Skip to main content

The Case of the American Woman

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

It is an ironic case, the case of the American woman to-day. She is caught in a trap not entirely of her own making: it was laid for her by nature at the beginning of her evolution on this continent, but she has missed no opportunity of adding teeth to its jaws. They have closed on her now; she can go no further until she will have somehow contrived to recapture a whole scale of relations in life that were hers once to be lived but which she let slip from her life far back.

For of all women in the world it was to be her fate to lack the “protection” and the “authority” of man, to evolve as she pleased; that was the trap. She met nature’s condition and evolved independently all on her own; this famous independence of hers constitutes exactly her case to-day. She evolved alone, she stands alone, she is alone. For the very process that matured her—insofar, that is, as she is matured —appears to have worked in just the opposite way for the American man, to have kept him, so far as his relation to her is concerned, adolescent, a boy. That is the irony of her case, that her development has retarded his and that his lack of development is just the barrier in her way to anything more. It was no plot on her part that in expanding the circle of her activities she should effeminize this country, but the effeminization of the nation is of all the queer results of her evolution the queerest. If it ever was a man’s country, it is that no more. The stamp of the feminine is on everything and the attitude of the American man to the American woman is the most unvirile thing in the land.

To-day the world of Europe—the world of Asia too— marvels at both of them. They are unique in the world. They have furnished all the rest of civilization the spectacle not to be seen anywhere else ofj a pair of wills, a pair of energies, a pair of activities identical with each other, existing on the whole fairly amiably side by side. This general amiability in the working partnership of the American man and the American woman is what stuns the rest of the world. It is what makes the European observer call us a sexless nation, and there is more truth than error in that allegation. Elsewhere differences between men and women are emphasized and life revolves about sex. Here likenesses are emphasized and it has oddly enough come to pass that life here revolves about a sex—woman.

Certainly to any impartial onlooker the dominant sex in America is not the male sex. “Masculine authority,” a phrase that means something everywhere else in the world, means here, outside of the business world, practically nothing at all; we smile at the sound of the words. By and large, the head of the family, here is the woman; the mother has taken over the father’s authority and the father is much more like another child in the home, the brave eldest son who supports the family. He has created America, yes. He threw out its great sprawling skeleton and bound all its bones with the tendons of “business.” But just that task absorbed all his will, all his energy, all his activity. He had nothing left over for wife or for children, no surplus strength on which to draw for guiding or for combating the independent will of the woman beside him who was herself performing a herculean task—time’s task—in civilizing the monster he had created. Logic would say that a touch at least of masculine authority in deciding the trend of that civilization would not have been without value, but man’s leisureless life left him no hour in which to work with or against the feminine will. His only salvation against his demanding to-morrow was an acquiescence, good-natured, ill-tempered, or indifferent, to all her plans. This is the whole secret of the general amiability between this pair of identical wills, identical energies, identical activities; that here in America, except in the business world, the ordinary relation of woman to man has been reversed; that in all that has determined the course of their personal lives she has been the active force, because in all that determined that course he accepted far back in his relation to her the passive role. Is the American woman satisfied with this relation to-day? Is the American man? I think not. But the trap nature laid for them caught them and still holds them fast. It will take a deal of cunning on both sides to work free.


They were trapped at the beginning—the great clue to them both is the historic clue. It has taken nearly three thousand years of life on a little peninsula to make an Italian, nearly two thousand years of island life to make an Englishman—and so through the roll call of the races. But we Americans are the product of hardly more than three hundred years of life on an enormous continent—heirs of all the ages on those easy terms. We have developed literally by decades instead of by centuries; we count our generations by ten instead of one hundred. We have missed that period of slow development in which native manners and customs take firm root for background. Speak of an Englishman: a rounded, living figure rises immediately before the mind’s eye. Speak of English folklore, English tradition, English religion, English manners and customs: they have a form as much as their people. Then speak of an American: a figure rises before us indeed, but it is more that of a silhouette moving against a stark-white, magic-lantern sheet than a three-dimensional body standing firm on its feet. It has length and breadth but no thickness. Speak of American folklore, American tradition, American religion, American manners and customs: either they do not exist at all or they are formless. However miraculously we have attained in three centuries to the glories of some long-sunk Babylon, we have nevertheless missed more of the fruits of time than we have gathered in our swift course through the centuries. We have missed the charm of native tradition, the wisdom of native folklore, the tranquillity of native customs, the common bond of a native philosophy, a native religion, a native song, a native dance, a native poetry and painting and architecture. We have missed, in a word, the deep, rich, thick, masculine—as well as feminine—background that makes for serenity and self-confidence, qualities quite different from cocksureness and daring, which latter we have in superabundance.

