Women Are Misunderstood

I

GENERALLY speaking, the women of Germany are capable, the French have esprit;, the English are pertinacious. But the American woman is smart. She is brisk, quick-witted, dextrous; the best-dressed and best-groomed woman in the world. There is no situation that she cannot master, no problem for which she cannot find a quick solution. Written and unwritten laws give her a highly preferred position in social life. She controls two thirds of the nation’s wealth, and one fifth of the country’s industries serve her needs and luxury. She should be happy. But something is wrong. It is a strange experience for a foreigner to find that the world’s prototype of beauty and unlimited freedom is haunted by restlessness and a feeling of being ‘ misunderstood.’ She resents nothing more than being told that she is the most privileged woman on earth. The cause of this dissatisfaction is relatively simple: the well-to-do German woman is content to be what she is, and so are the French and the English; whereas the American woman wants constantly to be what she is not, and, since she can’t really shed her skin, she considers herself frustrated and oppressed.

The worst victims of this obsession are not among the small number of rich women who are perfectly happy with the shadow existence of traveling and society, nor the unmarried girls who are reared in the belief that youth in itself is an achievement. The underprivileged homemakers are not among the afflicted; their physical work is too endless to allow time for self-examination. The army of discontent comes from the middle class with incomes from five to fifteen thousand, where the struggle for existence has been replaced by a certain amount of security. For two hundred years the American women lived, like the American man, in the vision of a new country. When the frontiers were closed, it hit them harder than it did him. In a society where the aim no longer was expansion, but consolidation, their only function could be homemaking and reproduction, with all the inevitable routine and unspectacular sacrifices which are implicit in these tasks. They were expected to accept this plight as the ultimate aim of a female life, as all women of Western civilization had done before them. But they refused this suggestion as an unjust curtailment of democratic freedom and a gross misunderstanding of the woman’s true value. Barred from other possibilities, to show their protest t he unpolitical majority of women found an outlet in a new life aim: beauty culture became the battle cry.

Every country has its own ideal age for women. France values experience, whether it has taken forty or fifty years to gain it. Germany has her ideal of the young mother. England adores, though with a cooler heart, the grand lady. America, the pioneer country, created the worship of youth, and American women of all ages excel with unprecedented skill in the art of make-believe.

But this preoccupation runs into insurmountable obstacles. For, in spite of amazing successes in the race against time, American women, like all others, start to get old between forty and fifty, and by fifty-five they must accept the fact that they are not twenty.

The second st umbling block is that the American woman has brains, and usually very good ones. Her intelligence seems to be higher than that of European women. Those good brains urge her into activities where success is independent of age, usually at the time when the first gray hair raises the doubt that it will be eternally possible to keep chic and youthful. The pioneer tradition still lives in her gameness, her unwillingness to be resigned; so the hunt begins for something to fill the threatening emptiness. But her very quickness and cleverness prevent her from finding satisfaction. She projects herself into every new enterprise, only to find that, although it provides activity, it is empty of satisfaction. Fashion becomes caricature as wilder hats and madder trimmings divert attention from aging faces. Psycheanalysis is elevated to a religion in order to satisfy the craving for understanding and to shift personal responsibility to the paid analyst. Clubs and committees are founded on countless pretexts, but seem to function as a means of compensation for a feeling of uselessness. The extraordinary number of lectures, the adult courses in writing, the determination for self-improvement, which exist in this country as in no other, help to give the soothing illusion that one is in vigorous touch with life.

Yet with all their knowledge, real or superficial, the restlessness among American privileged women has grown, proving that their native intelligence and vitality are not easily duped by substitutes. The discrepancy between these native qualities and the American woman’s ability to employ them is the one general symptom which clearly differentiates the hordes of ‘misunderstood’ middle-class women from the discontented elite. Dissatisfaction with a status quo is no negative emotion. The lives of Alma Lutz, Jane Addams, Grace Abbott, in this country, show what women of power and initiative can do. The great; difference between these women and their restless sisters is that they were without self-conceit. It was not lack of personal understanding that incited their actions, but realization of all the dangers which beset an ill-balanced society, a deeply rooted feeling of responsibility towards the common fate of women.

