The Failure of the Professional Woman

Mary O'Conner Newell in Appleton’s Magazine September 1 1908

The Failure of the Professional Woman

Mary O'Conner Newell in Appleton’s Magazine September 1 1908

The Failure of the Professional Woman

The Fair Sex is by Temperament Mentally Unfitted for Struggle in the Open Arena — Any Professional Employment has For her the Aspect of a Temporary Makeshift or an Amusement — Her Ultimate Thought Generally is and Should be Marriage.

Mary O'Conner Newell in Appleton’s Magazine

THERE was no warmth for me on all those altars. * * * I was al-

ways to return to myself, be my own priest, parent, child, husband and wife. * * * The life! the life! Oh, my God! shall the life never be sweet?” Before woman was recognized as a Cause, and long before business barriers were let down for her, she who was given a more immediate intellectual recognition by brilliant men than has ever been accorded to any other American woman, Margaret Fuller, wrote and felt thus. The words sum up the whole conflict of the woman in professional life, which is the almost always enforced choice between public life and the home, between business and true wifehood and motherhood.

Over her own signature, the most admired actress in America to-day writes: “Had I the great decision to make over again—and knew what I know—it would be for those things which would surround me with a family and a few intimate friends. Art denies us the one thing in life that I have come to believe is best worth while, a strong personal influence exerted within a small circle, benefiting a few, and these few supremely.” In answer to the question of what he thought of the woman in business, a man said he had known but three kinds—the kind that married, the discontented, unhappy kind, uneven in its work, and the desexed kind. The last, he said, was the only successful kind. It was the third-sex exit from the dilemma that Voltaire took with priests.

The “thoroughly feminine” woman in business, as men regard her, is the most common phenomenon of all, and at the

same time the despair of the statistician. She is one in whom the spirit of coquetry rules, innocently or otherwise. Often she makes a cometlike success, through the combination of pretty dress, pretty manners, and a seasoning of professional information which, by wiles too deep for average penetration, she employs with deadly results in conquest. How the staid dictums of Cooley on “Torts” or of Butler on “Diagnostics” could be added to a woman’s armory of coquetry is as unfathomable a riddle as woman herself. Marriage, however, swallows up this charming invader with saving frequency.

Others of the kind we see failing and falling into the rear ranks all around us —perennial seekers, permanent applicants, who have not even made a success of a sort, women equal to keeping a home beautifully, but homeless, that is, lodging in hall bedrooms, or striving precariously to keep life together and satisfy home instincts in studios or tiny flats, all with bees of restless ambition buzzing in their bonnets.

This sort mostly think that it can paint or write. One woman comes to mind, for years the bane of editors, and still to be feared. Wherever you find her she is keeping house, and doing it well under the most exasperating conditions, such as sharing kitchen privileges or keeping lodgers, just to meet the rent. No caller ever comes so inopportunely that she will not make tea or lunch for her; and for a him she has been known in the late hours of the evening to concoct a pie, biscuits, or a cake, in pure love of showing off housewifely accomplishments.

There are many of her type, leaving out

the ability to keep house, which few professional women possess, be it said. They are the care—I was going to say curse— of editors, theatrical managers, art dealers, and business men generally, who dread them for the hopeless work they do, but employ them at intervals, because the womanhood of the women makes its appeal, and because they feel a charitable inclination to avert disaster, for the work of such women is always presented with the intimation, delicately conveyed, that starvation is imminent.

The natural haven of such women is marriage, or else they become hopeless derelicts, and worse, under the guise of following a skilled profession.

Then there is the class of women who do their work bravely and conscientiously, and refuse to trade upon the fact that they are women or seek concessions that would not be made to a man. Neither do they carry their personal troubles to business with them. If mental equipment, training, and health are equal to the demands, they become 'brilliant lights in their professions. Of such women there are a few7, but the fact is, that they are too few to count in the balance. Most professional women of the conscientious, hard-working sort are always tired out and nervous, often sad and discontented, or they fall into the third class, the desexed, as men see them.

We all know her, for she goes everywhere, sees everything, and knows everybody, does her w7ork well as a rule, but whether her work is well done or not, she herself has evolved from a decentred, aimless state into a something that dainty women find inexplicable, and that men call “a good fellow',” while thanking Heaven in their hearts that all women are not like her.

