Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/July 1883/The Industrial Position of Women

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639102Popular Science Monthly Volume 23 July 1883 — The Industrial Position of Women1883Emily Blackwell



AMONG all the questions affecting women, and society through women, there is none more vital than that of their industrial position. It is conceded that women should work, but there is a great difference of opinion as to what their work is, and how they should do it. This difference of public opinion is not merely a matter of theory; it leads to very positive practical results, for the support of public opinion is necessary to make work in any special direction possible.

No one can work independently of others. The training that qualifies for any pursuit, the necessary relations to others engaged in it, the patronage which pays for it—all these are absolutely requisite for its successful prosecution, and these are given or withheld by the force of public opinion. The point at issue in this discussion is, How far can women advantageously take part in the great system of modern industry? Is the effort they are making to enter occupations from which they have hitherto been excluded justifiable? Is it the expression of a real need? Will their success be a benefit or an injury to themselves and to society?

Upon this subject there are two views, the holders of which are endeavoring to enlist on their side this final arbiter of the question, the force of public opinion. On one side it is held that women urgently need greater facilities for work; a wider range of occupations, in order to give them greater power of self-support; that many grave social evils result from this want. It is maintained that the claims accompanying this effort, for equal general and special education, for participation in any kind of work which women feel that they can do, for employment in any occupation for which they have fitted themselves, are just; that the movement is in the direction of progress, and that it is the interest of society to support it. On the other side it is urged that woman has her own peculiar sphere, that of domestic life and work. This, well understood and followed, is sufficient for her. She is unfitted by her physical and mental constitution for the occupations carried on by men. Success in the effort she is making in this direction is impossible. The attempt is leading her to do violence to her own organization, to abandon or slight domestic life, and to become an inferior competitor instead of a companion to man. Progress is to be sought, not by favoring the effort, but by promoting such an extension of home-life as shall render it unnecessary.

Both parties are agreed as to the paramount importance of domestic life. This being admitted, the objection to non-domestic work for women is based upon the implied supposition that, were domestic life as universal as it should be, the domestic work connected with it would be sufficient to absorb the great body of women-workers.

To estimate the force of this objection, let us consider what is meant by the terms domestic life and domestic work. There are two elements in the domestic position of women: first, their personal relation to the family as wives and mothers; secondly, the work which necessarily devolves upon them in the fulfillment of the duties of these relations. The first, the personal relation, is a fixed and constant element. It grows out of the constitution of human beings, and exists under every form of society. It attains its highest expression wherever the union of one man and one woman is the foundation of the family. Here we find most marked the personal affection, the intimate companionship, the community of interests, the common responsibility and care for the children, which are the characteristics of the family. The related life of the group so formed constitutes domestic life. But if the personal relations of woman to the family are thus fixed and enduring, her industrial relation to it is by no means so unchanging. The work which she must do for it varies according to external conditions. There is no one kind of work which absolutely belongs to domestic life; there is hardly any kind of work that has not in some phase of society been considered to belong to it.

In the savage state, women built the wigwam, raised the corn, prepared the clothes, carried on in its rudest and most elementary form all the work which is to-day the object of modern industry. But since these simple forms of labor have developed into architecture and agriculture and manufactures, it is held that women can not follow their old occupations under their new forms, under penalty of personal deterioration and social disaster. It is the conditions under which work is done, apparently, which constitute it domestic work, rather than the nature of the work itself. Weaving was domestic work when done at home, but ceased to be so when done in a factory.

Domestic work, therefore, is all work for the family which, under our present arrangements, must be done at home, upon a small scale, by individual workers, free from the organization and competition of business. Precisely in the degree that outside occupations partake of any of these characteristics of domestic work, are they considered appropriate to women. On the other hand, how feminine soever the nature of a work, as soon as it is seized upon by the modern system of outside labor, begins to be carried on upon a large scale, and to be subject to the laws of business competition, it thenceforth ceases to belong to women. It has departed from the conditions of domestic work.

If this definition of domestic work be correct, two questions naturally arise in connection with it: 1. Will the work now done at home always continue to be so done? 2. If the conditions of domestic work are those most favorable to the well-being of women, what is the reason of their growing distaste for domestic service? The answers to these two questions are very closely connected with each other, and with the main question of the industrial position of women.

