Mary Heaton Vorse’s story properly begins with the mansion on a hill in Amherst, Massachusetts, although she was not born there, and fled from it as soon as she was able. In 1879, when Mary was five, her parents bought the twenty-four-room house on Amity Street, pronounced “a-mighty street” by the local wits in note of the prominence of the families who resided there. Even before she reached her teens, Mary’s girlhood home had assumed the shape of an expectant trap in her imagination. In Amherst she forged her most basic self-definition—the affluent outsider in rebellion against polite mores.
Mary’s position as the youngest child in the Heaton household further set her apart, but did not ensure maternal attention. Her mother was too preoccupied with the supervision of five teenage children from her first marriage to attend to the tasks of raising a small child. From her birth, Mary’s daily care was assigned to a procession of nurses and housemaids. As the foreign, late arrival to her mother’s brood, Mary often felt ignored, even victimized, in a household of heedless adolescents naturally a bit jealous of their mother’s new child.
Prompted by her parents’ ridicule of the town elite, Mary also felt an alien in Amherst society. She soon learned that beneath Amherst’s peaceful exterior lay the feuds of long duration, the lives cramped by religiosity, the fearful hearts of comfortable folks who seldom dared to question much or to risk impudence. Amherst women and Amherst proprieties symbolized the antithesis of all she would be and all she would cherish: “Amherst was not my home spiritually. I never accepted it anymore than it accepted me.”1
Outwardly, Amherst in the 1880s looked to be a sheltered spot. Its gentle folk seemed untouched by severe deprivation; its social relations appeared as contented and orderly as its quiet streets. One hundred miles from Boston, the small farming community long remained an economic and cultural backwater, untroubled for years by either liberal Unitarianism or the influence of the mercantile centers. Amherst lacked the water power to support the factories that grew up in nearby towns like Northampton, Holyoke, or Springfield. Aside from the railroad, gas, running water, concrete sidewalks, and public sewer system in place by the 1890s, the industrialization transforming American life hardly touched Amherst. Nor did the wrenching gap between rich and poor, dramatically apparent in the eastern cities by the late nineteenth century, taint Amherst’s ideal of social order. Amherst was set apart from the modernizing world, yet the genteel conformity that apparently ruled town society was actually a remnant of spiritual antiquity, a precariously balanced cultural tradition under attack.2
Despite the town’s relative seclusion, the new intellectual and social concerns sweeping the nation reached Amherst as well. Many men and women of intellect who grew up there found it stifling. “I fail to recognize any bliss in vegetating in that humdrum, old foggy hamlet of Amherst,” as the poet Eugene Field put it. The town’s most creative resident, Emily Dickinson, reported that the Amherst men and women she knew “talk of Hallowed things, aloud, and embarrass my dog.” High-spirited Mabel Loomis Todd, who arrived in Amherst in 1881, also found town women lacking: “estimable ladies of quiet tastes dressing in dark colors, having their suppers at six o’clock, not playing cards, nor dancing.” But it was Dickinson who best skewered the female notables of Amherst, as she immortalized their decorative characteristics in verse:
What Soft-Cherubic Creatures
These Gentlewomen are—
One would as soon assault a Plush—
or violate a Star—3
When Mary Vorse was twenty, she noted in her diary that the greatest difference between herself and Amherst women was “that they think I talk of serious things lightly and I think they talk of light things ponderously. There is an awful gulf.”4 Like many other intellectuals of her time, she reacted against the disintegrating Victorian culture that could no longer sustain her and learned withdrawal early in order to examine life on her own terms. She did so partly because in Amherst—still in so many ways a Bible-centered Puritan village—the moral and social contradictions of the time were especially apparent to a questing mind, and partly because her parents encouraged her difference through their own proudly maintained distance from respectability. At home one could venture widely, promote any theory. It was only among the stolid townspeople that one edited. Yet Vorse realized, “if I in my high spirits did things which made me ‘talked about’ my mother didn’t care one whit.”
