Women’s Empowerment

This is the fifth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Terry Castle, a professor of English at Stanford. Her books include The Apparitional Lesbian and Courage, Mon Amie

Women’s Empowerment

One of the more disturbing newsreels of the early twentieth century—now, like the Zapruder film, easily found on the Web—shows Emily Davison, a militant English suffragist maddened by the injustices she felt had been done to women, throwing herself in protest in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby on June 4, 1913. In nine jerky seconds you see it all: a somersaulting horse, a woman down and lying motionless, men in boaters running onto the track. Jockey and horse survived; Davison, struck in the head, died without regaining consciousness. Fellow suffragists saw her death as a martyrdom. Davison, wrote Emmeline Pankhurst, no doubt believed that through her grotesque self-sacrifice she might “put an end to the intolerable torture of women.”

Like watching Davison’s suicide, perusing old Atlantic essays on the century-long female struggle for equal rights can provoke mixed feelings—especially in the erstwhile feminist. On the one hand, one is grateful for the fearlessness with which various Atlantic writers, male and female, have argued over the years on behalf of women’s rights. It’s hard not to rejoice at Samuel McChord Crothers’s eloquent defense of women’s suffrage, or Virginia Woolf’s surprisingly passionate assault on the exploitation of female domestic labor. My favorite blast from the feminist past here is the ferocious “Desperate Housewives,” in which Nora Johnson, two years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, decries the exhausting work of child care as “the simple, nerve-wracking, mindless, battering-ram process of trying to teach a savage to use a fork.”

On the other hand, in gloomier moods, I find myself wondering if true sexual equality—the kind Davison killed herself for—will ever be achieved. Women in Western societies now have the vote, of course, along with many other rights and protections. Yet women and men continue to collide in countless ways in modern life. In an essay here from 1997, Katha Pollitt itemizes the many fields (business, politics, media, science, religion, etc.) in which American women are underrepresented; the disparities persist in 2006. Women’s historic entry into the workforce, one fears, has yet to produce any net gain in human happiness; men continue to resent female competition (sometimes with good reason); women themselves struggle to combine careers with the demands of motherhood and running a household. Nor has the “intolerable torture of women” mentioned by Mrs. Pankhurst exactly come to a halt—not yet, at least, in some of the more barbarous places around the globe. One suspects we’re not quite done with it: the woman on the track, the king’s horse bearing down; the conflict, the pain, the waste.

Terry Castle

For the full text of these articles, visit The Atlantic's Ideas Tour site.

October 1914

In 1914, as the women’s suffrage amendment languished in Congress, Samuel McChord Crothers, a popular essayist and a Harvard Square–based Unitarian minister, made the case for equal suffrage. (The amendment did not pass that year, however; American women would not win the right to vote for another six years.)

Few subjects have of late been more vehemently debated than the extension of the right of suffrage to women …

Heretofore this has been a man’s world arranged for his convenience. Now Woman has appeared, open-eyed and armed, and all things are to be changed. Religion, the State, the Family, are to be reorganized according to a strictly feministic plan. If the ultimatum is not at once accepted we may look for that dreadful catastrophe, a sex war.

No wonder that the honest citizen awakened by the loud cry is not in the best of humor. And when he is called opprobrious names, like Victorian and early-Victorian, he is inclined to be surly. It is all so sudden. It appears that all the ideals of womanhood that he has revered are to be overturned and trodden under foot by cohorts of Amazons shouting, “Down with the Home” …

The essential thing is that many women are becoming conscious of what some women have always felt, that some of the limitations which have been accepted as natural are in reality only conventional, and so can be removed …

During the last generation some things took place which were really revolutionary. The entrance of women into the colleges and universities, and into business and the professions, marked an advance of great importance. This was a new departure, at least in our modern world. Those who believed in a definite “sphere” for women had reason to be alarmed at this new departure. It involved many social changes. But these changes did not involve political action, and so were quietly acquiesced in.

Now that the revolution has taken place, multitudes of educated women are in influential positions, moulding public sentiment and directing large institutions. All the functions of citizenship they actually exercise except that of voting at certain elections. We no longer find anything amusing in the term “strong-minded” applied to a woman. What are colleges for if not to strengthen the mind!

And when our daughters come back from school and college, where their minds have been strengthened and broadened by modern discipline, they naturally seek to use the power they have acquired. Why not?

Volume 114, No. 4, pp. 538–546

June 1926

Six years after the Nineteenth Amendment had given American women the right to vote, Atlantic contributor Faith Fairfield pointed to an ongoing double standard in other areas.

The progress of man has never been impeded by preconceived ideas regarding his abilities, his proper interests, and his appropriate activities. Woman has always been so hampered. For generations her existence was narrowly prescribed because she was considered an inferior creature lacking a soul and possessing but a rudimentary intellect … Woman … is repeatedly reminded that the greatest scientists, musicians, and artists have never been numbered among her sex …

The average woman must still choose between domesticity and a career … In exceptional cases a woman continues her work without interruption after marriage, her home life being as subordinated to her career as a man’s would be. The work these women accomplish is often exceptionally valuable, perhaps because they are emotionally as well as intellectually satisfied. This solution of the modern social problem … is probably most efficacious in giving woman an opportunity to develop her possibilities …

An intellectual man may be married to a low-grade moron with the sanction of society, but the husband of a woman of unusual ability is considered an object for pity or merriment unless his accomplishments equal or excel hers.

