Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/September 1896/The New Woman and her Debts

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



WE delight to glorify the "new woman," the advanced woman. If, however, we study Prof. Otis T. Mason's book. Woman's Share in Primitive Culture, we find the "new woman" to be only a revival of a very ancient type. Prof. Mason says that, for the highest ideals of civilization, in humanitarianism, education, and government, the way was prepared in savagery by mothers and the female clan groups. While men were the inventors of every murderous art, women were the actual inventors of the peaceful arts, and excelled in weaving, pottery, agriculture, the preparation of foods, and the substitution of other forces to do the work of the human muscles. Woman made rough looms. She tamed the present domestic animals. The first empirical physicians were not the sorcerers but the herb women, who collected also the earliest materia medica. Savage woman founded all the modern crafts. She was the butcher, the cook and server, the skin curer and dresser, the furrier, tailor, carver, cobbler, the hat and dress maker. She it was who made possible the great modern textile industries. In weaving, dyeing, embroidery, molding, modeling, and painting, in the origination first of geometric patterns and then of free-hand drawing, primitive women elaborated aesthetic art. They were also the earliest linguists, the founders of society as distinguished from savagery, the home-makers, and the patrons of religion.

Undeniably in those days woman was emancipated. In ancient civilizations her industrial skill was astonishing, as among the Egyptians, where, too, her legal and political rights were carefully guarded. But as clan groups made way for larger political units, as man was less busy conquering and enslaving enemies, he began to enslave his helpmeet, confining her within narrower social bounds, withdrawing from her all share and voice in public affairs, establishing, in short, a social order now known as Orientalism, to some extent characteristic of the Jews through the Persians, and fastened anew on Christianity by the Oriental St. Paul, who preached the subjection of woman. With the decadence of Greece and Rome, woman fell from her high estate of honored equality, and in the dark ages as a social factor she disappeared.

Nevertheless, she was the worker, though receiving no credit for her work. Under the feudal system, when men were bound to bear arms and make constant war, women carried on the trades and arts around the baronial castles, in the wretched homes of the serfs—but not as free agents, only as chattels of their husbands. Later, in the middle ages, all the great industries were controlled by guilds and syndics, which regulated the manufacture and sale of goods, but in which man only represented the working classes. He alone had power, he alone drew wages. Though the exquisite silks, damasks, and embroideries that were the fruit of his loom embodied a dozen kinds of skilled labor performed by his wife and daughters—hackling, combing, carding, dressing, spinning, dyeing, weaving—only the head of the household counted and handled the pay.

Everywhere in Europe and America, before the era of steam machinery, women plied the industrial crafts at home, in towns, in villages, in the country. The conditions under which these domestic industries were carried on were bad, indeed, almost intolerable—in damp, overcrowded habitations, without air or drainage, amid squalor, want, filth, and devastating epidemics. But woman, the most important agent in such productive labor, was economically and politically ignored. She had no power, no voice, no pay; and without money she had no control of her own time or her own aptitudes. In fact, she was very like a slave; and English and Irish peasant girls even sold themselves into real voluntary slavery in colonial times, coming to America as quasi criminals or indentured apprentices, to be household servants and work out their freedom, in order to escape the miserable tyranny of the then prevailing domestic industries.

About the middle of the last century steam was harnessed. The spinning jenny was invented—the first blow at home industries. Factories for steam machinery were opened, and women and children were drawn from the wretched cottages to tend first the spinning frames, then the looms, and finally the whole array of textile appliances which during the past century have revolutionized production and again emancipated woman. Steam machinery found her an economic and financial cipher; it has transformed her into an economic and financial power. The invasion of women and children into the lower grades of paid industries has made possible the advance of females into higher pursuits. Untaught manual workers hewed the way for intellectual and professional workers.

I referred a while ago to the new woman's debt to primitive mothers. I would speak now of the new woman's debt to the real working woman; to her who first leaped over the home threshold and broke the fetters of tradition that confined the gentler sex strictly within the domestic sphere; to the first female wage-earners who dared public opinion, suffered odium, and underwent the hardships inevitable to new and untried conditions in order to open up all the noble crafts, trades, and professions on which the girl of to-day enters without strife or penalty. The multitude of pursuits in which the modern Eve may attain higher usefulness and development, the careers that crown her with honor, fame, and fortune, are a heritage to us of the last decade of the nineteenth century from women and girls who toiled in factories in the last decade of the eighteenth century.

