Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.

The living present : the work of French women in war time online

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support herself in a wholly congenial way. I did not
delude myself with the notion that she was a genius,
but I thought it likely she would become apt in
illustrating, and I knew that I could throw any amount
of work in her way, or secure her a position in the
art department of some magazine.

I took her to the European city where I was then
living and put her in the best of its art schools. To
make a long story short, after I had expended some
five thousand dollars on her, including traveling ex-
penses and other incidentals, the net result was an
elongated thumb. I was forced to the conclusion that
she had not an atom of real talent, merely the treach-
erous American facility. Moreover, she lost all her
interest in "art" when it meant hard work and per-
sistent application. I was wondering what on earth



268 THE LIVING PRESENT

I was to do with her when she solved the problem
herself. She announced with unusual decision that
she wanted to be a nurse, had always wanted to be a
nurse (she had never mentioned the aspiration to me)
and that nothing else interested her. Her mother had
been an invalid; one way or another she had seen a
good deal of illness.

Accordingly I sent her back to this country and
entered her, through the influence of friends, at a hos-
pital. She graduated at the head of her class, and
although that was three or four years ago she has
never been idle since. She elected to take infectious
cases, as the remuneration is higher, and although she
is very small, with such tiny hands and feet that while
abroad her gloves and boots had to be made to order,
no doubt she has so trained her body that the strains
in nursing fall upon no particular member.

In that case I paid for my own mistake, and she
found her level in ample time, which is as it should
be. Of what use is experience if you are to be misled
by family vanity? As she is pretty and quite mad
about children, no doubt she will marry ; but the point
is that she can wait; or, later, if the man should prove
inadequate, she can once more support herself, and
with enthusiasm, for she loves the work.

To be a nurse is no bed of roses ; but neither is any-
thing else. To be dependent in the present stage of
civilization is worse, and nothing real is accomplished
in life without work and its accompaniment of hard
knocks. Nursing is not only a natural vocation for



REAL VICTIMS OF "SOCIETY" 269

a woman, but an occupation which increases her matri-
monial chances about eighty per cent. Nor is it as
arduous after the first year's training is over as certain
other methods of wresting a livelihood from an unwill-
ing world reporting, for instance. It is true that only
the fit survive the first year's ordeal, but on the other
hand few girls are so foolish as to choose the nursing
career who do not feel within themselves a certain
stolid vitality. After graduation from the hospital
course their future depends upon themselves. Doctors
soon discover the most desirable among the new re-
cruits, others find permanent places in hospitals; and,
it may be added, the success of these young women
depends upon a quality quite apart from mere skill
personality. In the spring of 1915 I was in a hospital
and there was one nurse I would not have in the
room. I was told that she was one of the most
valuable nurses on the staff, but that was nothing
to me.

I could not see that any of the nurses in this large
hospital was overworked. All looked healthy and con-
tented. My own "night special," save when I had a
temperature and demanded ice, slept from the time
she prepared me for the night until she rose to pre-
pare me for the day, with the exception of the eleven
o'clock supper which she shared with the hospital
staff. Being very pretty and quite charming she will
marry, no doubt, although she refuses to nurse men.
But there are always the visiting doctors, the internes,
and the unattached men in households, where in the



270 THE LIVING PRESENT

most seductive of all garbs, she remains for weeks at
a time.

In fact nearly all nurses are pretty. I wonder
why?

The hospital nurses during the day arrived at inter-
vals to take my temperature, give me detestable nour-
ishment, or bring me flowers or a telephone message.
It certainly never occurred to me to pity any of them,
and when they lingered to talk they entertained me
with pleasant pictures of their days off. They struck
me as being able to enjoy life very keenly, possibly
because of being in a position to appreciate its con-
trasts.

I know the daughter of a wealthy and historic
family, whose head he is precisely the type of the
elderly, cold-blooded, self-righteous, self-conscious
New York aristocrat of the stage will not permit her
to gratify her desire to write for publication, "for,"
saith he, "I do not wish to see my honored name on
the back of works of fiction."

