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According to Gender

The war is changing even the “ Woman’s Page.” In metropolitan papers it exists as only a sort of vestigial structure. Jam-tart recipes and chiffon-blouse patterns have been superseded by expert advice on wartime economy. This appears under headings that modestly appeal to the “housekeeper,” not delimiting the whole field of women’s interests to the pickling of young cucumbers. Some women must have impressed some editors that though they desired emancipation neither from tarts nor from chiffons their range of interests had stretched a little further. Exit therefore the Woman’s Page, as such, from most papers of national importance.

The war has still plenty of work to do. Examine any fairly representative collection of papers outside New York City. Almost invariably they radiate a conception of woman corresponding to that of the earnest fashion authority who wrote in one of her recent bulletins to a large newspaper circuit: “ Women there are, precious little tidbits of humanity, who should never wear dignity dresses, because they are weighted down and their personality is all but extinguished by such attire.” The papers who publish “ Things of interest to Women “ go several steps further. They seem to apply this doctrine of the tidbit’s precarious personality to every woman. They try to shelter her from dignity’s extinguishing power by focusing her eye on a medley of “ How to remove peach stains. Cure for wrinkles. Pongee underwear. Banana Delight. What the mirror tells. Care of Baby in summer. How to have beautiful hands. When to wear ear-rings.”

There is of course no reason to be agitated about it. If one does not value the information, cut from a Southern newspaper, that one’s face can be kept nice and pink by rubbing it every night with fresh strawberry juice, one can skip it; along with the dubious suggestion that to cure a severe cold one need only sprinkle the bedding plentifully with turpentine. Nor is it necessary to read the fiction that the management deems suited to the Woman’s Page, the moist Confessions of a Wife, or the extended Revelations of Honeymoon House. All these irritations can be easily enough avoided. What remains is the annoyance over wasted space. The little actual information printed here can be obtained far more authoritatively elsewhere from the magazines that frankly cater to the traditionally feminine interests. Those interests are well taken care of without aid from the newspapers. If the daily press feels that it must segregate items of special importance to women i« need not encroach on the territory of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Witness the admirable column Are Women People? conducted by Alice Duer Miller in the Sunday Tribune. Until women’s struggle for recognition as “ people “ is nearer a successful finish than it is now, segregation for their news is perhaps a good thing. The press could really accomplish something by giving a definite page to the record of women’s hopes and achievements as citizens of the world. The suffrage problem, the trade union problem, the equal pay for equal work problem, all these and others are being precipitated by the war, and they furnish material for the conducting of several pages, bring further supplemented by the women’s activities growing directly out of the war.

But material or no material, it will be a long while before any such sublimation of the Woman’s Page is more than accidental. For this there is a fundamental reason, an insidious reason, one almost impossible to fight. The tidbit conception still pervades the newspaper mind. It breaks out most obviously in the recipe and pattern miscellany but its real strength is in that journalistic attitude which makes even metropolitan reporters worry whether a woman elected to public office has brown or red hair and whether she weara crepe or gingham dresses. The records of suffrage show that women are gradually becoming recognized as people in the eyes of the law, but the record of events in any newspaper shows that the eyes of the press are yet as those of a very recent kitten when it comes to separating a woman’s achievements from the fact that she is a woman. The number of examples is equal to the numbty of times women step into publicity.

No fact about Ruth Law’s career was more copiously dwelt upon than her asking for powder directly after that first sensational flight. Probably it wasn’t a fact, but if so it was distended out of all relation to its importance. It was iniated even to a sub-headline: “Ruth Law De Powder From First Woman Met.” Very much as if an account of one of Guynerper’s exploits should herald in heavy type that soon after descending he wanted a shave. Another example is Mrs. Grace Humiston. Not one of her many interviewers failed to publish the precise warp, woof, and pattern of whatever dress she happened to wear, and one report stated authoritatively that she seemed to be fond of her home, because she kept in telephonic touch with domestic affairs when she was at her office. But the most shining instance of recent record is Miss Jeannette Rankin, Congresswoman from Montana. The exact nuance of her hair was controversial newspaper matter for weeks after her election. Conservative organs proclaimed in long paragraphs that she made her own hats and dresses and a certain “ wonderful lemon meringue pie.” Even the editorial writer took a whack: “ The first official appearance of a woman in Congress was a gladsome affair. We believe that if the spirit of the Fathers had been consulted as to her most becoming attire on such an occasion, they would have chosen black Georgette crepe over white, trimmed in black satin with a white collar and white yoke; which was ‘R’hat she had on. They might have objected because she wore no hat, but that is nothing for anyone to be certain about.” In the same editorial comes an excellent sample of that newspaper facetiousness which is another manifestation of the tidbit conception, “Alas that Representative Rankin should have voted for Jim Mann when there were so many handsomer, more patriotic males all about her. And shouldn’t she for the sake of suffrage have voted for herself?”

The paper quoted writes, of course, only according to its anti-suffrage lights. But although the radical press has a more cordial tone, it too is afflicted with a certain myopia in the matter of distinguishing between woman and her achievements. One New York advocate of woman suffrage writes enthusiastically of a speech made by Miss Rankin at a gathering in her honor: “Her white chiffon dress fluttered in the breeze of her own eloquence. Her white satin cloak lay over the back of the chair, and her white satin pumps were small and dainty. She was a debutante at the coming-out party of women into the class of real people.” There is a kindly intention here, but there is also a little of the joy of the dog-owner whose Pomeranian has successfully toured the room on its hindlegs, “the marvel being not that it walks so well, but that it walks at all.” The marvel is enhanced by emphasizing the doggishness of the dog, by proving that it is no advanced circus-brute with uncanine aspirations, but that it can do this artful thing and still remain in its decorative lap-dog sphere. All unconscious, no doubt, of any such undercurrent the benevolent newspaper tries to crown the success of its suffrage protégée by insisting on her entire femininity, the authentic femininity of height of heel and depth of powder.

It is for a different reason that a hostile paper writes of Miss Rankin: “Even after entering politics, she refused to forsake the old household arts, cooking and needlework.” Here it seems to be the motive of fear reassured. It is a throb of almost pathetic relief. Domestic anarchy may darken the future, but one of its harbingers can make lemon meringue pie and the cataclysm is at least postponed. Yet whether moved by pride or by anxiety the journalistic attitude toward woman outside her Victorian sphere appears essentially the same. Almost half the news-emphasis is sex-emphasis. That this was the natural position to take against the first feminine interlopers, one can easily understand. It is less easy to see why it should still be so all-pervasive. Perhaps it is the crystallization of an attitude into a habit, a far more tenacious evil. But even for this ill the war may prove an unexpected panacea. Not the most reactionary paper can afford space to the appearance and domestic accomplishments of each impersonal unit in a regiment of girl soldiers, or to each and every member of an army of women workers. By sheer force of numbers if by nothing else women will attain to the status of people, of ordinary human beings, allowed to pursue their unphotographed way in whatever vocation they may choose; and when they deserve comment getting it not according to gender but on the actual merits of the case. And in that day there shall be no more Woman’s Pages, nor shall reporters worry whether a woman treads the halls of Congress in high-heeled shoes or in Groundgrippers.