These privileges are not of our creation. Let that fact sink deep and make us humble. Enjoying the fruit of economic liberty, we are apt to forget who won it for us. We are even prone to persuade ourselves that we won it, prone to magnify and vaunt ourselves, shutting our eyes to the struggles and tasks of hundreds of thousands of ignorant, despised mothers and maids and tiny children whose lives were one long martyrdom in mills and workshops in Great Britain and on the Continent, in order to render gainful pursuits and the control of their own earnings possible for womankind. All the blessings which we accept as a matter of course—the shortened working day, decent sanitary surroundings, frequent payments—are the outcome of a hundred years of toil and stress, of snail-like legislation following on timid protest, of concessions wrung from careless or hostile public sentiment, until, finally, the present factory acts were secured.

Nothing in history is more dramatic than that bitter industrial revolution by which the factory system displaced the domestic industries. Machinery came to stay. It had to be fed, fed actually with human fuel, females and little ones scarcely out of babyhood being set to tend it in buildings hastily constructed, in barns or barracks on village outskirts and in temporary sheds near cities. When in sparsely settled districts there was lack of small hands to run spindle and loom, the dregs of the population were utilized. Women, and children down to four and five years old, were brought in droves from afar, or taken from almshouses or pauper institutions and even from the prisons. These miserable creatures, let in gangs to the manufacturers, were herded like animals in the mills and forges, sleeping under the machines, eating there such poor food as they had to eat. Tasked day and night and often days at a stretch, they were rudely shaken from brief slumber to renew their work, and were goaded to labor by the whip.

Generation after generation of English factory operatives was thus martyred, devitalized, degraded, before reaction of public feeling and tardy legislation gradually combined between 1802 and 1876 to repress these abuses. So, by toiling sixteen and eighteen hours out of the twenty-four, by living in stables, by being beaten and starved under employers drunk with avarice and power, these early mill hands—grandmothers, mothers, maidens, and tiny children—bought with blood and tears the right for woman to compete industrially with man. In this sad, this heroic effort, a million beings were engaged whose lives were needlessly shortened or sacrificed to the dreadful treatment and surroundings they had to endure before the cry of their pain was heeded by the lawmakers, before a century of suffering, demoralization, and oppression forced into existence that great saving and preventive agency, the British Factory Acts.

The crusade for government interference and protection of the wage-earner against insane and inhuman greed—alas! even the greed that makes parents wreck their offspring by early labor—was carried on for seventy-five years by men alone. I am sorry to count no feminine helper among the reformers, to blazon no woman's name alongside Lord Shaftesbury's.

In the United States the first mill employees enjoyed a better fate. Nevertheless, long working hours, the toil of ignorant children, and other abuses of unrestricted industrialism early called for remedy; and since 181:0 Massachusetts has led the ever-widening movement for regulating factories and improving the condition of labor.

The American girl who profits by this hard-won emancipation, to whom has fallen the precious heritage of economic independence, who is able to-day to pursue freely and at ease in laboratory, studio, office, and workshop all the skilled trades and professions only because other humbler sisters have trodden a rougher path and cleared the way by manual effort, this "new woman" owes to all female breadwinners commensurate gratitude and many sacred duties.

First, by virtue of ampler leisure, superior education, and social importance, we owe protection. Do we give it? No. It is a significant fact that while in England the Factory Acts were secured mainly by men of rank, wealth, and public spirit for the laborer, in America such statutes usually originate with and are pushed through by the workers themselves, half educated, unaided, handicapped, and sometimes intimidated by unprogressive employers. When measures come before our Legislatures to better the conditions under which females toil in shops and mills, and to raise the age limit after which the child may be condemned to labor, women, with noble exceptions like Mrs. Josephine Shaw Lowell, are conspicuously absent, while even many clergymen enroll themselves on the side of laissez faire. True, our sex is conservative, frightened by prophecies of socialist rule? inclined to regard factory legislation as anarchistic instead of remedial and preventive. Another feminine inconsistency is that women busy themselves and beset the Solons about paupers and the degraded, about institutions and charities, though refusing to lift a hand or lend their indorsement to obtain protective legislation for respectable, self-sustaining working women and helpless children, who from dependence for employment on the favor of merchants and manufacturers are unable to speak in their own behalf. Yet these patient wage-earners, if properly safe-guarded from insanitary surroundings, dangerous and poisonous pursuits, long hours, and excessive strain while at work, would so seldom be found in hospitals, institutions, poorhouses, and prisons that the occupation of the board of lady managers would be gone.

Throughout the Union child labor is surely diminishing, as a result of growing public disapproval and of factory laws in half the States; but in large cities and in States that have inadequate factory inspection—practically all except Massachusetts—and no age limit for employment, the mill child and the "cash" child alike are victims of the same evils—low vitality, premature breakdown, dense ignorance, transient employment from shop to shop, and unthrifty habits. Some callings are positively fatal to children; other vocations cause them to be stunted, crooked, or atrophied—a race apart, haggard, wizened, old. The ignorance of working children is often appalling. They do not know their age or birthplace, or the name of the country they live in. They can read and write no language. To say that these little toilers are learning trades is the cruelest falsehood. Whether engaged only in what seem easy and harmless pursuits, standing in stores till eleven o'clock at night in holiday season, in a candy factory one week, in a box shop the next; whether trotting after the mule spinners thirty miles a day, or running forty miles a day fetching and carrying for the glass-blowers; whether tending cutting presses that chop off their fingers, or gilding frames whose metal poison paralyzes their hands, or roasting slowly before cracker ovens, the working children under fourteen years old are nearly everywhere the same—dwarfed, physically defective, mentally benighted, demoralized, unstable, migratory. "Little wonder," says Mrs. Stevens, Assistant Factory Inspector of Illinois, "that each year finds increasing numbers of-wage-earners who can do nothing well, who have no manual skill to command, living wages, who in the best times are on the verge of starvation, and at every economic upheaval topple into the abyss of pauperism."

Out of 340,000 children of school age in New York city, 50,000 are untaught for want of school room, because of ragged clothes, or unwillingness to learn. Twenty-eight thousand more children of school age are employed in stores and factories.

Who should act for this toiling army of little ones, should guard the human race from degeneration, should demand the enforcement of existing laws and the making of better laws in their behalf, should secure the building of schools, the expenditure of more money for kindergartens and primary and industrial education, unless it be intelligent women?

Our mission it is, too, to bring about better housing of the poor and the artisan, to insist upon their right to decent dwellings, fresh air, pure water and plenty of it, clean alleys and courts and some privacy in their homes—conditions without which those engaged in productive industries can with difficulty lead moral and virtuous lives. It is a mistake to suppose that workers and honest poor folk are satisfied with any miserable abode. Many of them are ambitious. They have the home-making instinct and turn their pitifully small resources to admirable account, surrounding themselves with dainty neatness and refinements in spite of wretched quarters and overburdened lives. I know whereof I speak, having studied the tenements of every large city and many manufacturing centers in the United States. Not long ago I spent four months in a house-to-house, room-to-room investigation of parts of the most congested "slum" districts of New York and Philadelphia. I visited 1,400 tenements, 1,600 families, and 7,250 individuals.

The woman with liberal training, a competence, and social power is the natural guardian of the civic rights of her humble and ignorant sisters, whose civic wrongs she must also have imagination enough to discover by putting herself in the needy fellow-creatures' place, bringing to bear upon their problems her own broader insight and nobler vision. To put yourself in another's place signifies to empty yourself of self. Use imagination, project yourself for the time being into the life of another. Be a poor man, an ignorant man, with limitations and the scars of suffering and want, narrowed by lack of opportunity, perhaps embittered by hard treatment and ill success. Be all this, however, plus yourself, your brain, your vitality, plus your enlightened conscience and your big, deep heart. Then indeed we have a man, not a one-sided mortal, rich and learned but nothing else, or poor, ignorant, and callous, and nothing else. The student, teacher, scholar, reformer, or philanthropist is only half a man. He knows principles, but not what it means to pinch and starve, to beg for work without finding it, to see his savings dwindle while capital recoups itself. Piece the scholar or reformer and the workingman together, and we get a complete and useful entity, a being capable of attacking the world's woes without aggravating them. Put yourself in the place of those you propose to aid, and then indeed your help becomes not charity, but brotherhood.

To the least observant it is plain that the manual workers who to-day represent those factory operatives that led us to economic freedom are far less skilled in many branches of industry than were their primitive forbears or their ancestors under the domestic system of trades. Steam-power inventions and appliances tend to change the wage-earners who watch them into soulless, almost brainless, machines. Labor is now so specialized that one repeats endlessly the same process—feeding presses, turning cranks, guiding seams. Reason is stultified, sensibility is deadened. All-around perfected craftsmen exist no more. Who conserves the artistic workmanship, the æsthetic and industrial skill of the primitive female? It is not displayed by our proletariat, certainly, as Prof. Mason remarks; for when we take the exquisite sewing of the Eskimo women, done with sinew thread and needle of bone, or the wonderful basketry and pottery of our American Indians, or the feather work of Polynesia, or the loom products of Africa, and compare them with the tasteless, useless decorations and clumsy needlework of the untrained daughters of our laborers and mechanics, the comparison is all in favor of the wives and daughters of the degraded savage. Household knowledge and pursuits are at the lowest ebb among many of our industrial population. The mothers and girls can neither cook nor sew, nor wash and iron, nor care in the simplest way for the body. Ignorance causes the death of infants and the ill health and poverty of adults, whom poor food robs of their only capital, the power to earn.

Not only over the homes of workers, but over the shops, foundries, mills, and factories, the curse of incompetence hangs. Unless the grade of labor improves, the pay of the skilled workman will be still further lowered by unskilled competition. Our wealth, our greatness, depend on the mastery of industrial arts. It helps us little to be the largest coal-consuming and most inventive nation on earth, if the era of machinery is to be also the era of blind force; if behind the machine we have not the trained hand and eye, the taste of the designer, the skill of the architect and wood carver, the science of the shipbuilder—in short, manual dexterity re-enforced by art. However we pride ourselves on mere material resources, without industrial power and technique the rest of the world will beat us. Japan and China have developed their exquisite textiles, bronzes, and faience for four thousand years. Russia has greater oil fields than America. If Egypt and India fail to out-acre us in cotton, Africa could be turned into one vast cotton field where the three economic factors—food, shelter, and raiment—would be minimized, since the cultivator would wear no clothes, would sleep under a tree, and, when he wanted food, would climb the tree and get it.

Clearly, too, we shall continue at an ethical as well as a commercial disadvantage unless we replace the handicrafts of the primitive woman and build up the industrial arts—the all-important, ever-dignified and beautiful pursuits of cooking and sewing, cleaning and repairing, needlework, embroidery, carving, coloring, and house decoration. The most unlovely homes in the world are the bare, untidy homes of our working population. The most wasteful housewife on earth is the thriftless American housewife. To reinstate the skilled industries, to weave in beauty with the life of the people, we must carry manual and technical training and applied art to the point of action, as it were, down among the degraded, the belated, the neglected, the submerged. In the "slums," where ignorance revels, crime festers, and decent poverty hides, we should found cooking, sewing, and housekeeping schools, with carpentry centers, wood-carving, brass-hammering, drawing, modeling, and other creative pursuits that will fascinate the roughest street girl and transform the boy "tough" into an eager, industrious artisan. Belgium and France, whose products we in vain try to equal, have planted industrial and domestic science schools in every hamlet, technical schools in all the manufacturing towns, dairy and farm schools in the agricultural districts. The teaching is adapted to local industries; on the coast, to shipbuilding and fisheries; in the quarries, to stone-cutting; around textile mills, to weaving and dyeing; with drawing everywhere. Hence the industrial supremacy of these countries, their excellent food, absence of waste, national thrift, and the love of art that pervades even the humblest classes. To educate by the same methods the children of America, to improve our homes, to bring order, skill, and beauty into the barrenest lives, to carry on the propaganda for universal industrial and art training, is the privilege and duty of the "new woman."

Two words of warning. Even to dabble in handicrafts and aesthetics is a sign of. the crude and amateurish but noble upstriving of our times, just as it indicates awakened civic conscience that club women settle in one hour's discussion the most far-reaching municipal problems and the gravest financial issues. One fault, however, of modern industrialism is that girls rush hastily, blindly, and sometimes unnecessarily into self-supporting pursuits for which they are unfitted, and to the neglect of a legion of home duties. The desire for pin money, for more to spend on dress than clerks or mechanics can afford their daughters, sweeps into the ranks of competition a whole army of frivolous workers too young to understand the responsibility of the industrial career, untrained for it, and determined to end it by marrying the first bona-fide suitor. Such young women, half maintained at home, fond of excitement and of the crowd that congregates in shops and factories, thinking chiefly of self, unidentified with the interests of persisting labor, enter the economic market not on a fair business basis, but accepting any pittance that will supply pocket money and gratify their natural and in some respects commendable desire to make a good appearance. Then, having cut down pay below the life line for the self-supporting toiler, these transients join in condemning merchant and manufacturer for offering no more than starvation wages. Better economic conditions for women will not come until they enter the field less hastily and on strictly business terms; until they are trained enough, stable and responsible enough to deserve these ameliorations, and capable of the concerted and unselfish action required to win them.

Again, the true, the ultimate aim of education is not to prepare for mere self-seeking skill and the acquisition of wealth or social pre-eminence, but for life and a choice between difficult distinctions of right and wrong. The highest life consists in constant development of new aptitudes for usefulness and new faculties for enjoyment; and of this intellectual and moral life woman is the creator and the guardian. Its stage, if she be but a mortal, its altar, if she be a divinity, is the home.

The noblest use for the industrial arts and domestic sciences is to raise our daily living to loftier hygienic and ethical standards. Whether or not outside vocations offer for the sex, or a career independent of marriage be chosen, the true apostle of culture and promoter of industrial skill will strive to lift the popular ideas of sanitation, nursing, food preparation, ornament, beauty, education, and physical development. The "new woman" threatens to turn her back on the home which the primitive woman evolved. But, in reality, all paths revert to it, wherever the rationale of progress may lead her—whether to become sociologist, teacher, artist, writer, practical worker, reformer, or even voter. Only in the restful, well-ordered home does "earth reach its earthly best."