Women in Industry

Earl Barnes

[An edited reprint of Chapter VI of the book, Women in Modern Society, published in 1912]

With settled conditions and accumulation of wealth, the most desirable women were almost entirely freed from physical labor and gradually became luxury-loving parasites and playthings, as we pointed out in the second chapter of this volume. Meantime slaves were multiplying, male and female and, while the most desirable women passed to the harem, the mass of them became drudges in house and field. It is hard for us to realize that it is exactly in those times when a few women are surrounded with great luxury that most of the sex are reduced to heavy labor and wretchedness.

During the early Christian ages, a tradition was gradually formed concerning woman's place in industry, or rather three traditions were formed. The working woman of the lower classes was to be the housekeeper, which meant that she was to care for food, cook, spin, weave, sew and mend, scrub and wash, bear children and nurse and tend them. If she were of the middle class, she was to be a mother, to supervise this range of work, look after dependents, conserve social conditions and be the lady bountiful of her district. The second ideal was the woman of religion, who was to subdue her passions, observe set prayers and other religious exercises, and do the menial work of the convent. The third ideal was the lady of chivalry, who appeared after the tenth century. She was to be cared for and protected from work or anxiety; menials were to prepare her food, clothes and ornaments; gallants were to await her orders and do her bidding.

With the rise of Protestantism, and later with the rise of modern democracy, these ideals were blended, and women found themselves, not indeed slaves and subject to sale, but serfs, entangled in a mass of feudal obligations and bound to the house. Practically, most men still hold this threefold conception of woman's place in the social organism. She is to be a combination of housekeeper, nun and lady. It is the kitchen, church and children ideal of the German Emperor.

Meantime forces were set at work which were to change the economic foundations of the family and enable the woman to emerge from serfdom into some new form of industrial relationship. From the rise of the European cities in the twelfth century, certain industries have tended, especially in the Netherlands and in England, to segregate themselves in farm-houses and towns. Women naturally participated in these activities, generally taking the least desirable parts. With the freeing of the mind, which followed the democratic revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, inventions blossomed out and perfected steam engines, cotton gins, spinning jennies, and a thousand other machines driven by steam or water power, which have changed the civilization of Europe and America. …

Spinning and weaving industries led the way in this movement, but its full force was not felt until the late eighteenth century. Since then, one industry after another has left the home for the factory until to-day, in all large communities, even the preparation of food increasingly goes to the packing-house, the canning establishment, the bakery and the delicatessen-store. These industries needed hands, and so the women followed them to the factories.

As 1870 marks the beginning of higher education for women, so it also marks the beginning of her industrial self-consciousness. The perfecting of such inventions as the typewriter, the telegraph and the telephone, and the creation of a great variety of office appliances, together with the perfecting of highly elaborate means of distribution, like the departmental store, called for thousands of cheap workers possessed of some slight intelligence but not necessarily having any serious preliminary training. Our elementary schools and high schools have increasingly turned out a multitude of girls who could meet these requirements. The increased cost of living, the lessened labor demands of the home, and the attractions of the pay envelope, have called millions to work in industrial plants. …

Like most other great changes in civilization, this industrial transformation was neither preceded nor accompanied by any general consciousness of what was happening. Daily necessities were offset by weekly pay envelopes, or the failures fell out of sight, and so the next week and the years followed. Country populations moved away; cities grew enormously, leading to congestion in living which, combined with the daily absence of women, has often transformed the old time homes into communal tiers of tenements occupied, during working hours, only by the young and the infirm.

The children of all ages after a while followed their mothers into the factories; but the evil effects of child labor were so apparent that repressive legislative measures have increasingly raised the age of their admission until now, in the more advanced communities, they must stay outside the factory doors until they are twelve or fourteen years old. Some growing self-consciousness, largely of a police nature, has led us to institute measures for the protection of the children who are not allowed to work. Schools, playgrounds, day nurseries, institutional churches, college settlements and public social centers now bid against the streets and vacant lots, the nickel shows and the dancing halls, for the children's patronage.

Education, however, true to its origin as the assistant of theology, refuses to recognize in any large way the new world into which we have come, and where the next generation of children must follow. Manual training has, here and there, quieted the fears of some who had disturbing visions; and we go on employing an army of unenfranchised, celibate women, with little or no industrial experience, to teach ten million boys how to be good citizens of a republic, and how to serve in a modern industrial army; and ten million girls how to work in shops and factories, and how to live without homes. As a consequence, girls come up to the factories from their schools with ideals, so far as the school has shaped them, founded on unmarried school mistresses and George Washington; and they pass, by way of the altar, into cheerless tenements which the school still thinks of as places where children are cared for, family clothing is made and the family baking is done. Practically, of course, most education is given outside the schools, and there the evils of an unregulated time of transition are multiplied through imitation.

The wealth and material comfort produced for the fortunate classes by these segregated industries have blinded us to their effects on human life, and we have all been bribed to silence concerning everything which could discourage enterprise or frighten capital. Like most bribes, however, these have largely stopped in the pockets of the exploiters of public opinion.

In the opening years of this new century, public consciousness has had a wonderful awakening. The popular mind, quickened by universal education, and freed from a burden of fixed beliefs, is turning restlessly to inquire about everything that affects human life. Work could not escape this inquisition, and so we are asking not only for a fairer division of the profits of work, but we are also inquiring what occupations are unfit for women, with their special limitations and obligations. When the work is reasonable, how long should a woman work daily? Should she work at night and overtime? Should she work with dangerous machinery? Should she handle substances that endanger health? Should she be required to stand through hours of continuous work? Should she work in bad air, due to dust, moisture, or excessive heat or cold? Should she have a decent retiring-room? Some daring inquirers are even asking whether industrial efficiency, gained through specialization and keying up, may not be purchased at too high a price of mental monotony and nervous strain. Most people are content to learn that the effects are not immediately destructive to the girls and women involved; but some day we shall demand that the barons of industry shall not be allowed to squander the heritage of the unborn generations.

Women have themselves done much to quicken this public consciousness. Enrolled in labor unions, they have shown power to stand together and make sacrifice, as in the shirt-waist makers' strike in New York in 1908, which commanded the admiration of all fair-minded observers. The more fortunately placed women have aided these movements toward self-betterment; and, through such organizations as the National Consumers' League, they have compelled manufacturers and shopkeepers to observe more reasonable hours, pay better wages, and furnish decent material conditions for their employees.

The solution of woman's present industrial problem is not an easy task, but out of the present unsettlement certain facts are emerging with a good deal of clearness. The efficiency in production, secured by concentration and specialization, make it certain that the old-time home with its multiplied industries will not return, but that more and more even of its present lessened activities will be transferred to factories and to their equivalents. It is also certain that women are not going to be supported in indolence by men, because when deprived of the discipline which full participation in life gives, they must always degenerate. For themselves, and for the sake of their children, they will demand a chance to live abundantly. It is also clear that our present chaotic conditions are destructive of health, happy marriages, effective homes, and the strong line of descendants which must always be the chief care of an intelligent society.

In the first place, then, we must work to produce an entire change in our present mental attitude toward organized industries. Our present worship of industrial products, no matter how obtained, must give way to a recognition of the fact that the chief asset of a nation is its people; that a woman is more important than the clothes she makes in factories or sells in stores; and that to needlessly destroy or scrapheap a working woman is worse than to needlessly destroy or scrapheap the finest and most costly machine ever devised by man. Such a statement seems to carry conviction in its every phrase, but the fact is that we do not believe it, and until we do believe it, there will be little help for our present absurd and wretched conditions. Unregulated competition, backed by greed of individuals and groups, will go on wasting the wealth of women's lives until we cease to be fascinated and hypnotized by the display of products which they make possible. Better fine women and children, and few things, than stores and warehouses crowded with goods, and the women and children of our present factory towns. By fixing our attention on people instead of things, we should almost certainly secure more and better things; but, regardless of cost, we must change the focus of our attention.

In the second place, girls must get ready to be women. The education of the home and the school must be unified, and together they must give a training that will lead girls into the actualities of the life that lies before them. Our present elementary schools, and still more our high schools, lead girls neither to intelligent work nor to intelligent living as women and mothers. Up to at least the age of fourteen, the education should be general, looking to the development of all the powers of body, mind and sensibilities. But through all these eight or ten years of training, two factors should receive constant and intelligent attention. In the first place, we should realize that we are not fitting women for drawing-rooms nor for convents, but for a working world; therefore well graded and interesting manual training should run through all these years and should furnish a well-developed base for later special industrial preparation of some kind. In the second place, the girls should be taught by men and women, married and unmarried, and fine ideals of actual womanhood, not alone in shops and factories, in school-rooms, and in professions-but also in homes, should be constantly held before them. Our present education leaves this training mainly to the homes, and neither the parasitic rich nor our eight million wage-earning women, when mothers, can or will attend to it.

After the girl reaches the age of fourteen, she should have at least two years of further education in which she could master the details of some necessary work which would enable her to look the world in the face and offer fair payment for her living. With most girls, this work would be connected with children and the service of the home; for domestic service, no matter how organized, must always occupy a multitude of women. All girls should have at least rudimentary training in these matters.

During the period of transition from schools to their own family life, the girls might well give a half dozen years to work in factories and stores where the conditions should be as good, and as well guarded, as in our best school buildings-in factories, in a word, where the employers would be willing that their own daughters should work. This is surely a fair standard. Work which is not safe or fit for me to do, is not fit for me to hire done. If this principle fails, then democracy is but a dream.

