by GRETCHEN FINLETTER
PARENTS, I suppose, were as much a problem formerly as they arc today. Unless one watched them like foxes, they might try out some bright new scheme of their own. Samuel Butler says in The Way of All Flesh: “Why cannot we be buried as eggs in neat little cells with thousand pound Bank of England notes wrapped round us and wake to find papa and mamma have been eaten by sparrows some weeks before we began to live consciously?”
I did not wish for anything so drastic. I admired my mother and father deeply, but of course I wanted them to be exactly like other parents. As I think back, no two were like another two, but there was a kind of type — a father who went downtown in the morning and didn’t hang around the house, a gentle mother with marcelled hair who didn’t say much.
Now here was something strange: I did not suffer for my friends in similar predicaments. I remember one father who always kissed his little daughter’s companions good-bye and gave off a great whiff of old brandy. That did not seem odd to me. I simply thought how expensive he smelled.
And today, though I remember how I felt, life has apparently taught me nothing, for I find that I am causing my own children the same agony. I put them in charge of conductors when they travel, which humiliates them; I don’t know the difference between Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey or really quite who they are; I call j.g.’s ensigns — in fact, hardly a day goes by that I haven’t made a bad mistake.
But here is the difference: I am told my errors loudly and publicly. When I was young we were respectful. We didn’t dare do much more than hint. We just suffered.
My first embarrassment started over my father. As a reward for having recovered from scarlet fever, my mother told me I could give a party the way I wanted. I knew exactly the way I wanted it — as near a duplication as possible of the other parties I had attended.
I had been to a big school for a year, so I only had fourteen best friends. These would have to be invited. Then my mother suggested I include a child of a friend of hers. I refused. She didn’t go to my school; ipso facto, no one would like her.
I went out with Minnie to a stationery shop and bought a box of invitations. On each letterhead was a pale-blue shepherdess with a crook, and under her was printed: “Won’t you come to my party on —” Then there were spaces to indicate the day, the time, and the place, and in the left-hand corner, “The Favor of a Reply is requested.”
I next demanded that my little sisters should not be around and butt in, as I hospitably put it. I particularly did not want Anita. She still used a bib at table and needed it. Minnie, who always liked the newest youngest the best, was very hurt by this. She was under the delusion that she could make Anita’s hair curl. Her efforts only produced three corkscrews on one side. I told her that I thought Baby Anita was repulsive and I did not want my friends to see her. My mother announced that Anita was her most beautiful child.
Polly was allowed to be present by the simple expedient of telling me she did not want to come and would rather stay upstairs. This psychology always worked with me, and I begged her to attend. Though Alice seemed bossy to me, I needed her. She was a little older and I felt she would give the whole affair tone. She was going to run the games.
It took me several days to decide what we were going to eat. Finally and with justifiable pride I brought my mother the bill of fare: creamed chicken, peas; ice cream (not the green kind); cocoa. My mother, in an imaginative burst, added snappers for the table, and peppermints.
The party was scheduled to run from four to six, with supper at half past five. At three o’clock I was waiting fully dressed, and at a quarter to four everyone had arrived.
After a nervous interval while we shook hands and eyed each other’s clothes, Alice announced that the games were to start. It was a Salmagundi affair with four tables at which different competitions took place: threading needles, jackstraws, Hearts, and Old Maid. The winner at each table, after pasting a gold star on a piece of red cardboard, advanced to the next event, and she who made the four stars first, won. The room became noisy and I relaxed.
But somehow the time element had been miscalculated. At ten minutes to five the games were all over and there were still forty minutes until supper. I have since seen this situation at parties for grownups, when things do not proceed according to plan, and I have recognized the panic on the face of the hostess. Alice, however, was equal to it. She merely stated that there would be a short interval before the next event.
Having taken a big dose of Sir Walter Scott, she then announced a new game called The Garde Joyeux and The Garde Douloureux. It was a kind of glorified Prisoner’s Base, each side receiving highsounding titles which they lost if they were captured.
In the middle of this my father entered the room, and at the same moment the waitress announced supper. My father then did a horrifying thing. He went to the piano and started to play a March. I was so appalled at this break with custom that I could not speak. Then I signaled to him to stop.
