War Times Challenging Woman's Traditions

By Jane Addams
Hull-House, Chicago

[The Survey; August 5, 1916]

I was sharply reminded of an obvious division between high tradition and current conscience in several conversations I held during the great European war with women who had sent their sons to the front in unquestioning obedience to the demands of the state, but who, owing to their own experiences, had found themselves in the midst of that ever-recurring struggle, often tragic and bitter between two conceptions of duty, one of which is antagonistic to the other.

One such woman* [* The conversation is a composite made from several talks held with each of two women representing both sides of the conflict. Their opinions and observations are merged into one because in so many particulars they were either identical or overlapping. Both women called themselves patriots but each had become convinced of the folly of war.] who had long been identified with the care of delinquent children and had worked for years toward the establishment of a children's court, had asked me many questions concerning the psychopathic clinic in the Juvenile Court in Chicago, comparing it with the brilliant work accomplished in her own city through the cooperation of the university faculty. The national government itself had recently recognized the value of this work and at the outbreak of the war was rapidly developing a system through which the defective child might be discovered early in his school career, and not only be saved from delinquency but such restricted abilities as the possessed might be trained for the most effective use.

"Through all these years," this mother said, "I had grown accustomed to the fact that the government was deeply, concerned in the welfare of the least promising child. I had felt my own efforts so identified with it that I had; unconsciously come to regard government as an agency for nurturing human life and I had apparently forgotten its more primitive functions. I was proud of the fact that my son held a state position as professor of industrial chemistry in the university because I knew that the research in his department would ultimately tend to alleviate the harshness of factory conditions, and to make for the well-being of the working classes in whose children I had become so interested.

"When my son's regiment was mobilized and sent to the front I think that it never occurred to me any more than it did to him to question his duty. His professional training made him a valuable member of the aviation corps, and when in those first weeks of high patriotism his letters reported successful scouting or even devastating raids, I felt only a solemn satisfaction.

"But gradually through the months when always more of the people's food supply and constantly more men were taken by the government for its military purposes, when I saw the state institutions for defectives closed, the schools abridged or dismissed, women and children put to work in factories under hours and conditions which had been prohibited years before, when the very governmental officials who had been so concerned for the welfare of the helpless were bent only upon the destruction of the enemy at whatever cost to their fellow citizens, the state itself gradually became for me an alien and hostile thing.

"In response to the appeal made by the government to the instinct of self-preservation, the men of the nation were ardent and eager to take any possible risks, to suffer every hardship, and were proud to give their lives in their country's service. But was it inevitable, I constantly asked myself, that the great nations of Europe should be reduced to such a primitive appeal? Why should they ignore all the other motives which enter into modern patriotism and are such an integral part of devotion to the state that they must in the end be reckoned with?

"I am sure that I had reached these conclusions before my own tragedy came, before my son was fatally wounded in a scouting aeroplane and his body later thrown overboard into a lonely swamp. It was six weeks before I knew what had happened and it was during that period that I felt most strongly the folly and waste of putting men, trained as my son had been, to the barbaric business of killing."

"This tendency in my thinking may have been due to a hint he had given me in the very last, letter I ever received from him of a change that was taking place within himself. He wrote that whenever he heard the firing of a huge field piece he knew that the explosion consumed years of the taxes which had been slowly accumulated by some hard working farmer or shopkeeper, and that he unconsciously calculated how fast industrial research could have gone forward had his department been given once a decade the costs of a single day of warfare, with the command to turn back into alleviation of the industrial conditions the taxes which the people had paid.

"He regretted that he was so accustomed to analysis that his mind would not let the general situation, alone but wearily went over it again and again, and then he added that this war was tearing down the conception of government which had been so carefully developed during this generation in the minds of the very men who had worked hardest to fulfill that conception.

"Although the letter sounded like a treatise on government, I knew there was a personal pang somewhere behind this somber writing, even though he added his old joking promise that when their fathers were no longer killed in industry he would see what, he could do for my little idiots.

"At the very end of the letter he wrote, and they were doubtless the last words he ever penned, that he felt as if science herself in this mad world had also become cruel and malignant. I learned, later that it was at this time that he had been consulted in the manufacture of asphyxiating gases because the same gases are used in industry, and he had already made experiments to determine their poisonousness in different degrees of dilution. The original investigation with which he had been identified had been carried on that the fumes released in a certain, industrial process might be prevented from injuring the men who worked in the factory.

"I know how hard it must have been for him to put knowledge acquired in his long efforts to protect normal living to the brutal use of killing men. It was literally a forced act of prostitution."

As if to free her son's memory from any charge of lack of patriotism, after a few moments, she continued. "These modern men of science are red-blooded devoted patriots, facing dangers of every sort in mines and factories and leading strenuous lives in spite of the popular conception of the pale anemic scholar, but because they are equally interested in scientific experiments wherever they may be carried on, they inevitably cease to think of national boundaries in connection with their work.

"The international mind which really does exist, in spite of the fact that it is not yet equipped with adequate or organs for international government, has become firmly established at least among scientists. They have known the daily stimulus of a wide, and free range of contacts, they have become inter-penetrated with the human consciousness of fellow scientists all over the world.

"I hope that I am no whining coward. My son gavel his life to his, country as many another brave man has done, but I do envy the mothers whose grief is at least free from this fearful' struggle of opposing ideals and traditions. My old father who is filled with a solemn pride over his grandson's gallant record and death is most impatient with me. I heard him telling a friend the other day that my present state of mind was a pure demonstration of the folly of higher education for women; that it was preposterous and more than human flesh could bear to combine an intellectual question on the function of government with a mother's sharp agony over the death of her child.

"He said he had always contended that women, at least those who bear children, had no business to consider questions of this sort, and that the good sense, of his position was demonstrated now that such women were losing their children in war. It was enough for women to know that governments waged war to protect their firesides and to preserve the nation from annihilation; at any rate, she should keep her mind free from silly attempts to reason it out. It's all Berta von Suttner's book and other nonsense that the women are writing, he exploded at the end."

Then, as if following another line of reminiscence, our conversation continued: "My son left behind him a war bride, for he obeyed the admonition of the statesmen, as well as the commands of the military officers in those hurried heroic days. But the hasty wooing betrayed all his ideals of marriage quite as fighting men of other nations did violence to his notions of patriotism, and as the recklessness of a destructive air raid outraged his long devotion to science. Of course, his child will be a comfort to us, and his poor little bride is filled with a solemn patriotism which never questions any aspect of the situation.

"When she comes to see us and I listen to the interminable talk she has with my father, I am grateful for the comfort they give each other. But when I hear them repeating those hideous stories of the conduct of the enemy which accumulate every month and upon which our so-called patriotism continually feeds, itself, I with difficulty refrain from crying out upon them that he whose courage and devotion they praise so loudly would never have permitted, such, talk of hatred and revenge in his presence; that he who lived in the regions of science and whose intrepid mind was bent upon the conquest of truth, must feel that he had died in vain did he know to what exaggeration and errors the so-called patriotism of my beloved country had stooped.

"I listened to them thinking that if I were either older or younger it would not be so hard for me, quite as have an unreal impression that it would have been easier for my son if the war had occurred in the first flush of his adventurous youth. Eager as he had been to serve his country he would not then have asked whether it could best be accomplished by losing his life in a scouting aeroplane or by dedicating a trained mind to industrial amelioration. He might then easily have preferred the first and he certainly would never have been tormented by doubts. But when he was thirty-one years old and had long known that he was steadily serving his country through careful researches, the results of which would both increase the nation's productivity and protect its humblest citizens, he could not do otherwise than to judge and balance social values. I am, of course, proud of his gallant spirit that did not for a moment regret his decision to die for his country, but I can make the sacrifice seem in character only when I place him back in his early youth.

"At times I feel immeasurably old, and in spite of my father's contention that I am too intellectual, I am consciously dominated by one of those overwhelming impulses belonging to women as such irrespective of their mental training in their revolt against war After all, why should one disregard such imperative instincts. We know perfectly well that the trend of a given period in history has been influenced by 'habits of preference" and by instinctive actions founded upon repeated and unnoticed experiences of an analogous kind; that 'desires to seek and desires to avoid are in themselves the very incalculable material by which the tendencies of an age are modified.

"The women in all the belligerent countries who feel so alike in regard to the horror and human waste of this war, and yet refrain from speaking out, may be putting. into jeopardy the power inherent in human affairs to right themselves through mankind's instinctive shifting toward what the satisfactions recommend and the antagonisms repulse. The expression of such basic impulses in regard to human relationships may be most important in this moment of warfare which is itself a reversion to primitive methods of determining relations between man and man or nation and nation.

