Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Woman's Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - Historical Overview

At the first glance, and even when longer survey has been made, both Paris and Berlin,--and these may stand as the representative Continental cities,--seem to offer every possible facility for the work of women. Everywhere, behind counter, in shop or café, in the markets, on the streets, wherever it is a question of any phase of the ordinary business of life, women are in the ascendant, and would seem to have conquered for themselves a larger place and better opportunities than either England or America have to show. But, as investigation goes on, this larger employment makes itself evident as obstacle rather than help to the better forms of work, and the woman's shoulders bear not only her natural burden, but that also belonging to the man. The army lays its hand on the boy at sixteen or seventeen. The companies and regiments perpetually moving from point to point in Paris seem to be composed chiefly of boys; every student is enrolled, and the period of service must always be deducted in any plan for life made by the family.

Naturally, then, these gaps are filled by women,--not only in all ordinary avocations, but in the trades which are equally affected by this perpetual drain. In every town of France or Germany where manufacturing is of old or present date, the story is the same, and women are the chief workers; but, in spite of this fact, the same inequalities in wages prevail that are found in England and America, while conditions include every form of the sharpest privation.

For England and America as well is the fact that law regulates or seeks to regulate every detail, no matter how minute, and that the manufacturer or artisan of any description is subject to such laws. On the continent, save where gross wrongs have brought about some slight attempt at regulation by the State, the law is merely a matter of general principles, legislation simply indicating certain ends to be accomplished, but leaving the means entirely in the hands of the heads of industries. Germany has a far more clearly defined code than France; but legislation, while it has touched upon child labor, has neglected that of women-workers entirely. Within a year or two the report of the Belgian commissioners has shown a state of things in the coal mines, pictured with tremendous power by Zola in his novel "Germinal," but in no sense a new story, since the conditions of Belgian workers are practically identical with those of women-workers in Silesia, or at any or all of the points on the continent where women are employed. Philanthropists have cried out; political economists have shown the suicidal nature of non-interference, and demonstrated that if the State gains to-day a slight surplus in her treasury, she has, on the other hand, lost something for which no money equivalent can be given, and that the women who labor from twelve to sixteen hours in the mines, or at any industry equally confining, have no power left to shape the coming generations into men, but leave to the State an inheritance of weak-bodied and often weak-minded successors to the same toil. For France and Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, at every point where women are employed, the story is the same; and the fact remains that, while in the better order of trades women may prosper, in the large proportion, constant and exhausting labor simply keeps off actual starvation, but has no margin for anything that can really be called living.

For Paris and Berlin, but in greater degree for Paris, a fact holds true which has almost equal place for New York. Women-workers, whose only support is the needle, contend with an army of women for whom such work is not a support, but who follow it as a means of increasing an already certain income. For these women there is no pressing necessity, and in Paris they are of the bourgeoisie, whose desires are always a little beyond their means, who have ungratified caprices, ardent wishes to shine like women in the rank above them, to dress, and to fascinate. They are the wives and daughters of petty clerks, or employés of one order and another, of small government functionaries and the like, who embroider or sew three or four hours a day, and sell the work for what it will bring. The money swells the housekeeping fund, gives a dinner perhaps, or aids in buying a shawl, or some coveted and otherwise unattainable bit of jewelry. The work is done secretly, since they have not the simplicity either of the real ouvrière or of the grande dame, both of whom sew openly, the one for charity, the other for a living. But this middle class, despising the worker and aspiring always toward the luxurious side of life, feels that embroidery or tapestry of some description is the only suitable thing for their fingers, and busy on this, preserve the appearance of the dignity they covet. Often their yearly gains are not more than one hundred francs, and they seldom exceed two hundred; for they accept whatever is offered them, and the merchants who deal with them know that they submit to any extortion so long as their secret is kept.

This class is one of the obstacles in the way of the ordinary worker, and one that grows more numerous with every year of the growing love of luxury. There must be added to it another,--and in Paris it is a very large one,--that that of women who have known better days, who are determined to keep up appearances and to hide their misery absolutely from former friends. They are timid to excess, and spend days of labor on a piece of work which, in the end, brings them hardly more than a morsel of bread. One who goes below the surface of Paris industries is amazed to discover how large a proportion of women-workers come under this head; and their numbers have been one of the strongest arguments for industrial education, and some development of the sense of what value lies in good work of any order. In one industry alone,--that of bonnet-making in general, it was found a year or two since that over eight hundred women of this order were at work secretly, and though they are found in several other industries, embroidery is their chief source of income. Thus they are in one sense a combination against other women, and one more reason given by merchants of every order for the unequal pay of men and women. It is only another confirmation of the fact that, so long as women are practically arrayed against women, any adjustment of the questions involved in all work is impossible. Hours, wages, all the points at issue that make up the sum of wrong represented by many phases of modern industry, wait for the organization among women themselves; and such organization is impossible till the sense of kinship and mutual obligation has been born. With competition as the heart of every industry, men are driven apart by a force as inevitable and irresistible as its counterpart in the material world, and it is only when an experiment like that of Guise has succeeded, and the patient work and waiting of Père Godin borne fruit that all men pronounce good, that we know what possibilities lie in industrial co-operation. Such co-operation as has there proved itself not only possible but profitable for every member concerned, comes at last, to one who has faced women-workers in every trade they count their own, and under every phase of want and misery, born of ignorance first, and then of the essential conditions of competition, under-pay, and over-work, as one great hope for the future. The instant demand, if it is to become possible, is for an education sufficiently technical to give each member of society the hand-skill necessary to make a fair livelihood. Such knowledge is impossible without perfectly equipped industrial schools; and the need of these has so demonstrated itself that further argument for their adoption is hardly necessary. The constant advance in invention and the fact that the worker, unless exceptionally skilled, is more and more the servant of machinery, is an appeal no less powerful in the same direction. Twenty years ago one of the wisest thinkers in France, conservative, yet with the clearest sense of what the future must bring for all workers, wrote:--

"From the economic point of view, woman, who has next to no material force and whose arms are advantageously replaced by the least machine, can have useful place and obtain fair remuneration only by the development of the best qualities of her intelligence. It is the inexorable law of our civilization--the principle and formula even of social progress, that mechanical engines are to accomplish every operation of human labor which does not proceed directly from the mind. The hand of man is each day deprived of a portion of its original task, but this general gain is a loss for the particular, and for the classes whose only instrument of labor and of earning daily bread is a pair of feeble arms."

The machine, the synonym for production at large, has refined and subtilized--even spiritualized itself to a degree almost inconceivable, nor is there any doubt but that the future has far greater surprises in store. But if metal has come to wellnigh its utmost power of service, the worker's capacity has had no equality of development, and the story of labor to-day for the whole working world is one of degradation. That men are becoming alive to this; that students of political economy solemnly warn the producer what responsibility is his; and that the certainty of some instant step as vital and inevitable is plain,--are gleams of light in this murky and sombre sky, from which it would seem at times only the thunderbolt could be certain.

Organization and its result in industrial co-operation is one goal, but even this must count in the end only as corrective and palliative unless with it are associated other reforms which this generation is hardly likely to see, yet which more and more outline themselves as a part of those better days for which we work and hope. As to America thus far, our great spaces, our sense of unlimited opportunity, of the chance for all which we still count as the portion of every one on American soil, and a hundred other standard and little-questioned beliefs, have all seemed testimony to the reality and certainty of our faith. But as one faces the same or worse industrial conditions in London or any great city, English or Continental, with its congestion of labor and its mass of resultant misery, the same solution suggests itself and the cry comes from philanthropist and Philistine alike, "Send them into the country! Give them homes and work there!"

Naturally this would seem the answer; but where? For when search is made for any bit of land on which a home may rise and food be given back from the soil, all England is found to be in the hands of a few thousand land-owners, while London itself practically belongs to less than a dozen, with rents at such rates that when paid no living wage remains. When once this land question is touched, it is found made up of immemorial injustices, absurdities, outrages, and for America no less than for the whole world of workers. It cannot be that man has right to air and sunshine, but never right to the earth under his feet. Standing-place there must be for this long battle for existence, and in yielding this standing-place comes instant solution of a myriad problems.

This is no place for extended argument as to the necessity of land nationalization, or the advantages or disadvantages of Mr. George's scheme of a single tax on land values, with the consequent dropping of our whole complicated tariff. But believing that the experiment is at least worth trying, and trying patiently and thoroughly, the belief, slowly made plain and protested against till further protest became senseless and impossible, stands here, as one more phase of work to be done. In it are bound up many of the reforms, without which the mere fact of granted standing-room would be valueless. The day must come when no one can question that the natural opportunities of life can never rightfully be monopolized by individuals, and when the education that fits for earning, and the means of earning are under wise control, monopolies, combinations, "trusts,"--all the facts which represent organized injustice sink once for all to their own place.

Differ as we may, then, regarding methods and possibilities, one question rises always for every soul alike,--What part have I in this awakening, and what work with hands or head can I do to speed this time to which all men are born, and of which to-day they know only the promise? From lowest to highest, the material side has so dominated that other needs have slipped out of sight; and to-day, often, the hands that follow the machine in its almost human operations, are less human than it. Matter is God, and for scientist and speculative philosopher, and too often for social reformer also, the place and need of another God ceases, and there is no hope for the toiler but to lie down at last in the dust and find it sweet to him. Yet for him, and for each child of man, is something as certain. Not the God of theology; not the God made the fetich and blindly worshipped; but the Power whose essence is love and inward constraint to righteousness, and to whom all men must one day come, no matter through what dark ways or with what stumbling feet.

The vision is plain and clear of what the State must one day mean and what the work of the world must be, when once more the devil of self-seeking and greed flees to his own place, and each man knows that his life is his own only as he gives it to high service, and to loving thought for every weaker soul. The co-operative commonwealth must come; and when it has come, all men will know that it is but the vision of every age in which high souls have seen what future is for every child of man, and have known that when the spirit of brotherhood rules once for all, the city of God has in very truth descended from the heavens, and men at last have found their own inheritance.

This is the future, remote even when most ardently desired; impossible, unless with the dream is bound up the act that brings realization. And when the nature and method of such act comes as question, and the word is, What can be done to-day, in the hour that now is?--how shall unlearned, unthinking minds bend themselves to these problems, when the wisest have failed, and the world still struggles in bondage to custom, the accumulated force of long-tolerated wrong--what can the answer be?

There is no enlightener like even the simplest act of real justice. It is impossible that the most limited mind should not feel expansion and know illumination in even the effort to comprehend what justice actually is and involves. Instantly when its demand is heard and met, custom, tradition, old beliefs, everything that hampers progress, slip away, and actual values show themselves. The first step taken in such direction means always a second. It is the beginning of the real march onward; the ending of any blind drifting in the mass, with no consciousness of individual power to move.

A deep conviction founded on eternal law is itself an education, and whoever has once determined what the personal demand in life is, has entered the wicket-gate and sees before him a plain public road, on which all humanity may journey to the end.

Here then lies the answer, no less than in these last words, the ending of one phase of work which still has only begun. For the day is coming when every child born will be taught the meaning of wealth, of capital, of labor. Then there will be small need of any further schools of political economy, since wealth will be known to be only what the soul can earn,--that which adheres and passes on with it; and capital, all forces that the commonwealth can use to make the man develop to his utmost possibility every power of soul and body; and labor, the joyful, voluntary acceptance of all work to this end, whether with hands or head. Till then, in the fearless and faithful acceptance of every consequence of a conviction, in personal consecration to the highest demand, in increasing effort to make happiness the portion of all, lies the task set for each one,--the securing to every soul the natural opportunity denied by the whole industrial system, both of land and labor, as it stands to-day. This is the goal for all; and by whatever path it is reached, to each and every walker in it, good cheer and unflagging courage, and a leaving the way smoother for feet that will follow, till all paths are at last made plain, and every face set toward the city we seek!
Prisoners of Poverty
Helen Campbell, 1889
MyLadyWeb’s primary goal is improving the financial condition of women (including myself) and men by providing such free and low cost tools as reliable domains and hosting, self-installing websites, turnkey websites, brandable ebooks, SEO tools, PLR and unique articles and so on and so on and so on…. So why in the world would I post women’s history on a blog dedicated to helping people build and maintain a low-cost business online? Well, because I have a graduate degree in history and I love history in all it’s forms–especially women’s history. A graduate degree in women’s studies was not an option at the university where I received my MA in History so I had to make do with a more generalized degree. However, in every class I made up for the lack by researching the condition of women in each age that I studied. I have always been fascinated by women’s history, so I thought I would start sharing some of the lost treasures that I uncover. I believe that most people have curious minds and like glimpses of how the world was, and how things were perceived in the past. I firmly believe in the idea that we must remember history in order to learn from it, grow and hopefully cut down on the number of stupid mistakes that random impulse and intellectual curiosity and greed and a thousand other human motivators lead us to make.
Smiles and Good Fortune,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon
Author of A Very Merry Chase
Founder of The LadyWeb Family Of Informational & Educational Websites
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
– W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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