The Business of Being a Woman

by Ida Tarbell


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Chapter II - On the Imitation of Man


Fresh attacks on life, like chemical experiments, turn up unexpected by-products. The Uneasy Woman, driven by the thirst for greater freedom, and believing man's way of life will assuage it, lays siege to his kingdom. Some of the unexpected loot she has carried away still embarrasses her. Not a little, however, is of such undeniable advantage that she may fairly contend that its capture alone justifies her campaign.

Go to-day into many a woman's club house, into many a drawing-room or studio at, let us say, the afternoon tea hour, and what will you see? One or probably more women in mannish suits and boots calmly smoking cigarettes while they talk, and talk well, about things in which women are not supposed to be interested, but which it is apparent they understand.

Look the exhibit over. It is made, you at once recognize, by women of character, position, and sense. They have simply found certain masculine ways to their liking and adopted them. The probability is that if anybody should object to their habits, many of them would be as bewildered as are the great majority of Americans by the demonstration that "nice" women can smoke and think nothing of it!

The cigarette, the boot, and much of the talk are only by-products of the woman's invasion of the man's world. She did not set out to win these spoils. They came to her in the campaign!

The objects of her attack were things she considered more fundamental. She was dissatisfied with the way her brain was being trained, her time employed, her influence directed. "Give us the man's way," was her demand, "then we shall understand real things, can fill our days with important tasks, will count as human beings."

There was no uncertainty in her notion of how this was to be accomplished. A woman rarely feels uncertainty about methods. She instinctively sees a way and follows it with assurance. Half her irritation against man has always been that he is a spendthrift with time and talk. Madame Roland, sitting at her sewing table listening to the excited debate of the Revolutionists in her salon, mourned that though the ideas were many, the resulting measures were few. It is the woman's eternal complaint against discussion—nothing comes of it. In a country like our own, where reflection usually follows action, the woman's natural mental attitude is exaggerated. It is one reason why we have so few houses where there is anything like conversation, why with us the salon as an institution is out of question. The woman wants immediately to incorporate her ideas. She is not interested in turning them over, letting her mind play with them. She has no patience with other points of view than her own. They are wrong—therefore why consider them? She detests uncertainties—questions which cannot be settled. Only by man and the rare woman is it accepted that talk is a good enough end in itself.

The strength of woman's attack on man's life, apart from the essential soundness of the impulse which drove her to make it, lay then in its directness and practicality. She began by asking to be educated in the same way that man educated himself. Preferably she would enter his classroom, or if that was denied her, she would follow the "just-as-good" curriculum of the college founded for her. In the last sixty or seventy years tens of thousands of women have been students in American universities, colleges, and technical schools, taking there the same training as men. In the last twenty years the annual crescendo of numbers has been amazing; over ten thousand at the beginning of the period, over fifty-two thousand at the end. Over eight thousand degrees were given to women in 1910, nearly half as many as were given to men. Fully four fifths of these women students and graduates have worked side by side with men in schools which served both equally.

Here, then, is a great mass of experience from which it would seem that we ought to be able to say precisely how the intellects of the two sexes act and react under the stimulus of serious study, to decide definitely whether their attack on problems is the same, whether they come out the same. Nevertheless, he would be a rash observer who would pretend to lay down hard-and-fast generalizations. Assert whatever you will as to the mind of woman at work and some unimpeachable authority will rise up with experience that contradicts you. But the same may be said of the mind of man. The mind—per se—is a variable and disconcerting organ.

But admitting all this—certain generalizations, on the whole correct, may be made from our experience with coeducation.

One of the first of these is that at the start the woman takes her work more seriously than her masculine competitor. Fifty years ago there was special reason for this. The few who in those early days sought a man's education had something of the spirit of pioneers. They had set themselves a lofty task: to prove themselves the equal of man—to win privileges which they believed were maliciously denied their sex. The spirit with which they attacked their studies was illumined by the loftiness of their aim. The girl who enters college nowadays has rarely the opportunity to be either pioneer or martyr. She is doing what has come to be regarded as a matter of course. Nevertheless, to-day as then, in the coeducational institution she is more consciously on her mettle than the man.

Her attention, interest, respectfulness, docility, will be ahead of his. It will at once be apparent that she carries the larger stock of untaught knowledge. In the classroom she will usually outstep him in mathematics. It is an ideal subject for her, satisfying her talent for order, for making things "come out right." Her memory will serve her better. She can depend upon it to carry more exceptions to rules, more fantastic irregular verbs, more dates, more lists of kings and queens, battles and generals, and on the whole she will treat this sort of impedimenta with more respect. She will know less of abstract ideas, of philosophies and speculations. They will interest her less. The chances are that she will be less skillful with microscope and scalpel, though this is not certain. She will show less enthusiasm for technical problems, for machinery and engineering; more for social problems, particularly when it is a question of meeting them with preventives or remedies. In the first two or three years after entering college, she will almost invariably appear superior to the men of her age, more grown up, more interested, surer of herself, readier. Later you will find her on the whole less inclined to experiment with her gifts, to feel her wings, to make unexpected dashes into life. It begins to look as if he were the experimenter, she the conservator. And by the time she is a senior, look out! The chances are she will have less interest from now on with man's business and more with her own! In any case she will rarely develop as rapidly in his field from this point as he is doing.

He becomes assertive, confident, dominating; the male taking a male's place. He discovers that his intellectual processes are more scientific than hers, therefore he concludes they are superior. He finds he can outargue her, draw logical conclusions as she cannot. He can do anything with her but convince her, for she jumps the process, lands on her conclusion, and there she sits. Things are so because they are so. And the chances are she is right, in spite of the irregular way she got there. Something superior to reason enters into her operations—an intuition of truth akin to inspiration. In early ages women unusually endowed with this quality of perception were honored as seers. To-day they are recognized as counselors of prophetic wisdom. "If I had taken my wife's advice!" How often one hears it!

One most important fact has come out of our great coeducational experiment: The college cannot entirely rub feminity out and masculinity into a woman's brain. The woman's mind is still the woman's mind, although she is usually the last to recognize it. It is another proof of the eternal fact that Nature looks after her own good works!

But it takes more than a college course to make an efficient, flexible, and trustworthy organ from a mind, masculine or feminine. It must be applied to productive labor in competition with other trained minds, before you can decide what it is worth. Set the man-trained woman's mind at what is called man's business, let it be what you will—keeping a shop, practicing medicine or law, editing, running a factory—let her do it in what she considers to be a man's way, and with fidelity to her original theory that his way is more desirable than hers; that is, let her succeed in the task of making a man of herself—what about her?—what kind of a man does she become?

Here again there is ample experience to go on. For seventy years we have had them with us—the stern disciples of the militant program. Greater fidelity to a task than they show it would be impossible to find—a fidelity so unwavering that it is often painful. Their care for detail, for order, for exactness, is endless. Dignity, respect for their undertaking, devotion to professional etiquette they may be counted on to show in the highest degree. These are admirable qualities. They have led hundreds of women into independence and good service. Almost never, however, have they led one to the top. In free fields such as merchandising, editing, and manufacturing we have yet to produce a woman of the first caliber; that is, daring, experimenting, free from prejudice, with a vision of the future great enough to lead her to embody something of the future in her task.

In every profession we have scores of successful women—almost never a great woman, and yet the world is full of great women! That is, of women who understand, are familiar with the big sacrifices, appreciative of the fine things, far-seeing, prophetic. Why does this greatness so rarely find expression in their professional undertakings?

The answer is no doubt complex, but one factor is the general notion of the woman that if she succeeds she must suppress her natural emotions and meet the world with a surface as non-resilient as she conceives that of man to be in his dealings with the world. She is strengthened in this notion by hard necessity. No woman could live and respond as freely as her nature prompts to the calls on her sympathy which come in the contact with all conditions of life involved in practicing a trade or a profession. She must save herself. To do it she incases herself in an unnatural armor. For the normal, healthy woman this means the suppression of what is strongest in her nature, that power which differentiates her chiefly from man, her power of emotion, her "affectability" as the scientists call it. She must overcome her own nature, put it in bonds, cripple it, if she is to do her work. Here is a fundamental reason for the failure of woman to reach the first rank. She has sacrificed the most wonderful part of her endowment, that which when trained gives her vision, sharpens her intuitions, reveals the need and the true course. This superior affectability crushed, leaves her atrophied.

The common characterization of this atrophied woman is that she is "cold." It is the exact word. She is cold, also she is self-centered and intensely personal. Let a woman make success in a trade or profession her exclusive and sufficient ambition, and the result, though it may be brilliant, is repellent.

She gives to her task an altogether disproportionate place in her scheme of things. Life is not made by work, important as is work in life. Human nature has varied needs. It calls imperatively for a task, something to do with brain and hands—a productive something which fits the common good, without which the world would not be as orderly and as happy. Say what we will, it matters very little what the task is—if it contributes in some fashion to this superior orderliness and happiness. But it means more. It means leisure, pleasure, excitements; it means feeding of the taste, the curiosity, the emotions, the reflective powers; and it means love, love of the mate, the child, the friend, and neighbor. It means reverence for the scheme of things and one's place in it; worship of the author of it, religion.

But the woman sternly set to do a man's business, believing it better than the woman's, too often views life as made up of business. She throws her whole nature to the task. Her work is her child. She gives it the same exclusive passionate attention. She is as fiercely jealous of interference in it as she would be if it were a child. She resents suggestions and change. It is hers, a personal thing to which she clings as if it were a living being. That attitude is the chief reason why working with women in the development of great undertakings is as difficult as coöperating with them in the rearing of a family. It is also a reason why they rarely rise to the first rank. They cannot get away from their undertakings sufficiently to see the big truths and movements which are always impersonal.

Brilliant and satisfying as her triumph may be to her personally, she frequently finds that it is resented by nature and by society. She finds that nature lays pitfalls for her, cracks the ice of her heart and sets it aflame, often for absurd and unworthy causes. She finds that the great mass of unconscious women commiserate or scorn her as one who has missed the fullness of life. She finds that society regards her as one who shirked the task of life, and who, therefore, should not be honored as the woman who has stood up to the common burden. When she senses this—which is not always—she treats it as prejudice. As a matter of fact, the antagonism of Nature and Society to the militant woman is less prejudice than self-defense. It is a protest against the wastefulness and sacrifice of her career. It is a right saving impulse to prevent perversion of the qualities and powers of women which are most needed in the world, those qualities and powers which differentiate her from man, which make for the variety, the fullness, the charm, and interest of life.

Moreover, Nature and Society must not permit her triumph to appear desirable to the young. They must be made to understand what her winnings have cost in lovely and desirable things. They must know that the unrest which drove her to the attempt is not necessarily satisfied by her triumph, that it is merely stifled and may break out at any time in vagaries and follies. They must be made to realize the essential barrenness of her triumph, its lack of the savor and tang of life, the multitude of makeshifts she must practice to recompense her for the lack of the great adventure of natural living.

And they see it, many of them, before they are out of college, and their militancy falls off like the cloak it generally is. The girl abandons her quest. In the early days she was likely to be treated as an apostate if, instead of following the "life work" she had picked out, she slipped back into matrimony. I can remember the dismay among certain militant friends when Alice Freeman married. "Our first college president," they groaned. "A woman who so vindicated the sex." It was like the grieving of Miss Anthony that Mrs. Stanton wasted so much time having babies!

The militant theory, as originally conceived, instead of increasing in favor, has declined. There is little likelihood now that any great number of women will ever regard it as a desirable working formula for more than a short period of their lives. But I am not saying that this theory is no longer influential. It is probable that in a modified form it was never more influential than it is to-day. For, while the Uneasy Woman has practically demonstrated that "making a man of herself" does not solve her problem, she has by no means given up the notion that the Business of Being a Woman is narrowing and unsatisfying. Nor has she ceased to consider man's life more desirable than woman's.

The present effort of the serious-minded to meet the case takes two general directions, natural enough outgrowths of the original militancy. The first of these is a frank advocacy of celibacy. "Celibacy is the aristocracy of the future," is the preaching of one European feminist. It is a modification of the scheme by which the medieval woman sought to escape unrest. Four hundred years ago a woman sought celibacy as an escape from sin; service and righteousness were her aim. To-day she adopts it to escape inferiority and servitude; superiority and freedom her aim.

The ranks of the woman celibates are not full. Many a candidate falls out by the way, confronted by something she had not reckoned with—the eternal command that she be a woman. She compromises—grudgingly. She will be a woman on condition that she is guaranteed economic freedom, opportunity for self-expressive work, political recognition. What this amounts to is that she does not see in the woman's life a satisfying and permanent end. There are various points at which she claims it fails. It is antagonistic to personal ambition. It makes a dependent of her. It leaves her in middle life without an occupation. It keeps her out of the great movements of her day—gives her no part in the solution of the ethical and economical problems which affect her and her children. She declares that she wants fuller participation in life, and by life she seems to mean the elaborate machinery by which human wants are supplied and human beings kept in something like order; the movements of the market place, of politics, and of government.

Now if there were not something in her contention, the Uneasy Woman would not be with us as she is to-day, more vociferous, more insistent than ever in the world's history. What is there in her case?

If the cultivation of individual tastes and talents to a useful, productive point is out of question in the woman's business, if it is not a part of it, something is weak in the scheme. Something is weak if the woman is or feels that she is not paying her way. Both are not only individual rights; they are individual duties.

Moreover, she is certainly right to be dissatisfied, if, after spending twenty-five years, more or less, she is to be left in middle life, her forces spent, without interests and obligations which will occupy brain and heart to the full, without important tasks which are the logical outcome of her experience and which she must carry on in order to complete that experience.

But what is the truth about it? What is the Business of Being a Woman? Is it something incompatible with free and joyous development of one's talents? Is there no place in it for economic independence? Has it no essential relation to the world's movements? Is it an episode which drains the forces and leaves a dreary wreck behind? Is it something that cannot be organized into a profession of dignity, and opportunity for service and for happiness?

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