The Modern Woman


It is well known that the
condition of woman in the
early periods of the world’s
history was inferior to that
of man. During the Middle
Ages the tendency was to
treat her as a being
“enskied and sainted, and
to be dealt with in sincerity
as with a saint.” The
disposition in this modern
time is to treat her neither
as an inferior nor superior
to man, but as a being
having a status of her own,
and not necessarily to be
judged in comparison with
man. In this paper I speak,
therefore, of the condition
of woman at the present
time, the causes which led
to that position, and the
possibilities which may
result from it.
So long as the political
conditions of a country are
insecure and its resources
limited, woman is obliged to
accept the position allotted
her, whether it be the low
position assigned her by
the Orientals and Greeks,
or the higher one granted
in the Middle Ages. In either
case what privilege she
enjoyed was not granted
as a right, but conceded as
a favor. As civilization
advances, however, and
political conditions become
more stable, material
resources at the same time
being easier of access,
woman naturally occupies a
place quite different from
any she has known
hitherto. Those manifold
events which mark the
change from the mediæval
to the modern era,
necessarily affected the
status of woman. The
invention of printing, and
with it the diffusion of
learning, the discovery of
gunpowder, and the
changed modes of warfare,
the Reformation and its
emphasis on the rights of
the individual – each of
these was significant in
opening larger and freer
opportunities to woman.
The invention of printing
meant liberal means of
culture for all, woman as
well as man, greater range
and freedom of thought
and, naturally, greater
freedom of expression. The
discovery of gunpowder
meant a death-blow to
feudalism – to that system
of helpless dependence by
which the masses were held
as serfs and servants
because of the necessity
for military protection. The
improved modes of warfare
gave to the lower as well
as to the upper classes
opportunity for other
occupations, while at the
same time the peculiar
sentiment of chivalry, as it
prevailed in the Middle
Ages, died a natural death,
since women were no
longer to be protected by
the right arm of valiant
knight, but by the cannon,
the musket, and the shell.
The influence of the
Reformation was to set a
higher value on the good
things of the world. Hence
the impetus to modern
science and the fruitful
discoveries and [Page 765]
inventions resulting from it,
which, perhaps more than
anything else, have
contributed to the freer
and, as we hope, better
condition of woman. While,
to the praise of the
Mediæval Church, it
recognized the fact that we
must look to spiritual rather
than to material discoveries
for the highest welfare and
happiness, it sometimes
neglected the other
important fact that spiritual
well-being is dependent on
physical and intellectual
agencies, and that only by
the proper use of these
can the desired spiritual
attainment be made.
Protestantism recognized
this neglect and directed
itself at once to these
forces which have
reference to the physical
side of life, to whatever
would increase the sum
total of human pleasure and
decrease the amount of
pain, and the results are,
as we all know, marvelous
beyond expectation. It is
true that in avoiding the
mistake which the Mediæval
Church had made,
Protestantism incurred the
danger of going to the
opposite extreme, and of
regarding physical and
intellectual comforts as
most important so far as
this world goes, while
spirituality too often is
thought desirable only as a
preparation for death.
If this were the necessary
and veritable outcome of
modern science, we might
well question whether the
loss were not greater than
the gain, especially to the
women who partook so fully
of the best which the
mediæval life had to offer;
but every thoughtful
person knows that the
largest means are best for
the highest ends, and that
it is only irrational souls
who lose sight of final
purposes to rest satisfied
with what are only means to
an end. As it is, all these
developments of physical
science will, in our opinion,
eventually lead to the best
results. This being
admitted, women can look
upon the achievements of
science as the important
factor which has brought
about for them the great
changes from a state of
helpless dependence to one
of desirable self-reliance
and more efficient activity.
So long as women were
compelled by necessity to
spin, weave, sew, care for
their households and
attend the sick, so long
their time and hands were
fully occupied, leaving little
opportunity or strength for
other pursuits. This
certainly was the case with
wives and mothers, while
the condition of unmarried
women was even less
desirable, compelled….ot, as Catholicism did,
offer a refuge and a
vocation to unmarried
women.
