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Discontented Women by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

An Extract From ~ Maids Wives and Bachelors

Discontent is a vice six thousand years old, and it will be eternal; because it is in the race. Every human being has a complaining side, but discontent is bound up in the heart of woman; it is her original sin. For if the first woman had been satisfied with her conditions, if she had not aspired to be “as gods,” and hankered after unlawful knowledge, Satan would hardly have thought it worth his while to discuss her rights and wrongs with her. That unhappy controversy has never ceased; and, with or without reason woman has been perpetually subject to discontent with her conditions, and, according to her nature, has been moved by its influence. Some it has made peevish, some plaintive, some ambitious, some reckless, while a noble majority have found in its very control that serene composure and cheerfulness which is granted to those who conquer, rather than to those who inherit.

But, with all its variations of influence and activity, there has never been a time in the world's history when female discontent has assumed so much and demanded so much as at the present day; and both the satisfied and the dissatisfied woman may well pause to consider whether the fierce fever of unrest which has possessed so large a number of the sex is not rather a delirium than a conviction; whether indeed they are not just as foolishly impatient to get out of their Eden, as was the woman Eve six thousand years ago.

We may premise, in order to clear the way, that there is a noble discontent which has a great work to do in the world; a discontent which is the antidote to conceit and self-satisfaction, and which urges the worker of every kind continually to realize a higher ideal. Springing from Regret and Desire, between these two sighs, all horizons lift; and the very passion of its longing gives to those who feel this divine discontent the power to overleap whatever separates them from their hope and their aspiration.

Having acknowledged so much in favor of discontent, we may now consider some of the most objectionable forms in which it has attacked certain women of our own generation. In the van of these malcontents are the women dissatisfied with their home duties. One of the saddest domestic features of the day is the disrepute into which housekeeping has fallen; for that is a woman's first natural duty and answers to the needs of her best nature. It is by no means necessary that she should be a Cinderella among the ashes, or a Nausicaa washing linen, or a Penelope forever at her needle, but all women of intelligence now understand that good cooking is a liberal science, and that there is a most intimate connection between food and virtue, and food and health, and food and thought. Indeed, many things are called crimes that are not as bad as the savagery of an Irish cook or the messes of a fourth-rate confectioner.

It must be noted that this revolt of certain women against housekeeping is not a revolt against their husbands; it is simply a revolt against their duties. They consider housework hard and monotonous and inferior, and confess with a cynical frankness that they prefer to engross paper, or dabble in art, or embroider pillow-shams, or sell goods, or in some way make money to pay servants who will cook their husband's dinner and nurse their babies for them. And they believe that in this way they show themselves to have superior minds, and ask credit for a deed which ought to cover them with shame. For actions speak louder than words, and what does such action say? In the first place, it asserts that any stranger—even a young uneducated peasant girl hired for a few dollars a month—is able to perform the duties of the house-mistress and the mother. In the second place, it substitutes a poor ambition for love, and hand service for heart service. In the third place, it is a visible abasement of the loftiest duties of womanhood to the capacity of the lowest-paid service. A wife and mother cannot thus absolve her own soul; she simply disgraces and traduces her holiest work.

Suppose even that housekeeping is hard and monotonous, it is not more so than men's work in the city. The first lesson a business man has to learn is to do pleasantly what he does not like to do. All regular, useful work must be monotonous, but love ought to make it easy; and at any rate the tedium of housework is not any greater than the tedium of office work. As for housekeeping being degrading, that is the veriest nonsense. Home is a little royalty; and if the housewife and mother be of elements finely mixed and loftily educated, all the more she will regard the cold-mutton question of importance, and consider the quality of the soup, and the quantity of chutnee in the curry, as requiring her best attention. It is only the weakest, silliest women who cannot lift their work to the level of their thoughts, and so ennoble both.