Volume 137, No. 6, pp. 801–804

May and June 1938

In 1938, Virginia Woolf, a champion of equal opportunity for women and the author of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and A Room of One’s Own, responded scathingly in the pages of The Atlantic to a written solicitation she had received in the mail asking “the daughters of educated men” to join in the cause against war. What women really ought to lobby for, she argued, is equal opportunity and better pay for themselves.

One does not like to leave unanswered so remarkable a letter as yours—a letter perhaps unique in the history of human correspondence, since when before has an educated man asked a woman how, in her opinion, can war be prevented? Therefore let us now make the attempt, even if it is doomed to failure …

The fact is indisputable—scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman’s rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us.

How, then, are we to understand your problem, and if we cannot, how can we answer your question, how to prevent war? The answer based upon our experience and our psychology—Why fight?—is not an answer that would be of the least use to you …

Some more energetic, some more active method of expressing our belief that war is barbarous, that war is inhuman,—that war, as Wilfred Owen put it, is insupportable, horrible, and beastly,—seems to be required. But, rhetoric apart, what active method is open to us?

You, of course, could once more take up arms—in Spain, for example—in defense of peace. But that presumably is a method that you have rejected. At any rate that method is not open to us; both the Army and the Navy are closed to our sex. Nor, again, are we allowed to be members of the Stock Exchange. Thus we cannot use either the pressure of force or the pressure of money. We cannot preach sermons or negotiate treaties. Then again, although it is true that we can write articles or send letters to the press, the control of the press,—the decision what to print and what not to print,—is entirely in the hands of your sex. It is true that for the past twenty years we have been admitted to the Civil Service and to the Bar; but our position there is still very precarious and our authority of the slightest …

There is [a] way in which [women can help the anti-war cause]. And that is by earning their own livings; by continuing to earn those livings while the war is in progress. History is at hand to assure us that this method has a psychological influence, a strong dissuasive force upon war-makers. In the last war the daughters of working men proved it by showing that they could do their brother’s work in his absence. They thus roused his jealousy and his anxiety lest his place should have been filled in his absence, and provided him with a strong incentive to end the war.

It follows that an Outsider must make it her business to press for a living wage in all the professions now open to her sex; further, she must create new professions in which she can earn the right to an independent opinion. Therefore she must bind herself to press for a money wage for the unpaid worker in her own class—the daughters and sisters of educated men who are now paid on the truck system, with food, lodging, and a pittance of forty pounds a year. But above all she must press for a wage to be paid by the State legally to the mothers of educated men. It is the most effective way in which we can ensure that the married woman shall have a mind and a will of her own, with which, if his mind and will are good in her eyes, to support her husband, if bad to resist him—in any case to cease to be “his woman,” and to be herself.

Volume 161, Nos. 5–6, pp. 585–594 and 750–759

October 1957

In 1957, Helen Hill Miller, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and a correspondent for The Economist, considered the social and psychological obstacles facing women attempting to forge careers in science.

When the Atlantic was started, women scientists were next to unknown …

Much of the time and energy of women who entered the scientific professions in the nineteenth century was spent in either contriving to take barriers gracefully or crashing into them with results demolishing sometimes the woman, sometimes the barrier …

To many a pioneer who came up the hard way, the lot of the science majors of the class of 1957 who are entering advanced study or employment this autumn seems a very easy one. This does not mean, however, that all bars are down. A few “No Admittance” signs are still posted: for instance, use of the 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar is denied to women astronomers, on the ground that living facilities on the mountain are inadequate, though the 120-inch instrument at near-by Lick Observatory is unrestricted. Similarly, some industrial corporations still refuse to hire women engineers, on the ground that living conditions in the field are difficult …

Other types of restriction remain. One is the counsel that many young girls get when making up their minds about entering a profession. Interviewed in his private machine shop among boulders and birches at Belmont, Massachusetts, Dr. Vannevar Bush [the renowned pioneer in analog computing] credited folklore with much of the reluctance of women to attempt disciplines based on logic, such as mathematics and physics. Promising youngsters, he remarked, are frequently scared off by the declaration: “Girls aren’t good at math.” Some girls, he believes, can be very good at it. Dean Gordon B. Carson of Ohio State’s College of Engineering concurs: “There is still some social stigma and question in the high schools of the nation when girls major in the scientific-mathematics portion of the high school curriculum” …

The two-way stretch of a home and a job, during at least part of a married woman’s life, is undeniable. To solve this highly personal problem without quitting requires finding an employing institution that can accommodate itself to maternity leave, part-time employment, sudden emergencies. It requires a family in accord with the effort. It requires finding, for at least part of the time when the children are young, another woman who can relieve the scientist of the necessity of being in two places at the same time. And it requires a certain philosophy about scientific attainment: in today’s competitive conditions, continuity of work is almost indispensable if one is to get as far as one might be able to go—as Vannevar Bush puts it, “Getting to the top on part time is doggone tough.”

