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Full Online Book HomeEssays"oh, Well, You Know How Women Are!"
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'oh, Well, You Know How Women Are!' Post by :commish Category :Essays Author :Irvin S. Cobb Date :December 2010 Read :2733

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"oh, Well, You Know How Women Are!"

She emerges from the shop. She is any woman, and the shop from which she emerges is any shop in any town. She has been shopping. This does not imply that she has been buying anything or that she has contemplated buying anything, but merely that she has been shopping--a very different pursuit from buying. Buying implies business for the shop; shopping merely implies business for the clerks.

As stated, she emerges. In the doorway she runs into a woman of her acquaintance. If she likes the other woman she is cordial. But if she does not like her she is very, very cordial. A woman's aversion for another woman moving in the same social stratum in which she herself moves may readily be appraised. Invariably it is in inverse ratio to the apparent affection she displays upon encountering the object of her disfavor. Why should this be? I cannot answer. It is not given for us to know.

Very well, then, she meets the other woman at the door. They stop for conversation. Two men meeting under the same condition would mechanically draw away a few paces, out of the route of persons passing in or out of the shop. No particular play of the mental processes would actuate them in so doing; an instinctive impulse, operating mechanically and subconsciously, would impel them to remove themselves from the main path of foot travel. But this woman and her acquaintance take root right there. Persons dodge round them and glare at them. Other persons bump into them, and are glared at by the two traffic blockers. Where they stand they make a knot of confusion.

But does it occur to either of them to suggest that they might step aside, five feet or ten, and save themselves, and the pedestrian classes generally, a deal of delay and considerable annoyance? It does not. It never will. If the meeting took place in a narrow passageway or on a populous staircase or at the edge of the orbit of a set of swinging doors or on a fire escape landing upon the front of a burning building, while one was going up to aid in the rescue and the other was coming down to be saved--if it took place just outside the Pearly Gates on the Last Day when the quick and the dead, called up for judgment, were streaming in through the portals--still would they behave thus. Where they met would be where they stopped to talk, regardless of the consequences to themselves, regardless of impediment to the movements of their fellow beings.

Having had her say with her dear friend or her dear enemy, as the case may be, our heroine proceeds to the corner and hails a passing street car. Because her heels are so high and her skirts are so snug, she takes about twice the time to climb aboard that a biped in trousers would take. Into the car she comes, teetering and swaying. The car is no more than comfortably filled. True, all the seats at the back where she has entered are occupied; but up at the front there still is room for another sittee or two. Does she look about her to ascertain whether there is any space left? I need not pause for reply. I know it already, and so do you. Midway of the aisle-length she stops and reaches for a strap. She makes an appealing picture, compounded of blindness, helplessness, and discomfort. She has clinging vine written all over her. She craves to cling, but there is no trellis. So she swings from her strap.

The passengers nearest her are all men. She stares at them, accusingly. One of them bends forward to touch her and tell her that there is room for her up forward; but now there aren't any seats left. Male passengers, swinging aboard behind her, have already scrouged on by her and taken the vacant places.

In the mind of one of the men in her immediate vicinity chivalry triumphs over impatience. He gives a shrug of petulance, arises and begs her to have his seat. She is not entitled to it on any ground, save compassion upon his part. By refusing to use the eyes in her head she has forfeited all right to special consideration. But he surrenders his place to her and she takes it.

The car bumps along. The conductor, making his rounds, reaches her. She knows he is coming; at least she should know it. A visit from the conductor has been a feature of every one of the thousands of street-car rides that she has taken in her life. She might have been getting her fare ready for him. There are a dozen handy spots where she might have had a receptacle built for carrying small change--in a pocket in her skirt, in a fob at her belt, in her sleeve or under her cuff. Counting fob pockets and change pockets, a man has from nine to fifteen pockets in his everyday garments. If also he is wearing an overcoat, add at least three more pockets to the total. It would seem that she might have had at least one dependable pocket. But she has none.