In truth, it did not require much to alarm the town. The pace of social change in Amherst made the steady turn of the seasons of the year seem recklessly swift in comparison. Among Mary’s peers, one of the most anticipated events of the spring came when they joined a group of adults whose idea of a party was to gather in the parlor and sit up till the wee hour of 11 P.M.—all in order to observe the flowering of a night-blooming cereus placed in a bowl of ice on a center table.5 Amherst’s numbing odor of sanctity, as well as its lack of economic opportunity, drove the young away.
Mary’s father probably agreed to move to Amherst because the town’s college faculties provided associates with whom he could indulge his interest in American history, or because the setting reminded him of his rural childhood at Stockbridge, fifty miles away. Mary’s mother stuck to Amherst because it was large enough to offer a society life of sorts, yet small enough to allow her talent for deviation considerable notice. As one of the wealthiest women in town, Ellen Heaton’s status in community life could hardly be dismissed, no matter how peculiar her ideas. In Amherst she could indulge her need to pose on high as the cosmopolitan lady shocking the provincial natives of a New England village. This was a stance that Mary would adapt for her own purposes.
Mary’s mother held the power position in the Heaton household. This was not simply a result of her forceful nature; it was her money that sustained the family life style. Ellen Heaton could trace her English ancestry back to the first settlement of the New England colonies in the 1630s. Ellen’s father, a grocery merchant, settled in Burlington, Vermont. In 1852, Ellen lifted herself from middle-class obscurity by capturing the heart of a fabulously wealthy visiting seafarer. Captain Charles Bernard Marvin had made his fortune in the China trade and as a liquor merchant serving the thirst of hopefuls who created the San Francisco boomtown during the 1849 Gold Rush. He and Ellen were married within a few weeks of meeting. He was thirty-nine; she was eighteen.
To provide his catch with a proper setting, Captain Marvin purchased the finest house in Burlington—the old governor’s mansion on upper Main Street. Marvin paid $12,000 for the property and hired an artist for $10,000 to do the decorating. The Marvins frescoed the front rooms in a design of garlands and cupids, and added marble mantels, bronze chandeliers, and European statuary. Ellen adjusted easily to her sudden elevation in Burlington society. She bore five children in fifteen years, while greatly expanding her experience of the world by sojourns in Europe, San Francisco, and Brooklyn. Widowed in 1871 at age thirty-seven, Ellen enjoyed a comfortable income from her husband’s estate.6
Within two years, Ellen remarried. Seven years her junior, her new husband, Hiram Heaton, was a slight, rather passive man with a delicate look. Hiram’s English ancestors had passed through Canada, where several generations of Heatons, preferring town life to farm labor, served as innkeepers and barmaids to trappers and travelers. His hotel-keeper family had come from Ticonderoga, New York, to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1851. At the time of Hiram’s marriage to Ellen, he was helping his mother and brother-in-law run the fashionable Stockbridge House, better known today as the Red Lion Inn. When the newly widowed Ellen arrived at the inn as a summer guest, “chaperoned” by her ailing aunt, she decided at once that the shy Heaton boy, with his interest in books and art, would do her just fine. He was sufficiently malleable, yet a nice change from Captain Marvin, who had indulged her high spirits and taught her worldliness, but whose cultural knowledge extended no farther than the opera house. With no difficulty, Ellen convinced Hiram to join her in a life of travel and leisure. Twenty-two months later, on October 11, 1874, Mary was born at the family’s East 40th Street house in New York City.7
The Heaton family trio, and the older Marvin children, spent the winters in New York until Mary was ten. After that they were more likely to be in California, Vienna, or Paris during the winter season. Before she was fifteen, Mary learned to speak and write French, Italian, and German. All the Marvin children were educated at home. Mary attended two private schools and the high school in Amherst for a brief time, but the bulk of her education came through travel and private instruction. Her father insisted that she make all the appropriate bows at the cultural sites of western Europe, from the catacombs to Westminster Abbey. But religious training was perfunctory. If Mary longed to be among the much discussed pioneers who composed America’s first generations of college women, she never mentioned it. Most likely, Mary recognized that she would find the prudishly monitored halls of Wellesley, Vassar, or Smith as constraining to the agnostic spirit of Ellen Heaton’s daughter as were the parlors of Amherst.
