Disturbing Conventions, October 7, 1916

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By Jane Addams

IN sharp contrast to the function of memory as a reconciler to life, are those individual reminiscences which, because they force the possessor to challenge existing conventions, act as a reproach, even as a social disturber. When these reminiscences, founded upon the diverse experience of many people unknown to each other, point to one inevitable conclusion, they accumulate into a social protest, although not necessarily an effective one, against existing conventions, even against those which are most valuable and are securely founded upon cumulative human experience. But because no conventionalized tradition is perfect, however good its intent, most of them become challenged in course of time, unwittingly illustrating the contention that great social changes are often brought about less by the thinkers than by "a certain native and independent rationalism operating in great masses of men and women."

The statement is well founded that a convention is at its best, not when it is universally accepted, but just when it is being so challenged and broken that the conformists are obliged to defend it. Both the defenders of an old custom and its opponents are then driven to a searching of their own hearts.

Such searching and sifting is taking place in the consciences of many women of this generation whose sufferings, although strikingly influencing conduct, are seldom expressed in words until they are told in the form of reminiscence after the edges have been long since dulled. Such sufferings are never so poignant as when women have been forced by their personal experiences to challenge the valuable conventions safeguarding family life.

A WOMAN whom I had known slightly for many years made an appointment with me one day and came to Hull House escorted by her little grandson. Her delicate features, which were rather hard and severe, softened most charmingly as the little boy raised his cap in [goodbye] from the vanishing automobile. In reply to my admiring comment upon the sturdy lad and his affectionate relation to her, she began the interview by saying abruptly: "You know he is really not my grandson. I have scarcely admitted the doubt but the time is coming when I must face it and decide his future. If you are kind enough to listen I want to tell you my experience in all its grim sorrow.

"My husband was shot twenty-seven years ago, under very disgraceful circumstances, in a disreputable quarter of Paris. You may remember something of it in the newspapers, although they meant to be considerate. I was left with my little son and with such a horror of self-indulgence and its consequences that I determined to rear my child in strict sobriety, chastity and self-restraint, although all else was sacrificed to it. Through his school and college days, which I took care should be far from his father's friends and associations, I always lived with him, so bent on rectitude and so distressed by any lack of self-control that I see now how hard and rigorous his life must have been. I meant to sacrifice myself for my child; in reality I sacrificed him to my narrow code.

"The very June that he took his master's degree, I myself found him one beautiful morning lying dead in his own room, shot through the temple. No one had heard the report of the revolver, for the little house we had taken was so on the edge of the college town that the neighbors were rather remote, and it must have occurred while I sat alone in the moonlight on the garden bench after he had left me, my mind still filled with plans for his future.

"I have gone over every word of our conversation that evening in the garden a thousand times. We were planning to come to Chicago for his medical course, and I had expressed my exultant confidence in him to withstand whatever temptation a city might offer, my pride in his purity of thought, his rectitude of conduct. It was then he rose rather abruptly and went into the house to write the letter to me which I found on his table next morning.

"In that letter he told me that he was too vile to live any longer, that he had sinned not only against his own code of decency and honor, but against my lifelong standards and teachings, and that he realized perfectly that I could never forgive him. He evidently did not expect any understanding from me, either for himself or for 'the young and innocent girl' about to become the mother of his child; and in his interpretation of my rigid morals he [page 2] was quite sure that I would never consent to see her, but he wrote me that he had told her to send the little thing to me as soon as it was born, obviously hoping that I might be tender to the innocent although I was so harsh and unpitying to the guilty. I had apparently never given him a glimpse beyond my unbending sternness, and he had all unwittingly pronounced me too self-righteous for forgiveness; at any rate, he faced death rather than my cold disapprobation.

"The girl is still leading the life she had led for two years before my son met her. She is glad to have her child cared for and hopes that I will make him my heir, but understands, of course, that his paternity could never be established in court. So here I am, old and hard, beginning again the perilous experiment of rearing a man child.

"I suppose it was inevitable that I should hold the girl responsible for my son's downfall and his death. She was one of the wretched young women who live in college towns for the express purpose of inveigling young men, and often deliberately direct their efforts toward those who are reputed to have money. I discovered all sorts of damaging facts about her, which enabled me to exonerate my son from intentional wrong-doing, and to think quite honestly that he had been lured and tempted beyond his strength.

