A Crisis in the History of Women



Delivered at the National Women's Conference, under the Auspices of the New York Times, April 7, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 479-480.

THIS forum in its entirety has been an occasion of realistic discussion of contemporaneous key-problems, as they relate to the shape-of-things to come. Practical nuts, hard to crack, have come under hard-hitting, incisive hammers.

A conspiracy of unparalled circumstances makes it possible for a symposium of women to gather here for discussions such as we have heard; a conspiracy of circumstances that ranges from the can-opener, washing machine, telephone and automobile, and their role in a householder's life, to the colossus of this war and its role in the destiny of modern women.

It is indeed a far cry from the days of our grandmothers, (when the hewing of wood and the drawing of water monopolized so large a part of woman-time), to the released, uncircumscribed program of life that mechanized living, radio, modern press and transportation have made possible for modern women.

It is indeed a far cry from the waiting Penelopes who used to weep and wait in their ivory towers for the return of their soldiers, to the WAVES and WAACS of today. In that long portentous era between the middle ages and this horrific present, erosive processes which sometimes seemed geologically slow, have been steadily at work in woman's sphere.

And then, one day it became December 7th, 1941. This strategic date becomes our springboard into all the subjects under discussion here today. In these 486 days, subsequent to Pearl Harbor, more drastic changes have occurred in women's status than in the decade before.

Overnight, over Pearl-Harbor-Night, as it were, a transition in design-of-living for American women, has been sharply made. The challenge that we have to face now becomes, not how to win the fort, but having won it, how to hold it. Challenge is a big, evocative word. Challenge is something to be met and conquered.

Where do we go from here? Do we, as in the last World War, step aside when our men come home and resume economically, industrially, almost were we left off? No, because nothing is permanent but change.

Naturally, since once more, there has been heavy and inevitable displacement of men in industry, as millions of them enter the armed services, women may be counted upon if, or when, it is necessary, to once more step out of their new jobs when their men come marching home.

But there are larger considerations that have not to do with mere temporary displacement.

Those larger considerations of impending change, women must now contemplate as seriously as our nation as a whole is beginning to contemplate its post-war behavior. They must take stock of their past, evaluate their present and prognosticate their future.

Our past speaks for itself. We have outgrown it. Our present also speaks for itself. But it does not seem to me that we always properly interpret it.

Uncontroversially, women, even now, are making enormous strides economically, socially, industrially. We are putting up a good showing in this war which is no more than should be expected of us. But this much vaunted power of American women is exaggerated.

To be sure, the first World War did mark a distinct promotion in our social, economic and industrial status. Also, due in no small measure to a capitalistic system which has enabled women to inherit vast fortunes from husbands, much wealth, for various deeply-rooted reasons, is now concentrated in women's hands. Also, as householders and mothers, woman buying power is colossal. Women hold strategic purse strings.

Since the first World War, the American woman has tasted the sweet freedom of economic independence; she has gone to college in droves; she votes. But the commotion is still out of all proportion to the promotion.

Factually, the power of women today in this country in government, in industry, in finance, in those departments of activity which form the pillars of society, is disproportionately and disappointingly small.

The Madame Pompadour power behind the throne era is no longer our idea of woman status. The old comic-strip idea of the wife who achieves her desired weekly budget bymeans of rifling her husband's trousers pockets by night, be longs to the Currier and Ives period.

When we women of this urgent now think of power, we mean the power that goes with active and constructive participation in creating the world in which we and our families live. Let's face the fact. We are as yet only feebly represented in the functional departments of American government and industry. Our much vaunted strength is largely wordage.

We are not adequately represented in the key departments of city, state, or nation. It is to our glory that we have a woman, and an excellent one, in the cabinet. We have capable women in our legislatures and in Congress. But the women who go to serve in our law-making bodies, are not vested with the high authorities that go with having great woman-power to fall back on at home. Women are not sufficiently organized. They are not sufficiently part of the organic structure of their local communities.

A woman still has to be twice as good as a man in order to get half as far.

They are still on the edge of the professions. It has been controversial up to almost this very moment whether women doctors are eligible for Army or Navy service.

We also know a little bitterly that because of lack of what we shall call woman-push, we, who by temperament and by nature have always been the foes of war, have not been able to distill the power to prevent them. We have failed in the past. We are failing in the present. Let us pray it is our heritage to succeed in the future.

And wishful thinking is not going to achieve the formula for maintaining peace in a world that up to now has been periodically fertilized by the bodies of war dead. Urgent now, is the time for action. Urgent now, is the moment for women to jump into this enormous business of lending their push, their figurative literal push—their brain, brawn, yes and real muscle, to a specific program that will prevent future wars.

Had there, as far back as Manchuria, Ethiopia, Munich, Poland, existed a united-nations organization so geared that it would have stepped in and prevented Germany from running riot over what is now the maimed and bleeding face of the world, horror could have been averted. Wisdom after the event, yes, but wisdom ahead of future events.

Through all their war-harassed centuries, women have functioned in behalf of peace by way of lip-service rather than action. Let's face that; evaluate it for what it is worth, which is not very much, and dedicate ourselves to a war-proof future. That is high mission! As high as human happiness and human decency and all the elements that go to make life worth living.

The greatest unreleased power in the world today is woman-power. The Muscle Shoals and the Boulder Dams that will utilize that power reside in the determination of the women themselves.

If you stop to think about it, there has been no great organized woman-push throughout history.

It will be interesting a couple of centuries from now, after women have long since been inducted into those departments of society which now discriminate against them, to see to what extent our feeble representation in the enduring arts, was responsible for the circumscribed lives that women had been living for centuries.

How few immortal women authors for instance, there are compared to men. What woman Shakespeare or Tolstoy, or Moliere? How few women poets between Sappho and Millay. How many women Beethovens and Mozarts have come down to us through the ages? How many women Rembrandts? These fields have always been open to women. What circumscribed conditions have inhibited us? You believe and I believe the answer is that we have remained the creatively languid sex for environmental reasons.

And now we have come to a crossroads and are face to face with the most realistic moment in our long history.

What do we want and how are we going to set about getting it? Those are concrete factual considerations.

Let's not fool ourselves. We need more functional power in government, education and industry. We need more woman-push, organization, and capacity to work together. Also, we need to break down women's inhibition against women.

And even more than that. There is an overtone; a more important dimension than any of the concrete ones mentioned, that women need and want in our post-war world.

Not only are we fighting to the death for the democratic way of life, we are fighting for the maintenance of those not easily defined spiritual values which dignify and glorify the nation, the home, the family, the individual.

Not for one moment has this forum been concerned solely with a mere discussion of more jobs for women; equalization of their citizenship rights; extension of their home interests; wider economic independence and a more active participation in the machinery of government.

These assets, important as they are, become scarcely worth the candle unless they achieve for us by way of wider horizons of intellect and experience, a release of the spirit, a more intelligent capacity for wifehood, motherhood, citizenship. The home is the nucleus of the spiritual life of society. The nucleus of the home is the woman. Enlarge her vision, her range of interests and activities, extend her power in government and state; cultivate her mind, enhance her value to the community as well as to the family; to the nation as well as to civilization, and you have a better human being in a better world.

This is a transition period. This is crisis in the history of the world and in the history of women. Now is the time to plan ahead.