The Making of a Militant

The Making of a Militant

This article originally appeared in the December 1, 1926, issue, inaugurating a feature called “These Modern Women,” “a series of anonymous articles giving the personal backgrounds of women acti


This article originally appeared in the December 1, 1926, issue, inaugurating a feature called “These Modern Women,” “a series of anonymous articles giving the personal backgrounds of women active in professional and public life.” The editors explained, “Our object is to discover the origin of their modern point of view toward men, marriage, children, and jobs. Do spirited ancestors explain their rebellion? Or is it due to thwarted ambition or distaste for domestic drudgery? The next article is by a woman who, though willing to fit into the conventional picture, found herself unable to do so.”

I come from the oldest American stock. I can say that I with absolute truth and without implication of snobbery because one of my ancestors, on my father’s side, was an Indian girl. On my father’s side we are English and Scotch back to 1636, when his first ancestor in this country came from England. On my mother’s side, we are, with the exception of an Irish great-grandmother, of unmixed English blood, straight back through a signer of the Declaration of Independence to an ancestor on the Mayflower. It is, I believe, my father’s blood-a long line of farmers-which has most influenced my thinking and is responsible for a kind of militant idealism which marks many of my family. It is, I believe, my mother’s blood–a long line of mill- workers and mill-owners–which has most influenced me aesthetically. That strain has given me an intense love of beauty; a feeling, more poignant perhaps, when beauty is expressed in color rather than form.

There are two stories, hang-overs from the RevoIutionary period in my father’s family history, which always glow in my imagination. One is the story of a woman and the other of a man. The woman was the wife of my direct ancestor of that period. On the morning of April 19, 1775, her husband was plowing. Suddenly a man on a sweating horse stopped on the road in front of the house and yelled to him: “To arms! To arms! The regulars are coming!” My ancestor dropped his plow, rushed into the house, put on his coat, seized his musket, and ran down to the road. Once there, it occurred to him that he had not said goodby to his wife. He turned to wave to her– she had already taken his place at the plow.

The other story concerns the same battle. Deacon Josiah, one of my collateral ancestors, followed the British for miles along the line of fighting. That night he did not return. The next day he was found dead behind a stone wall. He had shot his last bullet, for there was not one left in his pouch. He was eighty years old.

Those stories made a profound impression on me. Sometimes I have wondered if they were not the real reason why for years I–naturally the most timid of created beings–was always in one civic fight at least; often in two; sometimes in more.

My early life was passed in Boston. I received the education typical of the upper middle-class in Massachusetts a generation ago. I went to four public schools–primary, grammar, high school, and normal school. I went to Radcliffe College. We were poor; genteelly poor; not poor enough to live in the slums and to know the thrill of haphazard picturesque slum existence, but poor enough to float along at a dead level of a lamb-stew existence. Yet the family life was informed with that idea of plain living and high thinking which was the New England ideal fifty years ago. As I look back on my life, it seems to be bound by the Boston Transcript, the Boston Public Library, the Boston Symphony, and the Atlantic Monthly.

I am one of seventeen children–the progeny of two wives and one father. The lives of all those children, except three who died in infancy, would make novels. I can here give but a carved cherry-stone idea of my own. My father was born in 1815. He remembered with perfect clearness sitting as a boy in the chimney corner, listening to the tales of the Revolution told by men who had fought in it, and to discussions of witchcraft by people who still believed in witches. Clearly, too, he remembered when at eight his father took him to Charlestown to see the laying of the corner-stone of the Bunker Hill monument. Lafayette spoke on this occasion, and Daniel Webster. My father was a handsome person, the black-haired, olive-skinned, gray-eyed type, with a figure like a blade of Damascus steel, romantic, chivalrous, gallant, gay–dashing was the word they used to describe him. When he was a half-grown lad, he used to walk a distance–roughly of fifteen miles–into Boston to purchase the Waverley novels as fast as they appeared; trudged the fifteen miles back. As a youth, he went on the stage. It was his boast that he played every minor Shakespearean part, and that he had danced with Fanny Ellsler. He and a half-dozen other young men formed themselves into a black-face company and went to England; the first to visit Albion’s shores. This was in 1844. They used to tramp from town to town giving their show and then moving on. My father made pilgrimages to the homes of Shakespeare and Byron, and to all the places he could identify that Scott had mentioned in his Waverley novels. He had a picturesque career; as prison reformer–he was, so far as I know, the first prison reformer in this country–politician, lecturer, author, and traveler. As he grew older, that fire of his youth toned down to an extraordinary quiet. Always an agnostic, he became a confirmed pessimist, but a gentle and humorous one; he seemed to develop an extraordinary wisdom.