The desexed woman anchors herself firmly, and experiences a certain complacency in doing so, to the bleachers of life, paying her little quarter as cheerfully as may be. Then she tries to see the game from a man’s point of view'. She drinks and “skates” just as a man might, sits around until morning in all-night restaurants, exchanges conversation on all subjects, sustains herself with a cocktail on rising and a cigarette at intervals, and tries to believe, and even convinces men, that there is no woman’s nonsense about her.

To sheltered women she is incomprehensible. Other women see in her one answer to the problem how to be happy with nothing to think about but work, and are appalled.

Of course, women as a class have not become enmeshed in professional and business life, which are about the same thing, through their own desires, but through the working of economic forces beyond their control. The socialization of home industries has altered women’s status, and in many cases forced them upon the world. But in the world they are not making the place for themselves that they formerly held in the home, as equal factors with ' men. It is clear that, in the professions today, men are quite equal to the demands. There is no function of leadership, in other words, that any woman possesses that some man cannot exercise as well as she. The doors of opportunity are being closed to her again, because opinion seems to have crystallized into the belief that woman has not “made good,” in the sense that she can stand alone, w7ell supported, successful, and unanxious, upon her own w'ork. One does not mean necessarily that the professional woman has failed, that she has not earned a living, or made a. reputation, or both, but that she has not made herself an indispensable part of professional life, a factor of undisputed w7orth.

The opinion even of women on this subject is strangely unanimous. They are not satisfied with the position in which they stand in business nor with what they stand for. They have become unsettled about themselves and their ability to fight successfully shoulder to shoulder with men, given the opportunity, and are looking to themselves, for a wonder, to see if the explanation lies within.

Woman has failed to “make good ’ her pretensions to consideration as an independent leader and thinker in the professions and in business. Almost nowhere in the high places do we find women. Very few are they among physicians of note, few among lawyers, and few as executive heads of colleges or holders of professorial chairs, few among the ranks of editors. And in the teaching and newspaper fields they have had great opportunities, whatever may be the case to-day. As actresses, they seem to be made or marred at the will of the manager, as was exemplified in a

recent noted case. They have had control of fortunes ; they have had sway in kitchens ; they have always taught ; they have always acted ; yet men are the great financiers, cooks, teachers, managers of theatres. In no profession are women independent factors, standing on their worth, snapping their fingers at clamor, as certain strong professional men do, whom to name would be invidious. ‘‘Here’s to woman, once our superior, now our equal,’’ is true neither of what it alleges of the past, nor what it asserts of the present.

George Meredith says in one of his novels : “The men called great who have risen to distinction, are not men of brains, but men of aptitude.” Whether this be true of men or not, it is eminently true of many business women, in this sense, that women of mediocre abilities in their professional line are those who shine most brilliantly in the limelight of publicity, through the exercise of “aptitude.”

The fields of club life and municipal charities have been the forum used by ambitious women to give the impression of professional success not really theirs. Just as public opinion often proclaims a successful politician to be a great lawyer, so the newspaper has often built up for a successful club woman with letters after her name, a reputation as a leader in her chosen profession.

Upon examination, it turns out that the success of a great many women of wide professional repute is only club-made or municipal-charity earned. The leading women of any profession are of necessity too busy, as a rule, to have time for dubs or active public life. By this no unkind reflection is intended, merely the statement of one fact. The fact of the usefulness of the philanthropic work to which club women devote themselves is evidenced by the splendid mass of philanthropic legislation in which it has resulted. An eminent lawyer said not long ago: “I was inclined

to take the club woman lightly until certain investigations brought me into the field of legislation for children and dependents, and I noted that the vast body of it had been engineered by women through clubs. Since then, I take off my hat to the woman's club.”

“Lots of girls don’t succeed in work because they don’t believe in work.” This

exolanation of woman’s nonsuccess came

from one end of the scale of working women. “Women don’t know anything—very much,” said the cleverest business woman I know, when asked for a clue to the cause of failure in general. “Kipling’s ‘Lord, what do they understand?’ applies to more women than the objectionable servant girls he spoke about,” said she. “Not that I believe that men have all the brains, but their experience in a shrewd worldly environment helps to conceal what they don’t know, whereas woman’s evolution from simple home surroundings favors exaggerating her ignorance.”

A wonderfully capable, retired woman physician, who, too, holds that women have not lived up to the promise of earlier years in the professions, gave this answer: “Women expect too much for too little work. They are the victims of their vanity. They think they should know intuitively everything that a man is content to learn by long experience. They expect the success of a lifetime for a few years’ work. They will not ‘dig,’ they will not wait.”