II

To conquer a wilderness called for individualism, vitality, and romanticism, qualities which the American woman had in abundance. But with the land secure under his feet, the American man cast off the Leatherstocking spirit and became absorbed in the task of building up a civilization based upon realism, proficiency, and coöperation. When he found out that die woman showed little ability to adapt herself to this unsensational way of living, he lost interest in her mental life. To keep her from interfering with his work he set her apart on a pedestal of moral superiority. For a time American women did not notice their isolation; as soon as they became aware of the gap between their life and that of their husbands, their innate intelligence revolted against the false halo, and with enthusiasm they set out to reconquer their lost importance. These were the days of suffragettes, of the founding of women’s clubs and women’s colleges, of the leagues for ‘moral purity’ and prohibition — in short, the ‘Me Too’ years of America’s womanhood.

The result was primarily imitative — bound from the very beginning to foster aimlessness instead of curing it, and to spread misunderstanding between the sexes instead of equalizing their standards. Many of the high aims of the feminist movement were borrowed from the world of men, and much valuable strength was wasted to hide this very fact. It is no coincidence that the most active members of the emancipation drive belonged to the wealthy upper middle class, and that the working woman, with her greater sense of reality, kept out of it.

There were shining triumphs at the beginning. Suffrage was granted, equal educational opportunities provided, professional competition accepted, prohibition legislated. But one by one the conquered positions proved unsubstantial victories. Suffrage lost its appeal because the ‘lady reformer’ surrendered an excellent cause to the ridicule of the public. Political and professional equality between man and woman is the exception rather than the rule. Prohibition had to be revoked; and if morals have improved, it is by a gradual break with obsolete tradition and not because of feminist efforts. The present generation of women between thirty and fifty were reared in the belief of the permanence of feminist successes. With failure dawning in their minds, they were unable to analyze the reason. So they took refuge in self-pity and in spasmodic attacks on man as being the sole obstacle to their progress. The story of the failing feminist movement is the history of woman’s grudge against man and his freedom. For compensation women turned back to the only field which was preeminently their own: matrimony. But there the influence of feminism had a dangerous consequence. Since he refused to share his world of objective aims, the American man was denounced by women as culturally inadequate and his position in the home reduced to the role of a disdained money provider. To make up for her unfulfilled dreams of a career and public influence, the privileged American wife has a tendency to be domineering and egocentric, and to underestimate the value of her husband’s influence on domestic life.

III

To be fair, it has not been solely the woman’s fault that family life among the well-to-do suffers from an unbalanced distribution of power and influence. In order to free his mind and energy for the big business game, the man has found it convenient not to assume the responsibilities of the European ‘house father.’ It is partly his fault that today he plays such an inferior rôle, but the effect is a kind of passive resistance on his part. To buy himself off he consents to provide more and more money. His life centres exclusively around the problem of how to get it, which incidentally keeps him conveniently detached from the uncongenial atmosphere of his home. His neglect of married life is very often selfdefense.

Of all the evil consequences of the American wife’s feeling of being misunderstood, this domestic alienation should be the easiest to remedy. American men arc fond of homes and children. The domestic tradition of the pioneer family is still alive among the less privileged classes, and its spirit could be recaptured in more prosperous homes by a simple determination towards self-sacrifice, practical collaboration, and mutual forbearance.

But sheltered women in America have been taught to demand, not to sacrifice. If t heir old demands are unfulfilled, they substitute new ones. In a way they create an endless chain of what they want to be and what they want to have, a chain whose links are ‘a job,’ ‘personal freedom,’ ‘the right to self-expression.’ They have, they say, brains of their own, ideas, talents. They were not meant for paddling along in a man’s wake; they don’t want to hold his stirrup. They want a career, nothing but a career, and their discontent is directed against everything standing between them and the realization of that aim.

One would think the logical result of this attitude would be a marriage strike.

