Good Housekeeping Marriage Book, The

Eleanor Roosevelt


Should Wives Work?

Is it possible for a woman to marry and still have a career? This question has been asked of me so many times that I am glad at last to sit down and write some of the things which always come to my mind.

To begin with, the question is foolishly worded, for there are very few women who have careers. Those with real careers are a little group by themselves needing separate consideration. Most women marry and work, and the work will not be a "career." The question put this way also seems to imply that marriage in itself is not a career. Anyone who believes that has no real understanding of marriage.

There is no general answer which any one individual can give to this question, no matter how it is worded, for it is one of those questions that depends for its answer largely upon the individuals involved, both men and women.

The question should really be phrased in this way: Are you able to carry on two full-time jobs? Have you the physical strength and the mental vigor to do this day in and day out—particularly when you are young, first married, adjusting yourself to a stranger's personality, and perhaps bearing children, which is an added physical strain?

I can hear you ask, "Why do you say, 'adjusting yourself to a stranger's personality'?" The answer is quite simple: no two people really know each other until they have been married for some time, and one of the most exacting duties of family life is the adjustment of the various personalities that make up the family circle. The mother adjusts herself not only to her husband, but to each of her children and to the other near relatives, and she tries to explain and to adjust them to one another. It is not always an easy task.

More and more households are being managed by the housewife alone, particularly among the young people. That means pretty nearly constant attention to household tasks, if a good job is to be done, in the same way that it would be done in an office or wherever the woman might be0 employed for pay. This housekeeping job can be as scientific and as engrossing as any office job, or it may be a slipshod, haphazard affair with everything at sixes and sevens. It all depends upon the woman whether she makes this side of marriage a career or not.

There is another important aspect to this career. Any woman who means to make marriage a successful career will study her husband, his capabilities, his interests, even his peculiarities. She should know about his business and about his pleasures. It is possible for her to be a great factor in his success, not by thrusting herself forward as an advisor, but by understanding so well his character and his career that she can supplement his shortcomings, bring out the best that is in him, and expand his interests by adding her own. Thus she can have a vicarious career by virtue of what she has put into her husband's.

Perhaps the woman who does this is the happiest and most successful woman, but she has to have the kind of temperament that can do it and do it well, and in addition the circumstances of married life have to make it possible. We might as well face the fact that today circumstances are making it more and more difficult for a woman to lead what two generations ago was considered the normal and natural life for any woman. In those days even a woman who did not marry tried to find a niche that she could fill in somebody's home. A maiden aunt or cousin often took the place of a nurse or governess or even a hired servant and was looked upon with pity, and expected to work early and late for her room and board, and to be as devoted to the children of the family as though they were her own.

Women today would not accept this situation so calmly, and the fact that they can be and are largely self-supporting changes their economic condition. It also changes their relationship to men and marriage.

The economic situation is such today that few young people can marry at the age when their grandparents did. Many young people, rather than put off their marriage indefinitely, get married with the realization that both of them will have to continue working and that children are out of the question until they have laid enough money aside or the man has had enough increase in salary to take care of all the family expenses.

This is not a case of whether you prefer marriage or a career. It is a case of marriage and work together, or no marriage and work alone. Work must go on in either case. For most women there is something so satisfying in creating a home that they do it frequently by themselves. It seems to fulfill a deep inner need to do the little homely things of everyday living, and I think that is one reason why so many young people get married and set up homes of their own long before their financial resources warrant it.

If they want to have children as soon as they are financially established, they usually do so, but a craving for a home of her own is the first stirring of maturity in a woman. To many women, however, a home is not wholly satisfying unless she is making it for someone else, and nature has made most women yearn for a man to mother.

I know one young couple who were married when the boy was getting twenty-five dollars a week and the girl was getting the same as a stenographer. Both of them went on working. Everything seemed to be going very well, and she managed her two jobs quite successfully. The most successful part of it was the fact that she induced her husband to feel an equal responsibility for the house. I remember that when I dined with them, he put on an apron after dinner and helped wash the dishes as naturally as if that were the normal occupation for a man. When a marriage works out this way, it is very successful, especially if the man has a knack for doing things about the house, because it keeps him busy when his wife is busy.

Children can be postponed if two young people have a home and a mate. If a woman has to work to have a home and husband, she will do it happily, but I do not think that always means that she longs to work. It is unfortunate that so often she is forced to for material security.

Where circumstances verge on poverty, marriage is even more of a career, for then more depends on the woman's ability to manage. Of course, when it comes to the mothers of families who work in mills, factories, and stores, we know quite well that there is no question of choice—poverty drives them, and they work because they have to, and only a few would hesitate if they were offered an opportunity to stay at home and look after their home and their children.

I remember visiting a mill town once, and as the women came off the night shift—for there were no laws at that time in that particular state against women's working on night shifts—they met their husbands going to work on the day shift. We followed one woman home. Tired from the hours in the mill, she nevertheless had to set to work immediately to get the children fed and off to school. Then she had her house to set to rights, washing and ironing to do, and dinner to get for the children and supper to be left for the man when he came back from work as she went on. In the afternoon she snatched a few hours of sleep, and the children who were not in school played unwatched and uncared for. She knew that her home life was not satisfactory, and she did not work long hours in the mill because she wanted to, but simply because there was not enough food to go around unless her earnings supplemented those of her husband.

There are women, however, who work for the love of working. They may love their homes and their children and still crave the satisfaction of doing a job themselves. Sometimes it is just because they love the kind of work they do; sometimes it is because they must have the independence which being able to earn money gives them.

I know one young woman who has managed to develop for herself work which she can do in her own home. She feels that her children need her at home, and yet she was very unhappy without some outside interests. She had a musical talent which she shared with her husband, and together they developed a unique project which involved research and execution, giving them a joint interest and allowing her to earn a little extra money.

Very occasionally it is possible for a man and a woman to work together and to have an even closer tie than they would have if the woman remained the man's helpmate only in the home.

The happiness of husband and wife is often wrecked by too little dependence on each other, for to be happy two people must need each other in everything they do. I could tell you many stories of young people who have drifted apart partly because the man was too absorbed by his business and the woman did not have enough to do. One story I remember, however, is a little different, because it was a case in which both the man and his wife had interests which were so divergent that neither of them took any pleasure in being with the other or in hearing about what the other was doing. The man wanted to lead a rather quiet life, and the woman was young and pretty, active-minded, physically energetic. She wanted to do something which would bring in money and make it possible for her to have some of the luxuries and pleasures that she coveted and to which her husband was completely indifferent. They stuck to their own interests, and while they lived in the same house and while they had children and while they were never separated in a formal way, they could not have been further apart if they had lived at the two poles. I question if the children ever knew what it was to feel a community of interests in that home.

It would be well if men realized the need that some women have for a little financial independence. Occasionally marriage is wrecked because the woman feels that her work at home is as much a financial contribution as is the man's work out in the world. She finds no recognition of this in their relationship or in their environment and becomes more and more restless and dissatisfied.

I remember one woman saying rather bitterly to me once that she made more money by saving and good management than her husband did, but that he seemed to think the generosity of giving was all on his side, forgetting that she gave her strength and her time. The work which she did she might have paid someone else to do; and her careful buying actually put in the bank money which her husband could use in his business.

As a rule, the woman spends the major part of the family income, but if it is given her for the house and she has to resort to subterfuge to get any personal pocket money out of it, it is not a happy arrangement. Of course, when two people are planning together every penny of expenditure, the case is different; but when a man has any money which he calls his own, a woman should have some also in recognition of the services she performs for the home. She is more apt to make her housekeeping a good job and to be happy in her family relations.

In many cases a woman who holds a job feels that she is a better companion for her husband because she has more individuality and comes to him more full of different interests when they meet. She may not have the kind of temperament which makes it possible for her to bring up her children herself. She may find that even with less time to give them, she can really do more for them. All these things are subjects for the individuals to consider and decide together.

"Why do you work?" I once asked a friend of mine who seemed very weary.

She smiled and said: "I work because I found that when Stephen came home at night, I had nothing to talk to him about. He is out in the world and meets people and does things. I was in a little backwater and lost the habit of thinking about the same things that are on his mind. I had to go back to work to regain the same atmosphere and to be a companion."