I do not think, myself, that he has deprived the
world of one more author, for if she had fiction in
her brain-cells no parental dictum could keep it con-
fined within the walls of her skull; but the point is
that being a young woman of considerable energy and
mental activity, she found mere society unendurable
and finally persuaded her father to make her one of
his secretaries. She learned not only stenography and
typewriting but telegraphy. There is a private appar-
atus in their Newport home for her father's con-



REAL VICTIMS OF "SOCIETY" 271

fidential work, and this she manipulates with the skill
of a professional. If the fortunes of her family should
go to pieces, she could find a position and support
herself without the dismal and health-racking transi-
tion which is the fate of so many unfortunate girls
suddenly bereft and wholly unprepared.



in

The snobbishness of this old gentleman is by no
means a prerogative of New York's "old families."
One finds it in every class of American men above the
industrial. In Honore Willsie's novel, Lydia of the
Pines, an American novel of positive value, the father
was a day laborer, as a matter of a fact (although of
good old New England farming stock), earning a
dollar and a half a day, and constantly bemoaning the
fact; yet when "young Lydia," who was obliged to
dress like a scarecrow, wished to earn her own pin-
money by making fudge he objected violently. The
itching pride of the American male deprives him of
many comforts and sometimes of honor and freedom,
because he will not let his wife use her abilities and
her spare time. He will steal or embezzle rather than
have the world look on while "his" wife ekes out the
family income. The determined Frenchwomen have
had their men in training for generations, and the
wife is the business partner straight up to the haute
bourgeoisie; but the American woman, for all her
boasted tyranny over the busy male of her land, is



272 THE LIVING PRESENT

either an expensive toy or a mere household drudge,
until years and experience give her freedom of spirit.
This war will do more to liberate her than that mild
social earthquake called the suffrage movement. The
rich women are working so hard that not only do
they dress and entertain far less than formerly but
their husbands are growing quite accustomed to their
separate prominence and publicly admitted usefulness.
The same may be said of groups of women in less
conspicuous classes, and when the war is over it is safe
to say these women will continue to do as they please.
There is something insidiously fascinating in work to
women that never have worked, not so much in the
publicity it may give but in the sense of mental ex-
pansion; and, in the instance of war, the passion of
usefulness, the sense of dedication to a high cause, the
necessary frequent suppression of self, stamp the soul
with an impress that never can be obliterated. That
these women engaged in good works often quarrel
like angry cats, or fight for their relief organization as
a lioness would fight for her hungry cub, is beside the
point. That is merely another way of admitting they
are human beings; not necessarily women, but just
human beings. As it was in the beginning, is now, etc.
Far better let loose their angry passions in behalf of
the men who are fighting to save the world from a
reversion to barbarism, than rowing their dressmakers,
glaring across the bridge table, and having their blood
poisoned by eternal jealousy over some man.

And if it will hasten the emancipation of the Amer-



REAL VICTIMS OF "SOCIETY" 273

ican man from the thralldom of snobbery still another
barrier will go down in the path of the average woman.
Just consider for a moment how many men are fail-
ures. They struggle along until forty or forty-five
"on their own," although fitted by nature to be clerks
and no more, striving desperately to keep up appear-
ances for the sake of their own pride, for the sake
of their families, even for the sake of being "looked
up to" by their wife and observant offspring. But
without real hope, because without real ability (they
soon, unless fools, outlive the illusions of youth when
the conquest of fortune was a matter of course) al-
ways in debt, and doomed to defeat.

How many women have said to me women in their
thirties or early forties, and with two or three children
of increasing demands: "Oh, if I could help! How
unjust of parents not to train girls to do something
they can fall back on. I want to go to work myself
and insure my children a good education and a start
in the world, but what can I do? If I had been
specialized in any one thing I'd use it now whether
my husband liked it or not. But although I have
plenty of energy and courage and feel that I could
succeed in almost anything I haven't the least idea how
to go about it."

