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Ch. 5: The Woman's Opportunity

 

THE WOMAN'S OPPORTUNITY

I

 

 

Madame Vérone, one of the leading lawyers and feminists of Paris, told me that without the help of the women France could not have remained in the field six months. This is no doubt true. Probably it has been true of every war that France has ever waged. Nor has French history ever been reluctant to admit its many debts to the sex it admires, without idealization perhaps, but certainly in more ways than one. As far back as the reign of Louis XI memoirs pay their tribute to the value of the French woman both in peace and in war. This war has been one of the greatest incentives to women in all the belligerent countries that has so far occurred in the history of the world, and the outcome is a problem that the men of France, at least, are already revolving in their vigilant brains.

On the other hand the inept have just managed to exist. Madame Vérone took me one day to a restaurant on Montmartre. It had been one of the largest cabarets of that famous quarter, and at five or six tables running its entire length I saw seven hundred men and women eating a substantial déjeuner of veal swimming in spinach, dry purée of potatoes, salad, apples, cheese, and coffee. For this they paid ten cents (fifty centimes) each, the considerable deficit being made up by the ladies who had founded the oeuvre and run it since the beginning of the war.

Nearly all of these people escaping charity by so narrow a margin had been second-rate actors and scene shifters, or artists--of both sexes--the men being either too old or otherwise ineligible for the army. This was their only square meal during twenty-four hours. They made at home such coffee as they could afford, and went without dinner more often than not. The daughter of this very necessary charity, a handsome strongly built girl, told me that she had waited on her table without a day's rest for eighteen months.

I am frank to say that I could not eat the veal and spinach, and confined myself to the potatoes and bread. But no doubt real hunger is a radical cure for fastidiousness.

Later in the day Madame Vérone took me to the once famous Abbaye, now a workroom for the dressers of dolls, a revived industry which has given employment to hundreds of women. Some of the wildest revels of Paris had taken place in the restaurant now incongruously lined with rows of dolls dressed in every national costume of Allied Europe. They sat sedately against the walls, Montenegrins, Serbians, Russians, Italians, Sicilians, Roumanians, Poilus, Alsatians, Tommies,[C] a strange medley, correctly but cheaply dressed. At little tables, mute records of disreputable nights, sat women stitching, and outside the streets of Montmartre were as silent as the grave.

[C] No doubt there are now little Uncle Sams.

 

 

 

 

II

 

 

A few days later I was introduced to a case of panurgy that would have been almost extreme in any but a Frenchwoman.

Madame Camille Lyon took me to call on Madame Pertat, one of the most successful doctors in Paris. I found both her history and her personality highly interesting, and her experience no doubt will be a severe shock to many Americans who flatter themselves that we alone of all women possess the priceless gift of driving initiative.

Madame Pertat was born in a provincial town, of a good family, and received the usual education with all the little accomplishments that were thought necessary for a young girl of the comfortable bourgeoisie. She confessed to me naively that she had coquetted a good deal. As her brother was a doctor and brought his friends to the house it was natural that she should marry into the same profession; and as she continued to meet many doctors and was a young woman of much mental curiosity and a keen intelligence it was also natural that she should grow more and more deeply interested in the science of medicine and take part in the learned discussions at her table.

One day her husband, after a warm argument with her on the new treatment of an old disease, asked her why she did not study medicine. She had ample leisure, no children, and, he added gallantly, a mind to do it justice.

The suggestion horrified her, as it would have horrified her large family connection and circle of friends in that provincial town where standards are as slowly undermined as the cliffs of France by the action of the sea.

Shortly afterward they moved to Paris, where her husband, being a man of first-rate ability and many friends, soon built up a lucrative practice.

Being childless, full of life, and fond of variety, they spent far more money than was common to their class, saving practically nothing. They had a handsome apartment with the usual number of servants; Madame Pertat's life was made up of a round of dressmakers, bridge, calls during the daytime, and companioning her husband at night to any one of the more brilliant restaurants where there was dancing. Sometimes they dined early and went to the opera or the play.

Suddenly the really serious mind of this woman revolted. She told me that she said to her husband: "This is abominable. I cannot stand this life. I shall study medicine, which, after all, is the only thing that really interests me."

She immediately entered upon the ten years' course, which included four years as an interne. France has now so far progressed that she talks of including the degree of baccalaureate in the regular school course of women, lest they should wish to study for a profession later; but at that time Madame Pertat's course in medicine was long drawn out, owing to the necessity of reading for this degree.

She was also obliged to interrupt her triumphal progress in order to bring her first and only child into the world; but finally graduated with the highest honors, being one of the few women of France who have received the diploma to practice.

