American Thumbprints by Kate Stephens



He is the half part of a blessèd man
Left to be finishèd by such as she;
And she a fair divided excellence,
Whose fulness of perfection lies in him.

If a man recognise in woman any quality which transends the qualities demanded in a plaything or handmaid--if he recognise in her the existance of an intellectual not essentially dissimilar to his own, he must, by plainest logic, admit that life to express itself in all its spontaneous forms of activity.
                                      GEORGE ELIOT

Hard the task: your prison-chamber
Widens not for lifted latch
till the giant thews and sinews
Meet their Godlike overmatch.
                                      GEORGE MEREDITH

"I HATE every woman!" cries Euripides, in keen iambics in a citation of the Florilegium of Stobæus. The sentiment was not new with Euripides--unfortunately. Before him there was bucolic Hesiod with his precepts on wife-choosing. There was Simonides of Amorgos, who in outcrying the degradation of the Ionian women told the degradation of the Ionian men. There was Hipponax, who fiercely sang "two days on which a woman gives a man most pleasure--the day he marries her and the day he buries her."

And along with Euripides was Aristophanes, the radiant laughter-lover, the titanic juggler with the heavens above and earth and men below--Aristophanes who flouted the women of Athens in his "Ecclesiazusæ," and in the "Clouds" and his "Thesmophoriazusæ." Thucydides before them had named but one woman in his whole great narrative, and had avoided the mention of women and their part in the history he relates.

"Woman is a curse!" cried Susarion. The Jews had said it before, when they told the story of Eve--

"Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe."

Down through many centuries our forebears cast to and fro the same sentiment--in spite of the introduction into life and literature of the love of men for women and women for men; in spite of the growth of romantic love. You find misogynous expression among the Latins. In early "Church Fathers," such as St. John Chrysostom, you come upon it in grossest form. Woman is "a necessary ill," cried the Golden Mouthed, "a natural temptation, a wished-for calamity, a household danger, a deadly fascination, a bepainted evil."

You see the sentiment in the laws of church and of kingdom. You sight its miasm in the gloaming and murk of the Middle Ages, amid the excesses which in shame for it chivalry affected and exalted. You read it by the light of the awful fires that burnt women accessory to the husband's crime for which their husbands were merely hanged. You see it in Martin Luther's injunction to Catherine von Bora that it ill bccame his wife to fasten her waist in front--because independence in women is unseemly, their dress should need an assistant for its donning. You chance upon it in old prayers written by men, and once publicly said by men for English queens to a God "which for the offence of the first woman hast threatened unto all women a common, sharp, and inevitable malediction."

You find the sentiment in Boileau's satire and in Pope's "Characters." You open the pages of the Wizard of the North, who did for his own generations what Heliodorus and his chaste Chariclea accomplished for the fourth century, and you come upon Walter Scott singing in one of his exquisite songs--

"Woman's faith, and woman's trust,
Write the characters in dust."

All such sad evidences, it should be borne in mind, are but the reverse of the fair picture with which men have regarded women. But because there is a reverse side, and its view has entered and still enters largely into human life, human estimates, and human fate, it should be spoken about openly. Women and men inexperienced in the outer world of affairs do not realize its still potent force.

As for the subject of these gibes, for ages they were silent. During many generations, in the privacy of their apartments, the women must have made mute protests to one another. "These things are false," their souls cried. But they took the readiest defence of physical weakness, and they loved harmony. It was better to be silent than to rise in bold proof of an untruth and meet rude force.

Iteration and dogmatic statement of women's moral inferiority, coupled as it often was with quoted text and priestly authority, had their inevitable effect upon more sensitive and introspective characters; it humiliated and unquestionably deprived many a woman of self-respect. Still, all along there must have been a less sensitive, sturdier, womanhood possessed of the perversive faith of Mrs. Poyser, that "heaven made 'em to match the men," that--

"Together, dwarfed or godlike, bond or free,"--

men and women rise or sink; that, in fact, the interests of the two are inseparable and wholly identical. To broad vision misogynous expression seems to set in antagonism forces united by all the mighty powers of human evolution throughout millions of years, and the whole plan of God back of that soul-unfolding.

The misogynous song and story of our forebears with momentous fall descended and became the coarse newspaper quip which a generation ago whetted its sting upon women--"Susan B. Anthonys"--outspoken and seeking more freedom than social prejudices of their day allowed. An annoying gnat, it has in these days been almost exterminated by diffusion of the oil of fairness and better knowledge.

But even yet periodicals at times give mouth to the old misogyny. Such an expression, nay, two, are published in otherwise admirable pages, and with these we have to do. They are from the pen of a man of temperament, energy, vigorous learning, and an "esurient Genie" for books--professor of Latin in one of our great universities, where misogynous sentiment has found expression in lectures in course and also in more public delivery.

The first reverse phrase is of "the neurotic caterwauling of an hysterical woman." Cicero's invective and pathos are said to be perilously near that perturbance.

Now specialists in nervous difficulties have not yet determined there is marked variation between neurotic caterwauling of hysterical women and neurotic caterwauling of hysterical men. Cicero's shrieks--for Cicero was what is to-day called "virile," "manly," "strenuous," "vital,"--Cicero's would naturally approximate the men's.

To normally tuned ears caterwaulings are as unagreeable as misogynous whoops--waulings of men as cacophonous as waulings of women. Take an instance in times foregone. In what is the megalomaniac whine of Marie Bashkirtseff's "Journal" more unagreeable than the egotistical vanity of Lord Byron's wails? Each of these pen people may be viewed from another point. More generously any record--even an academic misogyny--is of interest and value because expressing the idiosyncratic development or human feeling of the world.

But, exactly and scientifically speaking, neurotic and hysteric are contradictory terms. Neurotic men and women are described by physicians as self-forgetting sensitives--zealous, executive; while the hysterics of both sexes are supreme egotists, selfish, vain, and vague, uncomfortable both in personal and literary contact--just like wit at their expense. "If we knew all," said George Eliot, who was never hysterical, "we would not judge." And Paul of Tarsus wrote wisely to those of Rome, "Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art, that judgest."

Science nowadays declares that the man who wears a shirt-collar cannot be well, and equally the same analytic spirit may some day make evident that neurosis and hysteria are legacies of a foredone generation, who found the world out of joint and preyed upon its strength and calmness of nerve to set things right. Humaneness and fair estimate are remedies to-day's dwellers upon the earth can offer, whether the neurosis and hysteria be Latin or Saxon, men's or indeed women's.

The second of the phrases to which we adverted tells of "the unauthoritative young women who make dictionaries at so much a mile." It has the smack of the wit of the eighteenth century--of Pope's studied and never-ceasing gibes at Lady Mary Wortley Montagu after she had given him the mitten; of Dr. Johnson's "female day" and his rumbling thunder over "the freaks and humors and spleen and vanity of women"--he of all men who indulge in freaks and humors and spleen and vanity!--whose devotion to his bepainted and bedizened old wife was the talk of their literary London.

We are apt to believe the slurs that Pope, Johnson, and their self-applauding colaborers cast upon what they commonly termed "females" as deterrent to their fairness, favor, and fame. The high-noted laugh which sounded from Euphelia's morning toilet and helped the self-gratulation of those old beaux not infrequently grates upon our twentieth century altruistic, neurotic sensibilities.

But to return to our lamb. An unauthoritative young woman, we suppose, is one who is not authoritative, who has not authority. But what confers authority? Assumption of it? Very rarely anything else even in the case of a college professor. We have in our blessed democracy no Academy, no Sanhedrim, no keeper of the seal of authority--and while we have not we keep life, strength, freedom in our veins. The young woman "who makes dictionaries at so much a mile" may be--sometimes is--as fitted for authority and the exercise of it as her brother. Academic as well as popular prejudices, both springing mainly from the masculine mind, make him a college professor, and her a nameless drudge exercising the qualities women have gained from centuries of women's life sympathetic service with belittling recognition of their work, self-sacrifice, and infinite care and patience for detail.

Too many of our day, both of men and women, still believe with old John Knox--to glance back even beyond Johnson and Pope and his sixteenth century "First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women"--a fine example of hysterical shrieking in men, by the way. With the loving estimate of Knox's contemporary, Mr. John Davidson, we heartily agree when he sings--

"For weill I wait that Scotland never bure,
In Scottis leid ane man mair Eloquent,
Into perswading also I am sure,
Was nane in Europe that was mair potent.
In Greik and Hebrew he was excellent,
And als in Latine toung his propernes,
Was tryit trym quhen scollers wer present.
Bot thir wer nathing till his uprichtnes."

