What Diantha Did

by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Chapter VII - Heresy and Schism

You may talk about religion with a free and open mind,
      For ten dollars you may criticize a judge;
     You may discuss in politics the newest thing you find,
      And open scientific truth to all the deaf and blind,
     But there's one place where the brain must never budge!


     Oh, the Home is Utterly Perfect!
     And all its works within!
      To say a word about it—
      To criticize or doubt it—
      To seek to mend or move it—
      To venture to improve it—
     Is The Unpardonable Sin!

     —“Old Song.”

Mr. Porne took an afternoon off and came with his wife to hear their former housemaid lecture. As many other men as were able did the same. All the members not bedridden were present, and nearly all the guests they had invited.

So many were the acceptances that a downtown hall had been taken; the floor was more than filled, and in the gallery sat a block of servant girls, more gorgeous in array than the ladies below whispering excitedly among themselves. The platform recalled a “tournament of roses,” and, sternly important among all that fragrant loveliness, sat Mrs. Dankshire in “the chair” flanked by Miss Torbus, the Recording Secretary, Miss Massing, the Treasurer, and Mrs. Ree, tremulous with importance in her official position. All these ladies wore an air of high emprise, even more intense than that with which they usually essayed their public duties. They were richly dressed, except Miss Torbus, who came as near it as she could.

At the side, and somewhat in the rear of the President, on a chair quite different from “the chair,” discreetly gowned and of a bafflingly serene demeanor, sat Miss Bell. All eyes were upon her—even some opera glasses.

“She's a good-looker anyhow,” was one masculine opinion.

“She's a peach,” was another, “Tell you—the chap that gets her is well heeled!” said a third.

The ladies bent their hats toward one another and conferred in flowing whispers; and in the gallery eager confidences were exchanged, with giggles.

On the small table before Mrs. Dankshire, shaded by a magnificent bunch of roses, lay that core and crux of all parliamentry dignity, the gavel; an instrument no self-respecting chairwoman may be without; yet which she still approaches with respectful uncertainty.

In spite of its large size and high social standing, the Orchardina Home and Culture Club contained some elements of unrest, and when the yearly election of officers came round there was always need for careful work in practical politics to keep the reins of government in the hands of “the right people.”

Mrs. Thaddler, conscious of her New York millions, and Madam Weatherstone, conscious of her Philadelphia lineage, with Mrs. Johnston A. Marrow (“one of the Boston Marrows!” was awesomely whispered of her), were the heads of what might be called “the conservative party” in this small parliament; while Miss Miranda L. Eagerson, describing herself as 'a journalist,' who held her place in local society largely by virtue of the tacit dread of what she might do if offended—led the more radical element.

Most of the members were quite content to follow the lead of the solidly established ladies of Orchard Avenue; especially as this leadership consisted mainly in the pursuance of a masterly inactivity. When wealth and aristocracy combine with that common inertia which we dignify as “conservatism” they exert a powerful influence in the great art of sitting still.

Nevertheless there were many alert and conscientious women in this large membership, and when Miss Eagerson held the floor, and urged upon the club some active assistance in the march of events, it needed all Mrs. Dankshire's generalship to keep them content with marking time.

On this auspicious occasion, however, both sides were agreed in interest and approval. Here was a subject appealing to every woman present, and every man but such few as merely “boarded”; even they had memories and hopes concerning this question.

Solemnly rose Mrs. Dankshire, her full silks rustling about her, and let one clear tap of the gavel fall into the sea of soft whispering and guttural murmurs.

In the silence that followed she uttered the momentous announcements: “The meeting will please come to order,” “We will now hear the reading of the minutes of the last meeting,” and so on most conscientiously through officer's reports and committees reports to “new business.”

Perhaps it is their more frequent practice of religious rites, perhaps their devout acceptance of social rulings and the dictates of fashion, perhaps the lifelong reiterance of small duties at home, or all these things together, which makes women so seriously letter-perfect in parliamentry usage. But these stately ceremonies were ended in course of time, and Mrs. Dankshire rose again, even more solemn than before, and came forward majestically.

“Members—-and guests,” she said impressively, “this is an occasion which brings pride to the heart of every member of the Home and Culture Club. As our name implies, this Club is formed to serve the interests of The Home—those interests which stand first, I trust, in every human heart.”

A telling pause, and the light patter of gloved hands.

“Its second purpose,” pursued the speaker, with that measured delivery which showed that her custom, as one member put it, was to “first write and then commit,” “is to promote the cause of Culture in this community. Our aim is Culture in the broadest sense, not only in the curricula of institutions of learning, not only in those spreading branches of study and research which tempts us on from height to height”—(“proof of arboreal ancestry that,” Miss Eagerson confided to a friend, whose choked giggle attracted condemning eyes)—“but in the more intimate fields of daily experience.”

“Most of us, however widely interested in the higher education, are still—and find in this our highest honor—wives and mothers.” These novel titles called forth another round of applause.

“As such,” continued Mrs. Dankshire, “we all recognize the difficult—the well-nigh insuperable problems of the”—she glanced at the gallery now paying awed attention—“domestic question.”

“We know how on the one hand our homes yawn unattended”—(“I yawn while I'm attending—eh?” one gentleman in the rear suggested to his neighbor)—“while on the other the ranks of mercenary labor are overcrowded. Why is it that while the peace and beauty, the security and comfort, of a good home, with easy labor and high pay, are open to every young woman, whose circumstances oblige her to toil for her living, she blindly refuses these true advantages and loses her health and too often what is far more precious!—in the din and tumult of the factory, or the dangerous exposure of the public counter.”

Madam Weatherstone was much impressed at this point, and beat her black fan upon her black glove emphatically. Mrs. Thaddler also nodded; which meant a good deal from her. The applause was most gratifying to the speaker, who continued:

“Fortunately for the world there are some women yet who appreciate the true values of life.” A faint blush crept slowly up the face of Diantha, but her expression was unchanged. Whoso had met and managed a roomful of merciless children can easily face a woman's club.

“We have with us on this occasion one, as we my say, our equal in birth and breeding,”—Madam Weatherstone here looked painfully shocked as also did the Boston Marrow; possibly Mrs. Dankshire, whose parents were Iowa farmers, was not unmindful of this, but she went on smoothly, “and whose first employment was the honored task of the teacher; who has deliberately cast her lot with the domestic worker, and brought her trained intelligence to bear upon the solution of this great question—The True Nature of Domestic Service. In the interests of this problem she has consented to address us—I take pleasure in introducing Miss Diantha Bell.”

Diantha rose calmly, stepped forward, bowed to the President and officers, and to the audience. She stood quietly for a moment, regarding the faces before her, and produced a typewritten paper. It was clear, short, and to some minds convincing.

She set forth that the term “domestic industry” did not define certain kinds of labor, but a stage of labor; that all labor was originally domestic; but that most kinds had now become social, as with weaving and spinning, for instance, for centuries confined to the home and done by women only; now done in mills by men and women; that this process of socialization has now been taken from the home almost all the manufactures—as of wine, beer, soap, candles, pickles and other specialties, and part of the laundry work; that the other processes of cleaning are also being socialized, as by the vacuum cleaners, the professional window-washers, rug cleaners, and similar professional workers; and that even in the preparation of food many kinds are now specialized, as by the baker and confectioner. That in service itself we were now able to hire by the hour or day skilled workers necessarily above the level of the “general.”

A growing rustle of disapproval began to make itself felt, which increased as she went on to explain how the position of the housemaid is a survival of the ancient status of woman slavery, the family with the male head and the group of servile women.

“The keynote of all our difficulty in this relation is that we demand celibacy of our domestic servants,” said Diantha.

A murmur arose at this statement, but she continued calmly:

“Since it is natural for women to marry, the result is that our domestic servants consist of a constantly changing series of young girls, apprentices, as it were; and the complicated and important duties of the household cannot be fully mastered by such hands.”

The audience disapproved somewhat of this, but more of what followed. She showed (Mrs. Porne nodding her head amusedly), that so far from being highly paid and easy labor, house service was exacting and responsible, involving a high degree of skill as well as moral character, and that it was paid less than ordinary unskilled labor, part of this payment being primitive barter.

Then, as whispers and sporadic little spurts of angry talk increased, the clear quiet voice went on to state that this last matter, the position of a strange young girl in our homes, was of itself a source of much of the difficulty of the situation.

“We speak of giving them the safety and shelter of the home,”—here Diantha grew solemn;—“So far from sharing our homes, she gives up her own, and has none of ours, but the poorest of our food and a cramped lodging; she has neither the freedom nor the privileges of a home; and as to shelter and safety—the domestic worker, owing to her peculiarly defenceless position, furnishes a terrible percentage of the unfortunate.”

A shocked silence met this statement.

“In England shop-workers complain of the old custom of 'sleeping in'—their employers furnishing them with lodging as part payment; this also is a survival of the old apprentice method. With us, only the domestic servant is held to this antiquated position.”

Regardless of the chill displeasure about her she cheerfully pursued:

“Let us now consider the economic side of the question. 'Domestic economy' is a favorite phrase. As a matter of fact our method of domestic service is inordinately wasteful. Even where the wife does all the housework, without pay, we still waste labor to an enormous extent, requiring one whole woman to wait upon each man. If the man hires one or more servants, the wastes increase. If one hundred men undertake some common business, they do not divide in two halves, each man having another man to serve him—fifty productive laborers, and fifty cooks. Two or three cooks could provide for the whole group; to use fifty is to waste 47 per cent. of the labor.

“But our waste of labor is as nothing to our waste of money. For, say twenty families, we have twenty kitchens with all their furnishings, twenty stoves with all their fuel; twenty cooks with all their wages; in cash and barter combined we pay about ten dollars a week for our cooks—$200 a week to pay for the cooking for twenty families, for about a hundred persons!

“Three expert cooks, one at $20 a week and two at $15 would save to those twenty families $150 a week and give them better food. The cost of kitchen furnishings and fuel, could be reduced by nine-tenths; and beyond all that comes our incredible waste in individual purchasing. What twenty families spend on individual patronage of small retailers, could be reduced by more than half if bought by competent persons in wholesale quantities. Moreover, our whole food supply would rise in quality as well as lower in price if it was bought by experts.

“To what does all this lead?” asked Diantha pleasantly.

Nobody said anything, but the visible attitude of the house seemed to say that it led straight to perdition.

“The solution for which so many are looking is no new scheme of any sort; and in particular it is not that oft repeated fore-doomed failure called 'co-operative housekeeping'.”

At this a wave of relief spread perceptibly. The irritation roused by those preposterous figures and accusations was somewhat allayed. Hope was relit in darkened countenances.

“The inefficiency of a dozen tottering households is not removed by combining them,” said Diantha. This was of dubious import. “Why should we expect a group of families to “keep house” expertly and economically together, when they are driven into companionship by the fact that none of them can do it alone.”

Again an uncertain reception.

“Every family is a distinct unit,” the girl continued. “Its needs are separate and should be met separately. The separate house and garden should belong to each family, the freedom and group privacy of the common milkman, by a common baker, by a common cooking and a common cleaning establishment. We are rapidly approaching an improved system of living in which the private home will no more want a cookshop on the premises than a blacksmith's shop or soap-factory. The necessary work of the kitchenless house will be done by the hour, with skilled labor; and we shall order our food cooked instead of raw. This will give to the employees a respectable well-paid profession, with their own homes and families; and to the employers a saving of about two-thirds of the expense of living, as well as an end of all our difficulties with the servant question. That is the way to elevate—to enoble domestic service. It must cease to be domestic service—and become world service.”

Suddenly and quietly she sat down.

Miss Eagerson was on her feet. So were others.

“Madam President! Madam President!” resounded from several points at once. Madam Weatherstone—Mrs. Thaddler—no! yes—they really were both on their feet. Applause was going on—irregularly—soon dropped. Only, from the group in the gallery it was whole-hearted and consistent.

Mrs. Dankshire, who had been growing red and redder as the paper advanced, who had conferred in alarmed whispers with Mrs. Ree, and Miss Massing, who had even been seen to extend her hand to the gavel and finger it threateningly, now rose, somewhat precipitately, and came forward.

“Order, please! You will please keep order. You have heard the—we will now—the meeting is now open for discussion, Mrs. Thaddler!” And she sat down. She meant to have said Madam Weatherstone, by Mrs. Thaddler was more aggressive.

“I wish to say,” said that much beaded lady in a loud voice, “that I was against this—unfortunate experiment—from the first. And I trust it will never be repeated!” She sat down.

Two tight little dimples flickered for an instant about the corners of Diantha's mouth.

“Madam Weatherstone?” said the President, placatingly.

Madam Weatherstone arose, rather sulkily, and looked about her. An agitated assembly met her eye, buzzing universally each to each.

“Order!” said Mrs. Dankshire, “ORDER, please!” and rapped three times with the gavel.

“I have attended many meetings, in many clubs, in many states,” said Madam Weatherstone, “and have heard much that was foolish, and some things that were dangerous. But I will say that never in the course of all my experience have I heard anything so foolish and so dangerous, as this. I trust that the—doubtless well meant—attempt to throw light on this subject—from the wrong quarter—has been a lesson to us all. No club could survive more than one such lamentable mistake!” And she sat down, gathering her large satin wrap about her like a retiring Caesar.

“Madam President!” broke forth Miss Eagerson. “I was up first—and have been standing ever since—”

“One moment, Miss Eagerson,” said Mrs. Dankshire superbly, “The Rev. Dr. Eltwood.”

If Mrs. Dankshire supposed she was still further supporting the cause of condemnation she made a painful mistake. The cloth and the fine bearing of the young clergyman deceived her; and she forgot that he was said to be “advanced” and was new to the place.

“Will you come to the platform, Dr. Eltwood?”

Dr. Eltwood came to the platform with the easy air of one to whom platforms belonged by right.

“Ladies,” he began in tones of cordial good will, “both employer and employed!—and gentlemen—whom I am delighted to see here to-day! I am grateful for the opportunity so graciously extended to me”—he bowed six feet of black broadcloth toward Mrs. Dankshire—“by your honored President.

“And I am grateful for the opportunity previously enjoyed, of listening to the most rational, practical, wise, true and hopeful words I have ever heard on this subject. I trust there will be enough open-minded women—and men—in Orchardina to make possible among us that higher business development of a great art which has been so convincingly laid before us. This club is deserving of all thanks from the community for extending to so many the privilege of listening to our valued fellow-citizen—Miss Bell.”

He bowed again—to Miss Bell—and to Mrs. Dankshire, and resumed his seat, Miss Eagerson taking advantage of the dazed pause to occupy the platform herself.

“Mr. Eltwood is right!” she said. “Miss Bell is right! This is the true presentation of the subject, 'by one who knows.' Miss Bell has pricked our pretty bubble so thoroughly that we don't know where we're standing—but she knows! Housework is a business—like any other business—I've always said so, and it's got to be done in a business way. Now I for one—” but Miss Eagerson was rapped down by the Presidential gavel; as Mrs. Thaddler, portentous and severe, stalked forward.

“It is not my habit to make public speeches,” she began, “nor my desire; but this is a time when prompt and decisive action needs to be taken. This Club cannot afford to countenance any such farrago of mischievous nonsense as we have heard to-day. I move you, Madam President, that a resolution of condemnation be passed at once; and the meeting then dismissed!”

She stalked back again, while Mrs. Marrow of Boston, in clear, cold tones seconded the motion.

But another voice was heard—for the first time in that assembly—Mrs. Weatherstone, the pretty, delicate widower daughter-in-law of Madam Weatherstone, was on her feet with “Madam President! I wish to speak to this motion.”

“Won't you come to the platform, Mrs. Weatherstone?” asked Mrs. Dankshire graciously, and the little lady came, visibly trembling, but holding her head high.

All sat silent, all expected—what was not forthcoming.

“I wish to protest, as a member of the Club, and as a woman, against the gross discourtesy which has been offered to the guest and speaker of the day. In answer to our invitation Miss Bell has given us a scholarly and interesting paper, and I move that we extend her a vote of thanks.”

“I second the motion,” came from all quarters.

“There is another motion before the house,” from others.

Cries of “Madam President” arose everywhere, many speakers were on their feet. Mrs. Dankshire tapped frantically with the little gavel, but Miss Eagerson, by sheer vocal power, took and held the floor.

“I move that we take a vote on this question,” she cried in piercing tones. “Let every woman who knows enough to appreciate Miss Bell's paper—and has any sense of decency—stand up!”

Quite a large proportion of the audience stood up—very informally. Those who did not, did not mean to acknowledge lack of intelligence and sense of decency, but to express emphatic disapproval of Miss Eagerson, Miss Bell and their views.

“I move you, Madam President,” cried Mrs. Thaddler, at the top of her voice, “that every member who is guilty of such grossly unparlimentary conduct be hereby dropped from this Club!”

“We hereby resign!” cried Miss Eagerson. “We drop you! We'll have a New Woman's Club in Orchardina with some warmth in its heart and some brains in its head—even if it hasn't as much money in its pocket!”

Amid stern rappings, hissings, cries of “Order—order,” and frantic “Motions to adjourn” the meeting broke up; the club elements dissolving and reforming into two bodies as by some swift chemical reaction.

Great was the rejoicing of the daily press; some amusement was felt, though courteously suppressed by the men present, and by many not present, when they heard of it.

Some ladies were so shocked and grieved as to withdraw from club-life altogether. Others, in stern dignity, upheld the shaken standards of Home and Culture; while the most conspicuous outcome of it all was the immediate formation of the New Woman's Club of Orchardina.


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