The Business of Being a Woman

by Ida Tarbell

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Chapter IV - The Socialization of the Home

It is only by much junketing about that one comes to the full realization of what men and women in the main are doing in this country. One learns as he passes from town to town, through cities and across plains, that the general reason for industry everywhere is to get the means to build and support a home. Row upon row, street upon street, they run in every village you traverse. They dot the hills and valleys, they break up the mountain side.

Every night they draw to their shelter millions of men who have toiled since morning to earn the money to build and keep them running. All day they shelter millions of women who toil from dawn to dark to put meaning into them. To shelter two people and the children that come to them, to provide them a place in which to eat and sleep, is that the only function of these homes? If that were all, few homes would be built. When that becomes all, the home is no more! To furnish a body for a soul, that is the physical function of the home.

There are certain people who cry out that for a woman this undertaking has no meaning—that for her it is a cook stove and a dustpan, a childbed, and a man who regards her as his servant. One might with equal justice say that for the man it is made up of ten, twelve, or more hours, at the plow, the engine, the counter, or the pen for the sake of supporting a woman and children whom he rarely sees! Unhappily, there are such combinations; they are not homes! They are deplorable failures of people who have tried to make homes. To insist that they are anything else is to overlook the facts of life, to doubt the sanity of mankind which hopefully and courageously goes on building, building, building, sacrificing, binding itself forever and ever to what?—a shell? No, to the institution which its observation and experience tell it, is the one out of which men and women have gotten the most hope, dignity, and joy,—the place through which, whatever its failures and illusions, they get the fullest development and the opportunity to render the most useful social service.

It is this grounded conviction that the home takes first rank among social institutions which gives its tremendous seriousness to the Business of Being a Woman. She is the one who must sit always at its center, the one who holds a strategic position for dealing directly with its problems. Far from these problems being purely of a menial nature, as some would have us believe, they are of the most delicate social and spiritual import. A woman in reality is at the head of a social laboratory where all the problems are of primary, not secondary, importance, since they all deal directly with human life.

One of the most illuminating experiences of travel is visiting the great chateaux of France. One goes to see "historical monuments," the scenes of strange and tragic human experiences; he finds he is in somebody's private house, which by order of the government is opened to the public one day of the week! He probably will not realize this fully unless he suddenly opens a door, not intended to be opened, behind which he finds a mass of children's toys—go-carts and dolls, balls and tennis rackets—or stumbles into a room supposed to be locked where framed photographs, sofa cushions, and sewing tables abound!

To the average American it comes almost as a shock that these open homes are the logic of democracy. It is almost sure to set him thinking that after all the home, anybody's home, even one in such big contrast to this chateau as a two-story frame house, on Avenue A, in B-ville, has a relation to the public. He has touched a great social truth.

To socialize her home, that is the high undertaking a woman has on her hands if she is to get at the heart of her Business. And what do we mean by socialization? Is it other than to put the stamp of affectionate, intelligent human interest upon all the operations and the intercourse of the center she directs? To make a place in which the various members can live freely and draw to themselves those with whom they are sympathetic—a place in which there is spiritual and intellectual room for all to grow and be happy each in his own way?

I doubt if there is any problem in the Woman's Business which requires a higher grade of intelligence, and certainly none that requires broader sympathies, than this of giving to her home that quality of stimulation and joyousness which makes young and old seek it gladly and freely.

To do this requires money, freedom, time, and strength? No, what I mean does not depend upon these things. It is the notion that it does that often prevents its growth. For it is a spirit, an attitude of mind, and not a formula or a piece of machinery. As far as my observation goes it is quite, if not more likely, to be found in a three-room apartment, where a family is living on fifteen dollars a week, as in an East Central Park mansion! In these little families where love prevails—it usually does exist. It is the kind of an atmosphere in which a man prefers to smoke his pipe rather than go to the saloon; where the girl brings her young man home rather than walk with him. Mutual interest and affection is its note. Such homes do exist by the tens of thousands; even in New York City. It is not from them that girls go to brothels or boys to the Tombs.

Externally, these homes are often pretty bad to look at—overcrowded, disorderly, and noisy. Cleanliness, order, and space are good things, but it is a mistake to think that there is no virtue without them. There are more primary and essential things; things to which they should be added, but without which they are lifeless virtues. In one of Miss Loane's reports on the life of the English poor, she makes these truthful observations:—

One learns to understand how it is that the dirty, untidy young wife, who, when her husband returns hungry and tired from a long day's work, holds up a smilingly assured face to be kissed, exclaiming, "Gracious! if I hadn't forgot all about your tea!" and clatters together an extravagant and ill-chosen meal while she pours out a stream of cheerful and inconsequent chatter, is more loved, and dealt with more patiently, tenderly, and faithfully, than her clean and frugal neighbor, who has prepared a meal that ought to turn the author of Twenty Satisfying Suppers for Sixpence green with envy, but who expects her husband to be eternally grateful because "he could eat his dinner off the boards,"—when all that the poor man asks is to be allowed to walk over them unreproached.

Peace and good will may go with disorder and carelessness! They may fly order and thrift. They will fly them when order and thrift are held as the more desirable. A woman is often slow to learn that good housekeeping alone cannot produce a milieu in which family happiness thrives and to which people naturally gravitate. She looks at it as the fulfillment of the law—the end of her Business. It is the exaggerated place she gives it in the scheme of things, which brings disaster to her happiness and gives substance to the argument that woman's lot in life is fatal to her development. Housekeeping is only the shell of a Woman's Business. Women lose themselves in it as men lose themselves in shopkeeping, farming, editing. Knowing nothing but your work is one of the commonest human mistakes. Pitifully enough it is often a deliberate mistake—the only way or the easiest way one finds to quiet an unsatisfied heart. The undue place given good housekeeping in many a woman's scheme of life is the more tragic because it is a distortion of one of the finest things in the human experience—the satisfaction of doing a thing well. It is a satisfaction which the worker must have if he is to get joy from his labor. But labor is not for the sake of itself. It must have its human reason. You rejoice in a "deep-driven plow"—but if there was to be no harvest, your straight, full furrows would be little comfort. You rejoice to build a stanch and beautiful house, but if you knew it was to stand forever vacant, joy would go from your task. An end work must have. One does not keep house for its own sake. It is absorption in the process—the refusal to allow it to be forgotten or utilized freely, that makes the work barren. It is like becoming so absorbed in a beautiful frame that you are unconscious of the picture—unconscious that there is a picture. Things must serve their purpose if they are to convince of their beauty. Try living in a room with a wonderfully fitted fireplace; its mantel of exquisite design and workmanship, its fire irons masterpieces of art—and no heat from it! Note how utterly distasteful it all becomes. It is no longer beautiful because it does not do the work it was made beautiful to do.

One of the most repellent houses in which I have ever visited was one in which there was, from garret to cellar, so far as I discovered, not one article which was not of the period imitated, not one streak of color which was not "right." It was a masterpiece of correct furnishing, but it gave one a curious sense of limitation. One could not escape the scheme. The inelasticity of it hampered sociability—and there grew on one, too, a sense of unfitness. His clothes were an anachronism! They were the only thing which did not belong!

There is an old-fashioned adjective which describes better than any other this preoccupation with things, which so often prevents a woman's coming to an understanding of the heart of her Business. It is old maidish. It has often been the pathetic fate of single women to live alone. To minister to themselves becomes their occupation. The force of their natures turns to their belongings. If in straitened circumstances they give their souls to spotless floors; if rich, to flawless mahogany and china, to perfect household machinery. Wherever you find in woman this perversion—old maidish is perhaps the most accurate word for her—it is a sacrifice of the human to the material. A house without sweet human litter, without the trace of many varying tastes and occupations, without the trail of friends who perhaps have no sense of beauty but who love to give, without the scars of use, and the dust of running feet—what is it but a meatless shell!

This devotion to "things" may easily become a ghoulish passion. It is such that Ibsen hints at in the Master Builder, when he makes Aline Solness attribute her perpetual black, her somber eyes and smileless lips, not to the death of her two little boys which has come about through the burning of her home, that was a "dispensation of Providence" to which she "bows in submission," but to the destruction of the things which were "mine"—"All the old portraits were burnt upon the walls, and all the old silk dresses were burnt that had belonged to the family for generations and generations. And all mother's and grandmother's lace—that was burnt, too, and only think, the jewels too."

One of the most disastrous effects of this preocccupation with the things and the labors of the household is the killing of conversation. There is perhaps no more general weakness in the average American family than glumness! The silent newspaper-reading father, the worried watchful mother, the surly boy, the fretful girl, these are characters typical in both town and country. In one of Mrs. Daskam Bacon's lively tales, "Ardelia in Arcadia," the little heroine is transplanted from a lively, chattering, sweltering New York street to the maddening silence of an overworked farmer's table. She stands it as long as she can, then cries out, "For Gawd's sake, talk!"

One secret of the attraction for the young of the city over the country or small town is contact with those who talk. They are conscious of the exercise of a freedom they have never known—the freedom to say what rises to the lips. They experience the unknown joy of play of mind. According to their observation the tongue and mind are used only when needed for serious service: to keep them active, to allow them to perform whatever nimble feats their owners fancy—this is a revelation!

Free family talk is sometimes ruined by a mistaken effort to direct it according to some artificial notions of what conversation means. Conversation means free giving of what is uppermost in the mind. The more spontaneous it is the more interesting and genuine it is. It is this freedom which gives to the talk of the child its surprises and often its startling power to set one thinking. Holding talk to some severe standard of consistency, dignity, or subject is sure to stiffen and hamper it. There could have been nothing very free or joyful about talking according to a program as the ladies of the eighteenth-century salons were more or less inclined. Good conversation runs like water; nothing is foreign to it. "Farming is such an unintellectual subject," I heard a critical young woman say to her husband, whose tastes were bucolic. The young woman did not realize that one of the masterpieces of the greatest of the world's writers was on farming—most practical farming, too! That which relates to the life of each, interests each, concerns each—that is the material for conversation, if it is to be enjoyable or productive.

One of a woman's real difficulties in creating a free-speaking household is her natural tendency to regard opinions as personal. To differ is something she finds it difficult to tolerate. To her mind it is to be unfriendly. This propensity to give a personal turn to things is an expression of that intensity of nature which makes her, as Mr. Kipling has truthfully put it, "more deadly than the male!" She must be that—were she not, the race would dwindle. He would never sacrifice himself as she does for the preservation of the young! This necessity of concentrating her whole being on a little group makes her personal. The wise woman is she who recognizes that like all great forces this, too, has its weakness. Because a woman must be "more deadly than the male" in watching her offspring is no reason she should be so in guarding an opinion. Certainly if she is so, conversation is cut off at the root.

Not infrequently she is loath to encourage free expression because it seems to her to disturb the peace. Certainly it does disturb fixity of views. It does prevent things becoming settled in the way that the woman, as a rule, loves to have them, but this disturbance prevents the rigid intellectual and spiritual atmosphere which often drives the young from home. Peace which comes from submission and restraint is a poor thing. In the long run it turns to revolt. The woman, if she examines her own soul, knows the effect upon it of habitual submission to a husband's opinion. She knows it is a habit fatal to her own development. While at the beginning she may have been willing enough to sacrifice her ideas, later she makes the painful discovery that this hostage to love, as she considered it, has only made her less interesting, less important, both to herself and to him. It has made it the more difficult, also, to work out that socialization of her home which, as her children grow older, she realizes, if she thinks, is one of her most imperative duties.

A woman is very prone to look on marriage as a merger of personalities, but there can be no great union where an individuality permits itself to be ruined. The notion that a woman's happiness depends on the man—that he must "make her happy"—is a basic untruth. Life is an individual problem, and consequently happiness must be. Others may hamper it, but in the final summing up it is you, not another, who gives or takes it—no two people can work out a high relation if the precious inner self of either is sacrificed.

Emerson has said the great word:—

Leave all for love; Yet, hear me, yet, Keep thee to-day, To-morrow, forever, Free as an Arab! Of thy beloved.

The "open house," that is, the socialized house, depends upon this free mind to a degree only second to that spirit of "good will to man," upon which it certainly must, like all institutions in a democratic Christian nation, be based. This good will is only another name for neighborliness—the spirit of friendly recognition of all those who come within one's radius. Neighborliness is based upon the Christian and democratic proposition that all men are brothers—a proposition with which the sects and parties of Christianity and democracy often play havoc. In their zeal for an interpretation or system they sacrifice the very things they were devised to perpetuate and extend among men. A sectarian or partisan household cannot be a genuinely neighborly household. It has cut off too large a part of its source of supply.

The most perfect type of this spirit of neighborliness which we have worked out in this country, outside of the thousands of little homes where it exists and of which, in the nature of the case, only those who have felt their influence can know, is undoubtedly Hull House, the Chicago Settlement under the direction of Jane Addams. Hull House is an "open house" for its neighborhood. It is a place where men and women of all ages, conditions, and points of view are welcome. So far as I have been able to discover, genuine freedom of mind and friendliness of spirit are what have made Hull House possible and are what will decide its future after the day of the great woman who has mothered it and about whom it revolves. There is no formula for building a Hull House—any more than there is a home. Both are the florescence of a spirit and a mind. Each will form itself according to the ideas, the tastes, and the cultivation of the individuality at its center. Its activities will follow the peculiar needs which she has the brains and heart to discover, the ingenuity and energy to meet.

Hull House serves its neighborhood, and in so doing it serves most fully its own household. Its own members are the ones whose minds get the most illumination from its activities. Moreover, Hull House from its first-hand sympathetic dealing with men and women in its neighborhood learns the needs of the neighborhood. It is and for years has been a constant source of suggestion and of agitation for the betterment of the conditions under which its neighbors—and indirectly the whole city, even nation—live and work. Health, mind, morals, all are in its care. It is practical in the plans it offers. It can back up its demands with knowledge founded on actual contact. It can rally all of the enlightened and decent forces of the city to its help. Hull House, indeed, is a very source of pure life in the great city where it belongs.

So far as attitude of mind and spirit go, the home should be to the little neighborhood in which it works what Hull House is to its great field. In its essential structure it is the same thing; i.e. Hull House is really modeled after the home. Most interesting is the parallel between its organization and its activities and those of many a great home which we know through the lives of their mistresses, that of Margaret Winthrop, of Eliza Pinckney, of Mrs. John Adams.

The social significance of Hull House is in its relative degree the possible social significance of every home in this land. The realization depends entirely upon the conception the woman in a particular house has of this side of her Business—whether or no she sees neighborliness in this big sense. That she does not see it is too often due to the fact that even though she may have "gone through college," she has no notion of society as a living structure made up of various interdependent institutions, the first and foremost of which is a family or home.

Absurd as it is, Society, which is founded on the family, is to-day giving only perfunctory and half-hearted attention to the family. The whole vocabulary of the institution has taken on such a quality of cant, that one almost hesitates to use the words "home" and "mother"! A girl's education should contain at least as much serious instruction on the relation of the family to Society as it does on the relation of the Carboniferous Age to the making of the globe. At present, it usually has less. It is but another evidence of the pressing need there is of giving to the Woman's Business a more scientific treatment—of revitalizing its vocabulary, reformulating its problems, of giving it the dignity it deserves, that of a great profession. It is the failure to do this which is at the bottom of woman's present disorderly and antisocial handling of three of the leading occupations of her life—her clothes, her domestics, and her daughter.


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