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Ch. 4: One Solution of a Great Problem

ONE SOLUTION OF A GREAT PROBLEM

I

 

 

The world is willing and eager to buy what it wants. If you have goods to sell you soon find your place at the counter, unless owing to some fault of character your fellow barterers and their patrons will have none of you. Of course there is always the meanest of all passions, jealousy, waiting to thwart you at every turn, but no woman with a modicum of any one of those wares the world wants and must have need fear any enemy but her own loss of courage.

The pity is that so many women with no particular gift and only minor energies are thrust into the economic world without either natural or deliberate equipment. All that saves them in nine cases out of ten is conserved energies, and if they are thrust out too young they are doubly at a disadvantage.

A good deal has been written about the fresh enthusiasm of the young worker, as contrasted with the slackened energies and disillusioned viewpoint of middle life. But I think most honest employers will testify that a young girl worker's enthusiasm is for closing time, and her dreams are not so much of the higher skilfulness as of the inevitable man. Nature is inexorable. She means that the young things shall reproduce. If they will not or cannot that is not her fault; she is always there with the urge. Even when girls think they sell themselves for the adornments so dear to youth they are merely the victims of the race, driven toward the goal by devious ways. Nature, of course, when she fashioned the world reckoned without science. I sometimes suspect her of being of German origin, for so methodical and mechanical is her kultur that she will go on repeating "two and two make four" until the final cataclysm.

I think that American women are beginning to realize that American men are played out at forty-five; or fifty, at the most. There are exceptions, of course, but with the vast majority the strain is too great and the rewards are too small. They cannot retire in time. I have a friend who, after a brilliant and active career, has withdrawn to the communion of nature and become a philosopher. He insists that all men should be retired by law at forty-five and condemned to spend the rest of their days tilling the soil gratis for women and the rising generation. The outdoor life would restore a measure of their dissipated vitality and prolong their lives.

This may come to pass in time: stranger things have happened. But, as I remarked before, it is the present we have to consider. It seems to me it would be a good idea if every woman who is both protected and untrained but whose husband is approaching forty should, if not financially independent, begin seriously to think of fitting herself for self-support. The time to prepare for possible disaster is not after the torpedo has struck the ship.

A thousand avenues are open to women, and fresh ones open yearly. She can prepare secretly, or try her hand at first one and then another (if she begins by being indeterminate) of such congenial occupations as are open to women of her class, beyond cooking, teaching, clerking. Those engaged in reforms, economic improvements, church work, and above all, to-day, war relief work, should not be long discovering their natural bent as well as its marketable value, and the particular rung of the ladder upon which to start.

Many women whose energies have long been absorbed by the home are capable of flying leaps. These women still in their thirties, far from neglecting their children when looking beyond the home, are merely ensuring their proper nourishment and education.

Why do not some of the public spirited women, whose own fortunes are secure, form bureaus where all sorts of women, apprehensive of the future, may be examined, advised, steered on their way? In this they would merely be taking a leaf from the present volume of French history its women are writing. It is the women of independent means over there who have devised so many methods by which widows and girls and older spinsters tossed about in the breakers of war may support themselves and those dependent upon them. There is Mlle. Thompson's École Feminine, for instance, and Madame Goujon's hundred and one practical schemes which I will not reiterate here.

Women of the industrial class in the United States need new laws, but little advice how to support themselves. They fall into their natural place almost automatically, for they are the creatures of circumstances, which are set in motion early enough to determine their fate. If they do hesitate their minds are quickly made up for them by either their parents or their social unit. The great problem to-day is for the women of education, fastidiousness, a certain degree of ease, threatened with a loss of that male support upon which ancient custom bred them to rely. Their children will be specialized; they will see to that. But their own problem is acute and it behooves trained and successful women to take it up, unless the war lasts so long that every woman will find her place as inevitably as the working girl.

 

 

 

 

II

 

 

For a long time to come women will be forced to leave the administering of the nation as well as of states and cities to men, for men are still too strong for them. The only sort of women that men will spontaneously boost into public life are pretty, bright, womanly, spineless creatures who may be trusted to set the cause of woman back a few years at least, and gratify their own sense of humorous superiority.

Women would save themselves much waste of energy and many humiliations if they would devote themselves exclusively to helping and training their own sex. Thousands are at work on the problems of higher wage and shorter hours for women of the industrial class, but this problem of the carefully nurtured, wholly untrained, and insecurely protected woman they have so far ignored. To my mind this demands the first consideration and the application of composite woman's highest intelligence. The industrial woman has been trained to work, she learns as she grows to maturity to protect herself and fight her own battles, and in nine cases out of ten she resents the interference of the leisure class in her affairs as much as she would charity. The leaders of every class should be its own strong spirits. And the term "class consciousness" was not invented by fashionable society.

There is another problem that women, forced imminently or prospectively to support themselves, must face before long, and that is the heavy immigration from Europe. Of course some of those competent women over there will keep the men's jobs they hold now, and among the widows and the fatherless there will be a large number of clerks and agriculturists. But many réformés will be able to fill those positions satisfactorily, and, when sentiment has subsided, young women at least (who are also excellent workers) will begin to think of husbands; and, unless the war goes on for many years and reduces our always available crop, American girls of the working class will have to look to their laurels both ways.

 

 

 

 

III

 

 

Here is the reverse of the picture, which possibly may save the too prosperous and tempting United States from what in the end could not fail to be a further demoralization of her ancient ideals and depletion of the old American stock:

No matter how many men are killed in a war there are more males when peace is declared than the dead and blasted, unless starvation literally has sent the young folks back to the earth. During any war children grow up, and even in a war of three years' duration it is estimated that as against four million males killed there will be six million young males to carry on the race as well as its commerce and industries. For the business of the nation and high finance there are the men whose age saved them from the dangers of the battlefield.

There will therefore be many million marriageable men in Europe if the war ends in 1917. But they will, for the most part, be of a very tender age indeed, and normal young women between twenty and thirty do not like spring chickens. They are beloved only by idealess girls of their own age, by a certain type of young women who are alluded to slightingly as "crazy about boys," possibly either because men of mature years find them uninteresting or because of a certain vampire quality in their natures, and by blasée elderly women who generally foot the bills.

Dr. Talcott Williams pointed out to me not long since that after all great wars, and notably after our own Civil War, there has been a notable increase in the number of marriages in which the preponderance of years was on the wrong side. Also that it was not until after our own war that the heroine of fiction began to reverse the immemorial procedure and marry a man her inferior in years. In other words, anything she could get. This would almost argue that fiction is not only the historian of life but its apologist.

It is quite true that young men coming to maturity during majestic periods of the world's history are not likely to have the callow brains and petty ideals which distinguished the average youth of peace. Even boys of fourteen these days talk intelligently of the war and the future. They read the newspapers, even subscribing for one if at a boarding-school. In the best of the American universities the men have been alive to the war from the first, and a large proportion of the young Americans who have done gallant service with the American Ambulance Corps had recently graduated when the war broke out. Others are serving during vacations, and are difficult to lure back to their studies.

Some of the young Europeans of eighteen or twenty will come home from the trenches when peace is declared, and beyond a doubt will compel the love if not the respect of damsels of twenty-five and upward. But will they care whether they fascinate spinsters of twenty-five and upward, or not? The fact is not to be overlooked that there will be as many young girls as youths, and as these girls also have matured during their long apprenticeship to sorrow and duty, it is not to be imagined they will fail to interest young warriors of their own age--nor fail to battle for their rights with every device known to the sex.

Temperament must be taken into consideration, of course, and a certain percentage of men and women of unbalanced ages will be drawn together. That happens in times of peace. Moreover it is likely that a large number of young Germans in this country either will conceive it their duty to return to Germany and marry there or import the forlorn in large numbers. If they have already taken to themselves American wives it is on the cards that they will renounce them also. There is nothing a German cannot be made to believe is his duty to the Fatherland, and he was brought up not to think. But if monarchy falls in Germany, and a republic, socialistic or merely democratic, rises on the ruins, then it is more than likely that the superfluous women will be encouraged to transfer themselves and their maidenly dreams to the great dumping-ground of the world.

Unless we legislate meanwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton