THE aged verger of an English cathedral once remarked that of all the sight-seers of many sorts and nations with whom he talked, the most thoughtful and interested were American women over forty. Yet all is not well with this group. One of the shrewdest and most feminine observers of American life, that eminent sociologist of the grandmother, Helen Hokinson, took as her field the moderately well-to-do woman whose children have grown up and who is filling the vacant last decades of her life with busywork. The Hokinson humor, like much great humor, plays about the edges of spiritual tragedy.
One of the most senseless wastes in American life — and we are expert wastrels — is that of the energy and intelligence of the millions of women whose sons and daughters have left home. Our society makes no real place for them; yet we need them not merely in volunteer services outside the family but, if they wish to work, in the labor forces of the nation. Our standard of living and leisure is not what we wish it were; and as the proportion of elderly women grows, it will be increasingly advisable to open to them opportunities to work, if only to lighten the economic burden on younger workers.
The chief reason for wishing to change the condition of the grandmother, however, is ethical. To be useless is not good for the soul. Many a woman in her forties turns to bridge, chatter, shopping expedit ions, aimless clubs, and, in extrente cases, to alcohol to gain an illusory sense of activity. She often becomes fatuous, because life, in the form of her children, has walked out on her, leaving onh a husband who is mostly at the office. At times she becomes bulbous from overeating induced by a sense of insecurity and uncertainly. She becomes timorous of id I change, since change has wronged her.
W hereas by medical advances we have greatly increased the relative number of the middle-aged and elderly—particularly among women — we have taken from them the dignity which formerly they enjoyed even in our civilization. The invitation of Habbi Ren Ezra,
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made,
has a hollow ring today. Because among us, unlike the Chinese, age inspires no respect, the art of growing old gracefully is less cultivated, and age becomes less worthy of respect. The fantastic valuation which we put upon youthful beauty in women, for example, brings its nemesis in bedizened crones. The high proportion among elderly Chinese women of faces placidly confident, wrinkled with good humor and the attentive observation of the world, indicates a part of the rewards in character which the Chinese reap from their wisdom in regarding the course of life as one of continuing enrichment.
The physicians have increased the mere quantity of a woman’s life. It is the task of educators to help improve the quality of the latter part of it. The crisis of the forties, when many women wake up to find themselves idle, often coincides with a physiological shake-up. The combination is so severe that plans to meet it should be laid far in advance. Even in college, girls should be taught to foresee the double event and advised as to how to build their intervening lives so that when it comes they can take it in stride.
A specific course which would do much to build assurance and emotional stability as the years pass might be called “Law and Order for the Housewife,” or, if one must be more pompous, “Normal Procedures in American Business.” Most women have only enough contact with business and legal matters to puzzle and confuse them. Their husbands attend to these things in an atmosphere of masculine efficiency which throttles detailed questions but which does not always inspire wifely confidence. The death of her husband, or even the long prospect of it, throws many a woman into a state of timidity which frays her life around the edges.
If from college days onward she had had some general information on such matters as the types of insurance and annuities, the nature of real-estate transactions, property, income, and estate taxes, what a stockbroker does, the broad theory of investment portfolios, trusts, the trusteeship of minor children, the making and probating of wills, the responsibilities of an executor, normal legal fees, and the like, she would be better able to ask pointed questions and would approach her later years without that sense of being lost in an economic and legal jungle which haunts many women. Moreover, if it were properly taught, such a course would be far more than a collection of useful information: it would provide an insight into the functioning of our society not found in the courses now usually offered.
Naturally, until a woman is widowed (and the chances are strong that she will be, such is the fragility of men), we may hope for her husband’s sake that family life continues to occupy a good part of her time. Indeed it is possible that a woman may rediscover her husband. The morning after the wedding of the third and youngest daughter of a certain family, the bride’s mother sadly remarked to the father that the house would seem lonely now with everybody gone. “Well, said he, why don t you got married?" There are rumors that a man can stand a bit of rediscovering at about that time in his life.
Indeed it is to be hoped that some day we may work out a productive system whereby men may, in their early fifties, if not retire, at least taper off the amount of time given to work so that husbands and wives may devote more time to each other and to common interests. If women simultaneously made a habit of taking part-time jobs, this might, be brought closer to ihe realm of economic possibilities. The effect of such a change could only be good. One of the secrets of the extraordinary dynamism of Japan and at the same time of the refinement of Japanese culture has been the habit among Japanese men, even of the lower middle class, ol retiring in early middle age, turning their business and support over to younger relatives or partners, and devoting themselves thereafter to viewing the cherry blossoms, calligraphy, ancient dances, and in general to personal cultivation and the good life, even though at times it is lived frugally. The growth of equivalent customs in America would do much to make the lives of middle-aged women, as well as their husbands, happier.
If a woman has reared her family with perspective, she has almost certainly learned to share in volunteer community services, politics, the arts, or the like, to which she can devote herself with increasing energy as her family responsibilities diminish. If she has for any reason failed to find congenial interests, it is by no means too late. There is much that needs to bo done, the doing of which can be very satisfying and instructive.
To choose only one example, a woman who wants some really novel experiences may start a campaign to rid her city or county of that, nauseous eczema of our modern world, the billboard. The newspapers will be either silent or opposed to her because they are so involved with advertisers. Few organizations will help her because of the business interests of their members, or of their members’ husbands.
When she gathers a band of stalwart anti-billboarders to attend a hearing before the city council or county supervisors, she will find the opposition composed of representatives not of the road sign companies, but of the lumber, paint, and sheetmetal industries. There will be spokesmen for the carpenters’ and painters’ unions accusing her of wanting to take the bread from the mouths of their wives and children by reducing employment. Her obvious counterproposal, that more houses be built with the released labor and materials, will be passed over quickly. The billboards will remain and multiply like bacteria infecting the landscape, but at least she will have begun a rigorous adult education course in local politics. Then she can relax and devote herself to the alumnae activities of the institution from which she graduated. Many a woman approaching middle years has found new vigor and enthusiasm in identifying herself with the ongoing life of her college and in expanding her maternal instincts, now that her own children are grown, to encompass the new generations of students which inhabit its campus.
WHENTEVER one talks about women working for pay, the timeworn objection crops up that “if they have husbands to support them they are just taking jobs away from men who must feed their families. This assumes that the purpose of our economic system is to give work rather than to provide the products of work—that, is, the food, clothing, shelter, services, and other goods which people actually use. For centuries this argument has been used against every technological improvement which turned out more goods with less work a type of thinking which should have been drowned in laughter forty years ago at the famous suggestion that the Panama Canal be dug with silver teaspoons to “spread the work.” It is the argument which underlies the union rules for restricting production and those which so subdivide the functions of workmen and the jurisdiction of unions that several men must be called in to do simple jobs which one could easily handle.
The most precious of the products of work is leisure from work. The democratic revolution made all of us aristocrats legally and politically. The technological revolution, which was so closely allied with it, is tending to make us all aristocrats not only in our standard of living but also in our standard of leisure, the most important element in living — if one knows how to use leisure intelligently. Our task is not to spread the work, but rather to get as many men and women as possible to work as efficiently as we can, and then to share the product of our work, including leisure, as justly as we can.
There is no reason, save an outmoded snobbism, why women should not normally expect and hope to assume at least part-time salaried jobs in middle life. Even if the job in itself is not very exciting the very holding of if helps morale and the income is not amiss in most cases. In vocational advising of college girls, every effort should be made to impress on them the importance of maintaining their occupational skills and interests in good shape during the child-rearing years when, in all probability, they will find it impossible to use them regularly.
This is obviously no simple task, but it can be done, and with pleasure, if it is planned in advance. A woman who has stenographic skills will establish contacts whereby she can occasionally do lengthy typing jobs at home, or help in some office during a peak load of work. A laboratory assistant or occupational therapist will keep in touch with professional journals and new techniques. A home economist will maintain membership in the appropriate professional society and scan current publications. A woman with a teacher s certificate will act in emergencies as a substitute for sick teachers. A commercial artist will deliberately choose voluntary service with organizations needing posters and the like. A textile expert will have a loom in her home at which she can work at odd moments. A woman trained in religious education will teach Sunday School and assist other church activities. A graduate nurse will register with the local nursing bureau for special service. A musician will give occasional music lessons. Indeed every imaginable type of skill can be kept in shape from the twenties to the forties, if it is done systematically and intelligently as insurance of useful activity in middle life.
There are, however, many kinds of work that any middle-aged woman can do if she has sense and health. For example, there is great demand for experienced and reliable women who can relieve younger women of family responsibilities on regular days or afternoons so that they may either develop community interests or hold part-time jobs of their own. Now that servants are the new plutocracy, the old stigma against such work is rapidly vanishing, and there is no reason why women of culture and breeding, who in any ease for years have probably been doing most of their own housework, should recoil from such arrangements.
Again, the innumerable selling jobs assume little experience save the instinct for values in goods and the knowledge of human psychology which most mature women acquire in the process of living. I am assured by gray-haired saleswomen that selling has the double interest of the article sold and the vagaries of the potential purchaser, which are sometimes refreshing and always instructive1 if one is interested in human nature.
THE chief difficulty with finding jobs for middleaged women is that, since most of them have family commitments for some of their time, they cannot well take on steady full-time jobs. There are innumerable jobs in our society which could be filled by different persons on alternate days, which could be cut up into four-, three-, or even two-hour shifts per day, or which coidd be handled on a piece-work or commission basis, all of which would give greater flexibility in hours and therefore economic opportunity to women. I nfortunately the business world is dominated by a masculine fixation on the eighthour day as the only moral unit of human activity. It is clearly in the interest not only of women but of the productivity of our economic system to break down this rigidity of thought about time-units of labor, and to adapt each job to the unit which is most efficient for it and for society as a whole.
