Enter--the Woman

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

‘WHAT do you propose to write about? ’ asked Max.

‘I am going to write,’ I answered, ’about the two great traditions of womankind which have dominated the past. Each of these conceptions has moulded millions of women into a certain image. Each of them has presented a masculine ideal which women have embodied, shaping their actions, their speech, and their very thought to its contours. And men have pointed to the women they have made and said, “ Behold! this is woman.” Until we understand the origin and the force of these great traditions of womanhood—’

‘What traditions are you talking about?’ asked Max.

‘ I am talking about the Oriental and the mediæval traditions of womanhood. Each of them represents a way of thinking about women. It represents an attitude toward womankind. It represents a masculine ideal. It does not represent a feminine fact. When you see the women behind the lattices of the harem — or rather, when you don’t see them — it tells you nothing about what women are. The woman of the harem, who lives her life apart from the world, content with the constant companionship of her own sex and an occasional visit from her master, believing that her highest function is to bear sons, and wishing to know nothing of the life into which she is to send them — that woman is not real; she is a figment of the masculine imagination; she is a social work of art —and as a work of art she has a certain dignity and beauty; but — ’

’I fail,’ said Max, ‘to see any dignity in the Mohammedan tradition of womanhood.’

‘You may fail,’ I replied, ‘to see dignity in a Chinese play; but it is there for those who made it. And this Turkish tableau has its dignity too. For is not the whole Oriental system designed in a spirit of reverence to woman as the mother ? Because women are the sacred vessels of life, they must be set apart from the profane uses of the world. They must be housed by themselves, in a quiet to which the din of commerce and politics may not penetrate. And when their master comes to them after the sordid business of the day, he must not bring to them his tired thoughts, the stale echoes of his day’s work, but only a tender and passionate appreciation of their loveliness. Such, I am assured by the authorities, is the real spirit of the male Turk. It is for her sake that she is confined in the harem, and made to veil her face when she walks abroad. For he knows the effect of her loveliness upon men’s minds, and he wishes to shield her from the unlawful thoughts of men.’

‘The theory does n’t seem to work very well,’ said Max. ‘ I have read Burton’s Arabian Nights’

‘ It works about as well as any of the masculine theories about women. It works as well as the mediæval theory did. It is founded, at least, on fact — the fact that a woman is a woman. It is true that in his reverence for her female attributes, the Turk loses sight of the fact that she is a human being. But the troubadour starts out with the assumption that she is not a human being at all, but an angel. Women have a certain aptitude which enables them to masquerade as merely females. But they must have had a hard time playacting at being angels.’

‘Don’t you suppose the men knew it was all play-acting?’ suggested Max.

‘No, I don’t. It seems to me they took the play pretty seriously when they rode and reeled in clanging lists to prove their belief in woman’s angelicalness. No, a man might be subject to ordinary human motives and impulses, but she—at least his own bright particular she —was more than human. Other women might be as wicked as any dame in the Decameron, but she was so coldly chaste that she could walk unscathed over hot ploughshares to prove it if it became necessary.’

‘Don’t mention it,’ said Max with a shiver. ‘ I remember a horribly realistic poem about that by John Davidson. His heroine walked over hot ploughshares, but not — not unscathed —’

‘She was human after all.’

‘Don’t talk about it,’ said Max. ‘Let’s agree that the chivalric attitude toward women is crueler than the Turkish, and get on to something else. Where does the modern attitude toward woman come in?’

‘She brings it with her,’ I replied.

‘ That is the difference. The modern man does not have to invent something for the modern woman to be. She is what she is, and we adjust ourselves to her as well as we can—’

At this moment the door of the office burst open, and an impetuous young woman entered.

‘Hello!’ she said. ‘Tell me, you two, what I’m to do. I’ve gone and made two different dinner dates for tonight! ’

We put feminism from our mind and begged her to give us more data.

‘ One is with the Browns,’ she said. ‘There will be some interesting men there, and after dinner they will go off to the smoking-room and talk about all sorts of interesting things, leaving us women to ourselves. So I don’t want to go.’

Involuntarily I thought of the harem, that secluded world of women into which no breath of the interests of the larger world could penetrate, and I smiled at what seemed a quaint survival of the Mohammedan tradition. That pleasant parlor of the Browns’, with its group of laughing women waiting for their lords, changed subtly as I thought of it into the still precincts of the harem — fled from whence, and standing in trepidation upon our doorstep, was this defiant desenchantee.

The girl was speaking again. ‘The other engagement,’ she said, ‘is with a young man who has attached himself to me, and wants to take me to see The Merchant of Venice — which I have seen at frequent intervals ever since I was eight years old. He insists that none of the other plays in town are “nice.” ’ She smiled. ‘He has seen them all, and he knows.

‘He’s such a funny boy,’ she continued. ‘He does n’t seem to realize that I’m free, white, and twenty-one. He’s getting to be an awful nuisance with his notions of how I ought to behave. And see! ’ — she held out a pair of gloved hands — ‘ I’ve had to buy me a new pair of gloves: he took one home with him the other night, and would n’t give it back.’

There came to me a sudden vision of the lists, and of a proud young knight who carried triumphant through its dust and blood Her glove upon his helm. For Her he rode and reeled — for Her and for the ideal of feminine angelicalness. And then the scene faded and changed and I saw what sickened my mind — the red-hot ploughshares waiting for her feet.

‘Well,’ Max asked the girl, ‘what do you want to do ? ’

She took another step forward into the room. ‘I’ll tell you,’ she said seriously. ‘ I want to stay here with you boys and talk about Mrs. Pankhurst, and the Calumet strike, and a book by Havelock Ellis that I’ve just been reading; and after dinner I want to look over that feminist article you’re writing and tell you what’s wrong with it, and then copy it out for you on the typewriter.’

I looked at Max. Max turned to the girl.

‘ Sit down,’ he said gravely, ‘ and have a cigarette. We will all collaborate on an article entitled “The Modern Idea of Woman.” ’