The Dilemma of the Educated Woman


THE innumerable books which man has written about woman are evidence of the fact that she has been an age-long problem to him. No other creature in life, perhaps, has been so persistently baffling as this female paradox who is at once his inspiration and despair, the joy and bane of his existence. And just at those times when he has thought that he had her nicely subdued, she has suddenly upset his plans, and shattered his nerves by undertaking some absurd adventure like going to college, or getting a job, or running for office. It then became necessary to begin all over with his original thesis, showing that she is first and last a biological phenomenon, that her duties lie plainly within the home, and that her greatest service can be found only in ministering to the needs of men and their children.

His perplexity is, indeed, as old as civilization. Xenophon, at about the fourth century before Christ, tells of a young Athenian named Ischomachos who, possibly in self-defense, decided to educate his wife according to his own ideas. The purpose of their marriage, he said, was to produce children and keep house. Because he was strong he would go out and struggle with nature and earn the living for the family; and because she was physically weak she should stay home and occupy herself by organizing the slaves, taking charge of storing supplies, clothing the members of the household, and caring for the sick. But even Ischomachos was

destined for disillusionment, for, as he confided to Socrates, his wife became restless, and one day he found her ‘with a lot of powder on her face to make her look whiter, and a lot of rouge to make her look redder, and high-heeled shoes to make her look taller.’ And when he reprimanded her for trying to deceive him, she asked naïvely how she might really be beautiful without just appearing so, and he replied in his charmingly masculine manner that she should ‘look on at the bread-making and stand by while the housekeeper dealt out the supplies, and go about inspecting everything.’ Thus, he declared, she could ‘practise her profession and take a walk at the same time,’ and so get excellent exercise — a first aid to beauty.

Several centuries later when the fine ladies of Rome had become socially and economically emancipated, and were flocking to lectures on history, philosophy, and literature, Juvenal, the poet, expressed what was, and still is without doubt, the rather general sentiment among men. ‘I hate the woman,’ he said, ‘who is always turning back to the grammatical rules of Palaemon and consulting them: the feminine antiquary who recalls verses unknown to me and corrects the words of an unpolished friend which even a man would not observe.’ He then exclaimed with a note of exasperation: ‘Let a husband make a solecism in peace!’ The Juvenalian protest became socialized, and was handed down in the unwritten code of men, until to-day a Bachelor’s degree in the possession of a woman, instead of adding to her matrimonial assets, is likely to set up a series of flight reactions in the male which send him forthwith to the club and her in search of a job!

College deans and counselors who are fortunate in having the confidence of undergraduate women can testify to the fact that it is a rare senior who declares herself against matrimony. On the contrary, women students, in spite of their creditable scholarship, are often the despair of educators because of their evident distraction with romantic subjects which are not listed in the curriculum. Few of them are impelled by a singleness of purpose in the pursuit of intellectual aims. While their eyes are traveling with Chaucer and the Canterbury pilgrims, their minds are likely to be strolling in the moonlight with some real or imaginary lad. The so-called career upon which the average college graduate embarks is usually a compromise; and it is frequently undertaken as a temporary expediency to tide over the period between Commencement and the hoped-for wedding day. At best it may be only an experiment to test the strength of the fledgling’s wings or to prove that in case of necessity she may fly from the nest some day and forage for herself and family.

This attitude of transitoriness toward so-called careers is general among younger women to such an extent that it is considered frequently as one of their greatest handicaps in achieving business and professional success. They are likely to become individuals divided against themselves, feigning interest in jobs which may offer self-support or relief from the boredom of home or society; and which they seldom hesitate to cast off on short notice, if they secure, by chance, a fairly attractive proposal of marriage. The tragic part of it is that what was regarded in the beginning as a kind of casual occupation, tinged with the color of adventure, is apt to become, after a few years, a destiny to be endured or sublimated.

Recently much has been made of the theory of sublimation, especially in connection with the emotional maladjustments of women. In the chemical laboratory the term means ‘to purify, to free from dross’; and in its psychological application to human beings it is generally understood as the refining of the mating instinct by turning it from its natural channel of expression into other outlets which will absorb the individual’s attention and interest to some constructive purpose. There has never been, perhaps, a greater burden placed upon woman by civilization than that of trying to reconcile herself to a way of life that is contrary to her primary instincts; and the sublimation which promises to be a solution to her problem becomes too often merely another term for self-deception. The result is likely to be a restlessness that drives her from one place to another, in fancy if not in reality, and ends frequently in a state of nerves that unfits her for useful work.


On the other hand, many women with vital interests and confidence in their own individual worth have succeeded in adjusting themselves to the scheme of life in which they seem to be a sort of third party. But few know of the labor of the spirit through which even they have passed in order to attain that emotional poise which is so essential to their mental peace. A young teacher in high school, for instance, may have visions of marrying before long and settling down in a home expressive of her taste and intelligence, and mothering two or three children. But because she has no inclination toward domesticity as an end in itself, she may be unwilling to give up her position in order to marry a man who has not yet been able to establish himself in a business or profession. She is not sure, perhaps, that love can bear the strain of excessive worry and sacrifice; and her attitude is not altogether unreasonable. She has had opportunity to observe the struggles of some of her friends who married, as she thought, too hastily and found themselves unprepared for the illnesses and responsibilities which soon overtook them. Her education had taught her to weigh values and to make considered choices; and the question of postponing marriage for a few years in order to be assured of a certain measure of financial security with which to build a home and rear a family may seem merely a matter of sound judgment.

