These Modern Women

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I’m finally tackling a stack of book recommendations I got from reading Bolick’s (somewhat weak) Spinster. This is a collection of seventeen essays from women written in 1926-7 as contributions to The Nation, invited to share their stories and explain how their feminist convictions have withstood real life. As editor Elaine Showalter explains in the intro, the 1920s saw the decline of feminism post-suffrage win, when everyone seemed to throw up their hands and say, you won the vote, so why isn’t life as grand as you’d expected? (Ahem: powerful underlying patriarchal structures, internalized sexism on both women and men’s part, for starters). Showalter calls this feminism’s awkward age.

The essays are all by middle to upper class white women, so definitely not a diverse viewpoint. 70% of the essays were written by women who married and there’s the overarching image that women should be able to “have it all,” it being career, family, success. The series was the idea of managing editor Freda Kirchwey who seems to have been an early Lean In proponent– keeping her name and working right up until her due date then returning to work right after her son was born. Found out about Heterodoxy, a NY feminist society organized in 1912 by Marie Jenny Howe, a Unitarian minister, which held what seemed to be early consciousness-raising sessions each week.

A common thread through the essays was telling the stories of their mothers, especially the trials and tribulations of child-bearing/rearing. Kate Gregg’s essay (which I enjoyed most) mentions the loaded gun she saw her mother put under her pillow, planning to kill herself if she went into her sixth child’s labor when her husband was yet again out philandering and leaving her abandoned. Another mentions her mother inheriting seven children from her husband’s previous marriage and then adding ten more of her own, having to manage a household of seventeen children.

Kate talks about her decision not to marry, and also mentions  psychoanalysts. The Nation also ran three essays by psychologists which tried to explain these modern women (more on that later):

Other men have come my way. One planned a house for me and insisted on a nice big kitchen. That was the end of him. Another dear kind soul with whom I though I could live rapturously could not build a fire on a camping trip and fancied always when he was lost that the Pacific Ocean must be in the east. The psychoanalyst will say–but who cares what the psychoanalyst will way? I know myself that if I had done otherwise in any one of these three marriage opportunities I would have been a fool…. Perhaps the tranquil, peaceful, rich life I live is more of an argument than any words I shall ever say.

So, the psychologists’ responses. Thankfully Kirchwey recruited one woman psychologist, Beatrice Hinkle, who seemed fairly sympathetic to the women’s essays and viewpoints. John Watson was another enlisted, and he raged against the women in an essay called The Weakness of Women which starts out claiming that we can’t expect these short biographies of the women to be truthful. Another weakness of women, according to Watson, is that they have never been trained to work like men, “hence few women have achieved greatness.” Blind to his own ignorance, he goes on to say that women have the strength to paint, “yet there has never been a great woman painter.” Hmm, if that were true (it’s not) perhaps it could circle back to your original point that women were not trained like men. Had Picasso been born a girl, would his father had taken the trouble to train her, expose her to the same things Pablo got exposed to? Joseph Collins is the third psychologist, and his essay is slightly better than Watson’s inanities, but yet he states that women have one purpose—birthin’ babies—then he digresses into musing about which of the authors he would like to have as a companion. WTF. He almost picks one and then states that “her buoyant spirit made her over-affable.” Again, WTF. A pox on both your houses, Watson and Collins.