The Business of Being a Woman

by Ida Tarbell

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Chapter VI - The Woman and Democracy

The one notion that democracy has succeeded in planting firmly in the mind of the average American citizen is his right and duty to rise in the world. Tested by this conception the American woman is an ideal democrat. Give her a ghost of a chance and she almost never fails to better herself materially and socially. Nor can she be said to do it by the clumsy methods we describe as "pushing." She does it by a legitimate, if rather literal, application of the national formula for rising,—get schooling and get money.

The average American man reverses the order of the terms in the formula. He believes more in money. The time that boys and girls are kept in school after the fourteen-or sixteen-year-age limit is generally due to the insistence of the mother, her confidence that the more education, the better the life chance. What it amounts to is that the man has more faith in life as a teacher, the woman more faith in schools. Both, however, seek the same goal, pin their faith to the same tools. Both take it for granted that if they work out the formulas, they thereby earn and will receive letters patent to the aristocracy of the democracy!

The weakness of this popular conception of the democratic scheme is that it gives too much attention to what a man gets and too little to what he gives. Democracy more than any other scheme under which men have tried to live together depends on what each returns—returns not in material but in spiritual things. Democracy is not a shelter, a garment, a cash account; it is a spirit. The real test of its followers must be sought in their attitude of mind toward life, labor, and their fellows.

Where does the average American woman come out in applying this test? Take her attitude toward labor,—where does it place her? Labor according to democracy is a badge of respectability. You cannot poach or sponge in a democracy; if you do, you violate the fundamental right of the other man. You cannot ask him to help support you by indirect or concealed devices; if you do, you are hampering the free opportunity the scheme promises him.

Moreover, the kind of work you do must not demean you. Nothing useful is menial. It is in the quality of the work and the spirit you give it that the test lies. Poor work brings disrespect and so hurts not only you but the whole mass. Contempt for a task violates the principle because it is contempt for a thing which the system recognizes as useful. Classification based on tasks falls down in a democracy. A poor lawyer falls below a good clerk, a poor teacher below a good housemaid, since one renders a sound and the other an unsound service.

Now this ideal of labor it was for the woman to work out in the household. To do this she must reconstruct the ideas to which she and all her society had been trained. In the nature of the task there could be no rules for it. It could be accomplished only by creating in the household a genuine democratic spirit. This meant that she must bring herself to look upon domestic service as a dignified employment in no way demeaning the person who performed it. Quite as difficult, she must infuse into those who performed the labor of the household respect and pride in their service.

What has happened? Has the woman democratized the department of labor she controls? If we are to measure her understanding of the system under which she lives by what she has done with her own particular labor problem, we must set her down as a poor enough democrat. This great department of national activity is generally (though by no means universally) in a poorer estate to-day than ever before in the history of the country; that is, tested by the ideals of labor toward which we are supposed to be working, it shows less progress.

Instead of being dignified, it has been demeaned. No other honest work in the country so belittles a woman socially as housework performed for money. It is the only field of labor which has scarcely felt the touch of the modern labor movement; the only one where the hours, conditions, and wages are not being attacked generally; the only one in which there is no organization or standardization, no training, no regular road of progress. It is the only field of labor in which there seems to be a general tendency to abandon the democratic notion and return frankly to the standards of the aristocratic régime. The multiplication of livery, the tipping system, the terms of address, all show an increasing imitation of the old world's methods. Unhappily enough, they are used with little or none of the old world's ease. Being imitations and not natural growths, they, of course, cannot be.

More serious still is the relation which has been shown to exist between criminality and household occupations. Nothing, indeed, which recent investigation has established ought to startle the American woman more. Contrary to public opinion, it is not the factory and shop which are making the greatest number of women offenders of all kinds; it is the household. In a recent careful study of over 3000 women criminals, the Bureau of Labor found that 80 per cent came directly from their own homes or from the traditional pursuits of women![2]

The anomaly is the more painful because women are so active in trying to better the conditions in trades which men control. Feminine circles everywhere have been convulsed with sympathy for shop and factory girls. Intelligent and persistent efforts are making to reach and aid them. This is, of course, right, and it would be a national calamity if such organizations as the Woman's Trade Union League and the Consumer's League should lose anything of their vigor. But the need of the classes they reach is really less than the need of household workers. In the first place, the number affected is far less.

It is customary, in presenting the case of the shop and factory girl, to speak of them as "an army 7,000,000 strong." It is a misleading exaggeration. The whole number of American women and girls over ten years of age earning their living wholly or partially is about 7,000,000.[3] Of this number from 20 per cent to 25 per cent belong to the "army" in shops and factories; moreover, a goodly percentage of this proportion are accountants, bookkeepers, and stenographers,—a class which on the whole may be said to be able to look after its own needs. The number in domestic service is nearly twice as great, something like 40 per cent of the 7,000,000.

There are almost as many dressmakers, milliners, and seamstresses as there are factory operators in this 7,000,000. There are nearly twice as many earning their living in dairies, greenhouses, and gardens as there are in shops and offices.

The greater number in domestic service is not what gives this class its greater importance. Its chief importance comes from the fact that it is in a permanent woman's employment; that is, the household worker becomes on marriage a housekeeper and in this country frequently an employer of labor. The intelligence and the ideals which she will give to her homemaking will depend almost entirely on what she has seen in the houses where she has worked; that is, our domestic service is self-perpetuating, and upon it American homes are in great numbers being annually founded. In sharp contrast to this permanent character of housework is the transientness of factory and shop work. The average period which a girl gives to this kind of labor is probably less than five years. What she learns has little or no relation to her future as a housekeeper—indeed, the tendency is rather to unfit than to fit her for a home.

But why is the American woman not stirred by these facts? Why does she not recognize their meaning and grapple with her labor problem? It is certain that at the beginning of the republic she did have a pretty clear idea of the kind of household revolution the country needed. Our great-grandmothers, that is, the serious ones among them, made a brave dash at it. There is no family, at least of New England tradition, who does not know the methods they adopted. They changed the nomenclature. There were to be no more "servants"—we were to have helpers. There were to be no divisions in the household. The helper was to sit at the table, at the fireside. (They thought to change the nature of a relation as old as the world by changing its name and form.) It was like the French Revolutionists' attempt to make a patriot by taking away his ruffles and shoe buckles and calling him "citizen"!

Of course it failed. The family meal, the fireside hour, are personal and private institutions in a home. Much of the success of the family in building up an intimate comradeship depends upon preserving them. We admit friends to them as a proof of affection, strangers as a proof of our regard. The notion that those who come into a household solely to aid in its labor should be admitted into personal relations which depend for their life upon privacy and affection, was always fantastic. It could not endure, because it violated something as important as the dignity of labor, and that was the sacredness of personal privacy. Moreover, it was bound to fail because it made the dignity of labor depend on artificial things—such as the name by which one is called, the place where one sits.

The good sense of the country might very well have regulated whatever was artificial in the attempt, if it had not been for the crushing interference of slavery. In the South all service was performed by slaves. In many parts of the North, at the founding of the republic, in Connecticut, in New York, New Jersey, slaves were held. It was practically impossible to work out a democratic system of domestic service side by side with this institution.

Slavery passed, but we were impeded by the fact that, liberated, the slave was still a slave in spirit and that his employer, North and South, was still an aristocrat in her treatment of him. With this situation to cope with, the woman's labor problem was still further complicated by immigration.

For years we have been overrun by thousands of untrained girls who are probably to be heads of American homes and mothers of American citizens. Most of them are of good, healthy, honest, industrious stock, but they are ignorant of our ways and ideas. The natural place for these girls to get their initiation into American democracy is in the American household. The duty of American women toward these foreign girls is plainly to help them understand our ideals. The difficulty of this is apparent; but the failure to accomplish it has been due less to its difficulty than to the fact that not one woman in a thousand has recognized that she has an obligation to make a fit citizen of the girl who comes into her home.

Generally speaking, the foreign servant girl has been exploited in this country almost if not quite as ruthlessly and unintelligently as the foreign factory girl and the foreign steel mill worker. Domestic service, which ought to be the best school for the newcomer, has become the worst; exploited, she learns to exploit; suspected, she learns to suspect. The result has been that the girl has soon acquired a confused and grotesque notion of her place. She soon becomes insolent and dissatisfied, grows more and more indifferent to the quality of her work and to the cultivation of right relations.

What we have lost in our treatment of the immigrant women can never be regained. We forget that almost invariably these girls have the habit of thrift. They have never known anything else. Thrift as a principle is ingrained in them. But the American household is notoriously thriftless. As a rule it destroys the quality in the untrained immigrant girl. It is American not to care for expense—and she accepts the method—as far as her mistress' goods are concerned—if not her own.

The general stupid assumption that because the immigrant girl does not know our ways she knows nothing, has deprived us of much that she might have contributed to our domestic arts and sciences. It is with her as it is with any newcomer in a strange land of strange tongue—she is shy, dreads ridicule. Instead of encouraging her to preserve and develop that which she has learned at home, we drive her to abandon it by our ignorant assumption that she knows nothing worth our learning. The case of peasant handicraft is in point. It is only recently that we have begun to realize that most women immigrants know some kind of beautiful handicraft which they have entirely dropped for fear of being laughed at.

A very frequent excuse for the lack of pains that the average woman gives to the training of the raw girl is that she marries as soon as she becomes useful. But is it not part of the woman's business in this democracy to help the newcomer to an independent position? Is it not part of her business to help settle her servants in matrimony? Certainly any large and serious conception of her business must include this obligation.

It is the failure to recognize opportunities for public service of this kind that makes the woman say her life is narrow. It is parallel to her failure to understand the relation of household economy to national economy. She seems to lack the imagination to relate her problem to the whole problem. She will read books and follow lecture courses on Labor and come home to resent the narrowness of her life, unconscious that she personally has the labor problem on her own hands and that her failure to see that fact is complicating daily the problems of the nation. It is the old false idea that the interesting and important thing is somewhere else—never at home—while the truth is that the only interesting and important thing for any one of us is in mastering our own particular situation,—moreover, the only real contribution we ever make comes in doing that.

The failure to dignify and professionalize household labor is particularly hard on the unskilled girl of little education who respects herself, has pretty clear ideas of her "rights" under our system of government, and who expects to make something of herself. There are tens of thousands of such in the country; very many of them realize clearly the many advantages of household labor. They know that it ought to be more healthful, is better paid, is more interesting because more varied. They see its logical relation to the future to which they look forward.

But such a girl feels keenly the cost to herself of undertaking what she instinctively feels ought to be for her the better task. She knows the standards and conditions are a matter of chance; that, while she may receive considerate treatment in one place, in another there will be no apparent consciousness that she is a human being. She knows and dreads the loneliness of the average "place." "It's breaking my heart I was," sobbed an intelligent Irish girl, serving a term for drunkenness begun in the kitchen, "alone all day long with never a one to pass a good word." She finds herself cut off from most of the benefits which are provided for other wage-earning girls. She finds girls' clubhouses generally are closed to her. She is the pariah among workers.

What is there for this girl but the factory or the shop? Yet her presence there is a disaster for the whole labor system, for she is a cheap laborer—cheap not because she is a poor laborer—she is not; generally she is an admirable one—quick to learn, faithful to discharge. Her weakness in trade is that she is a transient who takes no interest in fitting herself for an advanced position. The demonstration of this statement is found in a town like Fall River, where the admirable textile school has only a rare woman student, although boys and men tax its capacity. There is no object for the average girl to take the training. She looks forward to a different life. The working girl has still to be convinced of the "aristocracy of celibacy"!

No more difficult or important undertaking awaits the American woman than to accept the challenge to democratize her own special field of labor. It is in doing this that she is going to make her chief contribution to solving the problem of woman in industry. It is in doing this that she is going to learn the meaning of democracy. It is an undertaking in which every woman has a direct individual part—just as every man has a direct part in the democratization of public life.

Individual effort aside, though it is the most fundamental, she has various special channels of power through which she can work—her clubs, for instance. If the vast machinery of the Federation of Woman's Clubs could be turned to this problem of the democratization of domestic service, what an awakening might we not hope for! Yet it is doubtful if it will be through the trained woman's organizations that the needed revolution will come. It will come, as always, from the ranks of the workers.

Already there are signs that the woman's labor organizations are willing to recognize the inherent dignity of household service. And this is as it should be. The woman who labors should be the one to recognize that all labor is per se equally honorable—that there is no stigma in any honestly performed, useful service. If she is to bring to the labor world the regeneration she dreams, she must begin not by saying that the shop girl, the clerk, the teacher, are in a higher class than the cook, the waitress, the maid, but that we are all laborers alike, sisters by virtue of the service we are rendering society. That is, labor should be the last to recognize the canker of caste.[4]


[2] Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage Earners in the United States, Vol. XV. Relation between Occupation and Criminality of Women. 1911.

[3] The number of people in 1910 in what is called "gainful occupations" has not as yet been compiled by the Census Bureau. This figure of 7,000,000 is arrived at by the following method, suggested to the writer by Director Durand. It is known that there are about 44,500,000 females in the present population. Now in 1900 there were about 14½ per cent of all the girls and women in the country over ten years of age at work a part or all of the time. Apply to the new figure this proportion, and you have between six and seven millions, which is called 7,000,000 here, on the supposition that the proportion may have increased. The percentage of women in each of the various occupations in 1900 is assumed still to exist.

[4] The National Women's Trades Union League has domestic workers among its members, though not as yet, I believe, in any large numbers. Its officials are strong believers in a Domestic Workers' Union. There are several such unions in New Zealand, and they have done much to regulate hours, conditions, and wages.


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