The Business of Being a Woman

by Ida Tarbell


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Chapter I - The Business of Being a Woman


The most conspicuous occupation of the American woman of to-day, dressing herself aside, is self-discussion. It is a disquieting phenomenon. Chronic self-discussion argues chronic ferment of mind, and ferment of mind is a serious handicap to both happiness and efficiency. Nor is self-discussion the only exhibit of restlessness the American woman gives. To an unaccustomed observer she seems always to be running about on the face of things with no other purpose than to put in her time. He points to the triviality of the things in which she can immerse herself—her fantastic and ever-changing raiment, the welter of lectures and other culture schemes which she supports, the eagerness with which she transports herself to the ends of the earth—as marks of a spirit not at home with itself, and certainly not convinced that it is going in any particular direction or that it is committed to any particular worth-while task.

Perhaps the most disturbing side of the phenomenon is that it is coincident with the emancipation of woman. At a time when she is freer than at any other period of the world's history—save perhaps at one period in ancient Egypt—she is apparently more uneasy.

Those who do not like the exhibit are inclined to treat her as if she were a new historical type. The reassuring fact is, that ferment of mind is no newer thing in woman than in man. It is a human ailment. Its attacks, however, have always been unwelcome. Society distrusts uneasiness in sacred quarters; that is, in her established and privileged works. They are the best mankind has to show for itself. At least they are the things for which the race has slaved longest and which so far have best resisted attack. We would like to pride ourselves that they were permanent, that we had settled some things. And hence society resents a restless woman. And this is logical enough.

Embroiled as man is in an eternal effort to conquer, understand, and reduce to order both nature and his fellows, it is imperative that he have some secure spot where his head is not in danger, his heart is not harassed. Woman, by virtue of the business nature assigns her, has always been theoretically the maker and keeper of this necessary place of peace. But she has rarely made it and kept it with full content. Eve was a revoltée, so was Medea. In every century they have appeared, restless Amazons, protesting and remolding. Out of their uneasy souls have come the varying changes in the woman's world which distinguish the ages.

Society has not liked it—was there to be no quiet anywhere? It is poor understanding that does not appreciate John Adams' parry of his wife Abigail's list of grievances, which she declared the Continental Congress must relieve if it would avoid a woman's rebellion. Under the stress of the Revolution children, apprentices, schools, colleges, Indians, and negroes had all become insolent and turbulent, he told her. What was to become of the country if women, "the most numerous and powerful tribe in the world," grew discontented?

Now this world-old restlessness of the women has a sound and a tragic cause. Nature lays a compelling hand on her. Unless she obeys freely and fully she must pay in unrest and vagaries. For the normal woman the fulfillment of life is the making of the thing we best describe as a home—which means a mate, children, friends, with all the radiating obligations, joys, burdens, these relations imply.

This is nature's plan for her; but the home has got to be founded inside the imperfect thing we call society. And these two, nature and society, are continually getting into each other's way, wrecking each other's plans, frustrating each other's schemes. The woman almost never is able to adjust her life so as fully to satisfy both. She is between two fires. Euripides understood this when he put into Medea's mouth a cry as modern as any that Ibsen has conceived:—

Of all things upon earth that grow,
A herb most bruised is woman. We must pay
Our store of gold, hoarded for that one day,
To buy us some man's love; and lo, they bring
A master of our flesh! There comes the sting
Of the whole shame. And then the jeopardy,
For good or ill, what shall that master be;
'Tis magic she must have or prophecy—
Home never taught her that—how best to guide
Toward peace this thing that sleepeth at her side.
And she who, laboring long, shall find some way
Whereby her lord may bear with her, nor fray
His yoke too fiercely, blessed is the breath
That woman draws!

Medea's difficulty was that which is oftenest in the way of a woman carrying her business in life to a satisfactory completion—false mating. It is not a difficulty peculiar to woman. Man knows it as often. It is the heaviest curse society brings on human beings—the most fertile cause of apathy, agony, and failure. If the woman's cry is more poignant under it than the man's, it is because the machine which holds them both allows him a wider sweep, more interests outside of their immediate alliance. "A man, when he is vexed at home," complains Medea, "can go out and find relief among his friends or acquaintances, but we women have none to look at but him."

And when it is impossible longer to "look" at him, what shall she do! Tell her woe to the world, seek a soporific, repudiate the scheme of things, or from the vantage point of her failure turn to the untried relations of her life, call upon her unused powers?

From the beginning of time she has tried each and all of these methods of meeting her purely human woe. At times the women of whole peoples have sunk into apathy, their business reduced to its dullest, grossest forms. Again, whole groups have taken themselves out of the partnership which both Nature and Society have ordered. The Amazons refused to recognize man as an equal and mated simply that they might rear more women like themselves. Here the tables were turned and the boy baby turned out—not to the wolves, but to man! The convent has always been a favorite way of escape.

It has never been a majority of women who for a great length of time have shirked this problem by any one of these methods. By individuals and by groups woman has always been seeking to develop the business of life to such proportions, to so diversify, refine, and broaden it that no half failure or utter failure of its fundamental relations would swamp her, leave her comfortless, or prevent her working out that family which she knew to be her part in the scheme of things. It is from her conscious attempt to make the best of things when they are proved bad, that there has come the uneasiness which trails along her path from Eve to Mrs. Pankhurst.

When great changes have come in the social system, her quest has responded to them, taken its color and direction from them. The peculiar forms of uneasiness in the American woman of to-day come naturally enough from the Revolution of 1776. That movement upset theoretically everything which had been expected of her before. Theoretically, it broke down the division fences which had kept her in sets and groups. She was no longer to be a woman of class; she was a woman of the people. This was striking at the very underpinning of femininity, as the world knew it. Theoretically, too, her ears were no longer to be closed to all ideas save those of her church or party,—a new thing, freedom of speech, was abroad,—her lips were opened with man's. Moreover, her business of family building was modified, as well as her attitude towards life. The necessity of all women educating themselves that they might be able to educate their children was an obligation on the face of the new undertaking. Another revolutionary duty put upon her was—paying her way. There can be no real democracy where there is parasitism. She must achieve conscious independence whether in or out of the family. Unquestionably there came with the Revolution a vision of a new woman—a woman from whom all of the willfulness and frivolity and helplessness of the "Lady" of the old régime should be stripped, while all her qualities of gentleness and charm should be preserved. The old-world lady was to be merged into a woman strong, capable, severely beautiful, a creature who had all of the virtues and none of the follies of femininity.

It was strong yeast they put into the pot in '76.

A fresh leaven in a people can never be distributed evenly. Moreover, the mass to which it is applied is never homogeneous. There are spots so hard no yeast can move them; there are others so light the yeast burns them out. Taken as a whole, the change is labored and painful. So our new notions worked on women. There were groups which resented and refused them, became reactionary at the stating of them. There were those which grew grave and troubled under them, shrinking from the portentous upheaval they felt in their touch, yet sensing that they must be accepted. There were still others where the notion frothed and foamed, turning up unexpected ideas, revealing depths of dissatisfaction, of desire, of unsuspected powers in woman that startled the staid old world. It was in these quarters that there was produced the uneasy woman typical of the day.

Her ferment went to the bottom of things this time. Not since the age of the Amazon had a body of women broken more utterly with things as they are. And like the Amazon, the revolt was against man and his pretensions.

It was no unorganized revolt. It was deliberate. It presented her case in a carefully prepared List of Grievances, and an eloquent Declaration of Sentiments[1] both adopted in a strictly parliamentary way, and made the basis of an organized revolt, which has gone on systematically ever since. The essence of her complaint, as embodied in the above expression, is that man is a conscious tyrant holding woman an unwilling captive—cutting her off from the things in life which really matter: education, freedom of speech, the ballot; that she can never be his equal until she does the same things her tyrant does, studies the book he studies, practices the trades and professions he practices, works with him in government.

The inference from all this is that the Business of Being a Woman, as it has been conducted heretofore by society, is of less importance than the Business of Being a Man, and that the time has come to enter his world and prove her equality.

There are certain assumptions in her program which will bear examination. Is man the calculating tyrant the modern uneasy woman charges? Are her fetters due only to his unfair domination? Or is she suffering from the generally bungling way things go in the world? And is not man a victim as well as she—caught in the same trap? Moreover, is woman never a tyrant? One of the first answers to her original revolt came from the most eminent woman of the day, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and it was called "Pink and White Tyranny!" "I have seen a collection of medieval English poems," says Chesterton, "in which the section headed 'Poems of Domestic Life' consisted entirely (literally entirely) of the complaints of husbands bullied by their wives."

Again, will doing the same things a man does work as well in stifling her unrest as she fancies it has in man's case? If a woman's temperamental and intellectual operations were identical with a man's, there would be hope of success,—but they are not. She is a different being. Whether she is better or worse, stronger or weaker, primary or secondary, is not the question. She is different.

And she tries to ease a world-old human curse by imitating the occupations, points of views, and methods of a radically different being. Can she realize her quest in this way? Generally speaking, nothing is more wasteful in human operations than following a course which is not native and spontaneous, not according to the law of the being.

If she demonstrates her points, successfully copies man's activities, can she impress her program on any great body of women? The mass of women believe in their task. Its importance is not capable of argument in their minds. Nor do they see themselves dwarfed by their business. They know instinctively that under no other circumstances can such ripeness and such wisdom be developed, that nowhere else is the full nature called upon, nowhere else are there such intricate, delicate, and intimate forces in play, calling and testing them.

To bear and to rear, to feel the dependence of man and child—the necessity for themselves—to know that upon them depend the health, the character, the happiness, the future of certain human beings—to see themselves laying and preserving the foundations of so imposing a thing as a family—to build so that this family shall become a strong stone in the state—to feel themselves through this family perpetuating and perfecting church, society, republic,—this is their destiny,—this is worth while. They may not be able to state it, but all their instincts and experiences convince them of the supreme and eternal value of their place in the world. They dare not tamper with it. Their opposition to the militant program badly and even cruelly expressed at times has at bottom, as an opposition always has, the principle of preservation. It is not bigotry or vanity or a petty notion of their own spheres which has kept the majority of women from lending themselves to the radical wing of the woman's movement. It is fear to destroy a greater thing which they possess. The fear of change is not an irrational thing—the fear of change is founded on the risk of losing what you have, on the certainty of losing much temporarily at least. It sees the cost, the ugly and long period of transition.

Moreover, respect for your calling brings patience with its burden and its limitations. The change you desire you work for conservatively, if at all. The women who opposed the first movement for women's rights in this country might deplore the laws that gave a man the power to beat his wife—but as a matter of fact few men did beat their wives, and popular opinion was a powerful weapon. They might deplore the laws of property—but few of them were deeply touched by them. The husband, the child, the home, the social circle, the church, these things were infinitely more interesting and important to them than diplomas, rights to work, rights to property, rights to vote. All the sentiments in the revolting women's program seemed trivial, cold, profitless beside the realities of life as they dreamed them and struggled to realize them.

It is this same intuitive loyalty to her Business of Being a Woman, her unwillingness to have it tampered with, that is to-day the great obstacle to our Uneasy Woman putting her program of relief into force. And it is the effort to move this mass which she derides as inert that leads to much of the overemphasis in her program and her methods. If she is to attract attention, she must be extreme. The campaigner is like the actor—he must exaggerate to get his effect over the footlights. Moreover, there are natures like that of the actor who could not play Othello unless his whole body was blackened. Nor is the extravagance of the methods, which the militant lady follows to put over her program, so foreign to her nature as it may seem. The suffragette adapts to her needs a form of feminine coquetry as old as the world. To defy and denounce the male has always been one of woman's most successful provocative ways!

However much certain of the assumptions in her program may seem to be against its success, there is much for it. It gives her a scapegoat—an outside, personal, attackable cause for the limitations and defeats she suffers. And there is no greater consolation than fixing blame. It is half a cure in itself to know or to think you know the cause of your difficulties. Moreover, it gives her a scapegoat against whom it is easy to make up a case. She knows him too well, much better than he knows her, much better than she knows herself; at least her knowledge of him is better formulated. And she has this advantage: custom makes it cowardly for a man to attempt to demonstrate that woman is a tyrant—it laughs and applauds woman's attempt to fix the charge on man.

It gives her a definite program of relief. To attack life as man does: to secure the same kind of training, enter a trade or profession where she can support herself, mingle with the crowd as he does, get into politics—that she assumes to be the practical way of curing the inferiority of position and of powers which she is willing to admit, even willing to demonstrate. That a man's life may not be altogether satisfactory, she declines to believe. The uneasy woman has always taken it for granted that man is happier than woman. It is an assumption which is at least discussible.

Her program, too, has the immense advantage of including all that the new order of things in this country, instituted by the Revolution, made imperative for women—the schooling, the liberty of action, the independent pocket book. Because she has formulated these notions so definitely and has hammered on them so hard, the militant woman frequently claims that they originated with her, that she is the cause of the great development in educational opportunities, in freedom to work and to circulate, in the increasing willingness to face the facts of life and speak the truth. This claim she should drop. She is rather the logical result of these notions, their extreme expression. She has, however, had an enormous influence in keeping them alive in the great slow-moving mass of women, where the fate of new ideas rests and where they are always tried out with extreme caution. Without her the vision of enlarging and liberalizing their own particular business to meet the needs of the New Democracy which so exalted the women of the Revolution, would not to-day be as nearly realized as it is. To speak slightingly of her part in the women's movement is uncomprehending. She was then, and always has been, a tragic figure, this woman in the front of the woman's movement—driven by a great unrest, sacrificing old ideals to attain new, losing herself in a frantic and frequently blind struggle, often putting back her cause by the sad illustration she was of the price that must be paid to attain a result. Certainly no woman who to-day takes it as a matter of course that she should study what she chooses, go and come as she will, support herself unquestioned by trade, profession, or art, work in public or private, handle her own property, share her children on equal terms with her husband, receive a respectful attention on platform or before legislature, live freely in the world, should think with anything but reverence particularly of the early disturbers of convention and peace, for they were an essential element in the achievement.

The great strength of the radical program is now, as it has always been, the powerful appeal it makes to the serious young woman. Man and marriage are a trap—that is the essence the young woman draws from the campaign for woman's rights. All the vague terror which at times runs through a girl's dream of marriage, the sudden vision of probable agonies, of possible failure and death, become under the teachings of the militant woman so many realities. She sees herself a "slave," as the jargon has it, putting all her eggs into one basket with the certainty that some, perhaps all, will be broken.

The new gospel offers an escape from all that. She will be a "free" individual, not one "tied" to a man. The "drudgery" of the household she will exchange for what she conceives to be the broad and inspiring work which men are doing. For the narrow life of the family she will escape to the excitement and triumph of a "career." The Business of Being a Woman becomes something to be apologized for. All over the land there are women with children clamoring about them, apologizing for never having done anything! Women whose days are spent in trade and professions complacently congratulate themselves that they at least have lived. There were girls in the early days of the movement, as there no doubt are to-day, who prayed on their knees that they might escape the frightful isolation of marriage, might be free to "live" and to "work," to "know" and to "do."

What it was really all about they never knew until it was too late. That is, they examined neither the accusations nor the premises. They accepted them. Strong young natures are quick to accept charges of injustice. To them it is unnatural that life should be hampered, that it should be anything but radiant. Curing injustice, too, seems particularly easy to the young. It is simply a matter of finding a remedy and putting it into force! The young American woman of militant cast finds it is easy to believe that the Business of Being a Woman is slavery. She has her mother's pains and sacrifices and tears before her, and she resents them. She meets the theory on every hand that the distress she loathes is of man's doing, that it is for her to revolt, to enter his business, and so doing escape his tyranny, find a worth-while life for herself, and at the same time help "liberate" her sex.

And so for sixty years she has been working on this thesis. That she has not demonstrated it sufficiently to satisfy even herself is shown by the fact that she is still the most conspicuous of Uneasy Women. But that she has produced a type and an influential one is certain. Indeed, she may be said to have demonstrated sufficiently for practical purposes what there is for her in imitating the activities of man.

FOOTNOTES: [1]

THE DECLARATION OF SENTIMENTS

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