A Celebration of Women Writers

"Characteristics of the Modern Woman." by Mrs. Caroline K. Sherman.
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. 764-770.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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It is well known that the condition of woman in the early periods of the world's history was inferior to that of man. During the Middle Ages the tendency was to treat her as a being "enskied and sainted, and to be dealt with in sincerity as with a saint." The disposition in this modern time is to treat her neither as an inferior nor superior to man, but as a being having a status of her own, and not necessarily to be judged in comparison with man. In this paper I speak, therefore, of the condition of woman at the present time, the causes which led to that position, and the possibilities which may result from it.

So long as the political conditions of a country are insecure and its resources limited, woman is obliged to accept the position allotted her, whether it be the low position assigned her by the Orientals and Greeks, or the higher one granted in the Middle Ages. In either case what privilege she enjoyed was not granted as a right, but conceded as a favor. As civilization advances, however, and political conditions become more stable, material resources at the same time being easier of access, woman naturally occupies a place quite different from any she has known hitherto. Those manifold events which mark the change from the mediæval to the modern era, necessarily affected the status of woman. The invention of printing, and with it the diffusion of learning, the discovery of gunpowder, and the changed modes of warfare, the Reformation and its emphasis on the rights of the individual – each of these was significant in opening larger and freer opportunities to woman. The invention of printing meant liberal means of culture for all, woman as well as man, greater range and freedom of thought and, naturally, greater freedom of expression. The discovery of gunpowder meant a death-blow to feudalism – to that system of helpless dependence by which the masses were held as serfs and servants because of the necessity for military protection. The improved modes of warfare gave to the lower as well as to the upper classes opportunity for other occupations, while at the same time the peculiar sentiment of chivalry, as it prevailed in the Middle Ages, died a natural death, since women were no longer to be protected by the right arm of valiant knight, but by the cannon, the musket, and the shell.

The influence of the Reformation was to set a higher value on the good things of the world. Hence the impetus to modern science and the fruitful discoveries and [Page 765]  inventions resulting from it, which, perhaps more than anything else, have contributed to the freer and, as we hope, better condition of woman. While, to the praise of the Mediæval Church, it recognized the fact that we must look to spiritual rather than to material discoveries for the highest welfare and happiness, it sometimes neglected the other important fact that spiritual well-being is dependent on physical and intellectual agencies, and that only by the proper use of these can the desired spiritual attainment be made. Protestantism recognized this neglect and directed itself at once to these forces which have reference to the physical side of life, to whatever would increase the sum total of human pleasure and decrease the amount of pain, and the results are, as we all know, marvelous beyond expectation. It is true that in avoiding the mistake which the Mediæval Church had made, Protestantism incurred the danger of going to the opposite extreme, and of regarding physical and intellectual comforts as most important so far as this world goes, while spirituality too often is thought desirable only as a preparation for death.

If this were the necessary and veritable outcome of modern science, we might well question whether the loss were not greater than the gain, especially to the women who partook so fully of the best which the mediæval life had to offer; but every thoughtful person knows that the largest means are best for the highest ends, and that it is only irrational souls who lose sight of final purposes to rest satisfied with what are only means to an end. As it is, all these developments of physical science will, in our opinion, eventually lead to the best results. This being admitted, women can look upon the achievements of science as the important factor which has brought about for them the great changes from a state of helpless dependence to one of desirable self-reliance and more efficient activity. So long as women were compelled by necessity to spin, weave, sew, care for their households and attend the sick, so long their time and hands were fully occupied, leaving little opportunity or strength for other pursuits. This certainly was the case with wives and mothers, while the condition of unmarried women was even less desirable, compelled, as they often were, to suffer the humiliation of receiving a precarious living from strangers, or possibly worse yet, of accepting a humble seat at the table of kindred, for Protestantism did not, as Catholicism did, offer a refuge and a vocation to unmarried women.

The various organizations at the present time afford splendid opportunity for the wise use of surplus time secured by the introduction of machinery, and women are not slow of availing themselves of it since they have learned, what it was not possible for them to know before, the value of organized effort. The worth of organized activity is seen in the various reformatory methods introduced into our hospitals and prisons, by which more humane and refined influences are brought to bear in the treatment of criminals and the insane. It is seen in educational matters where women occupy positions of trust, not simply because of the desirability of having women to co-operate with men in public affairs, but because in many cases these women represent the sentiment of a large body of thoughtful women whose opinions it would not be politic to ignore. Nor is it only among the so-called leisure class that there is the disposition for self-improvement and for these advantages that come from wisely-organized effort. I have been surprised as I have talked with members of the Knights of Labor, and others of the wage-earning class, women of comparatively little culture, perhaps, but with an earnest purpose to make the absolute best of themselves and of the circumstances which too often dwarf rather than develop them. They, too, are disposed to let the old routine of personal matters and petty gossip give place to questions of wider scope. They, too, are taking an interest in public matters, knowing by painful experience how closely the decision of these questions may affect them, their homes and especially their children. And already their interest in these broader affairs has obtained results in a practical way. Their demand that children born of the abject poor shall not be defrauded of their childhood, but that they shall have opportunity for education, is meeting a response all over this country, not only from public sentiment, but from public sentiment as expressed by law. In these, as in so [Page 766]  many other philanthropic aims and purposes, intelligent women of all classes are heartily engaged, and the unity of aim, the common purpose in public matters, especially in matters which bear directly on the home, is one of the happiest results of the enlarged opportunity which this modern time affords. It not only promises benefit to all classes of women by giving to each the moral support of the other, but it tends also to do away with the artificial system of caste among women, which is almost inevitable where there is a division of interests, and an inability to recognize the principle that the good of each is bound up in the good of all.

The strength which comes and shall come from this wider union of interests and influences can hardly be estimated. We know that the power of woman's influence has been acknowledged in all times; that poets have sung it, and men have delighted to echo the song. Again and again the refrain comes: "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that moves the world," but that was the influence of individual women and of woman in the abstract. It was very intangible, very indefinite, limited in the main to a narrow circle, or affected a wide range only through narrower, naturally losing force, as all power does, by the greater number of media through which it is transmitted before reaching the desired end. Now for the first time that influence is taking on a more definite form, is more surely felt. That it will increase instead of decreasing is but natural, since "it is not the genius of civilized institutions to take away social or political rights that have once been granted." That woman's influence will radically change the character of public affairs is not to be anticipated, since the intellect of woman does not differ essentially from that of man, and it is these two forces, the intellectual and the moral, which are to be the controlling forces in the future. The greatest changes and the greatest advantage arising from the new order of things will be to woman herself. The enlarged opportunity of the present time means for her, first of all, the privilege of gaining an independent livelihood, or, in other words, of deciding for herself the direction of her life. How much this signifies, and what a unique privilege this has been hitherto, they know best who are most familiar with the social condition of woman from barbaric times to the present. There was no choice, so to speak. Marriage was almost the sole opportunity of gaining or obtaining a desirable living, and even then the decision was usually made by parents, brothers or near kindred, and not by the person whose fate was the most concerned. If, as in more recent times, the woman was allowed the choice, it was often necessity rather than free choice which directed her, and too often she was compelled to be governed by motives of prudence rather than inclination.

The narrow means and necessarily contracted habits of the woman who remained unmarried made her an object of silent contempt, not from any fault of her own, but because outside of wedded life and the interests of rearing a family there was no industry that offered a worthy compensation for her work, and her whole thought was necessarily bent on a narrow economy that could save where it could not earn. The manifold employments that are now open to women, employments that are rapidly increasing year by year, offer for the first time the glad opportunity of avocations that in their way command respect as marriage commands respect. We have only to call the names of Harriet Hosmer, Clara Barton, and others, and proof is at once given. Many less widely known testify to the same effect, and the day is fast passing away when women will be obliged to accept marriage either for the sake of support or to avoid the contempt once attached to the unmarried. This freedom of choice naturally increases the respect given to woman, whether the choice she makes is in favor of marriage, or whether she decides to follow a profession. The woman who accepts a husband out of pure and free inclination, conscious that this union is for her the surest opportunity for happiness and usefulness, must stand much higher in the estimation of the husband than the one who marries simply because there is for her no other alternative, while the woman who is wedded to her profession in the thought of bettering her own and the world's condition must gain the respect which is naturally accorded to those who have an earnest purpose in life and steadfastly adhere to it. [Page 767] 

