By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, February 13, 1943
“Meet me,” instructed Jimmie Frise, “at exactly 10 to 5.”
“Make it 5,” I suggested.
“No, sir, not by a jugful,” cried Jim. “I don’t want to get torn to pieces, and clawed and trampled into the bargain.”
“I beg your pardon?” I inquired.
“If you’re not there by 10 to 5,” stated Jimmie, “I’ll go on. Ten to 5 on the dot.”
“What is all this?” I insisted. “Why the exact specifications?”
“If you get on the street car,” explained Jim, “at 10 to 5, you can get far enough back in the car to have a fighting chance. But at five minutes to 5, the women are already on the run. And at 5 exactly, the stampede of the women is on. Your life isn’t worth a cent if you get in their path.”
“Women!” I protested. “How do you mean?”
“Don’t tell me,” said Jim, “that you haven’t been on a crowded street car lately. Don’t tell me you haven’t observed the Wartime Woman.”
“Jimmie,” I enunciated, scandalized, “the womanhood of Canada has risen to a man…”
“Yah,” cried Jim. “You hit it on the head. Risen to a man. That’s the trouble.”
“Why, Jimmie,” I protested. “If it weren’t for the women who are helping in industry, in the factories and munitions plants, where would we be right now?”
“It’s not the munitions girls I’m talking about,” asserted Jimmie. “They’re wonderful. They’re real he-men, to the core. They’ve got all the best traits of the men whose work they are doing. They have all a man’s innate courtesy and consideration for his fellow mortal.”
“Then who …?” I demanded.
“Wait till I finish with the war worker,” said Jim. “Those girls demonstrate a curious fact: give a girl a man’s work to do, and she develops the character of a man. I think the sight of a street car crowded with tired munitions girls going home from work is one of the most moving spectacles of our time. Weary to the bone after a long day’s toil, free by reason of their work clothes from that awful self-consciousness which the ancient laws of style and personal beauty have imposed on women, they sit relaxed, their faces untouched by make-up, with a softness and naturalness that a man somehow associates only with his nearest and dearest, like his mother or sister; those munitions girls are far more lovely to look at than they dream.”
“I agree,” I said.
The Wartime Woman
“If girls only knew,” sighed Jim, “how much more attractive and truly appealing they are when they are tired, a little dishevelled and unconscious of themselves.”
“A man,” I said, “hardly ever falls in love with a girl, no matter how hard she slaves over her make-up and clothes and pretty ways, until suddenly one day he catches her in tears, or scared to death or all mussed up and bewildered. That’s when a man falls in love.”
“When he sees,” summed up Jim, “what a girl really is, not what she is trying to be, he feels it safe to fall in love with her.”
“That’s it,” I declared. And I bet you some of the happiest marriages this world has ever seen are being framed up right now, when all those beautiful girls in the factories and war plants are being too busy to be anything but themselves.”
“Isn’t it a pity so many of the boys are away at the war,” Jim muttered. “The best guys may be missing their match.”
“Never,” I cried. “What these girls in the factories are learning about being natural they will never forget. And the wisest of them know that one fine day, a quarter of a million young unmarried men are coming swarming home from war, fuller of love of home and all the things that really matter to a happy life than any of the canny lads who have stayed home, no matter how valuable their services here may be. Those girls will wait for their boys to come home, don’t fear.”
“It’s not the munitions girls I’m scared of,” declared Jim.
“Then who’s this Wartime Woman you referred too?” I inquired.
“War,” detailed Jim, “due to the absence of a huge percentage of the male population, places new and unaccustomed burdens and duties on women. Those who enter men’s work, like in factories, are brought under men’s discipline. But of those who remain women, though brought out of the home into business and affairs, some become a problem.”
“How?” I inquired.
“It has taken men centuries and centuries,” explained Jim, “through contact with one another in the market place and the factory, to learn public manners. I grant you, men’s manners are still a long way from perfect. But you rarely find a man who will act in a crowded street car the way too many women do.”
“Jim,” I cautioned him, “you are on very dangerous ground. One of the oldest traditions in the world is the tradition of the gentler sex.”
“Gentle my elbow,” snorted Jim. “Women are lawless, untamed. For centuries, we have had to keep them tied up in the home while we men went out into the world to try and work out a system of civilization.”
“If women are so untamed,” I demanded, “how did we weak, sentimental men succeed in keeping them tied up in the home?”
“By refusing to marry any but the kind who would stay home,” Jim explained. “We men glorified the soft, feminine, gentle characteristics of an imaginary ideal womanhood. We hoped, by the process of natural selection, to eliminate the lawless woman. It worked to some extent. For a few centuries, we kept them tied up with domestic duties, family cares, trying to get them all worn out before they could break loose. We’ve always known they were untamed. We built up our civilization, in the hope that it would be too strong for the women to destroy even if they did get free. Then, 40 years ago, about the start of the 20th century, they got free. They entered business. Next they got the vote. Now they are loose upon the world. And look at it.”
Ladies in a Hurry
“For mercy’s sake,” I protested, “you don’t blame the women for the mess the world is in today!”
“The 20th century,” stated Jim, “is already known to history as the Bloody Century. Two of the most savage wars in all human history have taken place, and the century’s not half over yet. Now, what is the other thing the 20th century is notable for? What basic thing, different from all others? The emancipation of women.”
“Why, Jim, this is terrible,” I cried. “To accuse womanhood of any share in the things they hate and detest most …”
“Who hates and detests?” demanded Jim. “Is it that ideal woman we men have been dreaming up for a couple of thousand years? You just wait till we get on the street car after 5 o’clock. Anyway, I make no accusations. I draw no morals. All I do is go into the forest of speculation and bring out a few logs of fact. You do the building any way you like. I say the century of the emancipation of women happens also to be the Bloody Century. Maybe there is no connection.”
“The 20th century,” I cried, “has seen the greatest strides in social reform in all history. And the influence of women is to be credited with much of that reform.”
“The 20th century,” announced Jim, “is also the bloodiest century in human history. No other century can hold a candle to it.”
“But how could women be involved in that?” I shouted.
“Good grief,” shouted Jim, “it’s five to 5! Come on!”
So we grabbed our coats and hats and hurried out to the elevator. The elevator was full of girls, all with very determined expressions on their faces. The girl operating the elevator said:
“Room for one only.”
And as I tried to squeeze in beside Jim, she threw the lever that automatically slides the door shut, and I was very nearly sliced like a ham.
“Wait for me,” I yelled to Jim as the elevator door slammed.
The next elevator had a couple of men in it, along with about twice as many girls as the elevator would hold. The men held their breath and drew in their stomachs to allow me to squeeeeeeze in.
As the elevator door opened on the ground floor, and I stood aside to let the ladies out first, the lady behind me gave me a shove in the back with her knuckle.
“Okay, lady, no hurry,” I mumbled.
Jim was standing over by the pillars and we joined forces and fought our way out the revolving doors. Girls are nimble. They have grace. They can nip through revolving doors. But a man likes to approach a revolving door deliberately.
It was spinning too fast for me; so I paused. Two spaces whizzed round empty.
“Come on, Grampaw,” said a commanding voice behind me, and a young lady bunted me into the next vacancy and came round with me.
“Young lady…” I said indignantly as we popped out on the street and I caught my hat.
But she was gone in the throng.
“See?” said Jim, coming pop out after me.
When we reached the street car stop, there was a big crowd, about equally men and women. Three cars arrived in a bunch. The second one was our choice. We ran for it.
So did about five determined looking men and about nine women and girls. The men won.
They grabbed the hand rails and clung on the steps.
The girls panted behind us.
“How about this, Jim?” I inquired, my face buried in the coat tails of the gentleman ahead of me.
“Aw, we have to get on first,” explained Jim, “because the girls have to hunt through their handbags for their street car tickets. It is always best for the men to get on first, because they always have their tickets in their hands.”
“I see,” I said, hoisting myself another step up.
And more by luck than good management, Jim and I, poke checking a couple of men ahead of us, and executing a sort of echelon movement familiar to students of naval battles, got an empty seat together.
“Aaaaah,” we breathed, in a sigh familiar to all street car riders.
The warlike women poured in after us, nabbing seats with agility and speed until the seats were all filled and they scattered themselves down the aisles. None of them paused near Jim and me until, near the last of the load, a lady of about our age, obviously not a downtown worker but a shopper, came and grabbed the handrail of the seat with a very heavy sigh and a slight groan.
And she leaned back slightly and stared expectantly at Jimmie and me.
“How about it, Jim?” I murmured, when she shifted her fierce gaze off us for a minute.
“We come to a factory in two or three blocks,” said Jim out the side of his mouth. “Save our seats for a couple of war workers.”
“Okay,” I said firmly, and stared with intense interest, like a stranger in town, out the window.
The lady in the red-feathered hat and handbag, swayed alarmingly as the car started and stopped. She braced herself in the aisle against all who attempted to squeeze down the car to make room.
Her handbag caught Jim a couple of suggestive cracks on the ear. She continued emitting heavy sighs and faint groans and occasionally seemed to be muttering to herself. But I kept watching out the window with unabated interest.
Then we came to the factory street stop which we knew by the merry sounds of laughter and of crowds outside the car doors.
“Move down, lots of “room at the back,” cried the motorman heartily.
“Umffff,” snorted the lady beside us, holding her ground.
But despite her efforts, half a dozen of the slim war workers managed to eel their way past and at the sight of the first of them, Jim and I leaped dutifully to our feet and with the detached courtesy that becomes grizzle-headed old gents, gave them our seats.
“When We Stop Idealizing”
I could feel the lady’s breath hot on the back of my neck. For an instant, I feared for myself.
“Mashers,” she muttered; but I heard her.
The car started.
I lurched back. My foot came down on something softish and lumpish.
“Ow-ooooo!” screeched the lady with the red handbag.
And giving me the elbow so that my head banged against the upright rail, she aimed her shot and brought her heel down on my foot.
“Clumsy fool,” she grated.
I limped down the car and Jim followed, screening my confusion from the eyes of those who had witnessed the little contretemps.
“See?” murmured Jimmie in my ear, when we found a spot to cling.
I was too busy suffering to continue the debate. But after about 30 blocks, the crowd thinned in the car and I saw the lady in the red feathered hat get off the car and shake herself with all the grace of a horse getting up after a roll in the stubble.
“She didn’t get a seat all the way,” I gloated.
“Now you see what I mean about women,” said Jim. “No man would deliberately stamp on your foot like that.”
“But my dear sir,” I exclaimed, “she was only one. Look at all the rest of the fair sex in this car. All quiet and feminine and self-effacing. You can’t base a whole philosophy on one woman in a carload.”
“How’s your foot?” inquired Jim.
“I think,” I said, wriggling them cautiously, “she broke one of my toes.”
“Well, it wasn’t any man did that,” argued Jim.
“The thing is too complicated for me, Jim,” I pleaded. “That lady belonged to our generation. She was brought up to expect a seat in a car, no matter how crowded. It wasn’t my accidentally stepping on her foot that made her sore. She felt insulted.”
“Maybe,” said Jim, “we were at fault in idealizing them. If that dame is a sample of what idealizing does, we were wrong. If all the rest of the girls in this car are a sample of what letting them work in factories does, we sure were wrong.”
“Maybe keeping them tied up at home,” I submitted, “made them bad tempered, like tying up a dog.”
“Maybe,” rounded up Jimmie, “when we stop idealizing all things for our own comfort and security, even wars will end.”
And then a couple of dopey looking downtown business men, who had been sitting like two potatoes all the way, got up.
And Jimmie and I, like two potatoes, sat down for the remaining seven blocks.
Editor’s Note: A lot of creative writing had to go into this piece to both praise and complain about women on the home front during World War Two. I can picture their editor being very careful to ensure that women working would not be offended.