Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Physical Freedom for Women*


 

The two most conspicuous characteristics of the last century were its unexampled material welfare and its startling revelations in the field of science. In invention and discovery and the useful arts it stands unrivaled as an era of progress. It was an age of practical achievement rather than of speculation, faith, or dreams.

Along with these two main threads of development, however, we may observe a third, less obvious but not less significant-a decided spiritual awakening, a striving of the xxxxxx xxxxxxxxxd conscience, not only in regard to social conduct, but in respect to the more profound problems of existence and well being.

If there is indeed a "stream of tendency, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness," a stream of soul-seeking beyond self-seeking, without doubt that stream is making itself unmistakably felt in our generation.

In this vast struggle that out race seems to be making toward a fuller and more symmetrical realization of its ideal life, the part played by woman must be incalulable. It is preeminently her concern. She has been from time out of mind the treasurer of all the spiritual wealth of the race, and now that this wealth is in demand, it is to her we must come for our supply and for our help in adjusting that supply to our needs. In capacity as the greatest preserver and guardian of the mysterious gift of life, she has gathered untold stores of spiritual experience.

If her life, until recently, has been restricted to the cradle and the hearth, with little opportunity for cultivating that detachment and impersonality of nature which has led men to their victorious ventures in civilization, she has thus been enabled, even forced, to brood upon the secrets of her own heart and to discern the pressing need of the day and hour.

So it happens that woman's genius is not only deeper, more mystical, more impassioned and religious than man's, but it is at the same time more actual, more sentient, and less irrelevant. She has learned to keep close to the life of the senses and to the life of the soul, while she was obliged to let the life of reason go by unfulfilled. If she has little interest in abstract problems and principles, if she acts from impulse and judges from intuition, if she loves aspiration and ignores logic, it is because the long and inexorable economy of evolution has imposed these tendencies upon her being. If her genius is comparatively sterile in the realm of her thought and invention, in the realm of feeling, sensibility, and adjustment it is usually fertile and supreme.

Since all these interests in the deeper life of humanity are thus the particular care of women, and are only dimly appreciated by men, and since it is certain that the whole life of a man must remain unhappy and distraught if these interests are overlooked, there can be nothing of more vital importance in our advance toward racial perfection than the liberation and perfection of woman and woman's helpfulness; and nothing more natural.

Theology of a certain extreme type used to regard woman as the source, or at least the channel, of all evil. It would have been less absurd and nearer the truth to regard her as the source of all good. For, while she is seemingly less scrupulous than man, she is apt to be more conscientious, more persevering after the best, more intolerant of fundamental wrong, more fully conscious of the life and requirements of the soul, which really cares little for achievement and only asks to be made happy. She may frequently exhibit a startling disregard of codes and apparent reasons and conventions, but against the profounder laws of essential morality and goodness she seldom rebels.

The liberation of woman, therefore, would seem to be an essential factor in the ultimate liberation of humanity from the coil of evil and disaster that so terribly environs life. Without her ideality, her knowledge of immortal things, her instinct for the best, we should be forever involved in the maze of our own dreams, disasters, and reforms. Without her intense practicality and her genius of adaptation, we should find our conquest of the resources of nature of little avail, after all, in perfecting our earthly paradise. Woman is not by nature a rebel or reformer. She knows a better way. She is born a pragmatist, and lives to make the profound desires of the human heart come true.

While the religious and intellectual liberty of woman has long been assured, her social, political, and economic independence is still in debate. In other words, her spirit and mind are free, while in the circumstantial sphere she is still not fully emancipated. Whatever we may think on this subject, whether we hold the economic and political restriction to be part of a wise racial economy or only a survival of arbitrary oppression, there is yet another direction in which the actual liberation of women is gradually taking place, which can only be beneficial, and to which there can be no opposition save the inertia of custom. That is the physical and personal freeing of women's bodies from the slavery of hampering dress and restricted activity.

The superstition of women's physical helplessness, growing out of her actual incapacity in some respects and at certain times, has been long enough cultivated by women as a means of advantage and encouraged by men as an evidence of superiority. Under this old régime, the more impossible her prescribed dress made physical exertion, the better. Her very dependence won favors, and her idleness marked the wealth and magnanimity of her lord.

This is only the unpleasant side of the question, which reformers like to dwell upon, and we must not forget the great spiritual good woman has been able to bestow on the world even through her enforced exemption and leisure. It is a point that she herself is apt to lose sight of in her race for freedom. But the fact remains that the fashions of women's clothing of the past few centuries are unsuited to modern conditions, unworthy of modern woman, and are being finely superseded.

Women of culture and independence, who care for beauty and efficiency rather than conformity to unquestioned usage, are discarding the extremes of old-time restrictive costume in favour of more rational, more humane, and lovely fashions. Shoes, gowns, coats, and hats for women were never more comfortable than they are or may be now. The day of the small waist and the pinched foot is passing.

The women one sees everywhere are more free and graceful, more natural and gracious, and therefore more magical and enchanting than ever. Their walk and carriage are mobile, more ideal, natural, and seraphic with the sorcery of fine motion; their eyes are steadier, their voices more happy and level, as they go about the world untortured and undistraught

Women's participation in outdoor life and in active recreations and occupations tends in the same direction of personal freedom and fulfilment. When once the pleasure and power of free physical effort are experienced, and the supreme beauty of free motion is realized, restrictions of clothing become intolerable.

In the wonderful art of life, whatever is merely arbitrary and artificial must give place to what is more sane, inspired, helpful and lovely. Corsets are for cripples, and clogs for slaves; but emancipated men and women must have the freedom of unspoiled nature in order fully to evince and radiate the spirit and intelligence that inhabit them; else are we nothing but puppets and mummies, unfair, uncomfortable, and debased. For nothing is so brutal as pain. Nothing-neither hardship, nor sorrow, nor failure, nor ill fortune-can so quickly thwart and deform the soul and poison the mind as bodily torture.

It only remains for all women to demand and take this freedom, as the wisest are doing. It is a fundamental and influential liberty in which woman has everything to gain and nothing to lose. She must assume her right to a free body in order adequately to express her freedom of thought and feeling. One often wonders that economic and political equality should be so violently contended for by women who would not abandon the fetters of unnatural dress for a queen's sovereignty.

The strangest thing about the impressive parades in the agitation for equal suffrage is not the fact that so many women should have the enthusiasm to walk in them, but that so few of them should walk so convincingly. The spectacle of ten thousand advanced women voluntarily walking in the antiquated fetters of a by-gone age is a strange argument for their readiness to serve the cause of human freedom.

The whole question of personal or physical emancipation for women on equal terms with men would seem to be logically prior to their social and political equality; and failure to make use of the one would seem fundamentally to delay the realization of the other. Certainly, so far as the good of the race goes and the immediate happiness of all concerned, freedom to move and breath and live a normally comfortable, kindly, and beautiful bodily life is of first vital importance.


"Physical Freedom for Women," Harpers, Sept. 13, 1913 [back]