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Status of Married Women In American Society 1898

 American Wives Not To Be Envied, Says an Englishwoman
  Under the caption of "Married Women In American Society," an Englishwoman, writing in The National Review over the signature of "Maryland," talks entertainingly as follows:

"It has long been the fashion to regard the position of all women in American as immeasurably superior to that of women in any other quarter of the globe. From a legal point of view this is perhaps true, and even in social matters it might well be admitted with regard to the unmarried girl: but on behalf of married women I venture to make an Englishwoman's emphatic protest to the contrary. This is probably a proceeding of extreme audacity, and in order as far as possible to disarm criticism, I wish to say that the following remarks are not intended to apply to the United states at large, of which I know little, but only to the Southern town where I spent two or three years. Furthermore, they are proffered not as universal truths, but as resulting from the observation and experience of one individual. They may (and probably do) apply in large measure to all American society, but their truth is vouched for as regards one town only. To disprove the universal affirmative alluded to in my first sentence it is by every law of logic sufficient to prove one particular negative, and this is the aim of the present article.

"No man, said an inhabitant of this town of L___ to me, 'cares to play tennis with a woman except for purposes of flirtation.' For the special game mentioned he might have substituted the game of conversation or of social relations as a whole, and his axiom would have been broadly true. No man in L___ cares for a woman's society unless he is actually or potentially in love with her. It may even be allowable for a married man to 'pay attention' to a girl, because this also is a semi-flirtation, with limits clearly understood beforehand; but let a man of any kind try to make friends with a married woman, and he will soon find himself and her in the unenviable position of the heathen man and the publican. Friendship between the sexes after marriage is a thing simply not understood: among Americans it falls under one of two heads, formality or flirtation.

"Of course, it is, and always will be, a moot question whether friendship between the sexes is ever more than a temporary illusion, and whether, as the old song says, one at least of the parties does not invariably 'come but for friendship and take away love.' But to the English mind it would seem almost a self-evident proposition that such a friendship is more within the bounds of possibility when one or both of the parties is deterred from going further, not only by honor, but by the sense of previous acquisition, a repletion of soul, so to speak, that might presumably quench the thirst for conquest. That this is not the opinion of Americans is clearly indicated by the following points in their practice."

"A girl in L___ may ride, drive, or bicycle with a man to an unlimited extent; she may see him tête-à-tête in her own house at any time; she may write to him freely; she may, and even expects to, receive from him flowers and candy with a frequency appalling to a frugal English mind. And yet with all this she neither marries him nor has any intention of so doing; indeed, unless polyandry were permitted, she could not. But once she is married, all this abruptly ceases. For a man to indulge in any real intimacy with a married woman, whether it take the form of rides, correspondence, or even frequent 5 o'clock teas at her own home, is to expose himself and her first to surprised comment and then to ill-natured gossip.

The average American man, indeed, takes this so much for granted that he cannot understand why his wife should want anything more. Feminine society she may have all day long if she likes, ladies' luncheons and ladies' teas seem to him part of the natural order of the universe; but as far as male companionship goes, he, in his own eyes, and presumably in hers, is all-sufficing. Her neighbors at dinners, (a form of entertainment by the bye much rarer than in England.) the few men her husband may bring to the house to dine, the still fewer 'tame cats' she may meet at teas, and fewest of all, the men who at a ball will spare to a married woman some moments ordinarily consecrated to a succession of immature debutantes this is all she is allowed to see of the superior sex. And the most remarkable feature of the whole is the fact that not only is she unable to make new men friends, but she loses all her old ones. The very same woman who has been a 'tearing belle' one year is absolutely shelved the next by the mere fact of marriage. American men have been heard pathetically to complain that from the moment of their engagement girls looked coldly on them. Much more is this true of women, who in becoming everything to one man becomes less than nothing to all the rest, even to the 'beaus' or potential 'beaus' of a few weeks before.

"It might perhaps be inferred from this that the American wife enjoyed an unusual portion of her husband's society, and that other men were excluded simply on the principle of 'two's company.' If it were so, she would doubtless be a fit object of envy, or at least would have no right to complain; but, as a matter of fact, the women of L___ see far less of their husbands than the average Englishwoman. Business hours are longer, and on the remaining hours the clubs are far more apt to encroach; men's dinners are more common; and finally, in the Summer almost every couple is forcibly separated by the heat for three or four months. Companionship in outdoor amusements is rare, though latterly on the increase. Hitherto it has been considered almost a point of etiquette for a woman when she marries to retire from the world of sport, and one hears women say with conscious virtue; "I have never danced" (or 'ridden' or played tennis,' as the case may be) 'since I married.' The consequence naturally is that even the man's hours of exercise are passed away from his wife, and he is more likely to spend his Summer holiday fishing with a male friend than rocking beside his wife on a hotel piazza.

"This, indeed, is one principal cause of the social phenomenon here treated of. The American woman is not only less robust than her English sister, but also less active, and after marriage this difference is intensified. She has always played but a feeble game of golf or tennis, and whereas before marriage there were plenty of men ready to play with her 'for purposes of flirtation,' after marriage that incentive is gone, and she is accepted, or rather refused, solely on her merits as a player. And so she stops playing, or, indeed, using her muscles at all, so that if her husband wishes to take any form of exercise he has to do so without her, and so, a fortiori, do her old men friends, who are presumably less tolerant because less interested. It is, however, fair to say that every year the American woman seems to realize more clearly the value of exercise, so that this cause is probably, transitory.

