A Celebration of Women Writers

"Looking Backwards." by Miss Kirstine Elsebeth Fredericsen (1845-).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 237-239.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 237] 



Woman's demand for her rights is generally considered as a revolutionary movement. I, for my part, do not object to revolutionary movements; I believe that the world cannot do without them. But truth must have her say; and, to my mind, the Woman's Rights' movement may as correctly be called conservative, for, in a certain sense, it means going back to a more simple arrangement of the relation between the sexes, which have been artificially separated by a differentiation, carried too far. This is the lesson I read on the pages of history, and which I would like to impress on the mind of my kind audience.

The subject of which I will treat to this end, is the influence on the position of woman of the general evolution of mankind, especially of the development of industry. I remember, when quite a child, I saw a picture in some cheap almanac, which struck my eye and set me thinking on the strange fate of woman. Two pictures of family life were there: First, an Indian chief adorned with beads and feathers, marching proudly onward, followed by his wife, who carried heavy burdens–the children, the tent that sheltered the family, and a great many other articles belonging to the household. The other picture was meant to show modern family life. Here it was the wife who marched in front, and who wore the beads and the feathers, while the husband worked hard, wheeling the babies and carrying the dinner-basket for the family picnic.

To my childish mind the last situation was as little becoming to woman as the first, and since then I have often had occasion to reflect on the two phases of woman's life depicted on that rough sketch; for, although caricatures, these pictures showed one side of the change which historic evolution has brought to woman.

In the barbaric age, man did not think it fit for him to do anything but hunting and fighting, and woman had to do outside as well as inside work, to dig the ground, to build the houses, to look after the cattle; in fact, all those things are done still by women, not only among Indians and Greenlanders, but, to a certain extent, also by women belonging to civilized peoples, as, for instance, by some of the inhabitants of the smaller islands in my fatherland, Denmark, where the men are occupied, not, to be sure, by hunting and by war, but by ploughing the sea and fighting the storm.

Now these women are by no means subjugated. On the contrary, they are very independent, really much more so than their sisters in the city. As far as I understand the story told by a lady–I believe, Miss Alice Fletcher, in Washington, at the [Page 238]  first International Woman's Congress–this was exactly the impression she brought back from an inquiry into the life of the Indian women of this country.

If you take work out of the hands of woman, it may be a relief to her, but, at the same time, it means taking influence away from her. The Pilgrim Fathers of New England, who would not let the women cut their hair short, because they would keep them modest and womanly; who chased Anna Hutchinson out into the wilderness because she spoke out frankly opinions of her own; who forbade unmarried women to live in a house of their own–those harsh Puritans were obliged to pass exceptional laws of freedom for the women who did the spinning and the weaving, because they could not do without their help. It is told in the Saga of one old Danish king, Frode, that he once got into great trouble; he had offended his daughter so that she left him with all her damsels, and neither he nor his men could have their clothes mended till he had softened her heart. What makes woman independent and influential is real usefulness.

But mankind does not stand still; evolution made the men lay down the sword and take up the spade and the hatchet, and later even more refined instruments of work. Woman by this change was thrown back upon her household. She had the first opportunity to make a home for herself and her family. She did it; but, while she had her hands full of work in the house, she still kept an eye on what was going on outside. Only little by little was she outdone by the men. In the middle age the women of Germany fought bravely for their right to artisanship, but had to give it up. Laws were passed forbidding more than a limited number of women to work together with one man; laws against a widow taking up her husband's work on the same conditions as he had it; finally it was denied a woman to take out a license as artisan of any kind.

In Denmark and Sweden the noble born ladies not only very often managed their estates, but to a large extent busied themselves with the establishment of new industries–cloth manufacturing and even shipbuilding, much of which was considered patriotic work. No law was passed against this kind of woman's work, but custom, strong as the law, little by little, compelled the ladies to take care of their own clothes instead of other people's, and to manage their kitchens instead of their farms, forests and lakes.

The next historic transition was made when machinery took the place of hand work. To nobody has the wonderful inventions of modern times brought greater change than to woman. She never need be the household drudge, the slave of the spinning wheel–the spinning Jenny has relieved her of that–and even as the spinning, the weaving, the baking, the sewing, and so much more has been monopolized by machinery, so, very likely, will the washing and the cooking. Of course this has had some good effect on the life of woman, especially on her education. Formerly only the hand and not the brain of the girl was trained. In Poland down to this day the girls in the public schools are taught nothing but sewing and knitting. Only thirty years ago some highly honored members of the Danish parliament most earnestly maintained that a woman was not able to teach, even to girls, the art of writing, nor the principles of true religion. Going back to the beginning of the eighteenth century, it was forbidden by law for Danish women to teach boys more than four years old. All this is changed now. Everybody acknowledges the necessity for unmarried women to go outside the home to earn their living, and consequently the necessity of their training for their work. This is largely the effect of industrial development. But still I hold that modern evolution in some degree will tend to degrade woman if she does not look out sharp. A striking example from the very last times illustrates this: Not more than twenty years ago the head industry of Denmark–butter making–was under the direct supervision of woman; she had the honor, if not always the profit of it. It is not so since machinery has come in, since it is no more the farmer who makes the butter, but the butter factory that buys the milk and makes it profitable. To be sure, woman works in the factory, but she only does the lower work, the supervision has gone out of her hands; if she wants it she will have to fight for it. [Page 239] 

This is only a single example, for civilization has a general tendency to subvert woman either into the handmaid of labor or into the queen of the drawing-room. Only a few days ago I found in an American paper that civilization was claimed for a new place–Yellowstone Park, I think it was–on the ground that the ladies there changed their dresses three or four times a day. Is not this a false civilization? Has not Henrik Ibsen been applauded by the public, as well as by the critics, when he showed us in Hedda Gabler that the last kind of woman is no more likely to find true happiness than the first? The gifted and accomplished Hedda Gabler ends in suicide, because she cannot bear to live without influence. Take then a simple-minded woman, like the one old Pestalozzi paints, "Gertrud, who teaches her children." In her humble way, just by teaching her children, she succeeds in reforming not only her own household, but a whole village. And does not history, as well as poetry, teach us that the pioneers of new womanhood are the women who work and gain their influence through personal exertion? In the long run it is neither birth nor money, nor what can be bought for money, but personality which conquers the world. And, as in private life, so in public. Woman, when she demands her rights, is only taking back what belongs to her. Who cared for the sick, the poor, the children in olden times, if not the women? Only when all these cares were put under public supervision was woman shut out from them, and now has to fight her way back to the duties which her mother heart and her womanly feeling cannot let alone. Even political rights, for the first time in civilized life, have been taken out of her hands by modern constitutions. In 1661, when the last Danish parliament, according to the old constitution, was held, votes were passed for women owning property. Since then thousands and thousands of men, who had no rights formerly, have come in as voters, but no woman's vote is now laid upon the scale in the old countries. As the New England women taught the Puritans that they could not do without free and equal women, so is the Western woman of America of our day teaching the world that womanhood must not be shut out from public life if we do not want it to be crippled, one-sided and poor. It is for the woman of civilization–nay, any woman, wherever she lives, if she knows how to reign–to make her influence felt for good, as the society lady does, and at the same time to work, to make herself real useful, as the factory girl does–it is she who is the pioneer of modern womanhood.

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Miss Kirstine Elsebeth Fredericsen is a native of Denmark, Europe. She was born February 6, 1845. Her parents were Johan Ditlev Fredericsen and Maria Hansen Fredericsen. She was educated at home under the care of a tutor till her sixteenth year, when she began studies in Copenhagan. She has traveled in England and America. Her principal literary works are editorial work, "Woman's Society," "Object Lessons," "Book for Teachers," "Mental Life of childhood," and an "Essay on Education," for which she was awarded a gold medal by the University of Copenhagan. Her postoffice address is Kastanievy 4, Copenhagan, Denmark.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom