Story type: Essay
Having had occasion several times during this past season, to pass by the larger stores in the vicinity of Twenty-third Street, I have been struck more than ever, by the endless flow of womankind that beats against the doors of those establishments. If they were temples where a beneficent deity was distributing health, learning, and all the good things of existence, the rush could hardly have been greater. It saddened me to realize that each of the eager women I saw was, on the contrary, dispensing something of her strength and brain, as well as the wearily earned stipend of the men of her family (if not her own), for what could be of little profit to her.
It occurred to me that, if the people who are so quick to talk about the elevating and refining influences of women, could take an hour or two and inspect the centres in question, they might not be so firm in their beliefs. For, reluctant as I am to acknowledge it, the one great misfortune in this country, is the unnatural position which has been (from some mistaken idea of chivalry) accorded to women here. The result of placing them on this pedestal, and treating them as things apart, has been to make women in America poorer helpmeets to their husbands than in any other country on the face of the globe, civilized or uncivilized.
Strange as it may appear, this is not confined to the rich, but permeates all classes, becoming more harmful in descending the social scale, and it will bring about a disintegration of our society, sooner than could be believed. The saying on which we have all been brought up, viz., that you can gauge the point of civilization attained in a nation by the position it accords to woman, was quite true as long as woman was considered man’s inferior. To make her his equal was perfectly just; all the trouble begins when you attempt to make her man’s superior, a something apart from his working life, and not the companion of his troubles and cares, as she was intended to be.
When a small shopkeeper in Europe marries, the next day you will see his young wife taking her place at the desk in his shop. While he serves his customers, his smiling spouse keeps the books, makes change, and has an eye on the employees. At noon they dine together; in the evening, after the shop is closed, are pleased or saddened together over the results of the day. The wife’s dot almost always goes into the business, so that there is a community of interest to unite them, and their lives are passed together. In this country, what happens? The husband places his new wife in a small house, or in two or three furnished rooms, generally so far away that all idea of dining with her is impossible. In consequence, he has a “quick lunch” down town, and does not see his wife between eight o’clock in the morning and seven in the evening. His business is a closed book to her, in which she can have no interest, for her weary husband naturally revolts from talking “shop,” even if she is in a position to understand him.
His false sense of shielding her from the rude world makes him keep his troubles to himself, so she rarely knows his financial position and sulks over his “meanness” to her, in regard to pin-money; and being a perfectly idle person, her days are apt to be passed in a way especially devised by Satan for unoccupied hands. She has learned no cooking from her mother; “going to market” has become a thing of the past. So she falls a victim to the allurements of the bargain-counter; returning home after hours of aimless wandering, irritable and aggrieved because she cannot own the beautiful things she has seen. She passes the evening in trying to win her husband’s consent to some purchase he knows he cannot afford, while it breaks his heart to refuse her–some object, which, were she really his companion, she would not have had the time to see or the folly to ask for.
The janitor in our building is truly a toiler. He rarely leaves his dismal quarters under the sidewalk, but “Madam” walks the streets clad in sealskin and silk, a “Gainsborough” crowning her false “bang.” I always think of Max O’Rell’s clever saying, when I see her: “The sweat of the American husband crystallizes into diamond ear-rings for the American woman.” My janitress sports a diminutive pair of those jewels and has hopes of larger ones! Instead of “doing” the bachelor’s rooms in the building as her husband’s helpmeet, she “does” her spouse, and a char- woman works for her. She is one of the drops in the tide that ebbs and flows on Twenty-third Street–a discontented woman placed in a false position by our absurd customs.
Go a little further up in the social scale and you will find the same “detached” feeling. In a household I know of only one horse and a coupe can be afforded. Do you suppose it is for the use of the weary breadwinner? Not at all. He walks from his home to the “elevated.” The carriage is to take his wife to teas or the park. In a year or two she will go abroad, leaving him alone to turn the crank that produces the income. As it is, she always leaves him for six months each year in a half-closed house, to the tender mercies of a caretaker. Two additional words could be advantageously added to the wedding service. After “for richer for poorer,” I should like to hear a bride promise to cling to her husband “for winter for summer!”
Make another step up and stand in the entrance of a house at two A.M., just as the cotillion is commencing, and watch the couples leaving. The husband, who has been in Wall Street all day, knows that he must be there again at nine next morning. He is furious at the lateness of the hour, and dropping with fatigue. His wife, who has done nothing to weary her, is equally enraged to be taken away just as the ball was becoming amusing. What a happy, united pair they are as the footman closes the door and the carriage rolls off home! Who is to blame? The husband is vainly trying to lead the most exacting of double lives, that of a business man all day and a society man all night. You can pick him out at a glance in a ballroom. His eye shows you that there is no rest for him, for he has placed his wife at the head of an establishment whose working crushes him into the mud of care and anxiety. Has he any one to blame but himself?
In England, I am told, the man of a family goes up to London in the spring and gets his complete outfit, down to the smallest details of hat- box and umbrella. If there happens to be money left, the wife gets a new gown or two: if not, she “turns” the old ones and rejoices vicariously in the splendor of her “lord.” I know one charming little home over there, where the ladies cannot afford a pony-carriage, because the three indispensable hunters eat up the where-withal.
Thackeray was delighted to find one household (Major Ponto’s) where the governess ruled supreme, and I feel a fiendish pleasure in these accounts of a country where men have been able to maintain some rights, and am moved to preach a crusade for the liberation of the American husband, that the poor, down-trodden creature may revolt from the slavery where he is held and once more claim his birthright. If he be prompt to act (and is successful) he may work such a reform that our girls, on marrying, may feel that some duties and responsibilities go with their new positions; and a state of things be changed, where it is possible for a woman to be pitied by her friends as a model of abnegation, because she has decided to remain in town during the summer to keep her husband company and make his weary home-coming brighter. Or where (as in a story recently heard) a foreigner on being presented to an American bride abroad and asking for her husband, could hear in answer: “Oh, he could not come; he was too busy. I am making my wedding-trip without him.”