The New Woman. No. 2.

by Silena Holman

(GOSPEL ADVOCATE, 16 July 1896, 452–3)

What She Is Not, and Something of What She Is and Will Be.

If by the “new woman” it were meant that the average woman of our country were, as some writer, quoted in the Advocate, says, “thirsting for men's prerogatives as husbands and heads of families;” if, as a rule, and not as an exception, she would grow to abhor wifehood and motherhood and so neglect the little ones God has given her and the home, which is the stay of our nation; if it should make of her the nameless unsexed being that the vivid imaginations of various prophets of evil have conjured up, certainly no calamity that could afflict God's green earth could be so great or so destructive to the happiness of the human race.

But as solemnly as I believe anything do I believe that never before in the history of the world did so few women regret that they were not born men as at the present time. In the past a woman had no choice in the matter of a “career,” for the only one for her was that of wife and mother. Failing to become a wife, society had no use and no place for her. Her life was accounted a failure. She was ridiculed and scorned until her life was a misery and her tempter soured, and “as sour as an old maid” became a proverbial saying. Mothers always wanted their children to be boys, because “boys have so much better chance in life.” Girls regretted that they were not boys, because then there would be some place in the world for them, at least until they were married. My father was killed in the war, and my mother left with a house full of girls, the oldest, myself, just fourteen, and a baby boy; and all the neighbors regretted it for her and condoled with my mother for having such a big crowd of girls on her hands and no boys, and “boys could have been of so much use to her.” No misfortune on earth could befall a man, as the world considered it, equal to having a house full of girls born to him. I knew a man and woman whose married estate had brought to them ten girls and no son; and well do I remember the looks of pity cast on the man by sympathetic neighbors because of so great a calamity. Girls were trained to believe that their lives were a failure if they did not marry. They should marry well if possible, but they must be sure to marry. Girls were taught to cultivate their physical attractions with a view to making “a good catch,” until “as vain as a woman” became another proverbial saying; and many an unhappy marriage has resulted from a girl's fear that it was her last or only chance, and many children thus brought up in the world had better never been born. Does any woman wonder that the women of those days wished they had been born men, not because of an abhorrence of wifehood and motherhood, but because if they failed in that there was no hope in life for them or that mothers always wished their girls had been born boys?

I think that one of the most hopeful signs of the times is that an unmarried woman's chances in life are now such that the “new woman” will not have to “marry for a living,” a thing which is so degrading in thought or fact that no true woman could look on it but with horror; but she will marry because she has found her king, and love has made her a willing captive.

It does not signify that a girl wants to be a man because she rides a bicycle or sometimes wears a collar and cravat shaped like a man's. She wears that style of dress because she thinks it becoming to her, and she likes it. Strange—isn't it?—that men should place such stress on a little matter of the arrangement of dress and say such vile things of a woman because of it. I have no patience with anything of the sort. I know the girls who dress that way are as sweet and lovely and pure and womanly as any of God's creatures, girls that would indignantly deny that they were “woman's rights women” even in a small degree.

As to the “bicycle girl,” I think that bicycling may be carried to excess, like most other things; but I think its invention will prove a blessing to the human race. Many a poor woman has spent days and days over the sewing machine putting unnecessary tucks and ruffles in little garments, or has spent weeks in making a few yards of crocheted or knitted trimming or other fancy embroidery or crazy quilts, breaking their backs, weakening their eyes, and ruining their health, when they were literally dying for fresh air and exercise; and a spin on the bicycle is one of the most exhilarating forms of exercise. Why shouldn't they have it if they like it and want it? It is no more masculine or unwomanly to ride the bicycle than it is to ride horseback, and a woman no more need sit astride or wear bloomers in the one case than in the other. It is only the novelty of the thing that has excited the animosity of the critics. In the meantime many a poor woman, especially in the cities, will find exercise and fresh air and health in this way who would get it in no other way.

“But the 'new woman' is crowding into the professions and various sorts of business now, and crowding the men out,” say the critics. Now that is pitiful—isn't it?—that woman has to eat and clothe herself and live some way, as well as man; and that, after ages of wishing for it, at last a woman may support herself, and not be a dependent on some unwilling male relative, with all the inconveniences and disagreeable concomitants of such a position. One of the most pitiful wails I have seen on the subject was quoted in the Advocate of Dec. 5, in which the writer bewailed the coming of the new woman and the going of the old man; and on this crowding of women into the businesses and professions he lays the cause of the tramp evil and the want of employment by so many men, and the shoulders of the poor /45(6)3?/ women who have to work for a living must bear it.

