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      An Online Edition

edited and annotated, with an introduction by Dr. Luke A. Powers

Tuesday, May 19, 1914

[The Farmer's Wife I]

     Ever since Ross's Landing became a town, Saturday has been the visiting day of the country people. The automobile and the car lines and the general improvement of roads have brought town and country together more and more of late years, and have enabled dwellers in city streets to seek the pure-air and freedom of the country as much as country people may visit oftener and utilize to greater extent the advantages offered by the city.

     But the Birds know that Market street from Seventh to the river is the mountain people's part of town today, as it was when but a single horse-car traversed at irregular intervals the length of the muddy street. They know that while the wide land's population is yearly becoming richer and better cared for, better fed, clothed and immeasurably better educated than formerly, the lot of the farmer's wife is still a hard one. They see each Saturday numbers of women from riverside clearings and lonesome coves and lost creeks come in for a so-called holiday, which they have but two or three times a year--come in skiffs and pirogues by water, in jolt-wagons and hucksters' outfits or over the dusty miles afoot by land, and their wonder grows. The White Pigeon is especially sympathetic.

     "Why do people talk of the privileges of women, as if these were something precious, in danger of being bartered away?"she asked the Fireman. "What privileges have they--this great army of toil-worn mothers and wives? They are old at 35; their faces are rarely touched by a smile. And those in sight are but a few of the number remaining at home. So many and so sorrowful, in an isolation which gives them no chance of development save through service and the refinement of suffering patiently borne.

     "Last Saturday," she went on, "I watched a woman in a limp and faded dress walk the street with a basket on one arm and a heavy, sleepy baby on the other until my heart ached. She had got up before day and come to town early. Her first errand was to carry three patchwork quilts to the office of a business man, who had ordered them for his household. After losing, by waiting, an hour of the scant time she is privileged once in two or three months to spend in the city, she received for the work one-third of what would be given to a man for a task requiring the same amount of time and skill, and set forth to rejoin the life mate by whom it was her privilege meekly to be chosen, and the children whom it is her privilege to bear, nurse and work for. They were waiting for her on a corner. She received in an apologetic manner her spouse's reproaches for being gone so long, and set for to spend her few coins. Shoes and thread I saw in her basket, a paper of candy, a few kitchen tins, some household remedies, a dish or two--these were her purchases, to which, after anxiously counting the remaining nickels, she bought a cheap neck ruffle and some hairpins for herself. There was 20 cents left, which took them all to the movies and made one bright spot in the day at the risk of meeting her mate's displeasure if they delayed him in leaving town.

     "After all, it was he who was late in starting, because somewhere in this dry town he had found the wherewithal to become careless as to whether he ever started or not. They all ate lunch sitting in the wagon while waiting for him to come and hitch up. She had intended to make a wayside picnic of this meal, but the little ones were tired, hungry and too fretful to wait longer.

     "She sat and munched a biscuit and the bony saddle of a chicken she had raised--not because nobody else would eat this piece so much as because she could not bear that any one else should have to; for she is a good and gentle woman, a pattern of the domestic virtues which special privileges are supposed to reward. She left town sitting high on the uncomfortable wagon seat, her head and arms aching with weariness, the dust and sun beating on her face; looking forward, no doubt, to an evening of hard work on reaching her distant home--what with the cow, the chickens, the housework, perforce left over for the sake of getting an early start, the supper to cook and the children's bedtime. During the whole holiday she had found no gleam of pleasure except the sight of the shop windows and the hour in the moving picture show. Yet through it all she was apparently under the delusion that she was having a good time.

     "I can only say," concluded the White Pigeon, "that I'm glad I do not enjoy the privileges of womanhood. I wonder what privileges this woman enjoys that she would not gladly barter for a 'say' concerning her children's education and the sale of liquor to her man?"

     The Fireman, too, appeared to wonder. "Were she to go to sea," he began, rather dubiously, "no doubt she would find comfort in knowing that in case of wreck she and her children would--at least probably--be placed in the lifeboat ahead of the men. In rescue from burning bridges, too, we are taught to save 'women and children first.' But these are chances too remote to weigh against an ever-present condition of servitude.

     "Let's see. Nature has allowed her the privilege of every disease and pain that can afflict her husband, and added some special ones besides.

     "The law gives her privilege of a bondwoman. She may well be thankful that her husband stops with drinking up his own earnings and leaves her free to spend hers for the family needs. He may not always be so considerate. As the appetite for liquor grows, the time may come when he ceases to earn and demands her patchwork money for drink. She will then have the privilege of ministering to his appetite for alcohol while her children go without the necessaries of life.

     "Society gives her the privilege of continuing her way with careful step and downcast eyes on the street called straight, with no alternative but that of joining the women of the street not so called.

     "The business world allows her to do equal work for half pay, and adds a most serious drawback. As a girl at this time of year she, with many others, used to pick strawberries among the mixed crowd of pickers during the rush season. Being, probably, rather pretty before she was broken with child-bearing, hardships and toil, she learned to earn her bread with one hand while defending her honor with the other.

     "In the home her privileges are a working day from fifteen to twenty-four hours in length, with as much of thanks and payment, as you found visible on the street. She has the privilege of fighting there the family's battles with illness and want and loneliness--things sacred to the privacy of the three-room shack in which she owns a dower right only, though the chance[s] are that she paid more than half of it in actual dollars and cents.

     "Of course, she has the privilege of reflecting, as she carries the water and cuts the wood for the weekly family washing, that if she were Mrs. Vanastorbilt her highly-keyed nervous system would perhaps entitle her to be petted and cared for. But this privilege is not one of womanhood, but of prosperity; and any way, our country toiler has no time to think of it. Mrs. Vanastorbilt's circumstances are not representative of the majority of American women, while there are millions of farm women toiling and suffering silently in lonely shacks all over these United States. They do not get into the papers: they live unseen and unknown. When conditions become unendurable even to their patience and fortitude, they silently drop into their graves or are carried to the madhouse."

     The Sparrow's little head was bobbing vehemently, before the Fireman was through speaking. "That's it! That's it!" he cried. "And, the supply being inexhaustible, the same old privileges are handed over to her successor. Did you ever notice how many farmers are living with a second or third wife?"



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