"The girl was obliged to leave the little town, which was filled with the horror and scandal of the occurrence, but even then, in that first unbridled public censure against the 'bad woman' who has been discovered in the midst of virtuous surroundings, there was a tendency to hold me accountable for my son's death, whatever the girl's earlier responsibility may have been. In my loathing for her I experienced all over again the harsh and bitter judgments through which I had lived in the first years after my husband's death. I had secretly held the unknown woman responsible for his end, but of course it never occurred to me to find out about her, and I certainly could never have brought myself to hear her name, much less to see her. I have at least been better than that in regard to the mother of my 'grandson' and Heaven knows I have tried in all humility and heartbreak to help her.

"She fairly hated me, as she did anything that reminded her of my son -- the entire episode had seemed to her so unnatural, so monstrous, so unnecessary -- she considered me his murderer, and I never had the courage to tell her that I agreed with her. Perhaps if I had done that, really abased myself as I was willing she should be abased, we might have come into some sort of genuine relation born of our companionship in tragedy. But I couldn't do that, possibly because the women of my generation cannot easily change from the traditional attitude towards what the bible calls 'the harlot'. At any rate, I didn't succeed in 'saving' her. She so obviously dreaded seeing me, and our strained visits were so unsatisfactory and painful, that I finally gave it up and her son has apparently quite forgotten her. I am sure she tries to forget him and all the tragic scenes associated with his earliest babyhood, when I insisted not only on 'keeping mother and child together' but also in keeping them with me."

After a moment's pause she resumed: "It would have been comparatively easy for me to die when my child was little, when I still had a right to believe that he would grow up to be a good and useful man, but I lived to see him driven to his death by my own stupidity. I have encountered the full penalty for breaking the commandment to judge not. I passed sentence without hearing the evidence; I gave up the traditional role of the woman who loves and pities and tries to understand; I forgot that it was my mission to save and not to judge.

"As I have gone back over my unmitigated failure again and again, I am sure at last that it was the sorry result of my implacable judgment of the woman I held responsible for my husband's sin. I did not realize the danger nor the inevitable recoil of such a state of self-righteousness upon my child."

AS she paused in the recital I rashly anticipated the conclusion, that her bitter experiences had brought the whole question to that tribunal of personal conduct whose concrete findings stir us to our very marrow with shame and remorse; that she had frantically striven, as we all do, to keep herself from falling into the pit where the demons of self-reproach dwell, by clinging to the conventional judgments of the world. I expected her to set them forth at great length in self-justification and perhaps, belonging as she so obviously did, to an older school, she might even assure me that the wrong to those to whom it was now impossible to make reparation, had forever lifted her above committing another such injustice.

I found, however, that I was absolutely mistaken and that whatever might be true of her, it still lay within me to commit a gross injustice, when she resumed with these words: "It is a long time since I ceased to urge in my own defense that I was but reflecting the attitude of society, for, in my efforts to get at the root of the matter I have been convinced that the conventional attitude cannot be defended, certainly not upon religious grounds."

She stopped as if startled by her own reflections upon the subject of the social ostracism so long established and so harshly enforced, that women seem held to it as through an instinct of self-preservation.

She was, perhaps, dimly conscious that the tradition that the unchaste woman should be an outcast from society rests upon a solid basis of experience, upon the long struggle of a multitude of obscure women who, from one generation to another, were frantically determined to establish the paternity of their children and to force the father to a recognition of his obligations; and that the living representatives of these women instinctively rise up in honest rebellion against any attempt to loosen the social control which such efforts have established, bungling and cruel though such control may be.

Further conversation showed that she also realized that these stern memories inherited from the remote past have an undoubted social value and that it is a perilous undertaking upon which certain women of this generation are bent in their efforts to deal a belated justice to the fallen woman. It involves a clash within the very mass of inherited motives and impulses as well as a clash between old conventions and contemporary principles. On the other hand, it must have been obvious to her in her long effort to get at "the root of the matter" that the punishment and hatred of the bad woman has gone so far as to overreach its own purpose; it has become responsible for such hardness of heart on the part of "respectable" women towards the [so-called] "fallen" ones, that punishment is often inflicted not only without regard to justice, but in order to feed the spiritual pride, "I am holier than thou". Such pride erects veritable barricades across the path of human progress, deliberately shutting out sympathetic understanding.

The very fact that women remain closer to type than [page 3] men do and are more swayed by the past, makes it difficult for them to defy settled conventions. It adds to their difficulty that the individual women, driven to modify a harsh convention which has become unendurable to them, are perforce those most sensitive to injustice. The sharp struggle for social advance, which is always a struggle between ideas long before it becomes embodied in contending social groups, may thus find its arena in the tender conscience of one woman who is pitilessly rent and pierced by her warring scruples and affections. Even such a tentative effort in the direction of social advance exacts the usual toll of blood and tears.