If a woman's husband collapses into death or desue-
tude while her children are young, it certainly is the
bounden duty of some member of her family to sup-
port her until her children are old enough to go to
school, for no one can take her place in the home be-



274 THE LIVING PRESENT

fore that period. Moreover, her mind should be as
free of anxiety as her body of strain. But what a
ghastly reflection upon civilization it is when she is
obliged to stand on her feet all day in a shop or fac-
tory, or make tempting edibles for some Woman's
Exchange, because she cannot afford to spend time
upon a belated training that might admit her lucra-
tively to one of the professions or business industries.

The childless woman solves the problem with com-
parative ease. She invariably shows more energy and
decision, provided, of course, these qualities have been
latent within her.

Nevertheless, it is often extraordinary just what she
does do. For instance I knew a family of girls upon
whose college education an immense sum had been
expended, and whose intellectual arrogance I never
have seen equalled. When their father failed and
died, leaving not so much as a small life insurance,
what did they do? Teach? Write? Edit? Become
some rich and ignorant man's secretary? Not a bit
of it. They cooked. Always noted in their palmy
days for their "table," and addicted to relieving the
travail of intellect with the sedative of the homeliest
of the minor arts, they began on preserves for the
Woman's Exchange; and half the rich women in
town were up at their house day after day stirring
molten masses in a huge pot on a red-hot range.

It was Lsometime before they were taken seriously,
and, particularly after the enthusiasm of their friends
waned, there was a time of hard anxious struggle.



REAL VICTIMS OF "SOCIETY" 275

But they were robust and determined, and in time
they launched out as caterers and worked up a first-
class business. They took their confections to the
rear entrances of their friends' houses on festive occa-
sions and accepted both pay and tips with lively grati-
tude. They educated their younger brothers and lost
their arrogance. They never lost their friends.

Owing to dishonest fiction the impression prevails
throughout the world that "Society" is heartless and
that the rich and well-to-do drop their friends the mo-
ment financial reverses force them either to reduce
their scale of living far below the standard, or go to
work. When that happens it is the fault of the re-
versed, not of the entrenched. False pride, constant
whining, or insupportable irritabilities gradually force
them into a dreary class apart. If anything, people
of wealth and secure position take a pride in standing
by their old friends (their "own sort"), in showing
themselves above all the means sins of which fiction
and the stage have accused them, and in lending what
assistance they can. Even when the head of the
family has disgraced himself and either blown out his
brains or gone to prison, it depends entirely upon the
personalities of his women whether or not they retain
their friends. In fact any observant student of life
is reminded daily that one's real position in the world
depends upon personality, more particularly if backed
by character. Certainly it is nine-tenths of the battle
for struggling women.

Another woman whom I always had looked upon



276 THE LIVING PRESENT

as a charming butterfly, but who, no doubt, had long
shown her native shrewdness and determination in the
home, stepped into her husband's shoes when he col-
lapsed from strain, abetted by drink, and now com-
petes in the insurance business with the best of the
men. But she had borne the last of her children and
she has perfect health.

Galsworthy's play, The Fugitive, may not have been
good drama but it had the virtue of provoking thought
after one had left the theater. More than ever it
convinced me, at least, that the women of means and
leisure with sociological leanings should let the work-
ing girl take care of herself for a time and devote
their attention to the far more hopeless problem of
the lady suddenly thrown upon her own resources.

No doubt this problem will have ceased to exist
twenty years hence. Every girl, rich or poor, and
all grades between, will have specialized during her
plastic years on something to be used as a resource;
but at present there are thousands of young women
who find the man they married in ignorance an im-
possible person to live with and yet linger on in
wretched bondage because what little they know of
social conditions terrifies them. If they are pretty
they fear other men as much as they fear their own
husbands, and for all the "jobs" open to unspecialized
women, they seem to be preeminently unfitted. If the
rich women of every large city would build a great
college in which every sort of trade and profession
could be taught, from nursing to stenography, from



REAL VICTIMS OF "SOCIETY" 277

retouching photographs to the study of law, while the
applicant, after her sincerity had been established, was
kept in comfort and ease of mind, with the under-
standing that she should repay her indebtedness in
weekly installments after the college had launched her
into the world, we should have no more such ghastly
plays as The Fugitive or hideous sociological tracts as
A Bed of Roses.



