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Ch. 16: Problems for the Future

 

PROBLEMS FOR THE FUTURE

I

 

 

What the bereft mothers of France will do after this war is over and they no longer have the mutilated sons of other mothers to nurse and serve and work for, is a problem for themselves; but what the younger women will do is a problem for the men.

Practically every day of the three months I spent in Passy I used one of the three lines of tramcars that converge at La Muette (it is almost immoral to take a taxi these days); and I often amused myself watching the women conductors. They are quick, keen, and competent, but, whether it was owing to the dingy black uniforms and distressingly unbecoming Scotch military cap or not, it never did occur to me that there would be any mad scramble for them when the men of France once more found the leisure for love and marriage.

Grim as these women looked, however, "on their job," I often noticed them laughing and joking when, off duty for a few moments, they rested under the trees at the terminus. No doubt there is in them that ineradicable love of the home so characteristic of the French race, and as there is little beauty in their class at the best, they may appeal more to the taste of men of that class than they did to mine. And it may be that those who are already provided with husbands will cheerfully renounce work in their favor and return to the hearthstone. Perhaps, however, they will not, and wise heads of the sex which has ruled the world so long are conferring at odd moments upon these and other females who have taken up so many of the reins laid down by men and driven the man-made teams with a success that could not be more complete if they had been bred to it, and with a relish that has grown, and shows no sign of retroaction.

The French women of the people, however, unlovely to look upon, toil-worn, absorbed from childhood in petty economics, have little to tempt men outside of the home in which they reign, so for those that do return the problem ends. But it is an altogether different matter with the women of the leisure classes. The industrial women who have proved so competent in the positions occupied for centuries by men merely agitate the economic brain of France, but the future of the women of the upper strata of the bourgeoisie is shaking the very soul of the social psychologist.

 

 

 

 

II

 

 

At the outbreak of the war hundreds of girls belonging to the best families volunteered as nurses. Some quickly retired to committee work in disgust, or because their pampered bodies rebelled under the strain.

Others have never faltered, doing the most repulsive and arduous work day by day, close to the thunder of guns, or under the constant menace of the taube whose favorite quarry is the hospital full of ill and wounded, and of pretty women whose torn bodies even in imagination satisfy the perversities of German lust; but if they ever go home to rest it is under the peremptory orders of their médecin major, who has no use for shattered nervous systems these days.

While these girls may have lost their illusions a little earlier than they would in matrimony, the result is not as likely to affect the practical French mind toward the married state as it might that of the more romantic and self-deluding American or English woman. There is little doubt that they will marry if they can, for to marry and marry early has been for too many centuries a sort of religious duty with well-born French women to be eradicated by one war; and as they will meet in hospital wards many officers who might not otherwise cross their narrow paths, their chances, if the war ends soon enough, will be reasonably increased.

Moreover, many a man who was a confirmed bachelor will, after the acute discomfort of years of warfare, look upon the married state as a greater reward than the medals on his breast; and on the other hand many girls will be glad to marry men old enough to be a parent of the young husband they once dreamed of; for hardly since the Thirty Years' War will men when peace comes be so scarce and women so many.

There has even been talk from time to time of bringing the Koranic law across the Mediterranean and permitting each able-bodied Frenchman of any class to have three registered wives besides the one of his choice, the additional expense and responsibility being borne by the State.

But of all the countries in Europe polygamy is most unthinkable in France. The home is as perfected and as sacred an economic institution as the State. To reign over one of those important units, even if deep in the shadow of the expansive male, to maintain it on that high level of excellence which in the aggregate does so much to maintain France at the very apex of civilization, in spite of another code which shocks Anglo-Saxon morality--this, combined with the desire to gratify the profoundest instincts of woman, is the ambition of every well-conditioned French girl.

She would far rather, did the demand of the State for male children become imperative, give it one or more outside the law rather than forfeit her chance to find one day a real husband and to be a component part of that great national institution, The Family. She would not feel in the same class for a moment with the women who live to please men and refrain from justifying themselves by fulfilling at the same time a duty to their depleted State.

 

 

 

 

III

 

 

The women of the noblesse, like the aristocracies of any country, and whatever the minor shadings and classifications, are divided into two classes: the conservative, respectable, home-loving, no matter what the daily toll to rank; and the devotees of dress, pleasure, sex, subdivided, orchestrated, and romanticized. As these women move in the most brilliant society in the world and can command the willing attendance of men in all circles; as their husbands are so often foraging far afield; and as temptation is commonly proportionate to opportunity, little wonder that the Parisian femme du monde is the most notable disciple of Earth's politer form of hedonism.

This is true to only a limited extent in the upper circles of the bourgeoisie. Some of the women of the wealthier class dress magnificently, have their lovers and their scandals (in what class do they not?), and before the war danced the night away. But the great majority rarely wandered far from their domestic kingdom, quite content with an occasional ball, dinner, or play. A daughter's marriage was the greatest event in their lives, and the endless preparations throughout the long engagement, a subdued but delicious period of excitement. Their social circles, whatever their birth, were extremely restricted, and they were, above all things, the mates of their husbands.

 

 

 

 

IV

 

 

But the war has changed all that. France has had something like a war a generation from time immemorial, but in modern times, since woman has found herself, they have been brief. Feminism, whether approved by the great mass of Frenchwomen or not, has done its insidious work. And for many years now there has been the omnipresent American woman with her careless independence; and, still more recently, the desperate fight of the English women for liberty.

It was quite natural when this war swept across Europe like a fiery water-spout, for the French woman of even the bourgeoisie to come forth from her shell (although at first not to the same degree as the noblesse) and work with other women for the men at the Front and the starving at home. Not only did the racing events of those first weeks compel immediate action, but the new ideas they had imbibed, however unwillingly, dictated their course as inevitably as that of the more experienced women across the channel. The result was that these women for the first time in their narrow intensive lives found themselves meeting, daily, women with whom they had had the most distant if any acquaintance; sewing, knitting, talking more and more intimately over their work, running all sorts of oeuvres, founding homes for refugees, making up packages for prisoners in Germany (this oeuvre was conceived and developed into an immense organization by Madame Wallestein), serving on six or eight committees, becoming more and more interdependent as they worked for a common and unselfish cause; their circle of acquaintances and friends as well as their powers of usefulness, their independent characteristics which go so far toward the making of personality, rising higher and higher under the impetus of deprisoned tides until they flowed gently over the dam of the centuries; the flood, be it noted, taking possession of wide pastures heretofore sacred to man.

Naturally these women spent very little time at home; although, such is the incomparable training of those practical methodical minds, even with a diminished staff of servants the domestic machinery ran as smoothly as when they devoted to it so many superfluous hours.

And with these new acquaintances, all practically of their own class, they talked in time not only of the war and their ever augmenting duties, but, barriers lowered by their active sympathies, found themselves taking a deep interest in other lives, and in the things that had interested other women of more intelligence or of more diversified interests than their own.

Insensibly life changed, quite apart from the rude shocks of war; lines were confused, old ideals were analyzed in many instances as hoary conventions, which had decayed inside until a succession of sharp quick contacts caused the shell to cave in upon emptiness.

 

 

 

 

V

 

 

A year passed. During that time husbands did not return from the front unless ill or maimed (and thousands of husbands are even to-day quite intact). Then came Chapter Two of the domestic side of the War, which should be called "Les Permissionnaires." Officers and soldiers were allowed a six days' leave of absence from the front at stated intervals.

The wives were all excitement and hope. They snatched time to replenish their wardrobes, and once more the thousand corridors of the Galeries Lafayette swarmed, the dressmakers breathed again. Shop windows blossomed with all the delicate fripperies with which a Frenchwoman can make old garments look new. Hotel keepers emerged from their long night like hibernates that had overslept, and rubbing their hands. The men were coming back. Paris would live again. And Paris, the coquette of all the ages, forgot her new rôle of lady of sorrows and smiled once more.

The equally eager husband (to pass over "les autres") generally sneaked into his house or apartment by the back stairs and into the bathtub before he showed himself to his adoring family; but after those first strenuous hours of scrubbing and disinfecting and shaving, and getting into a brand new uniform of becoming horizon blue, there followed hours of rejoicing unparalleled by anything but a victory over "Les Boches."

For two days husband and wife talked as incessantly as only Gauls can; but by degrees a puzzled look contracted the officer's brow, gradually deepening into a frown. His fluent wife, whose animation over trifles had always been a source of infinite refreshment, was talking of things which he, after a solid year of monotonous warfare far from home, knew nothing. He cared to know less. He wanted the old exchange of personalities, the dear domestic gabble.

The wife meanwhile was heroically endeavoring to throw off a feeling of intolerable ennui. How was it that never before had she found the hearthstone dull? The conversation of her life partner (now doubly honored) induced a shameful longing for the seventh day.

So it was. During that year these two good people had grown apart. The wife's new friends bored the husband, and the gallant soldier's stories of life at the Front soon became homogeneous. Whether he will accept his wife's enlarged circle and new interests after the war is over is one of the problems, but nothing is less likely than that she will rebuild the dam, recall the adventurous waters of her personality, empty her new brain cells, no matter how much she may continue to love her husband and children.

 

 

 

 

VI

 

 

Nor to give up her new power. In those divisions of the bourgeoisie where the wife is always the husband's partner, following a custom of centuries, and who to-day is merely carrying on the business alone, there will be no surrender of responsibilities grown precious, no sense of apprehension of loss of personal power. But in those more leisured circles where, for instance, a woman has been for the first time complete mistress of all expenditures, domestic or administrative, and of her childrens' destinies; has learned to think and act for herself as if she were widowed in fact; and in addition has cultivated her social sense to an extreme unprecedented in the entire history of the bourgeoisie, she will never return to the old status, even though she disdain feminism per se and continue to prefer her husband to other men--that is to say, to find him more tolerable.

A young woman of this class, who until the war widowed her had been as happy as she was favored by fortune: wealthy, well-bred, brilliantly educated, and "elle et lui" with her husband, told me that no American could understand the peculiarly intensive life led by a French couple who found happiness in each other and avoided the fast sets. And whereas what she told me would have seemed natural enough in the life of a petite bourgeoisie, I must confess I was amazed to have it from the lips of a clever and beautiful young woman whom life had pampered until death broke loose in Europe.

The husband, she told me, did the thinking. Before he left home in the morning he asked his wife what she intended to order for dinner and altered the menu to his liking; also the list of guests, if it had been thought well to vary their charming routine with a select company.

Before his wife bought a new gown she submitted the style and colors to what seems literally to have been her other half, and he solemnly pondered over both before pronouncing his august and final opinion.

If they had children, the interest was naturally extended. His concern in health and in illness, in play and in study, was nothing short of meticulous. I asked my informant if Frenchwomen would ever again submit to a man's making such an infernal nuisance of himself, and, sad as she still was at her own great loss, she replied positively that they would not. They had tasted independence and liked it too well ever to drop back into insignificance.

"Nor," she added, "will we be content with merely social and domestic life in the future. We will love our home life none the less, but we must always work at something now; only those who have lost their health, or are natural parasites will ever again be content to live without some vital personal interest outside the family."

Words of tremendous import to France, those.

 

 

 

 

VII

 

 

I caught a glimpse more than once of the complete submergence of certain Frenchwomen by husbands too old for war, but important in matters of State. They bored me so that I only escaped betraying acute misery by summoning all my powers of resistance and talking against time until I could make a graceful exit. They were, these women (who looked quite happy), mere echoes of the men to whom their eyes wandered in admiration and awe. The last thing I had imagined, however, was that the men would concern themselves about details that, in Anglo-Saxon countries at least, have for centuries been firmly relegated to the partner of the second part. How many American women drive their husbands to the club by their incessant drone about the iniquities of servants and the idiosyncrasies of offspring?

And much as the women of our race may resent that their rôle in matrimony is the one of petty detail while the man enjoys the "broader interests," I think few of us would exchange our lot for one of constant niggling interference. It induces a certain pleasure to reflect that so many Frenchwomen have reformed. Frenchmen, with all their conservatism, are the quickest of wit, the most supple of intellect in the world. No doubt after a few birth-pains they will conform, and enjoy life more than ever. Perhaps, also, they will cease to prowl abroad for secret entertainment.