FORTUNATELY the entire burden of the attempt to modify a convention which has become unsupportable, by no means rests solely upon such conscientious women. Their analytical efforts are steadily supplemented by instinctive conduct on the part of many others. A great mass of "variation from type" accelerating this social change, is contributed by simple mothers who have been impelled by a very primitive emotion. This is an overwhelming pity and sense of tender comprehension, doubtless closely related to the compunction characteristic of all [primitive] people which, in the earliest stages of social development, long performed the first rude offices of a sense of justice. This early trait is still a factor in the social struggle, for as has often been pointed out, our social state is like a countryside of a complex geological structure with outcrops of strata of very diverse ages.

Such compunction sometimes carries the grandmother of an illegitimate child to the point of caring for the child when she is still utterly unable to forgive her daughter, the child's mother. Even that is a step in advance from the time when such a daughter was driven from the house and her child, because a bastard, conscientiously treated as an outcast both by the family and by the community.

SUCH an instance of compunction was recently brought to my attention when Hull House made an effort to place a subnormal little girl twelve years old in an institution in order that she might be protected from certain designing men in the neighborhood. The grandmother, who had always taken care of her, savagely opposed the effort step by step. She had scrubbed the lavatories in a public building during the twenty-five years of her widowhood, and because she worked all day had been unable to protect her own feebleminded daughter who, when she was barely fifteen years old, had become the mother of this child. When her granddaughter was finally placed in the institution, the old woman was absolutely desolated. She found it almost impossible to return home after her day's work because "it was too empty and lonesome, and nothing to come back for. You see," she explained, "my youngest boy wasn't right in his head either, and kept his bed for the last fifteen years of his life. During all that time I took care of him the way one does of a baby, and I hurried home every night with my heart in my mouth until I saw that he was all right. He died the year this little girl was born and she kind of took his place. I kept her in a day nursery while she was little, and when she was seven years old the ladies there sent her to school in one of the subnormal rooms and let her come back to the nursery for her meals. I thought she was getting along all right and I took care never to let her go near her mother."

The old woman made it quite clear that, because her daughter was keeping house with a man to whom she was not married, she seldom went to see her. In her simple code, to go to such a house would be to connive at sin, while she was grateful that the man had established a control over her daughter which she had never been able to obtain. She always referred to her daughter as "fallen", although no one knew better than she how unguarded the girl had been.

As I saw how singularly free this mother was from self-reproach and how untouched by indecisions and remorses for the past, I was once more [impressed] by the stout habits acquired by those who early become accustomed to fight off black despair. Such habits stand them in good stead in their old age, and at least protect them from those pensive regrets and inconsolable sorrows which inevitably tend to surround whatever has once made for early happiness as soon as it has ceased to exist.

Many individual instances are found in which a woman hard pressed by life, includes within her tenderness the mother of an illegitimate child. A most striking example of this came to me through a woman whom I [knew] years ago as she daily brought her three children to the Hull House day nursery, obliged to support them by her work in a neighboring laundry because her husband had deserted her. I recall her fatuous smile as she used to say that "Tommy is so pleased to see me at night that I can hear him shout 'Hello, ma' when I am a block away." I had known Tommy through many years, periods of adversity when his father was away and succeeding periods of fitful prosperity when his father returned from his wanderings with the circus with which "he could always find work" because he had once been a successful acrobat and later a clown, and "so could turn his hand to anything that was needed."

Perhaps it was inevitable that Tommy should have made his best friends among the warm-hearted circus people who were very kind to him after his father's death, and that long before the child labor law permitted him to sing in Chicago saloons, he was doing a successful business singing in the towns of a neighboring state. He was a droll little chap, "without any sense about taking care of himself," and in those days his mother not only missed his cheerful companionship, but was constantly anxious about this health and morals. After he grew older and became a professional he sent his mother money occasionally, although never very much and never with any regularity; but she was always so pleased when it came that the two daughters supporting her with their steady wages were inclined to resent her obvious gratification, as they did the killing of the fatted calf on those rare occasions when the prodigal returned "between seasons" to visit his family.

It is possible that his mother thus early acquired the habit of defending him, the black sheep, against the strictures of the good children, who so easily become the self-righteous when they feel "put-upon". However that may be, five years ago, after one daughter had been married to a skilled mechanic and the other, advanced to the position of a forewoman, was supporting her mother in the comparative idleness of keeping house for two in three rooms, a forlorn girl appeared with a note from Tommy, asking his mother "to help her out until the kid came and she could work again."

The steady daughter would not permit "such a girl to cross the threshold" and the little household was finally broken up upon the issue. The daughter went to live with her married sister while the mother, having moved into [page 4] one room with "Tommy's girl," went back to the laundry in order to support herself and her guest.

The daughters, having impressively told their mother that she could come to live with them whenever she "was willing to come alone" dropped the entire situation. In doing this, they were doubtless instinctively responding to a habit acquired through years of "keeping clear of the queer people father knew in the circus and the saloon, crowds always hanging around Tommy," in their secret hope to come to know respectable young men. Conscious that they had back of them the opinion of all righteous people, they could not understand why their mother, for the sake of a bad girl, had deserted them in this praiseworthy effort in which hitherto she had been the prime mover.

Tommy had sent his "girl" to his mother on the eve of his departure for "a grand tour to the Klondike region" and since then, almost four years ago, she has heard nothing further from him. During the first half of the time the two women struggled on together as best they could, supporting themselves and the child, who was brought daily to the nursery by his grandmother. But the pretty little mother, gradually going back to her old occupation of dancing in the vaudeville, had more and more out-of-town engagements, and while she always divided her earnings with the baby, the grandmother suspected her of losing interest in him, a situation which was finally explained when she confessed that she was about to be married to a cabaret manager who "knew nothing of her past," and to beg that the baby might stay where he was. "Of course, I will pay board for him, but his father can be made to do something, too, if we can only get the law on him."

IT was at this point that I had the following conversation with the grandmother, who was shrewd enough to see that the support of the baby was being left upon her hands, and that she could expect no help from wither his father or mother, although she stoutly refused the advice that the whole matter be taken into the Court of Domestic Relations.

"If I could only see Tommy once I think I could get him to help, but I can't find out where he is, and he may not be alive for all I know; he was always that careless about himself. If he put on a new red necktie he'd never know if his bare toes were pushing out of his shoes. He probably didn't get proper clothes for 'the Klondike region' and he may have been frozen to death before this. But whatever has happened to him, I can't let his baby go. I suppose I've learned to think differently about some things after all my years of living with a light-minded husband. Maggie came to see me last week, for she means to be a good daughter. She said that Carrie and Joe were buying a house way out on the West Side, that they were going to move into it this month, and that she and I could have a nice big room together. She said, too, that Carrie would charge only half-rate board for me, and would be glad to have my help with the little children, for they both think that nobody has such a way with children as I have. The night before, when she and Carrie were playing with the little boy, they remembered some of the funny songs father used to teach Tommy, and how jolly we all were when he came home good-natured and would stand on his head to make the candy fall out of his pockets.

"I know that the two girls really want me to come back, and that they are often homesick, but when I pointed to the bed where the baby was and asked, 'What about him?' Maggie turned as hard as nails and said as quick as a flash, 'We're all agreed that you'll have to put him in an institution. We'll never have any chance with the nice people in a swell neighborhood like ours if you bring the baby.' She looked real white then, and I felt sorry for her when she said, 'Why, they might even think he was my child, you never can tell,' although she was ashamed of that afterwards and cried a little before she left.

"She told me that she and Carrie, when they were children, were always talking of what they would do when they got old enough to work; how they would take care of me and move to a part of the city where nobody would know anything about the outlandish way their father and Tommy used to carry on. Of course, it was almost telling me that they didn't want me to come to see them if I kept the baby."

My old friend was quite unable to formulate the motives which underlay her determination, but she implied that clinging to this helpless child was part of her unwavering affection for her son when, without any preamble, she concluded the conversation with the remark, "It's the way I always felt about him," as if further explanation were unnecessary.

Was it all a manifestation of Nature's anxious care -- so determined upon survival and so indifferent to morals -- that had induced her long devotion to her one child least equipped to take care of himself; and for the same reason had the helpless little creature whose existence no one else was deeply concerned to preserve, become so entwined in her affections that separation was impossible?

FROM time to time a mother goes further than this, she fairly "drags memory aloft" with her in her determination to deal justly with the unhappy situation in which her daughter is placed. When the mother of a so-called "fallen" girl is of that type of respectability which is securely founded upon narrow precepts inherited through generations of careful living, it requires genuine courage to ignore the social stigma in order to consider only the moral development of her child, although the result of such courage doubtless minimizes the chagrin and disgrace for the girl herself.

In one such instance the parents of the girl, who had been prevented from marrying her lover because the families on both sides objected to differences of religion, have openly faced the situation and made the baby a beloved member of the household. The pretty young mother arrogates to herself a hint of martyrdom for her faith's sake, but the discipline and responsibility are working wonders for her character. In her hope of earning money enough for two she has been stirred to new ambition, and is eagerly attending a business college. She suffers a certain amount of social ostracism, but at the same time her steady courage excites genuine admiration.

In another case a fearless mother exacts seven dollars a week in payment of the board for her daughter and the baby, although the girl earns but eight dollars a week in a cigar factory and buys such clothing for two as she can with the remaining dollar. She admits that it is "hard sledding," but that the baby is "mighty nice". Whatever her state of mind, she evidently has no notion of rebelling against her mother's authority, and is humbly grateful that she was not turned out-of-doors when the situation was discovered. It is possible that her mother's remorse at her failure to guard her daughter from wrong-doing enables her thus grimly to defy social standards which, although [page 5] they are based upon stern and narrow tenets, nevertheless epitomize the bitter wisdom of generations. Such mothers, overcoming that timidity which makes it so difficult to effect changes in daily living, make a genuine contribution to the solution of the vexed problem.

IN spite of much obtuseness on the part of those bound by the iron fetters of convention, these individual cases suggest a practical method of procedure. For quite as pity and fierce maternal affection for their own children, drove mothers all over the world to ostracize and cruelly punish the "bad woman" who would destroy the home by taking away the breadwinner and the father, so it is possible that, under the changed conditions of modern life, this same pity for little children, this same concert that, even if they are the children of the outcast, they must still be nourished and properly reared, will make good the former wrongs. There has certainly been a great modification of the harsh judgments meted out in such cases as women all over the world have endeavored, through the old bungling method of trial and error, to deal justly with individual situations.

Each case has been quietly judged by reference to an altered moral standard, for while the ethical code as well as the legal code needs constant revision, the revision is always privately tacit and informal in marked contrast to the public and ceremonious acts of legislators and judges when the former is charged.

Such measure of success as the organized woman's movements have attained in this direction, has come through an overwhelming desire to cherish both the illegitimate child and his unfortunate mother. In addition to that, the widespread effort of modern women to obtain a recognized legal status for themselves and their own children, has also been largely dependent upon it, at least in the beginnings of the movement.

Women slowly had discovered that the severe attitude towards the harlot had not only become embodied in the statutory law concerning her, as thousands of court decisions every day bear testimony, but had become registered in the laws and social customs pertaining to good women as well; the Code Napoleon, which prohibited that search be made for the father of an illegitimate child, also denied the custody of her children to the married mother; those same states in which the laws considered a little girl of ten years the seducer of a man of well-known immorality, did not allow a married woman to hold her own property nor to retain her own wages.

The enthusiasm responsible for the world wide woman's movement was generated in the revolt against such gross injustices. The most satisfactory achievements of the movements have been secured in the Scandinavian countries where the splendid code of laws protecting all women and children have apparently been founded on the instinct to defend the weakest, and upon a determination to lighten that social opprobrium which makes it so unreasonably difficult for a mother to support a child born out of wedlock. In Germany, where the presence of over a million illegitimate children under the age of fourteen years made the situation acute, the best women of the nation, asserting that all the attempts to deal out social punishment upon the mothers resulted only in a multitude of ill-nourished and weakened children, founded the Mutterschutz movement which, through its efforts to secure justice and protection for these mothers, has come to be the great defender of the legal rights for all German women.

In this contemporary modification of an age-old tradition there are also evidences of that new chivalry of women for each other, expressing protection for those at the bottom of society. It suggests a return to that idealized version of chivalry which was the consecration of strength to the defense of weakness, unlike the actual chivalry of the armed knight who served his lady with gentle courtesy while his fields were ploughed by peasant women misshapen through toil and hunger. There are many examples of this new chivalry such as the recent protest of the best women of Hungary who rose in protest against a proposed military regulation requiring that young women in domestic service who are living in the vicinity of barracks be examined each week by a medical officer in order to protect the soldiers from disease. The women spiritedly resented the assumption that these girls simply because they are the least protected of any class in the community, should be subjected to this insult. An incident of this sort once again illustrates that moral passion is the only solvent for prejudice, and that women have come to feel reproached and disturbed when they ignore the dynamic urgency of memories as fundamental as those upon which prohibitive conventions are based.

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