Op Ed

But My Boots Just Have Buttons: Maggie and the Belief in Boot Straps

While watching the Republican response to the State of the Union last week, I heard something that really irked me. During the speech, while on the topic of unemployment, Daniels mentioned that “[o]ne in five men of prime working age”¦did not go to work today.” It was one of those things that left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly because it seemed to be in response to the point President Obama made about women and men being compensated equally for the work they did. I kept racking my brains. What was he saying? Was he saying that we should be more concerned about the men who are out of work than the women who are in the same position? And then, in the midst of all the jokes filling my Facebook feed about bootstraps, it all seemed to make sense.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane (1893)
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, by Stephen Crane (1893)

This was in response to Obama’s reference to the Lilly Ledbetter law. And Daniels went on to say the following: “[O]ur first concern is for those waiting tonight to begin or resume the climb up life’s ladder. We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have-nots. We must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.” But isn’t he still saying that we will always be a nation of haves and have-nots, only the haves are clever and lucky enough to climb up life’s ladder to the top, the soon-to-haves are on their way up, and the have-nots are at the bottom of life’s ladder? And if the have-nots are at the bottom of life’s ladder, then it is most likely their own fault for remaining there.

Daniels basically reiterated the “pull yourself up out of the gutter by your bootstraps” philosophy that is the backbone of the conservative platform. And what is the bootstraps philosophy, you ask? It has been around for quite awhile, since the nineteenth century. At that time, “tall boots”¦may [have had] a tab, loop, or handle known as the boot strap, allowing one to use fingers or a tool to provide greater force in pulling the boots on. (Wikipedia)” During the nineteenth century, the phrase “pulling yourself up by your boot straps,” meant using your own resources to accomplish a difficult task. By the early twentieth century, it meant “bettering oneself by one’s own unaided efforts.” (Wikipedia) The word “unaided” is very important here, as it means receiving no help from any outside sources, the government included. This means that some believe that there should be no laws or provisions to assist those who might be at the bottom of life’s ladder, and that they should use their own resources and wits to advance to the next rung. And if they don’t make it from the bottom, then that means that they must have done something wrong.


Examples of women's shoes and boots from the late Victorian period.

But it is the exclusion of women from the group of people who want to work that is the caveat. Because we are women, are we supposed to want less than men do? Are we to limit ourselves to what those above us feel like giving us? Because our tall boots might not have straps, and because they might lace or button up, are we supposed to be afraid to venture out and climb life’s ladder on our own? And what will be the consequences if we choose to do so?

This brings to mind the Stephen Crane novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, published in 1893, which tells the story of a young woman who has grown up in the slums. She wanted more than this, and when she saw her chance, she took it, just as one who wishes to pull herself out of the gutter by her bootstraps is expected to do. Despite living in horrible conditions, Maggie Johnson “grew to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl” (Crane), and she had always wanted more than what tenement life could offer her. Her existence is dull; she lived in a shabby, squalid apartment with her brother and her alcoholic mother, and she works long days in a factory sewing shirt collars. But it was in her brother’s friend, Pete, a bartender, that she saw something beyond the glum world she lived in, and a possible way into a better life. When she and Pete began to date, she began to see a possible marriage to him as a way to better herself. And at that time, the only way in which a woman could better herself and her circumstances was through marriage.

A tenement house in a New York City slum. Maggie would have lived in a room quite like this.
As Maggie’s acquaintance with Pete prolonged, she found that she “began to note the well-dressed women she met on the avenues. She envied elegance and soft palms. She began to crave all those adornments of person which she saw every day on the street” (Crane). But alas, when Maggie left the house during her mother’s drunken tirade, never to return, things began to crumble. It became clear that Maggie’s brother Jimmie suspected that something untoward happened between Pete and Maggie, and his suspicions were confirmed when Maggie didn’t return and when a neighbor informed him that she had seen Maggie and Pete together. “`An’ right out here by me door she asked him did he love her, did he. An’ she was cryin’ as if her heart would break, poor t’ing. An’ him, I could see by the way he said it dat she had been askin’ often, he says: “˜Oh, hell, yes”¦’” (Crane).

But life with Pete wasn’t what Maggie thought it would be. Maggie became very dependent upon him, because her attachment to him would somehow pave the way to a the life that she wanted. “Her life was Pete’s and she considered him worthy of the charge,” Crane writes. In other words, Maggie had begun a physical relationship with Pete in hopes that he might marry her, because the only way she could improve her status was through marriage. But when Pete abandoned her, all of her wishes and hopes were shattered, and she must try to return home.