We admire Knox's magnificent moral courage and the fruits of that courage which the Scots have long enjoyed, and yet anent the "cursed Jesabel of England," the "cruell monstre Marie," Knox cries: "To promote a Woman to beare rule, superiorite, dominion, or empire. . . is repugnant to Nature, contumelie to God, a thing most contrarious to his revealed will and approved ordinance"--just as if he, John Knox, knew all about God's will and Nature's designs. What pretence, John! But John took it upon himself to say he did. He assumed; and time and events have proved that it was sheer assumption on John's part. I doubt, were he now here, if he would let a modest, bread-earning woman even make dictionaries at so much a mile--nothing beyond type-writing, surely. He would probably assume authority and shriek hysterically that anything beyond the finger-play of type-writing is repugnant to Nature and contrarious to God.

There was a Mrs. John Knox; there were two in fact--ribs.

"That servent faithfull servand of the Lord" took the first slip of a girl when near his fiftieth year, long after he had left the celibate priesthood; and the second, a lass of sixteen, when he was fifty-nine. They took care of John, a mother-in-law helping, and with service and money gave him leisure to write. The opinions of the dames do not appear in their husband's hysteria. "I use the help of my left hand," dictated Knox when one of these girl-wives was writing for him a letter.

With the young women we are considering there is this eternal variation from John Knox and his hysterical kin, Celt, Saxon, or Latin--she does not assume authority. Consequently she makes dictionaries at so much a mile. Such word-spinning was at one time done by drudge men--men who had failed mayhap in the church, or in law, or had distaste for material developments or shame for manual work. Now, with women fortified by the learning their colleges afford, it is oftenest done by drudge women. The law of commerce prevails--women gain the task because they will take much less a mile than men. Men offer them less than they would dare offer a man similarly equipped.

But why should our brothers who teach sophomores at so much a year fleer? even if the woman has got the job! Does not this arrangement afford opportunity for a man to affix his name to her work? In unnumbered--and concealed--instances. We all remember how in the making of the----dictionary the unauthoritative woman did the work, and the unauthoritative man wrote the introduction, and the authoritative man affixed his name to it. We all remember that, surely. Then there is the-- -- --; and the-- --. We do not fear to mention names, we merely pity and do not--and we nurse pity because with Aristotle we believe that it purifies the heart. With small knowledge of the publishing world, I can count five such make-ups as I here indicate. In one case an authoritative woman did her part of the work under the explicit agreement that her name should be upon the title-page. In the end, by a trick, in order to advertise the man's, it appeared only in the first edition. Yet this injustice in nowise deprived her of a heart of oak.

The commercial book-building world, as it at present stands--the place where they write dictionaries and world's literatures at so much a mile--is apt to think a woman is out in its turmoil for her health, or for sheer amusement; not for the practical reasons men are. An eminent opinion declared the other day that they were there "to get a trousseau or get somebody to get it for 'em." Another exalted judgment asserted, "The first thing they look round the office and see who there is to marry."

This same world exploits her labor; it pays her a small fraction of what it pays a man engaged in the identical work; it seizes, appropriates, and sometimes grows rich upon her ideas. It never thinks of advancing her to large duties because of her efficiency in small. She is "only a woman," and with Ibsen's great Pillar of Society the business world thinks she should be "content to occupy a modest and becoming position." The capacities of women being varied, would not large positions rightly appear modest and becoming to large capacities?

For so many centuries men have estimated a woman's service of no money value that it is hard, at the opening of the twentieth, to believe it equal to even a small part of a man's who is doing the same work. In one late instance a woman at the identical task of editing was paid less than one-fortieth the sum given her colaborer, a man, whose products were at times submitted to her for revision and correction. In such cases the men are virtually devouring the women--not quite so openly, yet as truly, as the Tierra del Fuegians of whom Darwin tells: when pressed in winter by hunger they choke their women with smoke and eat them. In our instance just cited the feeding upon was less patent, but the choking with smoke equally unconcealed.

The very work of these so-called unauthoritative women passes in the eyes of the world uninstructed in the present artfulness of book-making as the work of so-called authoritative men. It is therefore authoritative.

Not in this way did the king-critic get together his dictionary. Johnson's work evidences his hand on every page and almost in every paragraph. But things are changed from the good old times of individual action. We now have literary trusts and literary monopolies. Nowadays the duties of an editor-in-chief may be to oversee each day's labor, to keep a sharp eye upon the "authoritative" men and "unauthoritative" women whose work he bargained for at so much a mile, and, when they finish the task, to indite his name as chief worker.

Would it be reasonable to suppose that--suffering such school-child discipline and effacement--those twentieth century writers nourished the estimate of "booksellers" with which Michael Drayton in the seventeenth century enlivened a letter to Drummond of Hawthornden?--"They are a company of base knives whom I both scorn and kick at."

It is under such conditions as that just cited that we hear a book spoken of as if it were a piece of iron, not a product of thought and feeling carefully proportioned and measured; as if it were the fruit of a day and not of prolonged thought and application; as if it could be easily reproduced by the application of a mechanical screw; as if it were a bar of lead instead of far-reaching wings to minister good; as if it were a thing to step upon rather than a thing to reach to; as if it could be cut, slashed, twisted, distorted, instead of its really forming an organic whole with the Aristotelian breath of unity, and the cutting or hampering of it would be performing a surgical operation which might entirely let out its breath of life.

Until honor is stronger among human beings--that is, until the business world is something other than a maelstrom of hell--it is unmanly and unwomanly to gibe at the "unauthoritative" young woman writing at so much a mile. She may be bearing heavy burdens of debt incurred by another. She may be supporting a decrepit father or an idle brother. She is bread-earning. Oftenest she is gentle, and, like the strapped dog which licks the hand that lays bare his brain, she does not strike back. But she has an inherent sense of honesty and dishonesty, and she knows what justice is. Her knowledge of life, the residuum of her unauthoritative literary experience, shows her the rare insight and truth of Mr. Howells when he wrote, "There is no happy life for a woman--except as she is happy in suffering for those she loves, and in sacrificing herself to their pleasure, their pride, and ambition. The advantage that the world offers her--and it does not always offer her that--is her choice in self-sacrifice."

Ten to one--a hundred to one the young woman is "unauthoritative" because she is not peremptory, is not dictatorial, assumes no airs of authority such as swelling chest and overbearing manners, is sympathetic with another's egotism, is altruistic, is not egotistical with the egotism that is unwilling to cast forth its work for the instructing and furthering of human kind unless it is accompanied by the writer's name a "signed article." She is not selfish and guarding the ego. Individual fame seems to her view an ephemeral thing, but the aggregate good of mankind for which she works, eternal.

The beaux of that century of Dr. Johnson's were great in spite of their sneers and taunts at the Clarindas and Euphelias and Fidelias, not on account of them. We have no publication which is to our time as the "Rambler" was to London in 1753, or the "Spectator," "Tatler," and "Englishman" to Queen Anne's earlier day. But in what we have let us not deface any page with misogynous phrase and sentence--jeers or expression of evil against one-half of humanity. Unsympathetic words about women who by some individual fortune have become literary drudges fit ill American lips--which should sing the nobility of any work that truly helps our kind. These women go about in wind and rain; they sit in the foul air of offices; they overcome repugnance to coarse and familiar address; they sometimes stint their food; they are at all times practising a close economy; with aching flesh and nerves they often draw their Saturday evening stipend. They are of the sanest and most human of our kind--laborers daily for their meed of wage, knowing the sweetness of bread well earned, of work well done, and rest well won.

Even from the diseased view of a veritable hater of their sex they have a vast educational influence in the world at large, whether their work is "authoritative" or "unauthoritative," according to pronunciamento of some one who assumes authority to call them "unauthoritative." It must not be forgotten--to repeat for clearness' sake--that men laboring in these very duties met and disputed every step the women took even in "unauthoritative" work, using ridicule, caste distinction, and all the means of intimidation which a power long dominant naturally possesses. To work for lower wages alone allowed the women to gain employment.

"You harshly blame my strengthlessness and the woman-delicacy of my body," exclaims the Antigone of Euripides, according to another citation of the "Florilegium," of Stobæus named at the beginning, "but if I am of understanding mind--that is better than a strong arm."

Defendants whose case would otherwise go by default need this brief plea, which their own modesty forbids their uttering, their modesty, their busy hands and heads, and their Antigone-like love and astheneia. They know sympathy is really as large as the world, and that room is here for other women than those who make dictionaries at so much a mile as well as for themselves; and for other men than neurotic caterwaulers and hysterical shriekers like our ancient friend Knox, assuming that the masculine is the only form of expression, that women have no right to utter the human voice, and that certain men have up wire connections with omniscient knowledge and Nature's designs and God's will, and, standing on this pretence, are the dispensers of authority.

"If the greatest poems have not been written by women," said our Edgar Poe, with a clearer accent of the American spirit toward women, "it is because, as yet, the greatest poems have not been written at all." The measure is large between the purple-faced zeal of John Knox and the vivid atavism of our brilliant professor and that luminous vision of Poe.

Previous Next
KanColl  Return to Books