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ISSUE:  Winter 1932

The other day, along with some six million other Americans, I was looking for a job. I had, in fact, slightly the edge on a good many hundred thousands of the others because I had been asked to come in by the man who was offering the job. It was a research job in connection with a weekly publication. I asked him how much it paid. “Well,” he said affably, “of course if we get a woman for it we’ll pay her less than we would a man.”

That same afternoon I went to a large department store to arrange about opening an account. I gave my name. The clerk, seeing the “Mrs.,” inquired, “Is your husband”— he paused to select a word that would cover all contingencies —”there?” I assured him that he was in fact all there. “Then we would prefer to open the account in his name. It is our policy under the circumstances.” I told him that since our happy home is composed of two separate financial entities he could open it in my name or not at all. (As a matter of fact an arrangement already existed at that store by which I could order on the account of my mother, who has passed, by way of widowhood, back into the sphere of recognized financial responsibility again.) But from the rear seat of the bus, on the way home, I meditated upon the estate of women.

A good feminist would have expected my thoughts to run along this line: with regard to the first incident, why not equal pay for equal work; why a system which begins by exploiting women and ends by women undercutting men? And with regard to the second, is it probable that people who manage their own affairs before they are married and after they, are widowed are incapable of financial discretion as long as they are wives? She would have expected me to emerge in a Down-With-Disabilities mood, and to have had a good deal to say at supper on the subject of rights.

As a matter of fact, my thoughts ran along a parallel but very different line, along the subject of capacities. The two judgments which had been implied in the course of my afternoon’s experience had nothing to do with me personally. They were judgments upon women. They represented the kind of averaging, of treatment by groups rather than by individuals, that all of us employ all the time in a world too busy to do otherwise. It has frequently struck me that at the moment the female sex, the Negro race, and the Indian nation have this in common: all three are somewhat in the position of foreigners in the society into which they, are emerging, and because they are more or less things apart, all three, while demanding recognition for their outstanding members, are socially judged by their average examples. If this is a proper view of the situation, an occasional glance at the group as a whole, and at its average, is probably to the point; for if it does not make the application of mass judgments to the individual less irritating, it does make them a good deal more explicable.

And if one faces the facts about American women, this is what they are. There are about forty million American women over ten years of age, and not more than fifteen millions of them can lay claim to a share in any productive activity. Of these, there are over four million wage earners, and about two million clerical workers, of whom the majority (though a gradually diminishing majority) end their working careers by marriage before the thirties. There are over a million farmers’ wives who, generally speaking, keep their jobs permanently; and an indeterminate but considerable number of workers’ wives who between house, children, and home work are equally employed. There are over a million business and professional women who have made their way into the type of job that two generations ago was associated exclusively with men. All of these have a place in the economy of production which is the center of American public life. There are twenty-five million others, classified in various censuses as “housewives,” as “married but without paid occupation,” or as “spinsters.” And in spite of the connotation of the last word, they toil not, neither do they spin. And they form the majority of American women.

These women were left out of the productive process when the frontier gave way to the factory. A good half-century before the word came into common use, these women of America became the first major group of unemployed the cause of whose unemployment was technological.

In the days of primitive America both the man and the woman shared in the process of creating the goods by which they lived. The work in the farmyard and the farmhouse produced things as essential to the life of the family as the work in the field. Though it seemed unimportant at the time, there was this essential difference between the products of the man and those of the woman: the crops which the man raised were primarily destined for the market; the products made by the woman usually passed directly into use in the home. Because of this difference, when the frontier period was over and the scene of the making of goods became the factory rather than the farm, the man’s occupation remained, but the woman’s disappeared. The character of the man’s work, the actual thing he did, changed in most cases beyond any recognition, but his business had this continuity: his production both was and had been production for exchange. Though its contents differed, his economics was the same.

With the woman it was otherwise. When the things which she formerly made for local use began to be made in factories, she was faced with two definite alternatives. Her old way of doing things, which had merged production and consumption into a single process, was broken up into its constituent parts. She must either follow her product into the factory and make it in quantity on an exchange basis, or she must deal with it solely upon its emergence into a store as a consumer’s good. To be specific: in the old days the distance from her knitting needles to little Willie’s feet was so short that the “socks for little Willie” idea lumped production and consumption into one single whole. But when socks are no longer made except by machines, that whole is split up: either she goes into a factory as a looper and makes from thirty to fifty-five dozen pairs of stockings a day for so much a week, or her first contact with Willie’s future socks is at the counter of her favorite department store. And the same is true of all the other products of which the modern family economy is comprised.

In the majority of cases the department store alternative has been open, and taken, and by consequence the majority of American women are pure consumers, whose only direct contact with the economic process is as buyers of what they themselves or their families use. This parasitic relationship to the industrial process is all the more anomalous because it is generally estimated that the women of America are the owners of some forty-one per cent of the national wealth. In how few cases they even manage this themselves can be gathered from the posters of distressed widows exhibited as warnings to successful business men by every bank whose trust department is worthy of the name; their money passes from parent or guardian to husband to trustee with a continuity quite unaffected by the technicality of their title. They merely take their monthly allowance-dividend-settlement check (not to mention the estimated total of three hundred and fifty million dollars that America pays yearly in alimony) and go out to see what’s in the stores.

On the counters of American consumption an amazing variety of wares is on display. At one counter, Mrs. America can buy herself an electric washing-machine which, according to the advertisement, will make it possible for her to sit down to bridge at three o’clock of a Monday afternoon with her washing behind her. At another she can buy herself a season ticket which will make it possible for her to sit down to music at three o’clock of a Friday afternoon with a symphony orchestra before her. The only activity required of her is to indicate, by the appropriate muscular activity, that consumption is taking place. When the orchestra stops playing, she claps. The mechanical character of American applause (which is the applause of American women, since the only men who like concerts are Jews, Harvard graduates, or other quasi-foreigners) is strictly comparable to the mechanical character of American gum-chewing. Both indicate that, without being either swallowed or digested, something is being consumed.

The outstanding thing about the majority of American middle-class women which distinguishes them from similar women in other countries, is that there is nothing which, in and of themselves, they, are socially expected to do. The loosely related character of the American family, and its domicile in bungalow or apartment hotel, differentiates the American woman from the German Hausfrau whose life is devoted to the practice of the domestic arts, or the Frenchwoman whose foyer is the center of the most intense family life of the Western World. Living out of cans in an electric kitchen around the corner from the delicatessen reduces grandmother’s recipe for watermelon pickle to an item of purely genealogical interest; and the knowledge and skill which the practice of that recipe involved are replaced only by that amount of knowledge and skill necessary to set the automatic timer on an electric range. And family life in a country where there is one divorce to every six marriages, and where the parental relationship, from the time when the child is old enough to be deposited in a nursery school, is almost exclusively a financial one, is of necessity an individualistic affair. Collective action, suffering, achievement, which in most other countries give to the life of the family, for all its carefully guarded privacy, a general social significance, and to the life of the woman who knits it together a sphere of publicly recognized validity, are not characteristic of the American middle-class home.

The difference between American and European women extends even to the upper reaches of middle-class life. Salons are impossible in America because there is nobody to talk at them: the men are not interested in ideas, and the women are consumers and not producers of them. Volunteer work, in the manner common in England, has been cast into disrepute by the general movement towards full-time professionalism which has pushed the laity off all the main walks of American life. And while the pages of “Washington Merry-Go-Round” may give an unduly pessimistic view of the American political hostess, it is not probable that arrangements for the discussion of fundamental political ideas and policies have been part of the general scheme of things during recent administrations.

The cadres that define the lines within which the lives of most Western European women are lived are evidently not applicable to America. Their inapplicability has been heralded as the proof of the American woman’s freedom. It is said that the idea of a “woman’s sphere” was a disability which has now, at long last, been removed; that for at least a generation and a half women have had a growing opportunity to be people, to have a sphere which is co-extensive with the sphere of mankind.

It is probably true that for some such length of time the American woman has had, both in the sense in which Virginia Woolf and that in which Noel Coward would understand it, a room of her own. But it remains to be seen how much it has interested her to occupy it.

To the bulk of middle-class Freedwomen, to those above the line where financial pressure does away with choice, the idea of working in the sense in which men work, of taking part in the unqualifiedly public spheres of life, has had little enough appeal. If they have not remained in the turn-thebutton-on-and-go-to-bridge class, with perhaps a touch of golf thrown in, they have ventured forth only into the area of the various women’s organizations. They go to the Woman’s Club, to listen, or occasionally, after a fever of preparation, to read, collated papers whose only unity is that derived from temporal sequence, since they consist of a series of quotations from works which are referred to, with awe and emphasis, as “the authorities.” In such papers the consumer complex reaches its fullest expression. The American woman’s taste for public lectures, which has so materially helped to right the imbalance of the European-American balance of trade, is built upon the basis of her consuming what the foreign lecturer, who is assumed to be a producer, pleases to give forth. But when the program of the day is in the hands of a domestic lecturer, of one of the club members, this member is not expected to do more than pass on the results of her previous consumption. She is expected to have consumed the authorities, but not to have become one.

In addition to the Woman’s Club, for the more active Freedwomen, there is the area of Public Housekeeping. The organizations comprised in it are varied in their scope: they range from the historically-minded D. A. R., with its posthumous housekeepers of the Founding Fathers, to the very modern type of political round-up which draws the women’s vote under the standard of Civic Virtue, be the issue one of prohibition, religion, or suitable wives. There are innumerable boards of directors for charity, for public health, for protection of the young girl in the great city; it is only a few years since the debutante members of one of the metropolitan Junior Leagues were wont to devote one morning of each busy week to giving slum mothers what was known as “legal aid.”

It is a curious world, this semi-remote world in which the Freedwomen live. It is probable that rarely in history has a group had as much power as they have and yet been situated on the veiled side of reality. By invention, electricity, the American industrial system, and the American concept of the standard of living, they have been set apart. Only as spenders do they play a role in American economic life. And yet because the voice of the consumer is the finally determinate voice in production, the form in which the American national wealth reaches the finished-product stage is a form moulded largely by their hands—for if it is really the advertiser who guides their hands it is at any rate they who bestow them and consent to be beguiled. And with regard to the less tangible goods that make up the good life it is not otherwise. Reality as it is seen through the woman’s organization, a reality compounded of a little sentimental theory and a little practical experience, is a Platonic reflection of reality as it exists outside the historically domestic cave. Yet the quasi-public organizations through which the Freedwomen of America get sight of such a reflection form a constituency, and a constituency which is more rather than less powerful because it stands in the public world somewhat as a thing apart. It can vote the equalization of the two realities, of the inner reflection and the outer view. And frequently it does vote it.

Practically all of the men of America, and the business and professional women, the office force, the farmers and the workers, are not free. They are all parts of a general social whole; they have a function, with its scope and its limitations, and any changes which they make in any aspect of their function are changes in the grain of public reality. With the Freedwomen, it is otherwise. Domesticity, the private life, has ceased to offer them a function. In public life their influence is glancing and oblique. Among Americans, they are a minority, living in semi-shelter, in a world which slants off from the general world along a parallax of relativity. Among American women, they are the majority.


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