Putting his head to the problem, a man writes thus judicially: “Women will not

take the same trouble as men to protect their industrial efficiency. They are mentally lazy, though capable of extraordinary endurance when impelled by sympathy or affection.”

It comes about to this, that woman will not pay the price of success, for one reason or another.

To begin with, women are temperamentally unfitted for struggle in the open arena. They are and ever will be, as long as they are attractive, lovely and lovable to their own and the other sex, with certain rare exceptions, creatures to be swayed by the sympathies, to be appealed to through the heart. If professional reasons, that is, the common sense of business life, stand in the way of succoring unfortunates, to the womanly woman it will always be, so much the worse for business, not, as with the man, so much the worse for the “down and outer.” The ideal of the sex does not include coolness of judgment.

Neither has woman a sense of abstract justice, a working sense, that is. In other words, she takes everything personally. If any of her family has suffered from the inroads of the burglar, she thinks burglary should be made a capital offense. If some one dear to her has narrowly escaped dan-

ger through being mistaken for a burglar, she holds thereafter a brief for all criminals of the burglarious type. If she would only announce the grounds for her beliefs, much that is mysterious to man about her ratiocination would be clear. But she never does.

No one likes a woman less for all this, only, in the phrase of the society world, “she does not belong.” The world outside the home is so conditioned that sympathy, sweetness, tender-heartedness are all liabilities of the most dangerous type. Woman comes to the contest burdened not only with them, but with a more highly specialized nervous organization, a deficient education usually for the task before her, even when she has the college “isms” at her fingers’ ends, and a love for home life that active business life in almost every instance prohibits.

No man faces in business the alternative of giving up home and children. There is some one always willing and glad to provide these for him, if he has the inclination and ability to support them.

What an object the woman is usually who has persons dependent upon her for support. All know the type. As one woman expressed it, who has made a varying struggle, never successful from the purely business point of view, but made modestly so by the sympathy she has aroused: “I

remind myself of a cat with one kitten, seeking ever a permanent lodgment, and never finding it : picking the kitten now out of one corner and putting it in another : driven from the corner, carrying the small morsel of being to the seat of a chair: routed from that'by superior claims of man, seeking the barn, only to return to the house and do it all over again.”

So it is with the mother who tries to practice a profession and not separate from her child. Oftentimes the object of sympathetic assistance, always devoted to a ceaseless, if not fruitless struggle—for the situation is out of joint, anyhow. The physical care of the child, which should naturally devolve upon the mother, must be delegated, now that she is the bread-earner. Hence the unending chain from boarding house to boarding house, to relatives, back to mother again when the strain of parting becomes too heavy, then a trial of flat life, then a period of boarding out again, then

back to grandmother, and so on and on, until the child is “raised.”

Doubtless a woman could do, but doubtless a woman seldom does, all that is necessary to reach the very topmost rank in her profession, and the explanation is this, first and foremost, that, floating in the misty future of every woman’s contemplation is the mirage, shall we call it? of marriage that shall bring economic freedom. Just about the time a professional man is ripest, and receives his first conspicuous promotion, his former feminine colleague is most thoroughly engrossed with maternal duties, having had all pf a “career” that she cared for. Therein lies the chief weakness of woman’s position in the professions, though her crown of glory otherwise.

“Liberty ! Independence ! I hate the words !” burst out a usually taciturn school teacher, at one of the Saturday morning gatherings of a group of school teachers. She was very pretty, but stern, and had never given indications of a soft heart, wherefore she had been raised above all the others to a principalship, and a salary that would have supported a family in comfort.

“Liberty,” she shouted like a new Patrick Henry, “liberty for what? To be alone, to have no one that cares, and not to care to do anything. Independence—of what? Of all that everyone is seeking. What’s the use of getting a larger salary every year, what’s the use of traveling, of cultivating one’s mind? Will anyone tell me what’s the use of it all !” Shortly afterward she resigned, and married a chiropodist—and the world wondered.

Working at any professional employment has to a woman the aspect of a temporary makeshift or an amusement. Her ultimate thought generally is, and should be—why not?—marriage; and marriage, not her choice of a profession, is to be the final arbiter of her destiny. She may go on—in many cases she would prefer to go on—or she may stop. All depends upon the “inexpressible he.” Even the few who purpose continuing to the end of their days their professional course uninfluenced by marriage are deflected from their charted course by marrying.

