America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat         Wu Tingfang

Chapter 9. American Women

It is rather bold on my part to take up this subject. It is a path
where "fools rush in where angels fear to tread". No matter what I say
it is sure to provoke criticism, but having frequently been asked
by my lady friends to give my opinion of American women, and having given
my solemn promise that if I ever should write my impressions of America
I would do so, it would be a serious "breach of promise" if I should now
break my word.

In general there are three classes of women: first, those who wish
to be praised; secondly, those who wish to be adversely criticized
and condemned; and thirdly, those who are simply curious to hear
what others think of them. American women do not as a rule belong
to either the first or the second class, but a large majority of them
may be ranged under class three. They wish to know what other people
honestly think of them and to hear their candid views.
They are progressive people who desire to improve their defects
whenever they are pointed out to them. That being the case
I must not swerve from my duty of sitting in a high court of justice
to pass judgment on them.

To begin with, the American women are in some respects dissimilar to the women
of other nations. I find them sprightly, talkative and well informed.
They can converse on any subject with ease and resource,
showing that they have a good all-round education. Often have I derived
considerable information from them. The persistence with which
they stick to their opinions is remarkable. Once, when I had a lady visitor
at my Legation in Washington, after several matters had been discussed
we commenced talking about women's rights. I was in favor of giving women
more rights than they are enjoying, but on some points I did not go so far
as my lady friend; after arguing with me for several hours,
she, seeing that I did not coincide with all her views,
threatened that she would not leave my house until I had fully digested
all her points, and had become converted to her views.

I have observed that many American women marry foreigners,
but that an American rarely has a foreign wife. It may be said
that foreigners marry American girls for their money, while American women
marry distinguished foreigners for their titles. This may have been true
in some cases, but other causes than such sordid motives must be looked for.
It is the attractiveness and the beauty of the American girls
which enable them to capture so many foreign husbands.
Their pleasant manners and winsome nature predispose a person in their favor,
and with their well-grounded education and ready fund of knowledge,
they easily win any gentleman with marital propensities.
Had I been single when I first visited America I too might have been a victim
-- no wonder then that American men prefer American wives.
Once I was an involuntary match-maker. Some years ago,
during my first mission in Washington, I was invited to attend
the wedding of the daughter of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
When I entered the breakfast room, I saw the bridesmaids
and a number of young men. Going up to one of the bridesmaids
whom I had previously met, and who was the daughter of a Senator,
I asked her when it would be her turn to become a bride.
She modestly said that she did not know, as she had not yet had an offer.
Turning to the group of young men who were in the room,
I jocularly remarked to one of them, "This is a beautiful lady,
would you not like to marry her?" He replied, "I shall be most delighted to."
Then I said to the young lady, "Will you accept his offer?"
She seemed slightly embarrassed and said something to the effect
that as she did not know the gentleman she could not give a definite answer.
After a few days I met the young lady at an "At Home" party
when she scolded me for being so blunt with her before the young men.
I told her I was actuated by the best of motives, and a few months later
I received an invitation from the young lady's parents
inviting me to be present at their daughter's marriage.
I thought I would go and find out whether the bridegroom was the young man
whom I had introduced to the young lady, and as soon as I entered the house,
the mother of the bride, to my agreeable surprise, informed me
that it was I who had first brought the young couple together,
and both the bride and bridegroom heartily thanked me for my good offices.

One very conspicuous feature in the character of American women
is their self-control and independence. As soon as a girl grows up
she is allowed to do what she pleases, without the control of her parents.
It is a common occurrence to see a young lady travelling alone
without either a companion or a chaperon. Travelling on one occasion
from San Francisco to Washington I met a young lady on the train
who was still in her teens. She told me that she was going to New York
to embark on a steamer for Germany, with the intention of entering
a German college. She was undertaking this long journey alone.
Such an incident would be impossible in China; even in England,
or indeed in any European country, I hardly believe that
a respectable young girl would be allowed to take such a journey
without some trusty friend to look after her. But in America
this is a common occurrence, and it is a credit to the administration,
and speaks volumes for the good government of the country,
that for sensible wide-awake American girls such undertakings
are perfectly safe.

This notion of independence and freedom has modified the relation
of children to their parents. Instead of children being required
to show respect and filial obedience, the obligation of mutual love and esteem
is cultivated. Parents would not think of ordering a girl or a boy
to do anything, however reasonable; in all matters they treat them
as their equals and friends; nor would a girl submit to an arbitrary order
from her mother, for she does not regard her as a superior,
but as her friend and companion. I find it is a common practice
among American girls to engage themselves in marriage
without consulting their parents. Once I had a serious talk on this subject
with a young couple who were betrothed. I asked them if they had the consent
of their parents. They both answered emphatically that it was not necessary,
and that it was their business and not their parents'.
I told them that although it was their business, they might have shown
some respect to their parents by consulting them before committing themselves
to this important transaction. They answered that they did not agree with me,
and as it concerned their own happiness alone, they had a perfect right
to decide the matter for themselves. This shows the extreme limit
to which the Americans carry their theory of independence. Unless I am
greatly mistaken, I fear this is a typical and not an isolated case.
I believe that in many cases, after they had made up their minds to marry,
the young people would inform their respective parents of their engagement,
but I question if they would subordinate their own wishes
to the will of their parents, or ask their consent to their engagement.

Now let us see how all this is managed in China. Here the parties
most interested have no voice in the matter. The parents,
through their friends, or sometimes through the professional match-makers,
arrange the marriage, but only after the most strict and diligent inquiries
as to the character, position, and suitability of temper and disposition
of the persons for whom the marriage contract is being prepared.
This is sometimes done with the knowledge of the interested parties,
but very often they are not consulted. After an engagement is thus made
it cannot be broken off, not even by the young people themselves,
even though he or she may plead that the arrangement was made without
his or her knowledge or consent. The engagement is considered by all parties
as a solemn compact. On the wedding day, in nine cases out of ten,
the bride and bridegroom meet each other for the first time,
and yet they live contentedly, and quite often even happily together.
Divorces in China are exceedingly rare. This is accounted for
by the fact that through the wise control of their parents
the children are properly mated. In saying this I do not wish to be supposed
to be advocating the introduction of the Chinese system into America.
I would, however, point out that the independent and thoughtless way
in which the American young people take on themselves the marriage vow
does not as a rule result in suitable companionships.
When a girl falls in love with a young man she is unable to perceive
his shortcomings and vices, and when, after living together for a few months,
she begins to find them out, it is alas too late. If, previous to
her engagement, she had taken her mother into her confidence,
and asked her to use her good offices to find out the character
of the young man whom she favored, a fatal and unhappy mistake
might have been avoided. Without interfering, in the least,
with the liberty or free choice, I should think it would be a good policy
if all young Americans, before definitely committing themselves
to a promise of marriage, would at least consult their mothers,
and ask them to make private and confidential inquiries as to the disposition,
as well as to the moral and physical fitness of the young man or lady
whom they contemplate marrying. Mothers are naturally concerned
about the welfare and happiness of their offspring, and could be trusted
in most cases to make careful, impartial and conscientious inquiries
as to whether the girl or man was really a worthy and suitable life partner
for their children. If this step were generally taken
many an unfortunate union would be avoided. It was after this fashion
that I reasoned with the young people mentioned above,
but they did not agree with me, and I had to conclude that love is blind.

Before leaving this subject I would add that the system of marriage
which has been in vogue in China for so many centuries has been
somewhat changed within the last few years. This is due to the new spirit
which has been gradually growing. Young people begin to exert their rights,
and will not allow parents to choose their life partners
without their consent. Instances of girls choosing their own husbands
have come to my knowledge, and they did not occur during leap-year.
But I sincerely hope that our Chinese youth will not go to the same lengths
as the young people of America.

The manner in which a son treats his parents in the United States
is diametrically opposed to our Chinese doctrine, handed down to us
from time immemorial. "Honor thy father and thy mother"
is an injunction of Moses which all Christians profess to observe,
but which, or so it appears to a Confucianist, all equally forget.
The Confucian creed lays it down as the essential duty of children
that they shall not only honor and obey their fathers and their mothers,
but that they are in duty bound to support them. The reason is that
as their parents brought them into the world, reared and educated them,
the children should make them some return for their trouble and care.
The view of this question which is taken in America seems to be
very strange to me. Once I heard a young American argue in this way.
He said, gravely and seriously, that as he was brought into this world
by his parents without his consent, it was their duty to rear him
in a proper way, but that it was no part of his duty to support them.
I was very much astounded at this statement. In China such a son
would be despised, and if he neglected to maintain his parents he would
be punished. I do not believe that the extreme views of this young man
are universally accepted in America, but I am inclined to think
that the duties of children toward their parents are somewhat ill-defined.
American parents do not apparently expect their children to support them,
because, as a rule they are, if not rich, at least in
comfortable circumstances; and even if they are not, they would rather
work for their livelihood than burden their children and hinder their success
by relying on them for pecuniary aid. It may have escaped my observation,
but, so far as I know, it is not the custom for young people
to provide for their parents. There was, however, one exceptional case
which came to my knowledge. Some years ago a young Senator in Washington,
who was famous for his eloquence, had his father living with him.
His father was eighty years of age, and though in robust health was a cripple,
and so had to depend on him for support. I was informed that he and his wife
were very kind to him. Many young men treat their parents
kindly and affectionately, but they do it more as a favor than as a duty;
in fact, as between equals.

In connection with this subject I may mention that as soon as a son marries,
however young and inexperienced he may be, he leaves his parents' roof.
He and his bride will set up a separate establishment so that
they can do as they please without the supervision of their parents.
The latter do not object, as it gives the young folk an opportunity
to gain experience in keeping house. Young wives have a horror
of having their mothers-in-law reside with them; if it be necessary
to have an elderly lady as a companion they always endeavor
to get their own mothers.

American women are ambitious and versatile, and can readily
apply themselves to any task with ease. They are not only employed
in stores and mercantile houses but are engaged in different professions.
There is scarcely any store in America where there are not some women
employed as typists, clerks, or accountants. I am told that
they are more steady than men. Even in the learned professions they
successfully compete with the men. Some years ago the Attorney-Generalship
of one of the states became vacant. Two candidates appeared;
one was a gentleman and the other a young lady lawyer.
They both sought election; the gentleman secured a small majority,
but in the end the lady lawyer conquered, for she soon became the wife
of the Attorney-General, her former opponent during the election campaign,
and after her marriage she practically carried on the work of her husband.
Some years later her husband retired from practice in order to farm,
and she continued to carry on the law practice. Does not this indicate
that the intellect of the American woman is equal, if not superior,
to that of the men? American women are good conversationalists,
and many of them are eloquent and endowed with "the gift of the gab".
One of the cleverest and wittiest speeches I have ever heard
was from a woman who spoke at a public meeting on a public question.
They are also good writers. Such women as Mrs. Ella Wheeler Wilcox,
Mrs. Mary N. Foote Henderson, Mrs. Elizabeth Towne and many others,
are a great credit to their sex. The writings of such women
show their profound insight and wide culture. Naturally such women
cannot be expected to play second fiddle. They exercise great influence,
and when married "they rule the roost". It should be mentioned
that their husbands submit willingly to their tactful rule,
and gladly obey their commands without feeling that they are servants.
I would advise any married woman who complains of her husband
being unruly and unpleasant to take a lesson from the ladies of America.
They are vivacious, bright, loquacious and less reserved than European ladies.
In social functions they can be easily recognized. If, however,
an American lady marries a foreigner and lives abroad,
she soon loses her national characteristics. Once on board a steamer
I had an American lady as a fellow passenger; from her reserved manner
I mistook her for an English lady, and it was only after some days
that I discovered she was born in America, but that she had been
living in England for many years with her English husband.

There is one fault I find with American women, if it can be so called,
and that is their inquisitiveness; I know that this is a common fault
with all women, but it is most conspicuous in the Americans.
They have the knack of finding out things without your being aware of it,
and if they should want to know your history they will learn all about it
after a few minutes' conversation. They are good detectives,
and I think they should be employed in that line more than they are.

A nation's reputation depends upon the general character of its women,
for they form at least half, if not more, of the population.
In this respect America stands high, for the American woman is lively,
open-hearted and ingenuous; she is also fearless, independent,
and is almost without restraint. She is easily accessible to high and low,
and friendly to all, but woe to the man who should misunderstand
the pure and high character of an American girl, and attempt to take liberties
with her. To a stranger, and especially to an Oriental, she is a puzzle.
Some years ago I had to disabuse a false notion of a countryman of mine
respecting a lady's behavior toward him. The keen observer will find that
the American girl, having been educated in schools and colleges with boys,
naturally acts more freely than her sisters in other countries,
where great restraint is imposed upon them. Her actions may be considered
as perilously near to the border of masculinity, yet she is as far
from either coarseness or low thoughts as is the North from the South Pole.
The Chinese lady is as pure as her American sister, but she is brought up
in a different way; her exclusion keeps her indoors,
and she has practically no opportunity of associating with male friends.
A bird which has been confined in a cage for a long time, will,
when the door is opened, fly far away and perhaps never return,
but if it has been tamed and allowed to go in and out of its cage
as it pleases it will not go far, but will always come back in the evening.
When my countrywomen are allowed more freedom they will not abuse it,
but it will take some little time to educate them up to
the American standards.

Chapter 8   Chapter 10

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