Women and Economics
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Proem | Preface | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 |
IN the face of so vital and radical a change in human life as this change of economic base in the position of women, it is well to call attention more at length to the illustrations of every-day facts in our common lives, which he who runs may read, if he knows how to read. We do not, as a rule, know how to read the most important messages to humanity,the signs of the times. Historic crises, which have been slowly maturing, burst upon us in sudden birth before the majority of the people imagine that anything is going on. The first gun fired at Fort Sumter was an extreme surprise to most of the citizens of the Union. The Boston Tea Party was, no doubt, an unaccountable piece of insolence to many worthy Britons. When "the deluge" did pour over the noblesse of France, few had been really foreseeing enough to avoid it.
Fortunately, the laws of social evolution do not wait for our recognition or acceptance: they go straight on. And this greater and more important change than the world has ever seen, this slow emergence of the long-subverted human female to full racial equality, has been going on about us full long enough to be observed. It is seen more prominently in this country than in any other, for many reasons.
The Anglo-Saxon blood, that English mixture of which Tennyson sings,"Saxon and Norman and Dane though we be,"is the most powerful expression of the latest current of fresh racial life from the north,from those sturdy races where the women were more like men, and the men no less manly because of it. The strong, fresh spirit of religious revolt in the new church that protested against and broke loose from the old, woke and stirred the soul of woman as well as the soul of man, and in the equality of martyrdom the sexes learned to stand side by side. Then, in the daring and exposure, the strenuous labor and bitter hardship of the pioneer life of the early settlers, woman's very presence was at a premium; and her labor had a high economic value. Sex-dependence was almost unfelt. She who moulded the bullets, and loaded the guns while the men fired them, was co-defender of the home and young. She who carded and dyed and wove and spun was co-provider for the family. Men and women prayed together, worked together, and fought together in comparative equality. More than all, the development of democracy has brought to us the fullest individualization that the world has ever seen. Although politically expressed by men alone, the character it has produced is inherited by their daughters. The Federal Democracy in its organic union, reacting upon individuals, has so strengthened, freed, emboldened, the human soul in America that we have thrown off slavery, and with the same impulse have set in motion the long struggle toward securing woman's fuller equality before the law.
This struggle has been carried on unflaggingly for fifty years, and fast nears its victorious end. It is not only in the four States where full suffrage is exercised by both sexes, nor in the twenty-four where partial suffrage is given to women, that we are to count progress; but in the changes legal and social, mental and physical, which mark the advance of the mother of the world toward her full place. Have we not all observed the change even in size of the modern woman, with its accompanying strength and agility? The Gibson Girl and the Duchess of Towers,these are the new women; and they represent a noble type, indeed. The heroines of romance and drama to-day are of a different sort from the Evelinas and Arabellas of the last century. Not only do they look differently, they behave differently. The false sentimentality, the false delicacy, the false modesty, the utter falseness of elaborate compliment and servile gallantry which went with the other falsehoods,all these are disappearing. Women are growing honester, braver, stronger, more healthful and skilful and able and free, more human in all ways.
The change in education is in large part a cause of this, and progressively a consequence. Day by day the bars go down. More and more the field lies open for the mind of woman to glean all it can, and it has responded most eagerly. Not only our pupils, but our teachers, are mainly women. And the clearness and strength of the brain of the woman prove continually the injustice of the clamorous contempt long poured upon what was scornfully called "the female mind." There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. As well speak of a female liver.
Woman's progress in the arts and sciences, the trades and professions, is steady; but it is most unwise to claim from these relative advances the superiority of women to men, or even their equality, in these fields. What is more to the purpose and easily to be shown is the superiority of the women of to-day to those of earlier times, the immense new development of racial qualities in the sex. No modern proverbs, if we expressed ourselves in proverbs now, would speak with such sweeping, unbroken contumely of the women of to-day as did those unerring exhibitors of popular feeling in former times.
The popular thought of our day is voiced in fiction, fluent verse, and an incessant play of humor. By what is freely written by most authors and freely read by most people is shown our change in circumstances and change in feeling. In old romances the woman was nothing save beautiful, high-born, virtuous, and perhaps "accomplished." She did nothing but love and hate, obey or disobey, and be handed here and there among villain, hero, and outraged parent, screaming, fainting, or bursting into floods of tears as seemed called for by the occasion.
In the fiction of to-day women are continually taking larger place in the action of the story. They are given personal characteristics beyond those of physical beauty. And they are no longer content simply to be: they do. They are showing qualities of bravery, endurance, strength, foresight, and power for the swift execution of well-conceived plans. They have ideas and purposes of their own; and even when, as in so many cases described by the more reactionary novelists, the efforts of the heroine are shown to be entirely futile, and she comes back with a rush to the self-effacement of marriage with economic dependence, still the efforts were there. Disapprove as he may, use his art to oppose and contemn as he may, the true novelist is forced to chronicle the distinctive features of his time; and no feature is more distinctive of this time than the increasing individualization of women. With lighter touch, but with equally unerring truth, the wit and humor of the day show the same development. The majority of our current jokes on women turn on their "newness," their advance.
No sociological change equal in importance to this clearly marked improvement of an entire sex has ever taken place in one century. Under it all, the crux of the whole matter, goes on the one great change, that of the economic relation. This follows perfectly natural lines. Just as the development of machinery constantly lowers the importance of mere brute strength of body and raises that of mental power and skill, so the pressure of industrial conditions demands an ever-higher specialization, and tends to break up that relic of the patriarchal age,the family as an economic unit.
Women have been led under pressure of necessity into a most reluctant entrance upon fields of economic activity. The sluggish and greedy disposition bred of long ages of dependence has by no means welcomed the change. Most women still work only as they "have to," until they can marry and "be supported." Men, too, liking the power that goes with money, and the poor quality of gratitude and affection bought with it, resent and oppose the change; but all this disturbs very little the course of social progress.
A truer spirit is the increasing desire of young girls to be independent, to have a career of their own, at least for a while, and the growing objection of countless wives to the pitiful asking for money, to the beggary of their position. More and more do fathers give their daughters, and husbands their wives, a definite allowance,a separate bank account,something which they can play is all their own. The spirit of personal independence in the women of to-day is sure proof that a change has come.
For a while the introduction of machinery which took away from the home so many industries deprived woman of any importance as an economic factor; but presently she arose, and followed her lost wheel and loom to their new place, the mill. To-day there is hardly an industry in the land in which some women are not found. Everywhere throughout America are women workers outside the unpaid labor of the home, the last census giving three million of them. This is so patent a fact, and makes itself felt in so many ways by so many persons, that it is frequently and widely discussed. Without here going into its immediate advantages or disadvantages from an industrial point of view, it is merely instanced as an undeniable proof of the radical change in the economic position of women that is advancing upon us. She is assuming new relations from year to year before our eyes; but we, seeing all social facts from a personal point of view, have failed to appreciate the nature of the change.
Consider, too, the altered family relation which attends this movement. Entirely aside from the strained relation in marriage, the other branches of family life feel the strange new forces, and respond to them. "When I was a girl," sighs the gray-haired mother, "we sisters all sat and sewed while mother read to us. Now every one of my daughters has a different club!" She sighs, be it observed. We invariably object to changed conditions in those departments of life where we have established ethical values. For all the daughters to sew while the mother read aloud to them was esteemed right; and, therefore, the radiating diffusion of daughters among clubs is esteemed wrong,a danger to home life. In the period of the common sewing and reading the women so assembled were closely allied in industrial and intellectual development as well as in family relationship. They all could do the same work, and liked to do it. They all could read the same book, and liked to read it. (And reading, half a century ago, was still considered half a virtue and the other half a fine art.) Hence the ease with which this group of women entered upon their common work and common pleasure.
The growing individualization of democratic life brings inevitable change to our daughters as well as to our sons. Girls do not all like to sew, many do not know how. Now to sit sewing together, instead of being a harmonizing process, would generate different degrees of restlessness, of distaste, and of nervous irritation. And, as to the reading aloud, it is not so easy now to choose a book that a well-educated family of modern girls and their mother would all enjoy together. As the race becomes more specialized, more differentiated, the simple lines of relation in family life draw with less force, and the more complex lines of relation in social life draw with more force; and this is a perfectly natural and desirable process for women as well as for men.
It may be suggested, in passing, that one of the causes of "Americanitis" is this increasing nervous strain in family relation, acting especially upon woman. As she becomes more individualized, she suffers more from the primitive and indifferentiated conditions of the family life of earlier times. What "a wife" and "a mother" was supposed to find perfectly suitable, this newly specialized wife and mother, who is also a personality, finds clumsy and ill-fitting,a mitten where she wants a glove. The home cares and industries, still undeveloped, give no play for her increasing specialization. Where the embryonic combination of cook-nurse-laundress-chambermaid-housekeeper-waitress-governess was content to be "jack of all trades" and mistress of none; the woman who is able to be one of these things perfectly, and by so much less able to be all the others, suffers doubly from not being able to do what she wants to do, and from being forced to do what she does not want to do. To the delicately differentiated modern brain the jar and shock of changing from trade to trade a dozen times a day is a distinct injury, a waste of nervous force. With the larger socialization of the woman of to-day, the fitness for and accompanying desire for wider combinations, more general interest, more organized methods of work for larger ends, she feels more and more heavily the intensely personal limits of the more primitive home duties, interests, methods. And this pain and strain must increase with the advance of women until the new functional power makes to itself organic expression, and the belated home industries are elevated and organized, like the other necessary labors of modern life.
In the meantime, however, the very best and foremost women suffer most; and a heavy check is placed on social progress by this difficulty in enlarging old conditions to suit new powers. It should still be remembered it is not the essential relations of wife and mother which are thus injurious, but the industrial conditions born of the economic dependence of the wife and mother, and hitherto supposed to be part of her functions. The change we are making does not in any way militate against the true relations of the family, marriage, and parentage, but only against those sub-relations belonging to an earlier period and now in process of extinction. The family as an entity, an economic and social unit, does not hold as it did. The ties between brother and sister, cousins and relatives generally, are gradually lessening their hold, and giving way under pressure of new forces which tend toward better things.
The change is more perceptible among women than among men, because of the longer survival of more primitive phases of family life in them. One of its most noticeable features is the demand in women not only for their own money, but for their own work for the sake of personal expression. Those who object to women's working on the ground that they should not compete with men or be forced to struggle for existence look only at work as a means of earning money. They should remember that human labor is an exercise of faculty, without which we should cease to be human; that to do and to make not only gives deep pleasure, but is indispensable to healthy growth. Few girls to-day fail to manifest some signs of this desire for individual expression. It is not only in the classes who are forced to it: even among the rich we find this same stirring of normal race-energy. To carve in wood, to hammer brass, to do "art dressmaking," to raise mushrooms in the cellar,our girls are all wanting to do something individually. It is a most healthy state, and marks the development of race-distinction in women with a corresponding lowering of sex-distinction to its normal place.
In body and brain, wherever she touches life, woman is changing gloriously from the mere creature of sex, all her race-functions held in abeyance, to the fully developed human being, none the less true woman for being more truly human. What alarms and displeases us in seeing these things is our funny misconception that race-functions are masculine. Much effort is wasted in showing that women will become "unsexed" and "masculine" by assuming these human duties. We are told that a slight sex-distinction is characteristic of infancy and old age, and that the assumption of opposite traits by either sex shows either a decadent or an undeveloped condition. The young of any race are less marked by sex-distinction; and in old age the distinguishing traits are sometimes exchanged, as in the crowing of old hens and in the growing of the beard on old women. And we are therefore assured that the endeavor of women to perform these masculine economic functions marks a decadent civilization, and is greatly to be deprecated. There would be some reason in this objection if the common racial activities of humanity, into which women are now so eagerly entering, were masculine functions. But they are not. There is no more sublimated expression of our morbid ideas of sex-distinction than in this complacent claiming of all human life-processes as sex-functions of the male. "Masculine" and "feminine" are only to be predicated of reproductive functions,processes of race-preservation. The processes of self-preservation are racial, peculiar to the species, but common to either sex.
If it could be shown that the women of to-day were growing beards, were changing as to pelvic bones, were developing bass voices, or that in their new activities they were manifesting the destructive energy, the brutal combative instinct, or the intense sex-vanity of the male, then there would be cause for alarm. But the one thing that has been shown in what study we have been able to make of women in industry is that they are women still, and this seems to be a surprise to many worthy souls. A female horse is no less female than a female starfish, but she has more functions. She can do more things, is a more highly specialized organism, has more intelligence, and, with it all, is even more feminine in her more elaborate and farther-reaching processes of reproduction. So the "new woman" will be no less female than the "old" woman, though she has more functions, can do more things, is a more highly specialized organism, has more intelligence. She will be, with it all, more feminine, in that she will develope far more efficient processes of caring for the young of the human race than our present wasteful and grievous method, by which we lose fifty per cent. of them, like a codfish. The average married pair, says the scientific dictator, in all sobriety, should have four children merely to preserve our present population, two to replace themselves and two to die,a pleasant method this, and redounding greatly to the credit of our motherhood.
The rapid extension of function in the modern woman has nothing to do with any exchange of masculine and feminine traits: it is simply an advance in human development of traits common to both sexes, and is wholly good in its results. No one who looks at the life about us can fail to see the alteration going on. It is a pity that we so fail to estimate its value. On the other hand, the growth and kindling intensity of the social consciousness among us all is as conspicuous a feature of modern life as the change in woman's position, and closely allied therewith.
Never before have people cared so much about other people. From its first expression in greater kindliness and helpfulness toward individual human beings to its last expression in the vague, blind, groping movements toward international justice and law, the heart of the world is alive and stirring to-day. The whole social body is affected with sudden shudders of feeling over some world calamity or world rejoicing. When the message of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" ran from heart to heart around the world, kindling a streak of fire, the fire of human love and sympathy which is latent in us all and longing always for some avenue of common expression, it proved that in every civilized land of our time the people are of one mind on some subjects. Nothing could have so spread and so awakened a response in the Periclean, the Augustan, or even the Elizabethan age; for humanity was not then so far socialized and so far individualized as to be capable of such a general feeling.
Invention and the discoveries of science are steadily unifying the world to-day. The statement is frequently advanced that the minds of the men of Greece or of the great thinkers of the Middle Ages were stronger and larger than the minds of the men of to-day. Perhaps they were. So were the bodies of the megatherium and the ichthyosaurus stronger and larger than the bodies of the animals of to-day. Yet they were lower in the scale of organic evolution. The ability of the individual is not so much the criterion of social progress as that organic relation of individuals which makes the progress of each available to all. Emerson has done more for America than Plato could do for Greece. Indeed, Plato has done more for America than he could do for Greece, because the printing-press and the public school have made thought more freely and easily transmissible.
Human progress lies in the perfecting of the social organization, and it is here that the changes of our day are most marked. Whereas, in more primitive societies, injuries were only felt by the individual as they affected his own body or direct personal interests, and later his own nation or church, to-day there is a growing sensitiveness to social injuries, even to other nations. The civilized world has suffered in Armenia's agony, even though the machinery of social expression is yet unable fully to carry out the social feeling or the social will. Function comes before organ always; and the human heart and mind, which are the social heart and mind, must feel and think long before the social body can act in full expression.
Social sympathy and thought are growing more intense and active every day. In our cumbrous efforts at international arbitration, in the half-hearted alliances and agreements between great peoples, in the linking of humanity together across ocean and mountain and desert plain by steam and electricity, in the establishment of such world-functions as the international postal service,in these, externally, our social unity has begun to act. In the more familiar field of personal life, who has not seen how unceasingly many of us are occupied in the interests of the community, even to the injury of our own? The rising manifestations of social interest among women were covered with ridicule at first, through such characters as Mrs. Jellyby or Mrs. Pardiggle, although a few women who were so great and so identified with religion and philanthropy as to command respect, women like the saintly Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, and Clara Barton, escaped. But both belong to the same age, are part of the same phenomena. To-day there is hardly a woman of intelligence in all America, to say nothing of other countries, who is not definitely and actively concerned in some social interest, who does not recognize some duty besides those incident to her own blood relationship.
The woman's club movement is one of the most important sociological phenomena of the century,indeed, of all centuries,marking as it does the first timid steps toward social organization of these so long unsocialized members of our race. Social life is absolutely conditioned upon organization. The military organizations which promote peace, the industrial organizations which maintain life, and all the educational, religious, and charitable organizations which serve our higher needs constitute the essential factors of that social activity in which, as individuals, we live and grow; and it is plain, therefore, that while women had no part in these organizations they had no part in social life. Their main relation to society was an individual one, an animal one, a sexual one. They produced the people of whom society was made, but they were not society. Of course, they were indispensable in this capacity; but one might as well call food a part of society because people could not exist without eating as to call women a social factor because people could not exist without being born. Women have made the people who made the world, and will always continue so to do. But they have heretofore had a most insignificant part in the world their sons have made.
The only form of organization possible to women was for long the celibate religious community. This has always been dear to them; and, as to-day many avoid undesired marriage for the sake of "independence," so in earlier times many fled from undesired marriage to the communal independence of the convent. The fondness of women for the church has been based, not only on religious feeling, but on the force of the human longing for co-ordinate interest and activities; and only here could this be gratified. In the church at least they could be together. They could feel in common and act in common,the deepest human joy. As the church has widened its activities, it has found everywhere in women its most valuable and eager workers. To labor together, together to raise funds for a common end, for a new building or a new minister, for local charities or for foreign missions,but to labor together, and for other needs than those of the family relation,this has always met glad response from the struggling human soul in woman. When it became possible to work together for other than religious ends,when large social service was made possible to women, as in our sanitary commission during the last war,women everywhere rose to meet the need. The rise and spread of that greatest of women's organizations, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, has shown anew how ready is the heart of woman to answer the demands of other than personal relations.
And now the whole country is budding into women's clubs. The clubs are uniting and federating by towns, States, nations: there are even world organizations. The sense of human unity is growing daily among women. Not to see it is impossible. Not to watch with pleasure and admiration this new growth in social life, this sudden and enormous re-enforcement of our best forces from the very springs of life, only shows how blind we are to true human advantage, how besotted in our fondness for sex-distinction in excess.
One of the most valuable features of this vast line of progress is the new heroism it is pouring into life. The crumbling and flattening of ambitions and ideals under pressure of our modern business life is a patent fact. We are growing to surrender taste and conscience and honor itself to the demands of business success, prostituting the noblest talents to the most ignoble uses with that last excuse of cowardice,"A man must live." Into this phase of life comes a new spirit,the spirit of such women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and her splendid sisterhood; of all the women who have battled and suffered for half a century, forcing their way, with sacrifices never to be told, into the field of freedom so long denied them,not for themselves alone, but for one another. We have loudly cried out at the injury to the home and family which are supposed to follow such a course. We have unsparingly ridiculed the unattractive and unfeminine among these vanguard workers. But few have thought what manner of spirit it must take to leave the dear old easy paths so long trodden by so many feet, and go to hew out new ones alone. The nature of the effort involved and the nature of the opposition incurred conduced to lessen the soft charms and graces of the ultra-feminine state; but the women who follow and climb swiftly up the steps which these great leaders so laboriously built may do the new work in the new places, and still keep much of what these strenuous heroes had to lose.
It is not being a doctor that makes a woman unwomanly, but the treatment which the first women medical students and physicians received was such as to make even men unmanly. That time is largely past. The gates are nearly all open, at least in some places; and the racial activities of women are free to develope as rapidly as the nature of the case will allow. The main struggle now is with the distorted nature of the creature herself. Grand as are the women who embody at whatever cost the highest spirit of the age, there still remains to us the heavy legacy of the years behind,the innumerable weak and little women, with the aspirations of an affectionate guinea pig. The soul of woman must speak through the long accumulations of her intensified sex-nature, through the uncertain impulses of a starved and thwarted class. She must recognize that she is handicapped. She must understand her difficulty, and meet it bravely and firmly.
But this is a matter for personal volition, for subjective consciousness. The thing to see and to rejoice in is that, with and without their conscious volition, with or without the approval and assistance of men, in spite of that crowning imbecility of history,the banded opposition of some women to the advance of the others,the female of our race is making sure and rapid progress in human development.
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