The conductor stops, facing her, and meanwhile wearing on his face that air of pained resignation which is common to the faces of conductors on transportation lines that are heavily patronized by women travelers. In mute demand he extends toward her a soiled palm. With hands encased in oversight gloves she fumbles at the catch of a hand bag. Having wrested the hand bag open, she paws about among its myriad and mysterious contents. A card of buttons, a sheaf of samples, a handkerchief, a powder puff for inducing low visibility of the human nose, a small parcel of something, a nail file, and other minor articles are disclosed before she disinters her purse from the bottom of her hand bag. Another struggle with the clasp of the purse ensues; finally, one by one, five coppers are fished up out of the depths and presented to the conductor. The lady has made a difficult, complicated rite of what might have been a simple and a swift formality.

The car proceeds upon its course. She sits in her seat, wearing that look of comfortable self-absorption which a woman invariably wears when she is among strangers, and when she feels herself to be well dressed and making a satisfactory public appearance. She comes out of her trance with a start on discovering that the car has passed her corner or is about to pass it. All flurried, she arises and signals the conductor that she is alighting here. From her air and her expression, we may gather that, mentally, she holds him responsible for the fact that she has been carried on beyond her proper destination.

The car having stopped, she makes her way to the rear platform and gets off--gets off the wrong way. That is to say, she gets off with face toward the rear. Thus is achieved a twofold result: She blocks the way of anyone who may be desirous of getting aboard the car as she gets off of it, and if the car should start up suddenly, before her feet have touched the earth, or before her grip on the hand rail has been relaxed, she will be flung violently down upon the back of her head.

From the time he is a small boy until he is in his dotage, a man swings off a car, facing in the direction in which the car is headed. Then, a premature turn of a wheel pitches him forward with a good chance to alight upon his feet, whereas the same thing happening when he was facing in the opposite direction would cause him to tumble over backward, with excellent prospects of cracking his skull. But in obedience to an immutable but inexplicable vagary of sex, a woman follows the patently wrong, the obviously dangerous, the plainly awkward system.

As the conductor rings the starting bell, he glances toward a man who is riding on the rear platform.

"Kin you beat 'um?" says the conductor. "I ast you--kin you beat 'um?"

The man to whom he has put the question is a married man. Being in this state of marriage he appreciates that the longer you live with them the less able are you to fathom the workings of their minds with regard to many of the simpler things of life. Speaking, therefore, from the heights of his superior understanding, he says in reply:

"Oh, well, you know how women are!"

We know how women are. But nobody knows why they are as they are.

Please let me make myself clear on one point: As an institution, and as individuals, I am for women. They constitute, and deservedly too, the most popular sex we have. Since away back yonder I have been in favor of granting them suffrage. For years I have felt it as a profound conviction that the franchise should be expanded at one end and abridged at the other--made larger to admit some of the women, made smaller to bar out some of the men. I couldn't think of very many reasons why the average woman should want to mix in politics, but if she did wish so to mix and mingle, I couldn't think of a single valid reason why she should not have full permission, not as a privilege, not as a boon, but as a common right. Nor could I bring myself to share, in any degree, the apprehension of some of the anti-suffragists who held that giving women votes would take many of them entirely out of the state of motherhood. I cannot believe that all the children of the future are going to be born on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Surely some of them will be born on other dates. Indeed the only valid argument against woman suffrage that I could think of was the conduct of some of the women who have been for it.

To myself I often said:

"Certainly I favor giving them the vote. Seeing what a mess the members of my own sex so often make of the job of trying to run the country, I don't anticipate that the Republic will go upon the shoals immediately after women begin voting and campaigning and running for office. At the helm of the ship of state we've put some pretty sad steersman from time to time. Better the hand that rocks the cradle than the hand that rocks the boat. We men have let slip nearly all of the personal liberties for which our fathers fought and bled--that is to say, fought the Britishers and bled the Injuns. Ever since the Civil War we have been so dummed busy telling the rest of the world how free we were that we failed to safeguard that freedom of which we boasted.

"We commiserate the Englishman because he chooses to live under an hereditary president called a king, while we are amply content to go on living under an elected king called a president. We cannot understand why he, a free citizen of the free-est country on earth, insists on calling himself a subject; but we are reconciled to the fiction of proclaiming ourselves citizens, while each day, more and more, we are becoming subjects--the subjects of sumptuary legislation, the subjects of statutes framed by bigoted or frightened lawgivers, the subjects of arbitrary mandates and of arbitrary decrees, the subjects, the abject, cringing subjects, of the servant classes, the police classes, the labor classes, the capitalistic classes."

Naturally, as a Democrat I have felt these things with enhanced bitterness when the Republicans were in office; nevertheless, I have felt them at other times, too. And, continuing along this line of thought, I have repeatedly said to myself:

"In view of these conditions, let us give 'em the vote--eventually, but not just yet. While still we have control of the machinery of the ballot let us put them on probation, as it were. They claim to be rational creatures; very well, then, make 'em prove it. Let us give 'em the vote just as soon as they have learned the right way in which to get off of a street car."

In this, though, I have changed my mind. I realize now that the demand was impossible, that it was--oh, well, you know what women are!

We have given woman social superiority; rather she has acquired it through having earned it. Shortly she will have been put on a basis of political equality with men in all the states of the Union. Now she thinks she wants economic equality. But she doesn't; she only thinks she does. If she should get it she would refuse to abide by its natural limitations on the one side and its natural expansions for her sphere of economic development on the other. For, temperamentally, God so fashioned her that never can she altogether quit being the clinging vine and become the sturdy oak. She'll insist on having all the prerogatives of the oak, but at the same time she will strive to retain the special considerations accorded to the vine which clings. If I know anything about her dear, wonderful, incomprehensible self, she belongs to the sex which would eat its cake and have it, too. Some men are constructed after this design. But nearly all women are.

Give her equal opportunities with men in business--put her on the same footing and pay to her the same salary that a man holding a similar job is paid. So far so good. But then, as her employer, undertake to hand out to her exactly the same treatment which the man holding a like position expects and accepts. There's where Mr. Boss strikes a snag. The salary she will take--oh, yes--but she arrogates to herself the sweet boon of weeping when things distress her, and, when things harass her, of going off into tantrums of temper which no man in authority, however patient, would tolerate on the part of another man serving under him.

Grant to her equal powers, equal responsibilities, equal favors and a pay envelope on Saturday night containing as much money as her male co-worker receives. That is all very well; but seek, however gently, however tactfully, however diplomatically, to suggest to her that a simpler, more businesslike garb than the garb she favors would be the sane and the sensible thing for business wear in business hours. And then just see what happens.

A working woman who, through the working day, dresses in plain, neat frocks with no jangling bracelets upon her arms, no foolish furbelows at her wrists, no vain adornments about her throat, no exaggerated coiffure, is a delight to the eye and, better still, she fits the setting of her environment. Two of the most competent and dependable human beings I know are both of them women. One is the assistant editor of a weekly magazine. The other is the head of an important department in an important industry. In the evening you would never find a woman better groomed or, if the occasion demand, more ornately rigged-out than either one of these young women will be. But always, while on duty, they wear a correct and proper costume for the work they are doing, and they match the picture. These two, though, are, I think, exceptions to the rule of their sex.

Trained nurses wear the most becoming uniforms, and the most suitable, considering their calling, that were ever devised. To the best of my knowledge and belief there is no record where a marriageable male patient on the road to recovery and in that impressionable mood which accompanies the convalescence of an ordinarily healthy man, failed to fall in love with his nurse. A competent, professional nurse who has the added advantage on her side of being comely--and it is powerfully hard for her to avoid being comely in her spotless blue and starchy white--stands more chances of getting the right sort of man for a husband than any billionaire's daughter alive.

But I sometimes wonder what weird sartorial eccentricities some of them would indulge in did not convention and the standing laws of their profession require of them that they all dress after a given pattern. And if the owners and managers of big city shops once lifted the rule prescribing certain modes for their female working staffs--if they should give their women clerks a free hand in choosing their own wardrobes for store hours--well, you know how women are!

Nevertheless and to the contrary notwithstanding, I will admit while I am on this phase of my topic that there likewise is something to be said in dispraise of my own sex too. In the other--and better half of this literary double sketch-team act, my admired and talented friend, Mrs. Mary Roberts Rinehart, cites chapter and verse to prove the unaccountable vagaries of some men in the matter of dress. There she made but one mistake--a mistake of under-estimation. She mentioned specifically some men; she should have included all men.

The only imaginable reason why any rational he-biped of adult age clings to the habiliments ordained for him by the custom and the tailors of this generation, is because he is used to them. A man can stand anything once he gets used to it because getting used to a thing commonly means that the habitee has quit worrying about it. And yet since the dawn of time when Adam poked fun at Eve's way of wearing her fig-leaf and on down through the centuries until the present day and date it has ever been the custom of men to gibe at the garments worn by women. Take our humorous publications, which I scarcely need point out are edited by men. Hardly could our comic weeklies manage to come out if the jokes about the things which women wear were denied to them as fountain-sources of inspiration. To the vaudeville monologist his jokes about his wife and his mother-in-law and to the comic sketch artist his pictures setting forth the torments of the stock husband trying to button the stock gown of a stock wife up her stock back--these are dependable and inevitable stand-bys.

Women do wear maniacal garments sometimes; that there is no denying. But on the other hand styles for women change with such frequency that no quirk of fashion however foolish and disfiguring ever endures for long enough to work any permanent injury in the health of its temporarily deluded devotees. Nothing I can think of gets old-fashioned with such rapidity as a feminine fashion unless it is an egg.

If this season a woman's skirt is so scantily fashioned that as she hobbles along she has the appearance of being leg-shackled, like the lady called Salammbo, it is as sure as shooting that, come next season, she will have leapt to the other extreme and her draperies will be more than amply voluminous. If this winter her sleeves are like unto sausage casings for tightness, be prepared when spring arrives to see her wearing practically all the sleeves there are. About once in so often she is found wearing a mode which combines beauty with saneness but that often is not very often.

But even when they are at apogee of sartorial ridiculousness I maintain that the garments of women, from the comfort standpoint, anyhow, are not any more foolish than the garments to which the average man is incurably addicted. If women are vassals to fashion men are slaves to convention, and fashion has the merit that it alters overnight, whereas convention is a slow moving thing that stands still a long time before it does move. Convention is the wooden Indian of civilization; but fashion is a merry-go-round.

In the Temperate zone in summertime, Everywoman looks to be cooler than Everyman--and by the same token is cooler. In the winter she wears lighter garments than he would dream of wearing, and yet stays warmer than he does, can stand more exposure without outward evidence of suffering than he can stand, and is less susceptible than he to colds and grips and pneumonias. Compare the thinness of her heaviest outdoor wrap with the thickness of his lightest ulster, or the heft of her so-called winter suit with the weight of the outer garments which he wears to business, and if you are yourself a man you will wonder why she doesn't freeze stiff when the thermometer falls to the twenty-above mark. Observe her in a ballroom that is overheated in the corners and draughty near the windows, as all ballrooms are. Her neck and her throat, her bosom and arms are bare. Her frock is of the filmiest gossamer stuff; her slippers are paper thin, her stockings the sheerest of textures, yet she doesn't sniff and her nose doesn't turn red and the skin upon her exposed shoulders refuses to goose-flesh. She is the marvel of the ages. She is neither too warm nor too cold; she is just right. Consider now her male companion in his gala attire. One minute he is wringing wet with perspiration; that is when he is dancing. The next minute he is visibly congealing. That is because he has stopped to catch his breath.

Why this difference between the sexes? The man is supposed to be the hardier creature of the two, but he can't prove it. Of course there may be something in the theory that when a woman feels herself to be smartly dressed, an exaltation of soul lifts her far above realization of bodily discomfort. But I make so bold as to declare that the real reason why she is comfortable and he is not, lies in the fact that despite all eccentricities of costume in which she sometimes indulges, Everywoman goes about more rationally clad than Everyman does.

