American Thumbprints by Kate Stephens



In order to give her praises a lustre and
beauty peculiar and appropriate, I should have
to run into the history of her life--a task
requiring both more leisure and a richer vein.
Thus much I have said in few words, according
to my ability. But the truth is that the only
true commender of this lady is time, which, so
long a course as it has run, has produced
nothing in this sex like her.

                                      BACON, OF QUEEN ELIZABETH

Die Ehelosigkeit eines Theils des
weiblichen Geschlechts ist in dem
monogamischen Gesellschaftszustande eine nicht
zu beseitigende statistische Nothwendigkeit.

                                      GUSTAVE SCHÖNBERG

THROUGHOUT our fair country there has long been familiar, in actual life and in tradition, a corporate woman known as the New England woman.

When this woman landed upon American shores, some two hundred and fifty years ago, she was doubtless a hearty, even-minded, rosy-cheeked, full-fleshed English lass. Once here, however, in her physical and mental make-up, under pioneer conditions and influenced by our electric climate, a differentiation began, an unconscious individualizing of herself: this was far, far back in the time of the Pilgrim Mothers.

In this adaptation she developed certain characteristics which are weakly human, intensely feminine, and again passing the fables of saints in heroism and self-devotion. Just what these qualities were, and why they grew, is worth considering before in the bustle of the twentieth century and its elements entirely foreign to her primitive and elevated spirit--she has passed from view and is quite forgotten.

In the cities of to-day she is an exotic. In the small towns she is hardly indigenous. Of her many homes, from the close-knit forests of Maine to the hot sands of Monterey, that community of villages which was formerly New England is her habitat. She has always been most at home in the narrow village of her forebears, where the church and school were in simpler days, and still at times are even to our generation measuring only with Pactolian sands in its hour-glasses--the powers oftenest quoted and most revered. From these sources the larger part of herself, the part that does not live by bread alone, has been nourished.

It was in the quiet seclusion of the white homes of these villages that in past generations she gained her ideals of life. Such a home imposed what to women of the world at large might be inanity. But, with a self-limitation almost Greek, she saw within those clapboard walls things dearest to a woman's soul,--a pure and sober family life, a husband's protective spirit, the birth and growth of children, neighborly service keenly dear to her--for all whose lives should come within touch of her active hands, and an old age guarded by the devotion of those to whom she had given her activities.

To this should be added another gift of the gods which this woman ever bore in mind with calmness--a secluded ground, shaded by hemlocks or willows, where should stand the headstone marking her dust, over which violets should blossom to freshening winds, and robin call to mate in the resurrection time of spring, and in the dim corners of which ghostly Indian pipes should rise from velvet mould to meet the summer's fervency.

Under such conditions and in such homes she had her growth. The tasks that engaged her hands were many, for at all times she was indefatigable in what Plato calls women's work, ta endon. She rose while it was yet night; she looked well to the ways of her household, and eat not the bread of idleness. In housekeeping--which in her conservative neighborhood and among her primary values meant, almost up to this hour, not directing nor helping hired people in heaviest labors, but rather all that the phrase implied in pioneer days--her energies were spent--herself cooking; herself spinning the thread and weaving, cutting out and sewing all family garments and household linen; herself preserving flesh, fish, and fruits. To this she added the making of yeast, candles, and soap for her household, their butter and cheese--perhaps also these foods for market sale at times their cider, and even elderberry wine for their company, of as fine a color and distinguished a flavor as the gooseberry which the wife of immortal Dr. Primrose offered her guests. Abigail Adams herself testifies that she made her own soap, in her early days at Braintree, and chopped the wood with which she kindled her fires. In such accomplishments she was one of a great sisterhood, thousands of whom served before and thousands after her. These women rarely told such activities in their letters, and rarely, too, I think, to their diaries; for their fingers fitted a quill but awkwardly after a day with distaff or butter-moulding.

