Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Feminist Review of Dorothy Canfield's 'The Squirrel-Cage'

The Squirrel-Cage by Dorothy Canfield was originally published in 1911; my own edition was published in March 1912. The book concerns the marriage of Lydia Emery, naturally sweet-tempered but very spoiled, a woman who must choose between the socially acceptable, ambitious businessman her family covets for her or the idealistic carpenter who has left behind a successful business career and social obligations in favor of an Emersonian life of physical labor and reflection. Though the book is over a hundred years old, in it Canfield quite succinctly encapsulates many of the thorniest difficulties of the feminist cause, and particularly in the following conversation, neatly lays out one of the issues with which we are still struggling:

"Don't you call bringing up children worth while?"
"You bet I do. So much so that I'd have the fathers take their full half of it. I'd have men do more inside the house and less outside, and the women the other way 'round."
The doctor recoiled at this. "Oh, you're a visionary. It couldn't be done."
"It couldn't be done in a minute," admitted Rankin.

In this conversation between men, both with "advanced" social ideas, there is a decided undercurrent of classism - both of these men are very obviously bourgeois, and it occurs to neither to consider that the situation that they are discussing is one born of the middle class. Even Rankin's more radical view is defined by the assumption that under normal circumstances, women remain confined to the house and provide childcare, while men are either working elsewhere or out of doors, but in either case, outside of the home. In other words, Rankin's idealistic understanding of the division of labor only becomes radical when applied to the monied classes. Despite his desire to make the world a better place and his acceptance of immigrants (he takes a Italian boy on as an apprentice, an action that indicates his open-mindedness), Rankin fails to realize that shared labor, for the working classes, was (and is) a necessity, and not a progressive political statement.

What's fascinating to contemplate is that, while we are accustomed to think of the issue of women's work as one defined very much by class and social status, the division of labor that puts the woman in the home and the man in the office or factory is born of the fairly recent historical phenomenon of industrialization. Rankin's idealistic vision of marriage, rejected by his interlocutor, Dr. Melton, is not so much visionary as it is a return to a form of marital partnership that was quite typical prior to industrialization. In agricultural societies, keeping a woman confined to the house means losing a valuable pair of hands in the more necessary labors of the land. 

Canfield also concerns herself with perhaps the most essential feminist issue, that of the circumscribed roles women are allowed to occupy. Only two pages later, Lydia says:

"It's a weight on my very soul - that there's nothing for me to look forward to - nothing, nothing that's worth growing up to do. I haven't been taught anything - but I know that I want to be something better than - perhaps I can't be - but I want to try! I want to try! That's not much to ask - just a chance to try - "

Lydia is struggling to enunciate another of the great feminist struggles, one that belongs almost exclusively to the middle and upper classes. At the crux of the issue is that, when a woman is thought of solely as a marital object and a means of producing children, she is reduced to being a physical body without personality. Betty Friedan in The Feminist Mystique discusses the fact the this reduction in personhood results in boredom and idleness, which in turn results in neurosis. Lydia attempts to explain to Rankin her desire to be a person, that is, to have a role of her own that she can "grow to do."

When Lydia later attempts to explain a similar desire to expand her role in life to her fiance Paul, by asking him to teach her something, he replies:

"Don't you know the suffragists will get you if you talk meek like that? What do you want to know? Volts, and dynamos, and induction coils?"

Her fiance both marginalizes her desire for knowledge by ridiculing the idea of her learning about his business and identifies her desire as preeminently feminine, which for him is a synonym for sweetly puerile. He flatters his own vanity both by emphasizing the knowledge he has and the fact that it is masculine knowledge. The intimation that suffragists are aggressive to women who are meek is both a shot at their lack of femininity and also a deeply condescending compliment to the woman whose thirst for ideas he ridicules as childish and whimsical.

For all that, Paul isn't a terrible person by any means. Though his values are in direct opposition with those of his rival, neither man is obviously bad, either objectively or as a husband for Lydia. Though Paul laughs at her ideas and Rankin listens to them, both consider her ideas the vague daydreams of a child (she is described as child-like by both men repeatedly). Both men also care about her and wish to see her happy. Although her dilemma is framed as a choice between two men by those around her, in fact she is choosing between two different roles, rather than two different men. With Paul, she will occupy a place as a socially exulted woman in a materially comfortable home, her responsibilities confined to running the household, directing the servants, and bearing children. With Rankin, there is a possibility that she could have, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, a space of her own, in which to explore the world intellectually and culturally, but at the cost of her social position and the barrage of presents she receives from Paul.

Rather than assume that Lydia can either make a positive or negative choice, Canfield complicates her decision by making both options entirely viable. Lydia cannot make a tragic choice. Contrast this with the conventions of the Victorian novel, for example with Thomas Hardy, whose writing, from The Return of the Native to Jude the Obscure, is full of poor marital choices that inevitably lead to misery and ruination. By refusing to grant the simplicity of a choice between a good marriage and bad marriage, Canfield instead presents Lydia's choice as one between being a woman circumscribed within her assigned social role or a woman who is not.

Although I would argue that The Squirrel-Cage is a feminist novel, Lydia is in no way what we typically think of as a feminist heroine. She is not particularly thoughtful or intelligent, though she is eager to learn and expand her life. She is easily pressured by her family, as well as social convention. She has no professional ambitions, she has essentially no knowledge of anything the least bit unpleasant, and she is enormously influenced by what the men around her think. What ultimately gives her life meaning is motherhood. And yet, this ordinary woman without the slightest interest in anything that could be termed a feminist struggle, desperately wishes for something "worth growing to do" and fervently wishes that her child "won't be a girl," and when she is a girl, struggles to instil in her the will to fight for what she wants. In Lydia, Canfield has written a heroine who experiences the feminist struggle, without being a feminist, and she has thus given us an everywoman, a woman who in her ordinary, unremarkable life finds that even in her ordinary, unremarkable self, there is a person who wants and needs more than a life defined by her relationship to her husband.

I could easily have pulled dozens more quotations from The Squirrel-Cage, but the ones above are certainly sufficient to demonstrate the complex facets of Dorothy Canfield's feminist beliefs. Her exploration of the pragmatic realities of womanhood within a strictly patriarchal and classist society is a revelation for modern-day feminists because in the very ordinariness of a woman like Lydia is found the key to a lived feminist struggle, rather than a theoretical one. Unfortunately, The Squirrel-Cage has been long out of print and is only available in a facsimile edition. One hopes that Canfield will soon be rediscovered and her unavailable works reprinted.

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