When we consider, on one hand, how pressing and increasing an evil is the lack of skillful and reliable servants, how severely the want of efficient service weighs upon the mothers of families, and, on the other hand, how liberal is the compensation and how certain the employment for women having even a moderate degree of skill in housework, there seems, at first sight, some truth in the assertion that the difficulty with women is not the want of work, but the inclination to shirk their own work in order to invade that of men. The complaint of the difficulty incident to finding well-paid work does not come from our domestic servants. The Irish girl finds work from the day of her landing, and begins almost immediately to send remittances of money to her friends at home. The American girl, thrown upon her own resources, struggles miserably to keep soul and body together upon the scanty wages of the shop or the factory. Yet so decided is the disinclination to domestic service, the largest and most profitable field for women to work, that American women have virtually abandoned it. The Irish girls gradually absorb the same distaste, and are less available as they become Americanized. We already hear the suggestion in favor of the Chinese, that they are needed to supplant the Irish servants, as the Irish have taken the place of Americans.

Is not the cause of this dislike to be found in the servile nature of domestic service, which renders it necessary to bring in a constant succession of servile labor to fill it? Is it not just in proportion as women rise above the servile tone of feeling that they become restive in the position, and will sacrifice comfort and pecuniary advantage to escape from it? Almost every feature of domestic service partakes of this repellent character. On entering it, the woman, like the slave, drops the surname which marks her as a member of a family of a social connection, for the personal name which sinks her at once into a rank below that in which social connection is recognized. Reversing the natural order of things, the woman addresses the children and young men of the family by terms of respect implying superiority, while they address her by the familiar name implying inferiority. She abandons family life, having no daily intercourse with her relatives as do out-door workers living in their own homes. She loses her personal freedom, for she is always under the authority of her employer. She can never leave the house without permission; there is no hour of the day in which she is not at the bidding of her mistress; there is no time in her life, except the few stated seasons of absence, for which she may not be called to account. Though her accommodations are probably far better than she would have at home, their relative inferiority renders them less acceptable than the poorer quarters in which she shares freely the best there is to have. Every distinction of dress which is a badge of domestic service is universally felt to be derogatory. It is creditable to a man to refuse any domestic position that entails the wearing of a livery, while the uniform of even the lowest ranks of the public service—of the policeman or the postman—is assumed with satisfaction. The white cap and apron that become almost a uniform when worn by the graduates of the training-schools for nurses, as the mark of a superior class, are assumed with reluctance as an accompaniment of domestic service.

Precisely in the degree in which house-work has this character it is shunned. When American women do engage in domestic work out of their own families, it is not the easiest and best-paid positions which they prefer. They are not to be found as nurses, seamstresses, and chambermaids in wealthy families, but rather as the sole workers in small and simple country families, where they have the kitchen to themselves, and the contrast between the social position of themselves and their employers is not so great.

In all such matters feeling is quicker than reason. Every woman instinctively feels that, in exchanging the position of an outside worker for that of domestic service, she descends one step in the social scale, and approaches one degree nearer to personal servitude. Upon what does this servile nature of domestic service depend? It is not due simply to difference of wealth and social standing; that difference exists everywhere between the employer and the employed. It is due to the conditions under which the work is done in the house, each servant dependent upon the mistress in the details of her personal life, doing work more or less undefined in its nature, amount, and time of doing. These conditions imply a direct, perpetual, personal subordination, necessarily servile. It is the absence of these conditions that renders non-domestic work independent, instead of servile. The limitation of the work within certain hours, outside of which all subordination or accountability to the employer ceases, the freedom of personal life thus gained, the more defined nature of the work, its larger scale, the numerous workers engaged in it—all these characteristics render the relation between employer and employed a business, not a personal one.

We can only imagine the servile character absent from domestic service in a state of society so simple and homogeneous that the work of each family was done by its own women; and one in which there were so few women not required at home that they could be absorbed by those families in which there was a paucity of women, and there work upon an equal footing with the wives and daughters. Is there anything in the tendencies of modern life pointing to such a state of society? Are they not sweeping us in an entirely different direction? Would it not be more in accordance with the forces shaping modern life to suppose that the problem of domestic service will be solved rather by changing the mode in which domestic work is done, than the relative position of mistress and servant? Will not such a change be the natural result of a continuance of the process which has already transferred one occupation after another from the sphere of domestic work to that of business organization? Is it not inevitable that all the material arrangements of life shall ultimately thus be taken possession of?

There is no reason why what is now done by domestic service should always continue to be so done. As weaving and tailoring have gone, so the making of women's and children's clothing is now going. There is no reason inherent in the nature of things why washing, cooking, mending, etc., should not go also, and be done by business organizations from outside, instead of by domestic service. Thus domestic work will be reduced to the minimum, to that part most intimately connected with the personal life of the family. The need of domestic service will diminish in the same proportion, and the problem it presents will be solved by its diminution, or gradual disappearance; while domestic life will be more and more freed from the necessity of carrying on a variety of domestic work.

