The Woman Movement from the Point of View of Social Consciousness

II. The Woman Movement As Part of The Larger Social Situation

Jessie Taft

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Such a survey as we have just made leaves little doubt as to the reality and seriousness of the chaotic conditions of which the "uneasy woman" complains. The bare fact that there exists in society at the present moment a large class of idle women; a still larger class of women working in homes at enormous waste of time, energy, and efficiency; a third and comparatively small class whose work, though satisfactory, is of such a character as to interfere with marriage if they desire it; and a fourth class whose work is rendering them unfit for anything else, is sufficient evidence in itself that women are not realizing themselves through their social relations in any complete or harmonious way; but rather are buffeted about at the mercy of these same social relations. The selves which women bring to bear upon the struggle seem to be overwhelmed by a situation that is too large for them. They are con-trolled by these external conditions instead of realizing themselves through them.

The case is not different with the modern man. The woman has no monopoly on conflict and disharmony. He, too, is swamped by the system in which he finds himself. He, too, is being made, willy-nilly, by the relations in which modern business and industry are involving him; yet he is not expressing himself consciously through these relations. One has only to recall the struggle between capital and labor, the way in which life with its ideal interests is being crowded out by the pressure of the economic machinery not only on the laborer but on the man who is chained down to money-making, the frequent incompatibility of home and family with the work for which the man is fitted by nature, the alienation of the father from his home responsibilities through lack of leisure, to realize that the unsatisfactory character of the woman's life is but a conspicuous part of a wider and more basic situation which involves men as well.

This thesis is based on the contention that the incompatibilities and oppositions sketched above are genuine and are the particular expressions of a more basic conflict existing between the self, the personality, of the modern man and woman, and the present social situation through which this self has not yet succeeded in expressing itself because it is not yet sufficiently conscious of the social character of that situation

( 25) or of the method through which control can be secured. The realization, that we have as yet no social control and few personalities, either masculine or feminine, sufficiently socialized to cope with the modern world, is being forced upon us most conspicuously in the terrific conflicts arising from the indifference of the form taken on by business and industry to the actual content involved. [1]

Industry and trade, as carried on in the Middle Ages within a single family, a small community, or even in the craft and merchant guilds of the larger towns, was a social institution controlled to a large extent from within by natural social impulses. A man had no business relations which did not involve relations of an immediate personal character. He was in direct contact with the people for whom he worked or who worked for him and he had a self, a personality, formed by these relationships and adequate to them. The man who made shoes depended immediately upon the man who shaped iron at the forge and exchange was likely to be made in kind, or the members of a large, more or less isolated family produced among themselves all the necessaries of life. Economic and intimate social relationships were inextricably mingled, so that even where there was no clear consciousness of their significance, there was no danger of the natural emotional controls which arise in personal situations failing to operate.

Modern business and finance, on the other hand, has become so complex, so impersonal and abstract in its organization that it seems to involve only economic values. In form it is purely economic, in content it is still as social as ever it was in the Middle Ages. The changes that have brought all this about have been so tremendous and so sudden, the introduction of machinery and the consequent centralization and systematization of industry have so depersonalized it that the human beings involved in it have not yet had time to develop personalities that are equal to the complexity of the system.

The world today is confronted by this kind of a problem: Men are being forced to act under enormously widened social conditions in which their relationships to their fellows have multiplied increasingly while becoming correspondingly difficult to perceive as social, because of the growing abstractness of the business medium. Yet they bring to this enlarged social activity only the selves that are formed on the feudal pattern—neighborhood, family selves too narrow to respond socially beyond a limited and obviously social circle. In the narrower personal connections, natural conflict of egoistic and social impulses furnish a

( 26) rough control; in the new and unrecognized social relations, there is nothing to call up social tendencies. Egoistic motives easily pre-dominate. A man who would as soon lose his own life as injure a child he knew personally, can, without ever being conscious of the fact, injure hundreds of children and indirectly an entire community by feeling no responsibility for their employment in his factory through his superintendents. The man in the world of business, therefore, is not constituted a self, a person, a moral and social agent, by the individuals at the other end of the system. He does not make their motives and attitudes a part of his consciousness, thus bringing all the elements of the situation within his grasp. He uses his connections with people for his own benefit while remaining oblivious to their social character. The maxim for this procedure is "business is business." The results are social as well as economic, but only the economic factor is recognized and consciously intended. Hence we have these unlooked for social elements actually altering our civilization but absolutely uncontrolled because external to the consciousness of the individual or group of individuals that is responsible for them. This means the loosing of a great stream of social activities which as social are without rational guidance. No control of modem life is to be hoped for short of a complete consciousness of the social character of business and industry, and the development of a self large enough to answer to the new environment with the substitution of thoughtful control for the instinctive controls of personal contact.

In our modern associated charities organization we have an illustration of one attempt to substitute thoughtful for emotional control. To leave relief work to the chance that suffering will make an immediate appeal to some one's sympathy is a method that does not work in such complex social conditions. It leads to abuse from the point of view of the reliever and the relieved. So the effort is made to awaken a permanent consciousness of social responsibility and obligation towards the weaker or more unfortunate members of the community which will result in a steady, reliable relief fund managed in a semi-scientific way in place of the haphazard and indiscriminate giving that follows the harrowing of one's feelings by chance personal contact with pitiful cases. The system is doubtless far from perfect and our theory may condemn it altogether in time, but at least it is a thoughtful application of theory as far as we have acquired any.

Similarly, a few department store managers and factory owners have awakened to the fact that it is the part of intelligence to recognize that

( 27) people are factors in their problem and that ignoring the human side will bring its own revenge in failure to solve their own problem of economic efficiency in the management of their business. The social con-tent is constantly bobbing up and making trouble. Employers are beginning to realize that to overcome these conflicts they must understand the point of view of their workers and try to get the workers to understand theirs, to make their relationship human as well as commercial.

A similar conflict is in progress between the form of the family, which is still feudal and individualistic, and the content, which is as widely social as society itself. Men and women have tried to believe that the family has not changed through the centuries, that it is still the self-centered, self-supporting, well-nigh independent unit of mediŠval times, that within its limits are produced the necessities of life so that the least change in its form would mean death and destruction to its members. The content of the family has always been recognized to be social but there is marked blindness to the actual range of its social relations. They are still conceived of as limited more or less to its immediate members. Just as society has ignored the fact that business has any content but money-making, so it has maintained its belief in the family as a sacred and unchanged institution. As a matter of fact, the family has undergone a complete revolution of all its activities and its center of gravity has been shifted to the factory, the brewery, the bakery, the delicatessen shop, the school, the kindergarten, the department store, the municipal department of health and sanitation, the hospital, the library, the social centers and playgrounds, and dozens of other similar institutions, while the control over the activities represented has likewise departed to the outer world. Far from being an independent unit, the family exists by virtue of its relations to these social organizations, it is formed by them and in turn reacts upon them, but the cry of "heresy," "sacrilege," goes up whenever anyone suggests that an intelligent appreciation of the change in the content of the family might result in a more suitable form since no amount of superstitious worship is going to restore the mediŠval situation.

Just what, then, is to be expected in the case of the average woman whose only recognized environment is the home? Logically, she must be the kind of self that answers to the form of the family. Just in so far as society has been able to preserve the feudal family, it has also succeeded in preserving the feudal woman and until within the last few years all women have been theoretically of the feudal type. The feudal lady was the center of activity in her household which included

( 28) a small community. She was the great producer and knew personally every handmaid, farmer, herd boy, or retainer who assisted her in keeping her family clothed, housed, and fed. Her personality was organized on the basis of all these relationships, none of which were abstract or impersonal, even though they were not yet reflectively conscious. As far as they went these connections were all real and effective. She responded actively to all of them just because they lay within her control. She was mistress of the situation, a working part of the social scheme in which she found herself.

How does she compare with the modern woman in the home? There is supposed to be no difference except that producing is replaced by consuming. But just this change makes the fundamental difference of connecting the modern woman with a new world of production, increasing her relationship to outside institutions, infinitely, and at the same time depriving her of any effective control over her own actions. How can an individual woman exert any essential control over consumption while production is in the power of a huge system managed collectively?[2] It is useless to ask women to try to express themselves through their work as consumers so long as they stand alone outside the system in which production takes place and without the technique through which it is controlled.

It is the same with all of the woman's interests. She may satisfy the emotional side in love for her family, but that love will not find any complete, active, and intelligent expression except as she is enabled to exert an influence through organized society. Just the fact that she loves her husband and children will give her as an individual no measure of control over the environment that surrounds them. The home is no longer individualistic and the control over its interests is no longer within the power of the individualistic woman. Unless she becomes an active member of the larger social order and adopts its socialized technique, she must be content to be battered this way and that by social forces which are external to her.

