Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/July 1897/Let Us Therewith Be Content


THE men of America have met the suffrage agitation with an admirable gallantry. Aspersed to their faces from the rostrum as masculine creatures of unfathomable iniquity, they return only a deprecating smile. Assured by the "new woman" that the ever feminine leadeth them on, and that politics will clarify as soon as the superior purity and integrity of the sex are brought to bear upon them, they appreciate her splendid confidence, applaud, and cry her on. There are those who, ever suspicious of the masculine character, take umbrage at this favor, looking upon it as an impertinent condescension. But surely we may grant that the slow partner of our humanity, admiring our victorious advance, and bewildered by our swift onslaughts from all points at once, wishes by his expressions of good will to placate our wrath and further our desires. Stupid and mannish he may be, but after all he is rather good-natured.

American women, however, are taking toward the question at issue a curious attitude. One large and picturesque division, when exhorted that they "ought" to desire a finger in the political pie, if not for the sake of the pie at least for the sake of the finger, show a sweet resignation, and, definitely premising that they do not wish the ballot, cry meekly that if it be the will of God to give it to them they will do their best to make a proper use of it. Others express a frank impatience with our prophets and saviors. Others, still, recognizing that the vantage ground upon which American women stand to-day is not entirely the result of democracy, give due gratitude and appreciation to those who through hard battles have helped to win the position. "But," they exclaim, "stay in your ministrations of deliverance! Forbear to impose upon us the added responsibility of the suffrage!" And, worst of all, masses of these shackled citizens show an unalterable apathy toward the injustice they are suffering, and indifference to the hands reached out to help them. Surely never did enthusiasts have to deal with more refractory and exasperating material. The suffrage leaders have proved in their own persons the angelic quality of womankind in not giving up long ago the attempt to free such inveterate slaves.

What is the significance of this general reluctance? To give her the suffrage is to add another to the long list of her opportunities for exercising power and influence outside of the home, and the question becomes. Do American women desire this, and if not, why not? The answer is bound up with the hackneyed subject of "woman's sphere," and, as all our philosophy is nowsadays biologized, it rests back upon the great physical fact that women for all time must be prepared to bear and rear the children of the race. Granting that much of her physical disability is due to various sorts of foolishness and may be removed, it remains undeniable that in even the most normal of women the reproductive system is by nature so constituted that it requires a much larger proportion of her vitality than is the case with man. Hence, leaving out of account all other possible variations between the sexes, this difference alone is a definite handicap to all women who "compete" with men. For married women there is the further fact that childbearing and the care of children add a new and very serious handicap in any "competition" with men.

If, then, woman is physically at so great a disadvantage in many occupations, shall she not consider that these occupations are, for her, but secondary issues? For her specialty shall she not look along the line of least resistance? Instead of denying her physical constitution, shall she not exalt it by a consistent allegiance to its fundamental significance? Notwithstanding the present apotheosis of the physical sciences, woman will not rest satisfied in a purely physical explanation of her destiny. Bitter rebellion is inevitable whenever she is confronted by her physical limitations and possesses not the spiritual key to their meaning. But a spiritual significance in the life of woman has been more or less felt in all times, and in the present it is not only tacitly conceded by society in general, but it has received definite scientific formulation. From their physical constitution women more than men must inevitably sacrifice themselves for the progress of the race. Unconscious and unwilling though they may have been, necessity and habit have so trained countless generations of women in the practice of self-denial that they have grown to be in the world the special witnesses and exemplifiers of the altruistic principle. So true is it that motherhood and the love and self-sacrifice which it involves, is woman's peculiar contribution to evolution and progress, that, as has been keenly pointed out, "the woman question is not solved until it is solved by mothers." In other words, a woman can not solve her life problem on a purely individual basis except at the price of her influence on the race. A man may lead a life largely self-centered and still transmit his qualities to his children, but the self-centered woman can not pass on her qualities, for she will have no children to inherit them. If she would, in any large way, save her life, she must lose it.

The actual facts bear out this conception of a woman's function. It is not that women are wholly altruistic. Though loath to own it, we are but mortal. Nor will any (except the suffrage leaders) contend that every woman is more unselfish than every man. On the contrary, it is only too easy to point out cases where feminine selfishness is shown again and again in petty ways to which men, as a rule, do not stoop. Yet it remains in general true that the practical life of women the world over calls for a more constant exercise of self-sacrifice than that of men, and that everywhere women have learned in the main to make their sacrifices cheerfully because lovingly, and even to court a life which brings them. That this acquiescence should be often considered an indication of tameness, if not inferiority, is but natural in a civilization which has even now only half realized the dignity of the altruistic ideal. In the affairs of life intellect has enjoyed a long prestige. Character, which, according to the highest conceptions of the race, depends at its best upon altruism, is but slowly growing into an equal recognition. In a rough, general way, men have been the apostles of the one and women of the other. It is true that the ideal of humanity is one. Women have gained in intellect and men in character, and this must go on; but it has not come about, and it will not come about, by a direct exchange of their activities.

These considerations lead to the good old dictum that "home is woman's sphere." It seems well-nigh superfluous to enumerate the obvious qualifications of this general statement. Surely no fin-de-siècle person would understand it to mean that woman should look upon marriage in itself as the sole desideratum of her existence, or that, failing to marry, she should devote herself to pets and fancy work, and live upon the charity of her male relatives. Surely at this stage of proceedings no one would attempt or desire to limit woman to purely domestic pursuits. It has been reiterated and most abundantly proved that she need not be circumscribed in freedom or opportunity for the sake of binding her to the home: it is not necessary, for Nature will take care of itself; and it is not expedient, for the more she is allowed to be in herself the greater the gift she can and will bring to the race. Moreover, no one will contend that every woman ought to be a mother, or that an indefinite number of offspring is a wife's chief duty. In a word, marriage, and the bearing and not bearing of children, are individual accidents dependent upon a thousand private considerations. To fulfill the law of womanhood one need not be a mother, but only to be motherly; one need not be a wife, but only to be loyal to the unselfish principle of wifehood; one need not eschew the paths of business or professional life, so only that she recognize hers as the exceptional feminine career, the more normal and significant one lying within the walls of the home.

Consciously sometimes, but perhaps more often with unconscious instinct, a woman does thus stand by her colors. Why this eager activity in the matter of temperance rather than the tariff? Because intemperance menaces the home. Why this quick sympathy with organized or unorganized charities, as opposed to the average apathy over finance? Because charity touches people whom she can love and homes which she can transfigure. And—if one may be pardoned a notion somewhat transcendental—is not her oft-observed lack of creative ability, together with her equally notable power of appreciation, due to the fact that with her an idea is not worked out so readily in purely intellectual formulations as in the material of character? The laws of mechanics as such she does not readily apprehend, but the truths of rectitude which are their moral counterpart she grasps with special illumination. The masterpieces of formal art she does not create, but she, more naturally than man, can live a life which may properly be called a poem or a picture.

And why this respect for womankind deeply rooted in the best of men? The individual character of woman is not, unfortunately, so much loftier than that of man as to compel it, and that she is the "weaker sex" hardly accounts for so large a fact. Nor does it look like a merely left-over remnant of mediæval chivalry. Is it not, at bottom, that sound and sensible men recognize and reverence the altruistic ideal, which, however faltering her loyalty, it is a woman's special privilege to perpetuate? The beautiful phrase so bedraggled by controversy—

Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan—

does it not mean that the principle of love which rules a woman's life is also the loadstar of human progress?

Homes must be made, and the masculine half of us, as they make haste to proclaim with amusing emphasis, have neither the inclination nor the ability to assume the task. Says one of them, naively, "If marriage meant to a man what it does to a woman in the way of suffering, labor, and social status, I am convinced that not one man in fifty would marry." It is impossible not to be reminded of the similar disclaimer—

Oh, then I can't marry you, my pretty maid!

and the milkmaid's retort—

Nobody asked you to, sir, she said—

seems singularly appropriate, did we wish to be so impolite as to use it. But, strange as it may look to the masculine mind, women in general do choose to marry. They are not driven to it by the conditions of society, nor impelled by a blind sexual instinct, nor misled by the enthusiasm of the martyr. They know perfectly well what it will mean in their career. And they need not be looked upon as fools for so doing, being in fact possessed of the average degree of common sense of the race. They choose it because they want it, and they want it because, in spite of its restrictions, it brings the most satisfactory fulfillment of their aspirations and development of their powers.

The same masculine thinker is firmly convinced that "women wish to be men, but men do not wish to be women." Both parts of this proposition are delightfully characteristic of the sex which has never been backward in claiming its superiority, and the last clause, by the same sign, is doubtless unquestionable. But the first is as unjust to woman's ideals as it is derogatory to her mission. If she give up social pleasures, literary activity, pecuniary independence, or a hundred other personal ambitions, to minister to the interests of one modest home, and the career of one average husband; if she turn from the gratification of public recognition to years of the unapplauded cares of the nursery; if she drop out of the onward march of purely intellectual progress, and spend her life marking time in the ranks of the housekeeper—it is not because she is the poor-spirited victim of circumstances. It is not that one half the race is, by some mischance of destiny, doomed to a life of tragedy. The bird with one wing broken droops in its flight, and humanity thus hampered would have sorely lagged in its onward sweep. On the contrary, she chooses these things because law and the satisfaction of her life are not that of individual ambition or attainment, but the law of love and service—"unto the Jews a stumbling-block and unto the Greeks foolishness."

Women, it is true, do not always feel or admit this. Many of them have a taste for pity, and they pet and pity themselves and each other. Yet the more sincere own willingly that everything has its price, and that they have paid none too dear for that which they have gained by their sacrifice. The strongest scorn to pose as martyrs, because they see clearly that in life as it runs, a woman, exactly as a man, gets what she pays for, and must pay for what she gets. And they conceive of no more just equality of the sexes than this.

As to the women of America, to begin with, they are not, as some would have us think, downtrodden drudges, manacled slaves, or what not, after the same order. Rejoicing in the most perfect social freedom the world has seen, proud in a position and influence quite equal to those of men, they can afford to laugh at such tirades. With the exceptions that must always accompany general statements, woman in America may do whatever she wishes to do. She may run the typewriter in an office instead of a sewing machine at home. She may carry on a farm or a business. She may teach, write, preach, lecture, practice law or medicine. Journalism and belles-lettres are her happy hunting grounds. She may marry or remain unmarried with equal honor, and no one dictates in her choice of a husband. She may wear bloomers and ride a wheel. She may carry on public agitations to an unlimited extent. The most serious drawbacks to her complete freedom result from flaws in her own standards and traditions, and are in no wise imposed upon her from without.

American men are neither tyrannical nor condescending toward women. From childhood up they have been in the habit of seeing their sisters walk beside them with independence and privilege equal to their own. Their attitude is one of frank comradery based upon a respect which on both sides is unconsciously taken for granted. They have, besides, a genial tendency to be proud of their women and to applaud rather than discourage their ambitions. If women wish to vote, these men will not deny them. In fact, many an American household presents the edifying spectacle of a husband more ready to vote the suffrage to his wife than she to accept it.

Notwithstanding this freedom—perhaps because of it—one need only obtain an unaffected expression of their feeling to find that, maid and matron alike, the women of the country are, as a rule, content in marriage as a career. They wish for children, and gladly make the prolonged sacrifices necessary to their care and education. One day a young woman—exactly such a one as may be met with any day anywhere in the country—went "in fun" to consult a fortune-teller. But she returned in tears, and confided to her girl friend that she wept because the seer had told her she would never have children.

It can not of course be said that among women there is no discontent, no restlessness. The age is full of discontent of a certain kind, and restlessness is in the blood. Women do not escape these general influences of the time. Moreover, there is, at least among college women, a special dissatisfaction with the drudgery attendant upon home-making. With the increase of individuality which the higher education can not fail to bring, comes the need of a new sort of home; and the conflict and adjustment of old with new ideals, old with new duties, old with new purposes, brings confusion and sadness into the problem of many a modern woman's life. Notwithstanding this, the college woman is found in general to be no more ready than her uneducated sister to go back upon the womanhood which means self-denial, and the career which means self-sacrifice.

When these American women, full of the complicated interests and duties of the American home and its dependent sociological activities, are confronted with the prospect of exercising the suffrage, their instinct seems to be to draw back. Ask the women, one after another, in a representative community, if they wish to vote, and again and again will come the answers: "I haven't time," "My hands are overfull now," "How can I undertake a duty which means that I must inform myself upon all the public questions of the day?" Naturally, many of them, especially those who are temperance workers, or those whose property interests are not represented under existing conditions, desire the ballot. But the great majority are content to occupy themselves with the multitude of interests which are already theirs, and to leave the formal affairs of state to men. The great majority, when they speak sincerely, will say that home-making and its allied interests is their chosen life, and that its demands are so exacting that they must leave the work of government to other hands.

This attitude is certainly open to criticism. Perhaps it is true that the sons could be better educated by mothers who voted, that homes could be better made and protected by wives who held the power of the ballot, that the welfare of schools and charities would be furthered if women who are interested in them had a share in the making of the laws. Yet it would seem that if woman possessed by nature any great aptitude for political life, she would be eager to exercise it. It has been said that "the men are not what they are because they vote, but they vote because they are what they are." They make politics, and they are interested in the work of their hands. Women do not make it and (always in general) are not interested in it. If woman alone were to govern the state, how radically different would be her methods! And how can oil and water mix? Until she can disfranchise man and establish a rule of her own peculiar sort, woman may perhaps be expected to show indifference to political affairs. Furthermore, she might evince more alacrity for reaching out for the august power of the ballot if she observed that the men who exercise it thereby get what they want. But to her puzzled query, "If you want this reform or that measure, why don't you put it through?" the conclusive reply is that "you can't get at it," on account of the "primaries," or "the bosses," or "the spoils system," or the "rings," or the wheels within wheels of whatever other complications interfere to muddle the brain and thwart the will of the sovereign American people. A woman answered thus, and reflecting upon the suffrage, is apt to wonder, in her silly, feminine way, if the game is worth the candle.

Perhaps it is worth the candle. Many a wise man thinks so, and having the suffrage himself, a man should be able to estimate its value. However that question may be finally settled, women will be women. The practical conviction that this is after all what they most wish to be must have an important bearing upon their particular aspirations, and it is this conviction which, to say the least, suggests misgivings and compels reserve in the minds of a very large number of average American women whose voices are not heard in the land.