My, friends, the point of view from which we consider matters has much to do, after all, with the manner in which we form our conclusions. Has it not?

Now, I came to my conclusions as to the right of woman to make a living for herself in this way: My mother, as I have just said, was left a widow with a house full of girls, when I, the eldest, was just fourteen. We had to live somehow. There were no boys among us, except a nursing babe. My father had lost his all in the war, as did so many people who fought on the losing side. Something had to be done, for we had no male relative to shoulder the burden of our support, and we had to do it ourselves. I had gone to school all my life, and had a moderately good education for a girl of my age. So, young as I was, I gathered a few of the neighbors' children around me and began to teach them. At first they paid me just what they could for this; for they, too, were poor. I was so fortunate as to give satisfaction, and was soon able to get a better situation. So, though I was a girl, I was able to help my mother. I gave her everything I made except barely enough to clothe me in the simplest way. By that means I was able to help her educate my younger brothers and sisters and provide them with the necessaries, if not with many of the comforts, of life. Our little home was sold, and, with the assistance of a widowed grandmother, who intrusted me with such part of her estate as she intended to give us at her death, I bought it, paying three-fourths of the money myself, in order that we might all have a home we could call our own. What could we have done if there had been no “career” open to me but a place in somebody's kitchen, which would not more than have enabled me to support myself?

I hope my friends will excuse this little bit of personal history; but, considering this, do they wonder that, when I see a poor girl trying to get something to do to support herself and, perhaps, others, I always want to see her succeed? And I rejoice that there are other ways for her to do this than in the schoolroom, sewing room, or kitchen. The last two afford such a meager support, though any sort of labor should be honorable; and very few, or at least not all people, make good teachers; and if they did, there would not be nearly enough room for them all in this capacity.

So I consider it a cause of rejoicing that so many occupations are open to women. If a woman prefers an unmarried life and financial independence, she has Paul's permission to remain unmarried—and who could furnish higher authority?—though I believe that the happiest and best life for a woman is to be happily married with children of her own growing up around her; and there is no cause for alarm on this score. It is the nature of man and woman to want to live together, and no condition of society is going to subvert this instinct. I wonder that any one could think so for a moment.

So the new woman does not wish she was a man (far from it), but rejoices that the day has gone by when she need to have done so. She is proud that she is a woman. Mothers no longer dread to hear the announcement, “It is a girl;” for the world gives a woman a chance now as well as a man. I do not mean to say that in the evolution of the new woman there have not been many things to deplore. There are coarse, rough, unwomanly women now, and there always have been. There are perhaps, besides, some evils abroad in the world brought about by this evolution, caused by the reaction from one state to another. That was inevitable, and always follows in the wake of revolutions or evolutions of any kind; but time will correct such as these.

There is one thing I notice about the critics of the “new woman,” and that is that they take the worst specimens of this age and compare them with the best of a former age. There were as grand women in the past age as the world will ever know; but there was also the shrew, the coarse, masculine woman, the untidy housekeeper, whose husband haunted the village “grocery,” the gossip who tattled with her neighbors across the back yard fence while her children roamed neglected abroad. It is unjust to select the worst specimens of this age to compare with the best specimens of a former age. That we have women of equally undesirable character to-day is not to be wondered at, considering human nature as it is, and not as we would like to have it; but I maintain that the average trend of our womanhood is upward in all that is best and most desirable in the human race.

So we find that the “new woman,” though she has not yet reached her fullest development, will retain all the best and most desirable qualities of the old, adding to them such as will add to her value, not only in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of the “new man”—her husband.

She is alert, wide awake, and well able to take care of herself and help to take care of others when necessary. The days of the “clinging vine woman” are gone forever. In her stead the husband will find walking by his side the bright, wide-awake companion, able to share his sorrows as well as his joys, and one who, when necessary, will be able to help carry the burden that is bearing him down—a helpmeet in the best possible sense of the term.

She fully realizes that nothing on the wide earth is such a “drawback” to a woman as bad health, or to her husband as a sickly wide. So both for her own sake and for her husband's she studies the laws of health and learns how to keep herself well. She intends to marry some day—ninety-nine one-hundredths of the women do—but she does not intend to marry until the right person comes along; and, that she may not be necessarily hurried in the matter and so make a bad choice, she goes to work to find some means of making a living for herself while waiting for that blessed day to arrive. If, in God's providence, the day does not come, she does not consider her life a failure, but goes to work trying to make herself useful to her race and to the world, and she does it.

She stores her mind with culture along many different lines of thought as her time, purse, and inclination permit. She knows what is going on in the world around her, knowing fully as much of current history as of past history; and why shouldn't she, even if her critics do say that it is politics, and a woman has no business with politics? To have an intelligent interest in what is going on around us is certainly as laudable a matter as to know what took place a hundred or a thousand years ago; and such a woman, as compared with one who only knew past history, would certainly be the more companionable of the two. Such a woman married makes the best possible wife. She takes an intelligent interest in all matters that are of interest to her husband, and so comes to be an appreciated companion to him. She does not wear out his mind and temper by constantly dwelling on the small worries of everyday life, for her views are broadened, and she does not spend her own time dwelling on them.

Her children are not ushered into the world uncared for and unwelcome little creatures, but her study of prenatal life and influence has enabled her to give them the best possible heritage that her own imperfect organization is capable of, and they arrive in due possession of “a child's first and most sacred right, the right to be rightly born.” After they have come she does not go to work, in the haphazard way of our ancestors, to bring them up only by blind instinct, as was their custom. She goes to work in an intelligent way to study their needs and keep them in proper health of mind and body. She often joins with other mothers to meet weekly or monthly to study together as to what is best for their children, profiting by each other's failures and successes, and learning together what is best for their dear ones. As her child grows, all the best there is in her is devoted to his proper bringing up. She interests herself in what interests her child, studying with him, more than ever desirous to keep herself informed for her child's sake, that he may not outgrow her. What would more certainly keep a boy at home and away from evil companions than to have such an intelligent companion for a mother instead of a fretful, complaining woman, whose talk never wandered beyond the dish the servant broke, the chicken that died yesterday, or the last gossip about her neighbor? Boys so brought up find few attractions at the saloon or place of evil resort.

The “new woman” believes that a man should keep himself as pure as a woman should. She teaches her sons the same blessed doctrine; and she would no more marry a man whom she knew to be unchaste and impure than she would have her sons marry such a woman.

Will the new woman vote? I am afraid she will. The signs of the times seem to point that way. Twenty States give woman school suffrage; one, municipal; and three States, full suffrage; and, whether for good or evil, the experiment is going to be tried. But this I know: A woman will no more lose her womanliness or purity or goodness because she has the privilege of expressing her opinion at the ballot box (as the prophets of evil had predicted that she would) than she did in being allowed to receive a higher education. Woman's nature could not be so subverted and changed by that or anything else.

That the horrible newspaper caricatures of the new woman in no way resemble her you may know by a moment's consideration. You never see her at home; and if you travel all over the world, you will never find her, for she does not exist in the world. Are not most of the women of your acquaintance good women? Now, could any one for a moment allow himself to think it possible that such women could ever become the horrible creature of the newspaper paragrapher's imagination? It is as impossible as that the world should turn round and move the other way. We sometimes have the evolution of one type into another closely related, but never its complete change into something its exact opposite.

Sometimes I think that after all we should not be surprised that men are always opposing a change in the women they love. They love us so well as they have always known us that perhaps they think we cannot be changed for the better, and, if a change is made, it must necessarily be for the worse. However flattering such a thing might be, it certainly has its inconveniences at times; for women have in them the elements of progression as well as men, and, in spite of all, they will progress with the ages as men do. So it will go on until the end of time. As men advance women will advance in spite of any effort to keep them in the old grooves; and men from age to age will go on loving their women folks, whatever the tide of progress makes of them, just the same; and just as womankind will always love their men, always thinking they are best just as they find them, and that any change would be for the worse. God made them that way, and no law of man or condition of society can ever make it otherwise.

(e-text: JoAnne Toews)

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