"But," I said, "you have to pay some one to take care of the children. "Wouldn't it be cheaper to do it yourself?"

"Far cheaper," she said, "but even the children are better off. Now, when I come home, I am full of interests I can share with them, and I am nowhere nearly so impatient as I used to be when I answered their questions all day long and directed every minute of their lives. I do not mind now saying, 'Johnny, wash your hands,' or, 'Sara, don't bite when you fight.' I have to do it only between 6 and 8 p.m. But if I do it from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m., many a harsh word is spoken, and many a hasty gesture passes between us, much to my regret afterward."

One thing is certain: Any woman who decides to work after she is married must have good health and be a fairly well-disciplined person, and her life must be systematized so that one part does not interfere with the other, and the man must understand and sympathize with her interests and desires.

The man's temperament is as important as the woman's, for there are men who deeply resent their wives' doing any work and who want to feel that their home is entirely dependent on their own efforts. There are other men who go even beyond that and want to feel that the woman whom they have married is dependent upon them for all she has in a material way, forgetting often that their mental and spiritual contacts count also in any relationship. Then again there are men who, if their wives are self-sufficient and capable, will do exactly what so many women are accused of doing—become parasites and willingly allow themselves to be taken care of in every way, even in a material way.

I knew one man whose wife mothered him until he completely lost his initiative. He was sweet to her, but he really felt that life was made by her and he had to make no effort. Suddenly he met a woman who was weaker and more clinging than he was, and she awakened in him all his dormant chivalrous instincts. He asked his wife for a divorce. He married the weaker woman and became a strong man. The first wife remade her life, which was not astonishing; but he remade his, which seemed unbelievable.

All the things I have mentioned and one more enter into this question of whether a woman who has the ability to do a job outside the home should do it or not. In the last few years I have been getting many letters from women whose husbands have fallen ill or died and left them alone or with dependents. Those who have had no training are the most pathetic, but those who once worked and then gave up altogether are in almost as difficult a position.

I doubt that it is ever wise for a woman who has once had a skill to allow herself to lose it entirely, for, granting that she makes of marriage a career, there may come a time when she will need work, and there will certainly come a time when her children are grown. If the demands on her time are fewer and she is well, she may feel the necessity of taking up some kind of regular work again, particularly if in her youth she was trained to keep busy. This may not be a financial necessity, but merely something to take the place of the duties which were hers when marriage was her only job.

In my own experience I have found there is one other thing that may happen to a woman. For some reason she may have to interest herself in things that have seemed to be more directly her husband's interests and in which she never expected to take any personal part. She may find she becomes interested for a variety of reasons. This necessity of developing interests of her own which take her out of her home will find her better equipped if she has once done a job for pay and kept on doing it now and then throughout her life so that she is able to maintain a professional attitude toward all work, both in her home and out of it.

There are just a few women who have special gifts, who have established careers before they meet the men they wish to marry. If they give up these careers, they may find much of the savor of life is removed when they are not doing something which requires independent thought and initiative. These are the women who go to work because they are conscious of a capacity within themselves which cannot be denied, and they should marry only men who understand this and are willing to make some compromises. It can be done very happily, but it depends on both the man and the woman in each case. These "career" women do a job for the love of it. They may be so gifted that they can cope successfully with household affairs from the administrative point of view. They may not be interested in doing any of the homely things of life. They may be quite helpless at home and need someone else to cope with household measures. For them it is probably impossible to settle down to a homemaker's career and watch over somebody else's career and development and achievement. They are fortunate if they marry the right men!

The women who I feel should undoubtedly have outside occupation, however, are the women whose homes are taken care of by competent hands and feet other than their own, who with ordinary capacity for management can give the necessary orders in fifteen minutes every morning and have the rest of the day in which to do nothing. These women might as well do something even if they have no special gifts, for as idlers they encumber the earth. They are not doing things at home that keep women busy and happy.

I think any young couple is fortunate when the woman has to do everything about the house and does it happily, but in view of all the different angles that this problem presents, I would give no advice, only urge young people to think over what they want out of life very carefully when they are making the decision of how they will start their life together.

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