Daddy Long Legs

by Gordon Jones

I am currently engaged in producing Daddy Long Legs for the Draper Arts Council, and the experience has caused me to look at the source of the play, which is the 1912 novel by Jean Webster. I also looked (again) at the 1955 movie starring Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire. The play I am engaged with is an Off-Broadway adaptation that is much closer to the original than is the flashy Astaire-Caron vehicle. In both versions, a young orphan girl (Jerusha Abbott in the original, Julie André in the movie) is plucked from an orphanage by an eccentric millionaire (Jervis Pendleton in both versions) and given a college education.

In both cases, the story is about a particular orphan, and obviously, your mileage may vary, but I lived thru the 1950s, and it seems to me that a comparison of the portrayal allows some thoughts about gender roles at the turn of the 20th century and at a point halfway from there to where we are today. Perhaps a glimpse of those two historical points can tell us something about where we are, and where we want to go, in this young century. (The play is much closer to the original novel, and for purposes of this essay, I will consider the play/novel on one side and the movie on the other.)

Of the three time-points, the picture of women at mid-century is the least attractive. It seems to me that there has been a deterioration in the position of women by the 1950s. Of course, a college education for women was the exception in 1912. It wasn’t much different in the mid-1950s. Nor could they vote in 1912, though they could in 1956. But Jerusha Abbott knows that she will have the vote and soon. In many states, women already did have the vote. And her letters to Jervis reflect an interest in politics and ideas that is totally absent from the world of Julie André. As she graduates she sings (in the play) “Why does it feel like I’m flying/Somebody wake me at last/’Cause I’m right on the edge/Of the wide wide world.” Julie André, on the other hand, is only on the edge of an abyss.

To a large extent, this deterioration in the expression of possibilities for women reflects the victory (temporary, as it turns out) of the maternal feminist movement over the forces of egalitarian feminists. The latter, thanks to its ultimate success, is very familiar to us, to the point that we have virtually forgotten the existence of the former. We have forgotten that progressives, from Roosevelt (Teddy) to Roosevelt (Eleanor) sought to keep women – if not exactly barefoot and pregnant – certainly in the home, doing what only women can do: producing the next generation. We have forgotten that the original Equal Rights Amendment was endorsed in the platform of the Republican Party, and its advocacy financed by the National Association of Manufacturers. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party took its stand with Kinder and Küche, if not with Kirche, intent on maintaining its union support.

Some of the weapons used in this battle were such things as wage and hour and workplace safety laws. Initially, these laws applied only to women and were useful in protecting the jobs of men. Republicans, on the other hand, responsive to their Big Business support, sought to bring women into the workforce. The idea was to keep women from competing for the jobs of men on the one side and to keep wages down on the other. In that respect, the gender-oriented legislation pre-figures what would later occur with racial competition. Union support for wage and hour laws was designed to make racism cheaper than it would otherwise have been and to keep blacks in the South.

Daddy Long Legs is a Cinderella story, of course, open to all the feminist criticisms that story arc is always open to: it demeans women to imply that they can’t succeed without help from men. And of course, in both stories, our orphan ends up marrying her benefactor.

But what if she hadn’t? Once that boost up is provided by the eccentric millionaire, the results are very different. Jerusha Abbott, at graduation, is full of plans. Not only is she a published author, but she is planning to take over the John Grier Orphanage and reform it, before going on to revolutionize such asylums everywhere.

Completely different for Julie André. She hasn’t an idea of what she is going to do (I’m tempted to say she hasn’t an idea of any kind); she doesn’t even know where to ship her trunks. We have no sense that she is qualified to do anything, except marry Jervis Pendleton. If Master Jervie hadn’t, halfway thru her college career, found out that she could dance to the kind of Big Band music he likes, she would have been lost. In terms of autonomy, the two girls could not be more different.

(Incidentally, the picture of America shown by the movie is decidedly monochromatic. No blacks at a posh New England girls’ college? Understandable, though maybe in the band. But no blacks in New York? Not even among the help at the hotel? No wonder blacks complained for years about Hollywood’s discrimination.)

In short, as the 20th century opened, women were poised for great things; by the close of the century, much of the promise had been fulfilled. But in between, prospects closed down, and had it not been for the liberating effects of two world wars, America might have continued to (in Jerusha’s words) “throw away such an honest, educated, conscientious, intelligent, citizen as I [and all of her millions of sisters] would be.”

Not that Jerusha is an equity feminist. As an orphan, she fully recognizes the blessings of families and waxes rhapsodic in their praise. Then (and now – tho we don’t like to admit it) the family implies gender roles, and Jerusha herself nods to that reality. She asks her benefactor when she first falls in love if he will be terribly disappointed if she doesn’t “turn out to be a great author after all, but just a plain girl.” And she is very cognizant of the differences (not always flattering to men) in the sexes: Men “purr if you rub them the right way and spit if you don’t.”

The play does make one serious addition of something not in the novel, some reflections (by Jervis) on the difficulty of giving and receiving. This is a reality seriously underestimated by our redistributionists. Receiving is often corrupting, but giving also corrupts, and if its the giving of other people’s resources, it corrupts absolutely. Jervis comes to understand that reality: “Charity. It bites the hand that dispenses it. It corrodes the heart of the giver, however pure his motives.” And the (singing) “I cannot believe how easier it is to give than to let yourself receive.”

There’s a lot of wisdom there, in this case, added by John Caird, who wrote the book for the play.

What I have tried to outline here is a case for a wasted feminist promise for much of the 20th century. The original Daddy-Long-Legs sketched out a way it could work, but the reaction against equity feminism was too well-entrenched, and women were, if not “thrown away,” at least grossly underutilized. Today we struggle to balance that utilization with the understandable and laudable goals of maternal feminism.

Would that we could succeed as well as Jerusha Abbott does.

P.S. (as Jerusha would add) Daddy Long Legs runs at the Draper Amphitheater 8, 9, 11, 14, and 15 at 7:30. Tickets $10 at

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