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Domestic Problems: Work and Culture in the Household By Abby Morton Diaz Characters: 10126

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Another supporting cause, as we may call it, of the existing state of things is the ignorance of mankind concerning the cost of carrying on the family,-not the cost to themselves in money, but the cost to woman in endurance. Of its power to exhaust her vital forces they have not the remotest idea. Each of its little ten-minute duties seems so trifling that to call it work appears absurd. They do not reflect that often a dozen of these ten-minute duties must be crowded into an hour which holds but just six ten-minutes; that her day is crowded with these crowded hours; that consequently she can never be free from hurry, and that constant hurry is a constant strain upon her in every way. They themselves, they think, could do up the work in half the time, and not feel it a bit. Scarcely a man of them but thinks the dishes might be just rinsed off under the faucet, and stood up to dry. Scarcely a man of them who, if this were tried, would not cast more than inquiring glances at his trencher; for it is always what is not done that a man sees. If one chair-round escapes dusting, it is that chair-round which he particularly notices. In his mind then are two ideas: one is of the whole long day, the other of that infinitesimal undone duty. The remark visible on his countenance is this: "The whole day, and no time to dust a chair-round!"

"The painful warrior famoused for fight,

After a thousand victories, once foiled,

Is from the book of honor razed quite,

And all the rest forgot for which she toiled."

Many a toiling housewife, warring against untidiness, has felt the truth of these lines, though she may not have known that the great poet embodied it in words.

One mistake of man's is, that he does not look upon the tidy state of a room as a result, but as one into which, if left to itself, it would naturally fall and remain. We know, alas! too well, that every room not only has within itself possibilities of untidiness, but that its constant tendency is in that direction, which tendency can only be checked by as constant a vigilance. Again, husbands do not always seem to understand plain English. There are certain expressions in common use among women, which, if husbands did understand plain English, would make them sadder and wiser men. "I'm completely used up;" "I never know what 'tis to feel rested;" "I'm too tired to sleep;" "I'm as tired in the morning as when I go to bed;" "Every nerve in me throbs so that I can't go to sleep;" "The life has all gone out of me;" "I am crazed with cares;" "The care is worse than the work;" "Nothing keeps that woman about the house but her ambition;" "It is the excitement of work that keeps her up." Now, how is it that a woman works on after she is completely used up? What is the substance, the capacity of this "ambition" on which alone she lives? A friend of mine, in answer to a suggestion that she should stop and take a few days' rest, said, "I don't dare to stop. If I let down, if I give way for ever so little while, I never could go on again." Think of living always in this state of tension! The dictionary definition of "tension" is "a peculiar, abnormal, constrained condition of the parts, arising from the action of antagonistic forces, in which they endeavor to return to their natural state." Exactly. There are thousands of women in just this condition, sustained there by the daily pressure and excitement of hurry, and by a stern, unyielding "must." In the treadmill of their household labor, breakfast, dinner, and supper revolve in ceaseless course, and they must step forward to meet them. And, when more of her vitality is expended daily than is daily renewed by food and rest, woman does, actually and without any figure of speech, use herself up. Yes, she burns herself for fuel, and goes down a wreck,-not always to death; often it is to a condition made wretched by suffering, sometimes to insanity.

I would not have believed this last had I not found it in print. In an English magazine occurs the following passage: "Some whose eyes follow these lines will recollect disagreeable seasons when their attention was distracted by conflicting cures and claims; when no one thing, however urgent, could be finished, owing to the intrusion of one or more inevitable distractions. A continued course of such inroads on the mind's serenity could be supported but by few intellects. Most pitiable is the mind's state after some hours of such distracting occupation, in which every business interferes with every other, and none is satisfactorily accomplished. Where there is a tendency to insanity it is sure to be developed by such an undesirable state of things." This is fitly supplemented by a statement made in an American magazine: "We are told that the woman's wards in the New England insane asylums are filled with middle-aged wives-mothers-driven there by overwork and anxiety."