“Louder?” said my father and played on.
“Supper is served,” repeated the waitress.
I reached the piano. “Don’t play!” I begged. “None of the fathers play piano!”
“More fools they,” replied my father, continuing. “Now all of you march around the room twice.” We marched around the room twice and I did not dare lift my eyes.
Then something strange happened: my friends did not want to go in to supper. They wanted him to play to them again. They liked it. My mortification almost turned to pride, but not quite. I was not yet sure. This might only be a display of their impeccable manners. But when they shook hands with my mother and said, “Thank-you-for-the-lovelyparty,” it did sound almost genuine.
MY MOTHER had — and still has — strong opinions on the questions of the day. Though I never thought of it as quarreling, as children we were used to plenty of disagreement between my parents. My mother had great wit, and if she could not win by argument, she could often snatch victory by the flash of her repartee.
She was very clear and articulate and usually had the facts at her fingertips; but if she was cornered and no retort came to her, she would announce that she had reached her conclusion because she “ felt it in her bones.” My father would declare he had just as many bones, they were just as sensitive, and they told him differently. But we believed my mother had some super-perceptive fluid tucked away in her anatomy.
The arguments usually took place at table and ranged all the way from William Howard Taft to how low a picture should be hung. My sisters and I would join in, defending the parent we felt was the weaker at the moment.
There were certain rules. My mother, coming of a political family, had a corner on public questions — and on the whole won in this field. My father went undisputed in the realm of music. But there was a great No Man’s Land between those two areas. In the fought-over territory were interior decoration, religion, food, education, relatives — well, all the things that go to make up living.
I was so used to disagreement that when I began visiting my friends, I kept waiting for the scrap to start. At first the quiet meals seemed wonderful and like a beautiful set in a play, but then I would become homesick and want to get back to where everyone cared passionately about everyone else’s opinions and all expressed themselves in an unvarnished way.
The question of religion was a curving line between my parents. My father usually had a concert on Sundays and did not go to church. He did not think much of the music that was played there, — I think it made him nervous, — and anyhow, Sunday was his busy day. He did not, however, feel any the less religious or any less an authority with my mother in understanding the workings of the Deity. He always referred to God as The Almighty, and this practice annoyed my mother. I think she felt that if my father did not work enough at religion to go to church, as she did, and did not read the religious books, as she did, he should not he so know-it-all about what The Almighty was up to. She would tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about.
My mother not only went to church but she listened carefully, and this habit sometimes caused her daughters suffering.
A new young clergyman would start in with his sermon and all would be well if he kept it on a vague and spiritual height. But if he was a practical cleric he would try to hitch his text to some question of the day and he would not always be on the party line. He might also be in a wonderful haze as to his facts.
I would receive a slight nudge from one of my sisters. But I did not need the nudge. I had heard the clergyman announce, “The Congress of the United States must make Covenants betwixt the nations, even as the Lord commanded Moses with the Tribes of Israel.”
I saw my mother’s face flush. Then, though I was in a sitting position, I would close my eyes and start to pray in real earnest. I would implore God to get that cleric to recant before it was too late. I knew He could do nothing with my mother.
After the Benediction the clergyman would stand outside to greet the congregation as they left the church. We always hung back far behind my mother. The clergyman would extend his hand with a peaceful smile.
“Do you not realize,” my mother would demand, “that a treaty with a foreign power must be ratified by a two-thirds vote in the Senate, unlike a bill, which needs a majority in both Houses? It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Laws of Moses!”
The Reverend reeled. Here was living proof that someone had listened to him. He had been hit on the head and yet he was fascinated. Might he call? Might he bring a small quotation from a little book? It had great bearing on this very interesting question. My mother, still shaking her head disapprovingly, told him that he might come, and with red faces we walked home.
The Reverend came with his little book, but then my mother gave him three large books and told him to read them carefully. And then he came often and became charmed by my non-churchgoing father. He would drop in for lunch and my father would tell him what St. Peter said to the two Irishmen who wanted to get into Heaven, or expound his views, and the clergyman would nod in solemn agreement.
This would infuriate my mother. She had netted this bird. He should be able to see through my father and recognize that he had no idea what he was talking about!
MY MOTHER became a suffragist. The suffragettes in England were having a real fight, chaining themselves to posts, destroying the golf greens of members of Parliament, being jailed and then starving themselves. They were a courageous lot and broke the ground for their American sisters.
In this country there was strong feeling but it did not take so physical a form. There was a big section in the press which made fun of the women, and there were plenty of men and other women who were against the giving of the ballot. It took guts to fight for the cause, and a tough spirit to withstand the ridicule.
Alice Duer Miller ran a page in the New York Tribune called “Are Women People?” It was full of wit and became one of the pivotal points of the fight.
A group of women went down to Washington to attend the suffrage hearings. Chairman Webb cried out to the suffragists when they appeared: “Why do you come here and bother us!”
Alice Duer Miller answered in her column: —
Our Cause is at its ebb.
How could you go and do it!
You’ve bothered Mr. Webb!”
Concerning a Congressional obstructionist, she wrote: —
Women,” he said, “are something divine, apart,
Something mysterious, precious, fair and remote,
Caring for nothing but love, religion and art.”
“I like to think of them so,” was his reply.
One of the arguments related to the prejudice that existed against women in the fields of medicine and law, and even in the church. If they went to universities and did as well as the men, why should they not have an equal chance in the professions?
I remember that then I became depressed. I was not very old and it seemed to me that if I ever got through school, which was already becoming difficult, I should not then be happily quit of it all, but should have to go on and on. In school we were told ambiguously that we must lead useful lives, but in the suffrage world words were not minced; we were told we had to have careers, and fight to hold them, and do even better than the men.
Like most little girls, I liked to play House. I did not think of having a husband, but I did think of having children — five of them, two boys and three girls. I knew their names and how old they were going to be. They were apparently going to spring full-armed like Minerva, one at the age of five, twins at age eight, one at nine, and one at nine and a half. I knew exactly how I would dress them. Now all this was to be denied me.
Did I really want to be a great lawyer? Should I be happy removing an appendix? I began to feel guilty and troubled. I studied the pictures of the London women in the Sunday papers. One was being carried off by two policemen, and another was lying on a cot swallowing an enormous hose. These women were doing this so that I could become a U. S. Senator. I ought to be grateful. I wasn’t.
I wished my mother didn’t care so. A lot of the other ladies seemed so unaware, and though I felt they had none of my mother’s spirit, their children seemed less weighed down by their future responsibilities.
My mother planned to march in the first big suffrage parade. Nowadays women will march anywhere at the drop of a hat, dressed as drum majors or Puritan maids, but the first suffrage parade caused a lot of ridicule, and it took belief and nerve to march. My father was very proud of my mother. I think he would have paraded too if he had been invited, and he wanted her to get her due.
THE parade took place on a May day, at five in the afternoon. The line of march was scheduled to go from Washington Square to Carnegie Hall, where a mass meeting was to take place in the evening.
The day before, there were notices in the papers from Mrs. Blatch giving the marchers their orders, advising them to look neat and keep their heads up, for on them depended the implications of the day.
My mother wore a white serge suit which just cleared the ground, and a white hat on the front of which was a feathered owl’s head with big yellow glass eyes. The hat was held on by two long hatpins. Most of the women wore white; those who did not have this costume were in dark blue. There was also a special suffrage hat which cost thirty-nine cents, and a number of the ladies pinned it on.
The marchers were told to go in groups by profession or college. “If you have no profession or diploma,” read the order, “if you are just married women, you are to march with your district to educate your Senator.”
It was a perfect spring day. The crowd collected early along the line of march, and by three o’clock the sidewalks along Fifth Avenue were jammed. My mother went off to join her district, and there was a light in her eye. We each shook her by the hand and wished her luck. Then my father and his four daughters struggled over to the Avenue and the Bryce house, where we were to watch the great event.
We shoved our way up the crowded steps. There were hundreds of people about, and they were obviously out for the fun. They were going to make the ladies the butts for all possible humor. Passing in and out among them were the anti-suffragists, distributing leaflets and wearing holy yet triumphant smiles. This march, they had little doubt, was going to fix their rivals.
We all became nervous. Suppose someone threw an egg at my mother. What ought we to do? We opened the big windows wide and looked anxiously down the empty Avenue and at the seething crowd. A fight between two women was taking place on a side street. One of them had kicked a basket of antisuffrage literature into the gutter, and a pleased circle formed. But there was an interruption. There was the sound of a distant band. All eyes turned from the two women.
Coming up the Avenue was a line of mounted police. The band sounded louder and there appeared fifty-four horsewomen of the Suffrage Cavalry, mounted on the shiniest of steeds and all wearing black hats cockaded in green and purple. On a rearing bay sat Inez Milholland in a linen crash suit. The crowd looked at that beautiful girl on her plunging animal and gasped. The parade was on.
The band drummed by and then came the marchers in straight rows, some carrying banners or slogans, and all wearing ribbons across their chests, and the suffrage emblem. Some were older women, some were young and lovely, but every face had on it an expression so resolute and serious that it silenced the milling crowd. There was a hush and then the applause began. I remember a shiver going up my spine and I was suddenly proud that I was related to this march.
Said the violently anti-suffragist New York Times: “It was a crowd far larger than that which greeted the home-coming of Theodore Roosevelt. Gallantry aside, one is forced to say that the paraders were well worth looking at. Many were young and attractive, nearly all were becomingly gowned, all stepped out like women unafraid.”
But in its editorial the Times became more severe. “If the women try hard enough to get the ballot, they will get it and play havoc with it for themselves and society if the men are not firm and wise enough, and it may well be said, masculine enough to prevent them.”
There were in all some ten thousand marchers. Following the first groups came the college women in their caps and gowns, then the teachers. They received rousing cheers from their pupils, who had collected in knots and were waiting for them. A flock of high school girls swung into the line in gym suits, middy blouses, and red ties, with their arms extended to hold a great flag carried flat. “All this,”said their banner, “is a Natural Consequence of Teaching Girls to Read.”
Next appeared a band playing “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys Are Marching.” Those on the sidelines took up the refrain and sang, “The Girls Are Marching.” Two carriages appeared, driven of course by women, in which sat white-haired suffrage veterans. Another band swept up the Avenue.
But the crowd, which was gay and excited, still wanted some fun. The parade was full of color and music; they were learning a lot of facts from the slogans; they had never realized before that women worked in such a variety of fields; they had seen hundreds of pretty faces which had surprised them, but they hadn’t yet had a big laugh. Then the moment came.
Up the Avenue paraded the Men’s League for Women Voters, eight hundred of them. There had been no attempt at uniformity in their dress. Some wore frock coats and high silk hats, some business suits and derbies. All carried little flags. Never were early Christians received with more delight by the lions. There was a roar of expectant pleasure.
As is the way of parades, traffic had to cross the Avenue and the gallant Eight Hundred were forced to pause several minutes. The sidewalks let them have it.
“Can’t you fellows get a wife? Why not try up ahead!”
“Three cheers for the henpecked!”
“Where are your aprons?”
“Aw, Susie, are the dishes washed?”
“Who’s minding the babies?”
The men took it good-naturedly. A distinguished doctor with a full beard stood at the head of a battalion of physicians. “Look at the bearded lady!” This sally received appreciative guffaws.
Finally the band struck up “I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad,” and the brave men marched on, but there was a last, parting shot: “It’s your chests you throw out, not your stomachs!”
Harvard and Princeton had sent delegations. The Harvard students wore their black gowns and mortarboards. When they passed the Union Club they waved at the members who were sitting in the windows. They were met by stony looks of disapproval. In this instance the sex was not hanging together.
We were still at the Bryce windows waiting for my mother. The parade continued, more bands, — there were twenty-six of them, — more women, a group of actresses, the laundry workers, the milliners, more districts. Then one of my sisters screamed out: “Look — in the second line of the third group — at the end!”
There was a white hat with an owl’s head in front. My father stood up. “Now, when I give the signal.”
The line drew nearer. “One, two, three,” cried my father. “Hip, hip, hooray, hooray, hooray!”
We all cheered. The crowd joined in and cheered with us. We waved our handkerchiefs. But my mother kept her eyes straight ahead. She says she never heard us.