 

 

 

 

VIII

 

 

Nothing, it is safe to say, since the war broke out, has so astonished Frenchwomen--those that loved their husbands and those that loved their lovers--as the discovery that they find life quite full and interesting without men. At the beginning all their faculties were put to so severe a strain that they had no time to miss them; as France settled down to a state of war, and life was in a sense normal again, it was only at first they missed the men--quite aside from their natural anxieties. But as time went on and there was no man always coming in, husband or lover, no man to dress for, scheme for, exercise their imaginations to please, weep for when he failed to come, or lapsed from fever heat to that temperature which suggests exotic fevers, they missed him less and less.

Unexpected resources were developed. Their work, their many works, grew more and more absorbing. Gradually they realized that they were looking at life from an entirely different point of view.

Voilà!

Is the reign of the male in the old countries of Europe nearing its end, even as Kings and Kaisers are reluctantly approaching the vaults of history? An American woman married to a Frenchman said to me one day:

"Intelligent Frenchwomen complain to me that they never win anything on their merits. They must exert finesse, seduction, charm, magnetism. For this reason they are always in a state of apprehension that some other woman equally feminine, but more astute and captivating, will win their man away. The result is the intense and unremitting jealousies in French society. They see in this war their opportunity to show men not only their powers of individual usefulness, often equal if not superior to that of their husband or lover, but their absolute indispensability. They are determined to win respect as individuals, rise above the rank of mere females."

 

 

 

 

IX

 

 

Moreover, this war is bringing a liberty to the French girl which must sometimes give her the impression that she is living in a fantastic dream. Young people already had begun to rebel at the old order of matrimonial disposition by parental authority, but it is doubtful if they will ever condescend to argument again, or even to the old formal restrictions during the period of the long engagement. Not only will husbands be too scarce to dicker about, but these girls, too, are living their own lives, going to and coming from hospital work daily (unless at the Front), spending long hours by convalescent cots, corresponding with filleuls, attending half a dozen clubs for work; above all, entertaining their brothers' friend during those oases known as permission, or six days' leave. And very often the friends of their brothers are young men of a lower rank in life, whose valor or talents in the field have given them a quick promotion.

The French army is the one perfect democracy in the world. Its men, from duke to peasant-farmer, have a contemptuous impatience for social pretense when about the business of war, and recognition is swift and practical. As the young men of the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie have lost more and more of their old friends they have replaced them with men they like for good masculine reasons alone, and these they have taken to bringing home, when permissionnaires at the same time. Nothing can be more certain than that girls, once haughty and exacting, will marry these young men and be glad to get them.

A student of his race said to me one day: "France is the most conservative country in Europe. She goes on doing the same thing generation after generation paying no attention to rebellious mutters, hardly hearing them in fact. She believes herself to have been moulded and solidified long since. Then, presto! Something sudden and violent happens. Old ideas are uprooted. New ones planted. Is there a struggle? Not for a moment. They turn an intellectual somersault and are immediately as completely at home with the new as the old."

During the second year of the war a feminist was actually invited to address the graduation class of a fashionable girls' school. She told them that the time had come when girls of all classes should be trained to earn their living. This war had demonstrated the uncertainty of human affairs. Not a family in France, not even the haute finance, but would have a curtailed income for years to come, and many girls of good family could no longer count on a dot if the war lasted much longer. Then there was the decrease in men. Better go out into the world and make any sort of respectable career than be an old maid at home. She gave them much practical advice, told them that one of the most lucrative employments was retouching photographs, and implored them to cultivate any talent they might have and market it as soon as possible.

The girls sat throughout this discourse as stunned as if a bomb had dropped on the roof. They were still discussing it when I left Paris. No doubt it is already beginning to bear fruit. Few of them but have that most dismal of all fireside ornaments, a half-effaced old-maid sister, one of the most tragic and pitiable objects in France. The noble attributes which her drab and eventless life sometimes leave un-withered were superbly demonstrated to the American audience some years ago by Nance O'Neil in "The Lily."

 

 

 

 

X

 

 

One of the new officers I happened to hear of was a farmer who not only won the Croix de Guerre and the Croix de la Legion d'Honneur very early in the war but rose in rank until, when I heard the story, he was a major. One day a brother officer asked him if he should remain in the army after peace was declared.

"No," he replied, and it was evident that he had thought the matter over. "My wife is not a lady. She is wholly unfitted to take her place in the officers' class. There is no democracy among women. Better for us both that I return whence I came."

This is a fair sample of the average Frenchman's ironic astuteness, that clear practical vision that sees life without illusions. But if the war should drag on for years the question is, would he be willing to surrender the position of authority to which he had grown accustomed, and which satisfies the deepest instincts of a man's nature after youth has passed? After all there may be a new "officers' class."

I heard another story, told me by a family doctor, equally interesting. The son of a wealthy and aristocratic house and his valet were mobilized at the same time. The young patrician was a good and a gallant soldier but nothing more. The valet discovered extraordinary capacities. Not only did he win the coveted medals in the course of the first few months, but when his shattered regiment under fire in the open was deprived of its officers he took command and led the remnant to victory. A few more similar performances proving that his usefulness was by no means the result of the moment's exaltation but of real however unsuspected gifts, he was rapidly promoted until he was captain of his former employer's company. There appears to have been no mean envy in the nature of the less fortunate aristocrat. Several times they have received their permission together and he has taken his old servant home with him and given him the seat of honor at his own table. His mother and sisters have made no demur whatever, but are proud that their ménage should have given a fine soldier to France. Perhaps only the noblesse who are unalterably sure of themselves would have been capable of rising above the age-old prejudices of caste, war or no war.

 

 

 

 

XI

 

 

French women rarely emigrate. Never, if they can help it. Our servant question may be solved after the war by the manless women of other races, but the Frenchwoman will stay in her country, if possible in her home. All girls, the major part of the young widows (who have created a panic among the little spinsters) will marry if they can, not only because marriage is still the normal career of woman but because of their sense of duty to the State. But that social France after the war will bear more than a family resemblance to the France that reached the greatest climax in her history on August second, nineteen-fourteen, has ceased to be a matter of speculation.

 

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Although I went to France to examine the work of the Frenchwomen only, it would be ungracious, as well as a disappointment to many readers, not to give the names at least of some of the many American women who live in France or who spend a part of the year there and are working as hard as if this great afflicted country were their own. Some day their names will be given to the world in a full roll of honor. I do not feel sure that I know of half of them, but I have written down all I can recall. The list, of course, does not include the names of Americans married to Frenchmen:

Mrs. Sharp, Miss Anne Morgan, Mrs. Tuck, Mrs. Bliss, Miss Elisabeth Marbury, Miss Elsie de Wolfe, Mrs. Robert Bacon, Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Whitney Warren, Mrs. Wharton, Mrs. Canfield Fisher, Miss Grace Ellery Channing, Mrs. Blake, Mrs. Carroll of Carrollton, Mrs. Sherman, Mrs. Cooper Hewett, Miss Holt, Mrs. William H. Hill, Mrs. Shaw, Mrs. Frederick H. Allen, Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, Miss Fairchild, Mrs. Younger, Mrs. Morton Mitchell, Mrs. Fleury, Mrs. Sales, Mrs. Hyde, Mrs. William Astor Chanler, Mrs. Ridgeley Carter, Miss Ethel Crocker, Miss Daisy Polk, Miss Janet Scudder, Mrs. Lathrop, Miss Vail, Mrs. Samuel Watson, Mrs. Armstrong Whitney, Mrs. Lawrence Slade, Miss Yandell, Mrs. Greene, Mrs. Duryea, Mrs. Depew, Mrs. Marion Crocker, Miss Mary Eyre, Mrs. Gros, Mrs. Van Heukelom, Mrs. Tarn McGrew, Mrs. Schoninger, Miss Grace Lounsbery, Mrs. Lawrence, the Princess Poniatowska, and Isadora Duncan.

 

 

 

THE END of BOOK I.

 

 

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Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton