“Can you run a switchboard?” the girl asked. “I can run anything a girl can,” I stated.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, October 5, 1935.

“Nix,” hissed Jimmie Frise. “It’s a woman!”

I was leaning out the car window, wetting my lips and preparing to hurl insults and imprecations as we zipped past the car ahead, the car that had been holding us up for six blocks.

“Er,” said I, withdrawing myself into the car.

So we went by, without so much as a sideways glance at the driver. It was a lady. Sure enough. And quite a nice lady.

“Funny thing,” said Jim, who a moment before had been, like me, frothing at the mouth over the way this lady had been driving, “the nicest ladies are the worst drivers. By the nicest I mean the gentle, old-fashioned kind of ladies. Ladies with gentle faces and plain ways of doing their hair. Ladies with soft voices, who couldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, wisecrack back at you if you bawled them out. Ladies that would just color up if you glared at them and drop their eyes. And you’d feel like a monster.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “they’re the worst drivers. The good drivers are the modern, lip-sticked, smart-haired, cold-eyed dames. They can drive. They never get into any jams.”

“I suppose it is only natural,” went on Jim. “Driving is not a woman’s work. The true woman is the worst driver. The womanly woman. I’d say to the young men of to-day, if you want to pick good wife pick a rotten driver.”

“This whole woman question is a curious one,” I mused. “Up until a few years ago women were the same as they had been for 10,000 years. Then, all of a sudden, the change comes. From being modest, gentle, bashful and retiring. they come whoop-de-doodle right out into the middle of the show and start doing jigs.”

“And fan dances,” pointed out Jim.

“Oh, there had always been fan dancers,” I explained. “And there always were emancipated women. Even in ancient times. But they weren’t the women men married or respected. They were the horrible examples that men held up as object lessons to all the rest of the fair sex. The sort of person not to be.”

“I guess it is kind of hard for a girl nowadays,” said Jim, “to decide what kind of a girl to be. I guess it is more fun to be the modern kind, gay and uninhibited.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But they don’t turn out as happy. Life, after all, is a pretty humdrum business. Sooner or later we all have to settle down. Especially the women. The women have to settle right down even to-day. So the freer they are before they are married, the tougher the settling down will be. Isn’t that right?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” countered Jim. “I Imagine the modern young mother isn’t such a little church mouse as her predecessor was.”

Less Money To-Day

“Listen,” I said, “the average young married couple to-day has less money than even we had when we started married life. Where are they going to get money to hire a maid? Or a nurse? And Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday are just the same as they were 1,000 years ago, and every one of those days a baby has to be fed and stayed with, mamma can’t go out, even to a show; hard-boil a girl all you like before she is married, but the minute she gets baby the age-old miracle is performed and love comes first. Love of a baby. So, all I ask you is to imagine a rather perspiring and flustered young woman, hushed in a small room, with a baby in her arms, endlessly tending it and caring for it, rocking it and quieting it, answering its slightest cry with instantaneous service, anxious and devoted – and imagine that same girl, there in a dark room, alone, remembering the four or five years she had spent, just until a year ago, with parties and movies, out every night till all hours, dancing, doing what she pleased, free, emancipated, modern, wearing shorts, hollering and shouting whenever she felt like it, about as modest and retiring as a Varsity student. And I ask you, what kind of a pain does she feel as she hush-a-bys her baby in a little, dark, lonely room?”

“What else could she do?” demanded Jim.

“She could do what all the girls for 10,000 years have done up till now,” I replied. “She could be brought up in shelter, quiet, prim, ladylike, knowing full well that when she was about 18 or 20 there would be a kind of blossoming in her life, that she would be let free for a year or two, all dressed in her loveliest, to bloom before the eyes of men. And one man would she choose; but she knew her brief day of blossoming was ended and that she had to retire to the serious business of life, which was housekeeping and raising a family, she became matron. I imagine the word matron is the most hated word to the feminine mind in the world to-day.”

“It used to be old maid,” Jim said.

“Yes, and now it is matron,” I insisted. “Any girl to-day would rather be an old maid than a matron. Because an old maid fits into the scheme of the modern woman, free, independent and unfettered.”

“I hope,” said Jim, “that the women understand that they are very seriously responsible for much of the world’s troubles to-day.”

“Not them,” I assured him. “They think it is swell.”

“I would say,” said Jim, “that two things are responsible for the sort of stunned condition of the world to-day. The stunned, groggy, dizzy condition. And those two things are, the recent development of a lot of new countries that have started manufacturing and producing things and the recent addition into the working world of about 50,000,000 women.”

“What countries?” I asked.

“Oh, Brazil, for instance,” said Jim. “Before the war Brazil was a little nation, mostly jungle, with about the same population Canada has got now. To-day she has 40,000,000 population – in 20 years! – and is not jungle, but a vast country, far bigger than Canada, lying pleasantly and comfortably between the equatorial and the temperate zones. Lousy with wealth and life and productivity.”

“I thought the 20th century was to be Canada’s,” I complained.

Nations Awake Now

“Brazil’s,” said Jim. “And look at the way a lot of other countries were pepped up by the war? Italy and all those Czechoslovak countries and Japan and Russia. None of them was doing much before the war but snoozing. While we were full of pep, producing, selling. There are too many nations awake now. That’s what’s the matter. Too many nations wide awake and getting busy. We shouldn’t have kicked up all that racket in the war. It waked up a lot of sleepers.”

“And how about women?” I inquired.

“Well, the situation hasn’t been helped a bit,” said Jim, “by the fact that we have waked up about 100,000,000 women. They were sort of asleep, too. Nice and asleep in their homes, doing their humble jobs competently. Then, whatever the heck we did, we waked them up and out they came, in millions, to grab off our jobs in factories and banks and stores and offices. The trouble is, in the past 30 years there has been far too much racket. We’ve waked everybody up.”

“I begin to see It,” I agreed. “Don’t let us miss your street with all this talk.”

“It’s past Lansdowne,” old Jim. We were on our way to pick up Jim’s big camping tent which he had loaned to one of those friends who never return things. You finally have to call and pick it up yourself.

“What are we going to do?” I asked. “How can we get Italy and Brazil and so forth to go on back to sleep again? And how can we persuade the women to become housewives again?”

“Maybe we can’t,” declared Jim. “Maybe it is the end of us as big shots. Maybe we have had our day. Now it is theirs.”

“You mean, we’ve got to go muddling along playing second fiddle from now on?” I protested.

“Why not?” asked Jim. “Who are we to be the top dog forever? We men have been in the money a long time. We British, French, Americans and Germans ran the world for several hundred years. Then we got funny. Now look at us!”

“I never expected to be an anti-feminist,” I confessed. “But, by golly, I feel a little anti-feminist now. Maybe one of the new political parties will propose sending women back to the kitchen and the cradle-side?”

“They’ll be licked if they do,” said Jim.

“Maybe,” I contended, “in 20 years or so, instead of Liberal and Conservative and so forth we’ll have only two political parties, the Men and the Women?”

“It might easily come to that,” said Jim. “We’re drifting farther apart every year.”

I looked out the car window and watched the passing crowds.

“Why, they have a sinister look,” I gasped. “Look at those women, Jim! See how confidently they walk. And see how humble and dejected the men look.”

“They’re pretty bold,” agreed Jim, slowing, for we were approaching Lansdowne Ave.

“Jim, imagine me turning against my wife and daughter,” I supposed, “and my mother-in-law.”

But we pulled up in front of the factory in which one of the big executives was the friend of Jim’s who had borrowed the tent.

“Give us a hand carrying it out,” said Jim.

We went in. It had that chill, forbidding air of the best factories. A girl at a switchboard, a cool, cold, level-eyed girl, looked up lazily at us when we came in the lobby.

“Yes, please?” she asked chillily.

“Is Mr. Adams in?” said Jim.

“He’s in a shop conference,” said the girl. “Won’t be out for at least an hour.”

Lady of the Cords

Between these remarks she was plucking telephone cords out of the switchboard and shoving them in, saying “Yes” and “No,” while lights red and white flickered on the board facing her. She was absent in her manner.

“Well,” said Jim, awkwardly intruding on her affairs, “he left a tent for me. I’m to pick it up.”

“Won’t be out for an hour,” said the girl, continuing to weave the cords and make quiet little remarks into the mouthpiece on her face.

“He left the tent,” insisted Jim, “and I’m to pick it up. He said it was in the corner of the shipping room.”

“Sorry,” said the girl, like a diver coming up from the deeps. “Mr. Adams is engaged. At least an hour.”

“Listen,” said Jim, “who else can I see who will help me get a tent? Mr. Adams is a friend of mine. He borrowed my tent, see?”

“He’s in a conference in the shop. A shop conference,” said the girl, diving deep amidst the cords again.

“Jim,” I said, “let me speak to her.”

I leaned down on my elbow on the counter, shoving my face down within six inches of her ear.

“Miss,” I said, “Adams told us to call for the tent. We’re here. Call a boy and have him bring the tent up. It’s in the corner of the shipping room.”

“No, sir: yes, sir: I’ll ring him again, sir,” said the girl. cool and passionless and totally unaware of me. “There is no boy,” she said, aside, to me.

“Would you direct us to the shipping room?” I hissed.

“No strangers admitted to the shipping room,” said the girl, unexcited.

“Could you show us?” I said sarcastically.

“Can you run a switchboard?” she asked, quite simply.

“I can run anything a girl can run,” I stated.

With a lithe motion she rose from her chair, disentangling herself from the headpiece and the cords.

“Look,” she said crisply, “when one of these bottom lights go on pull the plug opposite it. That means the conversation there is ended.”

“I see,” I said.

“And if one of these other lights up here goes on, see?” she pointed to the upright board, “just stick the plug exactly opposite the light in the hole, press this little switch forward and say ‘Please call back in moment; there is trouble on the line.’ Do you see?”

“Thank you,” I assured her stiffly.

“Come this way,” she said to Jimmie, and glided poetically down the hall, Jim pursuing.

I sat me down. A little light was glowing. I pulled out the cord. A red light glowed I stuck the correct plug, the one exact opposite, in the little hole, pushed the switch:

“Trouble on the line: please call back in a moment,” I said coolly. What a cinch.

Two white lights and three reds all started at once.

“Trouble on the line,” I said smoothly pulling and putting: “please call in a moment.” To show how skillful a man can be I started also pulling out the ones opposite the white or “call finished” lights.

Lights Wink and Pop

But these cords grow tangled. The faster you work the more the red lights wink and the white ones pop. She had about six plugs in when I started. I got the wrong cord, and the white light did not go out. I tried another. I began, I fear, to stick quite a lot of plugs in the wrong place.

A door opened violently. A man in shirt-sleeves leaned out.

“Hey!” he yelled, and slammed the door.

So I pulled all the cords out and started all over again. Red light, pop in a cord:

“Sorry, trouble on the line; call in moment again please.”

The man in his shirt-sleeves burst the door open.

“Where the …” he shouted.

Two more men appeared. One girl.

“Get away from that,” yelled a short, fat man.

Then the switchboard girl came running beautifully back, her hands held high as she pranced along, feminine, smooth, lovely.

I vacated the seat. She slid into it.

Jimmie staggered into the lobby with the tent.

“Hello,” said Jim to the man in the shirtsleeves. “The girl said you were in a conference.”

“Jim, I could kill you,” said Mr. Adams. “Who’s this?”

“My friend, Mr. Clark, meet Mr. Adams,” said Jim.

“I was talking to somebody,” said Mr. Adams in a guarded voice, looking around, “when suddenly, without so much as warning click, I’m switched on to my wife. And I went right on talking. see?”

The other two men crowded close to Mr. Adams sympathetically.

“Dear me,” said Jim.

“Me,” said the fat man next to Mr. Adams, “there is one guy in all this world I don’t want to talk to. And I got him on the phone. Miss Julie, you’re fired!”

Miss Julie paid not the slightest attention, but went right on weaving her cords and speaking politely into the headpiece.

“I,” said the tall man, the third who had appeared in the lobby, “was speaking long distance to Seattle. And I’m cut off, just as Huggins out there, after saying he would think it over, finally got as far as saying, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what let’s do.’ Now he has had time to think it over by the time I get him on the line again.”

“Boys,” said Jim. “this young lady just went for a minute to show me where this tent was.”

“She’s fired,” said the fat man decisively. But Miss Julie just smiled up briefly.

And all but Mr. Adams went back into their offices and slammed the doors. Mr. Adams followed Jim and me to the exit.

“Next time,” he said. “I’ll return your tent in person.”

“Don’t fire Miss Julie,” I said.

“We’ve fired her four times,” said Mr. Adams, “but each time the business goes to pieces.”

So I looked back through the glass door and Miss Julie glanced up, smiled at me and made a little twiddle with her fingers at me.

“Women’s place,” said Jimmie, “is in the home.”

“And on switchboard,” I admitted, still damp with cold perspiration.

Editor’s Note: Both Greg and Jim would be of the generation that would have been surprised by the changes in society after the First World War, including the role of women.