Edna Ferber. “Sisters Under Their Skin.” From Emma McChesney and Co. 1925.
O. Henry. “The Social Triangle.” From 41 Stories. New York: Signet Classic, [circa 1907] 1984.
Everyone has been talking about privilege lately. A catchphrase I hadn’t heard since my undergraduate days has resurfaced with the vigor and tenacity of a serial killer in the final reel of a horror movie. You have surely heard it by now: Check your privilege.
The charitable reading of the phrase is that it is a reminder that life can look a lot different depending on who you are. The somewhat less charitable reading is that the phrase is an assertion that, because of who you are, your thoughts can be discounted or ignored. Human nature being what it is, you are probably equally likely to hear it used either way. Julie Borowski and Cathy Reisenwitz fought out a version of this debate in the FEE Arena.
What very few people seem to be talking about when it comes to privilege is how context-dependent it is. The privilege I have, for example, as a well-educated, upper-middle-class, middle-aged white woman is quite an asset when I want to window shop in a pricey store or talk an airport gate agent into giving me an upgrade. But it is decidedly less useful—and is perhaps even a serious disadvantage—if I’m thinking about walking alone at night to a restaurant in an unfamiliar city. The set of characteristics that is privileged in each of these cases is different. The set of characteristics that add up to “Sarah” is always the same.
Happily for those who are interested in the way that different contexts make the concept of privilege more complex, and unsurprisingly for those who are familiar with this column, there are some useful literary discussions of context-dependent privilege to consider.
Edna Ferber’s Emma McChesney story “Sisters Under Their Skin” begins, in fact, with an observation about privilege: “Women who know the joys and sorrows of a pay envelope do not speak of girls who work as Working Girls. Neither do they use the term Laboring Class, as one would speak of a distinct and separate race, like the Ethiopian.” This story, Ferber signals to us, is going to be about a very different kind of woman. The redoubtable Emma McChesney is about to be invaded by Reformers, those “well-dressed, glib, staccato ladies who spoke with such ease from platforms and whose pictures stared out at one from the woman's page [who] failed, somehow, to convince her.” While Emma is in favor of many of “The Movement’s” goals, “The Movers got on her nerves.”
This is doubtless because Emma, who has spent 15 years as traveling saleswoman, and then vice president, and then part owner of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat company, has
met working women galore. Women in offices, women in stores, women in hotels—chamber-maids, clerks, buyers, waitresses, actresses in road companies, women demonstrators, occasional traveling saleswomen, women in factories, scrubwomen, stenographers, models—every grade, type and variety of working woman, trained and untrained. She never missed a chance to talk with them. She never failed to learn from them. She had been one of them, and still was. She was in the position of one who is on the inside, looking out. Those other women urging this cause or that were on the outside, striving to peer in.
The Reformers, headed by Mrs. Orton Wells, have not.
Emma understands the effort and art that go into making a factory girl’s salary produce “cheap skirts hung and fitted with an art as perfect as that of a Fifty-seventh Street modiste . . . with a chic that would make the far-famed Parisian couturiere look dowdy and down at heel in comparison.” The Reformers see only that “They squander their earnings in costumes absurdly unfitted to their station in life. Our plan is to influence them in the direction of neatness, modesty, and economy in dress.… We propose a costume which shall be neat, becoming, and appropriate. Not exactly a uniform, perhaps, but something with a fixed idea in cut, color, and style.”
So when this group of wealthy, non-working women arrives at the T. A. Buck company to instruct the “working girls” on how to dress with modesty and economy, they are already on the wrong foot. But the problems really begin when the Reformers come face to face with a few real, live factory girls and find that their privilege of class and wealth is not quite the unassailable armor they had anticipated.
Emma takes one look at the proposed speaker—Mrs. Orton Wells’s daughter Gladys—and notes that “Gladys was wearing black, and black did not become her.” And then Emma introduces her to Lily Bernstein, whose “gown was blue serge, cheap in quality, flawless as to cut and fit, and incredibly becoming. . . . she might have passed for a millionaire's daughter if she hadn't been so well dressed.” Instantly understanding (or misunderstanding?) why Gladys has come to talk to her about clothing, Lily begins to give her advice about how to dress.
Gladys is smart enough to know that privilege is context-dependent. She realizes that the privileged experts, in this context, are the women she has always thought of as underprivileged. And so when Gladys is put before the women on the factory floor to tell them how to dress, she realizes that the stylish shoe is on the other delicately stockinged foot, and simply asks, "You all dress so smartly, and I'm such a dowd, I just want to ask you whether you think I ought to get blue, or that new shade of gray for a traveling-suit."
We see a similar lesson in O. Henry’s story “The Social Triangle,” which surveys the social strata of turn-of-the-century New York City through a series of brief interactions that cross class lines. Each of the interactions ends with the less-privileged person’s delight at shaking the hand of someone more important. When, for example, the tailor’s apprentice Ikey Snigglefritz shakes the hand of Tammany Hall politician Billy McMahan, he is transported. “His head was in the clouds; the star was drawing his wagon. Compared with what he had achieved the loss of wages and the bray of women’s tongues were slight affairs. He had shaken the hand of Billy McMahan.”
The story continues in this vein until it reaches one of O. Henry’s classic twist endings when the millionaire Cortlandt Van Duyckink, in a moment of passionate desire to know and befriend “the people,” leaps from his car and feels “an unaccustomed glow about his heart. He was near to being a happy man. . . . He had shaken the hand of Ikey Snigglefritz.”
Ferber’s and O. Henry’s stories suggest to us that, yes, there are plenty of moments when we should check our privilege. Wafting into a factory to tell working women how to dress might well be one of them. But we should also check our contexts, and remember that the things that make us—or someone else—important, or impressive, or privileged in one place or time, can have a very different effect in different circumstances. No one is privileged at all times and in all ways. The teenager who rules the halls of the high school is just a punk kid when she gets pulled over for speeding. And even the most powerful politician, stuck in a dance club, is still just an old guy who can't dance. Lily Bernstein can tell Glady Orten Wells how to dress. And Cortlandt Van Duyckink is elated to shake the hand of Ikey Snigglefritz.