A Word to the New Woman

SHE will not heed it. She is too busy. The little tablet on her desk is scribbled full of tasks for to-morrow. If she can hold herself to that strenuous schedule, she will rise at seven, follow up her shower-bath with corrective dancing to the victrola, thereby effectively arousing the rest of the household, devote the forenoon to culture (not with a K), the afternoon to Red Cross benevolence (with a bee), speak at a suffrage meeting in the evening, and read the Boston Transcript before she goes to bed. There is a lack of romance in this programme, but the New Woman is not dependent on romance. ‘Be not idle, and you shall not be longing.’ There is, however, a ‘memo. pad’ on record, with the entry by date and hour, set in the midst of other sundries: ‘Marry Mr. R.’

For sometimes the New Woman marries and proceeds to modernize Arcadia. Here she has her special trials, and her Corydon has his. But the New Woman I address is the unwedded woman who, whether young by the calendar or not, feels herself young and will bear herself as young till the ambushed years leap out upon her with bayonets of rheumatism and other mortal ills. The younger she actually is, the less is the likelihood that she will heed my warning. She never does. There was the small schoolgirl, for instance, with yellow braids in defiant crinkles down her back, who remained unmoved by my remonstrance against her summary abandonment of the study of arithmetic. ‘What’s the use? All the rest of the book is about interest and per cent and banking and insurance. If I have a husband, he’ll do all those things for me, and if I don’t, they won’t have to be done at all.’

There was the brand-new college graduate, an orphan, whose guardian, a laconic banker on the other side of the Continent, had just turned over to her the inheritance on which he had already drawn with a free hand for her expensive run of boarding-schools and summer trips abroad.

‘He has always sent me whatever I have asked for,’ she said, ‘ but now that my money is in my own hands, I intend to make it fly. I’m just twenty and I’m going to Rome to study art, and by the time I’m thirty I don’t mean to have a dollar left.’

‘And what is to become of you then?’

‘ I suppose I ’ll be married. Girls are. And if I’m not, I '11 be an old maid, and it does n’t matter the least bit in the world what becomes of an old maid.'

The remarkable thing about this young prodigal was that she literally carried out her preposterous scheme of life. A few years later, I met her by chance in a foreign city and found her the most innocent, and thoroughgoing of spendthrifts. The day we met, she had just given a thousand dollars to a fellow art-student to ease some domestic stringency. Her studio was open house for all Bohemia. My protests might as well have been whistled to the idle wind. She was penniless at twentynine and has been fighting the wolf ever since; but unlike Timon of Athens, on whom her youthful career seemed to be modeled, she has retained her happy buoyancy of temper and keeps up the fight, not only with uncomplaining pluck, but with ingenuity and resource. When her pictures proved ‘too good for the public,’ she fell back on dainty handicrafts, and sturdily maintains that poverty is the best fun yet. Hers is not a tragedy — so far.

There are tragedies, many and many, as the young New Woman grows old. Let an instance or two suffice.

One dark December afternoon a friend of my girlhood, so changed that she might have been a ghost, blew in out of a blizzard, drenched and gasping, her gray hair straggling in wild wisps about a face into whose sunken cheeks not even the fierce wind had whipped a trace of the bright color I remembered. She came in grim anger, in bitter mirth of desperat ion, to state, without appeal, that she was down and out. I knew her life. She had worked hard and well for forty years. Here and there her achievement had been notable. She had been lavish of her strength, at once self-sufficient and self-sacrificing. Hers had been the pioneer courage of enterprise and experiment. She had poured effective energy into the initiation of movements that are potent in the community today. But she had come in mid-career to a crucial choice — a choice between a generous risk for the sake of others and a prudent self-protection. She had thrown up a promising position and already liberal salary to bring all her savings, all her faculties, all the help that was in her to an intimate and sacred need. Her efforts, not altogether unavailing, steadfastly sustained through a decade, have brought her hostility instead of gratitude. She has worn her nerves to tatters in the long, dark struggle. Her task is done so far as she can do it. Bodily infirmities are on her. With all her gifts and powers, she can no longer summon the force for expert work in her own field. In other attempted employments, pitifully simple, which demand only dexterity of hand, quick hearing, and charm of address, she cannot hold her own against the push of young competitors. She has no money, no home, no plans. ‘ It’s up to God,’ she said, with her new, twisted smile. ‘I have always tried to do my duty. If He wants me to keep on living, He knows I must have something to eat and wear and a place to sleep. But He may attend to all that, if He cares about it. I don’t. I ’ve done all I can. I’m tired out.’

The more violent agonies to whose tumultuous outpourings I listen, unable to help, ashamed to hear, are not due to lack of funds. In many a woman, when the mating season is past, springs a sudden, maddening longing for love, for children, for somebody all her own, somebody to whom she is essential, supreme, the very all of all. One of the most richly endowed women I have ever honored, — for to know her is to honor, — magnetic, tingling with human genius, is suffering that convulsion of the heart. A quarter of a century ago, she was beset, by the importunities of ardent, lovers. I have never forgotten the gaze I surprised once in a lad’s black eyes yearning upon her, adoring, imploring, all in vain. Nor does memory, which makes such freakish selections, let go the blundering eloquence of another of her suitors, in mature manhood and something of a personage, but stumbling over his words like a schoolboy as he strove to enlist my intercession. ‘Tell her if only I could do something — to showr her — anything — to prove to her — if only I could — if I could run for her!' He had been a famous sprinter in his college days. Absurd he was and pathetic in his New York elegance of trim, the honest sweat, beading out on his forehead in his mighty wrestle with the unutterable. There were others, more or less picturesque, all impassioned, all vowing eternal constancy, a lifelong waiting — all married long ago. Not one of them was her peer. Glowing with the joyous adventure of life, she did not want them then. Now, in the grip of an almost frantic craving, the void in her heart cries out for what the devotion of one or another of these would so eagerly have given. But — cruel discovery of experience! — it is not need that calls forth love. ‘What others claim from us is not our thirst and our hunger, but our bread and our gourd.’

These are individual problems. There is no offhand solution. But if only the New Woman, vigorous, capable being that she is, would drop a grain of foresight into her decisions! It is not easy for the divine recklessness of youth to have respect to the plain, prosaic virtue of thrift; but life is not all youth.

‘I always keep a thousand dollars on hand in the bank,’ said an openhanded giver the other day, ‘for my operation.’

‘You! An operation!’

‘Oh, I am quite well, but I observe that many women in middle life have operations, and so, often as I want to use it for this or that, I keep my thousand dollars in the bank.’

Are there any banks for the heart? Few without their risks, but life itself is a risk. Whatever may be thought of marriage as an investment for protection, affection, family, there are winsome waifs in countless orphanages starving for mother-love.

It is Nature herself that, urges upon us, in every sunset, in every autumn, the far outlook, provision for the waning time, that, simple wisdom of the wayfarer best voiced by ancient Egypt: ‘When thou journeyest into the shadows, take not sweetmeats with thee, but a seed of corn and a bottle of tears and wine, that thou mayest have a garden in that land whither thou goest.’