For the sake of comparing two horrible examples, let us take a woman esteemed to be over-dressed at all points and angles where she is not under-dressed, and, mentally, let us place alongside her a man who by the standards of his times and his contemporaries is conventionally garbed. To find the woman we want, we probably must travel to New York and seek her out in a smart restaurant at night. Occasionally she is found elsewhere but it is only in New York, that city where so many of the young women are prematurely old and so many of the old women are prematurely young, that she abounds in sufficient profusion to become a common type instead of an infrequent one. This woman is waging that battle against the mounting birthdays which nobody ever yet won. Her hair has been dyed in those rich autumnal tints which are so becoming to a tree in its Indian summer, but so unbecoming to a woman in hers. Richard K. Fox might have designed her jewelry; she glistens with diamonds until she makes you think of the ice coming out of the Hudson River in the early spring. But about her complexion there is no suggestion of a March thaw. For it is a climate-proof shellac. Her eyebrows are the self-made kind, and her lips were done by hand. Her skirt is too short for looks and too tight for comfort; she is tightly prisoned at the waistline and not sufficiently confined in the bust. There is nothing natural or rational anywhere about her. She is as artificial as a tin minnow and she glitters like one.

Next your attention is invited to the male of the species. He is assumed to be dressed in accordance with the dictates of good taste and with due regard for all the ordinary proprieties. But is he? Before deciding whether he is or isn't, let us look him over, starting from the feet and working upward. A matter of inches above his insteps brings us to the bottom of his trouser-legs. Now these trouser-legs of his are morally certain to be too long, in which event they billow down over his feet in slovenly and ungraceful folds, or they are too short, in which event there is an awkward, ugly cross-line just above his ankles. If he is a thin man, his dress waistcoat bulges away from his breastbone so the passerby can easily discover what brand of suspenders he fancies; but if he be stoutish, the waistcoat has a little way of hitching along up his mid-riff inch by inch until finally it has accordion-pleated itself in overlapping folds thwartwise of his tummy, coyly exposing an inch or so of clandestine shirt-front.

It requires great will-power on the part of the owner and constant watchfulness as well to keep a fat man's dress waistcoat from behaving like a railroad folder. His dinner coat or his tail coat, if he wears a tail coat, is invariably too tight in the sleeves; nine times out of ten it binds across the back between the shoulders, and bulges out in a pouch effect at the collar. His shirt front, if hard-boiled, is as cold and clammy as a morgue slab when first he puts it on; but as hot and sticky as a priming of fresh glue after he has worn it for half an hour in an overheated room--and all public rooms in America are overheated. Should it be of the pleated or medium well-done variety, no power on earth can keep it from appearing rumply and untidy; that is, no power can if the wearer be a normal man. I am not speaking of professional he-beauties or models for the illustrations of haberdashers' advertisements in the magazines. His collar, which is a torturer's device of stiff linen and yielding starch, is not a comparatively modern product as some have imagined. It really dates back to the Spanish Inquisition where it enjoyed a great vogue. Faring abroad, he encloses his head, let us say in a derby hat. Some people think the homeliest thing ever devised by man is Grant's Tomb. Others favor the St. Louis Union Depot. But I am pledged to the derby hat. And the high or two-quart hat runs second.

This being the case for and against the parties concerned, I submit to the reader's impartial judgment the following question for a decision: Taking everything into consideration, which of these two really deserves the booby prize for unbecoming apparel--the woman who plainly is dressed in bad form or the man who is supposed to be dressed in good form? But this I will say for him as being in his favor. He has sense enough to wear plenty of pockets. And in his most infatuated moments he never wears nether garments so tight that he can't step in 'em. Can I say as much for woman? I cannot.

A few pages back I set up the claim that woman, considered as a sex and not as an exceptional type, cannot divorce the social relation from the economic. I think of an illustration to prove my point: In business two men may be closely associated. They may be room-mates besides; chums, perhaps, at the same club; may borrow money from each other and wear each other's clothes; and yet, so far as any purely confidential relation touching on the private sides of their lives is concerned, may remain as far apart as the poles.

