Texts Related to the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett
About a Career
Miss E. B. Emory, Gorham, ME.
The time was when a woman was considered a failure unless she married; now she is considered a failure unless she has a career of some sort. Not long ago a woman, the mother of six children, actually apologized to me for marrying. "But," she added, "I think my oldest daughter will have a career." What a fool!" you exclaim. She was not by any means a fool; but in most respects a very sensible woman, and merely reflected a weak sort of sentiment afloat.
This letter is addressed to the girls, the young women in the college, the seminary, the high school, and those who have already graduated. Twenty years ago I was just there with similar attainments and like uncertainties, as eager, as ambitious, and as unskilled and undeveloped. So I have intense interest in these young people, sympathy with them, and they will, perhaps, allow me a few words concerning some things I have learned in these twenty years, so full of importance to every woman; and I will put them in the form of two suggestions, the first of which is a Don't, the second a Do.
First, let me say, don't strike for a career. If you are born for a career you will have it nolens volens, and you cannot escape it. You will strike out a path all your own, learn everything at first hand, and by your own experience, and at tremendous cost, and nothing that I or anybody else can say to you can be of much service to you; and may the Lord of earth and heaven be your friend, for Him will you need.
But there is a lesser career, opened not by genius but by education, and here it is that most women land who strike for a career. Girls, keep out of this throng if you can. Thousands and tens of thousands press in. If Providence declares unmistakably that your work and mission is to teach, to practice medicine, to write in an office, you can do it nobly, but you must expect difficulties and sacrifices which come inevitably through a departure from the natural order. Teaching is excellent for a time, but as a profession is nerve-wearing and body-killing, and the faithful teacher is likely to break down along in middle life, and with small means the outlook is anxious and dreary indeed. I know an educated woman of thirty in a large city who is secretary to a prominent official, and who receives two dollars a day. She does her work perfectly, and works much harder and longer than her employer, who has six thousand a year. The business she knows, and in his frequent absence she has great responsibility, and his confidence in her ability and integrity is entire. In the same establishment are several gentleman clerks who receive three or four or five dollars a day; two of them are single men. The lady has a mother to support, and they cannot afford to board comfortably, or to live in the city proper or any desirable locality, so they keep house in two stuffy little rooms, and she rides three miles in the horse-car after dark. Some woman of course has the benefit of all this sacrifice. It is the wife, the daughter or her employer or fellow clerk. This seems very unjust, but it is inevitable because of violence so widely done to natural law. Let me show you how this is.
"Why don't you have more?" I asked her one day. "Because," she said, "there are those 500 women; they are all through town and country, in the home, the store, the office, the library, the schoolroom, everywhere. On many no such necessity is laid. There is a morbid craving for publicity, or a natural desire for independence; but the independence, if such it is, must, later on, be dearly paid for. Some, though incredible it seems, are married women, with good homes and small children, even, needing a mother's care. But the vast number are unmated and adrift, struggling and toiling for daily bread, and, however it may be in the twenties, the time is sure to come when they are weary and long for a home, and year by year the chance of a home grows less. All this is pitiful, and is one of the saddest features of city life; but it is more. It is becoming a serious national problem, which strikes at the very root of society and life. In that same city, the native population is nearly outvoted by the Irish, and in five years will be. And why? Because so many women have a career and are childless. Therefore, don't!
Second, do learn to keep house. If you would be a level-headed woman; if you would have right instincts and profound views, and that most subtle, graceful and irresistible of all things, womanly charm; if you would make your pen, your music, your accomplishments tell, and would give them body, character and life; if you would be a woman of genuine power, and queen o'er all the earth, learn to keep house thoroughly and practically. You see the world all awry, and are consumed with a desire to set it right. Must you go on a mission to the heathen? Very well, but learn to keep house first. Begin reform, where all true reform must begin, at the center and work outwards; at the foundation and work upwards. What is the basis and center of all earthly life? It is the family, the home; these relations dictate and control all others. There is nothing from which this distracted world is suffering so much today, as for want of thorough housekeeping and home-making. It is the cause of heathendom the world over. "What," I hear you cry, "become a household drudge, with all my classics, mathematics, science and music, and my abounding sympathy and enthusiasm!" As to drudgery, the highest motive invariably precludes it, and if you master the business, it can never master you; and though your education may be too broad for the hospital, the studio or the schoolroom, it can never be too broad for the model home, and I engage that you will never have any wisdom too deep, or sympathy and enthusiasm too large, for the infinite variety and delicacy of relation and situation incident to a household with children and servants. If school has unfitted you for domestic life, there is reason to fear that your education has been narrow and on a low lane. It is only the literary dabbler, and the woman whose social position is not assured, who thinks domestic care and work degrading. A woman of first-class literary reputation and of highest social position recently said to me, "Housekeeping is primary." Her housekeeping is perfect and her writing most effective. So true is it that in a woman's life domestic education is the basis of all other education that, without it, you may well fear fatal weakness in any work you may undertake.
"A stone fit for the wall will not lie in the road," and if you are a complete housekeeping and home-woman, the probability is, with your education, that sooner or later you will be the mistress of a home. "But," you object, "a home implies a man usually, and men are tyrants, and put no true value on woman's services in the home." Too true it has been in a multitude of cases, but it is a fact that as employers women are commonly worse tyrants than men, and since women are better educated men are broader and more gentle. I hardly know a man in this age, who takes any such view of the headship of man -- that implying authority and control -- as was common thirty or even twenty years ago.
But there is another reason. Quite possibly you have studied political economy and the Constitution of the United States, and you know something of international law, and you like to talk politics with your father and brother, which is all admirable. Now nobody fears a foreign invasion -- it is well-nigh impossible; our dangers are from within. Slavery has been disposed of, and now we have Mormonism, which is a frightful ulcer. But it can be cut out, root and branch; if need be, a million men can march on Mormondom and wipe out the blot from off the face of the earth. But worse than Mormonism threatens us; worse, because so subtle, so near the core; it is in the veins, the blood, the heart. It is divorce, and the state of society of which divorce is the external sign, the dissolving of the family, the disruption of the home. A million men cannot march on this; in this disorder, man is nearly helpless; the remedy lies with woman, and especially educated woman. It lies with you. Not in appeals to Congress and legislatures, though this may be, but the nation of orderly Christian hoes in making homes. The community is absolutely impregnable, both from within and from without. For this your gifts, your opportunities, your religion. Therefore, do!
This essay appeared in The Congregationalist, June 28, 1883, p. 222.
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