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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Position of Women in the United States
By James Bryce (1838–1922)
 
From ‘The American Commonwealth’

SOCIAL intercourse between youths and maidens is everywhere more easy and unrestrained than in England or Germany, not to speak of France. Yet there are considerable differences between the Eastern cities, whose usages have begun to approximate to those of Europe, and other parts of the country. In the rural districts, and generally all over the West, young men and girls are permitted to walk together, drive together, go out to parties and even to public entertainments together, without the presence of any third person who can be supposed to be looking after or taking charge of the girl. So a girl may, if she pleases, keep up a correspondence with a young man, nor will her parents think of interfering. She will have her own friends, who when they call at her house ask for her, and are received by her, it may be alone; because they are not deemed to be necessarily the friends of her parents also, nor even of her sisters.  1
  In the cities of the Atlantic States it is now thought scarcely correct for a young man to take a young lady out for a solitary drive; and in few sets would he be permitted to escort her alone to the theatre. But girls still go without chaperons to dances, the hostess being deemed to act as chaperon for all her guests; and as regards both correspondence and the right to have one’s own circle of acquaintances, the usage even of New York or Boston allows more liberty than does that of London or Edinburgh. It was at one time, and it may possibly still be, not uncommon for a group of young people who know one another well to make up an autumn “party in the woods.” They choose some mountain and forest region, such as the Adirondack Wilderness west of Lake Champlain, engage three or four guides, embark with guns and fishing-rods, tents, blankets, and a stock of groceries, and pass in boats up the rivers and across the lakes of this wild country through sixty or seventy miles of trackless forest, to their chosen camping-ground at the foot of some tall rock that rises from the still crystal of the lake. Here they build their bark hut, and spread their beds of the elastic and fragrant hemlock boughs; the youths roam about during the day, tracking the deer, the girls read and work and bake the corn-cakes; at night there is a merry gathering round the fire, or a row in the soft moonlight. On these expeditions brothers will take their sisters and cousins, who bring perhaps some lady friends with them; the brothers’ friends will come too; and all will live together in a fraternal way for weeks or months, though no elderly relative or married lady be of the party.  2
  There can be no doubt that the pleasure of life is sensibly increased by the greater freedom which transatlantic custom permits; and as the Americans insist that no bad results have followed, one notes with regret that freedom declines in the places which deem themselves most civilized. American girls have been, so far as a stranger can ascertain, less disposed to what are called “fast ways” than girls of the corresponding classes in England, and exercise in this respect a pretty rigorous censorship over one another. But when two young people find pleasure in one another’s company, they can see as much of each other as they please, can talk and walk together frequently, can show that they are mutually interested, and yet need have little fear of being misunderstood either by one another or by the rest of the world. It is all a matter of custom. In the West, custom sanctions this easy friendship; in the Atlantic cities, so soon as people have come to find something exceptional in it, constraint is felt, and a conventional etiquette like that of the Old World begins to replace the innocent simplicity of the older time, the test of whose merit may be gathered from the universal persuasion in America that happy marriages are in the middle and upper ranks more common than in Europe, and that this is due to the ampler opportunities which young men and women have of learning one another’s characters and habits before becoming betrothed. Most girls have a larger range of intimate acquaintances than girls have in Europe, intercourse is franker, there is less difference between the manners of home and the manners of general society. The conclusions of a stranger are in such matters of no value; so I can only repeat that I have never met any judicious American lady who, however well she knew the Old World, did not think that the New World customs conduced more both to the pleasantness of life before marriage, and to constancy and concord after it.  3
  In no country are women, and especially young women, so much made of. The world is at their feet. Society seems organized for the purpose of providing enjoyment for them. Parents, uncles, aunts, elderly friends, even brothers, are ready to make their comfort and convenience bend to the girls’ wishes. The wife has fewer opportunities for reigning over the world of amusements, because except among the richest people she has more to do in household management than in England, owing to the scarcity of servants; but she holds in her own house a more prominent if not a more substantially powerful position than in England or even in France. With the German hausfrau, who is too often content to be a mere housewife, there is of course no comparison. The best proof of the superior place American ladies occupy is to be found in the notions they profess to entertain of the relations of an English married pair. They talk of the English wife as little better than a slave; declaring that when they stay with English friends, or receive an English couple in America, they see the wife always deferring to the husband and the husband always assuming that his pleasure and convenience are to prevail. The European wife, they admit, often gets her own way, but she gets it by tactful arts, by flattery or wheedling or playing on the man’s weaknesses; whereas in America the husband’s duty and desire is to gratify the wife, and render to her those services which the English tyrant exacts from his consort. One may often hear an American matron commiserate a friend who has married in Europe, while the daughters declare in chorus that they will never follow the example. Laughable as all this may seem to English women, it is perfectly true that the theory as well as the practice of conjugal life is not the same in America as in England. There are overbearing husbands in