And when the point is reached where, in order to secure a higher salary, she must study for a Master’s degree, she may realize with sudden anguish that her chances of marriage are growing remote and that the pattern of her life is more and more following the lines of spinsterhood. If she happens to discuss the matrimonial plight of the educated woman with other members of her sex, she will probably discover that, to a large extent, their feelings are similar to her own. Some of them are frankly not concerned about marriage; they find complete satisfaction in their work, and the companionship of women is more congenial to them than that of men. If the right man should propose, they assert, well and good; but in the meantime they will not bother about it. But there are many others who confess that their failure to marry has filled them with a sense of inferiority, and they feel that their experience of life has been fruitless and incomplete.

If the hypothetical high-school teacher happens to be a woman of virile intellectual initiative, she will probably not be willing to make a compromise with what she cherishes as her self-respect. And when she sees the promise of romance waning, she is likely to turn the full force of her mind and heart upon the vocation which she believes to be an adequate substitute for a husband and family. She may work for her doctorate and become the kind of teacher who adorns and enriches the life of a college; or she may write novels and find vicarious companionship with the characters she creates; or she may organize institutions and so utilize her administrative abilities. In fact, she may become, if she concentrates her energies, the embodiment of the highest ideal of feminism — self-reliant, successful, and distinguished. There will be some in society, however, who will note the distressing fact that a woman of this calibre has remained unmarried, and they will ask what sort of education it was that unfitted her for marriage and motherhood. But it was not so much a matter of her education as it was a combination of individual qualities and social conditions over which she, apparently, had no control. And being healthy and resourceful, she worked out her salvation in the best way possible, under the law of spiritual compensation.

The single woman in business has not quite the same problems to meet in trying to find emotional balance for her life. As a rule, she comes very naturally into daily contact with men — many women take this circumstance into account in choosing their vocations — and she enjoys certain advantages of normal fellowship. She becomes acquainted with the masculine point of view, and it invigorates her own thinking. Because she works with or for men, she is apt to be stimulated to excel and to adorn herself attractively so that she may have their respect and admiration. She may even cherish a kind of secret romantic or maternal feeling for a certain member of the firm who seems to depend occasionally upon her business judgment. Other women, of course, may become somewhat disillusioned by such close association with men, but even so, they are not usually willing to give up their work and seek positions in those professions made up entirely of members of their own sex. It may be true, as some maintain, that the educated woman who goes into business runs the risk of losing a measure of her charm by contact with the grim material realities, but perhaps her chances of escaping those personality ailments which are often the result of sex isolation are proportionately greater. And the opportunity to marry is an everpresent possibility for a woman whose associates are mostly men.

A great deal has been said and written about the varied achievements of modern women, and they deserve even more praise than they have received. A woman who succeeds in winning business or professional eminence in this competitive age has done so under tremendous handicaps. Nothing less than sheer ability, industry, and persistence has brought her to the top. And her tribe is comparatively small. We know the names almost by heart. But outside of this brilliant circle there are masses of women who have not yet discovered what emancipation means. They are baffled and discontented, in spite of their college training, and they have never been able to adjust themselves to the barren, ‘economically independent’ existence to which they seem committed. One sees them as wage earners, gamely pretending that they are leading the kind of life which they chose deliberately, and which is giving them all of the satisfactions and opportunities promised by their new freedom. But to what extent have they been able to attain financial self-determination? In comparatively rare instances can women earn enough to enable them to establish homes of their own. More often they find it necessary to share an apartment with one or two other women. What luxuries they have are usually bought at the sacrifice of future security. The small automobile, the trip to Europe, the cabin in the mountains, are often paid for with last winter’s savings, or, what is worse, with the anticipated and uncertain savings of the year to come.


The matter of economic security, however, while fundamental, is not half so vital to the happiness of most women as a feeling of security in love. It is a characteristic which is so marked that it is sometimes regarded as a biological feature. No matter what may be said about single and double moral standards, the female of the species is conspicuously monogamous. There is little evidence even in this modern day that any considerable number of women of the educated classes are leading lives of which society would not approve. What records and confessions we have had to the contrary have come, usually, from the psychiatric clinic, and they are too limited in their application to enable us to draw reliable general conclusions. As a rule, women are intuitive enough to know that, aside from the moral aspect, casual liaisons not only would fail to offer them a degree of permanent happiness, but would go far toward disintegrating the ideal of loyalty and tenderness in sex relationships which is the very fabric of a fine woman’s character.

