Strange New Change in Woman’s World
Agnes C. Laut
Who wrote “The Canadian Commonwealth,’’ “Lords of the North,” etc.
change is coming in woman’s world, such a strange new change and so silent and unobtrusive, that you and I, who marched in the vanguard of progress yesterday, will waken up to find ourselves sitting on the roadside, while the tail of a comet whips past ushering a new world into space.
Three editors of three of the largest women’s magazines in America were sitting in a New York literary club discussing the premature decease of two other women’s magazines, each of which had a circulation of 600,000 at the time of shut down. One editor presided over the destinies of a magazine that openly and honestly for ten years has played up “the oak and the ivy” as the leit-motif-feminism, pro-feminism with the pedal on the pro. “Here I am, sob on my neck, O Sob-Sister! Come to my arms, O fainting Amelia, and throw a fit every publication day if you want to! I’ll lay consolation on with a shove! and dope you with sympathy till you have a real grouch against life—only keep the subscriptions rolling in, Sob-Sister — see?”
(Only the editor didn’t put it that way except when he was laughing with his confreres.)
The second editor played up sex appeal as his leading motive, all draped in wisteria, of course, usually with a baby and a babv-bottle drawn on the cover by some young man artist, who never in all his life had chucked a real baby under its real little dimpled chin or kissed a real baby on the silky little nest of curls at the nape of its neck. “Remember,” he used to say, “not a line in this sheet, that isn’t keyed to ‘Rock a by baby!’ Every family that has a kid will be interested; and think of the ads. in the kid interests. Only remember all women have to get their facts sentimentalized and dramatized.” (Give ’em goo, but don’t let ’em know it.)
The third editor was a bit of a laughing cynic—he was simply obeying the business office orders. He played a variation of “fainting Amelia” and “baby-bottle” motive. His specialty was a “Mariana of the Moated Grange,” a Tragedy Queen, a Somebody, Anybody, fearfully sorry for herself over something or other, preferably a Grand Dame, or else a reformatory inmate, always tip-toeing on the edge of things and invoking High Heaven and men—specially men—if she tipped
over the edge. All three editors added plum puddings and health lectures and spiritual advice and dress as a sort of salad, or entree hash to the main motive; but what brought the lugubrious expression to the three faces that day at the literary club was the proof in the demise of the two 600,000 magazines that the old motive didn’t draw any more. Baited never so craftily, the anglers were not catching the fish. “Boys—I’ll tell you what the trouble is,” declared one. “Those magazines didn’t get circulation. They bought it; and they spent more money buying it than the cash value of the subscriptions thatcame in ; the bigger they grew, the deeper they went in the hole; and we’re doing the very same thing. Subscriptions don’t renew themselves with us as they used to. We have to force the renewals. It isn’t the war; and it isn’t the screaming sisterhood. It’s that we aren’t giving women what they want; and we haven’t found what they want. We haven’t visioned it yet; and what I ask myself is whether the day hasn’t passed when women’s interests are anything different from men’s interests—whether we
won’t have to key the whole game to humanity, and can this lallygag kindergarten piffle.”
And the women chose editors were trying to appeal to were not the screaming sisterhood, the militants. Nor were they the fainting feminists. They were just the average woman on the day’s job—in the house, or out of it—they were just you and me—with anologies to the grammarians for the “me.”
YY?HEN William Allen ' ' White came back from the war—altogether apart from what he writes of it—he admitted to his intimates that he was afraid to say what he thought. He had hardly visioned it; but the leit-motif was deeper and subtler than the will to conquest and commercial domination on the part of Germany. The novelist wanted to go home and talk it over with his wife before he knew whathethought, but it looked to him like the Great Blond Beast wrestling with the Spirit, the carnal Pagan who m Watts, the artist, has painted as the Minotaur, fighting the Knights of the Cross, Club Kulture versus Chivalry — White didn’t insult the beasts of the field by comparing Germans to them.
On one side, he saw the results of crimes of insensate infatuate frenzied fury—the psychology of which physicians should explain to laymen. He saw enemy women mutilated by Germans; and he heard of German women subjected by their own race on official orders to sufferings which would bring the blush of shame to an obscene aborigine. On the other side, he saw women and girls, impoverished, perhaps barefooted and hungry, but with their heads held high and an unquenchable light in their eyes. He saw women and girls of the Allied nations driving ambulances in the danger zone, working in the most dangerous trades of the munition factories, toiling sunburned and wind-blown out of doors on the farms, toiling like Trojans, Red Cross nurses working to the limit and over-limit of their strength, women police officers and women elevator “men,” and women railroad conductors. About the time White came back to America, the railroads of this country admitted women to executive positions and several big firms in Wall Street admitted women to official partnerships. Also half a dozen States and several allied governments did not wait for women to ask for the vote—did not wait
for women to force the vote by militancy. They handed it to them on a golden platter and begged them to take it.
Was it but yesterday any after dinner speaker could bring the house down by the little rhyme: —
“Rock-a-by baby, mamma is gone!