Ellen’s “triumph and sureness” dominated the lives of her older children, Mary later wrote, remembering that only she among Ellen’s daughters escaped the maternal mold. During Mary’s early years, Ellen was consumed in channeling her five fatherless children into appropriate avenues—economic endeavors for the boys, secure marriages for the girls. The two Marvin daughters especially required Ellen’s attention. There must be dresses selected, parties planned, hair styles considered, social training acquired, husbands captured. If Ellen’s organizational skill and energy were oppressive, they were also awesome. Within two days of the family’s arrival in Paris or Vienna, Mary recalled, “my mother would have found an apartment, engaged three servants, hired a piano, had the trunks unpacked and the establishment running as if we had always lived there, complete with the flowering plants she liked.”
Influenced by her father’s perception, Mary early recognized the personal catastrophe that smoldered beneath Ellen’s superficial gaiety: “My mother’s life was tragedy. She had a fine mind and great executive ability and all this dynamo was idle.”8 Ellen’s intelligence and energy found little outlet in late Victorian America. The weary problem of how to cope with leisure afflicted the lives of many middle- and upper-class women of the day. Barred from serious commitment to any sort of work, trained to shun public activity as the affair of men, women like Ellen were sentenced to fill the long hours of every day as best they could. Many women facing this dilemma simply went to bed, permanently, or lingered on in the twilight of the curious female nervous disorder known as neurasthenia. Other women turned to social reform or women’s causes.
Despite her discontent, Ellen remained bound to the notion of woman’s limited domestic sphere. Throughout her life she opposed women’s suffrage on the grounds that “too many fools are already voting.” Ellen preferred to see suffrage curtailed rather than extended. She favored rigid property qualifications and would forbid immigrants the vote unless they had an American education.9
Ellen channeled her quest for meaning into what she called “Housekeeping as a Fine Art,” which meant careful direction of her five servants. Haunted by her lost youth, an inheritance that Mary would assume, Ellen was obsessed with spontaneity and pursuit of “fun.” “Games and more games filled my mother’s hours,” Mary wrote. “I was taught [very young] to play cards and was often called in from play to make a fourth.”10 Clothes interested Ellen, but true to her rebel self-image, she disdained fashion. Long after the demise of its popularity, she refused to forsake the bustle. Ellen was a proponent of the women’s dress-reform effort, but believed women’s clubs should drop their literary and historical studies and consider more serious matters—like the paucity of reliable domestic help. Other than distributing an occasional food basket during the depression of the mid-nineties, Ellen felt no need to perform social service, paid or unpaid.
Although no one was allowed to penetrate her inner core, Ellen was probably less guarded with Mary than with anyone else. Ellen often confided to Mary her disappointments with the Marvin children or revealed the problems they presented to her. But Ellen’s message to her youngest child was designed to produce distance, not to encourage closeness. Hearing her mother’s confessions taught Mary “the firm resolve never to give my mother a moment of trouble.” Only when Mary experienced severe marital crisis in her twenties did she break her reticence and come to Ellen for comfort. Ellen’s advice was that Mary repress her anxiety and never reveal it to anyone else, including Mary’s husband. “My mother told me, ‘Never let him know how you feel.’ I have the impression she really had little to tell me,” Vorse remembered bitterly.11
During Mary’s girlhood, she watched her mother’s lonely adjustment to the limitations of age. For the thirty-five years of life remaining to her after Mary’s birth, Ellen continued her time-filling quest. To fill the empty hours, and perhaps with an eye to publication, Ellen wrote pages of instructions to housewives on training cooks and selecting menus, and sometimes tried her hand at fiction. After the youngest Marvin child left home, her mother had sighed heavily and said to Mary, “Now [I must begin] these ghastly women’s meetings again.” Decades later Mary wrote, “Here the woman was living in an environment chosen by her, in a beautiful home, and she couldn’t fill her own life at all. I felt, I remember, coldly repelled by this.”12 Determined to escape Ellen’s plight, and to forsake the feminine ideal that closed the domestic trap and condoned mind-deadening triviality, Mary also idolized her distant, audacious mother. She admired Ellen’s confident direction of household affairs, her role as adventuress, and her open contempt for New England sanctimony. Perhaps Ellen’s domineering ways were sufficient to breed resentment in a daughter who was also pampered by a slyly subversive father, himself yearning for a somewhat wider range of decision. The misleading veneer of Amherst society, which so early repulsed Mary, resembled the hypocrisy drawn over her own family drama, with its patterned cheerfulness and hidden demons.
Ellen trained Mary as a nonconformist, but it was Hiram Heaton’s adoration of Mary that strengthened her ego to the extent that rebellion became possible. As a child Mary knew herself to be a special person—special because she was of the privileged class, special because she was the baby of a large household, but most favored because she was her father’s only child. Hiram and Mary formed a natural alliance, both shadowy additions to the already existent Marvin family. Hiram was her parent teacher, companion, and escort. Unlike Ellen, he offered easy familiarity and enjoyed a variety of close and long-lasting friends. Whereas Ellen was a remote figure shimmering on the horizon, Hiram was the immediate guardian who could be counted upon to hear Mary’s problems and, with a word to the servants, set her world aright. Gentle Hiram served as buffer—although he eventually proved to be an unreliable one—against Ellen’s rushing power.
The unusual freedom given to Mary as a child both enriched and frightened. Yet she suspected that her lack of supervision was due to parental inattention. “There was no doubt about it. I was, in a certain way, not neglected, but the household was so big that no one noticed [my absence] . . . I was raised like Topsy. There were long years . . . when no one knew what time I came or what time I went to bed, what I read or how I spent my days or with whom, when I had anything but the normal life of a young girl. I had not been reared within the conventions of a community. I heard formal education laughed at, and perhaps rightly, but my parents did nothing much to replace such education.”13 Mary’s solution to the feelings of insecurity she experienced as the unattended and intimidated youngest child was to “act out in a wild desire to be different.” Her siblings teased her: “You are a COI—a Creature of Impulse.” Mary assumed the identity of the family daredevil. Thus in one stroke she attracted notice, found an expression for repressed tensions, and won her mother’s secret approval.
Sidney, the youngest Marvin child, was Mary’s one sure ally. Perhaps sympathetic to Mary’s desire to overtake his sisters in matters of social success, Sidney taught Mary how to attract the opposite sex. “You’re not pretty or witty,” he told her, “so you’d better learn how to get along with men.” Mary was intensely grateful for Sidney’s attention. She remembered how she jogged to keep up with Sidney’s fast walk, as she listened intently to his lessons in social skills.
The days spent with Sidney were valuable excursions into the wider world of the male. Like so many future feminists of her generation, Mary was a self-identified “tomboy.” Rejecting society’s gender-role demands, she enjoyed the psychological satisfaction and bodily joy of physical exertion. In Amherst, Mary sought in vain for a female friend willing to walk with her for over a mile. As an adult, Mary was a devoted hiker. In her eighties, she won renown in her Cape Cod home for her long daily swims.
As to all tomboys, there came that moment of girlhood, never to be forgotten, when many of her same-age male friends, once her equal in physical strength, surpassed her in muscular development. Slowly but steadily, the old wrestling games and tests of strength became a series of humiliating defeats. Mary suffered from the experience. Recovering, she decided that “I didn’t need to compete; I was a girl.” The decision delayed overt repudiation of her mother’s feminine ideal and marked Mary’s introduction into puberty, with its self-conscious recognition of the opposite sex.
“I can remember no time in my life when I was not acutely conscious of boys and young men,” Vorse wrote when in her sixties. Her first memories were of competition for the attention of her mother whose interest was centered on the entertainment of suitors for the Marvin girls. Her active girlhood years while in Sidney’s tow made her feel comfortable with male friends and convinced her that boys’ activities were of more interest than the restrictive play of girls. And surely her adored and adoring father shaped her positive attraction to men.14
Still, her sensuality was remarkably advanced for a well-bred female born in the 1870s. Young Mary had little difficulty in winning any male she set out to capture. Her desirability often puzzled her, for she knew she was not particularly beautiful by the standards of her day. Yet she rarely lacked attention and hardly suffered those moments of uncertainty common to adolescent girls. As an adult, she relished the sport of romance and the physical pleasure of love, both casual and committed. Indeed, her only sexual defeat came so late in life that the unfamiliar experience of rejection shattered her spirit.
Perhaps no incident so well expresses Mary’s assured sexuality as the scene aboard a train that she recorded in her diary when she was in her early eighties.
There’s a curious thing about people who belong to one. When I was young I recognized instantly the men who belonged to me . . . always there was the curious knowledge which came unheralded. I would find the eyes of my man and we would look at each other. It had been so with lesser lovers and with my husbands. Sometimes I knew the man as a friend before the moment of illumination came. . . . Now I am very old and I thought these things were behind me. Then today . . . I never knew why I turned around to look at the young officer sitting behind me on the train. There he was, a man who belonged to me . . . his eyes, his kind mouth. We smiled at each other as though we were old friends. It was the old recognition.15
Here was Mary, a child of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Period, flirting with a young stranger during the late Eisenhower Era. A rare moment.
As an adult, Mary Vorse usually covered her sensual power with a pose of gentility. She seemed a quiet-spoken New England lady at first meeting. Malcolm Cowley spoke of her “soft, old-family New York voice.” But her friends realized the volcanic strength that lay beneath her air of elegant reserve. “In conversation,” Art Young said of Mary, “she took her time, pausing to light her cigarette with a slow, sinuous curve of her arm, taking an indifferent puff, then lazily saying something that was neither brilliant nor very interesting.” At first, he said, Mary seemed “pallid, unassuming, no one would guess on slight acquaintance that she was gifted or distinguished.” Louis Untermeyer captured her essence when he dubbed her “the intransigent Mary Heaton Vorse, that quiet firebrand.”16
Her habitual mode of restraint was a conditioned response to the demand of her otherwise permissive parents that she contain negative feelings. Her father’s only anger toward her came when she made too much noise or otherwise betrayed his sense of good manners. At home, one must look pleasant and sound pleasant, even if one did not feel pleasant. Messages like these reinforced Mary’s fear of parental inattention. To break the social surface was to pester preoccupied adults. She traced her “early fatalistic acceptance of disagreeable things” to her childhood “feeling that protest did no good.” As a mature woman, Vorse most often fled from unpleasant personal encounters: “Mary,” a friend in the labor movement later told her, “you are a good comrade but a poor fighter.”17
Struggle as she would to escape, Mary wore her mother like an inner skin. Ellen’s resentful neglect of the maternal role was concurrent with her powerful dominance over her family. Mary’s similar struggle to escape motherhood in pursuit of personal goals would be coupled with her jealous need to maintain centrality in her children’s lives. Ellen’s restless activity would be repeated in Mary’s lifelong flight from place to place in order to avoid conflict and self-insight.18 And if Ellen refused to notice or to ponder anything more important than the surface of her life, so too would Mary deny her innermost pain.
Infrequently, but periodically, Mary would pause to note her marked refusal of self-discovery, as in 1934 when she was writing her autobiography and her editor and close friends were urging her to present a truthful account of her loves and sorrows. But Mary ignored their appeal. She wrote instead a tale of action almost entirely free of personal detail. And when the reviewers bemoaned the loss of who she was and how she felt and what she had learned from it all, Mary scoffed at their remarks, and, in defense, asked herself: Was she not one of the best reporters in the country and did not the interest of her story lie in that excellence, and in events rather than self? Beyond the defense lay the memory: Ellen, groomed, distant, writing intently every evening while seated at her mahogany bedroom desk, working on short stories or diary entries, the meticulously chosen words shot out onto paper to conceal the abysmal failure of her thought; young Mary, equally entranced with the music of language, also filling page after page with carefully penned prose, intently aware of her mother’s void, yet observing the formalities of compliance in order to please.
It is not surprising that a girl of Mary’s intelligence and social class found comfort in words and books. At eleven, Mary’s mental ability and personal ambition were further developed by her encounter with two gifted women. Emma and Vryling Buffum ran a small school in the home of a local Amherst minister. Vryling Buffum was an early New Woman, symbol of a new age, following one of the few occupational avenues open to intellectual women in the late nineteenth century. She graduated from Wellesley in 1881, attended Columbia University, and eventually became a librarian at a Massachusetts teachers’ college. The Buffum sisters, Mary said, opened her eyes “to the multiform magnificence of the world.” The educators also provided Mary concrete evidence of the possibilities open to deviant women who sought public roles.19
Her father shared Mary’s joy in learning. Hiram, who filled his leisured days with more rewarding activities than did his wife, was interested in history and geography. When he was not working in his garden, or conversing with his faculty friends, he allowed Mary to help him compile the many scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings and mementos of cultural events with which he busied himself. Nearing fifty, Mary Vorse recalled the “two secret hidden lives” she led as a child. One, “the physical life . . . animal like . . . food, movement, warmth of sun, wind in face.” The other, the “hidden life of secret subjective, that dazzling fertile place where I wandered alone, absorbed, self-sufficient. My father had it too. Our eyes would meet in sympathy. This was nothing my mother could share. She lived on events or activities.”20 Hiram Heaton’s intellectual interests were haphazardly formed, but he clung to the notion of the value of work. Mary knew both her parents were underoccupied.
By her teen years, reading was Mary’s most compelling pastime. Experiences and ideas locked away in books beckoned to a world more vast than she could ever know, even as a member of the traveling Heaton household. She began to fill notebooks with dialogue and description of New England society. When she was sixteen, she published a few light fiction pieces in the Springfield Journal. But Mary found no certain goal. She longed to escape both her mother’s vacuous life and Amherst’s decorum. The precise means of doing so she could not yet fathom.
One can imagine the excitement in the Heaton household in 1891 when New England Magazine accepted Ellen’s only published piece, an event that also reflects the rivalry between mother and daughter, as Mary had published her first story the year before. Ellen’s story portrayed upper-middle-class life in a small New England town. There were all the stock characters: the religious fanatic, the philosophical physician, the frivolous society dame, the Harvard hero, the mean-spirited businessman. Against these respectables were the harbingers of the new age—the social gospel minister and the socially concerned heroine. This young woman longed for meaningful existence. Ellen’s main theme was the ennui of privileged women and their struggle to escape it. Her solution was the totally expected one. The heroine of the story transferred maternal love, in quick succession, from dead brother to slum waif to Harvard hero. Young women could have a fling at social work so long as they understood that true happiness lay in marital service to a financially secure male.21 As discerning a reader as Mary could hardly have missed the significance of the appearance in the next issue of New England Magazine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the now classic horror tale of one woman’s failure to escape boredom.
Mary was enmeshed in a series of painful contradictions. Raised as a polite eccentric, she was expected to assume a conventional female role. Trained as an outsider, she was encompassed by class-bound wealth. Encouraged to reject societal controls on behavior, she was taught subordination to maternal demands. Ellen believed in self-expression, but channeled hers into the pursuit of pleasure. Mary’s love of liberty was rooted in her rebellion against her mother’s idleness and dominance. Mary sought release to make of herself what she wanted. Yet her thwarted mother could not give her a blessing to be different. It was an ancient tale. Her love for her mother was blurred by contempt and guilt. Her mother’s lack of choice became an injury to her daughter.
The form of Mary’s early rebellion took root in her time. She came of age in the 1890s, that period the historian Henry Steele Commager called the watershed of American history. The term stuck, so aptly did it describe the crucial slippage between modern industrial America and the rural past. The decade set the problems every succeeding generation of Americans has been required to confront. The nineties were years of vivid, often violent, social protest. Workers, women, farmers, and intellectuals rose in full-throated rebellion against the old order. Among the chief issues of the period was the question of women’s changing status. When the first organized feminist movement in the United States began to crest, the “woman problem” was fully as disturbing to the status quo as the great class conflict of the time.