All this is simply to say that we are still a pioneer race, even though a pioneer race living in luxury; that we dropped the ax and the gun incredibly soon to take up the dollar as the instrument for civilization; that we broke into the world with gold as rudely as we broke into the continent with axes, our garb and speech and maimers and attitude that of pioneers; that the American woman has always lacked the realization of the protection of man just as the American man has always lacked the inner conviction and spur of her dependence upon him, because her relation to him has been always that of the pioneer woman to her mate. What is that relation? Almost that of man to man in paired wills, paired energies, in matched initiative, in identical daring.

For the pioneer period of wealth followed on the heels of the pioneer conquest of the continent. The woman who followed her man into the forest and across mountains and prairies until they stood side by side on the Pacific coast was never a sheltered flower. Surely her man fought for her when he could, but much of the time he could not; there was other distant work for him to do, and in his absence—and even beside him—she fought for herself and her children. This was the “feminine” spirit that hung over the land for more than two hundred years; we are removed from it today by less than a century.. It blew back from the West into the settled East where a pioneer woman with other aims and other weapons for conquest was already arising. Her aim was not the planting of fields but the culture of manners and customs; her sole weapon for conquering that great American desert and making it flower like a garden was gold and more gold.

In the primeval forest she had her man. In this desert she stood alone. Here even less than before was she to feel the ability of her man to protect her and guide her in any old sense of those terms. And here he was to suffer a collapse of old dominations and powers almost complete. Just here masculine authority, masculine knowledge, masculine power, masculine instinct met their Waterloo; and feminine instinct, feminine power, feminine knowledge, feminine authority took the field. Just here the American Samson was shorn of his locks and dethroned from man’s age-long status as head of the house. For just here nature played her fine trick on them both, To create the American nation of today—not that she knew she was engaged in this work!—the American woman had to take over time’s task of civilization and perform it in ways that time never dreamed of. The American man was still a pioneer, and his ignorance of what we call the fine things of life was his undoing. The American woman did not know much of them either; but he knew less, and he was bluffed to a standstill by her cunning affectation of knowledge. She had learned overnight to play the American game of bluff on another plane than that of poker and business—the game of bluff on the cultural plane. He held a raw hand; he was generous, too; he staked her game; he succumbed. And from then on she evolved even more freely, even a little contemptuously, on her own.


The easy, short-sighted way in which he succumbed to her domination is the marvel of all masculine psychology. It could never have happened in a country of slower growth, and the wonder is that it worked out as amiably for them both as it has to date. There is no question at all that it worked well for the country—well, that is, as regards its surface aspects of splendor. Without just this odd relation between the American woman and the American man, the country could hardly have emerged yet from the mansard-roof stage of its development in the 1880’s. It is the country, it must be admitted, that has profited most by this relationship. America is the outstanding product, is in a sense the horrid example, of the American woman’s free evolution and of the corresponding devolution, by her side, of the American man.

For she held the key to “culture”; he the key only to “business.” Rather each wrought and filed at each key until it fitted the lock of culture and business. All of his energy went into the making of money—alone. AH of her energy went into raising the standards of living—alone. The rising tide of higher living was paid for by, him, but the comforts of leisure and the fruits of culture were not his. He stayed in his world and his struggles there have yet to be sung. She moved further and further away from him into hers with her children, a little lonely at times, a little conscious at times that she was bereft of something in life that should have been hers but was not, yet too busy herself to miss much. What he missed is a matter that has escaped the curiosity of the poet.

What he missed and still misses to-day is adulthood, maturity. He has never grown up, has never taken, in his own felt relation to woman, his man’s place in the world. For there has resulted from those years of cultural chaos an attitude towards the American husband and father by wife and children that is absolutely an American attitude. His house is not his, his wife is not his, his children are not his; and all of the family, including him, know it. His children have a mother who is father too when the final word is spoken on questions that demand “authoritative” decision. His wife has a husband who has yielded so often that she knows and he knows he will yield again against his better judgment. However happy the home, however amiably, most matters are settled, however content all concerned appear to be under this arrangement unique in the civilized world, the fact remains that in the essential meaning of the terms his wife is husbandless and his children are fatherless, because he is little more than a child too in a manless home.

He is hardly more than a child in a manless nation. For the nation is ruled by its women to a degree not paralleled anywhere else in the modern world. It is a feminized nation, its women the moulders of its manners, the creators of its standards, the dictators of its duties. This is a swing of the pendulum farther away from the norm than in those days when the father and husband ruled all. Even though but the other extreme, it is farther away from the norm because, although women can mature through maternity (not that they always do) under the hardest conditions of life, under American conditions man, it begins to appear, can hardly mature at all. Elsewhere the boy knows a father, knows manhood, and takes him a wife. Elsewhere a girl passes from father to husband, from daughterhood to womanhood through wifehood: wifehood is a stage of her experience. Here she skips it perforce almost entirely. She passes merely from mother to “mothering,” for the boy simply passes from mother to “mother” and thereby, forever remains adolescent, a boy.

The apotheosis of this dominance of the mother in American life is, of course, “Mothers’ Day.” Where else in the world but in America could this blaringly advertised, all but compulsory observance have sprung up and not died of chill overnight? We try to explain it, for we are indeed a little ashamed of it (some mothers not least), by saying Big Business conceived and fostered it. But Big Business knew the spring it could touch. Big Business, another side of it consecrated to the supply of minor masculine needs, has made sporadic attempts to found “Fathers’ Day,” but there Big Business has humiliatingly and ignominiously, failed. The slogan, in simple business terms, “has no appeal.” There have been sporadic attempts here and there to convert “Mothers’ Day” into “Parents’ Day,” but with no wide success. The whole little history is a perfect epitome of the American attitude towards its males. They are the sons and the husbands of mothers—that is all!

Of course it is not all. Sometimes it points a hidden truth to back it with a strong, splendid lie. Back of the feminized American world stands, has always stood, the American man, adventurous, adaptable, foreseeing, at once daring and responsible, with an energy unsurpassed, with a will to do and a capacity for doing unparalleled. He has never lost the spirit of the pioneer; before he had conquered the continent he went out to conquer the world. Time and leisure dropped out of his scheme. He wrought miracles in spanning time and space and could not pause to see them for miracles. He had to press on, and it was not long before revered habit rather than will urged him on. But behind will and habit lies something stronger than either to bind him now to the wheel. The business world is the one place in the American scheme of things where he can feel himself full-grown, where he stands on his own feet. There and there only he rules. His intellectual life remains at whatever level it stood when he went into business, for once there he has no leisure to tend it. His emotional life is lived on the adolescent plane, for his masculine need for the manifestation of power (I am not speaking here of “brute force”) never finds its right play outside of the business realm. If it does not find it there, he is a tragic figure indeed. He powerfully protects his wife and his children with gold— and it is his sole masculine contribution to their well-being. It is not even solely masculine to-day, with mothers at work doing the same thing or supplementing the income. But at best or at worst it is his sole contribution. For everything else his children turn to their mother. For everything else she must depend on herself, take refuge in the “independence” that equals his, in the consciousness of a will and energy and initiative that equal his.

For it is a pair ununited that lives in the American home; even the children, sons and daughters, are miniature pairs of the same “equal” forces. From the attitude of their parents to each other the children inevitably, take on the color of what their own relations to the other sex are to be when the girl takes a husband, the boy takes a wife. And so they grow up in a home that for all its comforts is less one, as other races know it, than anywhere else. It is more like a small clubhouse, with the family hardly more than a group living temporarily together but with each member quite definitely operating on his or her own. Paternal control of the American fireside was long since superseded by the maternal grasp of its affairs. But even maternal control appears to be slipping, as witness the orgy of infants on the loose in the last decade. “Independence” is spreading fast through the whole family, except indeed to the husband and father.


