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Our Lives, Circa 1919

The ways we were

In 1919, the Jewish Daily Forward ran a series on its woman’s page called “Seven Stages in the Life of a Woman!’ Written by a man (pen name: Lead Pencil), it represents — ostensibly — the life of the Yiddish-speaking Eastern European immigrant woman.

At sixteen, women are the amusement for the true public — men. Men pay for tickets and woman is the actor.

The schoolgirl becomes drunk from the first compliment paid her as a woman. At sixteen, she is a princess. She becomes a dreamer. All is hers and all is made for her. Only a villain, a murderer, would pull the veil away from her false world and show her the drab path that awaits her.

She becomes twenty-five. The dream disappears from her eyes, from her face, from her whole body. The long-awaited husband becomes a hard, heavy question.

When she was sixteen (and first entered the sweatshop) it was an honor to get up early and go to work by streetcar with grown-up people. But now work is a noose around her young life, the closeness of the streetcar is a hell, the shop is hard penal labor.

The year thirty threatens like a brute, like a malicious ghost. Fear takes her to a matchmaker, and from all her early dreams comes a small, poor business deal: She becomes the bride of a stranger, a foreign boy, a man whom she does not know.

Suddenly a man is working to support her. An unknown man is so close to her, closer than her mother, than her father. She is away from the authority of the foreman in the shop, but she is under the authority of her husband. She begins to live not for herself but for him. Instead of the machine in the shop, there are the pots in the oven. Soon she is not saying or thinking her own thoughts, only his. She has stopped belonging to herself.

The coming of a baby gives the young mother a purpose to her life. Everything was only an introduction to this goal.

Between husband and wife can come mistrust, duplicity — but not between father and mother. Life stands on a secure basis. She has a child, a child, and her husband is a father, a more loving and close person with a thousand ties to the home, their little garden of Eden.

The glow has disappeared. She has another child and another and another. She has only anguish and fear. The beautiful name of mother is no more than a cover for the work of the woman who is in truth a maid, a baby nurse, and an incubator to bring new people into the world.

She doctors herself and applies all shameful remedies so no life will come. She is alone in the struggle. She turns against herself with a knife so that life won’t come. She strikes, ready to lose her own life.

She loses her attractiveness; her husband remains almost the same. He meets new people, goes to lectures and meetings. He is like a bird. Every year he flies away further and higher.

She gives her whole spirit to her children. They fly away also. She clings to her house, even though it is her prison. She doesn’t give her husband his freedom, for in his freedom is her first breath enslaved.

Every time she takes a child’s jacket in her hand she feels a burst of happiness, but how imprisoned she is by those jackets. She has lived so little. Her youth and men call out to her, battle with the mother in her — the mother wins.

Every gray hair is like Tisha B’Av. Looking for a long time in the mirror, she cannot determine how she looks. Sometimes she seems young and pleasing, sometimes she feels heavy and dissatisfied with herself, with everyone, with the whole world.

She is thirty-two years old. She has made peace with the middle years like a calf tied up with ropes.

The fiftieth year draws near. She thinks: If the past were now, I would know how to take advantage of it.

The daughters take all their friends to her for advice about their male acquaintances. At night, when her children sleep, she looks at them as if they were babies. Her children have brought her peace, sunny days of love.

She does not feel old. On the contrary, she has never had as much zest for living or felt as much youth as now. She will not miss a banquet, a wedding, a theatre performance.

All is taken care of; the egoism she had as a young girl is coming back. She is a woman by the handle of life’s door. This makes life dear and she wants to grab more and more of it.

If she were alone now — without children, without grandchildren, without a husband — she would feel like a young girl. She would fly on wings.

The hair becomes gray, grayer, white.

Maxine Schwartz Seller is a professor of education and history at the State University of New York at Buffalo.