In 1874, the year of Mary’s birth, there occurred that most puzzling of historical phenomena, the sudden and unexpected, seemingly spontaneous, emergence of a massive protest movement. It began in December 1873 in the small town of Hillsboro, Ohio. There a tiny band of women set out to invade saloons and close down the liquor traffic. The idea spread like a prairie fire. Within four months, temperance leaders in Philadelphia claimed to have 25,000 women on the streets. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, formed soon after, mushroomed to exceed in size any previous women’s organization. Under the direction of Frances Willard the WCTU moved far beyond the temperance issue, championing women’s suffrage and social reforms. By 1893, the WCTU and its auxiliaries had well over 200,000 members, dwarfing the 33,000 combined membership of the other two powerfully influential women’s groups, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the reunited National American Woman Suffrage Association.22
These groups motivated middle-class and generally conservative women to leave their homes and assume a wide variety of political activity in support of women’s and reform causes. Single-sex groups provided women unfettered opportunity to express their identity, speak in public, learn the techniques of mobilization, run charity organizations, and heighten their social and gender consciousness. Their activity helped to create the mass center among American women from which the Progressive and the suffrage movements could later take off.
This vocal minority of women hacked at the foundations of idealized femininity, at the same moment widening its base. The coalescing women’s movement redefined the concept of motherhood to justify both its assumption of new political responsibilities and its attack on abuses of industrial society. Maternal virtue, women leaders taught, would dissolve entrenched evil and guide the state into a righteous course. As the historian Mari Jo Buhle has noted, women activists made claims for the female comparable to those orthodox socialists made for the proletariat. Aroused females, the women said, were the agents of history who would purify society. Mobilized women would end war, political corruption, and economic inequality, to bring a reign of peace and happiness to earth. This concept of womanhood was a powerful rallying point, for most women could see easily enough how thoroughly males had botched the creation of civilization. A second compelling tenet was held by many organized women of this time. They substituted for class consciousness an alternative analysis—their faith in the collective female bond. Networks of loving female friends commonly sustained the feminist achievers and social activists of the late nineteenth century, who rediscovered the wondrous contentment of female separatism their grandmothers had known. As the call for the International Council of Women—held in Washington, D.C., in 1888—put it: “Much is said of a universal brotherhood, but . . . more subtle and more binding is universal sisterhood.”23
By 1890, when Mary reached sixteen, tens of thousands of American women had been touched by feminist ideas. Middle-class American women had a generation of experience of political action and social reform behind them. A decade later, they had witnessed the growth of the largest social protest movement since the Civil War. The outcry of labor’s eight-hour campaign, the agrarian resistance of populism, the birth of both an orthodox and a Christian socialism, the discontent of women—all this for a time seemed to challenge the ongoing consolidation of corporate capitalism. Their organizational ties and related activities made it evident that thousands of conservative and radical women alike hoped to use government at all levels to create a more humane society.
Mary’s mother’s peers, the same mothers who had formed women’s clubs and joined the WCTU, also gave birth to the New Woman—their daughters, who repudiated their mothers’ ways. The New Woman, wrote the historian Peter Filene, was “a minority of the female minority, but disproportionately conspicuous.” Denunciations and defenses of the New Woman first appeared in popular fiction and genteel journals. By the 1890s she had become the subject of serious novels. The New Woman was usually leisured and middle class. She was above all educated, either through wide and uncensored reading, or, more commonly, by the new colleges open to women. She was also athletic, with tanned cheeks and a most unwomanly stride. She was at ease with men (no more the adoring, trembling Lady of lowered eyes) and conversed freely with them on every topic. The New Woman was apt to be economically self-supporting. Born of some curious symbiotic relationship between her mother’s discontent and her society’s economic shift, the New Woman became a popular metaphor for social disorder and change.24
Mary Vorse reached maturity at a time when female insurgence was rapidly restructuring the aspirations of middle-class women. The generations of American women that immediately preceded her own “were the real revolutionaries,” Vorse realized. “They majored in college, kicked out chaperons, clamored for economic independence, entered professions and occupations hitherto forbid women . . . shattered convention, belled sacred cows, and tweaked the beards of stuffed shirts.” Vorse’s peers would carry on the battle in their fight for social regeneration, birth control, suffrage, and the end of war. But it was women in the generations before her, Vorse knew, who left a more spacious world for their daughters and granddaughters. Of her own cadre, Mary Vorse wrote: “We were the crop, not the seed.”25