The obstacles to be overcome in bringing about this result do not differ in kind from those which are disappearing elsewhere before the ingenuity and perseverance of business enterprise. The difficulties in the way of supplying cooked instead of raw food are very similar to those being now overcome in the transport of delicate and perishable food, and in the preserving such food in perfection through the whole year. There is no reason why bakers should necessarily supply inferior bread, or why cooking done on a large scale should always be inferior to that done at home. That the work which remains to be so dealt with is the most difficult to be thus treated is the reason it has remained to the last. That our efforts in this direction are as yet attended by imperfect success is no proof that this will always be the case. Until business organization has advanced so far as to do the work as well as the same can be done at home, and more conveniently and cheaply, its imperfection will keep up our present system of domestic service.

It may be objected that so radical a change in the conditions of household work must imply the destruction of the home as we at present understand, it. But why should this be the result of the changes to come, any more than of the equally great changes that have been already accomplished? The dread of it arises from the same sort of feeling which has made it so difficult for geologists to accept the fact that the wonderful changes recorded upon the surface of the earth have been accomplished by the same agencies which are at work upon it to-day, so silently as to be imperceptible to the multitude.

It may be objected that the failure to marry is the reason so many women are seeking employment; and that, were marriage sufficiently universal, the immense majority of women would be occupied in their own homes. Facts do not seem to bear out this view. The proportion of persons who pass through life unmarried is comparatively small. The mass of working-women is composed not of middle-aged single women, to whom alone the criticism could refer that they have preferred other work to marriage. The great bulk is composed of young women under twenty-five, whose families can not afford to support them for the sake of their domestic work, and the majority of these will probably eventually marry. There is also a considerable number of married women who, by the death or inability of the husband, are thrown back upon the necessity of self-support. This last is a much larger class than is usually supposed. It would probably at least equal the number of single women of corresponding age—that is, of women who have remained single to middle life.

As a matter of fact, support through marriage can not he co-extensive with the need of support for women. It does not cover the whole period of working-life, and it fails to be a support in a considerable proportion of cases.

It would seem that there must be a fallacy in the view that would make the natural provision for honorable and satisfactory support depend upon a relation that does not cover the whole need in any case, and can not be certainly counted upon in any individual case. The same tendency toward complexity of conditions and relations, which makes equality in domestic service a thing of the past rather than of the future, would lead us to anticipate that the number of women workers must increase rather than diminish. In taking methods for improving their condition we must look forward rather than backward, to means which are in harmony with influences now at work, rather than to such as would require a return of conditions which have passed away.

We believe, therefore, that a careful consideration of the movements which have gone on and are going on in social life leads to the following conclusions:

1. There is no necessary connection between domestic life and domestic work.
2. Domestic life means the united life of the members of a family, and is a constant social element.
3. Most of the work now done as domestic work is only so done because it has not yet been brought within the grasp of business organization. The range of such work is constantly growing narrower.
4. Our method of doing it by domestic service is imperfect, because domestic service involves a servile relation that does not exist in nondomestic labor.

But if all work tends thus irresistibly to become organized into departments of business, the question of the future industrial position of women is settled. They must follow their work under its new forms, or cease to work at all. Extremes meet, and the organization of industry must end by giving back to women what it began by taking from them, a place in the varied work of the world.

So far from the perfection of domestic life being imperiled by the gradual substitution of non-domestic for domestic labor, many advantages would be thereby gained:

1. It would help to free marriage from any but personal considerations. The question as to the capacity of a woman for house-work would become as foreign to that of her desirability as a wife as is now her ability as a tailor. It would be a wife only, not also a domestic, that the young man would need to seek.

Still more important a change would it be were marriage, to women, only the entrance into a wider and happier social state, and need never be regarded as the only recognized business opening.