America, but they are more condemned by the opinion of the neighborhood than in England. There are exacting wives in England, but their husbands are more pitied than would be the case in America. In neither country can one say that the principle of perfect equality reigns; for in America the balance inclines nearly, though not quite, as much in favor of the wife as it does in England in favor of the husband. No one man can have a sufficiently large acquaintance in both countries to entitle his individual opinion on the results to much weight. So far as I have been able to collect views from those observers who have lived in both countries, they are in favor of the American practice, perhaps because the theory it is based on departs less from pure equality than does that of England. These observers do not mean that the recognition of women as equals or superiors makes them any better or sweeter or wiser than Englishwomen; but rather that the principle of equality, by correcting the characteristic faults of men, and especially their selfishness and vanity, is more conducive to the concord and happiness of a home. They conceive that to make the wife feel her independence and responsibility more strongly than she does in Europe tends to brace and expand her character; while conjugal affection, usually stronger in her than in the husband, inasmuch as there are fewer competing interests, saves her from abusing the precedence yielded to her. This seems to be true; but I have heard others maintain that the American system, since it does not require the wife habitually to forego her own wishes, tends, if not to make her self-indulgent and capricious, yet slightly to impair the more delicate charms of character; as it is written, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  4
  A European cannot spend an evening in an American drawing-room without perceiving that the attitude of men to women is not that with which he is familiar at home. The average European man has usually a slight sense of condescension when he talks to a woman on serious subjects. Even if she is his superior in intellect, in character, in social rank, he thinks that as a man he is her superior, and consciously or unconsciously talks down to her. She is too much accustomed to this to resent it, unless it becomes tastelessly palpable. Such a notion does not cross an American’s mind. He talks to a woman just as he would to a man; of course with more deference of manner, and with a proper regard to the topics likely to interest her, but giving her his intellectual best, addressing her as a person whose opinion is understood by both to be worth as much as his own. Similarly an American lady does not expect to have conversation made to her: it is just as much her duty or pleasure to lead it as the man’s is; and more often than not she takes the burden from him, darting along with a gay vivacity which puts to shame his slower wits.  5
  It need hardly be said that in all cases where the two sexes come into competition for comfort, the provision is made first for women. In railroads the end car of the train, being that farthest removed from the smoke of the locomotive, is often reserved for them (though men accompanying a lady are allowed to enter it); and at hotels their sitting-room is the best and sometimes the only available public room, ladyless guests being driven to the bar or the hall. In omnibuses and horse-cars (tram-cars), it was formerly the custom for a gentleman to rise and offer his seat to a lady if there were no vacant place. This is now less universally done. In New York and Boston (and I think also in San Francisco), I have seen the men keep their seats when ladies entered; and I recollect one occasion when the offer of a seat to a lady was declined by her, on the ground that as she had chosen to enter a full car she ought to take the consequences. It was (I was told in Boston) a feeling of this kind that had led to the discontinuance of the old courtesy: when ladies constantly pressed into the already crowded vehicles, the men, who could not secure the enforcement of the regulations against over-crowding, tried to protect themselves by refusing to rise. It is sometimes said that the privileges yielded to American women have disposed them to claim as a right what was only a courtesy, and have told unfavorably upon their manners. I know of several instances, besides this one of the horse-cars, which might seem to support the criticism, but cannot on the whole think it well founded. The better-bred women do not presume on their sex, and the area of good breeding is always widening. It need hardly be said that the community at large gains by the softening and restraining influence which the reverence for womanhood diffuses. Nothing so quickly incenses the people as any insult offered to a woman. Wife-beating, and indeed any kind of rough violence offered to women, is far less common among the rudest class than it is in England. Field work or work at the pit-mouth of mines is seldom or never done by women in America; and the American traveler who in some parts of Europe finds women performing severe manual labor, is revolted by the sight in a way which Europeans find surprising.  6
  In the farther West, that is to say, beyond the Mississippi, in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific States, one is much struck by what seems the absence of the humblest class of women. The trains are full of poorly dressed and sometimes (though less frequently) rough-mannered men. One discovers no women whose dress or air marks them out as the wives, daughters, or sisters of these men, and wonders whether the male population is celibate, and if so, why there are so many women. Closer observation shows that the wives, daughters, and sisters are there, only their attire and manner are those of what Europeans would call middle-class and not working-class people. This is partly due to the fact that Western men affect a rough dress. Still one may say that the remark so often made, that the masses of the American people correspond to the middle class of Europe, is more true of the women than of the men; and is more true of them, in the rural districts and in the West than it is of the inhabitants of Atlantic cities. I remember to have been dawdling in a book-store in a small town in Oregon when a lady entered to inquire if a monthly magazine, whose name was unknown to me, had yet arrived. When she was gone I asked the salesman who she was, and what was the periodical she wanted. He answered that she was the wife of a railway workman, that the magazine was a journal of fashions, and that the demand for such journals was large and constant among women of the wage-earning class in the town. This set me to observing female dress more closely; and it turned out to be perfectly true that the women in these little towns were following the Parisian fashions very closely, and were in fact ahead of the majority of English ladies belonging to the professional and mercantile classes. Of course in such a town as I refer to, there are no domestic servants except in the hotels (indeed, almost the only domestic service to be had in the Pacific States was till very recently that of Chinese), so these votaries of fashion did all their own housework and looked after their own babies.  7
  Three causes combine to create among American women an average of literary taste and influence higher than that of women in any European country. These are the educational facilities they enjoy, the recognition of the equality of the sexes in the whole social and intellectual sphere, and the leisure which they possess as compared with men. In a country where men are incessantly occupied at their business or profession, the function of keeping up the level of culture devolves upon women. It is safe in their hands. They are quick and keen-witted, less fond of open-air life and physical exertion than English women are, and obliged by the climate to pass a greater part of their time under shelter from the cold of winter and the sun of summer. For music and for the pictorial arts they do not yet seem to have formed so strong a taste as for literature; partly perhaps owing to the fact that in America the opportunities of seeing and hearing masterpieces, except indeed operas, are rarer than in Europe. But they are eager and assiduous readers of all such books and periodicals as do not presuppose special knowledge in some branch of science or learning, while the number who have devoted themselves to some special study and attained proficiency in it is large. The fondness for sentiment, especially moral and domestic sentiment, which is often observed as characterizing American taste in literature, seems to be mainly due to the influence of women, for they form not only the larger part of the reading public, but an independent-minded part, not disposed to adopt the canons laid down by men, and their preferences count for more in the opinions and predilections of the whole nation than is the case in England. Similarly the number of women who write is infinitely larger in America than in Europe. Fiction, essays, and poetry are naturally their favorite provinces. In poetry more particularly, many whose names are quite unknown in Europe have attained widespread fame.  8
  Some one may ask how far the differences between the position of women in America and their position in Europe are due to democracy? or if not to this, then to what other cause?  9
  They are due to democratic feeling, in so far as they spring from the notion that all men are free and equal, possessed of certain inalienable rights and owing certain corresponding duties. This root idea of democracy cannot stop at defining men as male human beings, any more than it could ultimately stop at defining them as white human beings. For many years the Americans believed in equality with the pride of discoverers as well as with the fervor of apostles. Accustomed to apply it to all sorts and conditions of men, they were naturally the first to apply it to women also; not indeed as respects politics, but in all the social as well as legal relations of life. Democracy is in America more respectful of the individual, less disposed to infringe his freedom or subject him to any sort of legal or family control, than it has shown itself in Continental Europe; and this regard for the individual inured to the benefit of women. Of the other causes that have worked in the same direction, two may be mentioned. One is the usage of the Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches, under which a woman who is a member of the congregation has the same rights in choosing a deacon, elder, or pastor, as a man has. Another is the fact that among the westward-moving settlers women were at first few in number, and were therefore treated with special respect. The habit then formed was retained as the communities grew, and propagated itself all over the country.  10
  What have been the results on the character and usefulness of women themselves?  11
  Favorable. They have opened to them a wider life and more variety of career. While the special graces of the feminine character do not appear to have suffered, there has been produced a sort of independence and a capacity for self-help which are increasingly valuable as the number of unmarried women increases. More resources are open to an American woman who has to lead a solitary life, not merely in the way of employment, but for the occupation of her mind and tastes, than to a European spinster or widow; while her education has not rendered the American wife less competent for the discharge of household duties.  12
  How has the nation at large been affected by the development of this new type of womanhood, or rather perhaps of this variation on the English type?  13
  If women have on the whole gained, it is clear that the nation gains through them. As mothers they mold the character of their children; while the function of forming the habits of society and determining its moral tone rests greatly in their hands. But there is reason to think that the influence of the American system tells directly for good upon men as well as upon the whole community. Men gain in being brought to treat women as equals, rather than as graceful playthings or useful drudges. The respect for women which every American man either feels, or is obliged by public sentiment to profess, has a wholesome effect on his conduct and character, and serves to check the cynicism which some other peculiarities of the country foster. The nation as a whole owes to the active benevolence of its women, and their zeal in promoting social reforms, benefits which the customs of Continental Europe would scarcely have permitted women to confer. Europeans have of late years begun to render a well-deserved admiration to the brightness and vivacity of American ladies. Those who know the work they have done and are doing in many a noble cause will admire still more their energy, their courage, their self-devotion. No country seems to owe more to its women than America does, nor to owe to them so much of what is best in social institutions and in the beliefs that govern conduct.  14
 
 
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