On a dark and cloudy Friday morning six years ago, with the rain pouring down on the commons at Columbia University and students shielding their heads under umbrellas crippled by the wind, I holed up against the early summer chill on the Rare Books and Archives floor of Butler Library hoping to discover Columbia’s early history of organized theatre productions.
My father had graduated from Columbia’s early architecture program, and while at Columbia he had been President of the Dramatists Circle, which I discovered when my mother gave me a copy of ‘The Second Entertainment and Ball of the Henrik Ibsen Dramatic Circle, An International Group of Young People.‘ As President of the Henrik Ibsen Dramatic Circle, my father had written the introduction to that program.
I had performed in my first theatre production, as The Student in Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson, when I was in high school, and even though I continued to perform in theatre productions in college and had performed with and directed for a fledgling theatre company in New York as an adult, it took my mother another two decades to tell me that my father had shared (or was it the other way around?) my love for the theatre. Thus my curiosity about my father and the history of theatre at Columbia.
I had a specific idea what I was looking to find in my research, but left plenty of time to take the scenic route if I had to, because I knew there is no such thing as an autostrada when it comes to research. Soon enough I came across Some Guides for Feminine Energy, the Phi Beta Kappa address given in 1915 by Virginia C. Gildersleeve, a student a Barnard College, and I found myself on an interesting detour.
There would have been no way for me to pass up an opportunity to read an essay that begins, “An apology is necessary, I feel, for the feminine nature of my subject,” and curious about what Ms. Gildersleeve was apologizing for in 1915, I expected to read a full-bore feminist rant (why else would she be asking for forgiveness, given her chosen title) but was instead surprised to read an insightful public musing about women and work, rife with such gems as:
The chief reason why our sex has been so strenuously thrusting itself towards the front of the stage…is that for the past fifty years or so, because of rapid economic and social changes, we have been storing up a great reservoir of unused feminine energy.” p. 363
Unused feminine energy? What kind would that be? Sexual, I wondered? Surely Ms. Gildersleeve wouldn’t have publicly addressed the Columbia University campus about sex in 1915 (although I was rather hoping that is what I would discover), so I read on:
Even fifty years ago the home was an industrial organization which as a rule supplied work enough to absorb the energy of all its feminine members – in directing and laboring at the many industries which it necessarily contained, in bearing and caring for the numerous children of the household, in educating to the profession of domesticity the young girls, who could have no other mode of vocational training save this system of home apprenticeship. This honorable and necessary labor has been largely done away with by the rapid removal of work from the home to the factory and other institutions. p. 364
Wait a minute. Was I really reading an essay about a Barnard College student who suggested, in 1915 during the Great War, that feminism had nothing to do with wanting parity with men, nothing to do with wanting to become financially independent, nothing to do with having been repressed at home with the drudgery of women’s work, nothing to do with wanting to throw off the shackles of marriage, child-rearing and home-making, but, rather, that women needed “something to do with their energy” because modern technology was robbing them of their purpose in life?
This was the first time I had read such a simple, humble and sensible argument for feminism, which Ms. Gildersleeve slyly referred to it as “feminine energy”. I continued, and stopped short at:
The extraordinary and rapid transformation is sometimes brought concretely and vividly to my mind when I secure light by clicking a button, and remember my father’s account of how his mother and the other women of the household labored long and carefully to manufacture candles. Think of the long working hours saved for me each year by the one change in domestic conditions. I may use these hours ill; but you cannot expect me to spend them in sitting idle, nor, while the electric light stands at my elbow, to go back to making candles. p. 365
I closed my eyes and imagined the world my father’s Italian ancestors lived in during the 1800s in Italy, when “woman’s work” was very much about candle making, butter churning, and vegetable farming, when clothes making, bread baking and “home-making” were as essential and elemental to the success and survival of a family as was man’s work.
I thought about all of the modern mothers I know who work so hard to keep their children—both their boys and their girls—occupied, the soccer and baseball games, the tennis and ballet lessons, piano and violin instruction, the endless clubs and activities that keep children’s physical energy engaged from the moment they wake up in the morning until they put their heads on their pillows at night.
I wondered where along the way the modern conversation about feminism had displaced, shelved, ignored and perhaps altogether forgotten the basic practical wisdom that suggests that women, purely for physical reasons, need to be as actively involved in life as their partners, fathers, brothers, and boy children.
I wondered how I myself had forgotten this most basic of truths and still—after all these years as a working woman who believes that love is not possible between couples if both individuals are not fulfilling what they choose to fulfill in their own lives—tend to defend any given “feminist” quest as an intellectual, spiritual, psychological or creative need.
I for one, have never been able to sit still. I need to dance, to fly, to exercise, to be physically engaged, to garden, to plant vegetables, to cook, to clean my own house. Is it all an expenditure of physical energy? Yes. But it is also the creation of more physical energy. Is it practical and time-consuming to cook every meal I eat and to cook for those I love? Yes. But it also keeps me connected to the sun rising and setting, to nature, to a core definition of nurturing one’s body. It is a balm to a modern autopilot life.
I imagined myself sitting in the audience in 1915, delivering Ms. Gildersleeve’s lines myself…
What outlets are to be found during these years for the average healthy, intelligent, energetic graduate of private school or college, who feels that she must have some useful work to do and who cannot possibly endure an idle, futile existence as a social parasite, however pampered and petted? p. 366
…and it struck me as being unfortunate that, 98 years later, we still do not understand that women and men are essentially no different in their need to fully use and explore their talents and abilities and brains and bodies—whether that need be called “feminine” energy or “masculine” energy it should matter not. Why would an intelligent culture waste either resource?
When I read…
My second pleas to the alarmed observes of “feminism” is for their realization that these more or less superficial changes in the organization of the household, the economic and social system of the community, and the occupations of women, will not change those fundamental emotions which through all the ages have swayed the souls of women and of men. The real “new woman” is not a fear-some monster planting a bomb beneath the family hearthstone, but at heart a well intentioned creature, trying to work out, amid new and rather perplexing conditions, a situation in which human happiness may best prosper, and the old, kindly human affections find full and free play. p. 375
….I wondered whether it would take another 98 years before the genders realize how interdependent and interconnected they are.
I won’t reveal what became of Virginia Gildersleeve. You can discover that for yourself at the below link:
You can’t always get what you want, mmm!
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find, that ya…
Get what you need, Oooh, yeah!
– You Can’t Always Get What You Want, The Rolling Stones, 1969
NOTE: A version of this post was published on my Women. Our Time Has Come. blog on Google+ on June 22, 2013. I have updated it here, given the importance of the current #MeToo Movement.