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The Modern Revolt of Women

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 9 months ago


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Linton, E. Lynn. "The Modern Revolt." MacMillan's Magazine 23 (December 1870): 142-149.












The late remarkable outbreak of women against the restrictions under which they hitherto lived—the Modern Revolt, as it may be called—has two meanings: the one, a noble protest against the frivolity and idleness into which they have suffered themselves to sink; the other, a mad rebellion against the natural duties of their sex, and those characteristics known in the mass as womanliness.  And among the most serious problems of the day is, how to reconcile the greater freedom which women are taking with the restrictive duties of sex; how to bring their determination to share in the remunerative work of the world into harmony with that womanliness, without which they are intrinsically valueless – inferior copies of men having neither the sweetness, the tenderness, the modesty of the one sex, nor the courage, the resolution, the power of the other.

    Women have always been more or less riddles to men, whose stronger organization finds it difficult to understand the feverish impulses, the hysterical excitement by which they are swayed, and who cannot believe that the failings of slaves and the virtues of saints can co-exist in the same class.  Hence they have taken extreme views: one, the cynical school, making them the authors of all the evil afloat, sly, intriguing, unreasonable, influenced only by self-interest, governed only by fear, cruel, false, and worthless; while another, more poetic and quite as untrue, paints them as seraphic creatures gliding through a polluted world in a self-evolved atmosphere of purity and holiness and ignorance of evil; creatures all heart and soul and compassion and love; embodiments of charity, bearing all things and believing all things, loving even their tyrants, kissing the rod wherewith they are struck, reforming bad men by the spectacle of their untainted virtues, and softening the rude by their ineffable grace.  These are the two extremes: but no school has yet upheld them as sober, rational, well-informed beings—with brains to regulate their impulses, yet with more love than calculation; with strong instincts and intuitive perceptions, yet not devoid of reason; with courage to examine dark moral problems and to learn the truth of social conditions which they do not share, yet with purity surviving knowledge—women who do not care to make a fool’s paradise of Arcadian innocence for themselves, but who are not content to let vice reign supreme while they stand loftily aside on the plea of pitch and the defilement arising therefrom – women who are neither the slaves nor the rivals of men, and whose demand for equal rights does not include confusion of circumstance or identity of condition.  And this is what the best of the revolters and aiming at becoming now.  For the class which advocates indifference to the wishes and approbation of men is not one deserving serious consideration.  This is the madness, the exaggeration which brings the whole question into disfavour; and no one who has women’s best interests at heart can thank the members of this class for their advocacy.

    The first point in this modern revolt is the cry of women for leave to work.  This surely is a mere cry, not a cause.  There is work for them to do if they will do it; work waiting for them, and sadly needing their doing.  But this is not the work they want to do.  What they want is a share in that which men have appropriated, and which is undeniably better fitted for men than women.  And in their attempt to get hold of this they are leaving undone that which Nature and the fitness of things have assigned to them, like children who quit their own tasks which are within their compass, while wanting those apportioned to the elders.  Yet what have women to complain of in the way of wanting work?  In reality very few careers are closed to them.  To be sure the law and the church, the army, navy, and Parliament, are crypts into which they may not penetrate, but all trades and commerce, and the financial world outside the Stock Exchange, are open to them: they may be merchants, bankers, traders of all kinds, shipowners and shipbuilders, artists, writers, teachers, farmers,[1] and they can practise medicine under restrictions, besides being nurses.  All these are more modes of gaining a livelihood are free to them; and they have moreover their own more special work.

    But let us confess it honestly, if sorrowfully—hitherto they have made no class mark in anything, and only a very few women, and those quite exceptional, have done what they might do.  It is said that this want of class distinction is owing to the want of education.  Granting the plea generally, who has educated women if not women themselves?  No one has prevented women from giving to girls an education as broad and sound as that given by men to boys; the wretched thing called female education has not been men’s doing, nor has the want of anything better been in deference to men’s wishes.  The education of her daughters is essentially the mother’s care and a woman’s charge: and as a proof of this, now that a desire for better things has sprung up among women, men help them to get the best that can be given.  It has been because mothers have willed it so, that their daughters have been flimsily taught and flashily accomplished, and handed over to men neither intellectual companions nor useful house-managers.

    Let us go over the list of what has been especially woman’s work, and say candidly what she made of her talent.  All that concerns domestic and social life is hers—maternity and the care of the young, the education of the daughters, the management of the house, the arrangements of society, the regulation of dress and fashion.  And whatever we may think about woman’s right to a more extended sphere of action, we cannot deny that these are her principal duties; whatever we may add on to these, these must always remain her primary obligations.

    But how are these duties performed?

    In the question of maternity lies the saddest part of the Modern Revolt.  God alone knows what good is to come out of the strange reaction against the maternal instinct, which is so marked a social feature in America, and which is spreading rapidly here.  Believing, for my part, in the progress of humanity, and in our unconsciously working to good ends even by crooked means, I find my faith in ultimate historic improvement severely exercised by this phenomenon.  Formerly children were desired by all women, and their coming considered a blessing rather than otherwise: now the proportion of wives who regard them as a curse is something appalling, and the annoyance or despair, with the practical expression, in many cases, given to that annoyance as their number increases, is simply bewildering to those who have cherished that instinct as it used to be cherished.  The thing is as I have said: the moral or historic end to be attainted through it no one has yet discovered.  It may mean an instinctive endeavor to check a superabundant population; but proximately it seems due to our artificial mode of life, and the high pressure under which we live, whereby we are taxed to the utmost we can bear, with no margin to spare: our civilization thus recurring to first principles and repeating the savage’s dread of unnecessary mouths in his tribe.  Still, however it may come about, or whatever it may mean, the modern revolt against the material instinct is something for the student of humanity to examine.  Let us hope that before long he will explain to us the ultimate outcome of it.

    The care of the young ranks as one of the most important of all things to the State and the race, and one on which no pains bestowed could be too much.  Yet how many mothers understand the management of the young in any scientific sense?  How many study the best modes of education, physical or moral, and bring their studies to good issue?  How many mothers will even receive advice and not consider it interference in their own distinct domain?  And how many are there who so much as doubt that maternity of itself does not give wisdom, and that by the mere fact of motherhood a woman is fully capable of managing her child without more teaching than that which she gets from instinct?  We give less thought (not less love), less study, less scientific method, to the management of our own young than to the training of future racehorses or the development of the prize heifer on the farm.  The wildest ideas on food, the most injudicious fashions in dress, amusements which ruin both body and mind, such as children’s evening parties, theatres, and the like, make one often think that the last person to whom her children should be entrusted is the mother.  Add to this a moral education, good or bad according to individual temperament, an ignorance of psychological laws as dense as that of the physiological and hygienic, and the personal care of the little ones delegated to servants, and we have the base on which the modern nursery is constructed.  This delegation of the mother’s duty to servants is as amazing in its contravention of instinct as the revolt against maternity.  Every woman sees how nurses treat the children of other mothers, and every mother trusts her own nurse implicitly, and gives into the hands of a coarse and ignorant women, the temper, the health, the nerves, the earliest mental direction, and the consequent permanent bias of the future of her child, while perhaps she goes out on a crusade to help people who need example rather than assistance.  This is no overcharged picture.  The unscientific management of children, and the absolute surrender of them while young, and therefore while most plastic, into the hands of servants, is too patent to be denied.

    Of education we have already spoken, and because of the present better methods we need not go back on the past mistakes; but how about housekeeping?

