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Ch. 3: The Real Victims of 'Society'

 

THE REAL VICTIMS OF "SOCIETY"

I

 

 

There is nothing paradoxical in affirming that while no woman before she has reached the age of thirty-five or forty should, if she can avoid it, compete with men in work which the exigencies of civilization (man-made civilization) have adapted to him alone, still, every girl of every class, from the industrial straight up to the plutocratic, should be trained in some congenial vocation during her plastic years. Civilization in certain respects is as inadequate as it was a thousand years ago. Socialism might solve the problem if it were not for the Socialists. Certainly no man or body of men has yet arisen with the proper amount of imagination, selflessness, brains and constructive genius, necessary to plan a social order in which all men shall work without overworking and support all women during the best years of the child-bearing and child-rearing span. If men had been clever enough to make even an imperfect attempt to protect women without independent means from the terrors of life, say by taxing themselves, they would not be pestered to-day with the demand for equal rights, see themselves menaced in nearly all of the remunerative industries and professions, above all by the return of the Matriarchate.

It is Life that has developed the fighting instinct in woman, bred the mental antagonism of sex. Nature did not implant either. Nor has she ever wavered a jot from the original mix compounded in her immemorial laboratory. Man is man and woman is woman to-day, even to the superior length of limb in the male (relative to the trunk) and the greater thickness of hairs in the woman's eyelashes. In England women of the leisure class showed during the years of the sports craze a tendency to an unfeminine length of limb, often attaining or surpassing the male average. But Nature avenged herself by narrowing the pelvis and weakening the reproductive organs. Free trade drove the old sturdy yeoman into the towns and diminished the stature and muscular power of their descendants, but ten months of trench life and Nature laughed at the weak spot in civilization. The moment false conditions are removed she claims her own.

Women to-day may prove themselves quite capable of doing, and permanently, the work of men in ammunition and munition factories, but it is patent that when human bipeds first groped their way about the terrifying Earth, she was not equal to the task of leveling forests, killing the beasts that roamed them, hurling spears in savage warfare, and bearing many children for many years. She played her part in the scheme of things precisely as Nature had meant she should play it: she cooked, she soothed the warrior upon his return from killing of man or beast, and she brought up her boys to be warriors and her girls to serve them. There you have Nature and her original plan, a bald and uninteresting plan, but eminently practical for the mere purpose (which is all that concerns her) of keeping the world going. And so it would be to-day, even in the civilized core, if man had been clever enough to take the cue Nature flung in his face and kept woman where to-day he so ingenuously desires to see her, and before whose deliverance he is as helpless as old Nature herself.

Man obeyed the herding instinct whose ultimate expression was the growth of great cities, invented the telegraph, the cable, the school, the newspaper, the glittering shops, the public-lecture system; and, voluntarily or carelessly, threw open to women the gates of all the arts, to say nothing of the crafts. And all the while he not only continued to antagonize woman, proud and eager in her awakened faculties, with stupid interferences, embargoes and underhand thwartings, but he permitted her to struggle and die in the hideous contacts with life from which a small self-imposed tax would have saved her. Some of the most brilliant men the world will ever know have lived, and administered, and passed into history, and the misery of helpless women has increased from generation to generation, while coincidentally her intelligence has waxed from resignation or perplexity through indignation to a grim determination. Man missed his chance and must take the consequences.

Certainly, young women fulfill their primary duty to the race and, incidentally, do all that should be expected of them, in the bringing forth and rearing of children, making the home, and seeing to the coherence of the social groups they have organized for recreation or purely in the interest of the next generation.

Perhaps the women will solve the problem. I can conceive the time when there will have developed an enormous composite woman's brain which, combining superior powers of intuition and sympathy with that high intellectual development the modern conditions so generously permit, added to their increasing knowledge of and interest in the social, economic, and political problems, will make them a factor in the future development of the race, gradually bring about a state of real civilization which twenty generations of men have failed to accomplish.

But that is not yet, and we may all be dead before its heyday. The questions of the moment absorb us. We must take them as they arise and do the best we can with existing conditions. The world is terribly conservative. Look at the European War.

 

 

 

 

II

 

 

Nowhere are fortunes so insecure as in the United States. The phrase, "Three generations from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves," was not coined in Europe. But neither does it embrace a great American truth Many a fortune rises and falls within the span of one generation. Many a girl reared in luxury, or what passes in her class for luxury, is suddenly forced out into the economic world with no preparation whatever. It would be interesting to gather the statistics of men who, with a large salary, or a fair practice, and indulged family, and a certain social position to keep up, either vaguely intend to save and invest one of these days--perhaps when the children are educated--or carry a large life insurance which they would find too heavy a tax at the moment.