It is hard to imagine two women, similarly placed, behaving after the same common-sense standards. Each insists upon making a confidante of her partner. Their intimacy becomes a thing complicated with extraneous issues, with jointly shared secrets, with disclosures as to personal likes and dislikes, which should have no part in it if there is to be continued harmony, free from heart-burnings or lacerated feelings, or fancied slights or blighted affections. Sooner or later, too, the personality of the stronger nature begins to overshadow the personality of the weaker. Almost inevitably there is a falling-out.

I do not share the somewhat common opinion that in their friendships women are less constant than men are. But the trouble with them is that they put a heavier burden upon friendship than so delicate, so sensitive a sentiment as real friendship is was ever meant to bear. Something has to give way under the strain. And something does.

To be sure there is an underlying cause in extenuation for this temperamental shortcoming which in justice to the ostensibly weaker sex should be set forth here. Even though I am taking on the role of Devil's Advocate in the struggle to keep woman from canonizing herself by main force I want to be as fair as I can, always reserving the privilege where things are about even, of giving my own side a shade the better of it. The main tap-root reason why women confide over-much and too much in other women is because leading more circumscribed lives than men commonly lead they are driven back upon themselves and into themselves and their sisters for interests and for conversational material.

Taking them by and large they have less with which to concern themselves than their husbands and their brothers, their fathers and their sons have. Therefore they concern themselves the more with what is available, which, at the same time, oftener than not, means some other woman's private affairs.

A woman, becoming thoroughly imbued with an idea, becomes, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a creature of one idea. Everything else on earth is subordinated to the thing--cabal, reform, propaganda, crusade, movement or what not--in which she is interested. Now the average man may be very sincerely and very enthusiastically devoted to a cause; but it does not necessarily follow that it will obsess him through every waking hour. But the ladies, God bless 'em--and curb 'em--are not built that way. A woman wedded to a cause is divorced from all else. She resents the bare thought that in the press of matters and the clash of worlds, mankind should for one moment turn aside from her pet cause to concern itself with newer issues and wider motives. From a devotee she soon is transformed into a habitee. From being an earnest advocate she advances--or retrogrades--to the status of a plain bore. To be a common nuisance is bad enough; to be a common scold is worse, and presently she turns scold and goes about railing shrilly at a world that criminally persists in thinking of other topics than the one which lies closest to her heart and loosest on her tongue.

Than a woman who is a scold there is but one more exasperating shape of a woman and that is the woman who, not content with being the most contradictory, the most paradoxical, the most adorable of the Almighty's creations--to wit, a womanly woman--tries, among men, to be a good fellow, so-called.

But that which is ordinarily a fault may, on occasion of extraordinary stress, become the most transcendent and the most admirable of virtues. I think of this last war and of the share our women and the women of other lands have played in it. No one caviled nor complained at the one-ideaness of womankind while the world was in a welter of woe and slaughter. Of all that they had, worth having, our women gave and gave and gave and gave. They gave their sons and their brothers, their husbands and their fathers, to their country; they gave of their time and of their energies and of their talent; they gave of their wonderful mercy and their wonderful patience, and their yet more wonderful courage; they gave of the work of their hands and the salt of their souls and the very blood of their hearts. For every suspected woman slacker there were ten known men slackers--yea, ten times ten and ten to carry.

Each day, during that war, the story of Mary Magdalene redeemed was somewhere lived over again. Every great crisis in the war-torn lands produced its Joan of Arc, its Florence Nightingale, its Clara Barton. To the women fell the tasks which for the most part brought no public recognition, no published acknowledgments of gratitude. For them, instead of the palms of victory and the sheaves of glory, there were the crosses of sacrifice, the thorny diadems of suffering. We cannot conceive of men, thus circumstanced, going so far and doing so much. But the women--

Oh, well, you know how women are!


(The end)
Irvin S. Cobb's Essay: "Oh, Well, You Know How Women Are!"

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