There are other types of the discontented wife, with whom we are all too familiar: for instance, the wife who is stunned and miserable because she discovers that marriage is not a lasting picnic; who cannot realize that the husband must be different from the lover, and spends her days in impotent whining. She is always being neglected, and always taking offence; she has an insatiable craving for attentions, and needs continual assurances of affection, wasting her time and feelings in getting up pathetic scenes of accusation, which finally weary, and then alienate her husband. Her own fault! There is nothing a man hates more than a woman going sobbing and complaining about the house with red eyes; unless it be a woman with whom he must live in a perpetual fool's paradise of perfection.

There are also discontented wives, who goad their husbands into extravagant expenditure, and urge them to projects from which they would naturally recoil. There are others, whose social ambitions slay their domestic ones, and who strain every nerve, in season and out of season, and lose all their self-respect, for a few crumbs of contemptuous patronage from some person of greater wealth than their own. Some wives fret if they have no children, others just as much if children come. In the first case, they are disappointed; in the second, inconvenienced; and in both, discontented. Some lead themselves and others wretched lives because they have not three times as many servants as are necessary; a still greater number because they cannot compass a life of constant amusement and excitement.

A very disagreeable kind of discontented woman is the wife who, instead of having a God to love and worship, makes a god of her religion, alienates love for an ecclesiastical idea, or neglects her own flesh and blood to carry the religious needs of the world; forgetting that the good wife keeps her sentiments very close to her own heart and hearth. But perhaps the majority of discontented wives have no special thing to complain of; they fret because they are “so dull.” If they took the trouble to look for the cause of this “dulness,” they would find it in the want of some definite plan of life, and some vigorous aim or object. Of course any aim implies limitation, but limitation implies both virtue and pleasure. Without rule and law, not even the games of children could exist, and the more strictly the rules of a game are obeyed, the greater the satisfaction. A wife's duty is subject to the same conditions. If aimless, plaintive women would make strict laws for their households, and lay out some possible vigorous plan for their own lives, they would find that those who love and work have no leisure for complaining.

But from whatever cause domestic discontent springs, it makes the home full of idleness, ennui, and vagrant imaginations, or of fierce extravagance, and passionate love of amusement. And as a wife holds the happiness of many in her hands, discontent with her destiny is peculiarly wicked. If it is resented, she gets what she deserves; if it is quietly endured, her shame is the greater. For nothing does so much honor to a wife as her patience; and nothing does her so little honor as the patience of her husband. And however great his patience may be, she will not escape personal injury; since none are to be held innocent who do harm even to their own soul and body. Besides, it is the inflexible order of things that voluntary faults are followed by inevitable pain.

Married women, however, are by no means the only complainers. There is a great army of discontents who, having no men to care for them, are clamoring, and with justice, for their share of the world's work and wages. Such women have a perfect right to make a way for themselves, in whatever direction they best can. Brains are of no sex or condition, and at any rate, there is no use arguing either their ability or their right, for necessity has taken the matter beyond the reach of controversy. Thousands of women have now to choose between work, charity, or starvation, for the young man of to-day is not a marrying man. He has but puny passions, and his love is such a very languid preference that he cannot think of making any sacrifice for it. So women do not marry, they work; and as the world will take good work from whoever will give it, the world's custom is flowing to them by a natural law.

Now, earnest, practical women-workers are blessed, and a blessing; but the discontented among them, by much talking and little doing, continually put back the cause they say they wish to advance. No women are in the main so discontented as women-workers. They go into the arena, and, fettered by old ideas belonging to a different condition, they are not willing to be subject to the laws of the arena. They want, at the same time, the courtesy claimed by weakness and the honor due to prowess. They complain of the higher wages given to men, forgetting that the first article of equal payment is equal worth and work. They know nothing about what Carlyle calls “the silences;” and the babble of their small beginnings is, to the busy world, irritating and contemptible. It never seems to occur to discontented working-women that the best way to get what they want is to act, and not to talk. One silent woman who quietly calculates her chances and achieves success does more for her sex than any amount of pamphleteering and lecturing. For nothing is more certain than that good work, either from man or woman, will find a market; and that bad work will be refused by all but those disposed to give charity and pay for it.

The discontent of working-women is understandable, but it is a wide jump from the woman discontented about her work or wages to the woman discontented about her political position. Of all the shrill complainers that vex the ears of mortals, there are none so foolish as the women who have discovered that the founders of our republic left their work half finished, and that the better half remains for them to do. While more practical and sensible women are trying to put their kitchens, nurseries, and drawing-rooms in order, and to clothe themselves rationally, this class of discontents are dabbling in the gravest national and economic questions. Possessed by a restless discontent with their appointed sphere and its duties, and forcing themselves to the front in order to ventilate their theories and show the quality of their brains, they demand the right of suffrage as the symbol and guarantee of all other rights.

This is their cardinal point, though it naturally follows that the right to elect contains the right to be elected. If this result be gained, even women whose minds are not taken up with the things of the State, but who are simply housewives and mothers, may easily predicate a few of such results as are particularly plain to the feminine intellect and observation. The first of these would be an entirely new set of agitators, who would use means quite foreign to male intelligence. For instance, every favorite priest and preacher would gain enormously in influence and power; for the ecclesiastical zeal which now expends itself in fairs and testimonials would then expend itself in the securing of votes in whatever direction they were instructed to secure them. It might even end in the introduction of the clerical element into our great political Council Chambers,—the bishops in the House of Lords would be a sufficient precedent,—and a great many women would really believe that the charming rhetoric of the pulpit would infuse a higher tone in legislative assemblies.

Again, most women would be in favor of helping any picturesque nationality, without regard to the Monroe doctrine, or the state of the finances, or the needs of the market. Most women would think it a good action to sacrifice their party for a friend. Most women would change their politics, if they saw it to be their interest to do so, without a moment's hesitation. Most women would refuse the primary obligation on which all franchises rest,—that is, to defend their country by force of arms, if necessary. And if a majority of women passed a law which the majority of men felt themselves justified in resisting by physical force, what would women do? Such a position in sequence of female suffrage is not beyond probability, and yet if it happened, not only one law, but all law would be in danger. No one denies that women have suffered, and do yet suffer, from grave political and social disabilities, but during the last fifty years much has been continually done for their relief, and there is no question but that the future will give all that can be reasonably desired. Time and Justice are friends, though there are many moments that are opposed to Justice. But all such innovations should imitate Time, which does not wrench and tear, but detaches and wears slowly away. Development, growth, completion, is the natural and best advancement. We do not progress by going over precipices, nor re-model and improve our houses by digging under the foundations.

Finally, women cannot get behind or beyond their nature, and their nature is to substitute sentiment for reason,—a sweet and not unlovely characteristic in womanly ways and places; yet reason, on the whole, is considered a desirable necessity in politics. At the Chicago Fair, and at other convocations, it has been proven that the strongest-minded women, though familiar with platforms, and deep in the “dismal science” of political economy, when it came to disputing, were no more philosophical than the simplest housewife. Tears and hysteria came just as naturally to them as if the whole world wagged by impulse only; yet a public meeting in which feeling and tears superseded reason and argument would in no event inspire either confidence or respect. Women may cease to be women, but they can never learn to be men, and feminine softness and grace can never do the work of the virile virtues of men. Very fortunately this class of discontented women have not yet been able to endanger existing conditions by combinations analogous to trades-unions; nor is it likely they ever will; because it is doubtful if women, under any circumstances, could combine at all. Certain qualities are necessary for combination, and these qualities are represented in women by their opposites.

Considering discontented women of all kinds individually, it is evident that they must be dull women. They see only the dull side of things, and naturally fall into a monotonous way of expressing themselves. They have also the habit of complaining, a habit which quickens only the lower intellect. Where is there a more discontented creature than a good watch-dog? He is forever looking for some infringement of his rights; and an approaching step or a distant bark drives him into a fury of protest. Discontented women are always egotists; they view everything in regard to themselves, and have therefore the defective sympathies that belong to low organizations. They never win confidence, for their discontent breeds distrust and doubt, and however clever they may naturally be, an obtrusive self, with its train of likings and dislikings, obscures their judgment, and they take false views of people and things. For this reason, it is almost a hopeless effort to show them how little people generally care about their grievances; for they have thought about themselves so long and so much that they cannot conceive of any other subject interesting the rest of the world. We may even admit that the women discontented on public subjects are often women of great intelligence, clever women with plenty of brains. Is that the best? Who does not love far more than mere cleverness that sweetness of temper, that sunny, contented disposition, which goes through the world with a smile and a kind word for every one? It is one of the richest gifts of heaven; it is, according to Bishop Wilson, “nine-tenths of Christianity.”

Fortunately, the vast majority of women have been loyal to their sex and their vocation. In every community the makers and keepers of homes are the dominant power; and these strictures can apply only to two classes,—first, the married women who neglect husband, children, and homes, for the foolish éclat of the club and the platform, or for any assumed obligation, social, intellectual or political, which conflicts with their domestic duties: secondly, the unmarried women who, having comfortable homes and loving protectors, are discontented with their happy secluded security and rush into weak art, or feeble literature, or dubious singing and acting, because their vanity and restless immorality lead them into the market place, or on to the stage. Not one of such women has been driven afield by indisputable genius. Any work they have done would have been better done by some unprotected, experienced woman already in the fields they have invaded. And the indifference of this class to the money value of their labor has made it difficult for the women working because they must work or starve, to get a fair price for their work. It is the baldest effrontery for this class of rich discontents to affect sympathy with Woman's Progress. Nothing can excuse their intrusion into the labor market but unquestioned genius and super-excellence of work; and this has not yet been shown in any single case.

The one unanswerable excuse for woman's entrance into active public life of any kind is need, and, alas, need is growing daily, as marriage becomes continually rarer, and more women are left adrift in the world without helpers and protectors. But this is a subject too large to enter on here, though in the beginning it sprung from discontented women, preferring the work and duties of men to their own work and duties. Have they found the battle of life any more ennobling in masculine professions than in their old feminine household ways? Is work done in the world for strangers any less tiresome and monotonous than work done in the house for father and mother, husband and children? If they answer truly, they will reply, “The home duties were the easiest, the safest, and the happiest.”

Of course all discontented women will be indignant at any criticism of their conduct. They expect every one to consider their feelings without examining their motives. Paddling in the turbid maelstrom of life, and dabbling in politics and the most unsavory social questions, they still think men, at least, ought to regard them as the Sacred Sex. But women are not sacred by grace of sex, if they voluntarily abdicate its limitations and its modesties, and make a public display of unsexed sensibilities and unabashed familiarity with subjects they have nothing to do with. If men criticise such women with asperity it is not to be wondered at; they have so long idealized women that they find it hard to speak moderately. They excuse them too much, or else they are too indignant at their follies, and unjust and angry in their denunciation. Women must be criticised by women; then they will hear the bare, uncompromising truth, and be the better for it.

In conclusion, it must be conceded that some of the modern discontent of women must be laid to unconscious influence. In every age there is a kind of atmosphere which we call “the spirit of the times,” and which, while it lasts, deceives as to the importance and truth of its dominant opinions. Many women have doubtless thus caught the fever of discontent by mere contact, but such have only to reflect a little, and discover that, on the whole, they have done quite as well in life as they have any right to expect. Then those who are married will find marriage and the care of it, and the love of it, quite able to satisfy all their desires; and such as really need to work will perceive that the great secret of content abides in the unconscious acceptance of life and the fulfilment of its duties,—a happiness serious and universal, but full of comfort and help. Thus they will cease to vary from the kindly race of women, and through the doors of Love, Hope, and Labor, join that happy multitude who have never discovered that life is a thing to be discontented with.

 
 
 

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