My recent observations that American women in the 1920s were prisoners of household drudgery--a conclusion derived from a 1920 issue of Ladies' Home Journal--did not provoke as much flak as I expected.
Usually, when I write about women, however noble my intention, I am accused of naivete, stupidity, prejudice, or, at the least, chauvinism, a word for whose corruption the feminist movement is entirely to blame.
Surprisingly, I am accused of these faults, by implication, by a male attorney, Frank L. Swan of Newport Beach. As he sums it up, in a phrase, "(You make) me want to puke."
Swan's perfectly sound point is that men's lives weren't idyllic. "What do you think men were doing in those days? They were working their humps off in low-paying, dull, menial, backbreaking jobs . . . 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week. If you want to talk about prison, man, that's real prison.
"It's knuckleheads like you who have whipped a whole generation of women into a frenzy in which a good number of them will self-destruct. . . ."
Yes, I can think of all kinds of things men did: They worked in steel mills, they dug coal, they made sausages, they ran streetcars, they delivered ice, they walked beats, they made house calls, they ran pawn shops, they erected buildings, they collected trash, they worked in the stock market pits, they filled teeth, they built roads, they worked at wireless keys, they butchered hogs, and, of course, they practiced law.
I have no doubt that gentlemen of Mr. Swan's profession routinely provided their wives with state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners and washing machines, but that when they came home in the evening, exhausted from a day of torts and motions, they were too tired for anything but "yes" and "no" conversation.
Mr. Swan failed to note that Prohibition had deprived males of one of their historic rights in America, the right to stop off in a saloon on the way home and get roaring drunk, a condition that inevitably inhibited sophisticated conversation with their culture-hungry wives. Of course bootleg whiskey and speak-easies were still available to the prosperous, but the blue-collar working man could not afford those amenities, and was, in effect, locked out of the once wide-open and friendly corner saloon.
Meanwhile, many of their wives were doubtless swigging Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, a popular eau de vivre that somehow helped women get through their days and put them in a good mood for their husbands' return. My mother imbibed this potent extract regularly. I always suspected that it contained a high percentage of ethyl alcohol.
Mr. Swan is right in saying that men worked long hours for low pay in the early part of the century, but of course Wall Street teemed with white-collar workers who never dirtied their hands except with ticker tape, and who were protected from prosecution for illegal practices by their lawyers.
Public and legislative apathy protected rich industrialists of the 19th Century who exploited children in their factories. Boys worked from dawn to dark in coal mines, girls labored the same long days at machines in textile mills. They couldn't even solace themselves with a drink when they got off.
The novelist John Trentwood Moore wrote of these children: "Years in the factory had made them dead, listless, soulless and ambitionless creatures. . . . (They) worked in the factory because no man or woman in all the state cared enough for them to make a fight for their childhood. . . ."
In most states, in 1900, it was not illegal to send children as young as 7 or 8 into a mill and keep them at work unlimited hours. . . . In 1904 John Spargo wrote "Statistics cannot express the withering of child lips in the poisoned air of factories; the tired, strained look of child eyes. . . ."
By 1915, 33 states required children to attend school to the age of 16; but a federal child labor law passed in 1916 was struck down by the Supreme Court.
Men still work hard today. They build steel skyscrapers; they collect trash, they butcher hogs, they dig coal, they wash cars, they try lawsuits, they write columns, though of course women also try lawsuits and write columns.
I wonder if, when Swan says a good number of frenzied women will "self-destruct" he means women lawyers.
He also scorns my question: What would my mother do with her artistic impulse if she were a young housewife today, instead of in 1920?
He says, "That blows my mind. I wonder what your ol' lady would say if all of a sudden you told her that you 'aspired to the arts' and therefore you weren't going to bring home any more bread."
She would probably buy me a box of paints.
Swan concludes philosophically: "I will tell you what life is about, man! It's about dedication and devotion to duty and responsibility. It's not about self-indulgence."
Good thing Gauguin didn't know that.