In terms of self-consciousness, the woman, like the man, is not as large as the situation in which she acts, or exists passively. The relations of the family to the larger social institutions are accepted in a perfectly abstract way. No work that she could take up outside the home would be more impersonal so far as recognized social content is concerned than her occupation as consumer. She treats it as purely economic, oblivious of the part played by human beings at the other end of

( 29) the transaction. She is buying for her family and in that sense what she does has meaning for her, but she is quite unaware that her act is social also in its effect on the producer, the middleman, and other consumers. Even so the factory girl finds her work social in the sense that it helps to keep her family together in comfort. She works for them, but she has no idea that her work has any other social value. It is just business.

The woman in the home, then, as well as the man in the world, has not a conscious self built up with reference to all the social relations by which she is affected and through which she in turn affects society. The chief difference is that the man does have some control since he has learned the power of organization and co÷peration and can express himself through the ballot, whereas the woman, even if she were to become socially conscious, would be at the mercy of the machine until she had acquired modern methods of expression.

On the formal side, the woman lacks social technique; on the content side, she lacks a socialized self. Neither is effective without the other, as man has proved in using a social technique which did not develop out of a social self. In relation to her immediate family, the woman's attitude is social but not widely social enough to correspond to the methods she would have to use if that attitude gained a socialized expression; that is, in order to make effective her plans for her own children, she would have to combine with other people and socialize her ends so as to include the welfare of their children. Her self would necessarily be such as to respond to the interests of all children, to under-stand the attitude of all fathers and mothers. If she adopted the social technique only and used just enough of her understanding of other people's motives to bring about purely selfish ends, instead of working for an end which really represented the interests of all concerned, she would have ignored a vital element in her problem and sooner or later the solution which she had made for herself would break down.

On the other hand, with regard to her economic relations to society, she has neither effective social technique nor social consciousness of any kind. There is nothing in her business dealings with store or factory to call out instinctive social attitudes, to awaken her conscience or restrain her egoism. When she patronizes the bargain counter or the cut-rate butcher, she does not realize that what seems to her purely an advantageous business transaction is a social affair; that her acts are affecting other people and will in turn react upon herself and family. She feels no responsibility for the trust or the sweatshop, and as an isolated individual she is not responsible since she is not free and has no power to change conditions.

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It is this last point which shows us why the modern woman is in worse straits than the modern man. The woman because she is allowed to remain passive, because she has no part in the system through which some control is possible, develops no sense of responsibility for any of the results which accrue. She takes good and bad with the same absence of any positive grip on the situation. She may avail herself in a small selfish way of any advantages which the system brings, but she makes no attempt to exploit these seemingly abstract relations on a large scale for her own gain as men do. Passivity is the keynote of her existence because society has striven to keep the form of the home and the woman in it as they were in the Middle Ages even after the transformation that came with the industrial revolution.

The woman can never become a full-fledged, rational human being, nor can she be held responsible for any of the conditions in modern life until society ceases to consider it essential to womanliness that she receive passively the impact of all the currents of present-day organized existence. As long as woman has no part in directing the forces which determine the family, herself, the least detail of her domestic life, society is retaining the lady of chivalry at the expense of conscious motherhood and is encouraging the immediate impulsive reactions of the simple situation at the price of deliberate reflection and social consciousness which alone are effective under the complex conditions of today. Just as the great labor movement is trying to bring the laborer to consciousness of his needs and possibilities, and society to awareness of the advantage of conscious labor, so the woman movement has before it a two-fold task: first, to make women conscious of their relations to a social order, second, to show society its need of conscious womanhood.


Woman's position today is more difficult than man's because she is peculiarly involved in a double conflict: first, the conflict of the smaller self with the enlarged social environment, second, the conflict of the methods, standards, values of the medieval world, preserved particularly through the woman and the home, with the methods, standards, and values dominating the modern world and the man within it. He cannot live in the world his new economic organization has created and maintain actively the attitudes of the medieval system, but he likes to think these are still kept alive in woman and the home just as he likes to preserve different species of animals which are becoming extinct under civilization. The difficulties begin when his industrial system will

( 31) not allow women to remain in the home and they are forced to attempt the task which the man has long since abandoned of reconciling the two sets of attitudes, since there is no class to whose shoulders they can shift the task of keeping alive the traditions of the older world.