I know it may be said that this large opportunity for women does not necessarily imply greater improvement on their part. It may be said that women in the future as in the past, will still continue to live in the narrow routine of a circumscribed life or, if their ambition takes a wider range, it is in the direction of richer apparel, daintier food and costlier living. It may be claimed, too, that in many cases the great advantage offered by the so-called modern improvements have only led to greater complexity of living and still greater perplexity, and that the added leisure furnishes opportunity for added frivolities. The justice of the claim is admitted, but at the same time I am right in refusing to admit that the latter class of women are the representative women of our time. On the contrary, it is the women who are making the absolute best of themselves and of their fortunate surroundings who are the truly representative women of our time. These evince the latent bent, the tendency of the masses, and the success possible to all. A tree is to be judged not alone by its fruits, but by its fairest fruits, because these show its possibilities, these show what the others might have been if earth and air and sunshine had been graciously disposed, and the noble-minded women who are availing themselves of the glad privileges of the present time are the truly representative women because they are those who are shaping the influences which are affecting the masses beneath them, and they are representative women also because all other women would desire the higher rational life if they only had a consciousness of the joy which the rational life alone can give.

If there be any fear lest this higher life, as we are pleased to term it, and these broader opportunities for women may lead them in time to the extreme of ignoring limitations of family life, and of preferring the more public career of business or a profession, so that family life would become distasteful to the extent that the welfare and perhaps even the existence of the race would be in danger, we can reassure ourselves with the fact that nature will take care of all that without any anxiety on our part, for "nowhere is she so sensitive to encroachments as in those matters which lie at the foundation of life." We may cheat, distort and circumvent her in other respects, but nowhere is she so keen, cunning, so absolute and imperative as in this determination for life, this will to live, as Schopenhauer expresses it. Nor need there be any fear lest these higher opportunities open to women shall take away their tenderness, their confiding trust, or any of these finer qualities which are usually termed "womanly;" for the grace which comes from strength is far more graceful than that which comes from languor; the tenderness which comes from efficient sympathy is no less tender because of its efficiency, and the trust which is based on a full recognition of all that love and trust and self-surrender imply is certain to be more permanent than the trust that is based on ignorance.

I know the sweet illusions that still adhere to the idea of chivalrous devotion on the part of man, and of clinging dependence on the part of woman, and this might be well perhaps if men were always strong and women always young and beautiful; yet even here it is questionable whether it were possible for a woman to find lasting happiness merely as a passive recipient of loving admiration, however ardent, for so long as a woman has a rational and spiritual nature, so long she fails of highest happiness if these are lost sight of. And further, grant that these conditions of devotion upon the part of man and clinging dependence on the part of woman could be permanent, it is questionable whether such a state would be healthful to either mind or body, since this form of selfishness, like any other, is liable to die of its own excesses. Furthermore, the fates of the Juliets, the Ophelias, the Desdemonas, and of countless hosts of other women who were all that is gentle, sweet and confiding, does not lead to the belief that the fate of such women is at all enviable. On the other hand, the tragic consequences of all this emotional fervor, this unrestrained expression of feeling, especially when combined with artless simplicity and utter ignorance of what is worthy to be loved, which, strange to say, men and women are so slow to learn; for this frenzied emotion and intensity is still hallowed with the name of love, its dicta are regarded infallible, and that too in the most important concerns of life. [Page 768] 

