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"Emancipating Mother" from Woman's World

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Woman's World
Emancipating Mother
by Ellis Parker Butler

"Emancipation," said Miss Withers, "should, like Charity, begin at home."

"Oh!" gasped Mary. The smile that had been playing about her mouth faded, and the panic look came into her eyes, the same look that on the field of battle means the raw recruit is going to throw his rifle as far as he can throw it, and turn and run as hard as he can leg it. Miss Withers saw the panic look in her convert's eyes.

"And the reason is plain," she continued, keeping her cold gray eyes on Mary's face. "How can we go out and emancipate other women if the women in our own homes are slaves? What real work can we do for the Cause if we go forth and bluster and storm, and then come home and cringe? We should free our sisters and our mothers and ourselves before we go forth to free others."

There is truth in that, and Mary saw it, but since she had first become a convert she had not thought seriously of emancipation as in any way connected with her own home. Father was father, and he had always ruled, and the thought of his abdication was the last thought Mary would have had.

She Seemed Quite a Nice, Ordinary Girl

"But -- but --" said Mary, weakly.

"The women of my home," said Miss Withers, "are emancipated. I did it. Father is completely under my thumb."

So, for that matter, if she had wished to call attention to the fact, was Miss Withers' mother. For years her mother had been under Mr. Withers' thumb; then, during a most distressing period, she had been under two thumbs; now she was safely compressed under Miss Wither's thumb. If she had been asked what she thought of emancipation for women she would have said -- if she dared -- that it was merely a matter of changing thumbs.

But it was hard to imagine Mary Wilton thumbing any man. She was sweet and smiling and plump, like a well educated, well grown, female Cupid. If Miss Withers was the intellectual leader of the girls' college, Mary Wilton was the universal "crush" and sweetheart of the entire school. She was just the type of dear girl of which thoughtless persons say, "What is the use of educating her? She will be engaged before she is a Soph, and married six months after she leaves college, and her husband will adore her and spoil her."

"But -- but I never could emancipate mother!" said Mary, the panic light growing larger in her eyes. "My mother -- if you knew my mother! And my father -- if you knew father."

"And you might as well add, 'And if you knew me,'" said Miss Withers; "for that is what you are thinking. What is your father, a cutter or a blusterer? All men are one or the other."

Mary blushed.

"If you mean cold and severe and cutting, like Professor Birch, when you say 'cutter'," she said, "then father is a blusterer."

"Ramps and rages around?" said Miss Withers.

"My father," said Mary, holding her head high, "never ramps and rages, as you call it. Never! Unless he has provocation. He is a dear, good man!"

"And your mother is as meek as Moses, isn't she?" asked Miss Withers. "She does something -- she doesn't know what -- and your father 'ramps and rages, as I call it,' until he has her and you and the whole household scared to death. Isn't that it?"

"How did you know?" asked Mary with wide eyes. Miss Withers laughed her mirthless laugh.

"Heredity," she said, lightly. "I've been studying you, my dear. Do you know you are the meekest maid that ever dared take up emancipation for women? That's your mother. And yet you dared take it up, and you want to be militant. You said you would love to go out and pound a drum for the Cause. That's your bluster strain, my dear. And now, let us consider. The affair will be very simple."

Mary shuddered, for Miss Withers said this as a cool-blooded surgeon might say: "The operation will be simple. We will cut out his heart and put it back. The chance of recovery is one in ten million. That does not concern us. The operation will be a success."

"I am inclined to go far to help you, Mary," she said. "The movement for emancipating our sex has brains; it lacks charm, and you are charming. We need women like you. I had meant to spend my vacation at Chautauqua --"

"Oh, would you?" cried Mary, all smiles and dimples again. "Would you spend it with me?"

For, to have the wonderful Miss Withers with one was a monstrous honor. Just to coax her to spend one day was enough to set a girl using all her wiles and tactics, and a whole summer! Mary could hardly believe it. She wrote home at once, and it was a long letter, full of Miss Withers, and directions regarding new curtains for the guest room, and enthusiasm.

"You won't offend father?" she ventured to say to Miss Withers. "He is so good!"

"Why, my dear," said Miss Withers, "I am not going to do anything."

"Do I have to -- to quell him?" asked Mary, her blue eyes growing big with panic again. "Because I can't. I wouldn't dare."

"You would dare," said Miss Withers, "but you will not have to. Your mother will emancipate herself."