Not long since, I heard Mr. Whittier tell the story of a woman who attempted suicide by throwing herself into the water. "Discouragement" was the reason s

he assigned for committing so dreadful a deed,-discouragement at the never-ending routine of household labor, and from feeling herself utterly unable to go on with it. This, with care, want of recreation, and long confinement in-doors, had probably caused temporary insanity.

The "never-endingness" of woman's work is something to be considered. A wide-awake writer, speaking of husbands and wives, says, "The out-door air, the stir, the change of ideas, the passing word for this man or that, unconsciously refresh, and lift him from the cankering care of work…. His work may be heavier, but it wears him on one side only. He has his hours sacred to business to give to his brief, his sermon, his shop. There is no drain on the rest of his faculties. She has not a power of mind, a skill of body, which her daily life does not draw upon. She asks nothing better of fate than that whatever strength she has of body and mind shall be drained for her husband and children. Now, this spirit of martyrdom is a very good thing when it is necessary. For our part, we see no occasion for it here." This is the point exactly. The "martyrdom," too often, is for objects not of the highest importance. The lack of appreciation of woman's work, as shown by man-kind in the newspapers, would be amusing, were it not saddening. Articles, dictating with solemn pomposity "what every married woman should be able to do," often appear in print, and these embodiments of (masculine) wisdom editors are eager to copy. "Every married woman should be able to cut and make her own, her husband's, and her children's clothes." The husband reads,-aloud of course, this time,-and nods approval. "To be sure, that would make a saving." The wife hears, and sighs, and perhaps blames herself that on account of her incapacity money is wasted. What the newspaper says must be true. Perhaps by sitting up later, by getting up earlier, by hurrying more, and by never setting her foot outside the door, she might follow this suggestion. "Every married woman" whose boys take to reading should snip such newspaper articles into shreds, burn them up, and bury the ashes.

Another cause of the present state of things is the lowness of the standard which has been set up for woman to attain. We have glanced at some of the things which are expected of the woman who carries on the family. What is not expected is a point of no less significance. Neither husbands nor company claim the right to expect, in that smooth, agreeable surface mentioned at the beginning, the results of mental culture. They may be gratified at finding them; but so long as the woman is amiable, thrifty, efficient, and provides three good meals every day, they feel bound not to complain. Here are the ten "Attributes of a Wife," as grouped by one of the world's famous writers: note what he allots to education: "Four to good temper, two to good sense, one to wit, one to beauty; the remaining two to be divided among other qualities, as fortune, connection, education or accomplishments, family, and so on. Divide these two parts as you please, these minor proportions must all be expressed by fractions. Not one among them is entitled to the dignity of an integer."

The prevalent belief that woman is in some degree subordinate to man, is rather taken for granted than expressly taught, as witness a certain kind of legend often told to young girls: "Once upon a time a young man, visiting a strange house, saw a damsel putting dough into pans, and saw that the dough which stuck to the platter was left sticking there; whereupon the young man said, 'This is not the wife for me.'" In another house he sees a damsel who leaves not the dough which sticks to the platter; and he says, "This is the wife for me." Another young man offers to successive maidens a skein of tangled silk to wind. The first says, "I can't;" the second tries, and gives up; the third makes a quick job of it with her scissors; the fourth spends hours in patiently, untangling, and is chosen. Now, what shows the state of public sentiment is the fact that in none of these legends is it intimated that the young man was fortunate in securing a thrifty or a patient wife. It was the thrifty or patient young woman who was fortunate in being selected by a young man,-by any young man; for the character of the youth is never stated. There is an inference, also, in the second one given, that the "hours" of a young woman can be employed to no better purpose than that of untangling a skein of silk. All this is throwing light on our problem, for so long as so much is expected of woman physically, and so little in the way of mental acquirements; so long as it is taken for granted that she is a subordinate being, that to contribute to the physical comfort and pleasure of man, and gain his approval, are the highest purposes of her existence,-it will not be considered essential that she should acquire culture. These aims are by no means unimportant ones, or unworthy ones; but are they in all cases the highest a woman should possess?

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