She went to a caucus and will be till
She wore papa’s trousers and in them looked queer,
But rock-a-by baby, papa is here.”
And when elections were held in a certain State last fall, a corporal’s guard of women stood outside each polling booth and to; k care of the baby carriages, while the women went in to vote. “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” Is that what the war is about? In other wars, except for nurses, only one type of women has taken active part in the conflict; and they yet stand for Germany’s idea of woman in war. In this war, as far as the Allies are concerned, there is hardly any variety of work except trench service, which women have not seized eagerly; and there are those who predict that rather than see the ideals for which the Allies are fighting trampled in the gutter by the Great Blond Beast, women will yet volunteer for the firing line. We may piously pray—“God forbid;” but there are worse things than dying for an ideal. There is living on while the ideal is trampled in the gutter.
THE one signal failure of the American Administration to date is in not utilizing its woman power. This has been especially true of the Food Administration. If food administration is to spur up abundance of production, then it is a job for the Agricultural Department; but if it is to save food, then it is a job for the housekeeper; and not a single woman is on all the Food Administration’s executive; so that one of the agricultural journals has a cartoon of the Food Administrators billowing about in an airship among the clouds lost hopelessly because they left their pilot—a figure in skirts— back on solid earth. Curiously enough, while the Administration has failed to utilize woman power, the big business and indu striai w o r1d has eagerly seized the chance.
Farm, factory, bank, railroad, munition works, motor works, ship building —a 11 have welcomed the new accession o f workers with both hands; and the only explanation of the Administration’s failure to do so except in a purely clerical way is that the old time Southern Democrat is the domin-
ant voice in Washington; and the old time Southern Democrat is democratic in everything but fact. He is more of a reactionary and an aristocrat than the British House of Lords.
What is the reaction going to be on the individual woman?
What is the reaction going to be on the home?
What is the reaction going to be on the economic and trades union world? The question of wages, for instance? The boys at Camp Upton may sing—“We won’t go back to sissy jobs any more;” but when they come back, perhaps slightly maimed physically, will they leave their sister substitutes in the bank, and go out to a man-sized job in the open? A mansized job without kid gloves?
I DON’T purpose answering any of those questions with opinions or theories. It seems to me there are not any more opinions or theories left in this war. The war has reversed everything we thought we knew; and we are all creeping with the faith of little children, or pioneers, from fact to fact along a new trail to a new destiny; and I have enough faith in God to hope the destiny will roll us, not back to the sink of a cesspool, but forward to that dawn the prophets called a millennium. The millennium was to come—you recall—after the Beast was slain—the idea beneath the inarticulate gropings in William Allen White’s mind; and if we slay the Beast, we can always leave the Afterwards to God.
Meanwhile, taking facts only as the answers to the question—what is the reaction on the individual woman? Is standing in a street car any more injurious to health than standing behind a counter? Is standing behind a counter any more injurious than standing over a kitchen stove? Is working out of doors any more injurious than pegging over an electric sewing machine in a shirt waist factory? I had to go through the Lower Bowery in New' York the other night in search of some farm help and took a lower
East Side surface car. A rather stunted type of foreign boy was the street car conductor. The car was empty except for myself till a young girl hopped on of about the same status as the boy with the same half foreign accent. She was dressed in khaki cap marked, “conductor,” khaki overcoat, bloomer trousers, cloth puttees, low-heeled broad-soled shoes; but she had a little of a daughter of the old Eve left. Her shirt waist was cut low almost to her waist, though she had her neck swathed in bandages as though recovering from an operation on her tonsils. I’ll wager in a year that shirt waist will be replaced by a high necked flannel collar and soft tie. It will be replaced because the girl without any consciousness of it herself will have found a basis of comradeship appeal rather than sex appeal.
Now if there is one place on earth where girls and boys ogle unabashed without introductions it is on the lower East Side foreign section of New York; and I became a very unobstrusive audience. They said “Hullo” as members of the same craft, and each asked the other which line they were on for the shift. (A year ago, she would have ogled and he would have winked.) Then:
He—“Yep—an’ I’m goin’-.”
She—“Then I guess it’s a cash in for
the undertaker for you, old scout-”
He—“Well, if 'tis, I guess there are lots of good old sports like you to take my place.” All to an accompaniment of broad happy comradeship grins. It reminded me of the West, where you speak to every passer-by on the trail; and “Evil to be him who evil thinks of it.”
OR another example! Last year there was so much fool advice poured out to farmers how to increase their crops that I confess I became fearfully sceptical of town plans to supply labor for farms, especially city plans that involved self-advertising in the form of “society women” photographed in bloomers hoeing little checker board gardens. I saw famine on the horizon, and these baby cabbage patches looked to me like the foolery of children sailing paper boats on a summer sea; but a lot of farm camps were estab1i s h e d to teach and train girls how to get back to outdoor work. I visited one about forty miles south of where I live; and I went pre-prei u d i c e d. I loathe selfconscious freaks and s e 1 f-advertisers; and I went expecting to see a lot of fools dressed in boys’ clothes. True, I saw
girls dressed in men’s attire—some in bloomers, some in blue jeans, the majority in the neat knee khaki now so familiar to us in soldier uniform; but I did not see one self-conscious girl out of forty.
There were girls from the East Side sweat shops.
There were teachers from the public schools and the universities. There were daughters of rich land owners, come to learn how to manage estates that would some day be theirs ; and there were no class, no caste distinctions. The camp was run on lines of rigid economy that were almost hardships. I could not keep hired help on my own farm with such scant comfort. At first when the girls went among the estates of i. :j rich farm colony, the managers would not hire them. By October, there were daily eighty more applicants for the girl farmers than the camp could.supply: and they had to be paid more than the average hired man—25 cents an hour for an 8 hour day. I have no comment to make, though it is worth while to set down the comment from one of the girls from the East side.
“How about it?” she was asked.
“How about it?” she repeated. “Oh, if we could only get permanent jobs on farms! How will we ever be able to endure going back? Think of running a sewing machine and smothering in an apartment house after this.”
I could not but ask myself as we motored away—if she married would she not be a steadier-nerved wife from life in the open? If she had children, would she not be likely to give her children healthier constitutions if she lived in the open, than if she drove—drove—drove a sewing machine run by a demon of electric speed? And I had gone pre-prejudiced looking for freaks.
OOTH these cases are from a lower rung *-* of the social scale. Take one from the pampered rich, the spoiled by being rieb. I shall disguise this case slightly; for the name is well known. She had never buttoned a boot, or picked up a discarded garment, or dressed herself unaided in all her life; and if she had borne any other name than the one she did, she would have been notorious as a spoiled, utterly selfish little brute. She had divorced one husband, married another and was looking for mischief with a third. She made herself an absolute curse in her family with what she called “nerves” but to which a great nerve specialist called in gave another name. He said it was lack
of sound spanking whc-r. she was young. She had taken to bed with two trained nurses—hysterics, bad temper, head aches —when “the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters,” or in other words, when a lot of little souls began to escape from their prisons of selfishness and be redeemed through service in the war. I cannot give the details more closely here. She is now driving a sixty horse power motor, never has a headache, and has placed her aeroplane at the disposal of the
What is the reaction on the individual woman? Facts answer good. Some may overstrain; but overstrain in a good cause is not so destructive to character as rotting from idleness, or the blue fungus of social envy and discontent.
What is the reaction going to be on the home?
Facts have already answered that, too. Steadier nerves, fewer “jumps,” stronger bodies for motherhood, a new sense of responsibility, little souls redeemed by consecration to service instead of self. If there is love, no power on earth will prevent mating; and if there are children and love, the children will stand supremely first. The mating and the children without love, well—that is Germany’s way; and you are back to the Minotaur fighting the knight of the Cross.
What is the reaction going to be on the economic world? Wages for instance? Women’s wages have automatically gone to the same level as men’s wages for the same work; and that is the red hot end of a very hot poker, when you come to consider the labor unions. Will it ultimately cut the man’s wages to a lower level? It hasn’t yet and with man power scarce, I cannot see that it will. Also it seems to me, it is going to lay on woman a new sense of obligation as to work, a new demand as to equal efficiency. If she receives equal wages, she cannot compete in jobs where her efficiency is, not absolutely equal. Too often, work outside the home
with a woman has been a temporary makeshift, at a make shift lower wage. It was a temporary makeshift for two reasons. First society d i d not sanction her working after she was married; so work was a fill-in for a girl till she chose a mate. Second, even if she chose to continue a
after marriage, there was next to no possibility o f working up to an executive position, of earning, say, a partnership in a banking o r factory busin e s s; but with man power called to the firing line, these partnerships are now being offered to her as she earns them.
After the w-ar, when the men come back —w'hat? We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it; and countless hosts will cross that bridge going to the war, who will never cross it coming back. Like the Knights of the Cross, they have perished storming the redoubts of the Minotaur.
'T'HOUGH no one ever as long as time lasts after the war should be fool enough to utter economic prophecies as to what may or may not happen, there is a thought here. It conies from the boys’ camp song— “We’ll never go back to sissy jobs again.” It does not matter how long the war lasts. In three years, five million people have died of hunger in the war area of Europe. With fewer and fewer hands to produce food, food is going to be one of the scarcest and dearest commodities for years to come. Spike down prices, and production stops. Spike up prices, and slim purses cannot buy. A lot of people are going to be compelled to revert to the primitive law—If a man shall not work, neither shall he eat. If they want to eat, they are going to be compelled to raise with their own hands what they eat; for they will not have the money to buy it any more than to buy diamonds.
Again if food prices become permanently high for a term of years, food production is going to come up on the plane of a skilled business. It is going to pay better than factory production with a continuity and certainty of roof and food, which factory work does not know and can never guarantee. That being the case, I cannot believe that forty million virile fighters, who have lived in the open, will come back eager to resume “sissy jobs” behind the counter and desk. I think they are going out after a man-sized job; but this is not prophecy. It is only speculation on the inter-action of facts.