"Another cause of separation between the men and women in L___may indisputably be traced to that old and hackneyed source, the 'servant problem.' The unmarried girl is (fortunately for her) not responsible for the vagaries of the cook or the housemaid, but when she marries she has in America, thanks to the inferiority of the servants, to devote to household duties an amount of time and care unheard of in England. Especially is this true where there are children, for obviously when it is necessary for a woman, or she at least thinks so, to wash and dress her own baby, prepare its food, and generally perform the offices first of a nurse and then of a governess, she cannot have time for much besides. Sport, work, and even companionship, whether with her own husband or with other men, have all to go to the wall. Let us hope that the course of years and changed social conditions will do away with this cause also.

"But there are weightier reasons than servants or habits of exercise for the total difference in mental attitude on this subject between the English and the Americans. It is not merely that marriage by tradition or necessity diverts a woman from her old interests to a greater degr4ee in L___ than in London; there is far more than this. Marriage for a woman is regarded in England as the hall-mark of merit; in L___ it has, so far as the opposite sex is concerned, almost the painful consequences of the mark of Cain. And here we touch on a curious double inconsistency. Men in England do not, as a rule, want to marry; in fact, a recent writer has told us that they view the coming on of love with horror; yet a married woman is ipso facto more desirable as a companion in their eyes, and it has become a commonplace of modern English literature that 'girls are no good,' or that 'nobody cares to talk to girls.' Men in America regard marriage as a goal, and prolonged bachelorhood as a disgrace; yet their friend's wife seems to them either a nuisance or a negligible quantity. Possibly this is not really an inconsistency, but points to the fact that to every man an unmarried girl is a possibility, to the American delightful to the Englishman terrifying. So to the Englishman a married woman is a haven of refuge; to the American she is as salt that has lost its savor.

"The greatness of this difference in attitude no one will deny. The comments on it will be various according to the race or personal idiosyncrasies of the thinker. To the English mind it may appear ridiculous, to say the least of it, for a man to see in every woman a potential wife, and to take no interest in those outside this category. The American, on the other hand, regards the Englishman's dread of marriage and preference for a friendship where this is manifestly impossible as something selfish and unnatural, and he claims for himself the championship of the married state. To this there is the English rejoinder; No wonder that men desire the married state, when bachelor lodgings are as bad and bachelor comforts as few as in most parts of the United States, so that a wife is the cheapest and best form of housekeeping; but where is your boasted admiration for marriage in the abstract, when you discard your girl friends immediately on their attaining that state: Being an Englishwoman, I will not attempt to frame an American reply, but will content myself with mentioning a few more points which have come under my own observation.

"A good deal of what we have been considering may I think be accounted for by three lacunae in American society: the want of common topics of conversation, the absence of what has been called 'country-house life,' and the practical elimination of the chaperon. The women in L___ are, as a rule, better educated than the men, who have little time or inclination for anything besides the newspaper; books, therefore, are almost an impossible subject. Politics, that great bond in England between all ages and classes, as a recent critic has pointed out, are in America, broadly speaking, neither a gentleman's profession or a suitable society topic. On the interests of the men themselves few women are competent to talk, for the 'society men' of L___ consist entirely, so far as my experience goes, of business men, lawyers, and doctors.

Conversation on business cannot be expected, and should indeed not be encouraged in social intercourse, and the wearisome discussions on stocks and 'real estate' my advantageously be confined to the smoking room; while for men to discourse on law or medicine to the lay woman simply ends in an egotistical monologue on the one side, and polite inattention on the other. And so talk in L___ becomes at home an intermittent exchange of domestic items, and in society a mere fire of banter, 'chaffing' compliments from the man, and 'bright' repartees from the woman, all of which is obviously easier and more amusing between the unmarried, who consider themselves privileged to go to all or almost all conversational lengths. To an Englishwoman accustomed to have her 'want of sense of humor' daily and hourly impressed upon her, the marvel is that Americans should make so little humor of their own go such a long and weary way. But this is no doubt mere jealousy on our part, the jealousy which a foxhound must feel on watching the surprising antics of a French poodle. At any rate, just as the course of years makes the poodle old and stiff, so do age and matrimony dry up the fount of American conversation, and the married woman is emphatically 'not in it.'

"Again, chaperonage, whether in town or country, plays a far smaller part in the society of L___ than it does with us, and the married woman is still further shorn of importance. When men and girls can freely ride, drive, bicycle, and sail together, what need is there for the young and fascinating chaperon, in England herself often half the attraction? She has no place in the young American's scheme of creation, and therefore, in spite of all her charms he leaves her to languish where in his opinion is her proper sphere, at home.

"This question admits of infinite discussion leading to no particular issue. But enough has, I hope, been said to establish the proposition: that however transcendent may be the privileges of the American girl, the American wife has in comparison with the English wife a less free position, a less full social life, in short, as she herself would say; far less of a lovely time." We are perhaps rather tired of that same American girl, of hearing and even echoing her praises and observing with wonder or envy her perfect liberty. It is therefore only right to note that the natural outcome of her pre-matrimonial freedom seems in the land of her birth to be an almost Turkish seclusion after marriage. If the English girl wishes to copy her Transatlantic sister, a wish which of late years, she has steadily been carrying into effect, she ought in fairness to make her imitation thorough. She must not expect, in nursery parlance, to eat her cake and have it too, but must be content to sink gracefully into the background as soon as the Wedding March is over. She can have fun and plenty of it before marriage; afterward the 'way to glory,' by a reversal of English processes, will be found to have turned suddenly and uncompromisingly into the 'path of duty.' Whether the consciousness of glorious triumphs in the past and unbounded domestic usefulness in the present will fully compensate her, I for my part cannot pretend to say."


Website: The History
Article Name: Status of Married Women In American Society 1898
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina


Bibliography:   New York Times August 14, 1898. p.13 (1 page)
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