘Feminist Intentions’ in the December number of this magazine. He calls the Feminists ‘promoters of sex-war,’ and thinks they ought to own up to their true dispositions. He distinguishes sharply between Suffragists and Feminists, disclosing that the Suffragists are only half-way fighters in the war for women’s rights, ‘content to attain immediate ends,’ whereas the Feminists want to change the whole attitude of mankind, as they see it, toward women.

Lord Haldane, in his address the other day before the American Bar Association, talked about a thing for which he said we have no name, but which the Germans call ‘Sittlichkeit.’ It is that, he said, which really counts, far more than stated laws, in regulating the relations of human beings, and he defined it as ‘the system of habitual or customary conduct, ethical rather than legal, which embraces all those obligations of the citizen which it is “bad form” or “not the thing” to disregard.’ ‘It is the instinctive sense,’ he said, ‘of what to do and what not to do in daily life and behavior, that is the source of liberty and ease. And it is this instinctive sense of obligation that is the chief foundation of society.’

It is the ‘Sittlichkeit’ that Mr. George’s Feminists want to change. ‘The Suffragists,’ he says, ‘wish to alter the law, the Feminists wish to alter also the conventions.’ But, as a first step, they too think it necessary to alter the laws, and to that end they seek to employ sex-strikes and sex-wars; to get the vote and then band all the women together to such ends as the opening of every occupation to women and the leveling of the wages of women and men. They argue that women are what they are, and know what they know, and behave as they behave, and are paid what they receive, not because they were created so, but because they have never had a fair chance to be otherwise. They propose that woman shall have a fair chance; that she shall have a full, even share of all the education, all the power, all the good employments, and all the money that is in process of distribution.

To some minds, that may sound ambitious, but it is only what any good and really earnest father wants for his daughters. The habits of a lifetime, which began a generation or more ago, the habit of being a source of maintenance and the need of keeping in hand the means of maintenance, the habit of power and of keeping hold of the sources of power, may make him less than fair perhaps in dividing his acquisitions with his wife; but when it comes to the daughters whom he is going to leave in the world when he quits it, he is all for securing to them as far as he can a full share of all that is worth having. Hardly can sex-selfishness squeeze in between him and his girls. As between them and all males, he is for them. He wants them to lose no good thing that may lawfully be coming to them. He wants no man to bully them, no man to impose upon their generosity, no man to bring them to want, or sorrow, or a hungry heart. A large proportion of the fathers are Feminists at heart when they think of their girls. If they do not become Feminists in political practice it will be because they fail to see enough net profit for the girls in the programme of that party.

It is the other way with mothers. They love their daughters, live with them more closely and intimately than with their sons, train and handle them more. But they are subject in their relations with them to jealousies which their sons do not excite. The daughters as they come to full age may naturally reach out for a share of the power in the woman’s kingdom which the mother has ruled, and clashes may result. But a woman’s relations with her sons are not exposed to this hazard. Less on her defense with them, she feels in them an unquenchable and often too generously indulgent interest, and may look with prejudice on propositions the fulfillment of which might seem to leave them in the world with nails pared and teeth drawn, exposed to a ruthless female competition. Mothers want their sons to have a fair show in this life. They may even go so far in maternal self-denial as to want them to marry, and to wish that there may be left in the world some girls willing and suitable to be married. Having themselves tried marriage, they know that it involves some renunciations, and is only imperfectly successful when each of the partners in it lives and works for self and on his own hook. Mothers of sons may be reluctant and critical Feminists. They have taken trouble about their boys and will hardly look with favor on any rash abridgment of their birthright.

This idea, which Mr. George says the Feminists have, that they can get up sex-wars that will change the relations of women and men, is mistaken. The relation between the male and the female goes a long way and has various phases. It begins with a very small male baby drawing nourishment from the breast of a very much interested woman, and it goes on, constantly changing, to an old man piloted across the street by his granddaughter. You can’t smash all these relations because great economic changes have befallen the world, and a lot of girls have had to find new employments.

Perhaps, after all, when eminent Suffragists or Feminists bring up in the divorce court, it does count for failure in their politics, and not for success. The Feminists may change the Sittlichkeit so that women who extricate themselves from marriage bonds will be met with congratulations and applause, but it hardly looks like it. Sympathy when due, and consideration, seem enough. The problems of lie have to be worked out by men and women together. So it has been in the past, so it will be in the future, and it is not likely that women with a demonstrated incapacity to get along with a tolerable man, or men with a demonstrated incapacity to get along with a tolerable woman, are going to be successful leaders in the new adjustment of human relations.

And who could wish the modification of the Sittlichkeit about women to go on faster than it is going? It should go no faster than women can be trained to meet the new expectations which are geared to it. Most of the things which Mr. George says the Feminists are after—more education for girls, new employments, more pay, more independence, more freedom of action, half of what there is generally—seem to be prosperously on their way with the applause of the nations. Surely nobody can doubt that the present woman-movement will go along as far as present conditions of human life can stand, and will produce considerable changes.

But what is behind it; what is the cause of it? Feminists?

I don’t see that the Feminists are anything more than a natural and somewhat amusing symptom of what is going on. They make the mistake of thinking of man as the master of woman, whereas the real master of both man and woman is Necessity. The world has jolted along as it could. There has been a great deal to do, and men and women, respectively, have done what they had to. Life has been rough; women have needed protection, and have had to pay perhaps overmuch for it, and the tradition that was based on the woman’s need of protection seems to have outlasted somewhat the facts on which it rested. The world has come to be a safer place to live in, women are safer in it than they were, and in a very much better position to strike out, if they choose, for themselves.

The world is also richer than it was, by enormous increases. There is far more to distribute. The women are richer, have more power of money, have a just claim on a larger share of the general wealth than they used to get, and are making their claim good. To the woman of courage, capacity, and training the world seems already a very open field. The pioneering has been done: the paths are broken in all directions and a vast deal of work and money is going into the improvement of the roads. Why, why should these Feminists that Mr. George tells about, want to get up sex-wars, when things are going too fast their way already?

Besides all else, we see just now the phenomenon of great political movements, considerably penetrated by religion, to enlarge the liberties and increase the physical and mental welfare of the great mass of the people. Most of the Feminists seem to know very little about the Christian religion; to have only faint and largely erroneous glimmerings of perception of what it is about, of its pith and genius, and its enormous powers—once rid of fetters—to bring about righteousness and liberty and justice in the world. Somehow the religion of Christ has got loose again in our world with all the gain in liberation and good-will and sanity of procedure which people look for who understand it. It has been conspicuous in recent politics, and even the churches seem considerably stimulated by it.

And so, considering all the forces which are working nowadays for the enlargement and betterment of life for women, Mr. George’s Feminists seem like the little boys who run beside the band in a procession. It is all right that they should run, and even holler (for the band is loud) and be happy. But they are not the procession. That will go on, and the unfeeling band will continue to play even though they are caught and sent home to the mothers and spanked.

Mr. George, looking ahead, sees sex-war, but does not believe it will go to an extreme. ‘In common with many other Feminists,’ he says, ‘I incline to place a good deal of reliance on the ennobling of the nature of the male.’ He thinks, too, that women will continue to favor a reasonable permanency in husbands, ‘for the association of human beings in couples appears to respond to some deep need.’

Here then is reassurance for folks who need it. All of us who are friends of the male will hope that his nature is going to be abundantly ennobled. If that can be done, and he can be taught to earn better pay at a better job, things will come around all right. The male always needs a lot of attention, and every one should rejoice at every prospect that he is going to get some of it. If he were equal to his employment and responsibilities and did his work properly, none of these female difficulties would get much headway. His great affair is to make liberty possible in the world by keeping order. At his best he gives no occasion to regret that he is so indispensable. At his worst one wants to throw him in with the country when we give it back to the Indians. But indispensable he is, and for the Feminists to make the best of him is an imperative necessity. For their consolation, they may warrantably reflect that the better he is the less disposed he will be to diminish in any detail the glory or the liberties of women, and the less he will fear their competition in anything that it belongs to him to do.

We ought to be thankful for the Feminists, no matter what we think of the shrill cries of some of them, and the curious hopes of some others. If there is anything the matter it is best to know it. Typhoid germs being hostile to life, it is better to have some cases of typhoid, than not to know that the germs have got into the milk or the drinking water. A large proportion of what Mr. George says that Feminists want, women have either got already or are sure to get. But as to the debatable, and even the preposterous, hopes which they entertain, it is better that they should clamor about them than they their mental disturbance should not be advertised. It takes a great many different kinds of ginger to drive great movements. Government—republican government—is the resultant of many forces driving on different slants and heading one another off. No doubt there are extreme conservatives who counterbalance the extreme Feminists, and talk as much nonsense as they do in opposite lines. The ill-balanced people make a very large proportion of the noise that is made in the world, but the sane people, in the long run, do a fairly large proportion of the steering. Let us hope they will pilot us safely and successfully between the man that was and the woman that is to be.

And as to the modification of the Sittlichkeit about women, that is accomplished not by sex-wars, but by daily study in the ordinary course of domestic life. What a husband sees in forty years, maybe, of the good and bad of life for a woman; what a father sees in his daughters and in the conditions of modern life as they affect girls, — those are the things which count in forming or changing the convictions of men about woman’s errand in this current world.