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A Half Century of Progress

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

America Through Women’s fiyes. Edited by Mary R. Beard. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50. Women in the Twentieth Century. By Sophonisba P. Breckinridge. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. $4.00.

Mrs. beard’s selection of women’s writings from the time of the settlement of America to the present, “America Through Women’s Eyes,” was assembled to be put before The International Congress of Women, meeting this summer at Chicago’s Century of Progress to discuss the subject: Our Common Cause—Civilization. Miss Breckinridge’s “Women in the Twentieth Century,” a monograph on three phases of American women’s activity during the last thirty years, was undertaken under the auspices of the President’s Research Committee on Social Trends, to amplify one of the chapters in the report of that committee, published a year ago. The contrast of purpose which the two books exhibit begins with their format: “Women in the Twentieth Century” wears the durable garb of standard reference, while “America Through Women’s Eyes” appears in a glistening jacket blue as the symbol of virginity; and within, the factualism of Miss Breckinridge’s annotated tables opposes the heroic tension of the italics by which Mrs. Beard links her ladies together.

Three examples of the italics show the hue of the glasses through which the ladies are eyed. In 1739 Eliza Lucas Pinckney “was an economist, a loyal subject to the Crown as long as her interests were not invaded, an educated person enlarging her mind by classical and other literature, a mother concerned about the training of her children, a stanch patriot when the battle lines were drawn, a reconciler when independence was established, thinking of the future instead of dwelling to excess on the past.” After the Great Social War, “feminine leaders, distinguished in the religious, educational and social life of the South, were declaring that the defence of womanhood must be left to more civilized procedure [than lynching]. The care-of-life sentiment had broadened to include all races.” “The armistice was announced on November 11, 1918. Immediately the ultimate purposes of the war came into clearer review, and among the citizens who insisted on knowing what had been gained and whither the victors and vanquished were heading was Harriot Stanton Blatch, habituated to thinking in social terms.”

What has been the net result of the more recent ardours expressed in Mrs. Beard’s quotations? Miss Breckinridge gives an answer in so far as woman’s use of her spare time, woman’s entrance into the field of gainful employment, and woman’s participation in government are concerned. Her study of the woman’s club, as woman’s first venture outside the home, her first step in a non-vicarious public existence, is a happy starting point. The decline of the non-specialized club with its self-improvement program or purely social meetings, in proportion as educational opportunities have been broadened and facilities for recreation multiplied, is a fair measure of the changing circumstance recorded later in the book; so also is the increase in clubs formed on the basis of specific interests, as indicating specialization and alternative opportunities even on the part of those women whose public life is limited to their spare time.

The tables in the section on the women in industry and the professions show that one out of four women—a total of ten million for the country—is gainfully employed; they show how much women earn and where they earn it. The final section covers what has happened to women in politics since they got the vote, their progress as lobbyists, as members of the national parties, and as office holders.

In most respects, the two books are poles apart, yet from the words of their mouths exhibited by Mrs. Beard and the statistics of their action presented by Miss Breckinridge the same women can be identified.

There is the woman between forty-five and sixty, in blue with white spots, whose family is grown and whose frigidaire is working sufficiently well to give her a little leisure. Her entrances into public life take the form of sporadic incursions. Most of the time she lives a purely personal life, a life, that is, whose knowledge of the community is almost wholly vicarious. Her normal interest is confined to what Mrs. Beard calls her fundamental function of the continuation, care, and protection of life. She is the “MOTHER” of Mother’s Day and of all theme songs. When she has a public interest it is in measures planned to make effective in the community conditions comparable to those she desires in her own home: abolition, elimination of child labor, prohibition, are three outstanding causes in whose support her voice has been raised. Her interest stops there.

There is the graduate of the professional school, slender, serious, exceptional in having made her way into the directive hierarchy of the country. Let her make no mistake about it; her tenure is precarious, her chance of advancement dubious; vis-a-vis her male college classmates “the question is not only one of getting the same pay if one has the same job, but of getting the opportunity to do the interesting and important work at any scale of pay.”

In direct contrast to her there is Maisie, whose chances for a job in comparison with those of her male grade-school fellows are nothing short of swell. A generation ago she ran the boys out of the office; today, in combination with complicated machinery, she is running them out of the factory. With her copy of “True Stories,” her gum, and her $5.60 pay check for fifty hours’ work, she lands the business. Even in times of unemployment she is not likely to lose her job; nobody is cheaper than Maisie.

There is the political lady, causing and curing, reveling in conventions, given a certain place because of the women’s vote. Beware of her confidential inside information; she is not likely to realize that it stands at one remove from the actual “know.”

Transition, variety, disabilities, rights, capacities: cumulatively considered, the American woman of the 1930’s.


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