The various organizations
at the present time afford
splendid opportunity for the
wise use of surplus time
secured by the introduction
of machinery, and women
are not slow of availing
themselves of it since they
have learned, what it was
not possible for them to
know before, the value of
organized effort. The worth
of organized activity is
seen in the various
reformatory methods
introduced into our
hospitals and prisons, by
which more humane and
refined influences are
brought to bear in the
treatment of criminals and
the insane. It is seen in
educational matters where
women occupy positions of
trust, not simply because of
the desirability of having
women to co-operate with
men in public affairs, but
because in many cases
these women represent the
sentiment of a large body
of thoughtful women whose
opinions it would not be
politic to ignore. Nor is it
only among the so-called
leisure class that there is
the disposition for self-
improvement and for these
advantages that come from
wisely-organized effort. I
have been surprised as I
have talked with members
of the Knights of Labor, and
others of the wage-earning
class, women of
comparatively little culture,
perhaps, but with an
earnest purpose to make
the absolute best of
themselves and of the
circumstances which too
often dwarf rather than
develop them. They, too,
are disposed to let the old
routine of personal matters
and petty gossip give place
to questions of wider
scope. They, too, are
taking an interest in public
matters, knowing by painful
experience how closely the
decision of these questions
may affect them, their
homes and especially their
children. And already their
interest in these broader
affairs has obtained results
in a practical way. Their
demand that children born
of the abject poor shall not
be defrauded of their
childhood, but that they
shall have opportunity for
education, is meeting a
response all over this
country, not only from
public sentiment, but from
public sentiment as
expressed by law. In these,
as in so [Page 766] many
other philanthropic aims
and purposes, intelligent
women of all classes are
heartily engaged, and the
unity of aim, the common
purpose in public matters,
especially in matters which
bear directly on the home,
is one of the happiest
results of the enlarged
opportunity which this
modern time affords. It not
only promises benefit to all
classes of women by giving
to each the moral support
of the other, but it tends
also to do away with the
artificial system of caste
among women, which is
almost inevitable where
there is a division of
interests, and an inability
to recognize the principle
that the good of each is
bound up in the good of all.
The strength which comes
and shall come from this
wider union of interests
and influences can hardly
be estimated. We know that
the power of woman’s
influence has been
acknowledged in all times;
that poets have sung it,
and men have delighted to
echo the song. Again and
again the refrain comes:
“The hand that rocks the
cradle is the hand that
moves the world,” but that
was the influence of
individual women and of
woman in the abstract. It
was very intangible, very
indefinite, limited in the main
to a narrow circle, or
affected a wide range only
through narrower, naturally
losing force, as all power
does, by the greater
number of media through
which it is transmitted
before reaching the desired
end. Now for the first time
that influence is taking on a
more definite form, is more
surely felt. That it will
increase instead of
decreasing is but natural,
since “it is not the genius
of civilized institutions to
take away social or political
rights that have once been
granted.” That woman’s
influence will radically
change the character of
public affairs is not to be
anticipated, since the
intellect of woman does not
differ essentially from that
of man, and it is these two
forces, the intellectual and
the moral, which are to be
the controlling forces in the
future. The greatest
changes and the greatest
advantage arising from the
new order of things will be
to woman herself. The
enlarged opportunity of the
present time means for her,
first of all, the privilege of
gaining an independent
livelihood, or, in other
words, of deciding for
herself the direction of her
life. How much this signifies,
and what a unique privilege
this has been hitherto, they
know best who are most
familiar with the social
condition of woman from
barbaric times to the
present. There was no
choice, so to speak.
Marriage was almost the
sole opportunity of gaining
or obtaining a desirable
living, and even then the
decision was usually made
by parents, brothers or
near kindred, and not by
the person whose fate was
the most concerned. If, as
in more recent times, the
woman was allowed the
choice, it was often
necessity rather than free
choice which directed her,
and too often she was
compelled to be governed
by motives of prudence
rather than inclination.
The narrow means and
necessarily contracted
habits of the woman who
remained unmarried made
her an object of silent
contempt, not from any fault
of her own, but because
outside of wedded life and
the interests of rearing a
family there was no
industry that offered a
worthy compensation for
her work, and her whole
thought was necessarily
bent on a narrow economy
that could save where it
could not earn. The
manifold employments that
are now open to women,
employments that are
rapidly increasing year by
year, offer for the first time
the glad opportunity of
avocations that in their way
command respect as
marriage commands
respect. We have only to
call the names of Harriet
Hosmer, Clara Barton, and
others, and proof is at
once given. Many less
widely known testify to the
same effect, and the day is
fast passing away when
women will be obliged to
accept marriage either for
the sake of support or to
avoid the contempt once
attached to the unmarried.
This freedom of choice
naturally increases the
respect given to woman,
whether the choice she
makes is in favor of
marriage, or whether she
decides to follow a
profession. The woman who
accepts a husband out of
pure and free inclination,
conscious that this union is
for her the surest
opportunity for happiness
and usefulness, must stand
much higher in the
estimation of the husband
than the one who marries
simply because there is for
her no other alternative,
while the woman who is
wedded to her profession
in the thought of bettering
her own and the world’s
condition must gain the
respect which is naturally
accorded to those who
have an earnest purpose
in life and steadfastly
adhere to it. [Page 767]
I know it may be said that
this large opportunity for
women does not
necessarily imply greater
improvement on their part.