With amusement, as well as with a sense of the hopelessness of expecting women to stand upon their own feet as professional people, I heard the mother of a daughter

who liad been graduated with distinguished honor in an unusual profession for women tell, with no apparent feeling of inconsistency, that her daughter, just married, was studying her husband’s profession, with a view to adopting it and abandoning her own. Here was a woman who had chosen her own profession—a strong-minded woman, men would call her, and a masculine profession—had fought against heavy odds in college and beyond to establish her right to pursue it. and straightway, upon marrying, did the characteristically feminine thing, threw her profession out of doors, and dedicated her fine mind to her husband’s service forever.

When women who are leaders make such sacrifices gladly, can one believe that the rank and file will ever establish their claims for consideration as independent intelligences?

While on this point, something might be said of the part that many women play in supplementing, even in supplying the intellectual resources of their husbands to make them what they are in their professions. A wife behind the scenes does oftentimes more to advance a man’s worldly station than a whole library of Blackstones. If brilliant women got half the mental assistance from husbands and brothers that many men get from wives and sisters, it is quite probable that I should be here explaining why professional women succeed, instead of why they fail. Many great men have not been the greatest stockholders in the marital mental copartnership, though they have drawn the biggest dividends. \\ omen are nobler than men in this respect.

I remember, at a dinner at which many professors were present, asking in all innocence if a Professor Palmer, whose name was mentioned, was “the husband of Alice Freeman Palmer.”

“Ho, ho!” and “Ha, ha!” they laughed. “Listen to that! Brilliant Professor Palmer has become simply ‘the husband’ of Alice Freeman Palmer. See what becomes of a man who marries a famous woman !” Not a man present would have objected to being identified as the holder of such-and-such a professional chair, or as the partner in a business firm, but they would resent being known as “the husband of” anybody, from Aspasia downward. To a man they would have shrunk from a marriage that would have lifted

them into the bright white light of public acclaim, if the spot light was intended primarily for the woman.

So you see there are reasons and reasons why women do not keep on with their professions after marriage.

The argument that men will not give the exceptional woman an opportunity, owing to prejudices and personal conceit, even now when woman has established an equal right to work at a professional calling, may be disposed of under the head of impennanency through possible or probable marriage. If a woman isas capable an applicant as can be found for a position— which she seldom is—and does not get the position, she has not 'been kept out of it because of prejudice, but of well-founded knowledge that she cannot be counted upon as a fixed quantity.

The lack of the ballot accounts for something in weighing the failure of women to reach their greatest efficiency—humorous paragraphes to the contrary notwithstanding. Only the other day a prosy, slowgoing city accountant, far removed from the sound and fury of the suffragette movement, told with glee how he had held back for weeks the expense account of a woman city employe, though he had no doubt of its correctness. “What right has she, anyhow, to be drawing six thousand dollars a year of the city’s money, when a man like me only gets twelve hundred dollars?” -said he. “She ain’t got no vote, and employing her don’t win no voters.”

A leading suffragist, admitting the present unsatisfactoriness of the situation with respect to woman’s advancement, attributed it to working under men’s conditions. Said she: “If we cannot work under conditions

imposed by men let us make conditions of our own. Why suffer pasively the exactions of a man’s world? There are enough of us to make it a woman’s world. Say we cannot keep an even, uniform pace in our professions for a lifetime, as men do ; let us get the ballot, reorganize things, and make the work world a world that we can live comfortably in, since live in it we must, comfortably or uncomfortably.”

Taking things as we find them, women must work under men’s conditions, and that she has not yet learned to do. She has the disqualifications which are imposed •by nature, but sometimes it seems to the observer that she overcomes her natural

handicaps with far greater ease than she surrenders the self-imposed ones or those that are the result of wrong training. As has been said, women will not work hard enough, nor wait long enough, for the success they crave. They despise anything short of spectacular results that shall say to the beholder: ‘‘See, I'm but a young

women still. And here I am, at the top round of the ladder, while men many years my senior are still toiling at the bottom.” Too often a spectacular young woman at the top is there only by newspaper report. And when ripe knowledge in her line is wanted, the plodders are the ones to impart it.

About conserving physical and nervous energy, most professional women know nothing. A remark frequently heard from women is: “I can turn out twice as much work as Mr. Blank.” They overlook the fact that Mr. Blank has set a pace that he will keep comfortably possibly for forty years, and that they will not last ten at the rate they are going.

They do not save their strength in the way men do, by amusing themselves when not professionally engaged. Instead, they “fix over" their dresses, clean their flats, work on Christmas presents, and so on. “Puttering,” Clara Barton declares, “is what causes more professional women to break down than any other one thing.” She says that a woman cannot afford the luxury of being her own seamstress, housekeeper, nurse, and so on. “When you are not working at the business which is your very life, rest or play, don’t putter.”

Added to other handicaps, women burden themselves with unsuitable dress. A man’s clothes are loose, his shoes sensible, and his hat light and easily removed. He has no frills or fripperies about himself or his clothes to consume time in dressing. Infinite patience is required to adjust a woman’s clothes so that they will stay “put,” beginning with her hat, which, however sensible, still must be held on with pins, and be taken off with difficulty. She has much hair, which requires time and attention, and she adds the wearing of a veil to the rest of her cares. Loose as her clothes may be, the styles compel her to bind her neck and waist and feet. The simplest shirt-waist costume, straps her in and exhausts part of her energy. Before she begins work, she has put enough en-

ergy into dressing and wearing the clothes to carry her through half a day, especially if the season is unsuited to what she has on, which it usually is. In buffeting rains and wind, holding on a hat that is as a sail to a tacking ship, with skirts that wind and bind, with hair disheveled, and feet probably wet, she manages to reach her place of business, to begin a fair contest, as she thinks, with mankind.

Lack of business foresight in women is notorious, when it comes to saving money. Since they do not intend to be permanent, they squander their incomes and accustom themselves to a more lavish scale of living than the men who wish to marry them can afford, with the common result of unhappiness after marriage. Or if unmarried, as the years pass on, they begin to hear the tread of a new and fresher generation at their heels, as men have heard it for business ages—only men have had the foresight to prepare for it. Then comes the chilling apprehension of ultimate poverty, a future with no money saved, a smaller income or none, luxurious habits to support, no one to turn to, no family to love, nothing to represent forty or fifty years of living, twenty or more of professional experience, and much money earned. Courage and enthusiasm have ebbed. Life has become a thing to be feared.

There follows the state of mind which results in the daily tragedies in the newspapers, as when, last February, a capable woman, self-slain, wrote : “I am not afraid to compete, even in New York. I could build up as good a 'business here as I had in San Francisco, but what is the use? Even though I should attain the success for which I would start, it could not bring a single hope into my life or joy to my heart, so, wherefore struggle?”

It would not do to leave out of a consideration of woman’s failure to attain the success hoped for from her, an allegation often brought against the conscientious sex, if I may so call it, that is, that it is dishonest and untrustworthy in business life. This is the way one man who has dealt with many professional womeri put it: “Women are too tricky and elusive. You cannot pin them down to anything, or believe what they tell you, if their interests lie in another direction. I can tell if a man is lving, but a woman—never! That is why I am coming to have as little to do

with them in business as possible. It takes a woman to handle a woman.” Brokers tell me that a woman will go with open eyes into a deal in which she foresees success. Let failure ensue, and in nine out of ten cases, I am told, she will try to repudiate her bargain. She has no code of business honor, and some say no sense of honor at all. The accusation works hardships to her in business.

Woman is being driven back into the home—and in many cases there is no home. It behooves her to examine into her position more closely, take herself more seriously as a business factor, and strengthen her intrenchments, if she wishes to remain, or must remain, on the field of fight. She should copy men more assiduously with respect to business foresight and business honor, lav aside the vanities of sex and its wiles, mend her manner of dressing-—in a word, model herself on man’s pattern.

Can she do so? Will she? And if so,

will life be worth living to her after such a labor of readjustment and conformation ?

In mind, the business woman always figures to me as one tilting insecurely on a high office stool, straining her own and the onlooker's nerves—man, as one sitting back comfortably in an armchair, looking and feeling able to advise anyone on the cjuestion of success.

Only as the mother, the Madonna della Sedia, -with babe in arms, little ones clustered about her knee, does any woman attain the magnificent serenity, the poise of man, secure in the business world which he has created after his own image and likeness. Let me close as I began, with a quotation from Margaret Fuller, who became Ossoli, and the mother of a son :

“In earlier days I dreamed of doing and being much, but am now content with the Magdalen to rest my plea hereon, ‘She has loved much.’ ”