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A Father to His Graduate Girl

“I look upon your bachelor of arts degree as a life-belt strapped around you as you stand on the deck of a ship that navigates a zone of danger.”

Library of Congress

For you, my daughter in cap and gown, the reflections that greeted your graduation in white muslin only four years ago will have to be revised. All the wisdom of the ages could be drawn upon for admonition, as the ministrations of the Miss Minervas culminated on that June morning, and you made your curtsy to the world that was. You cast about for a year, inspecting the show to which you had gained admission; and then, as you remember, having stronger aspirations for knowledge than for social exercises, you went to college. Here you are, again inspecting the planet you were born into, and looking, I suppose, for a suitable place to take hold of its activities.

But bless me! what a distracted tragedy of a planet! All the people in it running about like ants in an ant-hill that the ploughshare has cut through; every tradition upset; every habit of life threatened with disturbance! Here you come, bringing a new education to a new heaven and a new earth! Take your parent by the hand, my dear, and lead him forth into the unknown. This is no world of his. Yours it may be; yours it must be, as much as any one’s; yours to make and shape, and share its destinies. I see not much further into it than that it must have work for such as you; and as always heretofore you have done the task that you attempted, I have the more faith to find you equal to whatever tasks are coming.

Of what you have learned in these three scholastic years now crowned with A.B. I have only vague and general knowledge, but I know that you have partaken faithfully of the repast that was set before you, and that, if there is anything good for girls in a college education, you must have got it. I can get assurance from expert educators that you have been taught nothing that you should have learned, and that you face life again not really much to the good for all your recent endeavors. But that I shall not believe. Between ideal education and what you have obtained, no doubt a great gulf stretches; but at least you have got your share of what has been offered to your generation, and I own that I look upon your bachelor of arts degree as a life-belt strapped around you as you stand on the deck of a ship that navigates a zone of danger. If it is any good for a girl to have practiced a little to live her own life, to choose her own companions, to form her own opinions and test them for herself, surely this is the time and this the state of the world for that good to become apparent.

I notice that this distinction seems to rule between the girls who come out of boarding-schools and you beginning Bachelors: that they look forward to a little play-time period, and that most of you look for ‘a job.’ The difference does not go so deep as appears, for both of you are after training, with a view to future employment, and are likely in the end to come to similar activities. For women are women, and will be to the end; and the work they do, in the long run and with due exceptions, will be women’s work. The boarding-school misses are quite as apt to pick up valuable lessons in applied energy in their play-time, as you will be in the employment that you hope to find.

At least, I suppose that you hope to find it. All the graduating college girls, having had a training and learned something, — at least, they hope so, — want to try it out on real work and find out what it is good for. Certainly this is their year if there ever was one. The young men graduates of colleges in ’61 found the Civil War ready made for them, and most of them, deferring all other occupations, went into it. Here’s a war ready for you, and one that promises to have a job waiting for every woman that is ready for it. It may be a job that women have been used to do; it may be something quite novel and untried. If the latter, so much the better for you whose training is believed to have made you a little readier than your sisters to try out experiments. A little more than other girls, the girls who have been to college are used to variety of association. They are apt, not only to know more girls than their boarding-school sisters, but more kinds of girls. In some of the big girls’ colleges in the great cities there is obtainable an experience of human fellowship something like that which imaginative person see as one of the precious possibilities of universal military service. If the dog-tent sheltering two young citizens from widely different social layers is an instrument of democracy, so is the classroom bench of a big girls’ college in a great city.

Three years ago we thought that employments for women had been marvelously amplified, and so they had. The girls had flocked into offices; they were typewriters and stenographers, lawyers, doctors, editors, cashiers and bookkeepers; they did most of the work of the great department stores; they were deep in social service, and had almost monopolized the great profession of teaching. But since the war began, and men by the million have been called into it, armies of women almost equally large have been poured into the places these men left vacant. In Europe before the war women contended for employment; but since the war began, almost all employments, except actual military service, have contended for the women. Women censor the mails; women make the munitions; women, even in England, tend the cattle and till the land. Only by this vast, wholesale coöperation of the women of the nations with the men of the nations has the war been kept going. Whenever there was work to be done and lack of men to do it, women have been enlisted.

And that, my daughter with your sheepskin in your hand, is the world into which you have graduated. It is a world in crisis; a world struggling toward a salvation only to be won by bitter effort; a world to which these states have suddenly been joined again after four generations of separation. Physically we Americans are far distant from the war and its agonies, but spiritually, mentally, nationally, it has become our affair and we are joined to it. It is our concern now that it shall come outright and do its appointed work of destruction and renovation. Our great estate and all our powers are committed to that vast duty. No one of us is exempt from contributing what we have and what we are to that endeavor.

The deep impressions which affect our lives are apt to come suddenly, to be matters of weeks or months of very active thought, rather than of years of slow experience. Like enough you, my daughter, and your coevals, will have your ideas about many important matters shaped by the thoughts that are born of this crisis in human affairs. No one who is really alive will escape those thoughts. They will concern the relations of nations and of all the people who compose them. One of the great lessons that the war is teaching is the power and duty of coöperation; that no one may live for self alone, but each for all and all for each. Wherever you take hold to help in these affairs, you will work with some one in a common cause; you will work, not for yourself alone, but for your country; not for your country alone, but for France, for England, for Belgium, for Serbia, for Russia, for Poland, for Italy, for Japan, for China, for all the world, to save it from the ruin of misapplied knowledge and selfish counsels. Nothing like this vast coöperation was ever known before. It used to be said that the United states had learned to think in the terms of a continent, and that Europe had got to learn that lesson. But now people must think in terms of all the continents. Nothing less than the whole world is in the pangs of readjustment; of hardly less than the whole world will you be a citizen when this work is finished.

