New Aspects of Social Responsibilities
October 12, 1915 — Vassar College, Poughkeepsie NY
I come to you with very mixed emotions; pride and pleasure in participating in the celebration of an institution that, from its inceptions, has carried so many implications of social import; and a very deep regret that, unhappily for us all, the Fiftieth Anniversary of this College is denied the inspiration of Jane Addams’ presence, and that a substitute must come in the place of the wise woman of America, the leaders, I venture to say, of social thought of her generation. She, too, I am sure, is disappointed not to be here, for during this past month she has spoken several times to me of this engagement.
Sanction for Woman’s Position
The business of being a woman has not altered in its essentials since history has been first recorded, and the so-called “new woman” could, if she would, defend her position by tie honored custom and the traditional sanction of the ages. The wise book long ago describing the ideal woman of biblical days c aimed for her world attributes and great efficiency, associated with tender feeling and a social conscience.
“She seeketh wool and flax and worketh willingly with her hands.” A consumer and producer.
“She considereth a field and buyeth it; with the fruit of her hand she planteth a vineyard.” In the real estate business and an agricultural student.
“She girdeth her loins with strength and strengtheneth her arms.” A winner of athletic honors.
“She perceiveth that her merchandise is good; her candle goeth not out by night.” An expert and doubtless an advocate of the double shift.
“She stretcheth out her hand to the poor, yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.” A member in good standing of the Associated Charities.
“She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.” A patron of arts and crafts.
“Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.” The implication here is that she has made a man of her husband.
“She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” Plainly the social worker.
“Give her the fruits of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.” In other words, she is an individual who must stand or fall as she is worthy or otherwise.
Growth of New Social Theory
But the old social theory was established in the belief that the individual was supreme; and then, with civilization’s advance, responsibility was extended to cover the family with the tribal group . . . . Now the larger social groups included in the present conception of responsibility bring new aspects of the position that woman must take to hold to their importance and their dignity and to be ap rt of the progress of the evolution of religion, of the sciences, and of the humanities that are the essence of civilization, ‑ not to be the flying buttresses that support the cathedral arches in an auxiliary architectural capacity, but, if inspired an d competent, to be even the pillars within the sacred edifice itself . . . The conception of religion has extended from the individual to society; a true religion fills the need of both. Economics and government and a rational view of religion are based on human needs; and fundamental human needs underlie the so-called labor and women’s movements.
Woman and Labor
Years ago when I first became acquainted with the working girls they made the light penetrate to me until I saw that the trade union, even the strike and the boycott, were in reality a part of the struggle of the young women to hold on to their precious inheritances, — shorter hours to enable them to learn to keep the home, to work, to sew, to read, to be courted, and better pay to adorn themselves that they might find favor in the yes of man. And the theory of individual competition has given place in their mind of the moral conviction of fidelity to socially established standards, for the maintenance of which the individual, even the family, may be sacrificed that the larger group may profit.
Our forebears, working in the home, thought only of the needs of the family. As home work became factory work, the home worker became the factor worker. In the early days she felt little of the social philosophy which was embodied in her service; but that has been developed, and with the understanding of collective bargaining roader ethics were established among the working women; and they today consider the individual in industry who seeks her own interests in defiance of group ethics almost an outcast, scorned as “scabs” — as those who have defied the sanctity of family life have been condemned by society; and in this she is mentally and morally the comrade of the modern progressive economists and labor leaders among men.
The new aspect of social responsibility in industry takes organized form among other women who, fitting themselves to the environment of an age of machinery, band together in groups, as in the Consumers League; the woman’s Trade union League; and they have not hesitated to use, for sound moral purposes, methods that, not long ago, might have bene considered unladylike and unwomanly. Conscientious women of a great city of Illinois joined with church dignitaries to agitate publicly for the boycott of department stores which would not adopt early closing hours; and the Minimum Wage board of Massachusetts embodies the idea of the boycott by advertising in the counties of the state those employers who fall below the social-industrial standards. Dramatic expression of the new psychology was presented in Connecticut not long ago when a number of women workers conducted a twenty-four hour strike, followed by a Labor Fay procession, floats and a steamer excursion, their employer following their demonstration by a public statement of his conviction that the eight hour standard for which they had contested was socially and industrially advantageous. Manufacturers in that town and others through the state have volowed this leadership; Public opinion supports the wisdom and social value of maintaining this standard, and, where girls are concerned, the emphasis has always been laid on the fact that the conservation of their health and their morals makes them better mothers and better home-makers.
Women in Civics
In Pennsylvania a few days ago, a whole city paid deference to a woman, who, loving trees and beauty in nature, conceived the great thought of transforming an ugly, disfigured city in one of beauty. Through her perseverance and great patience and because she brought knowledge and fact to brace her arguments, she succeeded in getting civic pride and enthusiasm roused to the endurance of an increased tax rate for their seed.
She has carried out into the world beyond her own garden her conviction of the importance of beauty and order and has made the city profit by her powers to secure opportunities for all the children of her city.
In Indiana legislation for better housing has been brought about by a very devoted home-maker. Because she felt that the nation’s life rested upon the home and because the home was so precious to her she wrought “beauty out of ashes” for her state and sacrificed the peaceful and quiet enjoyment of her own home until, by force of all the methods and enthusiasms of a zealot, better homes were insured for other families than her own.
The halos that encircled the saints of long ago might occasionally and with propriety be transferred to the pilgrims who, foot-sore and weary, stand at the gates of state capitals petitioning for legislation to ameliorate and reform, fitting themselves to speak a language according to the law and adjusting their powers of persuasion to meet the newer requirements of legislative exigencies.
Women and War
Euripides made the Trojan women’s lament sound down two thousand years and but yesterday women gathered across the seas to state the abhorrence of war an don a world stage to declare that they were conveyors of a message for vast numbers of women in every land, — the belief that life is precious and that to destroy it is a wanton and unpardonable crime, a barbarism that women accustomed to band together for the conservation of life would no longer brook. At a stage in history when women were first organizable they came together to protest against war and to offer reasonable substitutes for settling international disagreements.
Women and Nursing
Doubtless the first profession for women (for its roots are set in the care of the young) is that of the nurse; and it has accompanied her progress throughout the ages. It was a women of the higher education, one who knew her Greek and Latin and whose mind vouched the minds of the erudite of her age, who had a vision of the great responsibility that lay upon her to apply her warm sympathy, her woman’s traditional aptitude and trained hands and intellect to the soldiers, the camp, the sanitation of villages in India and at home and, when hideous war was over, the expand her socialized womanly influence to cover the alms houses, the hospitals, the break down the red tape bureaucracy and the antiquated methods of war offices, to write books on nursing and sanitation and protective health measures. This one woman’s influence was dynamic, and was so felt around this world. Florence Nightingale lifted the vague, casual, though kindly and devoted, feeling of women into organized, efficient and invaluable service; she enlarged the nurse’s vision to sympathy for great groups outside her family or particular tribe.
In the last two decades, coincident with a social unrest because of things detrimental to human happiness, the nurse has emerged into public movements. The appeal to her is the appeal of the community. And that is not at the cost of the single patient o the single mother, but because of the sanctity of life and motherhood and the conviction that the mother, as well as the unborn child and the infant newly born, have become the trust of society. These things challenge the attention of the educated nurse today. It has become her responsibility to make practical application in the homes of the people of the results of a scientific thought and research. Nurses have united together in a national society that they may help each other, inspire each other than the community may obtain the utmost advantage possible from this age old profession of women. It is now little more than two years since they [first] gathered . . . as an organization [to record] their interest in and identification with the numerous phases of the public health movements and the promotion of right living. There were among them women who had taken the initiative in compelling the public to focus attention on constructive, preventive, supervisory methods, that an active cult of health might be built up. Creative minds among them have been at work that nurses may be directed toward a goal of social betterment; and this marches side by side with the ancient ideal of a consolatory and alleviating service. It is this most modern aspect of nursing that successfully enlists the socially minded woman, because her work has become an essential part of an harmonious whole. The first woman physician in America died only a few years ago and the first woman to study medicine in Holland, is still vigorous and full of zeal for the fee exercise of woman’s ability, [and] has been in America for the last few wees, undaunted by war and crusad[ing] for a great human cause.