Often, indeed, a man does insure his life, and then in some year of panic or depression is forced to sell the policy or go under. Or he insures in firms that fail. My father insured in three companies and all failed before he died. In San Francisco the "earthquake clause" prevented many men from recovering a penny on their merchandise or investments swept away by the fire. Even a large number of the rich were embarrassed by that fire, for, having invested millions in Class A buildings, which were fire-proof, they saw no necessity for expending huge sums annually in premiums. They never thought of a general conflagration whose momentum would carry the flames across the street and into their buildings through the windows, eating up the interiors and leaving the fire-proof shell. One family lost six million dollars in a few hours, and emigrated to one of the Swiss lakes in order to be able to educate their children while their fortunes slowly recovered with the aid of borrowed capital.

A large number of girls, who, without being rich, had led the sheltered life before the fire, were obliged to go to work at once. Some were clever enough to know what they could do and did it without loss of time, some were assisted, others blundered along and nearly starved.

Often men who have done well and even brilliantly up to middle life, are not equal to the tremendous demand upon the vital energies of beginning life over again after some disastrous visitation of Nature, or a panic, or an ill-advised personal venture has wrecked their own business or that of the concern in which they were a highly paid cog. In the mining States men are dependent upon the world's demand for their principal product. Farmers and stock-raisers are often cruelly visited, strikes or hard times paralyze mills and factories; and in times of panic and dry-rot the dealers in luxuries, including booksellers--to say nothing of the writers of books as well as the devotees of all the arts--are the first to suffer. And it is their women that suffer acutely, because although many of these men may hang on and recover, many more do not. They have used up their vital forces. It is not so much a matter of will as of physics. A woman in the same conditions who had been obliged to tax her vital organs for an equal number of years would no doubt have lasted as long.

Unless defective, there is not a girl alive, certainly not an American girl, who is wholly lacking in some sort of ability. The parasite type (who is growing rare in these days, by the way, for it is now the fashion to "do things") either fastens herself upon complacent relatives or friends when deserted by fortune, or drifts naturally into the half-world, always abundantly recruited from such as she.

Many girls have a certain facility in the arts and crafts, which, with severe training, might fit them for a second place in the class which owes its origin to Heaven-born gifts. If their facility manifests itself in writing they could be trained at college, or even on the small local newspaper to write a good mechanical story, constructed out of popular elements and eminently suited to the popular magazine. Or they may fit themselves for dramatic or musical criticism, or advertisement writing, which pays enormously but is not as easy as it sounds. Or if every school (I am saying nothing about girls' colleges) would train their promising "composition" writers in reporting, their graduates would plant their weary feet far more readily than they do now when they come to a great city and beseech a busy editor to give them a chance.

Almost anything can be done with the plastic mind. But not always. It is the better part of wisdom for proud parents to discover just what their offspring's facility amounts to before spending money on an art or a musical education, for instance. I had a painful experience, and no doubt it has been duplicated a thousand times, for Europe before the war was full of girls (many living on next to nothing) who were studying "art" or "voice culture," with neither the order of endowment nor the propelling brain-power to justify the sacrifice of their parents or the waste of their own time.

Some years ago, finding that a young relative, who was just finishing her school course, drew and painted in water colors with quite a notable facility, and the family for generations having manifested talents in one way or another, I decided to take her abroad and train her faculty that she might be spared the humiliation of dependence, nor feel a natural historic inclination to marry the first man who offered her an alternative dependence; and at the same time be enabled to support herself in a wholly congenial way. I did not delude myself with the notion that she was a genius, but I thought it likely she would become apt in illustrating, and I knew that I could throw any amount of work in her way, or secure her a position in the art department of some magazine.

I took her to the European city where I was then living and put her in the best of its art schools. To make a long story short, after I had expended some five thousand dollars on her, including traveling expenses and other incidentals, the net result was an elongated thumb. I was forced to the conclusion that she had not an atom of real talent, merely the treacherous American facility. Moreover, she lost all her interest in "art" when it meant hard work and persistent application. I was wondering what on earth I was to do with her when she solved the problem herself. She announced with unusual decision that she wanted to be a nurse, had always wanted to be a nurse (she had never mentioned the aspiration to me) and that nothing else interested her. Her mother had been an invalid; one way or another she had seen a good deal of illness.

Accordingly I sent her back to this country and entered her, through the influence of friends, at a hospital. She graduated at the head of her class, and although that was three or four years ago she has never been idle since. She elected to take infectious cases, as the remuneration is higher, and although she is very small, with such tiny hands and feet that while abroad her gloves and boots had to be made to order, no doubt she has so trained her body that the strains in nursing fall upon no particular member.

In that case I paid for my own mistake, and she found her level in ample time, which is as it should be. Of what use is experience if you are to be misled by family vanity? As she is pretty and quite mad about children, no doubt she will marry; but the point is that she can wait; or, later, if the man should prove inadequate, she can once more support herself, and with enthusiasm, for she loves the work.

