Caste in American Society

"American society is an anomaly which must puzzle all those who do not believe in it..."

Its there rank, then, in all industrial pursuits? A tailoress declares, that " nowhere are the hues of caste more strictly drawn than among tailoresses and sewing-girls. Those on "custom work" and those on "sale work " need not necessarily know each other. Here is a classification given by one who understands, works, and aids others in various ways: "Employments of working-people are either subjective or objective: one cannot consort with another. Under the first are included (1) the stenographer, (2) the newspaper hack, (3) the type-writer, (4) those engaged in life-insurance business and in any sort of nursing. The second division embraces (1) mercantile women, (2) saleswomen, (3) tradeswomen, and (4) servants, who are Pariahs, so to speak, in the eyes of all other workingwomen." These words plainly indicate wherein lies the difficulty of obtaining good domestic service. Not only is there a certain loss of personal independence as to hours and meals, but housework ranks lowest in the scale of honest labor; ambition, uppishness, or aspiration is of national growth. The proof-reader by universal testimony ranks highest in the scale of laborers, for good proof-reading requires not only an excellent elementary education, but also an intuitive mind. A copy-reader often advances to be a proofreader, whereas a type-setter seldom or never becomes a copy-reader. The most amusing instance of drawing the line is seen in the superbly quiet manner in which the “ladies” behind the counters at large dry-goods establishments regard the “women” in thread-and-needle stores; and they in turn look down upon the "girls' employed in confectioners' shops, and the still lower kind of omnion gatherum stores always to be found in the neighborhoods of the poor. They all may stand upon their feet throughout the day and sell goods, but that is all they have in common, except through incidental charitableness. Again, the newspaper hack-work ranges from that of the regularly paid “lady contributor” on certain subjects, to that of the “woman “ with the ready wit to puff up patent medicines and do a job in twenty minutes.

In talking with the thinking working-woman one is struck by the philosophical terms (obtained through processes of imitation and by imbibing mental atmospheres) which spring as readily to her lips as do the words "feeling," "tone," "values," to those of writers on art. Such women analyze life, lay down propositions, premises, and reason from them. Very often their foundation is weak. One of them, whose analysis of the mental requisites for different kinds of labor was very keen, observed, “There are sensuous and supersensuous classes. The supersensuous care less about the technique of their work, and fail in execution, but they are capable of improvement if lofty motives are appealed to, and are ever ready to encourage the stumblers; they long to be all they feel, and their lives are full of strivings and failures. The sensuous could be represented by the Irish girls, who don't know, and don't know that they don't know; they are honest and virtuous, but their tastes are on a low plane."

The workingwomen are struggling against the identical limitations within themselves which philanthropists and believers in social cooperation and those of notable good-will in churches have always felt. These women recognize the power of mutual aid; they acknowledge that employers are not individual tyrants, and that their only chance for a freer, happier life lies not in strikes, but in combinations backed by a public sentiment in favor of equal wages for men and women. Then, the more intelligent daily see due hopelessness of any such attempt at union, on account of the intensity of the caste feeling among them; the enjoyments and occupations of each class are distinct, the latter being the cause of the former.

One more generalization can be given, made by one who is doing all she can to elevate the character of her fellow-workers: "Caste is a nuisance to those who want to get into what you call society, and it is our curse. There is among us (1) the sensuous class, those who dance; (2) the domestic class, who stay by themselves and get their own meals, or live with their parents in rooms, who work all day and sew all night, and go to church on Sunday, or remain at home without gadding about; (3) then the God-forsaken class, who stay honestly in their attics and die by inches, who are not skilled workwoman by birth, and who never can be, any more than all can be artists, but they can do slop-work and starve to death (why don't the skilled pity the unskilled, and look only to the slow process of better born generations to do away with the amount of unskilled labor?) ; and (4) there are the servants," and she shrugged her shoulders, as if mention of them were needless.

This desire for combination, as the means of a general elevation, obtains among the more thoughtful portion of the women. It does not follow that because these women do not know much they therefore think little. Life experience has made them rich in thought, and the socialistic and free-thinking papers urge them on to clearer definition of their needs, often in a wrong direction. Many of them have attempted the formation of clubs and societies of their own, which have almost always failed, if for no other reason than because they have so little surplus time and strength for anything which is not daily bread. When entertainments have been provided for them, the very fact that they were for them included a stigma. Friendly and social evenings have also been established for them here and there, but only when any suspicion of kindness even has been omitted have they been successful. This unwillingness of the more intelligent and ladylike to associate with the less intelligent renders it still more difficult for others to form any classes for their instruction or make social attempts for their enjoyment. The spirit of caste dominates them far more than people in society. Some will not come, fearing patronage of the rich; others from dread of being ignored by those of a higher grade, who yet work for self-support. The Irish feel this incubus of caste far less than the Americans. Difference in station is an Old World fact with which the Irish and their ancestors have long been familiar. Their church frowns on any combination for intellectual purposes which might disintegrate their religious faith, and the sodalities themselves supply avenues for social intercourse, with the added benefit of spiritual instruction.

Among the Western women who are farmers, caste is founded on the aristocracy of energy: she who makes the best butter, “raises” the finest eggs, “steps round smartest,” and cooks the biggest dinner for the largest number of farm hands is the leader. At the harvest festivals and the county fairs, the wives of the poor and of the rich farmer meet on the same social plane; the one assuming and the other acknowledging the superiority born of deftness and strength. The hired girl is a neighbor’s daughter, who will soon marry, have a farm, and be just the same as the woman for whom she is now working; so there is no snubbing her. Whoever is the best cook and the earliest riser will have the means for a better dress, and in all meetings will be the equal of her stalwart husband, in his coarse, ready-made suit: while the weak , inefficient woman stays at home, has no new dresses, and misses the stimulus of the Grange meetings and agricultural shows. Poor woman! Children have multiplied, and the farm income has not kept pace with their growth. Yet she is the social recognized equal of her better-to-do neighbor in all but energy. Caste is founded in the far West on its primal, lawful ground of ability, whether physical or mental.

With the colored women there is much dissatisfaction in regard to obtaining employment. They do not ask, they say, to go to the white folks' parties, clubs, lectures, or houses, -all these they have among themselves; but they complain bitterly, and with justice, that when their daughters graduate from the high and normal schools, with ability equal to that of the white girls, they can find no honorable occupation open to them. Their daughters can neither teach in our schools, nor can they enter first-class establishments as cutters or saleswomen. Even if the employer personally is willing, he excludes them on account of his customers, or of those at service in his store.

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