Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/June 1915/The Celibate Women of To-Day



THERE were in the United States, in 1910, 8,924,056 women, over fifteen years of age, who were neither married, widowed nor divorced. These single women represent twenty-nine and seven tenths per cent. of all the women over fifteen years of age in the United States at that time. Many of these women have since married or will marry; but at every age there remains a large number of unmarried women facing a life of celibacy. Thus of native-born white women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, thirty and six tenths per cent. are unmarried, while of the same class, between the ages of thirty-four and forty-four, seventeen and eight tenths per cent. are still single. The public school teachers of America, alone, number nearly 400,000 mature women, hardly any of whom are married. Why do they not marry, and what compensations can a life of celibacy bring them?

In the first place, it is a mistake to imagine, as most people do, that the emancipation of women since 1870 has tended to discourage marriage. The contrary is true. In 1890, but sixty-eight and one tenth per cent. of American women of fifteen years of age were married, or had been married; in 1900, this proportion had risen to sixty-eight and six tenths per cent.; and in 1910, it was seventy and three tenths per cent. Higher education, industrial independence and increasing participation in social and political life have apparently increased the tendency of women to marry. But why, since they have so rapidly taken possession of nearly everything else, have they not more generally taken possession of husbands?

The widespread belief that there are not enough men to go around is another old superstition. The men have outnumbered the women in the United States at every decennial census since 1820. In 1910, there were in the whole country 2,692,288 more males than females. Of course, this is partly due to the fact that more male than female immigrants come here to work.

But even among the native-born whites, there were in 1910, 922,502 more males than females. In that year there were 102.7 white native born males to each 100 native-born females. Only in Massachusetts, Maryland and North and South Carolina was there an excess of females. Counting only the people over twenty-one years of age, there were 110 males to each 100 females in 1910; and even among the native-born whites there were 106.8 males to each 100 females over twenty-one years of age.

There have always been women living apart from family life, at least during the historic period. For obvious reasons, men have almost universally considered female celibacy a matter of reproach, and they have even invented such makeshifts as child marriage in India and sealing among the Mormons that unfortunate or undesirable women might be spared the disgrace of dying unmarried. At times, a lack of dowry has condemned the least attractive women to live alone; and the offices of religion have imposed celibacy for at least a part of life upon groups like the Vestal Virgins in Rome and for the entire lifetime upon nuns and other Christian recluses. In none of these cases, however, did women choose to live alone because they hoped thereby to realize a fuller life than they could find in the married state. In the religious orders, they dedicated their virginity to the service of the Deity, and at most hoped to profit in the life to come for their loss on earth.

This is the great difference between celibate women of the past and those of the present time. With our enormous number of unattached men, it would be foolish to imagine that the great majority of single women in America could not marry if they wanted to do so. Man proposes, but woman dictates when he shall do it. Why do so many women elect to walk through life alone?

Doubtless the growth in democratic ideals, which has been steadily working among women since 1870, has had much to do with it. Women have ceased to be merely "the sex"; they have become individuals. Under simpler conditions of life, such as prevailed in our colonial period, if a woman found a man of her race, religion and social position, who was personally agreeable to her, little more was necessary to insure a happy marriage. But now a woman seeks fulfillment not only for her personal liking, but for all the qualities of her varied personal life. She has not only racial, religious and social interests, but she has an intelligent attitude towards the whole of life; she has musical, dramatic or literary tastes; she is interested in social justice or in the vested interests of caste; she cares for travel or she desires a quiet home; and in a hundred other directions she is an individual. Such a complex individuality does not easily find its complement. A person who merely likes music can generally find it; a person with a cultivated musical taste must search for music that suits him.

All this uncertainty is emphasized by the examples of marital unhappiness that intrude themselves on every hand. We have in our midst nearly a million divorced people. The deserted wife and mother is one of the greatest and most common problems that confront social workers. Our funny papers find the majority of their humor in deceived and deceiving wives and husbands. The drama and the novel burden us with sex problems. Yellow journalism lives on the tragic side of married infelicity. Of course, there are millions of happy marriages, but such happiness, like good health, is inarticulate and does not advertise itself in the market place.

Every self-supporting girl must also be deeply impressed with the difference between her own economic position and that of her mother. For years, as a girl, she has seen her father and mother working together as life partners; and she has seen all the net income recognized as her father's personal property. Her mother's relation to the family purse has generally been that of a medieval serf to his lord's estate. Even the house furnishing and the mother's own clothes have often been secured by stealth and indirection. Now the girl has her own pay envelope, and in possessing it absolutely she holds the key to life as she desires it. It is not to be wondered at that a young woman in full possession of youth and health finds it difficult to give up a salary which, even if small, is absolutely her own, to accept a feudal relation to some man's salary, often not much larger than the one she has earned, knowing it must suffice for two and probably for more.

Of course, this feeling fails to recognize the danger of the passing years. With the blindness of youth, it over-emphasizes the value of present liberty. Later, she may see the day when she will realize that she has sold her birthright for a pay envelope. But it is not so much the amount of the income that really troubles the modern woman as it is her personal relation to it. Surely some means might be devised by which a woman could be related to the family income so as to preserve her independence and self-respect as well as that of her husband.

Another difficulty that confronts the young woman of to-day in her search for the altar is her superior intelligence. This is generally less important than it seems, but in a country which worships popular education and where all parents hope to give their children at least a better education than they have had, correct grammar and a speaking acquaintance with Robert Browning and Michael Angelo acquire a value out of all proportion to their power to function in life. When a likely young man comes courting who says, "You and me will go," and prefers the movies to Ibsen, it makes the young woman who aspires to culture question the long evenings of a lifetime.

This is especially true of the young woman who has risen intellectually and economically above her social class. Skilled preparation has given her an income superior to that of the men in the group where she was born; and she has been too busy studying and working to make social connections in the class where she thinks and works. The social emancipation of woman lags far behind her intellectual and economic freedom, so that these young women whom we are considering still move socially in their family planes. The men in that group are too ignorant and too poor to suit her; and the men with whom she works know her only as a stenographer, a teacher or a journalist. Our last census returns show how widespread this condition is, for except in New England, there is no excess of men in the cities. But in the countryside the excess of men is great, for they have been left behind in the struggle towards larger intellectual and economic independence which has swept the young women into the towns.

These women, possessing a fairly large intellectual and professional life, often move in a pitifully narrow social circle. The home, as a center for social activity, has been sadly squeezed in our emigration from the country into the city. Friends and acquaintances come less often than in the past to spend a few days with the family. Calls are more formal and brief. Acquaintances less often drop in for a meal; and meantime the older social conditions that limit a woman's initiative in making acquaintances still hold and are broken by young women only at considerable risk.

Even public meeting places are apt to be restricted to one sex. If the girl joins a club, it is a girl's club; if she joins the Y.W.C.A., the young men are a half mile away in the Y.M.C.A. When shall we be wise enough to turn both these institutions into Young People's Christian Associations? And meantime, while the hunting field is narrow, the difficulty of selection has increased. A generation ago, as we have pointed out, a girl might hope to find a desirable mate among a dozen acquaintances. Now she needs to look over a hundred young men to find her own.

In the light of this analysis the wonder is not that we have so many unmarried women in America, but that we have so few. Nature has loaded the dice in favor of marriage and she generally has her own way. Many of these young women, however, will never marry. Nuns will continue to vow their virginity to the Celestial Bridegroom; reformers will spend their lives in securing social justice for their sisters and for their sisters' children; professional women will continue to seek fame and service; teachers will fight off the wars of the future, not with submarines and aeroplanes, but with ideas and ideals planted and nourished in young minds. Many other women, with no particular devotion to sustain them, will be held by the charm of pay envelopes and independent latch keys until it is too late; while the accidents of fate will leave many stranded in their struggle towards a complete life.

Meantime there can be no doubt that the most complete life a woman can live, at least between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five, is found in a marriage based on a deep and lasting love; and the same is no less true for a man. What, then, has our modern life to offer to celibate women as compensation for the life they do not attain?

There are at least certain negative values which come to them. In escaping vital experiences, the woman can at least recognize the fact that she also escapes the anxieties and troubles that are inseparable from family life. She will probably be lonely; but, on the other hand, when she wishes it she can be alone. In writing to a friend, who had lost his little daughter, Cicero says that all men would wish children were it not for the anxiety that they inevitably bring.

To put it more positively, the celibate woman retains her freedom of action. Through study, travel, art, science or society, she may reach a degree of self-realization not always attained by her sister who marries. Into her work she can carry much of the enthusiasm and devotion which, as wife and mother, she might lavish on husband and children.

The desire for service, which lies so deep in the nature of all good women, can often be more fully realized in a life of personal freedom than in one of marriage. At least there may be a different realization of very great value to the individual and to society. Such women as Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams have brought gifts of service to mankind far beyond what they would probably have given in their own homes. Each of these women probably recognized her personal loss; but many devoted wives and mothers have also recognized their loss through inability to enter into the wider service of public life. Unto no mortal is it given to live all the possibilities of life.

But more important than any of these compensations we have named is the power we all possess to live life vicariously. Our real living is never in the mere possession and use of things, but in what we think and feel about them. Lower animals live in facts; man lives in his ideas and ideals. All of life's values must be found on the way; when we arrive we are always in danger of becoming unconscious and so losing what we came to get.

This is why art and literature have always had to find their characters in the struggling classes, the poor and the rich. The smug middle classes and the comfortably rich have the facts of existence; but they do not know it. The universal contempt of those who know for such unconscious living finds expression in the terms bourgeoise, philistines and bromides.

On the other hand, struggling and self-conscious groups always attract and interest us. Bohemia is poor; it lacks the facts of property; but it has the most alluring of all festivals and immortal banquets. Who, that has a soul as well as a stomach, would not turn from a banquet of facts at twenty dollars a plate, with dull unconsciousness of life in the people, to a group of dreamers and wits with very modest fare and twenty-dollar talk at table?

Locke's Beloved Vagabond lost all the facts of life, fame, money, the woman; but who that has wandered across the pages of romance with him does not envy him the keen appreciation of life, the realization of its realities, the high and compelling ideal, even against the background of poverty-stricken and often drunken facts. Jean Christophe lived all but his musical life vicariously. The woman he loved was another man's loyal wife; his children were born from other men's passions; his home was wherever he could feel the universe. He lived without the material realizations of life; but who of us would not desert unconscious wealth, houses and homes for such a conscious life?

The poet Dante illustrates in his own life the relative value of facts and dreams, of living life directly and living it vicariously, to a singular degree. He was married and had a family of children, but in all his voluminous writings there is no word of these facts of his daily existence. In his early youth he fell in love with Beatrice; we know very little about her; she married another man; and it is quite probable that Dante never even touched her hand; but she led him through Paradise. Since the poet's death, millions have read and have been shaped by the "Vita Nuova" who have never even heard of the wife and children who were the facts of Dante's life.

If all this be true, then the modern woman who does not marry need not feel that life is closed to her, that having been denied the Garden of Realization she must stand before the gates and weep. "When the angel with the flaming sword drove Eve out of Eden he opened the world of work and varied experience to her. Gifted with imagination and desire, she could create for herself new gardens of perfection; and if they were less real than those she had left, they were possibly more vividly realized than was the one where she had slumbered away the days of happiness.

Self-realization through vicarious living, this is the solution to a celibate life for the individual. Joan of Arc gave herself to religion and to her people. Madam Kovalevsky found at least relief for the letters that did not come in the honors that were lavished on her mathematical discoveries. Susan B. Anthony found her realization in the ideal life that was to come to all the women of the world; her sister, Mary Anthony, found a deep and rich realization in serving her better-known sister, who was to her all that home means to most women.

Thousands of our teachers are truer mothers to their children than are the mothers who bore them. In schools, libraries and social centers many fine women are to-day wedded to humanity; they are conceiving new ideals of social justice and are giving birth to opportunity for fuller living that shall bring conscious gladness to millions unborn.

For themselves and for all the higher purposes of civilization such lives may have great worth. Biologically they are lost; for the little strand of the stream of life that finds lodgment in them ceases with their death. This is a pity; and it is a pity, too, that back of the dream there should not be also the reality. One can not help feeling that the children of Dante and Beatrice would have added something of great worth to the fact of existence.

And that this may come in the future we must remodel our medieval institution of marriage. It must cease to be a political convenience or a religious sacrament and must become a biological truth. We must make it impossible for the state to sanction and for the church to sanctify the marriage of imbeciles and of old men and young girls. Women must be emancipated socially, as they have been emancipated intellectually and economically; and they must be given larger and more direct share in choosing their life mates. We must put family finances on a basis of equal partnership that will attract self-supporting and self-respecting women. We must provide ample opportunities for young people to meet and know each other and we must recognize the fact that it is always a sin for men and women to live in the close companionship of marriage if they do not love each other.