    The fashions of modern life are not favourable to good housekeeping.  Here and there we meet with a woman who has made it an art, and carried it out to a beautiful perfection; but the number of those who have done so is small compared to the indifferent, the inefficient, those who interfere without organizing, and those who have given up their office to servants, retaining merely that symbol of authority called “keeping the keys.”  Few women above a very mediocre social position do anything in the house; and the fatal habit of fine-ladyism is gradually descending to the tradesman’s and mechanic’s classes; fewer still try to elevate the system of housekeeping altogether, and make it possible for ladies, even our artificial product, to take an active part in it with pleasure and profit to themselves.  Yet French and German women keep house actively, and do not disdain the finer portions of the work.  With the help of the machines which American need has fashioned for the home, this does not seem a very degrading task for women.  One consequence wherever ladies of education are active housekeepers is, that a more scientific, compact, cleanly, and less rude and wasteful mode of cookery obtains.  And indeed that cooking question is a grave one, belonging especially to women, and quite as important in its own way as the knowledge of drugs and the mixing up of pills.  Women do not consider it so, and ladies are rather proud than otherwise of their igno­rance of an art which is one of their elemental natural duties.  But they want to be doctors, if they object to be cooks.  Yet how it can be con­sidered honourable to get meat by ma­nipulating asafoetida, and degrading to attend to the cooking of that meat when got—beneath the dignity of a woman's intellect to understand the constituent elements of food and what they make in the human frame, yet consistent with that dignity to understand the effects of drugs—why the power of bringing back to health should be a science fit for the noblest intellects to undertake, and the art of keeping in health an office fit only for the grossest and most ignorant to fill—is a nice distinction of honour, the quality of which I, for one, have never been able to understand; nor why that imperium in imperio, the kitchen, is a better institution than the centralization of authority dating from the drawing-­room.  Society in its simplest aspect is, as it were, the radical of our own more complex conditions; and do as we will, we cannot escape from the eternal fit­ness of this division of labour—the man to provide, the woman to prepare for use and to distribute.  While, then, our housekeeping generally is bad be­cause not undertaken with heart or intellect, and while our national cookery is still little better than “plain roast and boiled,” we cannot say that we have gone through this lesson from end to end, or exhausted even this portion of our special acre.

The same complaint is true with re­spect to our absurd social arrangements and more absurd fashions.  Yet both are in the hands of women only, and might be made as beautiful as they are now the reverse.  The reform in the dinner-table that has taken place of late yearshas been heartily welcomed by men everywhere; so would a reform in the dinners themselves, if any one would undertake it.  The adoption of a “day” has also been a boon in the matter of morning calls; but what can one say of the common sense shown in beginning our balls about midnight? Or, indeed, of the common sense of most of our evening parties—at least in London—those mere crowds, successful in pro­portion to the discomfort of the guests, and brilliant only when a well-dressed mob overflows on to the stairs, un­able to exchange oven a greeting with the hostess? In face of such assemblies as these, it can scarcely be said that we have brought the art of human inter­course up to the highest artistic point to which it can reach.

Over dress and fashion one’s dirges might be unending.  And here again women are the arbiters, and dress only to please themselves, without any refer­ence whatever to men or nature.  Now the fashion is a steel balloon which gets into everybody’s way, and in the vortex created by which lies disaster to all crockery and light furniture; now it is a long train, mainly useful in sweeping up dirt and tripping up human feet: sometimes we got headaches by over­crowding our heads, sometimes face-aches by leaving them wholly unprotected; high heels destroy the shape of the leg and the foot alike, as well as comfort in walking; and stays not only create de­formity, but also disease, and maybe death.  Still, though the need is so great, no woman has yet cared to invent a perfectly beautiful, simple, and useful dress.  She struck out Bloomerism, which was too hideous to be adopted by any woman holding to the religion of beauty and the need of looking charm­ing; and she clings to trains, which, however graceful in line, arc inconsistent with work or activity; but, save in the modern “costumes” which are over­loaded with frills and ornaments, she has not come near to the desideratum­—a dress which the peasant and the duchess could wear alike, graceful with the one, serviceable with the other, and beautiful in their degree with both.  Much has been said and written of the cruelty of needlework, and of the pre­cious lives which women have offered up to the Moloch of stitchery.  Yet who has set the fashion of unnecessary stitches but women themselves? It is they who have crowded work upon work in all the garments which pass through their hands; and while bewailing the hard slavery of sewing, and considering it as one of the real curses of their condition, multiply frills and flounces, and gussets and seams and bands, as if the main object of a garment was to contain as much superfluous needlework as possible.  Meanwhile, a tailor’s work is simple, strong, and not fantastic, and a dressmaker’s is flimsy and complicated; almost all body-linen is too elaborate, both in the shaping and the stitchery; and the greatest blessing of its kind, the sewing-machine, instead of lighten­ing our labour has been the means of greatly increasing the complexity of sewed work.

Thus, in the duties special to women and the part in life apportioned to them, we find nothing brought to its possible perfection, nothing wrought out to its ultimate; and I cannot say it commends itself to one’s calmer judgment, that while their own appointed duties are in such an unsatisfactory state, they should be clamorous to take from men work of an untried character, and which, if men perform only tant bien que mal, it cannot be asserted women will per­form better.

There is more than a living, there is a fortune to be made by the woman of taste and refinement who will undertake the task of perfecting the womanly duties—of top-dressing the woman's acre.  But no one will attempt it.  The women who want to be clerks and apothecaries will not go out as lady-nurses, nor as lady-dressmakers, nor as lady-cooks.  They flock to take ser­vice to tend wounded men, because of the excitement, the kudos,may-be the instinct involved: but ask them to take service to nurse little children—ask them to exhibit so much enthusiasm for the perfecting of the future as they do for healing the present generation, and would you get a response?  Yet the right management and noble nurture of the young is perhaps more important than the tender nursing, by women, of wounded men of whom their comrades would also be very tender!  Again: ask them to be lady-dressmakers, teachers of taste and fashioners of beautiful garments; or ask them to make them­selves first-rate cooks, and give lessons in the art, or go out as dinner superin­tendents,—will they do either?  Yet they might thus make a good living by useful work which they discard, while they prefer a wretched pittance by fancy work which no one wants, by miserable art which breaks the hearts of kindly “hangers,” by attempts at teach­ing where they have everything to learn.  The woman who would copy this manu­script at twopence the folio would think herself degraded if advised to try to make a fortune as Soyer and Worth made theirs.

    Many ladies of good but not immense incomes want this kind of help—and would pay for it.  The “little” dress­maker cannot be trusted with anything better than a garden gown; Court dress­makers are simply ruinous; the women who go out to work have neither skill nor taste; and the maid wants the help of direction.  A refined, tasteful, artis­tic woman to direct a maid, and give her ideas and patterns, is an institution as yet not established.  Yet the woman who would do this first would open a new path for her sisters.  So of cook­ing; but any help in the house beyond the charwoman and the day-worker, neither of whom is worth her salt, is, as every housekeeper knows, absolutely impossible in this great London of ours, where the cry goes up of “Work for women—for pity's sake, work!”

It must be owned that this disinclina­tion of women with anything like culture, to work under women only richer, not intrinsically better bred than themselves, is mainly due to the scant courtesy with which many ladies treat those of their own sex whom they meet on paying terms.  And they have not found out the way yet to enforce respect by what they are, independent of what they do.  And as they themselves have de­graded their natural work, consequently the position of the workers is held cheap and low.  This can be reformed only when women of education and refinement shed their own lustre on their natural duties; and as old Antaeus gained strength when he touched his mother earth, so will they gain the womanly glory and the influence they have lost, when they turn back to the old sources and take up again the discarded work.  All that they did in early times—things that kings’ daughters did, that the noblest and stateliest lady did, and lost nothing of her nobleness in doing—they have degraded and relegated to the lower hand.  Even the profession of medi­cine, about which there bas been so much warm controversy, was once the lady’s work, till she herself forsook it and let it fall from her hands into men’s.  All but one branch; and that she gave into the keeping of the coarsest and most ignorant old wife of the village.  Only so late as Charles II. midwives were “Dames” by legal right: we know what they are in the present day; though here also there has been great improvement and a wiser state of things begun.

What, then, I contend for in this question of woman’s work is, that in her own world, which is so beautiful, so useful, she has unexplored tracts and unfulfilled duties; and that it is a fatal mistake in her not to put her intellect and an extended education into social and domestic details, so that she may make her own work perfect—not by lowering herself to the condition of a servant, but by raising her duties above the level of the servant.

But is not the truth something like this—that women crave public applause, an audience, excitement, notoriety, more than mere work?  They want to be lecturers, professors, entitled to wear gowns and hoods, and to put letters after their names; and perhaps the desire is natural; but let us call it by its right name—personal ambition—and not be ashamed to confess the truth: and if they can do the work well, let them, in heaven's name!  The Best is not a question of sex, though we may have our own ideas, as to who is most likely to be the best.  Still, if women like to try their powers, why deny them the opportunity?  Public opinion and the proof of experience would be suffi­cient to prevent an influx of weak incapacity in avenues already crowded by the capable and the strong; and the law of fitness would soon find them out and place them according to their deserving.  Restrictions, which are hindrances of free-will only and not defence work against evil-doing, belong to a childish state of society; and the best thing that could be done for women would be to open all careers to them with men, and let them try their strength on a fair field, and no favour.

The second demand of the modern revolters is surely just—their right to the franchise.  Stress is laid by the op­position on the difference between a natural right and a political privilege.  They affirm that the franchise is not the natural right of every man, but a privi­lege accorded for purposes of polity to some men.  Wherefore, they say, women cannot claim as an equal right what is not intrinsically any one’s right.  And so with this they set the claim aside, and will continue to do so till women are in earnest to enforce it.  So long as the majority of women do not care for the franchise, the minority who do care for it will not get it; the argument being always at hand that to grant a political privilege for the purpose of creating a political conscience, would be the exact reverse of all the modes of government hitherto practised; and found to answer.  The denial presses heavily on those who wish for it; but this too will pass away by the creation of a public opinion favourable to the demand: until then nothing will be done for the sake of equity, equality, or logic.

The third right of women on hand, but settled partially for the moment, is the right of married women to their own property.  And the revolt of women against the undue power of their hus­bands, against the virtual slavery of marriage, has not been without cause.  Not that they have revolted, but that they have borne so long, is the wonder.  A state of things which put them wholly in the power of a man when once he was the married master—which allowed him to ruin them without re­dress, and to treat them with every kind of cruelty, save an amount of personal brutality dangerous to life, yet held them to their bond, and held them close—was sure to produce misery, as it was sure also to create evil: human nature not being able to bear unchecked authority without letting it run into tyranny.  Now, however, things have got somewhat put to rights in that quarter, and by and by more will be done, till it is all worked through, and the theory of marriage will be no longer based on the enslaving of one but on the equality of two.

Men say that this question of the rights of women to do such work and enter into such professions as they desire, to exer­cise the franchise, and to possess their own property, being wives, is eminently a peace question, and that if a war broke out we should hear no more of it.  The time would then be the man’s time, the hour of physical strength and of all other essentially masculine qualities, and these woman’s rights, with other products of peace, would be trodden under foot forthwith.  Granted: and the fact of its being a peace question proves its value.  Nothing grows in war-time, and only weapons of destruc­tion and strong hands to wield them are of value; so that to say a question is a peace question is to say that it belongs to the growing time of society, that it is part of its development, its improve­ment; and to ignore its claims on this ground, and because we should hear nothing about it if a war broke out, would be about as just and rational as to despise the fact of the corn-field, be­cause the troops must trample down the grain in passing to the front.

But there is also another reason, beside peace, why all these questions have arisen now, and the Modern Revolt has gained such head among us:—the im­mense disproportion of the sexes in England.  There are not enough men to feed and protect all the women, so that some of them must work for themselves, and protect themselves as well—which, may be, is the harder thing of the two.  And as they will not work in their own natural portion of the field of labour, and get money and dignity by raising the offices they have degraded to servants, they are clamorous to take the offices of men, and enter into competition with them on their own ground.  And if they succeed, one result must in­evitably arise—the further drainage from the country of men, beaten out of the field by women.  For though women never can compete with men in the amount of work turned out to time, and therefore never can make the same amount of wages, yet they may flood the market with cheaper work, and so ruin men by underselling them.  This, and not “jealousy,” is the reason why men look askance at the introduction of female hands in any branch of trade which they have hitherto kept to them­selves; for we must remember that the man represents the family, a woman generally only herself, and that the workman’s jealousy is as much for his wife and children as for himself.  All things considered, would it not be wiser if women took their own work out of the lower hands, and did it better and more beautifully than it is done now?  And if the effect of this was to create an extensive emigration of good, honest, lower-class women, and of that miserable class next to them, neither ladies nor servants, who go out as shop­-girls and nursery governesses, who do not marry early, and who know nothing by which they can make a sufficient in­come, it would be the best thing that could happen to England where women are redundant, and to the colonies where they are so sadly wanted.

But if we can do without so many women as we have, we cannot do without the womanly virtues.  We want the purity and the love of women to refine the race which the magnanimity and justice of men ennoble.  We want their power of sacrifice by which the future is preserved; their tenderness, their impulsiveness even; their sense of beauty, and their modesty.  When women are bad, all is bad.  Their vice poisons so­ciety at its roots, and their low estimate of morality makes virtue impossible; while the frivolous woman, devoted only to dress and pleasure, creates an atmo­sphere about her in which no sublimity of thought, no heroism can live.  Yet some men admire only such women, and say that a woman's sole raison d’être is to be beautiful in person, graceful in man­ner, to dress well, look nice, and amuse men; and that it does not signify two straws whether she is good or bad so long as she is pleasant and pretty, and does the drawing-room business well.  These men prefer these living dolls to real women out of fear—fear lest the future woman in losing her frivolity will lose also her grace, in gaining indepen­dence will gain also hardness and coarse­ness, and for every intellectual increase will lose correspondingly in womanliness and love.

Others, again, think that neither in­tellect nor reasonableness should be ex­clusively a masculine attribute, and that the wiser women are the nobler they will be, and the more likely to be faithful to them as well as true to themselves.  And indeed it is not really the largest-­minded women who swagger about, bad copies of a bad style of man, talking of everything they should not, reviling maternity, deriding woman's work, scorn­ing the sweet instinctive reliance of the weaker, and affecting to despise the sex they ape.  These are of the fools with which the world of women, as of men, abounds; and it is by a simple chance of physical organization that they are man­nish fools rather than weak ones, given to slang and defiance rather than to slip­shod and frivolity.  And these, though they form undeniably a part, are not the main body of the Modern Revolters.

In this main body the desire to en­large the circle of women's activities springs from a lofty motive.  If it is taking a wrong direction, it will put itself right before long, and by its recog­nition of error will repair the evil it may have done.  It can do no evil if, while careful for intellectual culture, it holds the great instinctive affections as the highest in a woman’s catalogue of duties; while enlarging the sphere of her activity, it maintains the righteous­ness of her doing first, thoroughly, that class of work called emphatically wo­man’s work, before she invades the offices of men; while enriching her life by intellect, and ennobling her work by her own dignity, it still keeps to the pleasant prettiness, the personal charms, the lighter graces of her sex; while giving her freedom of action and the power of self-support, it does not take from her modesty, tenderness, or love; nor in making her the equal and com­panion of man, make her less than his lover—and his rival, not his mate.  With­out these provisos the Modern Revolt will be the ruin of our womankind: with them, its most precious, its most royal gain and gift.  And so may God and the good consciences of women grant.








[1] One quite lately a farmer, Mrs. Millington, of Ash Grove Farm, near Bicester, took the prize for good farming over the heads of her male competitors; and there was, probably is still, a lady of rank, who owns a dairy at Notting Hill, who attends to the business herself, and drives her pair of bays to the door of those of her customers who have had any complaint to make, to see into their case herself.






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