Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/March 1890/The Mission of Educated Women

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"Love seldom haunts the breast
Where learning lies."—Pope.
"'Tis Reason's part,
To govern and to guard the heart."—Cotton.
"I loved her well; I would have loved her better
Had love been met with love;
As 'tis, I leave her
To brighter destinies, if so she deems them."—Byron.

AN article entitled "Plain Words on the Woman Question," reprinted from the "Fortnightly Review" in this magazine, is so far in the nature of an attack upon the women whom the writer calls into court as to make reply, from one or another quarter, legitimate, and indeed, I think, obligatory. As a woman, who is bound by the conditions of wife and motherhood, for which Mr. Allen makes so able a plea, I can not individually appear on either side. It is not the women whom I represent who are under discussion, but none the less are the principles involved of the deepest and most pressing interest to thoughtful women everywhere, whether they have elected the single-handed fight, or the less evident but none the less serious test which comes with motherhood and the endeavor to make a home.

My excuse, therefore, for offering myself, in a sense, as a mouth-piece for the women whom Mr. Allen classifies as "deplorable accidents" is, first, that the points raised are in reality of as much importance to married women as to their unmarried sisters; and, second, that my position gives me, I think, unusual advantages for getting at certain underlying facts.

I have been for years connected with a large educational institution, where young men and women are working, side by side, under identically similar influences. The officials and teachers in this school are largely women, and women who, to quote Mr. Allen, have become "traitors to their sex," in that they have taken upon their shoulders the burden of their own support. They are, with few exceptions, highly educated, many of them college-bred, three among them being regular physicians, while all of them, if I may be permitted to judge, are of at least average attractiveness. As to health, social position, and previous condition, they offer also, I believe, a fair average, while their intellectual standards mark them high in the scale of feminine development.

For years they have puzzled me, for they are, without doubt, representative of a social phase, and the reasons for their existence, as well as the future to which they point, offer a unique temptation to the theorist. The appearance of the article already alluded to gave me a long-desired opportunity, and I at once laid it before my friends, asking for it their serious consideration. Nowhere in America, I am sure, could the opportunity be more complete, or the response more telling; and I trust that what these women have to say for themselves will not be without interest, to those at least who have read Mr. Allen's frank and, on the whole, liberal article.

In a charming cottage, occupied by two of this misguided sisterhood, to whose ménage the most critical eye could find nothing lacking, there was gathered, a week or two since, an unmistakably striking assemblage of single women, well looking, well dressed, ranging from twenty to fifty years of age, every one of whom could have, in the past, married, or could still marry, were it her desire to do so.

There was not a fanatic among them; they were sensible, earnest, in some cases brilliant women, who had, with more or less intention, turned their backs upon marriage, and chosen instead lives of self-supporting independence. Why have they done this? Undoubtedly it is to more than one cause that we must look for this result; but, at the outset of the discussion, it was universally admitted that Mr. Allen is right in considering the "higher education," to which he objects, to be the most potent factor in the situation. Furthermore, the knowledge of life in all its phases, which these women have gained, both from their intellectual training and their practical experience as bread-winners for themselves and others, makes them ready to accept most of his other premises.

They admit, that is, the physical necessity for maternity, and no man can appreciate its sacredness as they do.

They admit, again, the necessity for that tremendous over-loading of the sexual instinct, whose meaning Emerson interprets when he says: "The lover seeks in marriage his private felicitation and perfection, with no prospective end; and Nature hides in his happiness her own end, namely, progeny, or the perpetuity of the race."

They admit, too, the value of the institution of marriage, and, as in the case of the ideal motherhood, put its beauty and its possibilities of happiness far beyond the usual masculine conception.

As to the continuance of the race, they are far too keen to blink any facts, even when they count against themselves. The race, at all costs, must go on, and women must be wives and mothers, or, to keep exactly to the lines laid down by Mr. Allen, must at least be mothers, to the end of time. And, following their logic to the bitter end, they admit that, under existing conditions, and probably for long periods yet to come, the women who assume motherhood as their vocation must be prepared to renounce, more or less completely, their chance for intellectual development.

To this point our argument, on the evening of which I speak, went smoothly enough. Little or no exception was taken to Mr. Allen's position. So long as he made himself only an exponent of natural laws, and of their inevitable effect upon the social fabric, there were no dissentient voices. But there came a moment when the qnestion must be put point blank, and it was then that, for the first time, we, so to speak, came down to business.

"Now," I said, from my vantage-ground of neutrality, "you have cleared the decks. No social philosopher can demand more hearty agreement with the principles of his science than you have given; no man could desire more generous acknowledgment of man's place in creation, or of the fundamental relations of the sexes, than you offer; but the main issue is still untouched. Tell me why you, as representative individuals, have not married, do not marry, and are endeavoring, so far as educational methods can do it, to perpetuate your type?"

Masculine critics will possibly here suggest that a truthful answer to the first of these questions was far and away beyond my reach; but the women to whom I was speaking were fully in earnest, and there were no evasions.

"In the first place," said a clever woman beside me, "while we deny that our education unsexes us, we are conscious that it gives us a self-control, a balance, which is of inestimable advantage to us in the practical affairs of life, and induces us to consider marriage from more than one point of view. In the past, it is the emotional nature of women which has been cultivated, often at a heavy cost. Now, her intellect is taking charge, and we believe that there is no longer any reason why, as a rule, we should be sacrificed to our own emotions. Is it not, on the whole, desirable that women should study facts and weigh reasons as men do? You may say that it is the emotional virtues which are distinctively feminine, and that, as Mr. Allen says, 'a woman's glory is to be womanly, as a man's is to be virile'; but can it be shown that the training of her intellect makes a woman any less capable of love and devotion? Does it make her any less willing to sacrifice herself for the good of others? I think, on the contrary, that there is abundant witness to the fact that the increase of a woman's intellectual power usually intensifies her susceptibility to high motives, from whatever source they may reach her, or through whatever channel they may come. But, certainly, she is no longer a passive recipient; she thinks now as well as feels, and the inevitable result is that her attitude is more judicial than of old."

"Do you know," here interpolates a newly graduated collegian, "that in our colleges it has become a proverb that, if a girl isn't engaged before she is a sophomore, the chances are all against her marriage?"

The assent to this is very general, and one of the older women states the evident reasons for it: "We become more interested in our studies, more certain of our ability to take care of ourselves, and therefore less interested in men as possible lovers, and more independent of them as a means of support."

"And also," dryly remarks a very marriageable maiden, "it becomes evident to us that, as a matter of fact, the men whom our friends marry do not always come to time in their rôle of 'providers,’ and are not infrequently ready to accept assistance at the hands of the women whom they have undertaken to support."

Apropos of this, it is here suggested that possibly the prospect of domestic drudgery is not congenial to women who have found themselves capable of different and better work; and this is assented to by several of those present who are supporting their own establishments, and paying servants to perform the household labor which would fall upon their shoulders were they in the position of the married woman of average means.

This, again, suggests a comparison as to the relative value of the normal home wherein father, mother, and children complete the group, and of those more artificial homes which lack the natural elements of union. Generous recognition is at once given of the beauty of the possible home, and of the power and importance of the woman who creates it; but that this is woman's only field is emphatically denied. There are now open to her many channels through which she can influence the race, and the question is raised as to whether the advantage in this respect is altogether on the side of the married woman. Two or three of the older women in the group, who have had long and varied experience as teachers, ask if it is not probable that among the many children who have come into their hands there are not some, at least, who owe more to their school environment than to the home life. They claim that they, as teachers, should be credited with the influence which, in the nature of things, is inseparable from the responsibility which is put upon them. "To us," they say, "and not to the already overburdened wife and mother, is given the power to lead and direct the youth of the race. Would you have us, with that in view, aim for anything less than the best? The education of English and American children is, in the main, in the hands of women, and this not because of an anomalous social condition, but because of their peculiar fitness for the work. On Mr. Allen's own showing, these women should remain unmarried, and, if this involves a sacrifice on their part, it is left for him to show us that such sacrifice is ignoble, or in any sense threatening to the public welfare."

A response to this comes from the women physicians, who, in their work for their own sex and for children, feel, in all humility, that they are doing more for humanity than if they limited themselves to the reproduction of their kind. Granting that each of these women might leave behind her the ideal four successors, what is this in comparison with the many women whom she may have saved from disease and death; the households to which she has taught better ways; the new standards of purity and self-restraint for which she has bravely fought?

In such a discussion it is difficult not to individualize; but, well as I know these women, I am surprised at the breadth of their views, their candor, and their humility in regard to their own achievements. But it is a humility which permits no abatement of their just claims. They no longer admit any question as to their intellectual capacity. With the simplicity of conscious strength they take their place beside the men who challenge them, and are not at all afraid to face the result of their own actions. It is also plain that they are, on the whole, contented with the lot which they have chosen. The sacrifice, if it be such, has been made with open eyes and of free will, and there is no sighing after the possibilities which they have rejected.

"But," I ask, "do you never feel, especially as you grow older, the lack of some young strength upon which to lean, some fresh energy to which to bequeath your own experience?"

As might be expected, the answer to this is varied. In some instances the strength of the maternal instinct has led to the adoption of children; in others, to some special work which keeps up the connection with childhood; while again there are women, as there are men, in whom the instinct is lacking, and who find other interests sufficient to fill the gap.

Mr. Allen's suggestion as to the possible readjustment of the marriage relation, and his pledge that men will meet women halfway in any such attempt, is received without special enthusiasm. That is, the general feeling is, that it is not in the marriage relation, either in its legal or social aspect, that the root of the difficulty is to be found. Rather, they consider, it must be looked for in the standards with which men and women enter into that relation. It is constantly proved, by the evidence of happy marriages, that the contract easily adjusts itself where the parties to it comprehend and accept its terms. Not that there is not room for improvement in minor particulars, especially in the direction of certain legislative changes; but that, fundamentally, the monogamous idea, the permanent union of one woman with one man, is a trustworthy basis upon which to rest the social structure.

The women of whom I am writing disclaim positively that their indifference as to marriage arises from any dissatisfaction with the institution as it now and here exists. They deny also unanimously, and backed by a good deal of proof, that their education (it being understood that they have received the modern college education, or its equivalent) in any way unfits them for the duties of wifehood and maternity, or, primarily, renders these conditions any less attractive to them than to the "domestic" type of women. On the contrary, they hold that their knowledge of physiology makes them better mothers and housekeepers; their knowledge of chemistry makes them better cooks; while, from their training in other natural sciences and in mathematics, they obtain an accuracy and fair-mindedness which is of great value to them in dealing with their children or their employés. In short, they are not afraid to match themselves in practical life with the women for whom Mr. Allen claims a development impossible to the "dulled and spiritless epicene automata" to whom his attack is addressed.

As we approach the close of the discussion, the common sense of the various speakers makes itself strongly felt. They are not theorists, but practical, healthy women, and they do not in the least deceive themselves as to the actual, every-day aspect of this question. But, on the other hand, they stand for the feminine type of which our American prophet and seer wrote thirty years ago:[1] "At this moment I esteem it a chief felicity of this country that it excels in women. A certain awkward consciousness of inferiority in the men may give rise to the new chivalry in behalf of ’woman's rights.' Certainly, let her be as much better placed in the laws and in social forms as the most zealous reformer can ask; but I confide so entirely in her inspiring and musical nature that I believe only herself can show us how she shall be served. The wonderful generosity of her sentiments raises her at times into heroical and godlike regions, and verifies the pictures of Minerva, Juno, or Polymnia; and, by the firmness with which she treads her upward path, she convinces the coarsest calculators that another road exists than that which their feet know." And it is therefore no surprise to find that these women of a later generation are, finally, by the loftiness of their ideas and, as it were, in spite of themselves, lifted above the plane of Mr. Allen's arguments.

They sum up the reasons why they, as individuals, do not marry, in a somewhat formidable array. "We find," they say, "that we are intellectually the equals of the men whom we meet. It is now a fair give and take, and it is no longer required of us that we make up for the light weight of our intellects by throwing in a double measure of sentiment. Neither is it any longer necessary that we marry for the sake of a somewhat uncertain support. We are able to take care of ourselves, and we find nothing uncongenial or unsexing in our success.

"Furthermore, and above all, we see that, while the processes of evolution have pushed us so far forward that there is no longer, in our dealings with men, any serious question as to inferior or superior abilities, there still remains between our moral standards and theirs the same gap that has existed ever since the purity of woman has been tacitly recognized as essential to civilization.

"The moral sense is, in us, more highly developed than in the men who are otherwise our peers; and now that this is no longer deflected in its action by the pressure of unfair conditions, it is equivalent to a new factor in the relation of the sexes. It is evident, however, that this factor can not have full play except as the individual is independent; and it is to the single, self-supporting woman only that this independence is possible. Women who are dependent, in any direction, upon men, must, almost of necessity, condone their vices, and as a result gradually approximate to their standards, which is a consummation most devoutly not to be desired. We believe that there is no personal conceit in claiming that we are morally upon a higher level than men, this being a recognized fact in modern sociology; but it is a fact which repels us from the close relations of marriage, in which we now believe that we have a right to a return for all that we give. When, therefore, we find that, while we are offered intellectual companionship and provision for our physical needs, the higher demands of our spiritual nature are ignored or set aside, we naturally hesitate, and hesitating are, from Mr. Allen's point of view, lost. He looks at our problem from without, we from within. We realize, often in bitterness of heart, that our moral life, the life of our aspirations, is upon a plane which, as yet, the average man has not reached. We can never go back to him, but we stand ready to welcome him whenever he can bridge the chasm and make our standard his.

"This is our position as individuals; as a class we see no evidence that we are 'accidents,’ still less that we are to be deplored. We believe indeed that, so far from this being true, we in reality represent an important phase in human development, that we are a distinct product of evolutionary forces, and that in the future it is not impossible that the 'balance of power' may be found to lie in our hands."

The value of this statement is in the fact that it comes not from one woman but from many, and in it there is surely nothing to discourage Mr. Allen and those who think with him. The women to whom he appeals are ready to meet him, but it must be on a platform of their own choosing, and they can afford to wait. They do not ask "aid in rebelling against maternity," but they demand that the responsibilities of fatherhood shall no longer be shifted or made light of. In short, they require of the fathers of the next generation just what Mr. Allen demands for the mothers, viz., "that they shall be as strong, as wise, as pure, as sane, as healthy, as earnest, and as efficient as they can be made."

And as this demand, on the part at least of the men who make it, is presumably based not so much on any personal predilection for the qualities enumerated as upon their desire to further the best interests of the race, the argument in its favor is as valid for the one sex as for the other.

  1. Emerson, "Essay on Manners."