The Effect of Modern Changes
In Industrial and Social Life
on Woman’s Marriage Prospects
May 1893 – The Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
It is the marriage prospects of the modern woman in Germany that I shall discuss before you.
The marriage prospects of every woman depend as a rule upon three circumstances, the first of which is the number of eligible men living in the country. In this respect the German women are not particularly favored, for their number exceeds that of the men by a round one million and a half, so that it is impossible for every German woman to marry, unless we institute polygamy, put a tax on bachelors, or forbid young men to emigrate.
The second circumstance upon which the marriage prospects of a woman depend is the greater or less facility her countrymen find in founding a household of their own and supporting a family. In this direction the prospects of German women are not bright. All over Germany you will hear the same complaint, that wants are great, money and employment scarce, no new openings to be found, the struggle for life harder than ever, and the possibility of making both ends meet less than before. Under these circumstances the number of marriages is likely to decrease, and actually is decreasing.
I come to the third point to be considered. It is of a less material character than the two preceding ones, but of still more vital interest. It refers to the views the two sexes hold on marriage in general, and the ideal type they expect one another to live up to.
Now what is, as a rule, a German man entitled to expect his wife to be? The answer is very short. His inferior, but a pleasant one; an inferior that at the same time is a lady, meets with all the outward marks of respect due to a lady, and yet in all the more important questions of life remains an inferior. This is no exaggeration.
Consult the church in Germany — she says: The Christian wife is an obedient wife.
Consult the German law — it says: The German wife, as a person being supported by her husband, has in all outward circumstances to submit to his will, and in affairs of great importance may not act without his permission.
Consult the army, as the most privileged and most highly considered class of German society — it will answer: A wife is a very pretty, agreeable, and lovable object, but incapable of doing military service, and therefore inferior to man.
Consult the men of science, and, except some of broader views, they will pretend, even should it be into the teeth of fact, that a woman is incapable of thorough work, high intellectual training, and high intellectual achievement.
Consult the German government — it has hitherto shut woman out from the university as a student, from the upper classes of girls’ high schools as a teacher, from the school board, the advisory councils, from all public affairs, and all public functions. A German woman is no citizen.
Consult the German press — and except some liberal papers and reviews, exceptions to the rule for which we are most truly thankful, it but re-echoes the judgments quoted above, and even liberal-minded editors of great liberal papers are taken aback at the idea of a woman’s discussing political economy and politics.
Consult German literature — and you will find it knows only of one relation between men and women, the relation through love and passion. The relation through thought, opinion, work, and the modifying influence of these on love or passion seem to have been perfectly unknown hitherto.
Then, after having consulted all these authorities, address yourself to an average German man on the point of getting married, and ask him what he expects his future wife to be. I think he will answer, “Pretty and gay, ignorant of life, able to follow me in my thoughts to a certain extent, but by no means independent.”
Now, a modern woman may be pretty and she may be gay, but she is never ignorant of life, and she is always independent in feeling and opinion; therefore, her marriage prospects in Germany, and all the countries sharing the German ideal, are poor.
Hitherto a German woman, on the average, had but one way of being happy, useful, and respected — through marriage, through man; and she could attain this without a special training of her faculties, or a thorough development of her character.
A modern woman, on the contrary, does not consider marriage as her inevitable fate; nor is she convinced that it is every woman’s chief vocation, or that it should be every woman’s disposition to fulfill the duties of a wife and mother; nor does she believe that without a special training of her faculties and a thorough development of her character a woman can be able to fulfill these duties as they should be fulfilled. She therefore asks as her right, considers as her personal duty, considers as a general necessity, that a woman should in the first place be a character and full-grown personality; that she should, secondly, make sure of her chief gift or capacity, and train it, so as to know what regular work means and be able to support herself.
Then, having obtained this, she asks for the liberty to choose marriage if she feels particularly disposed toward it, and to refuse it if she sees another way of being more happy, or more useful to the world; and this latter decision she wants to be allowed to make without being pitied by the world or blamed for it.
A modern woman having thus developed her brain and her will, there is still one quality she can not do without — a warm heart. She must have a feeling of fellowship toward all other women, pulling, so to speak, at the same rope with her; the wish to help all those who, striving in the same direction with her, may be less gifted or less fortunate than she; to help all those who, losing courage, have ceased to fight. Unless she have the backbone of a conviction, the desire to stand with others for a cause, and to claim justice, she is no modern woman.
I now repeat my question, Is this modern woman the wife her German countrymen expect? And I make the same answer as before, No, she is not, and therefore her marriage prospects in Germany are poor.
Though the modern woman knows that marriage in the present actual state of development in Germany is not meant for her, yet she is not at all averse to marriage in itself.
Being a full-grown and fully developed woman, she is perfectly capable of love, of passion and devotion. She does not pride herself on being insensible to love, nor affect a lofty and ridiculous disdain for men in general. On the contrary, knowing how hard it is to develop a character, and how much it has cost her to make her way, she will fully appreciate a man who, having done the same, expects the same from her; a man with whom she may share her ideas, thoughts, and feelings, her experiences, her tendencies, perhaps even her profession; a man whose comrade she will be, as well as his wife; for the modern marriage, in spite of all the rapture, love, and passion attached to marriage, is based in the first place on comradeship and mutual understanding.
Unless the modern woman find a man to appreciate her strength of will and tenacity of purpose, as she does his; unless he admit her to his life on a footing of perfect equality, for the simple reason that she is his equal; unless she can be sure of finding all this in a husband, I think she will not marry.
She supports herself, and so does not want to marry in order that she may be provided for. She is fond of her work, absorbed by it, makes friends by it, is respected for it, and so need not marry in order to obtain the regard due to a useful member of society.
That at times she will suffer from being alone, that she will have her hours of temptation, of depression, the modern woman is far too upright to deny. Yet, so far as I can see, a character of this stamp, a modern woman, will cherish liberty above all, and will be happier still when living alone, free to think, to feel, and act as she likes, than if, having married (for marrying’s or passion’s sake) a man she does not thoroughly agree with, she must be bored by his presence all her life.
And the modern woman begins to be rather easily bored. Hitherto women have been taught to look up to men, and on the whole they have done so. Now this innate feeling of respect for a man as such is more and more declining in the soul of the modern woman, and this change I consider most decisive as to the marriage prospects of our sex. It is not a change one can rejoice in — it is very painful to realize; for who would not prefer admiring, venerating with all her heart, to blaming, judging, and condemning?
Yet this change from innate respect to downright indifference is actually coming about. It can not be avoided, for it is the natural result of the modern woman’s deepening experience of life — of her knowledge of the realities of the world. It is this knowledge that estranges woman from man. A woman that has come to know by direct personal experience what this world is actually like, what she may meet with, in spite of being a lady, when trying to make her way by herself and going out unprotected by a great name or a chaperon; a woman who has come to realize that there are two moral standards, and that what is morally wrong for her is allowed to men; a woman that has looked into the depths of society, has understood its sham and its shame — such a woman is not likely to consider men as her superiors nor to be satisfied with the world as it stands. From her own experience, her own reflection, a quiet, concentrated, but very earnest protest is rising, a protest against the world as it is. And taking into account her character, how can it be otherwise?
Considering, however, the view of the German husband this state of affairs can but displease him. For women leading independent lives, holding certain decided views; women with ideas and principles, women who before marriage have taken to their own wings and made their way in the world; women judging men and asking them to account for various very unpleasant things in the world; such women are, in Germany at least, still a great, a very great and startling innovation, and therefore, I repeat, their marriage prospects are poor. Things will not always remain like this. The modern woman is highly organized; the weather all over Europe is black, and times of storm and stress are always favorable to the rising types. Let the modern woman stand the test of troubles now threatened, and she will see her claims admitted; let her exemplify the survival of the fittest, and she will be respected; let her with all her independence still be a woman, and she will be desired. Until the times come when the modern woman shall meet the modern man, we have to work, to sow and plant with a never-resting hand, that there may grow great characters for the world, characters able to grapple with the great problems at issue; it is characters we want, for as Walt Whitman says, “Have great men and the rest will follow.”
Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Vol. 2, Ed. May Eliza Wright Sewall, (Chicago: Rand and McNally), 1894, pp. 1-90.