If the privileges now afforded to women shall lead them to more realistic views in regard to the affections, incalculable results for good must in eviably follow; for there is no truth that men and women need to see more plainly than the fact that the emotions and the affections are to be kept under wise control, and they are of value only as they are under control, and that the infallibility of love is not in proportion to its intensity, but rather in proportion to its clearsightedness. How plainly Dante saw this truth, and how firmly he was guided by it is evident from what he says in the "Vita Nuova," after describing his first meeting with Beatrice: "I say that from that time love quite governed my soul, and with so safe and undisputed lordship that I had nothing left for it but to do all his bidding continually. And albeit her image that was with me always was an exaltation of love to subdue me, it was yet of so perfect a quality that it never allowed me to be overruled by love without the faithful counsel of reason whensoever such counsel was useful to be heard." I know the tendency of women is to live in their feelings; still this tendency need not be abnormally cultivated, as it has been in times past, and above all things this emotional state should not be considered the ideal condition for woman, for in whatever way we may regard woman, whether as an individual of and for herself, or whether we regard her as a helpmate for man, in either case it is the rational life that gives a permanent worth to the emotional life. Desirable and indispensable as the latter may be, its best significance is in its subordination to the rational. Shakespeare knew this well, and while he has portrayed every phase of the emotions with all the allurements and attractions which undisciplined ardor knows how to offer, he has not failed to show the evil results which are sure to follow when reason fails to obtain control. The Juliets, the Ophelias and the Desdemonas perish, the victims of their own impulses, but women like Portia, whose wealth of feeling was not under the sway of caprice, loved, not only to their own advantage, but to that of their households. No submission is more womanly than that of Portia to her husband, but it is the submission of strength and not of weakness.

Of the many old superstitions in regard to woman there is one which has not entirely passed away, and that is that women by a kind of intuition or divination have a feeling for truth, which is an easy substitute for the unremitting labor and continual mental activity that is essential to the logical comprehension of truth. Hence the inexactness of women and their inability to tell the truth, not from lack of moral sincerity, but because they do not recognize the fact that a clear apprehension of the truth is not a free natural gift, but is an acquired ability, that is gained only by the most rigorous mental discipline. It would be quite as easy to gain strong physical power without continuous exercise of the muscles as to gain intellectual and moral strength without the constant activity of the moral and intellectual faculties, and women can never expect to arrive at an accurate knowledge of any subject so long as they are willing at a moment's notice to give hasty answers to the most profound problems, social, economical, religious or philosophical, merely to follow some impulse that with them takes the place of intelligent conviction. So long as this is the case, so long as feeling takes the place of accurate thinking, women can not have that subtlety of analysis and sustained power of reasoning which is absolutely essential to the correct investigation of any subject, philosophical or scientific.

And so of those other mists of feeling which obscure the problems with which women of today have to deal, especially the disposition to let personal matters decide rather than the consideration of broad universal principles. It is not strange that this is the case, since women have been governed so long by motives of personal considerations. Yet if they will share in the larger life of today it will be by a recognition of the value of underlying principles, and not through the old-time artifice, intrigue and use or abuse of personal influence. Is it not a little singular that while patience, one of the most significant virtues in the Middle Ages, and one considered essentially feminine, that in the modern time women are restlessly impatient? Here I should make a distinction and say that they are patient under inevitable physical ills, but are [Page 769]  exceedingly impatient under moral wrong. At first thought this may seem a virtue rather than otherwise, for so long as the bad can be made good, and the good made better, no one has a right to be passively indifferent.

The difficulty lies in women failing to perceive that the process of the universe can not be violently hastened; that the moral world as well as the physical has its laws which must be regarded if success is to be attained. It is not easy for women to see that what ought to be may be practically impossible at present, and, indeed, in many cases can be reached only by the slowest processes, but this impatient haste on the part of women will brook no delay. They have a restless, feverish desire for activity, and inability to stay quiet, an irritable impatience to accomplish something and to see immediate returns for the amount of energy expended. Increased opportunities for philanthropic and reformatory effort have added to the intensity of this impatience. Seeing, as they believe, the Kingdom of Heaven to be within reach, they are ready to take it by violence, and so defeat the object in view. It should be said, however, that within the last few years there is evidence of decided change in this respect. Already the disciplinary power of systematic thought and study is making itself felt among women who have availed themselves of it, and instead of bending their energies exclusively in trying to alleviate poverty, squalor and degradation, we find many of them making earnest inquiries as to the cause of all this poverty and vice – trying to find out the underlying causes which bring about the need of charity and almsgiving, for that there should be continued poverty among men and women sound in mind and body proves a radical injustice somewhere. And women as well as men should make it their duty, if not pleasure, to know where the evil lies, and apply the remedy there instead of resting content with the system so long in vogue of almsgiving out of ignorant pity and useless sympathy. It is a question much discussed at the present time what effect the increase of thought and study will have upon the health of women. Doctors disagree upon the subject, but meanwhile women are going right along solving the problem in a practical way. Whether the answer will be in the negative or affirmative is not yet apparent, but this much is certain, as Professor Morris has so aptly put it, "Patient thought and study are not half so perilous to one's nerves and brains as are the fret and worry incident to the strife for the possession of the thousand and one now alleged necessaries of decent living. Genuinely patient thought and study are as much a sedative as an excitant, for they bring the repose of strength." So far as my own observation goes, it is not the stimulus of thought and study which works the ills of which physicians complain today as it is the irrational life which women are disposed to live, simply because material productions have increased so rapidly that it is comparatively easy for nearly every home to have an excess of luxuries, which, instead of adding to the well-being of those who possess them, are often an increased perplexity and aggravation.

Until our homes are simpler and less an object of care and anxiety, until our dress is determined by beauty, health and utility rather than by fashion or caprice, and until our tables are ordered with regard to physical well-being, we do wrong to lay the various forms of nervous prostration to the account of thought and study. Even in cases where household luxuries are not an occasion of fret and worry there is danger of pernicious influence from them, since they lead one to rest content with the lower forms of happiness rather than to seek the higher. The sense of vision is the most tyrannical of all our senses, and few women have it under wise control. I would not wish to advocate stoicism and puritanism in the home, but this love of luxury, this gratification of the senses tends to enervate and make us satisfied with ourselves and our surroundings, forgetful of the facts that it is in the activity of our powers rather than in the passive gratification of them that we eventually come to that real satisfaction which alone is the object of highest desire.

In reflecting upon the broader opportunities open to women, the question arises as to what effect they will have upon religion and the church. Hitherto women have been the conservative element in the church and its chief support. Evidently a change [Page 770]  in this respect is going on, and remembering the effect which the logical keenness of the Mary Shelleys, the Harriet Martineaus, the George Eliots has had upon their religion, it is not strange that there is serious questioning as to what will become of the church in the future, and whether religion is to be thrown aside as a thing of the past if women are no longer to be its chief supporters. But to my mind there is little cause for apprehension on this score. So long as there is in humanity a spirit that impels one to the knowledge and performance of practical duties, so long as there is a desire for such an explanation of the universe as shall give life, aim and meaning, so long as there is a love for the truth which shall make one free, so long there need be no questioning but what religion in some form will claim the deepest interests of humanity, and whatever form that religion may take, women in the future as in the past will give to it loyal fidelity and faithful service.

In conclusion, let me add that if in my paper I have said some things of women that seemed ungracious, it is not because I do not appreciate women or because I do not know them – for I know woman well, the good, the bad and the indifferent, and have hope for all. If what I have said shall lead any to the higher rational life of which I have spoken, the object of my paper will be accomplished.

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Mrs. Caroline K. Sherman was born in Massachusetts. Her parents were Silas Swift and Lydia Davis Kempton Swift. She graduated from the New Bedford High School, and later from Wheaton Seminary, Norton, Mass. Also was instructed by private tutor, who was a theological graduate of Andover. She was early grounded in sound orthodox theology, and under the direction of her private tutor went forward with the study of theology as well as philosophy. She married Mr. Jonathan Sherman Jr., of Boston, Mass. She is vice-president of the Aristotelian Society, an organization of scholarly people who devote themselves to the study of Aristotle. She was chairman of the Woman's Branch Department of Philosophy and Science, World's Congress Auxiliary World's Columbian Exposition, and is at present a member of the Chicago Board of Education. She was a member of the Concord School of Philosophy, and delivered a lecture there in 1885. Her postoffice address is No. 225 South Leavitt Street, Chicago, Ill.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom