The lady, dwelling on her pedestal of isolation, from which she commands the veneration of the chivalrous gentleman and the adoration of the poet, is the product of a leisure assured by property. At the end of the social scale is the girl who wants to be a lady, who doesn’t want to work, and who, like the lady, has nothing to sell but herself. The life of the prostitute is the nearest approach for the poor girl to the life of a lady with its leisure, its fine clothes, and its excitement. So long as we have a sex ethics into which are incorporated the taboo concepts, the lady cannot exist without the prostitute. The restrictions which surround the lady guard her from the passions of men. The prostitute has been developed to satisfy masculine needs which it is not permitted the lady to know exist.
But in addition to the married woman who has fulfilled the destiny for which she has been prepared and the prostitute who is regarded as a social leper, there is a large and increasing number of unmarried women who fall into neither of these classes. For a long time these unfortunates were forced to take refuge in the homes of their luckier sisters who had fulfilled their mission in life by marrying, or to adopt the life of the religieuse. Economic changes have brought an alteration in their status, however, and the work of the unattached woman is bringing her a respect in the modern industrial world that the “old maid” of the past could never hope to receive.
Although at first often looked upon askance, the working woman by the sheer force of her labours has finally won for herself a recognized place in society. This was the first influence that worked against the old taboos, and made possible the tentative gropings toward a new standardization of women. The sheer weight of the number of unattached women in present day life has made such a move a necessity. In England, at the outbreak of the war, there were 1,200,000 more women than men. It is estimated that at the end of the war at least 25% of English women are doomed to celibacy and childlessness. In Germany, the industrial census of 1907 showed that only 9-1/2 millions of women were married, or about one-half the total number over eighteen years of age. In the United States, married women constitute less than 60% of the women fifteen years of age and over.
The impossibility of a social system based on the old sex taboos under the new conditions is obvious. There must be a revaluation of woman on the basis of her mental and economic capacity instead of on the manner in which she fits into a system of institutional taboos. But the old concepts are still with us, and have shaped the early lives of working women as well as the lives of those who have fitted into the old grooves. Tenacious survivals surround them both, and are responsible for many of the difficulties of mental and moral adjustment which make the woman question a puzzle to both conservative and radical thinkers on the subject.