Once more Mary Wilton gasped. To say her mother would emancipate herself was to say the trembling dove would pounce upon and devour the raging lion.

"I don't see how," said Mary very, very doubtfully.

"Neither do I, yet," said Miss Withers, "but I will."

Miss Withers' vacation days began most auspiciously. The house stood well back from the road, among giant maple trees, with a splendid veranda for lazy hammocks. It was an old-fashioned house, with fireplaces and jigsaw trimmings. The floors were carpeted and although furnaces had been put in, the doors still hung between the rooms everywhere, as in the days when each room sought to preserve its own warmth. It was a home.

Mr. Wilton met the girls at the station, and he was exactly the big, happy, hearty man Miss Withers had imagined. His hair tumbled all over his head, and his clothes were loose and easy, and he had the bright, cheerful smile of the man that can fall into terrible tempests of rage when things go wrong. Like his house, he was old-fashioned, for although a successful businessman he had not the modern businessman's cold, calculating mind or manner.

At the gate Mrs. Wilton met them -- a sweet little woman, rather tremulous and very gentle but with intelligent eyes and forehead. She was old-fashioned too, a home-body, and even as she welcomed her daughter and Miss Withers she looked up at her big, burly husband with pride in him. It was as if she said: "This fine girl is your daughter, Joe; and this wonderful friend of Mary's is your daughter's wonderful friend. It is wonderful that I should have a husband that has such a wonderful daughter with such wonderful friends. I'm very happy."

Miss Withers understood it all at a glance, and she kissed Mrs. Wilton.

Three or four days passed. Miss Withers lounged in the hammocks and dropped asleep over her book quite like an ordinary person. In the late afternoons the village young folks dropped in. In the early evening there was tennis. The summer began quite like an ordinary summer. Even Mrs. Wilton noticed it.

"It's odd about Miss Withers," she said to Mary. "When you wrote what a mind she has, and how she was worshipped, and her leadership, I was afraid of her. And she seems quite a nice, ordinary girl."

"Ordinary!" exclaimed Mary. "Angeline ordinary! Mother!"

"Well, I cannot see anything extraordinary," said Mrs. Wilton. "I think I must have expected her to get up on a chair and make a speech as soon as she entered the house, or to hear her speak Greek as her ordinary mode of conversation. Do you know what book Miss Withers is reading, Mary?" asked Mrs. Wilton.

"The Golden Quest?" said Mary.

"Yes," said Mrs. Wilton, "and it is just an ordinary popular love story. And she's quite good looking. I'm not at all afraid of her."

Mary repeated this to Miss Withers, laughingly, as a joke, but Miss Withers did not take it as a subject for laughter. She gave it a smile, in recognition of the fact that it might possibly have a humorous side, and then spoke seriously.

"Sometimes a person can show his strength by showing his weakness," she said. "You think Sandow wonderful because you know he is only flesh and blood and bone like the rest of us. If he were a god or an automaton of steel he would be less remarkable. I want your mother to know I am only a human girl, and that, for all this intellect I am supposed to have, I am nothing to fear."

"So she will understand a woman can be emancipated and human both?"

"No, so she will understand that the very persons we fear most are the most human. If I had blustered at her intellectually she would have been awed, just as your father awes her by blustering physically. I want her to have an example of a terrifying person that does not terrify."

"I understand! You want to undermine the foundations of fear. But, Angeline, I think if mother did understand your greatness she would not fear it. Mother is -- well, she is afraid of noise! If you were a noisy intellectual she would be afraid of you. I think she is a dear little mouse sort of woman. When things stamp and roar she wants to put her hands over her ears and cower. When things bang and slam --"

"And stamp across the floor?"

"Yes," said Mary, with a short laugh. "When things stamp across the floor."

"I see you have a great many doors in your house," said Miss Withers, innocently.

Mary blushed.

"If father does slam one now and then," she said, "I don't mind. It is a sign he is through being angry. It is the climax when the doors begin to slam. And he cools off rapidly."

"I think it is time to talk to your mother," said Miss Withers.

Little Miss Wilton gasped with surprise when Miss Withers began to speak of Mr. Wilton. There were on the veranda, the three females, and Mrs Wilton was sewing. Miss Withers lay in one hammock with her book in her drooping hand, and Mary sat in the other, propped up with pillows, writing a letter on a pad.

"You're not happy," said Miss Withers, who had been watching Mrs. Wilton's face. Mrs. Wilton smiled and started, like a naughty child caught in the act.

"Oh, I am!" she said. "I am very happy. I --"

"Nonsense!" said Miss Withers, so pleasantly that it was not rude. "You look just like a bad child that is dreading a whipping. He hopes he will not get it, but he knows he will."

Mrs. Wilton flushed.

"I believe bad children should be whipped," said Miss Withers, "but I don't believe in whipping children that have behaved well. What is Mr. Wilton going to scold about tonight?"

"Mr. Wilton never scolds --" Mrs. Wilton began bravely, but her eyes fell before the cold gray eyes of Miss Withers. "At least," she said, and then she hesitated.

"Mary and I have been discussing him," said Miss Withers.

"In my day," said Mrs. Wilton, "children did not discuss their parents."

There was gentle rebuke in the tone.

"In my day they do," said Miss Withers. "They discuss everything, and want to know why, as they have a perfect right to know. They do it respectfully, but they do it. Why shouldn't you accept an invitation to dine with the Garth's now and then, if you wish?"

Mrs. Wilton sewed rapidly for a minute. Then she put her sewing in her lap.

"I shouldn't have accepted!" she said, regretfully. "I know I shouldn't! But Mrs. Garth insists so, and I can't offend her!"

"You should have accepted!" said Miss Withers. "A woman has as much right to make plans as a man has, and if they do not interfere with more important plans of his own he should be willing to share them. What right has he to rage and rear-up and --"

"Men are that way," said Mrs. Wilton with a sigh. "Joe is no exception. He is a good husband. He is a splendid man. And if he loses his temper now and then --"

"But he doesn't!" said Miss Withers, sitting up and putting her low-heeled, common sense shoes on the floor. "When a man loses his temper you can lead him around like a kitten, but men do not often lose their tempers. They take what little they have and stir it up and blow it up and make it puff and roar because they think it frightens us, just as the Japanese warriors, before their enlightened days, wore horrid masks to affright the enemy. And in our unenlightened days we let our men frighten us with masks of rage that are nothing but imitation grimaces."

"Mr. Wilton gets very, very angry," said Mrs. Wilton.

"He gets very, very noisy, no doubt," said Miss Withers. "He probably stamps up and down the room and slams the doors and --"

"And mother sits and trembles," said Mary.

"And, no doubt, not having been bad, she promises to be good!" said Miss Withers cuttingly. "Her nerves tingle and her head aches and she jumps at each stamp of the foot and just about keels over at the slamming of the door. And for weeks and weeks after each storm she does not dare call her soul her own, for fear of hearing more -- noise!"

"Mary," said Mrs. Wilton, gathering up her sewing, "can you sit there and hear your father spoken of in this manner?"

"Well, mother," said Mary, "you know that is just what he does, and just what you do. Why should we deny it? Angeline knows --"

"I know your father is one of the best of men, Mary," said Miss Withers as heartily as she ever said anything. "And I know he is one of the best of the old-fashioned husbands. I know there is not a bad spot in him. But I do know, Mrs. Wilton, that there is no reason why a woman should be the slave of any man. Do you think we are disrespectful? Is it disrespectful to wish a man cured of a small fault?"

Mrs. Wilton sank into her chair again.

"A woman must bear with something," she said. "All husbands have their flaws. Joe has but a few."

"And he need not have any," said Miss Withers. "That is what woman's emancipation means. The world has faults the men have not cured, and we women believe we can cure them. Some of the faults are in the men themselves, and we try to cure them first. Emancipation, like Charity, should begin at home."

"Yes," said Mrs. Wilton, sighing, "it all sounds sweet! But a man like my husband -- he has ruled so long --"

"He hasn't ruled correctly," said Miss Withers, "and why should anyone 'rule' a wife? A wife is not a servant; she is a partner. And as for ruling -- I suppose he doesn't beat you with a club?"

"Joe? Beat me?"

"Of course not!" said Miss Withers. "Then it is by the strong logic of his words?"

Even Mrs. Wilton could not forbear smiling as she thought of the loud incoherences with which Mr. Wilton added to his noisy rages.

"Then it is because he lets himself go," said Miss Withers. "The noise frightens you. Now, why should you be afraid of noise?"

"It frightens me," said Mrs. Wilton, wiping her eyes. "I can't bear to hear him stamp up and down and slam the door. It upsets me so! It makes me tremble. I -- I'm afraid of the lightning, too."

"I think you mean you are afraid of thunder," said Miss Withers, "because it is noisy. Do you know you can free yourself from Mr. Wilton's rages very easily?"

"No! No!" cried Mrs. Wilton. "I could never bear to combat him. Never!"

"Listen to Angeline, mother," said Mary, and Mrs. Wilton obeyed. She was so accustomed to obeying.

That evening, when Mr. Wilton came up from the village, the girls were already eating their dinner, and as soon as he saw them in the dining room his face fell. He knew what was expected of him. Mrs. Wilton must have made a dinner engagement. Probably she had made it weeks before and had never dared to tell him, postponing his objections until the last minute. He began growling at the foot of the stairs and growled all the way up. He had growled himself into a pretty fair temper by the time he reached the door of the bedroom, and when he opened it he stepped inside and slammed the door. Mrs. Wilton stood before her mirror, and as the door slammed she jumped involuntarily.

"Well?" he said. "I suppose this is another night I can't spend at home!"

"Mrs. Garth asked us to dinner, Joe," said Mrs. Wilton, sadly. "I couldn't refuse."

"And I suppose she asked us weeks ago!" he said, throwing off his coat. "You might tell me these things. I'll go. I always go, don't I? But to be told at the last minute --"

He stamped across the room and opened the closet door, and when he had taken out his clothes he slammed it, and slammed it hard. He slammed the bedroom door again when he went to the bathroom, and he slammed the bathroom door when he went in and when he came out. He slammed the bedroom door once more.

And each time he slammed the door his anger increased. He talked in a loud voice, punctuating his words with slammings of the door. His anger fed on the slamming of doors, and as Mrs. Wilton cowered, dreading each shock like a blow, he raged the more. He tramped the floor heavily. He was like a lion, tearing up and down the room, and his very vehemence frightened meek little mother. She seemed to grow smaller and smaller, and by the time he was dressed he had her thoroughly cowed, and he slammed the bedroom door and stamped down the stairs.

"You see," said Miss Withers, sitting at the table with her chin in her hand, "it is a gradual crescendo. He begins with a frown, and then he stamps upstairs. Then he slams a door."

She was not at all excited. She did not have that subdued calmness of a guest in a family where a quarrel is in progress. She was analytically calm. She might have been talking of the habits of the flora of Mars.

"It is practically a form of self-hypnotism," she said. "Slam leads to slam; slight annoyance leads to slam, and slam to anger and anger to great slam. And it all means nothing at all. He isn't really angry. It is a self-excited thunderstorm. I don't like to say the slightest word of disrespect regarding your father, Mary, but a man that has such tantrums should be spanked."

"Men are only children of a greater growth," said Mary, and it was not original, but, even lacking originality, it was rather true.

In the next few weeks Mrs. Wilton was very busy, as a woman always is when there are carpenters in the house. For years she had been talking of a few improvements she wished made, and her husband had agreed to them, but was forever putting them off. The dinner with the Garths made the improvements possible, for it had been an interesting dinner for Mr. Wilton. He had been a prince of cheerfulness at the dinner -- so quickly did his thunderstorms pass away -- and during the dinner Mr. Garth had mentioned a deal he would like to handle but was unable to finance without assistance. Mr. Wilton saw the merits of the matter at a glance, and as he had spare cash in bank he offered to take half the venture, and as Mr. Garth was overjoyed, it was arranged then and there that Mr. Wilton should take a trip to Florida to arrange the details. He left the next day, and the third day thereafter the carpenters were in the house.

Mr. Wilton returned three weeks later to find his house quite changed: For a few hundred dollars it had been modernized, so far as the interior was concerned, and as with most things he had put off, he was glad his wife had carried it through.

"We must have Garth and his wife over to see this soon," he said, as he walked through portiered doors and over waxed floors and admired the fresh white woodwork and tasteful wallpaper. "Garth has good taste. He'll like this."

"I am so glad you like it," said Mrs. Wilton. "Miss Withers was such a help. She suggested taking down most of the doors. They don't use them much now. She suggested this green wallpaper. She suggested waxed floors and rugs. The carpets were worn out, Joe."

"I know it," he said. "I like these rugs, too."

"Miss Withers suggested rugs. She selected them."

"She has good taste, that girl. She has good sense, too. Good, quiet girl. I'm glad Mary likes her. She'll make a good wife for some young fellow. Where is she?"

"She has gone home. Or rather, she has gone to a convocation of the Advanced Circle of Female Suffragists."

"What! She is not one of them, is she? Why, she -- she's a lady."