My mother was twenty-four years younger than my father, beautiful in a delicately robust way; temperamentally capricious; illogical; vain with that charming vanity of the mid-Victorian epoch. All these youngnesses were illumined by a natural instinct for beauty; and they were held together by a dominant quality, seemingly alien to the combination–common sense.

She was one of a large family of girls. Her mother died when she was ten. Her father immediately married again–the makeshift matrimony of a man left alone with an unsolvable problem. My mother brought herself up. Early she went to work in the mills which were owned by her uncles, and in which their relatives were both foremen and workers. It was the Lucy Larcom period in American industry; all my mother’s fellow-workers were women of American birth. ‘And there was no sense of social inferiority in working in a mill. One day, perhaps, some American novelist will reconstruct that interesting epoch. I remember her telling us that the year she was eighteen she hired a horse on the Fourth of July, and in a habit which she had made for herself rode from Lowell to Boston–to see the doings on Boston Common. When she was seventeen my mother heard my father make a speech. She came home, waked up all her sisters, and kept them laughing half the night in spirited girlish imitations of him. The next year she met him. A few months later they were married. He placed her immediately at the head of a large household, where life moved in a highly romantic manner. In winter she used daily to skate. This frivolity in a married woman appalled the close, conservative community in which she lived. She used to ride horseback almost up to the time her babies were born. And this appalled them even further. Subsequently my father lost his fortune, tiny for this day, but ample for those–and the bad times came. It was at their nadir that I was born; and my youth saw no ameIioration of them.

Yet ours was a big family and an extremely gay one.

Two aunts were familiars of our household. One, my father’s younger sister, was a remarkable person. She had been a school-teacher. At the age of fifty-odd she was offered the place of a man principal who had just resigned from the school in which she taught. However, when she discovered that she was expected to do all his work but would not receive anything like his salary, she refused the job. She entered a theological seminary, was graduated at the head of the class, the only woman in it–one of the first American women clergymen. She had a parish in each of two towns, north of Boston. She preached in one church Sunday morning and the other Sunday night. When she was over seventy she retired; returned to her native town. A year later a delegation of farmers waited on her and asked her to come back, naming any salary within reason.

The second household familiar, also my father’s sister, was a strong spiritualist. For four summers in my teens I went with her to a spiritualist camp-meeting in Massachusetts. Every morning and afternoon there were lectures in what they called the “auditorium.” There was absolutely nothing for a young person to do in the camp-meeting; and so, out of sheer ennui, I attended all those lectures. Looking back, it seems to me, I heard discussed there every possible system of ethics, every possible theory of humanitarianism. I was a passive creature. These drifts of thought seemed to float over my mind without touching it. I was conscious then of no impression. I realize now that they had a profound effect.

However, I was accustomed to hear all kinds of discussions between my father and my two aunts. My mother, who bore no direct part in the discussion, was always flashing into their abstractions the strong flare of her common sense, the sparkle of her mother-wit. From an early age I became used to ideas. I was at home with them. I don’t remember ever having to think things out when new ideas were presented to me. I knew instantly whether I accepted them as truth or not. With an exception; one of the strongest convictions of my thinking life, feminism, was a gradual growth. Indeed, I don’t remember hearing the word feminism until I got to college.

In regard, however, to that tiny practical aspect of feminism–the franchise for women–I became very early an instant and ardent disciple. The question was first put to me by an extremely able woman teacher in the grammar school. Immediately my mind accepted as truth the idea that women should become in the fullest sense–citizens. I remember taking my new-found theory to my clergyman aunt, thinking I was going to open up a new vista to her. “I have believed in woman’s rights all my life,” she commented tranquilly. “And so has your father.” From that time on, with increasing closeness, I was to be connected with the suffrage fight–that long-drawn-out, all-absorbing, irritating, boring battle for an obviously just and tiny bit of human liberty. I became very impatient with the slowness of a struggle waged on such scrupulously polite lines, and when the first militant in England threw the first brick my heart flew with it. Thereafter I was a firm believer in militant tactics. Toward the end of the movement I was identified with the militant wing of the suffrage fight.

But although this struggle seemed to occupy the surface of my mind, I was faintly conscious of a vague but deeper unrest underneath. Away back in the early stirrings of my young-girl thinking I became definitely conscious of a growing impatience with the woman’s lot. From the moment I was able to think for myself–and I suppose I could number on the fingers of one hand the women I have met in a lifetime who have not agreed with me–I regretted bitterly that I had not been born a man. Like all young things I yearned for romance and adventure. It was not, however, a girl’s kind of romance and adventure that I wanted, but a man’s. I wanted to run away to sea, to take tramping trips across the country, to go on voyages of discovery and exploration, to try my hand at a dozen different trades and occupations. I wanted to be a sailor, a soldier. I wanted to go to prize-fights; to frequent bar-rooms; even barber-shops and smoking-rooms seemed to offer a brisk, salty taste of life. I could not have been more than fourteen when I realized that the monotony and the soullessness of the lives of the women I knew absolutely appalled me.

This was, understand, life in the middle class. These were, understand, women without private means or without the capacity for earning money for themselves.

I saw that most of them enjoyed one brief period of budding and another of flowering; the romance periods of young love and early marriage. After that–my heart sank as I contemplated the picture. All about me I saw lovely young things marrying, producing an annual baby, taking care of too many children in the intervals of running their houses. It seemed to me that early they degenerated into one of two types: the fretful, thin, frail, ugly scold or the good-natured, fat, slatternly slut.

As I look back an those years, the mid-day Sunday dinner seemed in some curious way to symbolize everything that I hated and dreaded about the life of the middle-class woman. That plethoric meal–the huge roast, the blood pouring out of it as the man of the house carved; the many vegetables, all steaming; the heavy pudding. And when the meal was finished–the table a shambles that positively made me shudder–the smooth replete retreat of the men to their cushioned chairs, their Sunday papers, their vacuous nap, while the women removed all vestiges of the horror. Sunday-noon dinners! They set a scar upon my soul. I still shudder when I think of them.

A profound horror of the woman’s life filled me. Nothing terrified me so much as the thought of marriage and child-bearing. Marriages seemed to me, at least so far as women were concerned, the cruelest of traps. Yet most women married and all seemed to want to marry. Those who remained single often changed into something more repellent than those charmless drudges. I made all kinds of resolutions against matrimony. All the time, though, I was helplessly asking myself, how was I going to fight it–when I so loved companionship?

One way, I decided, was not to let myself get caught in any of those pretty meshes which threaten young womanhood. I made a vow that I would never sew, embroider, crochet, knit–especially would I never learn to cook. I made a vow that if those things had to be done, I would earn the money to pay for them. I married, but I kept my vow. I have always paid for them. Even in a young marriage, when income was very limited, I went without clothes to keep a maid. And although I happen to be extremely domestic in that I must have a home and much prefer to stay in it, I have always managed that the work of that home should be done by someone else, and that my clothes should be made outside it.

Through all this spiritual turmoil there had been developing within me a desire to write. And during all these years, I was making a tentative experiment with the august business of reflecting the life about me. Ultimately my first short story was accepted; more short stories; a book; more books. Except for three or four years, my mature life has been economically independent. I hope be be economically independent the rest of my days. When I look back on my fifty-odd years of life on this planet, I wonder what was the real inception of my desire to stand alone–fighting ancestry; liberal influences; discussion-ridden youth? Perhaps it was those Sunday dinners!

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy