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The Difference Between Being and Having.

When we sum up the changes which modern ideas  are making in the sphere of woman the variety of particulars can all be catalogued under the head of “Greater power of initiative, with its attendant development of individuality.” Now, power of initiative has heretofore been the prerogative of “the head of the household,” and it is the one particular function of life which it was never contemplated that woman should ever possess. Information they were welcome to as far as information itself was concerned, but initiative, which proceeds from knowledge, never! Womanhood was to be merged into the identity of the husband and father. Hence social status proceeds from the rank and calling of the men of the family. A woman’s friends are supposed to be the female relatives of her husband’s family or social or business connections. Her dress is supposed to reflect the financial condition of the man who pays for her support; her education to conform to the station in life of the man who is to be her husband. She is to take the color of her surroundings. She is to have no initiative.

As long as social calls and home entertainments strictly on the basis of the husband’s connections constituted the only outings of the married woman, it followed that women valued themselves not so much on the basis of what they were as on that of what they had, or rather what their male protectors had. And they infected their sons with their own pernicious philosophy. “Miserable woman, to what would you bring me,” exclaimed an Italian gentleman to his wife who had asked him to bring home a loaf of bread; “would you have me disgraced by letting all the world know that I have no servant to buy bread for me? Bananas I am perfectly willing to buy, but bread, never!”

Now, this was a very real and heart-breaking situation to the people concerned; because they had come to a new country and were temporarily stripped of all the “things” which they had been taught to think necessary to the possession of dignity. Being without a servant to buy bread meant to this man (he was a very good man) nothing less than social annihilation. His distinction between bread and bananas was a valid Italian social convention, absurd as it looks to Americans, but not a whit more absurd than many others which Americans make for themselves,—or more artificial. His training had destroyed his initiative. He was bound hand and foot, and helpless in a net-work of prejudices.

The first note of woman’s emancipation came when she began to organize her present club life. In the club, individuality, culture, talent, for the first time became objects of admiration and desire. If papers were to be written, the power of writing a good paper (something which neither the money nor the position of her husband could give her, but which was something independent of anyone but herself) gave the woman that possessed it a position absolutely her own. For the first time in woman’s social career being began to stand for more than having,—and being makes its own initiative.

But in a certain sense possessions may be the expression of one’s individuality—the whole relation between the individual and his possessions is different when the possessions have been earned, and so constitute a sign of the character of their possessor. If a man digs a diamond mine and wears one of the gems he digged, the diamond is the sign of his character as a successful miner. It adorns him. But his wife who did not dig in the mine is not ennobled by the possession of his gem; neither is his daughter. If the daughter becomes a fine pianist and delights every one that hears her, her playing is the sign of her own power, like her father’s diamond. Suppose she earns money and buys a diamond for herself. That also becomes a sign of her own powers and worth having, but not as well worth as her playing. The club will listen because she can play, not because her playing has put it in her power to buy a diamond. Supposing she does not play well, but is that much rarer thing, a good and appreciative listener and critic; then she will be a person of weight in her club; not for what she can buy, but for what she is. Neither father nor husband can make a woman a good critic and listener; that must be her own gift. Her club status proceeds from being, not having. In this way slowly, but surely, women are getting upon the same plane on which business and political life place men, for it has always been the peculiar prerogative of men that they could choose their friends for their qualities or powers irrespective of their social plane, while women must not. The moment the possession of “things” shrinks to its proper level, the spirit is free, and independence comes of itself.

The lesson of life is to see in character—which is all that is absolutely our own—the one and only test of superiority; to separate one’s self in thought and imagination from one’s havings and build for life and eternity that inalienable possession of mind and character that is unchanged by riches or poverty, by popular approval or disapproval; in the face of which conventionalities fall away as a fig-tree casts her unsound fruit.

It is not the lesson of life to throw away one’s possessions. The world has never got away from that old heathen Diogenes and his tub. It is time it did. Neither Christianity nor civilization has made possessions less valuable than they were before the word came that a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things that he possesseth. Because things are not life, it does not make them worthless. There is nothing beautiful or comfortable in the world that does not exist because some one has made it by self-denial and self-discipline, or that does not continue to exist by virtue of the same qualities. Things are an expression of the life of the one that made them. Abundance of things is abundance of power, a certain kind of power. But it is not as strong a power as the ability to acquire the things was, in the first place, and the ability to acquire is low in the scale of spiritual gifts. A man with a thousand dollars may lose them and starve in consequence. A man with the ability to earn a thousand dollars can never starve; the thousand dollars exists in him as a potency. In the same way a woman in a club who can spend five dollars unrebuked by husband or parent has a power equal to the ownership of $100.00 at 5 per cent. If that is all she can control that is all she is worth to the club financially. The working woman who is able to save five dollars from her earnings commands exactly as much financial power. As a matter of fact, the exceeding smallness of the amount of money that most women control occasions one of the most difficult problems of club-work. Where expenditure is concerned, almost any working woman that has a fair salary can do much more than can the average wife or daughter on an allowance or without that modest satisfaction. A salary of $600.00 a year is precisely equal to the interest on $10,000.00 at 6 per cent. The possession of an allowance of $600 is more agreeable while it lasts; but money is a very slippery reliance. The widow without a penny usually has many a vain regret that she did not expend the six thousand which has slipped away for the education which would command the salary of six hundred. Even while it is a present luxury a certain potency seems to have departed from the money that is spent by those that have not earned it. While in their hand it was reinforced by the character that accumulated it. When it passed from their grasp it became a negative thing and less effective. But money even at first hand is the cheapest and most inefficient factor of club-life. Superiority of mind, or culture, or character, or temper is what tells. Being, in short, not having.

This is why the management of club undertakings is a great training for women and a great leveler of artificial distinctions of rank. The heart to conceive, the brain to plan, the hand to execute, the beings of the club, in short, find each other out, and suddenly are standing shoulder to shoulder, while the people whose pretentions are supported by havings, only, find themselves rebuked and ignored. In particular, an art-club or a music-club which is compelled to open its doors to talent (which is certainly not a gift of wealth) finds a most wholesome stimulus to self-culture and self-education and self-dependence in the standards of artistic merit thus set up.

Club life, then, exercises its most important function by leveling the artificial platforms upon which women have been standing, and substituting reality and self-dependence once for all. Whosoever has found himself has conquered life. In fact, life, as far as we can understand it, is for the express purpose of helping us to find ourselves, and nothing else. That clubs do this in the highest or most efficacious way it is quite too much to say. But that they are helping woman to the same freedom of spirit that men have arrived at is certainly true. And the larger liberty is well worth the struggle.

 

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