"Certainly the women in every country, who are now under a profound imperative to preserve human life, have a right to regard this maternal impulse as important as was the compelling instinct evinced by primitive women, when they made the first crude beginnings of society by refusing to share the vagrant life of man because they insisted upon a fixed abode in which they might cherish their children. Undoubtedly, women were then told that the interests of the tribe, the diminishing food supply, the honor of the chieftain, demanded that they leave their particular caves and go out in "the wind and weather without regard to the survival of their children. But at the present moment the very names of the tribes and of the honors and glories which they defended are forgotten, while the basic fact that the mothers held the lives of their children above all else, insisted the children had a chance to live; and cultivated the earth for their food, laid the foundation of an ordered human society.

"My son used to say jocularly that if I should forget all the science I did not know I should think more clearly. Undoubtedly, I am putting it badly and my scientific knowledge is certainly irregular, but profound experiences, such as we are having in this war throw to the surface of one's mind all sorts of opinions and half-formed conclusions. The care for conventions, for agreement with one's friends, is burned away. One is concerned to express only ultimate conviction even though it may differ from all the rest of the world. This is true in spite of the knowledge that every word will be caught up in an atmosphere of excitement and of that nervous irritability which is always close to grief and to moments of high emotion.

"In the face of many distressing misunderstandings I am nevertheless certain that if a majority of women in every country would clearly express their convictions, they would find that they spoke not for themselves alone but for those men for whom the war has been a laceration, 'an abdication of- the spirit.' Such women would doubtless formulate the scruples of certain soldiers whose 'months are stopped by courage/ men who months ago with closed eyes rushed to the defence of their countries but are now fighting behind a thick wall of certitudes over which they dare not look.

"It may also be true that as the early days of this war fused us all into an overwhelming sense of solidarity until each felt absolutely at one with all his fellow-countrymen, so the sensitiveness to differences is greatly intensified and the dissenting individual has an exaggerated sense of isolation. I try to convince myself that this is the explanation of my abominable sense of loneliness which is almost unendurable.

"I have never been a feminist and have always remained quite unmoved by the talk of the peculiar contribution women might make to the state, but during the last dreadful months, in spite of women's widespread enthusiasm for the war and their patriotic eagerness to make the supreme sacrifice, I have become conscious of an unalterable cleavage between militarism and feminism. The militarists believe that government finally rests upon a basis of physical force, and in a crisis such as this militarism, in spite of the spiritual passion in war, finds its expression in the crudest forms of violence.

"It would be absurd for women even to suggest equal rights in a world governed solely by physical force, and feminism must necessarily assert the ultimate supremacy of moral agencies. Inevitably, the two are in eternal opposition.

"I have always agreed with the feminists that, so far as force plays a great part in the maintenance of an actual social order, it is due to the presence of those elements which are in a steady process of elimination; and, of course, as society progresses the difficulty arising from woman's inferiority in physical strength must become proportionately less. One of the most wretched consequences of war is that it arrests these beneficent social processes and throws every thing back into a coarser mold.

"The fury of war enduring but for a few months or years may destroy slow-growing, social products which it will take a century to recreate—the 'consent of the governed,' for instance.... But why do I talk like this! My father would call it one of my untrained and absurd theories about social progress and the functions of government concerning which I know nothing, and that at any rate I have no right to discuss the latter in this time of desperate struggle. Nevertheless it is better for me in these hideous long days and nights to drive my mind forward even to absurd conclusions than to let it fall into one of those vicious circles in which it goes round and round to no purpose."

In absolute contrast to this sophisticated, possibly over-sophisticated, mother was a simple woman who piteously showed me a piece of shrapnel taken from her son's body by his comrades, which they had brought home to her in a literal-minded attempt at comfort. They had told her that the shrapnel was made in America and she showed it to me believing that I could at sight recognize the manufactured products of my fellow countrymen. She apparently wished to have the statement either confirmed or denied because she was utterly bewildered in her feeling about the United States and all her previous associations with it. In her fresh grief, she was bewildered by a sudden reversal of all her former ideals. Many of her relatives had long ago emigrated to America, including two brothers living in western states whom she had hoped to visit in her old age.

For many reasons, throughout her youth and early womanhood, she had thought of that far-away country as a kindly place where every man was given his chance and where the people were all friendly to each other, irrespective of the land in which they had been born. To have these same American people send back the ammunition which had killed her son was apparently incomprehensible to her. She presented, it seemed to me, a clear case of that humble internationalism which is founded not upon theories,, but upon the widespread immigration of the last fifty years, interlacing nation to nation with a thousand kindly deeds.

Her older brother had a fruit ranch which bordered upon one of those co-operative Italian colonies so successful in California, and he had frequently sent home presents from his Italian neighbors with his own little cargoes. The whole had evidently been prized by his family as a symbol of American good-will and of unbounded opportunity. Her younger brother in America had attained some measure of success as a contractor in an inland town. When he had written home of the polyglot composition of the gangs of men upon whose labors his little fortune had been founded, she had taken it as an example of all nationalities and religions working happily together. He had also served one term as mayor, obviously having been elected through his popularity with the same foreign colonies from which his workers had been drawn. For many reasons, therefore, she had visualized America as a land in which all nationalities understood each other, with a resulting friendliness impossible in Europe, not because the people still living in Europe were different from those who had gone to America, but because the latter having emigrated, had a chance to express their natural good will for everybody. The nations at war in Europe suggested to her simple mind long past days of her grandmother's youth, when a Protestant threw stones at a Catholic just because he was "different." The religious liberty in America was, evidently confused in her mind with this other liberalism in regard to national differences.

Holding this conception of actual internationalism as it had been evolved among simple people, crude and abortive thought it was, she had been much more shocked by the fact that friendly Americans should make ammunition to be used for killing any human being than by the actual war itself, because the war was taking place in Europe where it was still quite natural for a German to fight against a Frenchman or an Italian against an Austrian.

Her son had been a Socialist and from the discussions I she sometimes held with his comrades in her house, she had grown familiar with certain phrases which she had taken literally and in some curious fashion had solemnly come to believe were put into practice in her El Dorado of America.

The arguments I had used so many times with her fellow-countrymen to justify America's sale of ammunition, ponderously beginning with The Hague conventions of 1907, I found useless in the face of this idealistic version of America's good will. She was evidently one of those people whose affections go out to groups and impersonal causes quite as much as to individuals, thus often supplementing and enlarging harsh and narrow conditions of living. She certainly obtained a curiously personal comfort out of her idealization of the United States.

Her conversation revealed what I had often vaguely felt before, when men as well as women talked freely of the war, that her feelings had been hurt, that her very conception of human nature had received a sharp-shock and setback. To her the whole world and America in particular would henceforth seem less friendly and her spirit would be less at home. The troubled anguish in her old eyes confirmed her statement that the thought of the multitude of men who are being killed all over the world oppressed her day and night.

This old woman had remained faithful to the cause of moral unity and bore her clear testimony to one of the noblest and profoundest needs of the human spirit.

These efforts of spiritual adjustment necessitated by the war are attempted by many people, from the simple souls whose hard-won conceptions of a friendly universe have been brought tumbling about their ears, to the many thinkers who are openly disappointed to find civilized nations so irrational. Such efforts are encountered in all the belligerent nations as well as in the neutral ones, although in the former they are often inhibited and overlaid by an overwhelming patriotism.

Nevertheless, as I met those women who were bearing their hardships and sorrows so courageously, I often caught a glimpse of an inner struggle as if two of the most fundamental instincts, the two responsible for our very development as human beings, were at strife with each other! The first is tribal loyalty, such unquestioning acceptance of the tribe's morals and standards that the individual automatically fights when the word comes; the second is woman's deepest instinct, that the child of her body must be made to live.

We are told that the peasants in Flanders whose fields border on the very trenches disconsolately came back to them last spring and continued to plow the familiar soil regardless of the rain of shrapnel falling into the fresh furrows; that the wine-growers of Champagne last autumn insistently gathered their ripened grapes though the bombs of rival armies were exploding, in their vineyards. Why should it then be surprising that certain women in every country have remained steadfast to their old occupation of nurturing life, that they have held tenaciously to their anxious concern that men should live, through all the contagion and madness of the war fever infecting the nations of the earth?

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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