"One Woman's Question." Independent, 18 July 1907, pp. 132-33.

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"One Woman's Question." Independent, 18 July 1907, pp. 132-33.


immigration; urbanization; gender; political corruption


“One Woman’s Question”

By Rebecca Harding Davis

Did you ever notice a shrewd farmer as he goes over his fields, how he takes account of every trifling sign to find out their condition? Here he picks up a bit of earth and smells it and tastes it; there he notes a new kind of weed that is making headway; these trees are puny and diseased, those are rank with lichen. The wind thru that newly cut gap is killing the young corn, the manure is too strong for these peas, etc., etc. He finds the remedy for each thing or he is no farmer.

I was out of this country lately for a short time, and when I came back I noticed certain suggestive small changes in it to which the governing American seems to be blind.

For, after all, there is an American to whom the country does belong and who is responsible for it to the unknown Power who made it and him. This American has opened his gates to all sorts and conditions of men,[1] and just now is so occupied by their foreign creeds and doings that there is danger that he will forget that the country, after all, is his possession, a farm loaned to him for a while, and that he must render account some day of the crops it bears to its owner.

May I tell you of one or two of the little incidents which the daily papers have reported, and which show the diseases that are gaining ground in this country, just as the sour earth and fungus indicate the ailments of the worn out farmer?

No. 1. A few weeks ago a working-man in Philadelphia, being jealous of the girl—a young saleswoman—to whom he was engaged, fired at her, and, missing her, blew out his own brains. His blood bespattered her gown. She was called to give her evidence before the Coroner. When she had told her story, she approached that official with an ingratiating smile.

“Could I have the pistol?” she said.

“What do you want with the pistol?” he asked gruffly.

“As a souvenir of a most painful and dramatic occurrence!” she replied, simpering. “Why, I suppose that my picture will be in the papers tomorrow.”

No. 2. This girl earned her living in a large department store. An inquiry was recently made as to the kind of books taken out of the free library during two months by the women employed in this establishment. Three per cent. of these books were history, 1 per cent. travels and essays, the remaining 96 per cent. were fiction, usually of the flimsiest character, many of the books depending for their interest on divorces and unusual erotic, putrid subjects.

No. 3. An energetic philanthropist lately addressed a note to each of the women engaged in another large department store asking whether if they should marry and give up work they would prefer to board or keep house. Out of the six hundred women addressed only eleven preferred homes of their own to the freedom of a boarding house. One of them, apparently, spoke for her class when she said: “After I have shared the public life of a great store, why should I shut myself up in a kitchen to cook bacon and hot cakes for one man?”

No. 4. Almost every railway in the country is fenced on both sides by huge boardings, representing gigantic cows, pigs and other beasts, advertisements of dealers in drugs, whiskey, shoes or trousers. Behind these hideous bids for money lie tranquil valleys, landscapes as fair as any that Claude[2] painted, and sometimes vast ranges of mountains, full of the peace of God. The sight of all this immeasurable beauty is hidden from the travelers who pass thru the country, in order that a few dealers may sell more tobacco or whiskey. No one protests. Trade apparently is more valuable than beauty to the average American.

No. 5. The contractors for the Capitol of Harrisburgh have just brought in an additional charge of $650,000 for the air furnished in that building.[3]

No. 6. Three passenger trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad lately were derailed within a week by Italian strikers, who wanted more wages. They were not punished.

No. 7. Zito, an Italian in New York, killed his wife and mother-in-law the other day, and proceeded to cut them up. When he perceived that his baby boy was watching him, he took the child up, dripping with blood as he was.

“Promise,” he said, “that you will not tell what you saw.” The child promised.

“Swear it.” The child swore. When the police came he was dumb and has not yet been brought to accuse his father.

No. 8. The headless body of an Italian was found on the railway near Trenton, with the head lying at some distance.

It is true these things were done by Italians, not by our own people. But it is also true that Italians do not cut up their wives, nor derail trains, nor chop heads from bodies and leave them lying loose about the streets—in Italy.

No. 9. The Thaw trial,[4] with all the dramatis personae,[5] prisoner, witnesses, lawyers, reporters and the papers who gave it to the world. What is the meaning of that putrid sore in the life of the country?

No. 10. Several of the newspapers which cater for the most intelligent readers in the country, publish weekly the novels which rank highest in English literature condensed into a single page. “Waverly,”[6] “The Newcomes,”[7] “Jane Eyre,”[8] and other masterpieces of Scott, Thackeray and Dickens,[9] have been thus boiled down to suit the times, and the taste and capacity of American readers. It is akin to offering a picture of Niagara on a two-inch square tintype.

Gigantic crimes, such as we have found lately in the doings of Pennsylvania politicians,[10] of negro-phobists, or the Orchards and Adamses[11] are to the country like huge conflagrations, whose size and fury drive men to make haste to repair the damage they have done.

But the little instances which I have given you of a growing vulgarity, dishonesty and vice in the country are the symptoms of a creeping paralysis which threatens us almost unnoticed. What is its cure?


[1] Davis seemingly acknowledges here the issue of immigration, which was receiving much discussion at this time. On the heels of massive immigrant influx in the late nineteenth century, legislative attempts to limit immigration began to be implemented, including the Immigration Act of 1907 passed earlier in the year of this publication.

[2] Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a French painter known as a pioneer of impressionism, which is featured in his landscape paintings.

[3] A new Pennsylvania State Capitol was dedicated in 1906 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and was the source of much publicity due to both its impressive Beaux-Arts design and its high construction costs.

[4] The trial in question was of Harry Kendall Thaw (1871-1947), a wealthy heir to coal and railroad money who murdered Stanford White (1853-1906), a prominent architect, on June 25, 1906 in front of a crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York. White had previously been accused of drugging and raping Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit (1884-1967), when she was a teenager. Nesbit, a chorus girl and model, is famously the model for Charles Dana Gibson’s (1867-1944) “Gibson Girl” illustrations, which were billed as ideals of American feminine beauty. Thaw’s trial was dubbed the “trial of the century” and it marks the first occasion in American history in which jury members were ordered to be sequestered due to the amount of publicity the case had received. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, and in the second Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to life in a hospital for the criminally insane, though he later escaped.

[5] The characters of a work of drama or fiction.

[6]Waverly (1814) is a novel by the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).

[7]The Newcomes (1855) is a novel by English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863).

[8]Jane Eyre (1847) is a novel by English author Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855).

[9] A reference to Charles Dickens (1812-1870), prominent English author in the nineteenth century.

[10] A possible allusion to the scandal surrounding the 1906 conviction of a number of State officials as well as Pennsylvania State Capitol architect, Joseph Miller Huston (1866-1940), for graft, when newly elected State Treasurer, William H. Berry (1852-1928), conducted an investigation into the $13 million budget for the construction of the new Capitol and found many construction costs to be fraudulent.

[11] Harry Orchard (1866-1954) was convicted of the assassination of former Governor of Idaho, Frank Steunenberg (1861-1905), in 1905. The subsequent trial was widely publicized, and Orchard testified that three leaders of a labor union, the Western Federation of Miners, had ordered the hit. Steve Adams, a union member, was tried three times as his accomplice but ultimately acquitted, while Orchard was sentenced to life in prison.


Jency Wilson


Updated November 29, 2021


Alicia Mischa Renfroe



Jency Wilson, “"One Woman's Question." Independent, 18 July 1907, pp. 132-33.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed June 6, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/224.

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