Volume 200, No. 4, pp. 123–128

June 1961

Two years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique articulated “the problem that has no name,” novelist and essayist Nora Johnson considered the frustrations of the well-educated homemaker.

Probably every educated wife has found herself staring at a mountain of dirty diapers and asking herself desperately, “Is this all there is?” And at the same time she is embarrassed by her dissatisfaction; she, of all people, with her intelligence and realistic view of life, should be able to rise above it. But the paradox is that it is she who is least able to. She lives for a better day. Things will be easier when this baby is born, or that one toilet-trained, or the children are all in school; and she will have time to be pretty and intelligent and young again. The mistake is in thinking that everything is going to solve itself by magic. What our girl must do, as she stares at the diapers, is to accept some of the truths about marriage and motherhood that her education and society conspired to keep from her, and go on from there. And if she would appreciate what she has, she must do it now, not next year or five years from now.

The first truth is that marriage does not automatically equal security and contentment. An unmarried friend of mine told me once that she did not see how any problem in marriage could be as bad as one outside of it, because if you had your man, anything else could be easily straightened out. We had a long argument about whether the heart sank more over a sick child or a departed boy friend, and neither of us won. She is one of a good many girls who think that three dates a week, secretarial jobs, and the responsibility of keeping themselves clothed are a nerve-shattering, frantic business, and who look forward to marriage and motherhood as a long, relaxing rest cure. “Getting married and settling down” is a valid notion for men, as it has been throughout history, but not for potential mothers. The day the doctor confirms one’s pregnancy is the day to start bracing oneself for the really hard work. (I cannot convince my unmarried friends of this, but, of course, that is as it should be, or many babies might never be born.)

The truth is that, with the birth of the first child … from that moment on, mama is no longer the center of attention; the baby is … The business of life is starting now, and every day of mama’s life proves it to be so. And here her struggle starts. She wants to give everything to the baby; she wants equally to hold on to herself, her intelligence and uniqueness, while the baby constantly tries her patience, her strength, her nerves, and roots out of her the deepest emotions she has ever known in her life. This is a whole new process, and not one that provides built-in security …

A girl does not need a college education to take care of babies and keep house … It is the simple, nerve-wracking, mindless, battering-ram process of trying to teach a savage to use a fork. It requires bloodless patience, a deadly will, enormous physical stamina, and a stable disposition, but no precision instruments. It takes strength and determination.

For the fact is that motherhood makes the heaviest demands in what might be called the areas of least experience. I would be surprised if there were a single college-educated mother who has not been struck by the total uselessness of her liberal education when it comes to housewifery. Instead of distilling pearls of knowledge from a large body of facts, she must now master a whole new set of domestic facts: how to roast a chicken, remove gum from the rug, take a child’s temperature, keep the shine on the Sheraton table, iron a blouse, or even change a tire or build a bookcase. Some of these necessities are positively shocking. The care of dirty diapers and the job of keeping the oven clean call for a strong-minded unfastidiousness; even more does the whole process of having a baby, which is certainly nature at its rawest.

Volume 207, No. 6, pp. 38–42

November 1997

Decades after the women’s-liberation movement began the battle to break down gender barriers and put women on a more equal footing with men, social critic and columnist Katha Pollitt pointed out that sexism and gender bias continued to play an insidious—and largely unacknowledged—role in women’s lives. She called for a revitalized feminism to rectify the problem.

It takes a real talent for overlooking the obvious to argue that women have achieved equality in contemporary America. After all, despite thirty years of feminist activism and much social change, virtually every important political, social, cultural, and economic institution is still dominated by men: legislatures, courts, corporations, labor unions, the news and entertainment media, education, science, medicine, religion. Study after study shows that women make less money than men even when they do the same or similar work, which they have a hard time getting; that they shoulder the bulk of child-rearing and housework, even in families where both husband and wife work full-time …

But if the evidence is all around us, why doesn’t everybody see it—or see it for what it is? In recent years a seemingly endless parade of social critics have achieved celebrity by portraying not sexism but feminism as the problem …

Denial is mostly the privilege of those who benefit, or hope to benefit, from the status quo … At least in surveys, it’s men who hold rosy beliefs about equality, like the two thirds of fathers in one study who claimed to share child care equally with their wives—an outcome wildly inconsistent with virtually all the research, not to mention the experience of most mothers …

What would a revitalized feminist movement look like? What made the movement so compelling in the 1970s was in part the clarity of the demand it made on America to live up to its own values: fair play, equal treatment under the law, respect for individual merit and difference and so forth, and the responsibility of government to ensure that women receive an equal helping of these important social goods … But there was another, more radical side to the movement, which had to do with the promise feminism held out to women of a life not just with more justice but also with more freedom, more self-respect, more choices, and more pleasure. Feminism promised that one could become more conscious of the social forces limiting one’s life, and that from this new awareness positive change could come. That is what the much-maligned slogan “The personal is political” meant … It was a do-it-yourself, direct-action social movement. It might take a revival of this spirit to get us beyond “denial.”

Volume 280, No. 5, pp. 160–164