But when Maggie returned home, her mother and brother cast her out again, too, because somehow, in their eyes, her actions had shamed them because she was now a fallen woman. And there was no place else for Maggie to go but the streets, to eke out a living there among “the painted cohorts of the city” (Crane). And it was here that Maggie met her death at the hands of one of her clients. Sadly, when both Jimmie and his mother learn of Maggie’s death, it is only at this point that they can forgive her for whatever sin she had supposedly committed.

And what was Maggie’s sin? It was simply wanting a better life than the one she lived in the slums, to not have to work endless hours in a factory making shirt collars for very little pay. Her salary at this time would not have been enough for her to find lodgings on her own or even in a better part of the city, so of course, finding a good, prosperous husband was the only way out of her miserable home life. She believed that Pete would be her ticket out of her mother’s house, and she went so far as to begin a physical relationship with him in hopes that he might ask her to marry him. In a society and time when women were dependent upon men for so much, Maggie took the gamble and lost. She wasn’t able to climb up that ladder of life, but rather, she was vilified for seeing that opportunity and risking the only thing she really had worth risking, and she slipped to the very dregs of society as a result.

The phrasing in Adams’s speech implies that while there are those who will climb up the ladder of life from have-not to soon-to-have to have will succeed, there will be many more who will fail. If they fail, it is not because of something that is fundamentally wrong with how that ladder is built, but perhaps they didn’t take the right steps or they missed an opportunity. Some will have more opportunities than others, and those who do not have as many opportunities should make the most of them. If they do not make the most of the few opportunities they have, or if they misjudge, then that is their own error and they should pay the consequences for their failure.

Further, the mention of only “men of prime working age” suggests that whatever opportunities are available must be set aside for men, because naturally, men are the breadwinners and will need these opportunities more. Women should simply be thankful for the opportunities that the men in their lives took advantage of, or they should take advantage of whatever opportunities are left for them on their own. It is preferable, though, that women should want less, because they aren’t so deserving of it as men. And if they take the gamble, and it doesn’t work in their favor? What then? Well, they clearly chose the wrong men, or didn’t try hard enough, or wanted too much or too little. Whatever it was, they did something wrong.

So if we women don’t take advantage of whatever little opportunities are given to us, then we clearly didn’t deserve them to begin with. So we can just button up our boots and join Maggie at the bottom of the ladder of life.

Luckily, even though we still have an uphill battle, women nowadays do have more opportunities to make something of their lives than Maggie did. And we’ll keep fighting so that everyone–including Maggie–has that chance to make something of themselves.

3 replies on “But My Boots Just Have Buttons: Maggie and the Belief in Boot Straps”

Very well written and thought provoking. I didn’t think about Daniels’ speech in this way, but it really does make sense. After listening to both speeches and Mitt Romney that night,  I though a lot about how conservative values and Christian values clash. I feel as if the deadlock in Congress right could be blamed on this one simple selfish contradiction – because we all know the Dems are willing to compromise, sometimes too much so. Conservatism teaches just this, pull yourself up by your bootstraps all by your damn self. Christianity teaches to love thy neighbor, give to charity, help those in need, etc. It strikes me that most conservatives are also Christians, yet they choose these conservative principles over their Christian ones, resulting in a democracy that literally cannot function.

In the 1830s when Alexis de Tocqueville came to America and wrote Democracy in America as he searched for an alternative political system for France, he was struck by how the sense of community here. He noted that when we went to the ballot (those of us who could vote at that point), we went with not only our interests in mind but also those of our neighbors and communities at large, which resulted in a democracy that worked for, presumably, all of the people. This sense of obligation to our neighbors is just what Obama spoke of that night, and it is, in my opinion, exactly what is needed in order to get back on the right track.

I really enjoyed the story of Maggie in a sense that it reminds me that it is vitally important to never forget the struggles of our mothers, our grandmothers, and even their mothers. Hell, even my mother got married for economic security, and she’s now on marriage #3, still stuck in the same cycle.

I also think it is important to note that this is the economic policy that Santorum is openly advocating. He has said on several occasions that marriage should be encouraged for economic reasons. (hint hint) He has also condemned the Obama administration for not forcing social service workers to encourage young black women to marry. Yes, you read that right. He encourages this as a policy for young black women in particular. Oh, and don’t forget. Marriage is a matter of national security, too.

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