With doubtful material security, and without the anchoring satisfactions which come with home and love, it is not surprising that women themselves frequently question the value of a freedom which seems to have taken away so much and given so little in return. They are mindful of the traditional attitude of the male toward ‘feminine antiquaries’ with aggressive minds, but that cannot explain the whole situation. All women who are graduated from collegearenot educated, and all educated women are not intellectual paragons. Besides, their grandmothers, some of whom were the fiery crusaders who helped to bring about their emancipation, seemed to have had little trouble in securing husbands.

There is a conviction current among specialists in the study of human nature that anyone who really desires it can marry. But to a woman of fine feelings marriage is not merely a matter of physical mating. Even though it may not have the blessing of a church, it is still, in the highest sense, a sacrament. She could not find spiritual completion of herself in a man whose chief characteristics were crudity and ignorance. Her marital comrade, regardless of his financial rating, must be a person of congenial tastes. And if her education has made her more discriminating than she might have been otherwise, it is to the discredit of educated men that she must pay for it at the price of undesired spinsterhood.

The difficulty, it is said, rests with the men of to-day. They are too selfsufficient. A generation or so ago they needed wives to make them comfortable, and to ’look on at the bread-making.’ But modern man has his club or private apartment which offers many more conveniences and better food than most wayside bungalows. The club, especially, affords advantageous business or professional contacts; and as for recreation, there is always a vigorous game of bridge at hand. Now and then when the mood is upon him, he may accept some one of the frequent invitations which he receives to dance or dine, or to spend the week-end golfing in the country. If he is a recent university graduate and must observe economy, he may live at his fraternity house and from that vantage survey the field of matrimony.

Even at this early period he is likely to regard a young woman as a menace not only to his peace of mind but also to his bank account. Furthermore, his former gallant desire to shield and protect helpless maidens has been moderated by the spectacle of their energetic prototypes swimming channels, flying over land and sea, and exploring the jungles of the pygmies. He sees no place for himself in a marital plan that apparently promises so little in the way of self-enhancement, and so much in the way of practical complications!

It would seem that with both men and women holding aloof, something must be critically wrong with marriage. In the last decade, certainly, it has had a considerable amount of unfavorable publicity. Some writers have been on the verge of abolishing it altogether; others have attempted to modify it in such a way as to leave only the pleasures and none of the obligations. Occasionally propagandists have gone about the country lecturing on their own marital innovations. They have advocated many things, from the removal of those perennial irritants known as children to community nurseries, to the establishment of separate domiciles for husband and wife in order to break down the notion that each belonged to the other. Groups of earnest feminists have urged mothers to pursue careers so that they may avoid the danger of becoming prisoners to domesticity. Women are individuals, they say, who have definite talents to bring to civilization; and they should not be limited in their activities to the four walls of a home.

There is, without doubt, a degree of value in all of these various ideas. One of the best educational developments in recent years is the rise of nursery schools where very young children are studied intelligently and trained in the formation of wholesome habits. But because the plan is in part excellent, it does not follow that infants should be removed entirely from parental influence. And again, husbands and wives may appreciate each other more if they separate occasionally and thereby gain a sort of loving perspective on the idiosyncrasies of one another, but this should not be used as an argument for setting up two divergent households! Also, it would be folly in this modern age to decry the subject of ‘marriage and a career.’ In our complex society and even more complex family life, it may be expedient for certain women to continue in their professions after marriage. It would seem, especially if there are no children, as if it were a moral and social obligation for them to be self-supporting and to contribute their portion to the common budget. At present, however, there are not enough witnesses to prove generally that mothers with young children can serve either the family or the community better by working at occupations which take them away from home for a large part of the day.

The sincerity of matrimonial experimenters should not, perhaps, be questioned; but it is not unlikely that many of their ideas are rooted in their own personal difficulties. If, because it seemed the only solution to their problem, they have rebelled against the established order, it is very natural for them to rationalize and attempt to win social support for their conduct. And while we should be attentive to authentic news, many of the suggestions in regard to marital reforms should be evaluated in this light.

It must be admitted that the entangled motives of modern life have put a tremendous strain on the marriage relationship, and the facility with which one or the other may ‘pick up his bed and walk’ often lets down the bars of inhibition and self-control. Instead of mutual respect for individuality the marital state may promote, by the raw and primitive exhibition of human nature, only mutual disillusionment and despair. There is no greater test of character than daily intimate association with another person. It offers a supreme opportunity for a man and woman, by their very differences, either to wreck each other or to make of their union something far more beautiful and significant than either could have achieved alone. We need to hear more of those individuals who have succeeded not so much in the cult of self-expression as in the capacity to pool their abilities and intellectual gifts in the sublime venture of creating a home and caring for a family.

The educated woman of to-day may not fit exactly into the old ideas of wedded life. She is a new design in human material, and the lines of her marital garment will have to conform to the modern trend. She would not be man’s enemy, however, but his friend and fellow comrade in a marriage where ‘independence is equal, dependence mutual, and obligations reciprocal.’ She may appear for the moment to be taking her self-determination a bit seriously, but it is certain that she has no intention of turning her heart from those things which from time immemorial have meant her greatest happiness— love, children, and the little domain of her home.