These duties were of the external world, mainly mechanical and routine, and they would have permitted her--an untiring materialist in all things workable by hands--to go many ways in the wanderings of thought, if grace, flexibility, and warmth had consorted with the Puritan idea of beauty. She had come to be an idealist in all things having to do with the spirit. Nevertheless, as things stood, she had but one mental path.

The powers about her were theocratic. They held in their hands her life and death in all physical things, and her life and death per omnia secula saeculorum. They held the right to whisper approval or to publish condemnation. Her eager, active spirit was fed by sermons and exhortations to self-examination. Nothing else was offered. On Sundays and at the prayer-meetings of mid-week she was warned by these teachers, to whom everybody yielded, to whom in her childhood she had been taught to drop a wayside courtesy, that she should ever be examining head and heart to escape everlasting hell-fire, and that she should endure so as to conduct her devoted life as to appease the anger of a god as vindictive as the very ecclesiasts themselves. No escape or reaction was possible.

The effect of all this upon a spirit so active, pliant, and sensitive is evident. The sole way open to her was the road to introspection--that narrow lane hedged with the trees of contemplative life to all suffering human kind.

Even those of the community whose life duties took them out in their world, and who were consequently more objective than women, even the men, under such conditions, grew self-examining to the degree of a proverb, "The bother with the Yankee is that he rubs badly at the juncture of the soul and body."

In such a life as this first arose the subjective characteristics of the New England woman at which so many gibes have been written, so many flings spoken; at which so many burly sides have shaken with laughter asbestos. Like almost every dwarfed or distorted thing in the active practical world, "New England subjectivity" is a result of the shortsightedness of men, the assumption of authority of the strong over the weak, and the wrongs they have to advance self done one another.

Nowadays, in our more objective life, this accent of the ego is pronounced irritating. But god's sequence is apt to be irritating.

The New England woman's subjectivity is a result of what has been--the enslaving by environment, the control by circumstance, of a thing flexible, pliant, ductile in this case a hypersensitive soul--and its endeavor to shape itself to lines and forms men in authority dictated.

Cut off from the larger world, this woman was forced into the smaller. Her mind must have field and exercise for its natural activity and constructiveness. Its native expression was in the great objective world of action and thought about action, the macrocosm; stunted and deprived of its birthright, it turned about and fed upon its subjective self, the microcosm.

Scattered far and wide over the granitic soil of New England there have been the women unmarried. Through the seafaring life of the men, through the adventures of the pioneer enchanting the hot-blooded and daring; through the coaxing away of sturdy youthful muscle by the call of the limitless fat lands to the west; through the siren voice of the cities; and also through the loss of men in war--that untellable misery--these less fortunate women--the unmarried--have in all New England life been many. All the rounding and relaxing grace and charm which lie between maid and man they knew only in brooding fancy. Love might spring, but its growth was rudimentary. Their life was not fulfilled. There were many such spinners.

These women, pertinacious at their tasks, dreamed dreams of what could never come to be. Lacking real things, they talked much of moods and sensations. Naturally they would have moods. Human nature will have its confidant, and naturally they talked to one another more freely than to their married sisters. Introspection plus introspection again. A life vacuous in external events and interrupted by no masculine practicality--where fluttering nerves were never counterpoised by steady muscle afforded every development to subjective morbidity.

And expression of their religious life granted no outlet to these natures--no goodly work direct upon humankind. The Reformation, whatever magnificence it accomplished for the freedom of the intellect, denied liberty and individual choice to women. Puritanism was the child of the Reformation. Like all religions reacting from the degradations and abuses of the Middle Ages, for women it discountenanced community life. Not for active ends, nor of a certainty for contemplative, were women to hive together and live independent lives.

In her simple home, and by making the best of spare moments, the undirected impulse of the spinster produced penwipers for the heathen and slippers for the dominie. But there was, through all the long years of her life, no dignified, constructive, human expression for the childless and husbandless woman. Because of this lack a dynamo force for good was wasted for centuries, and tens of thousands of lives were blighted.

