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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/The Mother as a Power for Woman's Advancement


THERE are still thoughtful, liberal-minded men and women who persistingly declare that there should be no woman question; that women have now all the rights and opportunities which should be theirs, and that a just appreciation of what they have already would leave no time nor desire for further demands. There is a great deal of truth and justice in this position, as there is generally in any honest view of any really serious question; but the unalterable fact remains that there is a woman question, and that a discussion which has had the earnest attention and advocacy of so many high-minded, well-balanced men and women must have had its origin in the real needs of some portion of humanity. Surely, no matter what the point of view, the cause of woman's advancement on the best and broadest lines, whatever may be its highest expression to the individual, will have at least sympathy from every thoughtful human being. In this cause, with all its wide-reaching consequences, in all its breadth and fullness, motherhood has just now a peculiar call for effort.

In all great questions which set the world thinking and listening, which touch men's hearts and stir their brains, there is a necessary tendency to extremes. The very force of conviction and power of feeling which go to make the prophets and leaders, carry them away from lines of moderation. But when thought and agitation have developed into real activity, conservatism, as much as enthusiasm, is needed in any movement for reform.

Just at present the woman question is a most convincing illustration of these truths. The ardor of each side has carried its advocates to extremes, which have probably never been equaled in sociological discussion. There are women who affirm that there is no intellectual, social, or professional advancement for woman except as she asserts her independence of man, and arrays herself against him as the enemy of her sex; there are others who declare all marriage slavery, all married life under the existing state of things mere bondage. Such women are as far from the truth as the novelist who has recently attempted to illustrate in her heroine the "soul-destroying" influences of the higher education for women; or the woman who declares, "With the new school of thought, and the new class of woman it has bred, we have lost both the grace and the sweetness, both the delicacy and the virtues, of the real womanly ideal." Such rash generalizing on either side simply balances against rash generalizing on the other; and the result, as far as their power is concerned, is a standstill, frequently followed by positive retrogression. Those whose work or sympathy might otherwise be enlisted in some branch of woman's development, simply look on such extravagances with amusement or pity, and await the next edition of feminine fantastics. A little more conservatism is needed to tip the balance in favor of sure and steady progress. There is no longer need for the agitator, when the question, in its different phases, is being discussed in legislative halls and by the fireside, by thoughtful men and women the world over; but there is great need for the conservative moderator, and in just that capacity should the mothers of the land make their power felt. They occupy a position, by its very nature, powerful beyond the possibilities of any other position on earth—powerful with God-given rights, which admit of no question and need no acknowledgment. They are burdened with responsibility, it is true, but any responsibility rightly met is a power in itself. There is no class of women who stand upon such vantage ground, who can so well exemplify all that is essentially feminine, and at the same time demand, by their rights and responsibilities, any outside aid, whether it be of higher education or suffrage, or whatever it be. There is no class of women who know so well the delights of all the dear feminine prerogatives, the power of those exquisite qualities, grace, delicacy, and sweetness, and at the same time who feel more deeply the need of any and all means of enlightenment and advancement. There are no women better fitted to temper the present discussion; none who can better offer sympathy, yet counsel moderation, to those restless sisters whose demands so often grow out of bitter personal experience and too often rise to a discordant clamor. Of course, this view has been of mothers as a class. There are, alas! pitiful exceptions—women who do not admit the responsibilities of motherhood, and women who dare not demand the rights which motherhood gives them. Such women present problems which can not be dealt with here. Certainly these remarks may apply to every mother who will exercise a certain just self-appreciation, who will devote a little time and attention to the consideration of this question, and her own duties and responsibilities in relation to it. Is it not possible for such women to show that womanliness does not mean weakness—that the very life of all lives the most womanly needs for its right living not goodness only, but wisdom, knowledge, and freedom? On the other hand, ought they not to demonstrate that in this womanliness essentially, in the clinging to it and emphasizing it, they will gain a peculiar power which nothing else can give? It is surely a strength and freedom, not to be left behind in the march onward to new strength and new freedom. It is a quality which must be cultivated and emphasized in this "new era" It is an emotional superiority, a God-given essence, which we can not afford to lose, in our new grasp upon the intellectual forces within us. If every intelligent mother in this land could bring herself to an accurate realization of these truths—a realization of the power for broad yet conservative advancement which lies merely in her position in the plan of society—what an immediate uplifting of womankind there would be! And beyond this, too, reaching away off into the future, is the influence she exerts upon her children, and through them upon an ever-widening circle. She has great power for good in this never-ending, ever-expanding influence, which must go out to the world from her, through her children, as well as in the strong and right expression of her individuality.

Mutual understanding and sympathy, both so potent in the relation of parent and child, must be established before the woman, as mother, can, through her children, do her part in this progressive age. With that much accomplished (it is the first step, a difficult but a necessary one), let us, then, in our strength, as mothers, push on to this important expression of our work for woman's advancement—the emancipation of our daughters from the slavery of half-developed bodies and unhealthful clothing. There exists to-day a painfully small number of women who have the physical endurance necessary for the right living of any life, whether domestic or professional. All women who have felt the hampering influence of weak bodies would cry out if it would help them, "Give us strong backs and good circulation, and we can do the rest ourselves." Whatever life we contemplate for our girls, whether in college halls or kitchen—whether as lawyers, teachers, doctors, or mothers—in every work, they need physical endurance, and with us, their mothers, rest the opportunity and ability to give them great help or hindrance. It is indisputable that a good circulation and fine digestion have much to do with a normal, healthful, mental development; and no one will deny that a well-developed body, with all its possibilities of symmetry and beauty, with all its suggestions of noble appropriateness, can, and frequently does, have a material effect on the character. The buoyancy, the feeling of mastery over all problems, the exaltation mental and spiritual, which come with perfect health, are not only helps but inspirations in any work. And even if we can not attain perfection, is not an approximation worth striving for? It is a rare case where the watchful care of a mother can not do much, by prenatal as well as postnatal influence, to counteract inherited weakness, cultivate desirable qualities, and bring her child to a full fruition of its physical possibilities. This branch of the mother's work, including as it does the development of a just appreciation of what is appropriate and healthful in dress, deserves separate and careful consideration. It is only possible here to outline those powers for the good of humanity, and of womankind especially, which have always belonged to the mother, and to emphasize the necessity for her use of them just now, when there seems to be a call which she is peculiarly fitted to answer.

Following upon a fine physical development, which is the first object to be obtained, we may expect a truer and more natural expression of tastes and tendencies, and just in that expression we must look for our guide posts and follow to some extent certainly, in the education of our daughters, the roads toward which they point. To repress all evil inclinations, whether inherited or acquired, is an accepted duty to both sons and daughters; but the careful study of capabilities, the consideration and cultivation of special talents, are privileges accorded, as a rule, only to our sons. There is no work which can not be better done with education and special cultivation than without it; and in woman's work especially, from cooking, all through the literary and professional scale, up to motherhood, the greatest and most important work of all, there is necessity for the high development—for the information, skill, discernment, and wisdom—which such advantages bring. With the possible responsibilities of the suffrage, too, either open to women as a privilege or thrust upon them as a duty—according to the individual view of the matter—the daughters of to-day have need of an education not only thorough in its details but broad in its scope. Mrs. Elaine Goodale Eastman wrote recently of a young woman who had attained "real distinction in the sciences." In writing a letter to a friend on the birth of a child, this exponent of the higher education for women uses these significant words: "Your letter brings news which never fails to thrill me. I am sure that any woman would rather hold her own child in her arms than attain to any degree of eminence in science or learning." So long as such an expression of the poet's ideal of woman can come from one who has attained "real distinction in the sciences," we need not fear the consequences of a higher intellectual development for women. The danger lies elsewhere in the derision brought upon the advancement of women by the extravagancies of some unwise enthusiasts, and in the encouragement of a spirit of antagonism between man and woman—a spirit contrary to all the laws of God, and death to the best development of mankind. This last danger was forcibly illustrated in a recent magazine article which demanded that every father should share with the mother the responsibility of the mental and physical training of his children, and entitled Modern Woman versus Modern Man—a most excellent subject, the very central thought of which proves the necessity for working together. It was well developed too; but oh! the spirit indicated by that title. That the mother, as a member of society and the guide of future generations, can do more than any other woman to meet these dangers and counteract them, is the conviction which I believe will be born of a just valuation of her powers. In considering the growth of opportunity for women, it is natural that we should give special attention to the needs of our daughters and to the development of which they are capable. But our sons are no less important "seed fields." Even viewing woman's higher development as it affects herself individually, there is need for an influence upon the man of the future, which will awaken in him a spirit of helpful sympathy with the earnest woman who is trying to dignify and broaden her life and work. And considering this increasing earnestness in woman in its wide-reaching effect upon all mankind, it is evident that, without a kindly fellowship and encouragement from men, which will make the working together possible, the future will not bring the great results which are hoped for. Would it not be well to infuse some of this spirit into our sons while their natures are still plastic material?

In writing recently of woman's work. Miss Agnes Repplier said with admirable force, "Now as in the past character is the base upon which all true advancement rests secure," a truth which must commend itself especially to every conscientious mother. It is through a better physical and mental development, it is true, but mainly through them as leading up to a growth in character, that we must look for the best results. If there is to be a "new woman," let us have her by evolution, not revolution.

Let us free our daughters from the unwholesome physical restraints which unnecessary conventionalities would impose, and educate them as human beings, with all ordinary possibilities latent, besides those womanly qualities which set them apart. Let us cultivate in them all that is strongest and most forceful, all that is sweetest and best and most womanly; and then, with the realization that neither marriage nor a career is the essential, "the destined end," there will come to them a growth in strength and goodness which will enable them to do any work in life better than they have done it in the past. It is certainly not incredible that such women should be able to counteract every retarding influence, and hand in hand with broad-minded men as husbands, brothers, or co-workers, demonstrate the beauty and strength of united force.

Is it too much to hope that in the near future there will arise in the minds and hearts of mothers a whole army of thoughts and inspirations with which they may do battle for that high development, that noble expansion, which we are pleased to call "the advancement of woman"?