Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/July 1893/The American Woman



IN essential characteristics—by tradition, by nature, and by education—the American woman is the direct antithesis of the woman of the East, of her of whom the Hitopadésa says, "A woman should be under the watch of her father during infancy, of her husband in middle age, of her sons in old age, and never independent." In the United States she is under the watch of no one, but under the protection of all.

If by the aid of historical documents we reconstitute the colonial situation in America as it was in the beginning, we find the man absorbed in daily work out of doors and the woman in her tasks within, and equality of the sexes resulting from equality of burdens and responsibilities; then, as prosperity increases, the task of the woman diminishes while the burden of the man remains the same, and the leisure of the former contrasts with the I severe labor of the other. Woman's intelligence develops and extends; man's becomes concentrated and specialized, his education is limited, and remunerative labor awaits him and takes him away early in life. She, the equal and companion of man at the beginning, becomes gradually superior to him, by the leisure which he creates for her and the use she makes of it, in intellectual cultivation, in the variety and extent of her knowledge, and by the lead which she is able to take and keep. She is the resultant of a concurrence of circumstances which have not yet been found united in a like degree anywhere else, and which have all contributed to make her a superior type of the race. In her are combined and fused the characteristic traits which, more specialized in the man, appear accentuated, magnified, exaggerated, as well by the free play of natural instincts as by the necessity of furnishing himself with arms in the struggle for existence and of demanding from them the maximum of force and of practical utility. In the woman these characteristics persist, but they are tempered and held in; she smooths their angles and polishes their facets, and of a dull pebble makes a precious stone. The constituent parts remain the same, but a judicious cutting sets the luster and beauty of the stone in clear relief.

Those who find more to blame than to approve in the American young woman, who are shocked at the freedom of her ways, at her independence, at her scorn of social conventions, at her luxurious tastes and her fondness for admiration, have often made those traits the text of their accusations against the democratic institutions of the United States. According to their reasoning, the result could not be otherwise, given the same premises as a point of departure, namely, the customary association of young women and young men, equality of the sexes raised to an axiom, abdication of parental dictatorship, independence of children, and freedom of matrimonial choice. The eccentricities noticed by them are, in their view, the inevitable consequences of a democracy hostile by instinct to the principle of authority, endeavoring to reduce it everywhere to its minimum of action and control, extolling equality with an apostolic zeal and practicing it with the fervor of a neophyte. And now these pretended apostles of equality, these self-styled levelors of privilege, have ended with re-establishing inequality with the advantage on the woman's side, with making her the eminently privileged person, and, reversing the Asiatic conception, of elevating her into a despot and converting the man into a subject. It seems to us, however, that the influence of political institutions on social habits has been very much exaggerated. Unstable and mobile, the former change at the caprice or the passions or the necessities of the moment. Not so with that aggregation of usages and customs which rests upon uninterrupted traditions, upon a long transmission. They undergo modification, but slowly; they are the results of the experience of centuries, and never proceed by jumps in their evolution. More of the fundamentally primitive than is usually believed re mains common to the Americans and the English in their relations to women; and the large place given to woman in the United States, and the greater independence she enjoys, flow as much from the change of medium as from the advanced intellectual position which she was able to take at the beginning and has long held.

But as the United States grows and becomes more refined, the difference between the sexes in this respect is diminishing! Yet while man has to a large extent recovered possession of the vantage-ground in mental cultivation occupied by woman, and while his stronger faculties, more robust organization, and more sustained will give him the superiority everywhere else, there is a social domain from which he could not and would not dispossess her—a domain hers by tradition and by concessions which he has made and she has accepted and extended. At this point becomes manifest the contrast between the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin races, the antithesis between the conception of the East and that of the West, the two poles of which are Asia and the United States, while its mean term is found in central and southern Europe. To these two poles correspond, in effect, a maximum and a minimum of human personality. This personality is nowhere so intense as in the United States, and nowhere less so than in the extreme East. England transmitted to the United States, with that basis of personality peculiar to the English race and more accentuated there than anywhere else in Europe, that respect for individuality which made itself manifest at an early period in British laws and institutions.

Cantoned in her family and social domain, the American woman has till this time made only rare and timid incursions into the field of politics. But in the field in which she usually moves, we are struck, on a close examination of the various phases and' details of life in the United States, with the important place she occupies. This is true to a higher degree in modest conditions, in the agricultural districts, in the farms and settlements and in populations of working people, than in the large cities. Not that these, too, do not contain curious types for study, essentially original, and tending in a high degree to reconcile the exigencies of the external features of modern life with lofty aspirations and an active philanthropy.

