Do Women Have a Special Problem?

Questionnaires given to men and women college students before the war reveal that the two sexes decidedly do not see eye to eye in regard to woman’s “proper place.” The most striking difference of opinion was in regard to work by women outside the home. There is little reason to think that the men students returning from the war to carve out places for themselves in civilian life will have become more favorably disposed toward feminine competition than they were before the war.

What do we mean by woman’s “proper place”? One of the questions which must be answered before a satisfactory solution can be reached is this: Is woman’s relation to the problem of work any different from man’s? What is the special nature of women that they become involved in special problems? There is no more risky venture than an attempt to analyze the differences between men and women. Among primitive tribes women are not always feminine in our sense of the word nor are men always masculine. Many of the differences in behavior and outlook which we take as a matter of course do not really exist. At one time it was denied that women equaled men in intelligence. Millions of intelligence tests belie this claim. Women are traditionally timid, yet a woman sniper in Russia kills 309 Germans. Women on the average are probably inferior in strength, yet women wrestlers are able to throw an opponent out of the ring.

There are some jobs, certainly, requiring heavy lifting or muscular strains for which women are not fitted. But the chief difference between men and women lies in the fact that a woman’s body is specialized for the task of childbearing. Menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing make special demands upon a woman’s time and energy. It is true, of course, that if custom put more of the burden of bringing up the children upon their fathers, women would not be so handicapped, except for a few years out of the entire life span. The difference, however, is still significant.

But women are not made only for having babies. They have hands and brains and even in a man-made world have acquired innumerable skills. Women, therefore, have capacity for a work function similar to that of men. It would seem that the core of the “woman problem” consists of the difficulty in combining an outside job with homemaking and motherhood. Some women have jobs, but not marriage and children. Others have children, but lack the opportunity to make the fullest use of their ability and training as workers. Any picture of women in wartime reveals cases of women doubly burdened by both motherhood and work outside the home. A woman may have to alternate between work and childbearing, whereas a man continues his work career without interruption.

By the time a woman has finished the job of bearing and bringing up children she may realize that she should have started earlier to fit herself for another kind of work. Not having done so, she continues to stay at home, sometimes working at making believe that she works. The wife of a well-to-do businessman may feel oppressed when dinners, club meetings, and teas come too fast. The wife of a workingman whose three children are long since married—well over the mumps, and beyond the need for maternal washings, cooking, and mending—may still sigh her way about a small apartment from sheer force of habit and still feel overworked.

The whole matter is complicated by the fact that women are not alike. Some women are unable to bear children, and those who can are not equally fond of them. A woman may have the mind of a moron or the genius of Madame Curie, the discoverer of radium. It follows, therefore, that any strict rule concerning “woman’s place” will be unjust to certain women. And women themselves are often confused as to what course they should follow.