IV
ONE SOLUTION OF A GREAT PROBLEM



THE world is willing and eager to buy what it
wants. If you have goods to sell you soon find
your place at the counter, unless owing to some fault
of character your fellow barterers and their patrons
will have none of you. Of course there is always the
meanest of all passions, jealousy, waiting to thwart
you at every turn, but no woman with a modicum of
any one of those wares the world wants and must
have need fear any enemy but her own loss of courage.

The pity is that so many women with no particular
gift and only minor energies are thrust into the eco-
nomic world without either natural or deliberate
equipment. All that saves them in nine cases out of
ten is conserved energies, and if they are thrust out
too young they are doubly at a disadvantage.

A good deal has been written about the fresh en-
thusiasm of the young worker, as contrasted with the
slackened energies and disillusioned viewpoint of
middle life. But I think most honest employers will
testify that a young girl worker's enthusiasm is for
closing time, and her dreams are not so much of the

278



A GREAT PROBLEM 279

higher skilfulness as of the inevitable man. Nature
is inexorable. She means that the young things shall
reproduce. If they will not or cannot that is not her
fault ; she is always there with the urge. Even when
girls think they sell themselves for the adornments so
dear to youth they are merely the victims of the race,
driven toward the goal by devious ways. Nature, of
course, when she fashioned the world reckoned with-
out science. I sometimes suspect her of being of
German origin, for so methodical and mechanical is-
her kultur that she will go on repeating "two and
two make four" until the final cataclysm.

I think that American women are beginning to
realize that American men are played out at forty-five ;
or fifty, at the most. There are exceptions, of course,
but with the vast majority the strain is too great and
the rewards are too small. They cannot retire in time.
I have a friend who, after a brilliant and active career,
has withdrawn to the communion of nature and be-
come a philosopher. He insists that all men should
be retired by law at forty-five and condemned to
spend the rest of their days tilling the soil gratis for
women and the rising generation. The outdoor life
would restore a measure of their dissipated vitality
and prolong their lives.

This may come to pass in time : stranger things have
happened. But, as I remarked before, it is the present
we have to consider. It seems to me it would be a
good idea if every woman who is both protected and
untrained but whose husband is approaching forty



280 THE LIVING PRESENT

should, if not financially independent, begin seriously
to think of fitting herself for self-support. The time
to prepare for possible disaster is not after the torpedo
has struck the ship.

A thousand avenues are open to women, and fresh
ones open yearly. She can prepare secretly, or try her
hand at first one and then another (if she begins by
being indeterminate) of such congenial occupations as
are open to women of her class, beyond cooking, teach-
ing, clerking. Those engaged in reforms, economic
improvements, church work, and above all, to-day, war
relief work, should not be long discovering their
natural bent as well as its marketable value, and the
particular rung of the ladder upon which to start.

Many women whose energies have long been ab-
sorbed by the home are capable of flying leaps. These
women still in their thirties, far from neglecting their
children when looking beyond the home, are merely
ensuring their proper nourishment and education.

Why do not some of the public spirited women,
whose own fortunes are secure, form bureaus where
all sorts of women, apprehensive of the future, may
be examined, advised, steered on their way? In this
they would merely be taking a leaf from the present
volume of French history its women are writing. It is
the women of independent means over there who have
devised so many methods by which widows and girls
and older spinsters tossed about in the breakers of
war may support themselves and those dependent upon
them. There is Mile. Thompson's cole Feminine, for



A GREAT PROBLEM 281

instance, and Madame Goujon's hundred and one prac-
tical schemes which I will not reiterate here.