Women and with them at times far-seeing men, prophetic because they knew the movements of the past, have helped to open up opportunities in the professions, not as special privileges, but to endow woman that her nature gifts might come to full fruition, and not for her, the individual, but for all — womankind and mankind — to serve the community. To adjust her education to meet the new and enlarging need great universities have established chairs of nursing and hygiene and home economics, dignifying old domestic occupations with professional standards.
Women in Politics
I see in those countries and state where political equality has been established demonstrations of self-realization and almost always the development of those inclinations that are traditional. New Zealand, remote and, therefore, not within the zone of local referendum controversy, has — I think not accidentally — the lowest infant mortality rate in the world. In Norway the legislature has lifted a cruel handicap from illegitimate children. Into the realm of Federal control human needs have been brought, as contrasted with material and academic and diplomatic functions of the government. “A Federal Bureau for Children,” its chief a woman, one of your own. What new and mannish venture does she embark on? She rouses the nation — or tries to rouse it — to the neglect of the baby. She takes the baby out of the obscure, so often neglected and hidden crib into the full light of publicity. Suffer not this little one to be lost sight of. It is a child of the nation!” This Bureau is a telling illustration of my theme. The former purely sentimental portrayal of the child is replaced by irrefutable mortality data, and these are shown to be related to high rent rates and low wage scales, twin home destroyers. That this is one of the things that women do when they function in public life. They exercise their intelligence for the preservation of the things that are important to them and have always been, and always will be.
Task of Women Today
Upon the educated woman evolves the task of re-adapting the social interests of her sex to a changed physical and spiritual environment. She should, as a member in good standing of the great society, be the coordinator of human values. The task of organizing human happiness needs the active cooperation of man and woman: it cannot be relegated to one half of the world. And active cooperation for such noble ends cannot be secured unless men and women really work together. The women have ben experiencing the growth of a new consciousness, an integral element in the evolution of self government, and as a result many women believe that they can best represent the human interests in government, at least that they can best represent themselves in those measures that immediately concern them and for which tradition and experience have fitted them. They are more earnestly aware of the social responsibility that rests upon them. Colleges and professional schools have prepared the way for the citizenship of women, as have also the factories and the department stores. The restricted, secluded, non-earning woman was logically a dependent and her efforts were confined to the field of her home activity. Time was when the removal of those activities took her abroad and her going constituted a great venture, but we have long since accustomed ourselves to the idea of her transplantation. With the statistics of women who earn their own living before us, no longer can the idea of chivalrous male protection be impressed upon us and nothing really good has been lost. A very find kind of comradeship — to my mind even a great romance of comradeship — has been made possible between men and women; and the fear that disturbs some that this altered relationship between men and women may develop a destructive sex antagonism, is, I believe, wholly without foundation.
The roots of public social service and responsibility are deeply planted in the nature of woman and what we are witnessing in our generation are the new manifestations of her unchanged and unchanging interests and devotions.
Her circle of human experience and human feeling has widened. The invisible form of government so long attributed to her has becoming distasteful because furtive, and therefore, unwomanly. She is capable of doing more, of being more than at any time.
“Give her the fruits of her hands and let her own works praise her in the gates.”
Source: The Lillian Wald Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations
Also: Lillian Wald: Progressive Activist, ed. Claire Coss (New York: The Feminist Press) 1989, pp. 77-84.