But during all this period of preparation we should never forget that, as Madame Gnauck-Kühne so admirably points out, "women's work has to a large extent an episodic character." All women confront romantic love, marriage and children; and any woman who misses them misses the crowning joy and glory of her life. Vicarious realization may save the soul, but it can never fill the place of reality. The man fronts these same experiences, but they are not related to his work as they are related to the work of women. Surely there can be no doubt that the ideal solution, in this period, is a man and woman so deeply bound together by love that there is no question of self-protection, either in terms of work or money; and the man being freed from the burdens of maternity, should mainly earn the income. We shall discuss the new type of home and family in a later chapter, but in any home where there are children there is need of an intelligent mother's very constant care.

If a happy home were the universal destiny of women, our problem would be greatly simplified; but this is far from being the case. Not more than one-half of all women over fifteen are married at any one moment. From the ages of twenty to thirty-five, one-half are married; but it is only from thirty-five to fifty-five that as many as three-fourths are married; over fifty-five there are less than one-half married, and most of the others are widows. Most of these women who are not married must work outside the home, and no girl, rich or poor, should be allowed to reach maturity without being prepared to face this possibility. Work is not a curse but a blessing; it is an indispensable part of every well-ordered life; and without it, the individual and the group will certainly degenerate. Rich and foolish parents, who cannot realize this basal fact, should nevertheless see that, even as insurance, their daughters must be able to pay their way in life, if need comes, without selling themselves either in marriage or out. Even if the woman marries happily, she is never sure that she may not some day have to face self-support, and possibly for more mouths than her own.

But the woman who marries during her adolescent period, between the ages of twenty-five and fifty, must also work, and here we meet the hardest problem of all. More money is often needed than the man can earn; the wife may bring an industrial or professional equipment which is too valuable to discard; often the demands of the home, especially where there are no children, do not call forth the best energies of the woman, and she needs the larger life of outside work. Hence many married women must continue to work away from the home. In any of these cases, the problem is difficult. Bearing and rearing a child should retire a mother from fixed outside occupation for at least a year. Arguments born out of conflict cannot change this primitive fact. Women should not do shop or factory work during the last months of pregnancy, and babies should be nursed from seven to nine months. A baby should be nursed for twenty minutes, every two or three hours of its waking time; and since it does not always waken regularly, the nursing mother is debarred from most continuous work, even if it does not interfere with her effectiveness as a milk producer.

A few years ago, we turned to sanitary day nurseries, and to pasteurized milk and other prepared baby foods, as the solution for neglected or unhygienic feeding. To-day we know that even a dirty and ill-conditioned mother secretes better milk for her baby than can be prepared in any laboratory. We must wash the mother and feed her the milk, and then let her give it to her baby, instinct with her own life. It is quite possible that our recent talk of ignorant mother love and of the necessary substitution of sanitary nurseries, canned care and pre-digested affection must all go the same way. We shall probably get our best results by cleaning up the home, enlightening the mother, and then letting her love her child into the full possession of its human qualities.

Economically, too, at least with factory workers, it is questionable if their wages will support sanitary day-nurseries, with intelligent nurses for small groups of children, and at the same time pay some one to cook and scrub at home. If the mother must still cook and care for her house, in addition to her factory work, the burden is too great; and if money for nurses must come from the state, or from charity, then we all know the danger of such subsidies to industry, in its effect on wages.

Surely the ideal toward which we must work is for the mother, during the period when she is bearing and rearing children, to be supported by the father of her children. Let her do the work meantime which will best care for her children, and at the same time conserve and strengthen her powers for the third period of her life.

This period, from fifty to seventy-five years, is now more shamefully wasted than any other of our national resources. If one attends a State federation of women's clubs one will find nearly every delegate of this age. They are women of mature understanding and of ripe judgment, still possessing abundant health and strength, and where relieved by economic conditions from the necessity of manual work, they have to live such irregular and uncertain relations to life as can be maintained by mothers-in-law, grandmothers, club secretaries, and presidents of town improvement societies. Remove all restrictions on woman's activity, and these strong matrons would vitalize our schools, give us decent municipal housekeeping, supervise the conditions under which girls and women work in shops and factories, and do much to clean up our politics. Debarred from direct power as they are, they are still making us decent in spite of ourselves.

For the future, then, it seems that we must accept working women in every path of life. We must remove all disabilities under which they labor, and at the same time protect them by special legislation as future wives and mothers. All girls must master some line of self-supporting work; and, except in the cases of those who have very special tastes and gifts, they should select work which can be interrupted, without too great loss, by some years of motherhood. During this time, the mother must be supported so that she can largely care for her own child, though she must also maintain outside interests through work, which will keep her in touch with the moving current of her time. Industries must be humanized and made fit for women. The last third of a woman's life must be freed from legal limitations and popular prejudices, so that we may secure these best years of her life for private and public service. And meantime, it is well to remember that every step we take in making this a fit world for woman to work in, makes it a fit world for her father, her brothers, her lover and her husband to work beside her.