To practice, however, was the least of her intentions, now that she had a child to occupy her mind and time. Then, abruptly, peace ended and war came. Men disappeared from their usual haunts like mist. It was as if the towns turned over and emptied their men on to the ancient battlefields, where, generation after generation, war rages on the same historic spots but re-naming its battles for the benefit of chronicler and student.

M. le Docteur Pertat was mobilized with the rest. Madame's bank account was very slim. Then once more she proved that she was a woman of energy and decision. Without any formalities she stepped into her husband's practice as a matter of course. On the second day of the war she ordered out his runabout and called on every patient on his immediate list, except those that would expect attention in his office during the usual hours of consultation.

Her success was immediate. She lost none of her husband's patients and gained many more, for every doctor of military age had been called out. Of course her record in the hospitals was well known, not only to the profession but to many of Dr. Pertat's patients. Her income, in spite of the war, is larger than it ever was before.

She told me that when the war was over she should resign in her husband's favor as far as her general practice was concerned, but should have a private practice of her own, specializing in skin diseases and facial blemishes. She could never be idle again, and if it had not been for the brooding shadow of war and her constant anxiety for her husband, she should look back upon those two years of hard medical practice and usefulness as the most satisfactory of her life.

She is still a young woman, with vivid yellow hair elaborately dressed, and it was evident that she had none of the classic professional woman's scorn of raiment. Her apartment is full of old carved furniture and objets d'art, for she had always been a collector. Her most conspicuous treasure is a rare and valuable Russian censer of chased silver. This was on the Germans' list of valuables when they were sure of entering Paris in September, 1914. Through their spies they knew the location of every work of art in the most artistic city in the world.

Madame Pertat is one of the twenty-five women doctors in Paris. All are flourishing. When the doctors return for leave of absence etiquette forbids them to visit their old patients while their brothers are still at the Front; and the same rule applies to doctors who are stationed in Paris but are in Government service. The women are having a magnificent inning, and whether they will be as magnanimous as Madame Pertat and take a back seat when the men return remains to be seen. The point is, however, that they are but another example of the advantage of technical training combined with courage and energy.

 

 

 

 

III

 

 

On the other hand, I heard of many women who, thrown suddenly out of work, or upon their own resources, developed their little accomplishments and earned a bare living. One daughter of an avocat, who had just managed to keep and educate his large family and was promptly mobilized, left the Beaux Arts where she had studied for several years, and after some floundering turned her knowledge of designing to the practical art of dress. She goes from house to house designing and cutting out gowns for women no longer able to afford dressmakers but still anxious to please. She hopes in time to be employed in one of the great dressmakers' establishments, having renounced all thought of being an artist in a more grandiose sense. Meanwhile she keeps the family from starving while her mother and sisters do the housework. Her brothers are in the military colleges and will be called out in due course if the war continues long enough to absorb all the youth of France.

Mlle. E., the woman who told me her story, was suffering from the effects of the war herself. I climbed five flights to talk to her, and found her in a pleasant little apartment looking out over the roofs and trees of Passy. Formerly she had taken a certain number of American girls to board and finish off in the politest tongue in Europe. The few American girls in Paris to-day (barring the anachronisms that paint and plume for the Ritz Hotel) are working with the American Ambulance, the American Fund for French Wounded, or Le Bien-Être du Blessé, and she sits in her high flat alone.

But she too has adapted herself, and kept her little home. She illuminates for a Bible house, and paints exquisite Christmas and Easter cards. Of course she had saved something, for she was the frugal type and restaurants and the cabaret could have no call for her.

But alas! said she, there were the taxes, and ever more taxes. And who could say how long the war would last? I cheerfully suggested that we might have entered upon one of those war cycles so familiar in history and that the world might not know peace again for thirty years. Although the French are very optimistic about the duration of this war (and, no doubt prompted by hope, I am myself) she agreed with me, and reiterated that one must not relax effort for a moment.

Of course she has her filleul (godson) at the Front, a poor poilu who has no family; and when he goes out the captain finds her another. She knits him socks and vests, and sends him such little luxuries as he asks for, always tobacco, and often chocolate.

The French bourgeoisie--or French women of any class for that matter--do not take kindly to clubs. For this reason their organizations limped somewhat in the earlier days and only their natural financial genius, combined with the national practice of economy, enabled them to develop that orderly team work so natural to the Englishwoman. Mlle. E. told me with a wry face that she detested the new clubs formed for knitting and sewing and rolling bandages. "It is only old maids like myself," she added, "who go regularly. After marriage French women hate to leave their homes. Of course they go daily to the ouvroirs, where they have their imperative duties, but they don't like it. I shall belong to no club when the war is over and my American girls have returned to Paris."

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton