The Woman of It

The Woman of It  (1912) 
by Ethel Watts Mumford

Extracted from Harper's Weekly, Oct 25, 1912, pp. 18–19. Illustrations by the author.

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The Woman of It

By Ethel Watts Mumford

Illustrations by the Author

LET us be done, if you please, with this sort of hypocrisy.” This line occurs in the last act of “Damaged Goods.” the Brieux play that has been condemned and lauded with equal violence by an excited public. It refers to the conspiracy of silence with which custom has surrounded the facts of sex life, and invariably this line is followed by applause—the applause of women, for of the crowd that fills the theater 90 per cent. are women. They do not care if the first two acts of the drama are masterpieces of construction. They are even less concerned that critics have pronounced the third act a medical treatise, and no act at all. They are there to learn, they are there to assert their right to knowledge their right to protect themselves and to protect their children. The sight of them in serried and serious ranks gives one pause, makes one think.

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THERE are many, very many, gray-haired matrons in the throng; women who, a few years ago, would have been the first to criticize a frank word or discussion of the great Taboo. Now, they are facing serious facts. They are voicing approval of the physician who cries out from the depths of sorrowful experience, “Silence is criminal!” “Would that I could cry the truth from the housetops.” Courageous mothers have come, shepherding their little flock of wide-eyed daughters and growing boys. They are the pioneers who have realized that ignorance is not, and never can be, bliss, but is Danger in a passive form.

To observe these audiences closely is to be deeply touched. Tragedy plucks one by the sleeve. Courage nods to courage. “The old order passeth,” carrying with it the veils of silence and negation. And the women who have dwelt for centuries curtained behind these veils, are blinking in the light that reveals to them their work, their place, their honors and dishonors in a world of realities.

A WOMAN, bent and gray, dressed in faded and antiquated block, creeps into the theater, and stands behind a pillar, watching with hunted eyes. The money wherewith to pay for her entrance ticket must have been hoarded with bitter self-denial. Why is she here? Watching her, the conviction comes that, from this play of human folly, she has slaved to witness, she seeks to learn the truth to some hideous puzzle in her own environment, a puzzle to which her ignorance could give no answer, and concerning which custom has tied her questioning tongue. She comes in and out, with pitiful apprehension of being seen. Yet who should know her? She hears the marks of service and the livery of the tenements. It seems strange that one in her walk of life should not have found foul facts a matter of everyday—then why is she here at all? She is a type, and her like is always present at these performances.

ONCE the curtain goes up and the lights are turned low in the house, the kept woman and the street walker come slinking in—alone always, never in groups—pitiful, fearful, frightened at coming, yet impelled to hear what may be a death warrant. A half defiant air about them, as if they would deny their very presence. They sit far back. In the entre acts they do not go out to promenade the foyer. They sit, waxen pale under the rouge, their poor painted lips twisted in agony. Slow tears have furrowed the powder on their cheeks. They do not even glance about to ascertain if some one has a newer coiffure than theirs, or is wearing a more daring gown. “The woman at the gate!” She hears herself reviled and pitied. She sees herself pictured, “at once the victim and the cause.” They come out from this “place of public entertainment,” haggard and absorbed in terrified contemplation.

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CHEEK by jowl with these outcast sisters sit groups,—gregarious these,—of mouse-like women, one pigeon-holes as the wives and sisters of suburban clergymen. They gaze with question in their eyes, huddled together, as if for warmth—why have they come?—such daring would seem beyond their drub will powers. Well down toward the front of the house, ostentatious in manner and in the “suitableness” of their raiment, are rows of women from the various “Leagues” and “Societies” for the invention and prevention of all sorts of things. They arrive with, “wait-till-I-tell-all-the-neighbors-about-this” air, hut they leave with the stricken faces of those who have gazed on Truth of Evil in all its nakedness.

THERE is hardly a face in ail the crowded house that does not sooner or later take on an expression of painful reminiscent understanding. The “why” of many an illness, many a death, many a broken life is made plain. Puzzling tragedies are slowly illumined and solved. The inexorable light of fact finds and settles on them like some burning calcium, a spot-light which reveals decay and death, helpless sorrow and innocent suffering.

Yet they leave with courage in their eyes, these women; fight and determination may be seen ten times where is seen one crushed and aimless spirit.

What had been a mysterious Thing, has become suddenly a link in a chain of avoidable disaster.

THE first two acts of the play leave this strange audience silent and tense. They feel too deeply the human import. They follow too closely the painful story. They do not applaud a good piece of acting, nor nod intelligent approval of a well-built scene. When the curtain fulls on the first act, they have applauded but once—the doctor's speech calling for publicity. After the second act, which really closes the example-story, there is but a slight outburst. The burst is all inwards—whole areas of prejudices have been dynamited.

A WORD for the submerged tenth—the masculine element in these extraordinary audiences. Curiously enough, two types are represented in overwhelming majority: The one fat, pursy, middle-aged. gross in person and manner, with a roll of fat at the bock of the collar, punctuated by stubby hairs, looking for all the world like the cylinder of an old-fashioned music box. He wears glasses and stubby moustache, and smokes large cigars between the acts with an effort to appear indifferent and patronizing. His profession, whatever it is, cannot be savory—the sight of him, collectively, is revolting. The other predominant type is lean, blond, nervous and small, perhaps a professor or a school teacher. He is very intent, but seems self-conscious and annoyed when he finds himself emotionally affected. This male minority serves, in several very noticeable instances, to mark the divergence of the male and the female points of view in matters ethical. Take the episode in the first act. The unspeakable treachery of the—shall he be called “hero?"—toward his friend and the wife of his friend; his dastardly selfishness and ruthless cruelty. An appalling confession made to his physician in a spirit of self-laudation and exculpation appears to create not so much as a ripple among the men present. To the women this incident is very different. A wave of horror seems to pass over them. There is denunciation, protest, in the feminine movement that undulates every head from white-haired to henna-dyed.

AGAIN, when the grandmother calls on God to renew to her poor dried breast the life-giving stream, that she may suckle the ailing child, born with the cursed hereditary taint, the men remain unmoved. But when, in savage determination to shield her own, she proposes to sacrifice the life and welfare of the nurse or anyone else, by any means, however inhuman, there passes from man to man a surge of angry protest, a shocked astonishment at such criminal heartlessness—while in every woman’s eyes, young and old, comes a glint of primitive ferocity that cries aloud, “So would I do—and more!”

The third act is presented—“medical discussion,” “lecture,” “clinic”—what you will; and now constantly the applause breaks forth. And therein lies the answer, the reason for the presence of these throngs of women. This is what the women are applauding. This is the common bond, “Let there be light.”

THESE are the lines, marked as they met with vociferous clapping, that receive the instant approval, day after day, night after night, of these mature, determined audiences of women—they are enlightening:

The Doctor: “If I could, I would cry the facts aloud from the housetops.”

The Doctor: “You made no inquiries concerning the health of your daughter's betrothed?"

The Father: “No.”

The Doctor: “And why?”

The Father: “Because it is not the custom.”

The Doctor: “Well, it ought to be made the custom.”

The Doctor: “Let the manufacture of poisonous liquors be prohibited, and the number of licenses cut down.”

The Doctor: (Of tuberculosis): “The real remedy is to pay sufficient wages, and have unsanitary buildings torn down.”

The Doctor: “As for the other—‘the woman who prowls at the gate,’—perhaps some day, she will have a little attention paid to her.”

The Doctor: “‘I didn’t know,’ is the cry. People ought to know! Young men must be taught the responsibilities they assume and the misfortunes they may bring on themselves.” {{dhr|1em} The applause rises, diminishes, renews itself again and again when The Doctor speaks: “It is the future of the race I am defending!”

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.