2. It would bring more varied ability to the service of domestic life. Despite the many kinds of work which have been gradually taken

out of the housekeeper's hands, her position still calls for a variety of faculties rarely combined in one woman; and household life is in most families correspondingly imperfect. The business ability that makes a good housekeeper, in the sense of a good provider for material needs, of a capacity to use money to advantage, and to secure order and perfection of work, is one thing. To be a good educator, to possess the faculty of understanding and training children, is another. Neither of these qualifications is necessarily connected with the gifts and tastes which are required to make the home a social center, to bring its inmates into the friendly and easy relations to other families upon which its social standing depends, and which, under the present state of things, are so essential to the welfare of its young people as they approach the age for marriage. The mother of a family, whether rich or poor, must be a sort of "Jack of all trades," and often goes through life with the discouraging sense that, in one or other of these important departments, her good intentions will never supply the lack of natural faculty. The less complicated and extensive the work that necessarily devolves upon a woman in her household, the more chance for its successful accomplishment. The more she can call upon skillful help, the less likely the family will be to suffer from her deficiency in any direction.

There is nothing which would seem more absolutely dependent upon the mother than the care and training of very young children. Yet the careful study of the best modes of training these early years, which has come in with the Kindergarten, shows how far the nursery alone is from meeting their needs; how early and how much skilled teachers, other children, a variety of apparatus, that is, outside help, are desirable for the best interests of the child, as well as for the assistance of the mother.

3. Another great advantage that would come from a general recognition that the occupation of women in non-domestic work tends inevitably to increase, would be the impulse it would give to the industrial training of girls. Parents do not think it worth while to educate their daughters for any pursuit, because they consider industrial occupation for a girl an undesirable exception, not to be provided for. An immense amount of misery would be avoided did custom require that every girl should be taught some paying work. It should be considered more obligatory in the case of girls than of boys, thus to guarantee them the possibility of independence, both because they are less able to make opportunities for themselves when unexpectedly called upon to do so, and because of the greater dangers to which helplessness exposes them. There is no greater source of suffering and vice among women than the fallacy of taking for granted that they will not need to support themselves.

4. The wider the range of occupations for women, the more numerous will he the points at which the lives of men and women touch. One of the objects to be accomplished by advancing civilization is the bringing of men and women into easy and natural companionship. Under existing circumstances almost the only meeting-ground for young men and women is in society. Those who can not take an active part in this are almost shut off from acquaintance with the opposite sex. Numbers of girls educated at girls' schools, and afterward living at home in narrow circumstances, or going into work conducted by and among women, remain single because they pass the age for marriage without sufficient opportunity for meeting men of their own standing, or make unsatisfactory marriages, because they do not choose from knowledge, but accept the only opportunity that offers. The same is true of young men not in society. Their life is passed almost exclusively among men from their school-days upward. Their acquaintance with women of their own age is extremely limited and superficial. The more complete the separation of men and women in work, the more must this division in life be the result. The more numerous the common interests and occupations in which they meet in recognized and honorable companionship, the more numerous the chances for suitable and happy marriage. So far, therefore, from deploring the encroachments of business organization on domestic work as a danger to the happiness of domestic life, we should see in them an agency which will lead to its higher development.

But if, as we have shown, it be in the natural course of things for women to take part in industrial pursuits, what is the meaning of the warning notes that attend their steps in that direction? We are told that women break down under the strain of college education; that their health gives way under the requirements of book-keeping, telegraphy, factory-work, every kind of business; that their work is poor and unreliable, and will command only starvation wages, etc., and these discouraging reports come not only from illiberal opponents, but from sincere friends and well-wishers. The most important of these objections is based upon the assumption that the physical constitution of women unfits them for safely bearing the strain of brain-work or business.

It is true that the health of women is not what it should be; but the cause of this lies neither in their peculiar organization nor in their efforts in new directions. It is to be found in the influences surrounding them from infancy, which prevent our girls from acquiring the physical vigor which should accompany maturity. This defective health is nowhere shown more conspicuously than in domestic life. Nowhere do women break down more frequently and completely than in the bearing and rearing of children, under the strain of maternity, and the wear and tear of domestic duty.

It is not only, nor chiefly, our college graduates and industrial workers who crowd the offices of specialists, and the same department in our charities. The girls who stay at home and are subjected to no educational strain, the wives and mothers who are pursuing the most natural of avocations, are quite as fully represented. We must believe that it is the physical education, not the organization, of women that is at fault, unless we accept the conclusion that the special constitution that is supposed to disqualify them for other work disqualifies them also for its own ends.

It is generally assumed that the women who have broken down in outside work would not have done so in married life, but it is precisely the feeble health that fails in one that fails in the other also. There is a general inclination to compare the results of work under unfavorable conditions with those of married life under favorable ones. If we compare the health of the same class of women, under equally favorable or unfavorable conditions of work or of married life, it is extremely doubtful if the result would be as much in favor of the latter as the opponents of non-domestic work for women take for granted.

Many of the difficulties which now embarrass women in work are such as belong to a transition state. They will disappear as the presence of women in these new fields is accepted and provided for. The fewness of the occupations open to women and their consequent overcrowding; the difficulty, often the impossibility, of acquiring special education for occupations in which special skill is required; the opposition of the workers already in the field—these are only a few of the obstacles which are due to the novelty of the effort. Business has been arranged to suit men; and women, upon entering any new branch of labor, are required to accept its existing conditions. There are many kinds of work which women could do perfectly well if they could modify these conditions. But if, without this, they fail to do it as well as men, or suffer more in doing it, it is taken for granted that the work is unfit for them, that the remedy is to exclude them from it, not to adopt the mode of doing it to their requirements.

As an illustration of the different effect of the same work according to the circumstances under which it is done, take agricultural labor. Nothing is more frequently quoted as an exemplification of the brutalizing effect of masculine work upon women, than the results of field-labor as it is carried on by them in some parts of Germany and other places, where women are considered, and treated, as mere drudges. Contrast with these reports the following statements in regard to the effect of field-work upon women in the north of England, extracted from the "First Report of the Commissioners on the Employment of Children, Young Persons, and Women in agriculture," presented to Parliament in 1868. In it Mr. Henley states that the women who work in the fields of Northumberland are "physically a splendid race." The same witness says: "There are many who consider field-work degrading; I should be glad if they would visit these women in their own homes, after they have become wives and mothers. They would be received with a natural courtesy and good manners that would astonish them. . . . The visitor will leave the cottage with the conviction that field-work has no degrading effect, but that he has been in the presence of a thoughtful, contented, unselfish woman. . . . The very appearance of the habitual workers is sufficient to prove the healthiness of their mode of life; and the medical testimony is overwhelming as to the absence of disease and the usual complaints attendant on debility."

Mr. John Grey testifies of the same women: "The healthful and cheerful appearance of the girls in the hay or turnip fields of the north, and their substantial dress, would compare favorably with those of any class of female operatives in the kingdom," etc. Here we have the same kind of work, destructive in one case, beneficial in the other. And this is due to the different conditions under which it is done. So in other work, it is not necessary that women should do every part of it precisely as men do it. The question is, Is there not in most kinds of work a place which women can fill to advantage under suitable conditions?

Women are much more fettered than men by conventional requirements and prohibitions. They come to any new occupation hampered by the restraints and burdens so imposed. Their dress is modeled upon fashions adopted by women in society, to whom dress is a profession, occupying a great part of their time, strength, and intelligence; yet custom forbids any material modification of it to suit the requirements of work. Equally liable to misrepresentation is any assumption of unconventional freedom in going about, ways of living, etc. Women are hindered at every turn by endless restraint in endless minor details of habit, custom, etc., which, often trivial in themselves, by their number and perpetual action often trammel them as effectually as the threads of his Lilliputian adversaries did Gulliver. In these respects we might apply to men and women the common French saying in respect to English and French law, viz., that "to one everything is permitted that is not expressly forbidden, to the other everything is forbidden which is not expressly allowed." Most women who have been engaged in any new departure would testify that the difficulties of the undertaking lay far more in these artificial hindrances and burdens than in their own health, or in the nature of the work itself.

Finally, is not much of the objection that work is destructive to the workers applicable to all work and all workers—to men as well as to women—to domestic as well as non-domestic work? Do we not hear on all sides the complaint that, from the highest forms of brain-work to the lowest forms of hand-work, the strain requisite for success breaks down prematurely those who follow them? Is not the choice, too often, virtually between immediate death from want, or a more gradual and protracted death from overwork, or the unhealthy conditions of work?

Our organization of labor is exceedingly one-sided and imperfect. It is directed almost exclusively to the advancement of the work, without any reference to the welfare of the worker. We have a long way to go before we can be rid of the most crying evils of our present state.

It is only too evident that we have not yet solved the most fundamental problems in regard to labor, when we see such glaring contradictions as produce spoiling in the fields because there is no market for it, and mills stopping work because the market is over-supplied, when at the same time thousands are suffering from want of food and clothes. So long as the relations between workers and work are so imperfect, the hardships thus entailed must fall upon women as well as upon men.

One of the first requisites for improvement is to know the direction in which effort should be made. We must learn to distinguish the movement of the tide from the eddy caused by resistance to its advance. One of the greatest difficulties in the way of freedom of work for women will be removed when once it is recognized that in this direction is the onward movement of the current, however turbid it may be from the obstacles that disturb its course.