The first of these conflicts as the fundamental one in which men and women are equally involved is less likely to be recognized for what it is although it supplies, in the writer's opinion, the final justification of the woman movement as well as of socialism; but the second conflict is so obvious and so disastrous in its results, the standards and methods of the Middle Ages are so evidently incompatible with the standards and methods of the modern world, that it is usually the one seized upon by feminists as the ground of the need of the woman movement and is likewise the one picked out by anti-feminists as the basis for most of the opposition. It really amounts to this, that the woman movement is opposed on the same ground that is used to check every change in the social order—loss of values. People are afraid to let their values be tampered with, and, in this case, having identified women from the beginning of time with sex and family, they dread, in any alteration in the family or the woman's activities within it, the possible injury to contents which are of supreme worth to humanity. This is only right and wise as a measure of protection against sudden changes that tend to let drop values too precious to be lost, and any theories which the woman movement advances will have to meet that test, will have to make clear that what they propose will either increase human values or at least not sacrifice any of them.

The resistance and prejudice which the most necessary and beneficial alterations in the established form of society have to meet is, however, largely instinctive and irrational and is merely part of the general difficulty which attends the personal as contrasted with the nonpersonal problem. A question involving personal relations is so much less objective, so hard to isolate because of the manifold elements that enter into it, so difficult to subject to the test of experiment, so bound up with the emotions and the very innermost core of the self, that only a highly developed form of consciousness can hope to hold the personal problem away from itself long enough to subject it to analysis and objective consideration as it long ago succeeded in treating the nonpersonal problems of the physical world. The social sciences, then, in the very nature of their subject matter would be expected to lag behind the physical sciences in coming to consciousness of their methods and in getting control of their material, particularly in cases where the central

( 32) problem of sex, the most complex and intimate of all, is concerned; while the natural tendency of the human mind to identify form with value and to attribute to the unchanged form the very possibility of the continued existence of value would show itself peculiarly stubborn with regard to woman bound up as she is with the sex life. There is a curious paradox in the fact that human beings who believe firmly in the evolution of physical forms cling instinctively to the notion of a given social form as something which must remain fixed since its persistence is the only tangible evidence that the value it represents is being maintained. Worth, satisfaction, is not seen or touched, but only felt. How, then, shall one be sure it will not escape unless the forms in which it lodges be kept intact? However, neither the system of the philosopher nor the fears of the plain man can make a static world out of one whose essence is change. In looking back we are continually reminded of forms that once seemed essential to satisfaction but have long since been replaced by new forms better suited to the growing content, answering to the old, yet embodying new and richer values. We can also point out instances where society clung to the form after the content which possessed the value had slipped away, lost temporarily or persisting in unacknowledged forms under other names. The Greeks had such an experience when in their zeal to safeguard the joys of the hearth and the ancient purity of woman, they so isolated and dwarfed her that she failed to be interesting to her cultured husband. He was no longer able to find joy or satisfaction in the marital relationship. The Greek lady had ceased to be the kind of person who could charm him and he satisfied his desires in the brilliant prostitution or the roman-tic attachments to young men which characterized the most flourishing period of Greek civilization. Normal sex values disappeared temporarily to a considerable extent because of insistence on a particular form which destroyed instead of preserving the relation which was the real source of value. Similarly, the emphasis of the church on the marriage ceremony as the one form through which the relations between the sexes can be expressed, has tended to create the feeling that the form of marriage is the essential factor and sufficient in itself to insure the worth of the content. So convinced are many people of the inherent value of the form of marriage that they even desire laws to prevent the dissolution of a marriage which has lost all the content that made it sacred or beautiful to the man and woman concerned. Even the worth of a child is not clearly differentiated from the form of connection existing between its parents, as is apparent in the efforts required to get recognition and protection for illegitimate children.

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Thus human nature holds fast to the old and tried forms and is destined to see good more clearly in the past than in the future. There bas never been a Golden Age in the Now and Here, and the Good we have let slip could be recovered only if we were to go back to the ancient forms that held it. Hence we find a Rousseau urging a return to a state of nature whose simplicity will bring back the purity, the sincerity, and the primitive worth of human relations.

Likewise, the modern world, struggling to keep what was most precious in the Middle Ages, has tried to make women and the home the vehicle by which to carry over into the present the chivalry of men, the piety, industry, and self-sacrifice of women, the unity of the family, which were enjoyed under the forms of the feudal period. The alteration in industry that came with machinery and the factory system annihilated all obvious social content that had been part and parcel of life in the guild and in the household system. This new form looked very bare and impersonal, stripped, as it seemed, of all but economic interests. Even the work had less in it for the individual workman, when, instead of producing a whole article, he made only a smallpart of it. Government, too, when contrasted with the bonds of personal loyalty and the sense of protection and responsibility that held between lords and retainers, kings and knights, was a cold affair, little fitted to kindle the warm emotional response that is given to a person to whom one owes allegiance. With the overthrow of the great medieval church much that was rich and concrete and personal, much of color and glow died out. Protestantism was a bit stern and colorless, although it symbolized a principle of ultimate worth to the free individual. With so much that had made life full and beautiful slipping away, it is small wonder that the world held fast to the lady of chivalry and the mistress of the household.

There is a belief that by keeping the home as nearly as possible in its isolated individualistic form and holding the woman within it to go through the motions of her ancient activities, the values of the feudal family and the virtues of feudal womanhood will be maintained uncorrupted by the world outside. Women, in response to this demand, have striven valiantly to make themselves exponents of all the virtues that humanity feared to lose and of which they were popularly supposed to be the carriers. But since a virtue is only a name for an efficient and approved way of acting in a given social environment and since the virtues required of women were ways of behaving in a feudal situation, the result has been that women have retained them only as ab-

( 34) -stractions. Virtue has its being in action, yet no effective action is possible when one is confined to certain set forms which have no organic relation to the conditions under which action must take place. One cannot act virtuously while ignoring all the factors that make up the background of the action, for one's act will then be entirely irrelevant. No virtue in woman excited so much praise as her industry, particularly her gifts as a spinner and weaver of cloth; but if industry means something more than just being busy, if it means intelligent, useful occupation, then it is vain to expect the modern woman to be industrious as the feudal woman was within the limits of her home. The woman who tries to fill her time with just the housework that is left to the modern home is too often manufacturing work that were better left undone and is certainly wasting time and getting indifferent results when compared with the skilled and expert work that is done under the methods of specialization and organization used by men.

Charity is another of the ancient virtues of women which is today the bane of the scientific social worker. The woman who wishes to be truly charitable will have to go out of her home and her private life either to make a study of conditions herself or to join the organizations which are making such a study. Chastity, too, has become an empty form now that we have become conscious of the social responsibility for prostitution. No woman can possess chastity as an active quality who is not informed on the facts of sex and helping to give other women and all children the chance to retain their purity.

What has been asked of women for the last century is that they in some fashion embody virtues which are nothing but abstract universals. Woman must either be virtueless because she is forced to be negative and therefore positively injurious to society, or she must be not only permitted but aided and encouraged to work out in new forms effective and approved ways of acting with reference to the actual situation in which she finds herself, forms which will possess a real content to be valued. What women must seek if they are to fulfil the spirit of society's demands is selves that respond to the social values in the seemingly impersonal relations of the home to the wider community just as they have responded in the past to the more limited social values of the feudal household. In the reflectively conscious woman, men will find not only the content they feared to lose but an infinitely enriched content; new values not experienced before; the same woman but with a larger, sweeter self, more charitable, more understanding, just because she is able to represent sympathetically the interests of so many more people, just

( 35) because she is an active center of so many more vital relations, just be-cause she is mother to all humanity and her power to love and protect is infinitely enlarged since her self is now as large as her world.

The continued existence of the values centering in women and the family depend, therefore, first, on an adjustment of the external conditions, a change in the form of the home and in the methods of the industrial world such that the man and the woman may pass freely from the one to the other without such violent changes of attitude as to disrupt the harmony of the self and render the personality necessarily inconsistent, but ultimately and essentially, on the passing of women from the individualistic family self to the self that corresponds to this wider, more complex society of which it must form a more or less conscious and active part. The degree of social consciousness which humanity shall be able to attain depends directly on the number of individuals who succeed in becoming conscious of the full meaning of all their social relations, who recognize to the full their dependence on a social situation for the form of self they develop, and who increasingly multiply the number of social attitudes or selves which they are capable of maintaining towards these complex relationships. When a majority of the members of a society become thus socially conscious, we shall have conditions favorable for the control of social problems since all the elements involved will be explicitly present in the consciousness of the majority of individuals. But this stage of social development can never be reached as long as any large class of people, such as its women, are permitted, encouraged, or forced to exist in an unreal world wilfully maintained for that purpose. Nor will the selves of men, in so far as they are formed by their relations to women, ever reach the full possibilities of selfhood while women remain only partially self-conscious.


  1. G. H. Mead, Lectures. (Unpublished.)
  2. Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery, chap. iv.

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