What Every Woman Ought to Know

I

IN last November’s issue of the Atlantic Monthly I published a diffident suggestion under the title ‘A Word to Women.’ The gist of my observations was that American women enjoy an unprecedented independence, chiefly on account of their preponderance in economic control. They own nearly half of our national wealth in their own right, and in addition to this they control a large wage fund and a considerable allowance fund; so that they have at present, undoubtedly, more purchasing power than men have, and hence are pretty well able to do as they please with themselves. This being so, it occurred to me to consider what it is that they are actually doing; and appearances seemed to indicate that they mostly content themselves with doing what men do. They compete with men in politics, trades, professions, in building up and managing all kinds of business. They compete with them also in the lighter arts, such as aviation, motor-car racing, speculating, stockjobbing, assassination, real-estating, bootlegging, racketeering — all of which men do very well. I then ventured to suggest a field of activity which they, and especially the feminists among them, seem to have left unnoticed, and in which they would meet with no competition from men — namely, civilizing the society in which they live. I backed my suggestion up by citing respectable opinion that this very inviting field stands much in need of cultivation; that our society, whatever its merits, is quite uncivilized; and I ended by showing, as well as my space would allow, what is meant by civilizing a society, and briefly indicating the general course that a civilizing agency should take.

Comment on this modest proposal took a direction that interested me, and I should like to speak of it for a moment; not at all by way of complaint, for everything that came to my notice was encouraging and generous. It all pointed, however, toward what I suspect to be a very pronounced social preoccupation, and I mention it only for the sake of its evidential value, whatever this may amount to. First, then, practically all the comment on my paper was taken up with the disclosure that women own nearly half of our national wealth; it treated this fact as if it were my main point. But surely the important thing is the social implications of this fact, rather than the fact itself; and I humbly hoped that my paper had made it clear that this was the important thing. Again, all this comment seemed to assume that I was somehow chiefly concerned with the question of what women are doing with their money, whereas I was but little concerned with this; indeed, for the immediate purposes of my paper, I was not at all concerned with it.

Thus, unless I greatly misjudge it, the turn of this comment intimates a greater social preoccupation with money and the distribution of money than with the quality of human character and the direction of its development. Obviously, what a person does with his money, or with any kind of social leverage under his control, must depend finally on the sort of person he is. This being known, there is not much trouble about making a pretty accurate forecast of the general lines of use or abuse on which he will distribute his money. Hence, if one is considering people who have money, one would properly, I think, first concern one’s self with the kind of people they are, rather than with the directions that their outflow of money is taking.

One kindly correspondent, however, sent me a very courteous letter of interest and approval, ending with the suggestion that I should write another paper, ‘a little less subtle’ (her amiable euphemism for my diffidence, for subtle, alas! I could never be), telling women ‘just what it is I think they ought to do’ to civilize a society. I suspect she guessed how tempting this large order would be to one with whom the habit of scribbling had become inveterate. If so, her guess was good, and I shall now try my best to meet it.

II

But here at the very outset a simpleminded person like myself runs into dreadful trouble over the connotation of the verb to do. I am afraid that even this lady’s request, highly as I regard it, intimates another preoccupation characteristic of our society; I mean the characteristic preference for action rather than for thought, and especially the preference for doing rather than for being or becoming. Critics have remarked our inveterate persuasion that all good things will come to us of their own accord if only we keep on as hard as ever we can with doing, and let thinking go more or less by the board; and it must be said that they have a large array of evidence on their side. For example, this policy has controlled our whole economic life ever since the war; everybody has been doing, nobody has been thinking. Even now, curiously, when it is evident that this policy has not worked well, that what has been needed all along is a little less hand-over-head action and a great deal more disinterested thought, there is a general clamor for somebody to do something; thought is apparently at as great a discount as ever. Our dealings with public affairs, both economic and political, are now plainly seen to have been a series of mere improvisations; yet there is no likelihood that our policy with regard to them will change. Our society demands action, it sees public affairs only in terms of action, and action only it will have.

Hence, in the face of the two master concerns which I have mentioned, — the concern with money and the concern with action, — a person of a direct turn of mind should be circumspect about saying what he thinks women should ‘do’ in order to civilize a society. The first preoccupation would naturally, I think, make ‘doing’ connote the giving of money. When men set out to ‘do’ something for a cause, that is what it usually means; they establish trusts and foundations, and set up subsidies of one kind or another. Well, then, since our women have so much money, why not suggest that they set up a Civilization Trust somewhat on the pattern of Mr. Carnegie’s Peace Trust or Mr. Rockefeller’s Education Trust or Mr. Bok’s International Amity Trust (I am not quite sure about these names, but the reader will at once recognize the endowments I refer to) or Mr. Eastman’s Music Trust? That would be the regular thing, and very simple; all one need do is to announce the purpose, designate the trustees, and make over the money.

It would perhaps be all the simpler because women appear content to employ their money quite as men do theirs, just as they are content to employ their energy in the same occupational lines that men follow. I have pored over a great many statistics, and questioned persons who have professional knowledge of such matters, and I can find no significant difference between the sexes in this respect. Women and men alike, in a word, put most of their money into productive industry, speculate with some of it, waste a great deal of it, and some of it they give away. If, therefore, women wish to promote civilization, would they not naturally use the same means that men use, and in the same way?

The second preoccupation would almost certainly make ‘doing’ connote some activity of an exterior and ponderable sort. In this case, I think it would probably connote something like getting up an organization, with a secretary and a constitution, a programme, perhaps some by-laws, and a ‘public-relations counsel’ to look after publicity. Meetings would be addressed by eminent persons; papers would be read and discussed, questions asked and answered. Perhaps the organization would consider taking the matter of civilization into politics, in a tentative way; it might appoint a committee to look into the matter and report.

So why not tell my correspondent that women should first organize the idea of civilization, and then give money to promote it? That would be simple and easily understood. It would meet our society’s preference for action over thought; for one may be very active in an organization and do practically no thinking at all, but, on the contrary, may let one’s mind remain comfortably inaccessible and inert. It would also meet our other great preference for concerning ourselves with what a person does with his money rather than with the kind of person he is; for one may give money for a good purpose, not only without being touched by a true sentiment for that purpose, but also remaining in all respects precisely the same kind of person as before.

But the trouble about any such proposal is that civilization is an affair of the spirit, and in the realm of the spirit sheer organization and sheer money count really for very little. The preoccupations of our society being what they are, this idea is probably somewhat hard to apprehend, and hence it may bear a word or two of discussion. Organization and money are absolutely the body and blood of business and politics. They will also absolutely advance the sciences; they are a hundred per cent effective in projects like Mr. Rockefeller’s institute for medical research, for example. They will also absolutely advance the arts by their scientific and mechanical side; an endowment like Mr. Eastman’s gives both facilities and leisure for musically-disposed persons to improve themselves in the science and mechanics of music. But in the realm that lies beyond these, the leverage of money and organization is not direct and absolute, but indirect and relative. We are all aware, for instance, of the utter incompetence of endowments for the promotion of peace, like the Carnegie Fund and the Nobel Fund. If we were not so obsessed by the idea of an absolute universal potency of money and organization that we take it as axiomatic, we should see that peace is not to be got at in that way; it is not at all that kind of affair.

Again, education was never so highly subsidized and highly organized as in this country, and the result is so generally acknowledged to be most unsatisfactory that everybody is wondering ‘what to do’ about it. Well, education, properly speaking, like religion, like art, like music, like international peace and amity, like any other exclusive concern of the human spirit, is fundamentally not in the moneyand-organization category. Education, according to the old and sound American definition of half a century ago, is ‘a student sitting on one end of a log and Mark Hopkins on the other’; that is to say, it is an affair of the spirit, and as such only is it communicable; and in our devotion to our two master preoccupations we have merely succeeded in organizing and subsidizing it pretty well off the face of the earth.

Not long ago a lady, dissatisfied with our general neglect of formative studies in favor of instrumental and vocational studies, resolved to ‘do’ something to promote them; accordingly she gave an immense amount of money to one of our universities to spend in their behalf. This gift, generous as it was, obviously represents the smallest part of the undertaking; the great part lies in the management of what Prince Bismarck used to call the imponderabilia, and one cannot be as sure as one would like to be that an American university, under the heel of our two master preoccupations, knows how to deal with these, or even knows how to discern them, or perhaps so much as knows that they exist.

So if women, like my correspondent, choose to ask what I want them to ‘do’ in order to civilize our society, I think I should be obliged to say that I do not want them to do anything, that I mightily hope they will not try to do anything. The imponderabilia are all there is to civilization, and I know of nothing that women can ‘do’ out of hand by way of managing them effectively. Stark organization decidedly will not answer; neither will stark money; neither, even, will interest of the conventional type. In all spiritual concerns there is something which precedes these, something which alone ever gives them the chance of being applied effectively and to good purpose. It is something a little more recondite than any of them, and far more interesting than all of them put together.

III

One of the most striking experiences of advancing age is the discovery that a great lot of formulas which our fathers foisted on us, and which we duly resented as mere disgusting cant, are true. For example, under the head of Works before Justification, the austere compilers of the Thirty-nine Articles declared that ‘for that they are not done as God willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.’ To the ear of youth these terms sound fantastic and repulsive, yet the experience of mature years bears them out as symbolic of a profound truth. Apparently there is something in the order of nature that is against the fruition of good works done outside the purview of a rather special discipline. I do not know how to account for this; perhaps no one does; but there seems no doubt about the fact. Not only do they unaccountably fail to get the results they promised, but they somehow, against all expectation, work themselves out into actual harmfulness. Instances of this are often so impressive, even spectacular, that when the theological language of the Articles is applied to them it sounds neither forced nor archaic.

How aptly, for example, may one apply the language of purely theological formula to the whole subject of disarmament and international peace. The truth about these is, simply, that all nations would be glad to abolish war, but are not willing to let go of advantages which they know they cannot keep without war. Hence the indispensable condition precedent to abolishing war is that the nations should experience a change of heart and exercise repentance and seek justification by faith. It is the disinterested acceptance of a new mode of thought, and the entrance into a new spirit. Nothing else will answer; the fact is plain to anyone with any measure of common sense, and the theological language of Cranmer’s day fits the fact like a plaster. Meanwhile good works like the disarmament conferences and the Kellogg Pact are not done as God willed and commanded them to be done; that is to say, they represent no actual self-transformation on the part of the nations, nor a real desire for any. Hence they not only fail of their good intentions, but become the instruments of a peculiarly cruel deceit; they have the nature of sin.

I hope the reader will not think my Bibliolatry is excessive if I cite another incident in Christian history for the sake of developing a little further this idea of a necessary special discipline as antecedent to good works. It was never clear to me that the story told of Simon the sorcerer, in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts, makes him out as at all a bad sort, but rather the contrary. He seems merely to have had the honest notion which we have remarked as so prevalent in our own society, that money counts for as much in the realm of the spirit as it does outside it. The Apostle’s reply intimated that in Simon’s case neither money nor anything else counted for much, because ‘his heart was not right in the sight of God,’ and that he had better brisk around and transform himself into the sort of creature who could see things differently; and Simon appears to have taken the suggestion in good part as giving him an entirely new idea and one worth thinking about.

All this leads directly to a clear and positive view of woman’s relation to the task of civilizing our society. What she ‘does’ in this relation is not, logically, the first thing to be considered; the first thing is what she does with herself. In their due season it would be very profitable and interesting to discuss money and organization and many other possible modes of an exterior and ponderable ‘doing,’ but their season is as yet remote. Porro unum est necessarium — the thing now is to discuss the terms of a valid conversion, a change of heart, and an entrance into a new life and a new spirit, under the regenerative power of a new and high ideal. I am aware that this pulpiteering phraseology courts offense, but I use it deliberately because the two master preoccupations of our society are so strong that one’s only chance to make any headway against them is by the force of language that is downright enough to startle their votaries out of an instinctive mechanical obedience. Having done so, I may now clear myself from any imputation of priggishness by saying in all good faith that I am not urging a moral duty on our women. My mind is furthest from that; I am merely suggesting an interesting opportunity. Nor am I appealing to any altruistic motive, — none whatever, — but to one of an entirely different order, which I shall speak of just as soon as I have made my main point a little clearer.

IV

The steady approach to social, political, and industrial equality of the sexes, and the steady shift of sanctions, conventions, and moralities concerning all the sex relationships therein implied, have brought out a spiritual phenomenon which, from the point of view of civilization, is disturbing. Women at large accommodate themselves not only to doing what men do, but also to accepting the general standard of values that men have set. They take their views of life as a hand-medown from men, and model their demands on life by those of men. Observation of women in active life, in politics, business, the professions, leaves no room for doubt of this; and it is as clearly observable, often more so, in leisure-class women. They accept the motivation which men have given our society; they fall in with it and make it their own.

It must be understood that I am not complaining of this, for they are bred to these spiritual acceptances; all the social pressure that is brought to bear upon them, from the cradle up, tends that way. The fact and its consequences remain, however, and are to be remarked without prejudice. Only the other day, one of our most thoughtful and serious writers spoke of our country as ‘so hard ridden and so little blessed’ by its womanhood. The observation is not new; and it is true because the social realignment of the sexes has brought woman’s views of life, her demands on life, her ideals of society, her aspirations, the practical direction of her intuitions, into an increasingly close agreement with those of men.

Here, then, is the condition that impairs and enervates the faculty which women have, and which men apparently have not, for civilizing a society. It is an inward condition; that is the point I would dwell on. It is relatively nothing serious that women should acquiesce in various formal and external adaptations to a society which men have motivated, — a society, let us say, which proposes statistics as a reasonable and satisfying substitute for philosophy, religion, and romance, — but it is very serious indeed that they should acquiesce in an inward adaptation to it. There is no great harm done by women’s sharing with men all the material comforts, assistances, and gratifications available in a rich and powerful society; but there is great harm in their sharing men’s inward persuasion that these are all that a properly constituted society may be asked to provide. That women join with men in giving play to the instinct of expansion is all well enough; that instinct is part of their being. But the case is far different where they join with men in a view of this instinct as the only one whose expression is to be taken seriously; and in a corresponding belief that an expression of the race’s other fundamental social instincts — the instincts of intellect and knowledge, of religion and morals, of beauty and poetry, of social life and manners — is to be regarded casually and irresponsibly, as something outside the serious business of life, and in which one’s participation is to be determined by fashion or by fancy.

Until this disability, which, as I have said, is now forced upon women by all kinds of social pressure — until this is removed, not much can be effectively ‘done’ toward civilizing a society.

In my judgment this disability, resulting as it does in a decay of faculty, is the most calamitous that women have ever suffered. In my former paper I called our feminists’ attention to this, though in my diffidence I did it rather playfully; still, I hoped they might penetrate to my suggestion and take it in good part. I am myself, I hope, too good a feminist not to be appalled by the monstrous price that women are paying for such advantages as their approach to legal, social, and industrial equality has brought them; that price being the weakening of an invaluable special faculty — let me say, the surrender of an ad hoc superiority — through their broad general assumption of ‘the male psychology’ toward their newer interests and toward life at large. Though my love for equality and justice approaches fanaticism, I can yet understand how, with this price levied against it, woman’s progress in emancipation might be thought to have come a trifle high.

Thus the upshot of my theological language of a moment ago is that in order effectively to ‘do’ anything for civilization the individual woman must revive this moribund faculty and get it into a convalescent state by a deliberate revision of her views of life and her demands on life. It is a task for the individual only, a straight job of self-transformation; and the freer one is to do it, the easier, naturally, it will be.

This was all I had in mind when in my former paper I brought up the point that our women have so much money. The possession of it rids them of the most powerful of all social pressures — economic pressure — to shape their spiritual nature by man’s pattern. Certainly not all our women have this freedom, certainly nothing like a majority have it; but, as I intimated in my half-jocose little allegory of the fashion in clothes, if those only who have it would make it serve them in this task of self-transformation, we should have a new world.

V

This task implies, in general terms, first, that woman should get as complete an understanding of the claims of the four neglected social instincts, and as acute and lively a sense of their validity, as she has shown herself able to get of the claims of the instinct of expansion. The lady buyer, broker, executive, politician, knows precisely what these latter claims are; she is as perspicacious about them as any male colleague; you cannot fool her about them for a moment. She also has no doubt whatever about their validity. They are abundantly real to her; her assumption of ‘the male psychology’ toward them has in fact made their reality mount up to an enormous preponderance, as practically the ultimate reality to which her being responds. Women, then, especially those who are free of economic hindrance, may carry just these powers of perspicacity, concentration, and assurance over into the realm of the spirit, and employ them in just this way for bringing their inner nature into a larger conformity with the best that one finds there.

That is what the notable women of the French and Italian Renaissance did. In looking over their record with this clue in mind, I was interested to see how intelligently and perseveringly they made a business of spiritual activity; as real a business as our emancipated sisters now make of promoting bond issues, practising law, or hawking cosmetics. The realm of the spirit was as real to them, as engaging to their powers, as the realm of politics; and the discipline necessary to make them at home in it — ‘the intending of the mind,’ to borrow Newton’s phrase — was as familiar and as cogently practical to them as the discipline of arithmetic.

The task of self-transformation implies, further, a great engagement of the emotions; just such an engagement as that which now invigorates and fortifies woman in meeting so competently the claims of the instinct of expansion. She now throws an immense deal of sound affection, honorable pride, even a great deal of pseudo-romantic vision, into her stockjobbing or cosmetic peddling; the natural forces which she confronts in the course of these pursuits are such as foster them and call them into play. The psychology of ‘pepping up sales’ is in a sense sound; it contemplates the focusing of just these emotions by clearing and stimulating a sense of these natural forces as a challenge. Perhaps the most impressive example of its effectiveness in the service of the instinct of expansion is seen in the concentration of Russia’s emotional power upon the Five-Year Plan. Well, the women of the Renaissance, while remaining in all respects women of the world, not only disciplined their intellect, but also disciplined and stimulated their emotions into just such a profound concentration upon the natural forces which they found confronting them in the realm of the spirit. They dealt with the great natural forces of mystery, the forces of beauty, the forces of love, as ably and as passionately as our well-disciplined modern woman deals with the forces of supply and demand.

Thus these women were great civilizers, probably without knowing it, and certainly with no self-conscious effort. They seem not to have labored under the sense of a special mission to society; what they ‘did’ appears to have been largely occasional. But they were nobly serious with themselves, their eye was single; and their record makes one sometimes suspect that civilization is perhaps — just possibly — best promoted by indirection. One especially suspects this when one observes the very puny results accruing from direct, self-conscious efforts to promote it. But, however this may be, one may believe that, if the personality of our women reflected a spiritual discipline at all commensurate with the freedom that their economic independence allows for its undertaking, there would be no need to worry much about any secondary means of enhancing that personality’s effectiveness upon society. Its contagion would find its own ways, and perhaps all the more easily without conscious guidance.

One cannot be more specific than this without the risk of presumption; how should I particularize to women upon the incidence of a special faculty which they have and I have not? If I should offer the detailed ‘constructive suggestions’ that are always in popular demand, and any confiding woman undertook to follow them, she would no doubt make a great mess of it, and I should merely become one more example, among many in my sex, of the futility of trying to show one’s grandmother how to sift ashes. Taking my stand firmly on the side of reason and prudence, I shall confine myself to clearing away a possible slight suspicion of inconsistency.

VI

It may be asked, if I doubt that civilization is much furthered by direct self-conscious endeavor, why I should write an article intimating that something of the kind is called for. If women are not to transform themselves in obedience to a social motive, why should they do it at all? Well, the social motive is very noble and elevated; I have all possible reverence for it; yet I am reluctant to recommend it, feeling, like the Psalmist, that I should be meddling in great matters which are too high for me. I prefer to leave this sort of exhortation to the sociologists and political liberals, who are handier at it than I am, and content myself with suggesting a motive that is less grandiose but quite as valid, and, if possible, perhaps a shade more congenial.

When someone asked the physicist Michelson why he worked so hard over measuring the speed of light, he replied that he did it because it was such great fun. That is the only motive that I would suggest — happiness. Apparently the women of the Renaissance had no other; quite unconscious of any exalted social mission, they seem to have worked like beavers at remaking themselves merely for the enjoyment they got out of doing it. Probably, indeed, there is no happiness like this, once the initial obstacles are got over. Even the cold and profound thought of Bishop Butler takes on a faint glow of warmth in contemplating it, for he says that, if it were not for the practical difficulties attending the process, the enjoyment of self-transformation would hardly be distinguishable from a kind of sensuality. But one need say no more on this subject; it is one on which the humblest intellects are in agreement with the philosophers and saints, for it is open to the supreme test which anyone is able to apply — the test of experience.

Happiness; only that. At the present time it is uncommonly clear that our overindulgence of the instinct of expansion has got us into a most unhappy pickle. Political and economic imperialism; a great war; desperate collisions of interest in the consolidation of gains; the reign of a purblind and truculent nationalism; a lunatic contempt of immutable economic laws; a period of unexampled collapse, prostration, anxiety, and wretchedness; well, there we are! For some of us — I hope many — the worst of our tangle will begin to unwind, I think soon; but the question is, What then?

Should it not presently occur to independent women, even to some of those who have gone furthest with ‘the male psychology,’that the instinct of expansion has been a trifle overworked, and that perhaps the male psychology toward it was not an unqualified good thing for women to assume? Would it not strike them as worth while now to make a stringent revision of their whole standard of values, to ease off some of the stress on the claims of expansion and bring those of the other fundamental instincts into some kind of balance and harmony with them? I do not put these questions in a general way. I ask only whether it might not occur to these women that they would themselves be happier if something of the sort should take place within them. Over and above the immediate issues of the day, the present period seems to me to force the question whether a life made up, on its serious side, of an exclusive concern with the claims of expansion, and, on its lighter side, of an exclusive concern with the quiddities that can only give a fleeting sense of self-satisfaction — whether this life can be permanently interesting; interesting, I mean, primarily to those who are able to control its quality. Does such a life offer enough happiness to make it worth living, even to those who dominate and shape it?

‘One is inclined,’ said Stendhal of us, years ago, ‘to say that the source of sensibility is dried up in this people. They are just, they are reasonable, but they are essentially not happy.’ When a journalist asked Mr. Edison on his last birthday, I think, or next to the last, what he thought about human happiness, he replied simply, ‘I am not acquainted with anyone who is happy.’ There is no need of documentary testimony on this point; the faces that one sees and the voices that one hears are enough to establish it. May I say also, as discreetly as possible, that even the faces and voices of our economically independent women are not those of happy people? Why should they be; how can they be? Our whole national history may be fairly epitomized as a ruthless rampage of the instinct of expansion upon a vast field of exploitable richness; and, with the claims of the other social instincts thus continuously sacrificed to the claims of expansion for a century and a half, how can even the beneficiaries of this rampage be happy? The thing is impossible, for, as we all know, every unused or misused or misinterpreted instinct becomes a source of uneasiness.

I suspect that even men are now somewhat reluctantly suggestible about the quality of the collective life which they have created; there are some signs that this is a season of repentance. Perhaps even we, some of us, — I speak as a man, — are beginning to think that things might go better if all hands were a little happier; if there were a little less recourse to raw sensation in the quest of happiness, and a more resolute clearing of the inner springs of joy. Possibly we might incline more favorably than heretofore toward the idea of a life that gives a little less play to the instinct that we have so horribly overdriven, and a little more to those that we have repressed and deformed; a collective life, in short, that does not flatly preclude the enjoyment of a humane and reasonable happiness. But although we may regard the idea of such a life rather thoughtfully, just now perhaps even wistfully, we have no faculty for realizing it. Women have; and if the women who are economically free would abandon ‘the male psychology,’ and so remodel their inner nature as merely to liberate this faculty, they would need give no thought to what they should ‘do’ in order to apply it socially. It would apply itself.