But the marriage rate is higher than ever, because the average woman wants the economic security of marriage. She does not stop to ask whether this is reconcilable with her yearning for a career. She simply demands more rights and greater privileges. In order to endure the gnawing suspicion regarding the soundness of these demands, she has constantly to belittle the job of matrimony, and she has done that so long and so persistently that there is hardly a wealthy American woman who does not look with contempt on any work connected with home and family.

This constant opposition to reality creates a poisoned atmosphere in which children, husbands, and wives alike are the sufferers. Of all the causes of a married woman’s maladjustment, her unwillingness to cope with her domestic job is the most dangerous. She knows that job is the price she must pay for economic security, and yet she tries in a thousand ways to evade it. The united efforts of husband, industry, and science have done everything to coax her into accepting the task which, thanks to her biological destiny, she can best fulfill. Housekeeping and child rearing in America are play compared to the domestic inconvenience in European countries. But she tries to dodge this task, and, when she does accept, bears the burden with the attitude of a martyr.

In England before the present war one could find a good many of these aimless matrons, divided into two groups: the hypochondriacs and the charity fanatics. One group filled doctors’ pocketbooks. The other pestered mankind with appeals for every conceivable cause from providing food for the doves on Trafalgar Square to preserving kangaroos in Australia. American women are too healthy and too intelligent for these pastimes. They still see life as a reality and throw themselves with enormous energy into investigating it, suddenly realizing that their too early marriages have deprived them of many experiences. They feel that they have missed all opportunities to explore human relationships.

Unfortunately, ‘life experience’ means to the majority ‘love experience,’ and their restlessness grows in proportion to their curiosity. This state of mind is aggravated by their lack of sexual education. American women have the reputation of being not very good lovers. Despite her many limitations, the European woman is generally considered a much more gifted marriage partner. Well-to-do American women have never been taught to take love seriously, even though it is the first rule that if love is to be good it must be taken seriously. In their lives love has been confused either with flirtation or with economic calculation. The inevitable result is emptiness and disappointment.

To compensate for emptiness, women fill their days with expensive pastimes. They have to travel, to maintain an extensive competitive social life, to play bridge, to have their names on the committees of a dozen different social and charitable causes — not to mention again the obligation to ‘beauty culture and fashion.’ These activities have resulted in a campaign that costs strength, money, and time. Of course, such conditions are not confined to the American upper middle class. They prevail, although moderated by a lower standard of living, in most European countries, but the French or German wife has at least kept up the most important matrimonial tests. She gives her children personal care and she regards homemaking as a job. In Germany nurses are the exception, and even the wealthiest woman will supervise her marketing and cooking. In France it still is a point of honor for a married woman to be a good lover as well as an intellectual companion. She considers her political and civil influence on her husband, and through him on public life, so satisfactory that she has never made serious efforts to win the franchise.

The contentment of these women comes from their ability to accept, while the unhappiness of American wives comes from a dislike for the work which lies nearest at hand. Most of them would like to picture themselves in a laboratory, dressed in snowy white, dealing with shining machines and instruments, a blessing to suffering mankind. They could do exactly this in the perfection of their households.

The privileged woman’s attitude toward her children will often contribute to her personal dissatisfaction. Once they have made up their minds to have them, American women love their babies, and although this love rarely goes so far as to impel them to take care of their children personally, they do feel genuine affection for them. But the school-age child seems unable to hold the mother’s interest. He drops out of the picture — in winter left to school and a governess, in summer tucked away in a camp. The feverish urge to keep young is irreconcilable with any serious attempt to establish an intelligent relationship with children. Most of these women display considerable nervousness in the presence of their offspring. Perhaps they sense criticism, or dislike being reminded of their neglected duties. The escape from this strain is the same old comfortable feeling of being misunderstood in regard to one’s real, though unfortunately hidden, talent — which, they try to prove, is not to be a nurse.

IV

Whether she likes it or not, biology assigned to woman the job of being homemaker and educator of the next generation, and no community can afford to see her leave that job undone, or badly done. If women are poisoned by a feeling of futility, and by this bitterness of thinking themselves misunderstood, their children will be deprived of one of the most important sources on which to build future happiness. It is apprehension for these children which urges an analysis and solution of their mothers’ problems.

What can be done? It is, of course, tempting to begin with grandiose educational schemes for girls. But these would not affect the women already suffering from martyr complexes. It is too late to give them advice about marrying older and less often, about better preparation for marriage, or about flirting less and being economically braver. If women in middle life are to be helped they must begin by accepting the present social order, and their place in it. That place is the home. This does not mean that the home is the only place for a woman, not even for a married one if her will power and her talents are strong enough to secure her a satisfactory place in the professional world. But it does mean that women who have already made matrimony their profession, either by having children or by accepting financial support, from their husbands, have no excuse for not living up to their bargain merely because they can’t be fired for inefficiency. A woman who has chosen matrimony as a way of making a living must make matrimony her first responsibility. The intelligence and vitality which arc now a major cause of her unhappiness must be used to cure her ‘matriphobia.’

The first step would be to raise homemaking and childbearing to the status of a profession. A competent housewife is banker, cook, nurse, teacher, and artist all in one. There is no reason why she should not have the same standing as any other highly responsible executive. This would mean comprehensive training and adequate remuneration. Efficiency does not come from attending lect ures on flower decoration and cutting recipes out of the evening paper. It comes from specialized knowledge, which could be made available in schools or schoolextension courses. Americans love competitions. Why not have state or community sponsored competitions on themes like preventing the common cold, planning a proper diet, for an overworked man, interesting a hitherto indifferent child in music or painting, and the neglected problems of recreation, leisure, and old age? The power behind these activities should be the government, which, one might assume, should have the greatest interest in getting the utmost collaboration from mothers and wives to improve health and education.

The demand for adequate remuneration for wives has been made often, and has always met with contempt — especially from husbands. Perhaps at first glance it does seem illogical to ask for more money for women who already have too much. But, apart from the Vague idea of ‘personal freedom,’ it is the idea of self-earned money which fascinates women. Why not? This country has made money its yardstick of personal worth, and why should wives be the only people excluded from trying to measure their value by it? A woman should be paid by her husband in proportion to her competence, and to the amount of work and responsibility she assumes. In most cases 25 per cent of her husband’s income would be fair.

This arrangement would offer a fair chance to all those misunderstood women who feel that early marriage and lack of self-expression have denied them business careers. It would also give them a chance to decide how much they wanted to pay for their own laziness, or their desire for excessive entertainment. They would certainly not be forced to do work for which they genuinely had no talent. They would simply have to decide that, if there were certain household tasks they did not want to assume, they would hire out of their home salaries enough domestic help to free them for more congenial outside activities. The sacrifice, coming as it would out of their pockets and not out of their husbands’, would be a good test of sincerity.

From this home salary a wife would pay for her clothes and for her beauty treatments — thus doing away with those painful domestic discussions which have done so much to create matrimonial discord. It would be her money, earned by her and for her to spend. If homemaking could be raised to some such level it would become, as it should, a respected human profession, and one of the greatest value to society.

But the most important point in this program is also the most difficult — the business of rousing genuine interest in it in obstinate female hearts. America’s misunderstood women must learn that they are not misunderstood. Rather they misunderstand their position in society. In this age of often deadly specialization they alone still have a field of activity comprehensive and varied beyond anything left for men to do. By giving up false romanticism and the pose of martyrdom, by a brave effort to use their natural intelligence, they will inevitably see how much more valuable and remunerative a home job is than office or factory work which pays them an average of sixteen dollars a week.

As a first step towards a new peace of mind they must realize that, whether their husbands make one thousand or twenty thousand a year, they themselves are designed to be the strongest educational and emotional power in the community. To gain the maximum of personal happiness they must accept the fact that they are small, essential wheels in a tremendous social mechanism, and that this mechanism cannot function without a renewal of their honest collaboration and personal sacrifice.