To be a nurse is no bed of roses; but neither is anything else. To be dependent in the present stage of civilization is worse, and nothing real is accomplished in life without work and its accompaniment of hard knocks. Nursing is not only a natural vocation for a woman, but an occupation which increases her matrimonial chances about eighty per cent. Nor is it as arduous after the first year's training is over as certain other methods of wresting a livelihood from an unwilling world--reporting, for instance. It is true that only the fit survive the first year's ordeal, but on the other hand few girls are so foolish as to choose the nursing career who do not feel within themselves a certain stolid vitality. After graduation from the hospital course their future depends upon themselves. Doctors soon discover the most desirable among the new recruits, others find permanent places in hospitals; and, it may be added, the success of these young women depends upon a quality quite apart from mere skill--personality. In the spring of 1915 I was in a hospital and there was one nurse I would not have in the room. I was told that she was one of the most valuable nurses on the staff, but that was nothing to me.

I could not see that any of the nurses in this large hospital was overworked. All looked healthy and contented. My own "night special," save when I had a temperature and demanded ice, slept from the time she prepared me for the night until she rose to prepare me for the day, with the exception of the eleven o'clock supper which she shared with the hospital staff. Being very pretty and quite charming she will marry, no doubt, although she refuses to nurse men. But there are always the visiting doctors, the internes, and the unattached men in households, where in the most seductive of all garbs, she remains for weeks at a time.

In fact nearly all nurses are pretty. I wonder why?

The hospital nurses during the day arrived at intervals to take my temperature, give me detestable nourishment, or bring me flowers or a telephone message. It certainly never occurred to me to pity any of them, and when they lingered to talk they entertained me with pleasant pictures of their days off. They struck me as being able to enjoy life very keenly, possibly because of being in a position to appreciate its contrasts.

I know the daughter of a wealthy and historic family, whose head--he is precisely the type of the elderly, cold-blooded, self-righteous, self-conscious New York aristocrat of the stage--will not permit her to gratify her desire to write for publication, "for," saith he, "I do not wish to see my honored name on the back of works of fiction."

I do not think, myself, that he has deprived the world of one more author, for if she had fiction in her brain-cells no parental dictum could keep it confined within the walls of her skull; but the point is that being a young woman of considerable energy and mental activity, she found mere society unendurable and finally persuaded her father to make her one of his secretaries. She learned not only stenography and typewriting but telegraphy. There is a private apparatus in their Newport home for her father's confidential work, and this she manipulates with the skill of a professional. If the fortunes of her family should go to pieces, she could find a position and support herself without the dismal and health-racking transition which is the fate of so many unfortunate girls suddenly bereft and wholly unprepared.

 

 

 

 

III

 

 

The snobbishness of this old gentleman is by no means a prerogative of New York's "old families." One finds it in every class of American men above the industrial. In Honoré Willsie's novel, Lydia of the Pines, an American novel of positive value, the father was a day laborer, as a matter of a fact (although of good old New England farming stock), earning a dollar and a half a day, and constantly bemoaning the fact; yet when "young Lydia," who was obliged to dress like a scarecrow, wished to earn her own pin-money by making fudge he objected violently. The itching pride of the American male deprives him of many comforts and sometimes of honor and freedom, because he will not let his wife use her abilities and her spare time. He will steal or embezzle rather than have the world look on while "his" wife ekes out the family income. The determined Frenchwomen have had their men in training for generations, and the wife is the business partner straight up to the haute bourgeoisie; but the American woman, for all her boasted tyranny over the busy male of her land, is either an expensive toy or a mere household drudge, until years and experience give her freedom of spirit. This war will do more to liberate her than that mild social earthquake called the suffrage movement. The rich women are working so hard that not only do they dress and entertain far less than formerly but their husbands are growing quite accustomed to their separate prominence and publicly admitted usefulness. The same may be said of groups of women in less conspicuous classes, and when the war is over it is safe to say these women will continue to do as they please. There is something insidiously fascinating in work to women that never have worked, not so much in the publicity it may give but in the sense of mental expansion; and, in the instance of war, the passion of usefulness, the sense of dedication to a high cause, the necessary frequent suppression of self, stamp the soul with an impress that never can be obliterated. That these women engaged in good works often quarrel like angry cats, or fight for their relief organization as a lioness would fight for her hungry cub, is beside the point. That is merely another way of admitting they are human beings; not necessarily women, but just human beings. As it was in the beginning, is now, etc. Far better let loose their angry passions in behalf of the men who are fighting to save the world from a reversion to barbarism, than rowing their dressmakers, glaring across the bridge table, and having their blood poisoned by eternal jealousy over some man.

And if it will hasten the emancipation of the American man from the thralldom of snobbery still another barrier will go down in the path of the average woman. Just consider for a moment how many men are failures. They struggle along until forty or forty-five "on their own," although fitted by nature to be clerks and no more, striving desperately to keep up appearances--for the sake of their own pride, for the sake of their families, even for the sake of being "looked up to" by their wife and observant offspring. But without real hope, because without real ability (they soon, unless fools, outlive the illusions of youth when the conquest of fortune was a matter of course) always in debt, and doomed to defeat.

How many women have said to me--women in their thirties or early forties, and with two or three children of increasing demands: "Oh, if I could help! How unjust of parents not to train girls to do something they can fall back on. I want to go to work myself and insure my children a good education and a start in the world, but what can I do? If I had been specialized in any one thing I'd use it now whether my husband liked it or not. But although I have plenty of energy and courage and feel that I could succeed in almost anything I haven't the least idea how to go about it."

If a woman's husband collapses into death or desuetude while her children are young, it certainly is the bounden duty of some member of her family to support her until her children are old enough to go to school, for no one can take her place in the home before that period. Moreover, her mind should be as free of anxiety as her body of strain. But what a ghastly reflection upon civilization it is when she is obliged to stand on her feet all day in a shop or factory, or make tempting edibles for some Woman's Exchange, because she cannot afford to spend time upon a belated training that might admit her lucratively to one of the professions or business industries.

The childless woman solves the problem with comparative ease. She invariably shows more energy and decision, provided, of course, these qualities have been latent within her.

Nevertheless, it is often extraordinary just what she does do. For instance I knew a family of girls upon whose college education an immense sum had been expended, and whose intellectual arrogance I never have seen equalled. When their father failed and died, leaving not so much as a small life insurance, what did they do? Teach? Write? Edit? Become some rich and ignorant man's secretary? Not a bit of it. They cooked. Always noted in their palmy days for their "table," and addicted to relieving the travail of intellect with the sedative of the homeliest of the minor arts, they began on preserves for the Woman's Exchange; and half the rich women in town were up at their house day after day stirring molten masses in a huge pot on a red-hot range.

It was sometime before they were taken seriously, and, particularly after the enthusiasm of their friends waned, there was a time of hard anxious struggle. But they were robust and determined, and in time they launched out as caterers and worked up a first-class business. They took their confections to the rear entrances of their friends' houses on festive occasions and accepted both pay and tips with lively gratitude. They educated their younger brothers and lost their arrogance. They never lost their friends.

Owing to dishonest fiction the impression prevails throughout the world that "Society" is heartless and that the rich and well-to-do drop their friends the moment financial reverses force them either to reduce their scale of living far below the standard, or go to work. When that happens it is the fault of the reversed, not of the entrenched. False pride, constant whining, or insupportable irritabilities gradually force them into a dreary class apart. If anything, people of wealth and secure position take a pride in standing by their old friends (their "own sort"), in showing themselves above all the means sins of which fiction and the stage have accused them, and in lending what assistance they can. Even when the head of the family has disgraced himself and either blown out his brains or gone to prison, it depends entirely upon the personalities of his women whether or not they retain their friends. In fact any observant student of life is reminded daily that one's real position in the world depends upon personality, more particularly if backed by character. Certainly it is nine-tenths of the battle for struggling women.

Another woman whom I always had looked upon as a charming butterfly, but who, no doubt, had long shown her native shrewdness and determination in the home, stepped into her husband's shoes when he collapsed from strain, abetted by drink, and now competes in the insurance business with the best of the men. But she had borne the last of her children and she has perfect health.

Galsworthy's play, The Fugitive, may not have been good drama but it had the virtue of provoking thought after one had left the theater. More than ever it convinced me, at least, that the women of means and leisure with sociological leanings should let the working girl take care of herself for a time and devote their attention to the far more hopeless problem of the lady suddenly thrown upon her own resources.

No doubt this problem will have ceased to exist twenty years hence. Every girl, rich or poor, and all grades between, will have specialized during her plastic years on something to be used as a resource; but at present there are thousands of young women who find the man they married in ignorance an impossible person to live with and yet linger on in wretched bondage because what little they know of social conditions terrifies them. If they are pretty they fear other men as much as they fear their own husbands, and for all the "jobs" open to unspecialized women, they seem to be preeminently unfitted. If the rich women of every large city would build a great college in which every sort of trade and profession could be taught, from nursing to stenography, from retouching photographs to the study of law, while the applicant, after her sincerity had been established, was kept in comfort and ease of mind, with the understanding that she should repay her indebtedness in weekly installments after the college had launched her into the world, we should have no more such ghastly plays as The Fugitive or hideous sociological tracts as A Bed of Roses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton