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article number 679
article date 08-24-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
American Woman in Transition, 1914, Part 3: Responsibilities of the Emancipated Woman
by Ellen Key

MADAME KEY has already treated, in previous articles, the subject of the old-fashioned woman and the equanimity and peace which was hers because her duties harmonized with her desires. She has described the change in moral standards that has been brought about by woman’s new demand for freedom, and warned women not to lose the old virtues while gaining the new.

In this article she tells what women must do to be ready for the place they wish to take in economic life.

* * *

SINCE women have begun to work for money outside the home, as they have been forced to do by economic conditions, the problems of morals have multiplied and women’s conception of ethics has broadened. First came the demand for the right to work, then a realization of the duty to work, and out of that a conception of the honor of labor and the joy of social helpfulness.

The more women have developed their common human virtues, the more just has become their demand that their morality have other measures besides that of sex and that man’s sex morality shall be taken into account in judging his character as a whole.

In this way the modern woman has tried to widen the sphere of her moral duty and to narrow man’s moral liberty.

Woman is no longer content to cultivate solely the sympathetic feelings and sex virtue. She wants to express her whole self in her life. She wishes to be guided at times by altruism, at other times by egoism, with the right to decide when it shall be one and when the other.

She has thus been led into a conflict of her own between individual rights and social duties.

We are most familiar with these conflicts as drawn by Ibsen, but they have previously appeared in literature whenever it has been truly great, mirroring the life of the times. Some of these moral battles have taken place in national life as in the case of the Russian women and the political revolution, and the English suffragettes and their mode of warfare.

In passing, I may say that the comparison favors the Russian women as they have tried through their nihilistic attempts on life to expose great wrongs to all, wrongs which could not be known except through deeds of violence.

The English women have set out with the idea that because men in time of political despair have used violence, women should do the same in cold blood, as a political measure. They do not act rashly but with great foresight, believing that they cannot win the political right to help in making a better world unless they use the lowest weapon which has been employed by men.

History shows that the fruits of a successful revolution are easily lost because when people who have long been without rights, take them by storm, they are seldom able to keep them, much less use them wisely.

Unless the social reconstruction brought about by woman suffrage is based on a higher morality than man has shown in the past, it will be like a wall of loose bricks without cement to hold them together.

But there are many present-day women who have fought for their sexual rights with the same burning enthusiasm for self-sacrifice but with wholly clean weapons. They ought to atone in the eye of men for their sister’s Jesuit morality.

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For more than a hundred years women even under stigma of being unwomanly have worked hard to change social conditions. They have worked in the care of the sick and prisoners, in combating alcoholism and prostitution, in improving labor conditions, housing and sanitation, for the protection of motherhood and childhood, for education and healthy recreation: they have cared for the poor and the aged, they are a power for peace.

This work proves that they have a right to citizenship which is not founded on theory alone. It has developed their sense of social responsibility and through them that of men, who have never cared so much for these things as women. It is partly through women’s participation in such affairs that we have the awakening of the social conscience, which has been greater in the last century than before in a thousand years.

This social motherliness has added beauty to women’s struggle for liberty. As they have become eager to follow the commands of Christian love into society they have freed themselves from the authority of the ecclesiastical church: and women’s native common sense has prevented them from carrying their love for humanity to such an extreme that it is incompatible with real life, as did Tolstoi.

They have demonstrated that sympathy, love and pity become, when used, not only a matter of conscience but a source of happiness.

But even these women have had their hands tied in many ways. If ever a right has been demanded for unselfish reasons, it is a woman’s right to suffrage and a married woman’s right to herself and her property.

Although women have extended their motherliness over a wider range, it does not follow that in the home itself, their responsibility has been sufficient.

Although women have for a long time shown a great and joyful capacity for work in the field of domestic manufacture and although they have gradually improved the arts of cooking, dressing and other household craft, it is still true that all the most ingenious devices for the household have been invented by men and that the average level of woman’s skill in her age-old occupation has been low. Even today the majority of housewives are still bunglers.

The same thing is true in education: not only are there very few women of genius in the educational field, but most women teachers have not the slightest inkling of the meaning of true education. Though is is perfectly true that many men do not do their very best in their own work, there is a great difference between the business pride which men and women show.

One reason is that a man’s work is appraised by customers and employers while woman’s work is uncontrolled and irresponsible, only depending upon one man’s comfort or discontent.

Also women are without money, and without money it is hard to be inventive. But the most important reason is that woman’s natural conservatism has found the old customs good enough and has felt satisfied to follow the advice of mother and grandmother.

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THE results of woman’s lack of experience in handling money are everywhere noticeable. Women do not know how to spend money, how to discriminate between essentials and non-essentials, between permanent and temporary needs, when to save and when to spend.

Women still sin in these matters through thoughtlessness, ignorance and laziness. The physical and spiritual well-being of those nearest to them is the most important point at which they can love their neighbor. And these faults are no more numerous among the poor than among those who have plenty of money to provide for the health and comfort of the family.

When women began to enter the field of paid labor they carried these faults with them. Women used to hard manual labor soon learned to do satisfactory work, because they had to, but women of the upper classes, widows and daughters of men who had died or lost their money and were thus forced to earn their living, were not prepared to do so.

When they had to get work their first thought was "how easy is it," not "what can I do best," and when they did work they expected the same privileges as the home worker. Lack of promptness, undue time taken out for rest, waste and unreliability were their faults. Especially was it hard for them to get rid of the idea that paid work could be carried on with the same carelessness as home work.

But as necessity has forced more women into the economic field they have begun to lose these bad habits and, with professional training, their labor efficiency has increased. Some wives and daughters from the well-to-do classes who know nothing of the hard conditions of life because a man has always protected them, who have never learned the value of money, which only earning it can teach, and who have never had any money except gifts, have learned in an amazingly short time to work well.

There was a time when women used to conceal their thirst for knowledge or work and for their own money, because such desires were thought unwomanly. Woman learned instinctively to hide all that she thought might detract from her in men’s eyes, even her best qualities, if she imagined they might incur man’s ridicule or displeasure.

But economic necessity has in one generation developed enterprise, courage and self-competence as well as ability. Women no longer say, "I want to do such and such a thing, but I cannot." They more and more say what was once so unwomanly, "What I want to do I can do."

One would think that women would naturally cooperate, yet they have failed to do this voluntarily, only by experience have they learned that is wise to work together for the improvement of domestic as well as social work. And they have found that forethought, thrift, managing ability and the sense of beauty which has come down to them from their grandmothers unite very well with methodicalness, promptness and discipline learned in the outside world.

And these women have also retained their devotion and self-sacrifice as one can best see in those who support their families outside the home with as much tenderness as they used to work for them within its four walls.

Ellen Key at the age of thirty-six. From a photograph by A. Apelgren, Stockholm.

THERE is another duty which women have to learn, whether working in public or in private life—it is the art of living. They must learn:
• not to overwork to the point of nervousness which breaks down self-control,
• not to throw themselves into social activities until the home life suffers,
• not to allow wrangling, nagging and fault-finding to mar the family happiness,
• not to try to force their point of view when no important value is to be gained,
• not to miss the sense of proportion between labor and rest.

The art of life is sadly undeveloped in modern women as in modern men. Women must stand by the good old phrase, "Charity begins at home." One immoral consequence of the patriarchal family ideal is that family ties have been considered unbreakable and therefore have needed no care. Even people who would not fall short of the duty of loving their neighbors are frequently not lovable at home.

Unless women will take as much care to develop the delicate virtues and joys of family life as they do grow the flowers in the gardens, they cannot expect children or servants to feel happy in the homes they have made. Home life must not only be righteous, it must be beautiful.

The breaking up of the patriarchal family customs has added levity to the feeling which many of us have for home ties. No doubt new ideals will gradually crystallize out of this formlessness, but so far, self-denial and self-control, which often helped to make family life beautiful in the past, are sadly lacking now. Everywhere one hears pleading for a renaissance of the home.

A more deeply felt personal responsibility for the great private decisions of life and a more uniform social morality common to all classes, ages and sexes in public life, is what women should try to reach.

If they really want to save home and society as they sometimes say they do, they must guard what is best in the old conditions as well as develop what is good in the new. Women must consider it a moral duty to combat both in themselves and in others not only the temptation to shirk work but to bustle in work. And they must look upon as sins any habits which disturb the normal healthy proportions in life.

They must cooperate to satisfy with the least waste all the needs of daily living, and not least of these, the need of rest and of joy.

The women who stand highest have already learned this truth, but for most women their duty in this respect is confused by the Christian doctrine of self-sacrifice on the one hand and the zeal for social work on the other.

PUBLIC life is a powerful stimulant, more powerful than the home. Ambition is a passion which drives women as well as men to great work and small deeds. Women used to be competitors in the race for men; they are now competitors for social tasks and distinctions.

Among the younger women personal morality has not developed as fast as the social conscience. The older generation still looks upon it as a duty to overcome temptation, anger and vengeance, arrogance and vanity, temper and self-deception. The younger generation sees this duty in knowledge, work and social activity, having little time for daily self-examination in the small things that lead toward character.

Sweden’s great saint, Birgitta, used to take a bitter herb in her mouth to punish herself every time she was angry. Women of today do not have time to so much as bite their tongues on such occasions.

Very few people today, either men or women, have time for the personal culture which makes the soul more serene and tolerant, gently and wise, through freedom from externals. And yet there is nothing we need more today in this strenuous age than moral culture.

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Our lack of self-control is given a medical, not a moral, name and is called nervousness or hysteria and given sanitarium treatment, but that is not the only thing needed to restore the balance of an age suffering from mental St. Vitus’s dance.

The successes of Christian Science and similar movements depend on their teaching of the duty of careful self-examination and self control. We must learn an art of living by which the soul can grow in strength and truth, in tolerance and warmth, in height and depth; and women should be the first to learn. And we must consider this culture of these resources of our soul a moral duty, and, in order to do it, we must have mental insight, determination, peace and time.

Ask an active club woman if she has drawn deeply once a year from some well of wisdom in her library, or if Sunday is a day of rest to body and soul, or if once a week she draws the inspiration from nature or music that comes from an inner repose which allows the impression to flood into the soul.

If women’s new social morality is to lift us another step out of our misery, toward greater spiritual wealth, their own souls must reach heights not yet dreamed of by most of our excellent women today.

BUT the greatest danger to feminism and to humanity is that so many of the best women do not realize that the duty of motherhood is the most valuable to the nation, the race, and humanity, and that it is all important to reach again on a higher plane the union of self-assertion and self-sacrifice which only motherhood can bring.

The present conflicts are sharp between the rights of the individual and the rights of society, between woman’s demands for her own life and the demands made upon her by the family.

The easiest stage of woman’s fight for freedom, the struggle for rights, is passed. That which follows is the struggle for production, for the simultaneous creation of men and works, two creative impulses, neither of which can be wholly satisfied together, nor entirely segregated into different periods of a woman’s life.

Many women have become morally vacillating because of this dilemma and some have tried to get out of it by treating love and motherhood as incidentals.

But if the race is to rise, women must remember to take love and parental duty as the most important thing in life and men must learn of them to take it less as an episode. Nothing will more certainly destroy everything in the way of manly sex morality which past ages have built up than that women themselves shall take motherhood lightly.

Only by improving the quality of the human race by a more and more careful, enlightened and loving parenthood shall we gain a more beautiful future.

All that women promise themselves and humanity of a new order of life in which purity and responsibility shall murk the relationship of the sexes, and love and justice the life of the people, will not become facts, even though all the women in the world were enfranchised, if the majority of men and women stand on a low plane physically, morally and intellectually, because they have not been well born.

Only improved social conditions can eliminate want and crime.

All we dream of for the future may yet be realized, and realized through the women, if the mothers of the next thousand years will consider it their highest happiness to promote through their children the evolution of the race toward a higher humanity.

Are they coming to some commonplace breakfast? Or are they coming down to this—Greet Them Tomorrow With Puffed Wheat or Puffed Rice. The Quaker Oats Company, Sole Makers.

Motherhood, which is the fountain head of unselfish ethics and which is woman’s special field of action, must become her highest responsibility in thinking, feeling and acting.

This is meant not only in a direct sense. When women in youth and early middle age have fulfilled their highest moral duty, to bear and rear the new race, and when, in this work, they have used all the culture which their new freedom has given them, then the time for spiritual motherhood arrives and occupies their later years.

In the words of Frederick Van Eeden, “In the age when woman, according to the old custom, was worn out and done with, she may now possess a new and great mission to increase the common fund of human knowledge by contributing her own stored treasures of intuitive wisdom.”

It is woman’s wisdom which the ancients worshiped. It is this wisdom which must be again respected and followed, in order that humanity may rise to the moral and spiritual height to which it has already risen materially, intellectually and scientifically.

Men have gathered together the materials for building a more beautiful and moral world. It can only be built by men and women working together.

The leader of the feminists as she is today. Photograph by permission of Slenders Forlag, Copenhagen.
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