Women of the industrial class in the United States
need new laws, but little advice how to support them-
selves. They fall into their natural place almost auto-
matically, for they are the creatures of circumstances,
which are set in motion early enough to determine
their fate. If they do hesitate their minds are quickly
made up for them by either their parents or their
social unit. The great problem to-day is for the
women of education, fastidiousness, a certain degree
of ease, threatened with a loss of that male support
upon which ancient custom bred them to rely. Their
children will be specialized ; they will see to that. But
their own problem is acute and it behooves trained and
successful women to take it up, unless the war lasts so
long that every woman will find her place as inevitably
as the working girl.

II

For a long time to come women will be forced to
leave the administering of the nation as well as of
states and cities to men, for men are still too strong
for them. The only sort of women that men will
spontaneously boost into public life are pretty, bright,
womanly, spineless creatures who may be trusted to
set the cause of woman back a few years at least,
and gratify man's own sense of humorous superiority.

Women would save themselves much waste of
energy and many humiliations if they would devote



282 THE LIVING PRESENT

themselves exclusively to helping and training their
own sex. Thousands are at work on the problems of
higher wage and shorter hours for women of the in-
dustrial class, but this problem of the carefully
nurtured, wholly untrained, and insecurely protected
woman they have so far ignored. To my mind this
demands the first consideration and the application of
composite woman's highest intelligence. The indus-
trial woman has been trained to work, she learns as
she grows to maturity to protect herself and fight her
own battles, and in nine cases out of ten she resents
the interference of the leisure class in her affairs as
much as she would charity. The leaders of every
class should be its own strong spirits. And the term
"class consciousness" was not invented by fashionable
society.

There is another problem that women, forced im-
minently or prospectively to support themselves, must
face before long, and that is the heavy immigration
from Europe. Of course some of those competent
women over there will keep the men's jobs they hold
now, and among the widows and the fatherless there
will be a large number of clerks and agriculturists.
But many reformes will be able to fill those positions
satisfactorily, and, when sentiment has subsided,
young women at least (who are also excellent work-
ers) will begin to think of husbands ; and, unless the
war goes on for many years and reduces our always
available crop, American girls of the working class
will have to look to their laurels both ways.



A GREAT PROBLEM 283

in

Here is the reverse of the picture, which possibly
may save the too prosperous and tempting United
States from what in the end could not fail to be a
further demoralization of her ancient ideals and
depletion of the old American stock :

No matter how many men are killed in a war there
are more males when peace is declared than the dead
and blasted, unless starvation literally has sent the
young folks back to the earth. During any war chil-
dren grow up, and even in a war of three years' dura-
tion it is estimated that as against four million males
killed there will be six million young males to carry
on the race as well as its commerce and industries.
For the business of the nation and high finance there
are the men whose age saved them from the dangers
of the battlefield.

There will therefore be many million marriageable
men in Europe if the war ends in 1917. But they will,
for the most part, be of a very tender age indeed, and
normal young women between twenty and thirty do
not like spring chickens. They are beloved only by
idealess girls of their own age, by a certain type of
young women who are alluded to slightingly as "crazy
about boys," possibly either because men of mature
years find them uninteresting or because of a certain
vampire quality in their natures, and by blasee elderly
women who generally foot the bills.

Dr. Talcott Williams pointed out to me not long



284 THE LIVING PRESENT

since that after all great wars, and notably after our
own Civil War, there has been a signal increase in
the number of marriages in which the preponderance
of years was on the wrong side. Also that it was not
until after our own war that the heroine of fiction
began to reverse the immemorial procedure and marry
a man her inferior in years. In other words, any-
thing she could get. This would almost argue that
fiction is not only the historian of life but its apologist.

It is quite true that young men coming to maturity
during majestic periods of the world's history are not
likely to have the callow brains and petty ideals which
distinguished the average youth of peace. Even boys
of fourteen these days talk intelligently of the war and


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Online LibraryGertrude Franklin Horn AthertonThe living present : the work of French women in war time → online text (page 17 of 19)