In New England her theology ruled, as we have said, with an iron and tyrannous hand. It published the axiom, and soon put it in men's mouths, that the only outlet for women's activities was marriage. No matter if truth to the loftiest ideals kept her single, a woman unmarried, from a garden of Eden point of view and the pronunciamento of the average citizen, was not fulfilling the sole and only end for which he dogmatized women were made she was not child-bearing.

In this great spinster class, dominated by such a voice, we may physiologically expect to find an excess of the neurotic altruistic type, women sickened and extremists, because their nature was unexpressed, unbalanced, and astray. They found a positive joy in self-negation and self-sacrifice, and evidenced in the perturbations and struggles of family life a patience, a dumb endurance, which the humanity about them, and even that of our later day, could not comprehend, and commonly translated into apathy or unsensitiveness. The legendary fervor and devotion of the saints of other days pale before their self-denying discipline.

But instead of gaining, as in the mediæval faith, the applause of contemporaries, and, as in those earlier days, inciting veneration and enthusiasm as a "holy person," the modern sister lived in her small world very generally an upper servant in a married brother's or sister's family. Ibsen's Pillar of Society, Karsten Bernick, in speaking of the self-effacing Martha, voices in our time the then prevailing sentiment, "You don't suppose I let her want for anything. Oh, no; I think I may say I am a good brother. Of course, she lives with us and eats at our table; her salary is quite enough for her dress, and--what can a single woman want more?. . . You know, in a large house like ours, it is always well to have some steady- going person like her whom one can put to anything that may turn up."

Not such estimates alone, but this woman heard reference to herself in many phrases turning upon her chastity. Her very classification in the current vernacular was based upon her condition of sex. And at last she witnessed for her class an economic designation, the essence of vulgarity and the consummation of insolence "superfluous women;" that is, "unnecessary from being in excess of what is needed," women who had not taken husbands, or had lived apart from men. The phrase recalls the use of the word "female"--meaning, "for thy more sweet understanding," a woman--which grew in use with the Squire Westerns of the eighteenth century, and persisted even in decent mouths until Charles Lamb wrapped it in the cloth of gold of his essay on Modern Gallantry, and buried it forever from polite usage.

In another respect, also, this New England spinster grew into a being such as the world had not seen. It is difficult of explanation. Perhaps most easily said, it is this: she never by any motion or phrase suggested to a man her variation from him. All over the world women do this; unconsciously nearly always; in New England never. The expression of the woman has there been condemned as immodest, unwomanly, and with fierce invective; the expression of the man been lauded. Das Ewig-Weibliche must persist without confession of its existence. In the common conception, when among masculine comrades she should bear herself as a sexless sort of half-being, an hermaphroditic comrade, a weaker, unsexed creature, not markedly masculine, like her brother or the present golfing woman, and far from positively feminine.

All her ideals were masculine; that is, all concrete and human expression of an ideal life set before her was masculine. Her religion was wholly masculine, and God was always "He." Her art in its later phases was at its height in the "Spectator" and "Tatler," where the smirking belles who matched the bewigged beaux of Anne's London are jeered at, and conviction is carried the woman reader that all her sex expressions are if not foul, fool, and sometimes both fool and foul.

In this non-recognition of a woman's sex, its needs and expression in home and family life, and in the domination of masculine ideals, has been a loss of grace, facile touch in manner, vivacity, légèreté in short, a want of clarity, delicacy, and feminine strength. To put the woman's sex aside and suppress it was to emphasize spinster life--and increase it. It is this nullification of her sex traits that has led the world to say the New England woman is masculine, when the truth is she is most femininely feminine in everything but sex--where she is most femininely and self-effacingly it.

It is in this narrowness, this purity, simplicity, and sanctity, in this circumspection and misdirection, that we have the origin of the New England woman's subjectivity, her unconscious self-consciousness, and that seeming hermaphroditic attitude that has attracted the attention of the world, caused its wonder, and led to its false judgment of her merit.

Social changes--a result of the Zeitgeist--within the last two generations have brought a broadening of the conception of the "sphere" of women. Puritan instincts have been dying. Rationalism has to a degree been taking their place. While, on the other hand,--one may say this quite apart from construing the galvanic twitchings of a revived mediævalism in ecclesiastic and other social affairs as real life--there have also come conceptions of the liberty and dignity of womanhood, independent or self-dependent, beyond those which prevailed in the nunnery world.

A popular feeling has been growing that a woman's sphere is whatever she can do excellently. What effect this will have on social relations at large we cannot foresee. From such conditions another chivalry may spring! What irony of history if on New England soil!! Possibly, the custom that now pertains of paying women less than men for the same work, the habit in all businesses of giving women the drudging details,--necessary work, indeed, but that to which no reputation is affixed,--and giving to men the broader tasks in which there is contact with the world and the result of contact, growth, may ultimately react, just as out of injustice and brutalities centuries ago arose a chivalrous ideal and a knightly redresser.

The sparseness of wealth, the meagreness of material ideals, and the frugality, simplicity, and rusticity of New England life have never allowed a development of popular manners. Grace among the people has been interpreted theologically; never socially. Their geniality, like their sunshine, has always had a trace of the northeast wind--chilled by the Labrador current of their theology. Native wit has been put out by narrow duties. The conscience of their theology has been instinctively for segregation, never for social amalgamation. They are more solitary than gregarious. We should expect, then, an abruptness of manner among those left to develop social genius--the women even among those travelled and most generously educated. We should expect a degree of baldness and uncoveredness in their social processes, which possibly might be expressed by the polysyllable which her instructor wrote at the end of a Harvard Annex girl's theme to express its literary quality, "unbuttoned"--unconsciously.

When you meet the New England woman, you see her placing you in her social scale. That in tailor-making you God may have used a yardstick different from the New England measure has not yet reached her consciousness; nor that the system of weights and measures of what Sir Leslie Stephen calls "the half-baked civilization of New England" may not prevail in all towns and countries. Should you chance not to fit any notch she has cut in her scale, she is apt to tell you this in a raucous, strident voice, with a schoolma'am air in delivery of her opinion. If she is untravelled and purely of New England surroundings, these qualities may be accented. She is undeniably frank and unquestionably truthful. At all times, in centuries past and to-day, she would scorn such lies as many women amazingly tell for amusement or petty self-defence.

It is evident that she is a good deal of a fatalist. This digression will illustrate: If you protest your belief that so far as this world's estimate goes some great abilities have no fair expression, that in our streets we jostle mute inglorious Miltons; if you say you have known most profound and learned natures housed on a Kansas farm or in a New Mexico cañon; nay, if you aver your faith that here in New England men and women of genius are unnoticed because Messrs. Hue and Cry, voicing the windier, have not appreciated larger capacities, she will pityingly tell you that this larger talent is supposititious. If it were real, she continues, it must have risen to sight and attracted the eye of men. Her human knowledge is not usually deep nor her insight subtle, and she does not know that in saying this she is contradicting the law of literary history, that the producers of permanent intellectual wares are often not recognized by their contemporaries, nor run after by mammonish publishers. And at last, when you answer that the commonest question with our humankind is nourishment for the body, that ease and freedom from exhausting labor must forerun education, literature, art, she retorts that here is proof she is right: if these unrecognized worthies you instance had the gifts you name, they would be superior to mere physical wants.

If you have longanimity, you do not drive the generality closer; you drown your reflections in Sir Thomas Browne: "The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. . . . Who knows whether the best of men be known, or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot than any that stand remembered in the known account of time?"

Her narrow fatalism, united with the conservatism and aristocratic instincts common to all women from their retired life and ignorance of their kind, gives the New England woman a hedged sympathy with the proletarian struggle for freer existence. It may be lack of comprehension rather than lack of sympathy. She would cure by palliations, a leprosy by healing divers sores. At times you find her extolling the changes wrought in the condition of women during the last seventy years. She argues for the extension of education; her conservatism admits that. She may not draw the line of her radicalism even before enfranchisement. But the vaster field of the education of the human race by easier social conditions, by lifting out of money worship and egoism,--this has never been, she argues, and therefore strenuously insists it never will be.

Her civic spirit is Bostonesque. A town's spirit is a moral and spiritual attitude impressed upon members of a community where events have engendered unity of sentiment, and it commonly subordinates individual idiosyncrasies.

The spirit Boston presents includes a habit of mind apparently ratiocinative, but once safely housed in its ism incredulously conservative and persistently self-righteous--lacking flexibility. Within its limits it is as fixed as the outline of the Common. It has externally a concession and docility. It is polite and kind--but when its selfishness is pressing its greediness is of the usurious lender. In our generation it is marked by lack of imagination, originality, initiative. Having had its origin in Non-conformity, it has the habit of seeing what it is right for others to do to keep their house clean--pulling down its mouth when the rest of the world laughs, square-toeing when the rest trip lightly, straight-lacing when the other human is erring, but all the time carrying a heart under its east-wind stays, and eyes which have had a phenomenal vision for right and wrong doing--for others' wrongdoing especially; yet withal holding under its sour gravity moral impulses of such import that they have leavened the life of our country to-day and rebuked and held in check easier, lighter, less profound, less illuminated, less star-striking ideals.

It is a spirit featured not unsimilarly to the Lenox landscape--safe, serene, inviting, unable in our day to produce great crop without the introduction of fresh material--and from like cause. A great glacier has pressed on both human spirit and patch of earth. But the sturdy, English bedrock of the immaterial foundation was not by the glacier of Puritanism so smoothed, triturated, and fertilized as was Berkshire soil by the pulverizing weight of its titanic ice flow.

This spirit is also idealistic outside its civic impulses,--referring constantly to the remote past or future,--and in its eyes the abstract is apt to be as real as the concrete. To this characteristic is due not only Emersonism and Alcottism--really old Platonism interpreted for the transcendental Yankee but also that faith lately revivified, infinitely vulgarized, as logically distorted as the pneuma doctrine of the first century, and called "Christian Science." The idealism of Emerson foreran the dollar-gathering idealism of Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy as the lark of spring foreruns the maple worm.

This idealism oftenest takes religious phases--as in its Puritan origin--and in many instances in our day is content with crude expression. Of foregone days evidence is in an incomplete list--only twenty-five of Brigham Young's wives, some of whom bore such old New England patronymics as Angell, Adams, Ross, Lawrence, Bigelow, Snow, Folsom. May a fleeing of these women to Mormonism be explained by their impatience and heart-sickness at their unsexing social condition and religious spirit?--with the admitting to the great scheme of life and action but one sex and that the one to which their theocratic theologians belonged?

Speculations of pure philosophy this New England woman is inclined to fear as vicious. In dialectics she rests upon the glories of the innocuous transcendentalism of the nineteenth century forties. Exceptions to this rule are perhaps those veraciously called "occult;" for she will run to listen to the juggling logic and boasting rhetoric of Swamis Alphadananda and Betadananda and Gammadananda, and cluster about the audience-room of those dusky fakirs much as a swarm of bees flits in May. And like the bees, she deserts cells filled with honey for combs machine-made and wholly empty.

Illuminated by some factitious light, she will again go to unheard-of lengths in extenuating Shelley's relations to his wives, and in explaining George Eliot's marriage to her first husband. Here, and for at least once in her life, she combats convention and reasons upon natural grounds. "I don't see the wickedness of Rudolph," said one spinster, referring to the tragedy connecting a prince of Austria and a lady of the Vetchera family. "I don't see why he shouldn't have followed his heart. But I shouldn't dare say that to any one else in Boston. Most of them think as I do, but they would all be shocked to have it said."

"Consider the broad meaning of what you say. Let this instance become a universal law."

"Still I believe every sensible man and woman applauds Rudolph's independence."

With whatsoever or whomsoever she is in sympathy this woman is apt to be a partisan. To husband, parents, and children there could be no more devoted adherent. Her conscience, developed by introspective and subjective pondering, has for her own actions abnormal size and activity. It is always alert, always busy, always prodding, and not infrequently sickened by its congested activity. Duty to those about her, and industry for the same beneficiaries, are watchwords of its strength; and to fail in a mote's weight is to gain condemnation of two severest sorts--her own and the community's. The opinion of the community in which she lives is her second almighty power.

In marriage she often exemplifies that saying of Euripides which Stobæus has preserved among the lavender-scented leaves of his Florilegium--"A sympathetic wife is a man's best possession." She has mental sympathy--a result of her tense nervous organization, her altruism in domestic life, her strong love, and her sense of duty, justice, and right.

In body she belongs to a people which has spent its physical force and depleted its vitality. She is slight. There is lack of adipose tissue, reserve force, throughout her frame. Her lungs are apt to be weak, waist normal, and hips undersized.

She is awkward in movement. Her climate has not allowed her relaxation, and the ease and curve of motion that more enervating air imparts. This is seen even in public. In walking she holds her elbows set in an angle, and sometimes she steps out in the tilt of the Cantabrigian man. In this is perhaps an unconscious imitation, a sympathetic copying, of an admirable norm; but it is graceless in petticoats. As she steps she knocks her skirt with her knees, and gives you the impression that her leg is crooked, that she does not lock her kneejoint. More often she toes in than out.

She has a marvellously delicate, brilliant, fine-grained skin. It is innocent of powder and purely natural. No beer in past generations has entered its making, and no port; also, little flesh. In New England it could not be said, as a London writer has coarsely put it, that a woman may be looked upon as an aggregate of so many beefsteaks.

Her eyes have a liquid purity and preternatural brightness; she is the child of glaukopis Athena, rather than of bo-opis Hera, Pronuba, and ministress to women of more luxuriant flesh. The brown of her hair inclines to the ash shades. Her features would in passport wording be called "regular." The expression of her face when she lives in more prosperous communities, where salaries are and an assured future, is a stereotyped smile. In more uncertain life and less fortunate surroundings, her countenance shows a weariness of spirit and a homesickness for heaven that make your soul ache.

Her mind is too self-conscious on the one hand, and too set on lofty duties on the other, to allow much of coquetterie, or flirting, or a femininely accented camaraderie with men--such as the more elemental women of Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and New York enjoy. She is farthest possible from the luxuriant beauty of St. Louis who declared, "You bet! black-jack-diamond kind of a time!" when asked if she had enjoyed her social dash in Newport. This New England woman would, forsooth, take no dash in Aurovulgus. But falling by chance among vulgarities and iniquities, she guards against the defilement of her lips, for she loves a pure and clean usage of our facile English speech.

The old phase of the New England woman is passing. It is the hour for some poet to voice her threnody. Social conditions under which she developed are almost obliterated. She is already outnumbered in her own home by women of foreign blood, an ampler physique, a totally different religious conception, a far different conduct, and a less exalted ideal of life. Intermixtures will follow and racial lines gradually fade. In the end she will not be. Her passing is due to the unnumbered husbandless and the physical attenuation of the married--attenuation resulting from their spare and meagre diet, and, it is also claimed, from the excessive household labor of their mothers. More profoundly causative--in fact, inciting the above conditions--was the distorted morality and debilitating religion impressed upon her sensitive spirit. Mayhap in this present decay some Moera is punishing that awful crime of self-sufficing ecclesiasticsm. Her unproductivity--no matter from what reason, whether from physical necessity or a spirit-searching flight from the wrath of God--has been her death.

Previous Next
KanColl  Return to Books