Is it better or worse than the old order of things? The only possible answer is, “Both better and worse.” Except for the American man. It is hard to see how his condition has been bettered by the revolution which has put him in the relation he holds to woman to-day. All that saves him from suicide is his unconsciousness of his essential abjection. He doesn’t face it; he thinks of other things. The interesting thing is that the American woman is becoming conscious of it; she is weary of a man who is no more emotionally, than a boy, is weary of mothering. She wants, I think, to be loved by a man, to experience that scale in human relations she missed in her swift evolution. But she is caught in a trap.

Not long ago an astute European psychologist visited this astounding country for the first time and took six months to look it well over before he expressed himself on it.

“At first,” he said, “I was surprised at the way your women flocked together in walking, driving, at tea, at the restaurants, at the theatres. I explained it at first on the theory of your tired business men. But after I met these men in numbers I was no longer surprised. There seems to be among your women an attitude towards men which astonishes me—that of light contempt for them all, if that is not too strong a word to describe it. It is certainly too strong a word for their consciousness of it. It is their unconsciousness of that attitude that interests me. They, do not know that they do not respect men. For their relation to men is pleasant enough. The spirit of the relation, however, seems to be not that of woman to man, but either that of a mother to a wayward or a charming child, or that of what you call a comrade, a ‘pal,’ ‘man to man,’ so to say. It is the strangest of all American revelations to a European, the relation here between the sexes. It is not that of man and woman—literally not. And strange to say, the woman’s attitude, though childish enough—she is still playing with dolls—is more adult for her than the man’s. She does the best she can with what she has. The American man’s attitude to women is what astonishes me most of all—I have never seen anything like it anywhere—and it explains hers to him. For it is that of a boy—a mere boy. Your American man has never grown up. He is a little afraid of ^ women, I think; something happened far back to blunt his interest in the art of love. To be sure, your women give the impression of being able to do without being loved. But he is ignorant of that art—I had noted that before I came over from an odd enough source, your American actors on the American films we see. He does not know how to woo his mate—it shows on the screen in every gesture, in the touch of a hand. Naturally, with no experience in the art of love, your women are cold—oh yes, they are cold! The curious thing is that although your men do not know where the fault lies, your women sense it nevertheless. It accounts, that intuitive sensing of theirs, for their light contempt of their men; it accounts too for their maternal attitude towards them when they feel fondness or friendship. It accounts also for that remarkable American ‘comradeship’ between men and women, a relation often better indeed than the normal one, given the epicene type of them both.”

And later: “The independence of your American women is what at once charms and alarms me. Alarms me for them, I mean. For it is not true independence. It is a splendid and almost a perfect mask for the great lack in their lives, but it is a mask nonetheless. They do not know what it is to be cherished as women. Do not tell me that deep in every woman’s heart there does not lurk her sense of that need. Do not tell me that man, for his highest fulfillment, must not cherish some woman as his. It is not a matter of dollars and cents, of splendid estates and every creature comfort— your women have all this and yet they are starved; they, have failed of being husbanded by their men, and their spiritual celibacy is stamped on their faces to-day like some old mark of Cain. It is a matter of man’s understanding himself through understanding woman; a matter of woman’s understanding man through his understanding of her and so— only—knowing herself. The difference in the process is subtle, but the difference is there—it is the most secret mystery of the interdependence of the sexes. But your country lacks men and so your women do not understand themselves. Your men have never developed the power to love a woman as woman, and your women have lost therefore the attitude to men which makes them beloved. How do they speak of your men? As ‘children’ or ‘brutes’! Never—never!—as ‘men’! And I think they are right when they speak of them so. Where is the fault? The circle!—you are caught in a vicious circle. Until your men develop the power to love as men, your women will feel half-unconscious contempt for them and they—your men—will feel it all unconsciously for themselves. Yet until your women lose that contempt which betrays itself in their maternal attitude more than in any other one way, your men will remain nothing but boys. How to escape from the circle? I should upset the whole of your civilization and hardly escape alive from your country if I answered that question!”


I am not sure that the obvious solution of my friend the European psychologist to the problem he set is the right or the workable one—that the American woman should throw off independence, take on obedience to masculine authority, assert respect when she has it not, deny contempt when she has it, and bend her proud neck to the masculine yoke! She has gone too far to sacrifice so much to any outer urge. It will have to work out more subtly than through “sacrifice.” Intelligence—in every pantheon of the gods personified by a goddess!—must take charge of the affair. It will be only some deep inner urge to intelligence that will move the American woman to examine her case, some self-realization that she can no longer evolve singly, some intelligent wish to go on. It is ten to one that she will find herself soon amazingly saying, “If only, I had ever known a mmil” It is the brief, true diagnosis of the great American case.

Her definition of a man will be an interesting part of her self-examination. And she had better be wary, for here lie traps too. If she is deceived into thinking she wants a woman’s man, she has him already. If she is tricked into thinking she wants a man’s man, she would better think again— she had him once and promptly “civilized” him out of the picture. She may have intelligence enough to accept just on faith and as a working hypothesis the theory that in an economical universe—and scientists agree that this is one— man and woman would complement and supplement each other, that what one lacks the other has—ideally speaking, that is! She will not wrest her right definition out of the void by listing his lacks. But through facing her lacks with a courage almost super-human she may somehow arrive at an idea of that alleged noblest work of God—a “four-square man”—and then begin to contrive ways to aid the Deity in developing him! Those ways will have to be secret, almost divine in their mysterious workings, and in performing—in even attempting—those wonders there is no doubt at all that her whole feeling towards life and man and herself must change. It is not a matter of sacrifice of her new freedoms.

If the old spirit of stolid sacrifice enters in, she has learned literally nothing from the last three hundred years. It is a matter of self-chosen change, deliberate permutation. If a road to a goal is the object, the mountain and chasm are not “sacrificed” when the mountain is leveled and the chasm filled in with its boulders and earth. The outward appearance is changed, it is true, but it is changed by design; all the original substance is there in new forms for new uses to new ends.

The way to this self-chosen change in the American woman is the simplest thing in the world, granted that she has the courage first of all to face herself—most of her, I fear, will stop just there. In other civilizations man has been the one to emphasize the differences between man and woman; because woman passively accepted the male ultimatum we have dared to call these civilizations “man-made.” Here in America woman has emphasized likenesses to such a degree that we are saddled to-day with a woman’s country, practically manless. But let her begin, actively, honestly, all to herself, to recognize and to act on the difference. This will be no passive acceptance of male definitions; it will be the most active work she has ever performed. It will have a value greater for her than any stressing of likenesses, for she will be accepting her own nature at last as her only reality, will know at last the beginning of a freedom that is inner, not outer merely. For she herself will have initiated a quest of her own after the truth of herself. And the less she talks of it the better! For truth dwells in secret places and gives itself best in silence. To say that this change in her attitude to herself will not have its influence on man is to disregard all human experience.

If something like this does not happen to change the relation between the American man and the American woman we are likely to see here and soon a phenomenon not seen before and not likely to be seen again—the results will be too devastating! We are likely to see man stressing the likenesses between man and woman: this tendency has been working under the surface for a long time. When it breaks through the surface—and the American man’s chivalry has worn down into a fairly thin crust—the crisis in the case of the American woman will have been reached. Heretofore he has passively accepted the woman’s emphasis on likenesses, as passively as women in the old days accepted man’s ultimatum on differences. Her stressing of likenesses has been a straining after masculine virtues and powers. His stressing of likenesses will be a capitalization of the weaknesses in them both, but it appears to be his only way out of his trap, grotesque though it be. And he will not stress them long, for the proof of that pudding will be in its eating by woman, of all Greek gifts the most acrid I For though the American woman may wish to be like man, the last thing in the world she wants is that the American man shall be like woman! For man to stress the likenesses between the sexes may be the shock she needs to make her pause and take inventory of her case; it will seem, even to her, like raising hands against intelligence itself.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading