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“The Need of Self-Expression”
“The Gentler View,” Harper’s Weekly (June 5, 1909) : 28
link (hathitrust)   /   link (University of Michigan, google)

      It is, apparently, not realized by the careless mind how terrifying an age this is for some women. Glorious, unshackling, and other trumpeting words are so frequently in the ear that the consternation with which a minority of women regard the future is in the more noticeable striking off of chains heartlessly lost sight of. The shrinking, amiable, but panic-stricken few are most anxious not to fall behind the procession; they want quite hectically to keep step with the other marchers, and their enthusiasm is only matched by their surprise at the choice of destination. By all means, take us along with you, say the ladies who did not know that they had never had their rights; only, do the leaders of the parade feel entirely sure they will like the locality they are making for? No one in the present agitation feels really sure of anything; least of all of any ultimate satisfaction. We, the onlookers, can only cheer, a litltle anxiously, and hope, if in nothing more than the interests of drama, that there will be no retreating. The pace-makers having whirled long since out of sight, the straggling rear van rightfully interests us. We have learned from our observations that the most fearsome bugaboo to the agitated tail of the procession is — “self-expression.” They allow themslves to be dragged forward toward indefinite varied dooms with a good deal of reckless courage, but the thing which in their secret hearts they feel is going to keel them over oopelessly is — “self-expression.” Women of vast activities and competent manner have come to them and said: “What every woman feels the need of is self-expression. I am sure you long for it, too.” Well, are they to be traitors to their sisters? Are they to long for any less than any one else, or prevent others from getting what they want by saying it is not a universal need? Certainly not. When the minority is asked by a member of the vast majority if they do not crave “self-expression” they contract their brows, look as persecuted as they at the moment can manage, and say: “Ah! Don’t we?” They when they are left to themselves, with the invigorating eye of the advanced woman lessedly removed, they shiver in their backward shoes and murmur in their hearts: “Oh, what shall we do when we get ‘self-expression’? What if, after fighting for it, we do not have anything to express? Every one will be watching us after the row and rumpus we have made, and if we don’t express something astounding —.” But the possibilities following such an “if” are more than even an advancing woman to bear to dwell on.
      Her sisters for blocks around are longing actively to express themselves, and it stands to reason that if they all want this thing they all have a use for it, which leads directly to the terrible question, What are they going to express? It is as though they each contained a bomb, and at the long-awaited moment would go off with devastating results. One covers one’s ears, ducks, prepares to be startled, and the strain of waiting is uncomfortably wearing. At the same time, if it is normal, right, and indicative of the period to be bulging with explosives that clamor to make themselves heard, picture the chagrin and alarm felt by the women who feel nothing but calm, not to stay scanty content, within them. They drink the dregs of ignominy. It is a small matter what you have inside — the important thing is to have it surge and rumble ominously. If you fancy for the eighth of a second that you can contain it with ease, ah! they you are not fit to share the coming freedom!
      Exposure to the quivering minority seems inevitable. The present noise, for very reason of its being so universal, prophesies disquietingly an audience of great size, all agog, and determined to know what the uproar was about. Women are demanding so much attention that there seems an awful possibility of their getting a too minute investigation; and if it comes a number of ladies are going to want most heartily to fly to some unenlightened desert until a loss of interest in their sex, on the part of the world at large, is relievedly brought about. The belief in reserve funds which this cry for self-expression implies has its awe-inspiring side. Even those who feel the need most keenly, going so far as to say that the lack of “self-expression” lies at the bottom of woman’s restless unhappiness, are unsatisfactorily hazy about what it is to be exposed and the varying forms it will take. We believe, and our optimism is surely shared by most men — or else why has a revolt not already taken place? — that the “self-expression” is not to be merely verbal. It is a crass mind that for a moment conceived such a possibility. Undreamt-of things are to be shown us, and, while we wait, tremendously impatient to see the wealth that now lies concealed in our sisters and our cousins and our aunts, a twinge of envy is felt by the minority. Realizing their paucity, they could cry for very vexation to think of how many times they have overdrawn their bank account, expressing more than they felt, puffing out to grassy outlines an undersized idea found in their well-emptied selves. What need have they of “self expression” when they have expressed not only themselves and the various peoples they have from time to time thought they were, but their favorite authors, as well as their more amiable friends? The gift of self-expression in such a state of things takes on the air of a ghastly practical joke, and the only way to save one’s face is to get in new stores hurriedly, while, according to the eloquent majority, women are denied — the thing that has been mentioned so often.
      Just as men were established for good and all when that convulsing rumor got about that they were the stronger sex, a tale we have all said the last word on, so women may be given an extraordinary boost by this fascinating theory that they have unuttered secrets concealed about them. Whether there mysteries before or not — and a traitor or two, here and there, has cried out that they never were — they received genuine assistance from the fallacy, and now if they can keep up the one (one is put to it for a choice of words; invention has been discarded and assumption is cavilled at) claim of being prevented by men from doing, being something not hitherto imagined, there is no reason, as far as we can see, why they may not rise to giddy heights. The splendid bravado of their making these claims demands a doffing of all appreciative caps; for if these things have never been allowed to come out, how can the ladies be quite sure they are there? It is knowing that this doubt must exist in their own minds and seeing them take the chance in spite of it that excites us and bids us bow to such gallant gamblers. If one claims so much one must have information denied to ordinary mortals. Some woman has told her fellow women what she individually hopes to exhibit, and it is this that has implanted in the breasts of the others their present sureness — the sureness we admire and that brings a chill to the frightened minority who gibber behind their brave front: “If we have anything, will it be different from anything we have ever had before? And if so, why so? And in that case, why did we not find it long ago? Knowing so little about it makes us a trifle suspicious of it. There does not seem any way of telling whether we are going to want to express it; perhaps it won’t be anything that any nice woman— But nice women are a relic of barbarism, so—so— Oh, we wish it would hurry up and happen! This suspense is more than we can bear.”

13 November 2022