I Given, as the points of departure for woman's position in the United States, equality with man, intellectual and social predominance, with the charms of her sex refined and developed by natural selection, by unions between young women free to choose and a race of colonists energetic, vigorous, deeply imbued with religious convictions, and respecting the conjugal bond, woman must necessarily appear, at any given moment, as the definite expression, the superior type of the race and the medium. She is to-day, what the American exhibits her in Europe with a legitimate pride, the most finished work of the country's two centuries of civilization.

It seems as if on the American soil, essentially democratic, Nature showed herself, in what concerns woman, more aristocratic than elsewhere, and that the genius of natural selection was working perpetually for the advancement of its elect. Of all these gifts which it has lavished upon her, one of the most characteristic is certainly adaptability. Few women in Europe possess in the same degree as the American woman the faculty of identifying themselves with their medium, of changing country, climate, and surroundings with so wonderful suppleness. More perfectly than others, she accommodates herself to circumstances, while she preserves her individuality in a strange surrounding.

Wherever we meet the American women—and we meet her everywhere, in the ranks of the English peerage and of the highest European aristocracy, as well as in more modest conditions—we are struck with that marvelous adaptability in which wise men see the sign of the superiority of a race or of a species. It is revealed notably by that good humor with which she accepts the numerous petty annoyances that every change of medium implies and which put the best characters on trial. She submits to them without effort, and criticises them without bitterness; she is, further, prepared for them by her education, and does not expect to find everything easy. Then the necessity of manual labor does not seem to her like a degrading condition; at most only one or two generations separate her from the time when her grandmother kneaded the family bread in the primitive settlements. These stories are familiar to her, and the lessons deduced from them are not discouraging or humiliating. She is the (laughter of a race of emigrants who have become a great people through work, energy, and determination. She has in this at her command a whole treasury of traditions from which she draws, not without pride. We might say, in listening to these stories, that we were hearing one of those grandes dames of the past century, emigrants and poor, telling with pride in their memoirs how, to supply their wants, they worked in London or in Germany, utilizing their accomplishments and their correct taste, and making trimmings and embroidering robes with their own aristocratic hands.

The American woman has no more false shame and silly conceit than they had. We can observe her at Paris, Nice, Pau, or in Switzerland, everywhere at ease, the first to laugh at her mistakes in language, or at her ignorance of continental usages. Wherever she may be she seems to be at home; and the country that pleases her is, during the time she lives in it, her adopted country. The thought never occurs to her that she may be ridiculous or may appear so; or that a woman can be ridiculous or a man think it of her. Such is the confidence, justified by experience, which the privileges of her sex give her, that she has neither timorous reserve nor sickly timidity. Homage paid to her as a woman does not embarrass her, attention does not disconcert her. She is accustomed to them, and freely confesses the pleasure they cause her.

She is the resultant of a mode of education, of a kind of life that differs profoundly from ours. She has been taught to rely upon herself, to judge for herself. In her relations with men she has always been free but responsible, guardian of her own honor, and artisan of her future. She has seen and observed; she is not ignorant of the duties of life, or of the perils of independence. If the objection is made that this too premature knowledge is often liable to render her under a brilliant and sportive exterior coldly calculating and too early cautious, we may answer that she will sooner or later have to deduce her own conclusions from what surrounds her, of the world in which she lives, and that it may be better for her eyes to be opened to evidence and her judgment to be formed before making the decisive choice of her life.

It is hard in examining such a question to abstract one's self sufficiently from the usages and the ideas of the medium in which one lives—to be absolutely impartial. By instinct we are inclined toward accepted ideas, usual customs, and current axioms. Our own ideas are still too far away from those of the people across the sea for strong contradictions not to arise between them. In such a matter experience only is of value, and we can judge equitably only by results. Here experience is conclusive and the results are satisfactory.

If the American Union is to-day one of the first countries in the world, it owes the fact to a large extent to the American woman, who was and still is an important factor in its astonishing prosperity. The United States owes it to her that it has preserved the religious faith, the principle of vitality, imported by the Pilgrim fathers to the American shores. She has been the efficacious artisan of the work. She has maintained it, extended and enlarged it in the church and the school. In hours of difficulty, as during the war of independence and the war of secession, the patriotism of the woman sustained the courage of the man. Under all circumstances she was his companion and his equal. As such he respected her, and that respect which she inspired in him by her self-denial and her courage in the beginning, by her intelligence and good breeding afterward, by her charms and her confidence in his protection, has fashioned American manners, and has strongly impregnated them with the idea that respect for his companion was for the man one of the prime conditions of moral life. This moral life is her own work. She created and she maintains it. In the cult of which she is the object, in the homage which man renders to her, there is more than the mysterious attraction which sex inspires: there is the instinctive recognition of a great and salutary influence nobly exercised.—Selected and translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the author's article in the Revue des Deux Mondes.