It may be said that women
in the future as in the past,
will still continue to live in
the narrow routine of a
circumscribed life or, if their
ambition takes a wider
range, it is in the direction
of richer apparel, daintier
food and costlier living. It
may be claimed, too, that in
many cases the great
advantage offered by the
so-called modern
improvements have only
led to greater complexity of
living and still greater
perplexity, and that the
added leisure furnishes
opportunity for added
frivolities. The justice of
the claim is admitted, but at
the same time I am right in
refusing to admit that the
latter class of women are
the representative women
of our time. On the
contrary, it is the women
who are making the
absolute best of
themselves and of their
fortunate surroundings who
are the truly
representative women of
our time. These evince the
latent bent, the tendency of
the masses, and the
success possible to all. A
tree is to be judged not
alone by its fruits, but by
its fairest fruits, because
these show its possibilities,
these show what the others
might have been if earth
and air and sunshine had
been graciously disposed,
and the noble-minded
women who are availing
themselves of the glad
privileges of the present
time are the truly
representative women
because they are those
who are shaping the
influences which are
affecting the masses
beneath them, and they are
representative women also
because all other women
would desire the higher
rational life if they only had
a consciousness of the joy
which the rational life alone
can give.
If there be any fear lest
this higher life, as we are
pleased to term it, and
these broader
opportunities for women
may lead them in time to the
extreme of ignoring
limitations of family life, and
of preferring the more
public career of business
or a profession, so that
family life would become
distasteful to the extent
that the welfare and
perhaps even the
existence of the race would
be in danger, we can
reassure ourselves with
the fact that nature will
take care of all that without
any anxiety on our part,
for “nowhere is she so
sensitive to encroachments
as in those matters which
lie at the foundation of life.”
We may cheat, distort and
circumvent her in other
respects, but nowhere is
she so keen, cunning, so
absolute and imperative as
in this determination for
life, this will to live, as
Schopenhauer expresses
it. Nor need there be any
fear lest these higher
opportunities open to
women shall take away
their tenderness, their
confiding trust, or any of
these finer qualities which
are usually termed
“womanly;” for the grace
which comes from strength
is far more graceful than
that which comes from
languor; the tenderness
which comes from efficient
sympathy is no less tender
because of its efficiency,
and the trust which is
based on a full recognition
of all that love and trust
and self-surrender imply is
certain to be more
permanent than the trust
that is based on ignorance.
I know the sweet illusions
that still adhere to the idea
of chivalrous devotion on
the part of man, and of
clinging dependence on the
part of woman, and this
might be well perhaps if
men were always strong
and women always young
and beautiful; yet even
here it is questionable
whether it were possible
for a woman to find lasting
happiness merely as a
passive recipient of loving
admiration, however
ardent, for so long as a
woman has a rational and
spiritual nature, so long
she fails of highest
happiness if these are lost
sight of. And further, grant
that these conditions of
devotion upon the part of
man and clinging
dependence on the part of
woman could be permanent,
it is questionable whether
such a state would be
healthful to either mind or
body, since this form of
selfishness, like any other,
is liable to die of its own
excesses. Furthermore, the
fates of the Juliets, the
Ophelias, the Desdemonas,
and of countless hosts of
other women who were all
that is gentle, sweet and
confiding, does not lead to
the belief that the fate of
such women is at all
enviable. On the other
hand, the tragic
consequences of all this
emotional fervor, this
unrestrained expression of
feeling, especially when
combined with artless
simplicity and utter
ignorance of what is worthy
to be loved, which, strange
to say, men and women are
so slow to learn; for this
frenzied emotion and
intensity is still hallowed
with the name of love, its
dicta are regarded
infallible, and that too in the
most important concerns of
life. [Page 768]
If the privileges now
afforded to women shall
lead them to more realistic
views in regard to the
affections, incalculable
results for good must in
eviably follow; for there is
no truth that men and
women need to see more
plainly than the fact that
the emotions and the
affections are to be kept
under wise control, and
they are of value only as
they are under control, and
that the infallibility of love
is not in proportion to its
intensity, but rather in
proportion to its
clearsightedness. How
plainly Dante saw this truth,
and how firmly he was
guided by it is evident from
what he says in the “Vita
Nuova,” after describing
his first meeting with
Beatrice: “I say that from
that time love quite
governed my soul, and with
so safe and undisputed
lordship that I had nothing
left for it but to do all his
bidding continually. And
albeit her image that was
with me always was an
exaltation of love to
subdue me, it was yet of so
perfect a quality that it
never allowed me to be
overruled by love without
the faithful counsel of
reason whensoever such
counsel was useful to be
heard.” I know the tendency
of women is to live in their
feelings; still this tendency
need not be abnormally
cultivated, as it has been in
times past, and above all
things this emotional state
should not be considered
the ideal condition for
woman, for in whatever
way we may regard woman,
whether as an individual of
and for herself, or whether
we regard her as a
helpmate for man, in either
case it is the rational life
that gives a permanent
worth to the emotional life.
Desirable and indispensable
as the latter may be, its
best significance is in its
subordination to the
rational. Shakespeare knew
this well, and while he has
portrayed every phase of
the emotions with all the
allurements and attractions
which undisciplined ardor
knows how to offer, he has
not failed to show the evil
results which are sure to
follow when reason fails to
obtain control. The Juliets,
the Ophelias and the
Desdemonas perish, the
victims of their own
impulses, but women like
Portia, whose wealth of
feeling was not under the
sway of caprice, loved, not
only to their own
advantage, but to that of
their households. No
submission is more womanly
than that of Portia to her
husband, but it is the
submission of strength and
not of weakness.
Of the many old
superstitions in regard to
woman there is one which
has not entirely passed
away, and that is that
women by a kind of intuition
or divination have a feeling
for truth, which is an easy
substitute for the
unremitting labor and
continual mental activity
that is essential to the
logical comprehension of
truth. Hence the
inexactness of women and
their inability to tell the
truth, not from lack of moral
sincerity, but because they
do not recognize the fact
that a clear apprehension
of the truth is not a free
natural gift, but is an
acquired ability, that is
gained only by the most
rigorous mental discipline. It
would be quite as easy to
gain strong physical power
without continuous exercise
of the muscles as to gain
intellectual and moral
strength without the
constant activity of the
moral and intellectual
faculties, and women can
never expect to arrive at
an accurate knowledge of
any subject so long as they
are willing at a moment’s
notice to give hasty
answers to the most
profound problems, social,
economical, religious or
philosophical, merely to
follow some impulse that
with them takes the place of
intelligent conviction. So
long as this is the case, so
long as feeling takes the
place of accurate thinking,
women can not have that
subtlety of analysis and
sustained power of
reasoning which is
absolutely essential to the
correct investigation of any
subject, philosophical or
scientific.
And so of those other mists
of feeling which obscure the
problems with which women
of today have to deal,
especially the disposition to
let personal matters decide
rather than the
consideration of broad
universal principles. It is
not strange that this is the
case, since women have
been governed so long by
motives of personal
considerations. Yet if they
will share in the larger life
of today it will be by a
recognition of the value of
underlying principles, and
not through the old-time
artifice, intrigue and use or
abuse of personal
influence. Is it not a little
singular that while patience,
one of the most significant
virtues in the Middle Ages,
and one considered
essentially feminine, that in
the modern time women are
restlessly impatient? Here I
should make a distinction
and say that they are
patient under inevitable
physical ills, but are [Page
769] exceedingly impatient
under moral wrong. At first
thought this may seem a
virtue rather than
otherwise, for so long as
the bad can be made good,
and the good made better,
no one has a right to be
passively indifferent.
The difficulty lies in women
failing to perceive that the
process of the universe
can not be violently
hastened; that the moral
world as well as the
physical has its laws which
must be regarded if
success is to be attained. It
is not easy for women to
see that what ought to be
may be practically
impossible at present, and,
indeed, in many cases can
be reached only by the
slowest processes, but this
impatient haste on the part
of women will brook no
delay. They have a
restless, feverish desire
for activity, and inability to
stay quiet, an irritable
impatience to accomplish
something and to see
immediate returns for the
amount of energy
expended. Increased
opportunities for
philanthropic and
reformatory effort have
added to the intensity of
this impatience. Seeing, as
they believe, the Kingdom
of Heaven to be within
reach, they are ready to
take it by violence, and so
defeat the object in view. It
should be said, however,
that within the last few
years there is evidence of
decided change in this
respect. Already the
disciplinary power of
systematic thought and
study is making itself felt
among women who have
availed themselves of it,
and instead of bending
their energies exclusively
in trying to alleviate
poverty, squalor and
degradation, we find many
of them making earnest
i

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263 thoughts on “The Modern Woman

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