But as you will remain distinctively a citizen of the United States, so, whatever you find to do, you will remain distinctively a woman. No extension of opportunity or novelty of occupation is going to swerve you from that inexorable condition. The work that you are to do in the world is to be woman’s work. It may be driving an aeroplane or a motor-car, or making munitions, or keeping cows or chickens, or raising cabbages, or folding bandages, or nursing, or teaching, or knitting socks, or organizing enterprises, but if you do it, you make woman’s work of it, for you are more important and less changeable than any occupation, and you will dominate the work, and not the work you.

If the work does not suit you as a woman, you will drop it presently, because it is more important in the long run that you should be a woman and do a woman’s work than that any specified job should continue to be done. In an emergency, to be sure, the specific job may be all-important because the continuance of women’s true work depends on it. But that is a temporary matter, to be cured at the first chance, so that the world may not cease to be worth living in, or run out of people.

I observe, and you will notice, that notwithstanding the great incursion of women, of late years, into one or another department of business, they are not of much account as fortune-builders. Some of them earn or make a good deal of money, but they seldom get rich by their own exertions, and nearly all the rich women have inherited their fortunes from men. Moreover, the women who are most successful as money-makers are not, as a rule, the most successful as women. The women seem to be a consecrated sex, too valuable to be employed in mere money-getting. Vast numbers of them earn a living—sometimes a good one—and have to; but few of them get rich. I tis common for a young man to start out deliberately to accumulate a fortune. I tis very uncommon for a young woman to do so. She is much more likely to accumulate a young man.

Will you please take not of that, my daughter? In spite of your cap and gown, you are still a consecrated vessel, designed rather to confer benefits upon the world, than to exact an excessive recompense for living in it. If you are to have much money you must get it indirectly. Your life is too valuable to be sacrificed to getting rich. I believe you will feel that to be true, no matter what you undertake; feel that you cannot afford to give up being a woman and fulfilling a woman’s destiny, for the sake of winning the common rewards that are open to men. For you know man’s great reward is woman. She is the crown of his endeavors and often the goal of them, but not of yours.

One of the consolations of these extraordinary times, so terrible and so afflicting in many aspects, is that they are bringing us closer to the French, the people in our modern world who seem to know best how to live, and who, we suspect, have come the nearest to solving the problem of the woman’s place in life. Of course they are not a perfect model for us, and of course there are things that they may learn of us as well as we of them; but the Frenchwoman’s place in life, as we hear of it, seems the nearest right that any people has worked out. it is a place of power and honor, a place in which the woman is valued to the full as a woman, and in which she cooperates intimately and effectively with the man. Probably we idealize the Frenchwoman’s position somewhat, but as we see her, she is not only the decoration of life, but ideally the helpmate of the man; helping with her head and with her hands, with her companionship, her love, her thrift, her skill, her labor. We hear of her potency in business affairs; of her share, at least equal, and apt to be superior, in the management of farm and shop and household. We have learned all over again these last three years what wonderful stuff there is in the French, and wish there was more of it in the world. Never was mankind so much disposed to go to school to France, nor ever had this French tradition of woman’s power and place and work a better chance to influence mankind. Perhaps it will help to temper in this land and generation the propensity to make a battle cry of ‘Women for women,’ with a prospect that it will yield in its turn to the slogan, ‘Every woman for herself!’

Not with any such motto, my daughter, will civilization go any gait but backwards. The women of France have won great honor by great service, but their work has been woman’s work. They have kept their hands on the details—the things that make the difference between profit and loss in trade or agriculture, and between paths of pleasantness and bad going in our daily walk. They are wise in the technique of living—not for themselves alone, but for France, her men and her children.

If France is pleasant and Frenchmen love it, it is Frenchwomen who have made it so. If life is pleasant to French men and they love it, it is French women who have made it so. If French men love France more than life, it is because in a conquered France French life could not flourish, or French women train it and make it worth living to French men. It is a great office to make life pleasant; to make it worth living. SO far as it is done, it is done chiefly by women, but not by women whose motto is ‘Women for women,’ or ‘Every woman for herself.’

It is the fault of people who are good at details that they are prone to make details overshadow life. Perhaps the Frenchwomen have room among their virtues for that fault. It is one, my daughter, that your college education should help to keep you out of. I don’t suppose that college has made you proficient in the details of life, but at least it should have qualified you to see the forest in spite of the trees. You ought in the end—and long before the end—to see life broader and truer for having been to college; and because of those three years of reading and listening and thinking, should be able to bestow your mind upon the details of life with less risk of their absorbing you.

But the best thing to save the spirit from being swamped by details is religion, which keeps the imagination alive and constantly reminds the hands and the brain what their activities are about. Most of the Frenchwomen are religious, and that helps immensely to humanize them and keep them pleasant in spite of their strong bent toward thrift. Perhaps after the war France will offer the world a new-style Christian church, a church of France—Catholic as France is Catholic, free as France is free. Something like that is coming to all the world, and coming, sooner or later, out of the great dissolution of obstacles to human unity that is the great fruit and consequence of the war.

The wonderful war! The wonderful war! Praise God that we are in it, and practicing to beat the Devil along with our brethren! Be confident, my child, in the destiny of mankind! Here you come with that innocent sheepskin into a world loaded with new debts, mourning its innumerable dead, grieved at the havoc done to it, filled with orphans and widows and still struggling toward a goal obscured by smoke. But it is a world of promise beyond all the promise of a thousand years, in which whoever is strong in the faith may hope everything that saints foresaw or martyrs died to bring. Be glad it is your year. ‘A.B. 1917’ is distinction in itself. Accept it, my daughter, and make it good!