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by Deborah Johnstone
Who celebrated Women’s History Month? Not me. I barely realized that Women’s History Month was upon us until one random email arrived in the form of an advertisement. There was no fanfare, no parade, and not one of my female friends called to say, “Hey, it’s Woman’s History Month, let’s celebrate!” Part of the problem is that Woman’s History Month occurs in March. March is a crap month and to assign women one of the crappiest months out of the year is just plain rotten. Nonetheless, it caused me to consider women’s trajectory over the last 100 years. The perception of women has changed – somewhat – but there are still legions of archaic ideologies that persist. By looking to the past we can observe how society perceived the female gender. Specifically, by looking through the eyes of a long-dead writer, we have an opportunity to witness women’s evolution. Fiction chronicles the prevailing social paradigms of its time. American writer William Sydney Porter was one of those chroniclers – better known to us as O. Henry.
There can be little doubt that O. Henry’s characters were culled from years of acute observations and invested with remnants of his own despair. He endured a derelict father, his mother’s death when he was only age four, a truncated education, and incarceration for embezzlement. At age fifteen, he began to work at a series of jobs, among them: pharmacist, sheepherder, draftsman, bank clerk, and finally, writer. Other vocations were probably attempted but never noted. Having experienced adversity, he understood how the struggle for survival could diminish even the most enthusiastic of ambitions. Victoria Blake writes in her introduction to Selected Stories of O. Henry, that while in jail:
He spent his evenings on night rounds, talking with the prisoners and gathering their tales…the brutality of prison life was difficult for him; his letters from this time display a keen understanding of the suffering surrounding him combined with a healthy disgust for conditions he viewed as less than human.
O. Henry was acutely aware of how people could be oppressed by events that were out of their control. His characters traversed this oppression in a new industrial age where life was characterized by insecurity and flux. Instability typified the new poor working class and their vulnerability defined O. Henry’s stories. The mutability of a harsh environment became the backbone of his work. More profoundly, the role of women in this burgeoning economy was dramatically altered. Emerging from the Victorian Cult of Domesticity, women were – for the first time – entering the work force and becoming self-sufficient. Still, they remained trapped within strict social conventions. Their unquestioning compliance was expected in the domestic sphere while necessity dictated that they break with convention and enter the workforce – a realm traditionally dominated by men. Once there, they would compete with men – yet still be bound by antiquated ideologies. O. Henry mined this dichotomy and brought fluency to women’s increasingly unsettled lives in a way that no other male writer had done before.
We can’t fathom what turn of the century New York must have been like with the age of mechanization bearing down on herds of homeless job seekers – all clamoring to make ten or twelve dollars a week, desperate to find a tenement room to rent, hoping to encounter one empathetic soul – always a few cents away from poverty. Times haven’t changed all that much… In a story entitled “The Skylight Room” we meet Miss Leeson, a young single woman in dire straits who is seeking a room to rent. In discussions with a cantankerous landlady we learn that eight dollars a week is too much for our heroine to pay for a room. Upon realizing that Miss Leeson has insufficient funds, the landlady screams for Clara, her maid, to escort Miss Leeson the “two-dollar-a-week-room”. It’s the smallest, dirtiest room in the house – the attic. O. Henry writes: “A dark goblin seized her, mounted a Stygian stairway, thrust her into a vault with a glimmer of light in its top and muttered the menacing and cabalistic words, ‘Two Dollars’.”
We envision O. Henry crouched on that same gloomy staircase, notebook in hand, pencil scribbling, as he eavesdrops on Miss Leeson while she is ushered to the shameful attic room. He continues to interpret her distress as she seeks employment: “And when she went out in the morning … she went from office to office and let her heart melt away in the drip of cold refusals transmitted through insolent office boys.” The beautiful metaphor of her heart melting “away in the drip of cold refusals” is as apt now as it was then. It could stand as metaphor for our current digital age where the “drip of cold refusals” is characterized by a resounding “silence” as millions of desperate job seekers forward resumes into the black hole of digital space. O. Henry surely observed more than one woman who was down on her luck – who wondered where on Earth she would find refuge. It is a scathing indictment of an age often glorified as ushering in the dawn of American industrialism and productivity. Women – and men – were working forty and fifty hours a week and barely making enough money to survive. Sound familiar?
Not all O. Henry’s women are frail, however, they evolve along with the times and become wise and guarded. In “A Lickpenny Lover,” Masie is a glove salesgirl who at only age eighteen has observed that there are “two varieties of human beings – the kind of gents who buy their gloves in department stores and the kind of women who buy gloves for unfortunate gents.” She is a strategist – always observing and weighing the options. She has learned to navigate the newly minted urban despair and regards opportunity as only a fleeting and artificial desire. Enter our hero, Irving Carter: “painter, millionaire, traveler, poet” or the perfect catch hot in pursuit of the perfect pair of gloves – and little something extra. She is accustomed to the unsolicited advances of men at her glove counter and looks upon Carter as another hapless dandy who hopes to entice her with minimal effort. She has acquired this attitude precisely because she is part of a new industrial work force that struggles, adjusts, and cultivates resiliency in order to survive. Carter persists in his pursuit of her affections but Masie has heard it all before. Too many other men have told her that they were in a position to sweep her off of her feet, but none of those promises came to fruition. She is accustomed to disappointment and it makes her stronger. When Carter tells Masie his means are ample she replies, “They all say that … I suppose you really work in a delicatessen or follow the races. I ain’t as green as I look.” Her callousness is a necessary defense.
O. Henry wholeheartedly believed that it was impossible to turn his gaze away from the denizens of the rooming houses, department stores, cafeterias, and factory floors. He told once told an interviewer, “You can’t write a story that’s got any life in it by siting at a table and thinking. You’ve got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people, and feel the rush and the throb of life – that’s the stimulant for a story writer.” The rush, throb, and flux of life are exactly what O. Henry portrayed – most poignantly where women were concerned. Can we draw parallels to then and now? Women – though making enormous cultural, political, and economic strides – still remain marginalized in ways that often cannot be articulated. Whether or not a woman has a “legal” right to have an abortion is governed by legislation mired in contingencies. Despite the Feminist movement, power remains in the hands of those who have always had it.
Like a work of art that pitches us into an era that no longer exits, we can read O. Henry and intuit how difficult it must have been for women to navigate a labyrinth of conflicting ideologies. Is it really any better today? The women's liberation movement of the 1960s is but a flickering footnote in our consciousness. The concept of femininity as powerful was subsequently interpreted by savvy marketers as advertising slogans: “You’ve come a long way baby…” Virginia Slims reassured women in 1968. The slogan insinuated that women’s emancipation would be complete if they succumbed to the addiction of cigarettes. After all, women in the early 20th century were punished if they were caught smoking – what better way to liberate oneself than to assume a “man’s” habit.
Women continue to navigate constricting social sanctions and redefine their destinies. What we don’t do is actually celebrate women. If we’re going to designate an entire month to women then lets rip the roof off the joint. I vote for it being moved to June with a parade and a month’s paid vacation. Put that in your legislation and get back to me.
#Real #NationalWomensMonth #Celebration #OHenry #ThingsHaventChangedMuch #Feminism
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