"Many of them are," said Mrs. Wilton. "Most of them are, I think. Mrs. Garth is one. I attended one of the meetings here with her last week."

"You!" said Mr. Wilton, bursting into laughter. "You attended one of their meetings! You are fooling me! What is the joke?"

"No joke, Joe. I joined."

"You joined! That's too good! You joined the suffragists! Why, my dear, meek, little woman, you are no suffragist. What would you do if you had a vote?"

"I don't know," said Mrs. Wilton. "I'd ask you how to vote, I suppose. I think most of the women would ask their husbands. But I'd like to have the right to vote if I wanted to. I'd like to be able to help whatever side you were on, if you needed my vote."

"You a suffragist!" repeated Mr. Wilton. "Why, you'll be emancipated, the next thing I know."

"By the way, Joe," said Mrs. Wilton. "I've invited the Garths to dinner tonight."

"What's that?" said Mr. Wilton, his face falling.

"I say I invited the Garths to dinner tonight, dear," said Mrs. Wilton again, in quite a matter of fact manner. "Now, this new chair I thought we needed badly. Miss Withers helped me pick --"

They were in the parlor. Mr. Wilton ignored the chair.

"You don't mind that I invited the Garths, do you, Joe?" said Mrs. Wilton, but not with the usual tone of half fear.

"Mind? Of course, I don't mind!" said Mr. Wilton. "Why should I mind? But to come home from a long trip and then be told, the very first thing, that we are going to have a lot of the neighbors dragged in!"

"Not a lot. Only two, Joe," said Mrs. Wilton, "Only Mrs. and Mr. Garth."

If his wife did not, as usual, begin to cower, Mr. Wilton did not notice. He was working himself up into a fury as usual.

"A lot of folks dragged in the very night I get home!" he said. "And I wasn't asked, was I?"

He started for the hall door. He walked almost to it before he noticed there was no door, only an opening with a portiere. He hesitated and turned back.

"I suppose I don't have to be asked," he said, scornfully, and Mrs. Wilton looked at him with the first rudiments of fear. He snapped his fingers and began his stamping up and down. At the first step his foot struck one of the loose, slipping rugs. It glided several inches with him, and he had to throw out one hand to catch his balance.

"Oh, no!" he said, "I don't have to be --"

Luckily, he caught the edge of the mantel

Luckily he caught the edge of the mantel with his hand. The floor, where it was bare was waxed to the smoothness of glass. Mrs. Wilton was not lying on the sofa with her hands over her ears, watching him with fear-filled eyes. She was standing just as she had stood. She was not triumphing. She seemed to be watching him with gentle curiosity. Her face showed regret. It might have been regret that she had invited the Garths. More likely it was regret that her husband was giving way to temper.

"I thought," she said, "you might like to have them over. You must have a great deal to tell Mr. Garth."

"You thought!" said Mr. Wilton. "Oh, yes, you thought --"

He began his stride again, slipped twice and stood still. It was no use trying to stamp across that field of glass.

"You thought!" he said, trying to work up the rage that did not come, because there was no door to slam and no floor he could stamp up and down. "Yes, you thought!"

He moved cautiously to the hall.

"That's always the way with you women! You think!"

He put his hand on the knob of the front door, which was standing wide open.

"You think, don't you." he said. "You think about getting a lot of people into the house. That's what you think about."

He tried to rage, but he made a very poor attempt. The necessary accessories were lacking. His wife seemed hardly so much as interested in his poor, weak attempt. But he had the front door still. They could take away the inner door that slammed so the house shook on its foundations! He did not think all this. He did not know he had been trying to find a door to slam, or that he wanted to stamp on a safe floor. He only faintly knew his anger was not a success. But now, with his hand on the knob of the front door all his indignation welled up. It was as if a knight, cowed by numbers, suddenly found his sword. He glared once at Mrs. Wilton and stepped outside. He drew the door shut with a mighty pull.

The house should have echoed and reechoed, but it did not. When the door had closed within six inches it hesitated. He jerked angrily, but the door would not slam. Slowly and sedately, it closed of its own accord.

Mr. Wilton glowered at it for a moment, and then he seated himself on the front steps and looked out across his lawn. He sat there five minutes, and then the door opened behind him.

"Joe, dear," said Mrs. Wilton, "it is time you went up and put on your dinner clothes."

"All right," said Mr. Wilton cheerfully, and he got up, and went up, and whistled as he put them on.

Mrs. Wilton was emancipated.



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