Many employers object to dividing full-time into part-time jobs because of the considerable increase in bookkeeping which it entails. There are more files to set up, more records to keep, more Social Security deductions to make, and so forth. It seems unlikely, however, that under a system of split jobs the employer would lose money. Most efficiency experts seem to have concluded that in general a person does more and better work during a relatively short stint, whereas a long working day brings weariness, boredom, and low production in proportion to time spent working.
Nothing would do more for the morale of women, and particularly of middle-aged married women, than the development of as many part-time jobs as possible. It is strange that our powerful women s organizations have not given more study to the question. In every largish city a special agency to discover and fill such jobs might be set up coöperatively by the local women’s clubs, and a campaign launched through radio and the newspapers to make the community conscious of the possibility and importance of such jobs. If in the classified ads section of the papers the part-time openings were listed separately from the rest, employers might find that the eagerness of able women for such jobs, and the resulting opportunity to fill them with a high type of person, would justify splitting existing full-time positions. Such a service might also investigate existing brush-up courses for women whose skills are rusty, and encourage or sponsor others which seem to be needed in terms of the local demand for workers. This task is concrete and tangible. It should be item number one on the agenda of those who wish to help women towards confidence in themselves.
As was the case in the older struggles to improve the lot of women, which were chiefly political, the major obstacle will be the psychology of men and especially of loving husbands. How many a man of the era of Teddy Roosevelt, eying his wife with a pained expression as she donned her feather boa to march in a suffragette parade, remonstrated, “But darling, don’t you trust me when 1 vote?” So today many men, especially in the middle and higher income brackets where most college graduates are to be found, are sensitive about having their wives work in paying jobs. They will have to be taught that the right to work is like the right to vote: a necessary form of human expression in a democratic society, and one not limited by sex or social group. If this is too abstract a notion for a husband to begin with, it may be pointed out that the cost of living has skyrocketed, that his life insurance is not going to provide the security for his wife that he thought it would when the policy was written, and that the startling and continuing increase in women’s life expectancy is playing havoc wilh annuity arrangements. And besides, now with (’harlotte married and Peter off at college, she can’t spend all her spare time moping over the new television set. The biggest immediate and practical assignment for American women is to find and create the kind of jobs which will harmonize with and supplement their basic and most Satisfying job of bearing and retiring the race.
Occasionally the suggestion is made that the entire timing of college at present is masculine in its presuppositions, that girls should be encouraged to marry in their teens, have their families, and then go to college in their late thirties and develop careers. The idea is intelligent and may in time produce an alternate pattern of higher education for women, or at least for those who can live at home and scramble an occasional egg for the vestigial husband w hile pursuing their studies. Adult education through local university extension centers is already reaching thousands. The non-residential Junior College, intensively developed in California, now spreading rapidly over t he nation, and ardently advocated under the name Community College in ihe report of President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education, should provide further opportunities to an increasing number of mature women.
I low ewer, perhaps the summer sessions of our residential colleges offer the greatest, and least explored, possibilities for the educational stimulation of women of dwindling family responsibilities who are trying to find themselves. Even at present an occasional middle-aged married woman turns up in the July registration lines. Usually she is mistaken for a schoolteacher, and no one pays much attention to her or realizes 1 hat she may be the advance guard of a vast army, (letting away from home for a few weeks into a novel and provocative environment gives her a chance to rethink her activities. Often she finds that she misses her husband more than she expected to. She may need wise and experienced counseling far more than the average undergraduate girl does, but it has not yet occurred to anyone to prepare to provide it. In any case she can hardly fail to return to her home refreshed in mind, seeing both her duties and her opportunities with new eyes, and with it higher valuation of herself as a person.
That our colleges have neglected ihe mature woman and her needs is not astonishing in view of the fact that they have neglected all women, as women. The unchallenged assumption that the educated person is both male and celibate can be explained historically, but is indefensible in the world as we know it. Gradually, haltingly, and often unconsciously, we in America have been fumbling our way toward a type of higher education which is related to the comparative unpredictability of the life pattern of women, which lends prestige to the family, and which gives free scope to the development of the infinitely varied interests and capacities of individual women not merely when they coincide with those of men but also when they diverge from the masculine tradition.
But the pace is much too slow. It will not be greatly hastened until the leaders among American women engage in a new feminist crusade to free women from subservience to masculine value judgments and above all to the worship of cultural creativity, a crusade more difficult than that of the old feminism which fought for, and largely won, equality for women with men in legal, political, and social status. Only out of such a spiritual revolution, only out of a feminism which will affirm rather than repudiate femininity, can there come a collegiate education which will do for our young women what higher education has long done for young men — that is, one which will build feminine self-respect until at last American women shall be as glad to be women as men are glad to be men.