THE YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEKEEPER.
“MY dear,” said I last autumn to a young married lady friend, whom in the spring I had seen brilliantly blooming and handsome, “ it strikes me you are looking a little careworn.”
“ I am,”returned she, with great animation, “and I have been giving it as my opinion that quite too much is expected of women. First, I had all the packing and moving of going down to the sea-shore to attend to. Then, my house was full of visitors all summer; and I had to take breath as well as I could between hurrying a cake into the oven and being in the parlor to receive or entertain them. Of course there was any quantity of sewing to do ; and, as if all this were not enough, Mr. —— would come in daily to know if I had learned my French lesson, and whether I had given my regular hour to my piano ; and now I have just got through with the pleasant experience of selling and stowing our furniture preparatory to going to Europe. So it is no wonder if I have grown a little thin; and, in fact, as I said before, I have come to the conclusion that entirely too much is expected of women ! ”
Whether the conclusion be just or otherwise, nothing could more perfectly represent the plight of a multitude of intelligent and ambitious young matrons of moderate means than the lively complaint of my beautiful friend. For in these days of strain and struggle and desire, who of us is there that understands how to live ? who that possesses a domestic machinery so perfectly balanced, so nicely adjusted, so exquisitely oiled and polished, that every duty and every pleasure glide from it noiseless and complete as do the separate marvels that fall from the crafty wheels and lathes of this modern era ?
THE OLD-FASHIONED HOUSEKEEPER.
That the art of living, so far as the body and its surroundings are concerned, can be, and often is, carried to a very high degree of perfection, the superlative housekeepers we all have known are ample proof. My whole girlhood was spent just across the street from the greatest genius in this respect that I have ever met. The fresh exterior of her square white dwelling, with its immaculate board walk crossing her greenest sward, and its shining windows, through which smiled her roses and carnations upon the passer-by, gave pleasant promise of the absolute spotlessness of everything within. She was not one of that dismal type of housekeepers who exclude the light and muffle everything into shapelessness lest damask and carpets should fade. On the contrary, her house was flooded with the brightest sunshine, challenged to find a speck of dust if it could. The air, laden with the perfume of cut flowers or house-plants, seemed purer than that outside, and, whatever the weather, its temperature was perfect. Nothing was for show, and but little for pure ornament, but everything was the best of its kind and in true taste and keeping. As for her table, “never, till life and mem’ry perish, can I forget ” the vision of that tea-cloth, far whiter than snow, with its gleaming silver and glass and china, displaying incomparable viands, whose delicacy and perfection were all her own, — that sweet and solid cube of golden butter; the foam-light and foam-white biscuit, each a separate thought; the cake, crowned with every ideal attribute that cake can possess ; the ruby and topaz of her preserved strawberries and plums ; and O, O, the flavor of that deep-red tongue,— the meltingness of her cold corned-beef!
At this ambrosial board she sat, a lady of sixty or seventy, upright as an arrow, wearing no cap, nor needing any, with her beautiful chestnut hair braided in almost as thick a tress as a quarter of a century ago ; low-voiced, intelligent, self-contained ; with a comprehension in her eye, a firmness in her mouth, a concentrated and disciplined energy speaking from her whole quiet person, that convinced one that she could have administered the affairs of an empire with the same ease and exactness that she did those of her household. With one elderly servant she did it all ; and as she was never in a hurry, nor ever unprepared, she seemed to accomplish it with no more effort than the glittering engine which one finds stowed away in some lower corner of a great building, playing easily and noiselessly as if for its own pleasure, while in reality it is driving with mighty energy a hundred wheels, and employing ceaselessly a hundred hands.
THE INFLUENCE OF THE AGE.
Now, such housewifery as this seems to me perfect, but I seldom observe any approach to it in the homes of my young married friends, nor, though it worries me, and in my secret mind often makes me unhappy, do I attempt anything like it myself. Yet what a contrast appears in the success of two women, both of whom were perhaps equally endowed by nature with talent, ambition, and the artistic sense ! The one rushing in feverish haste, overtasked, inaccurate, anxious ; the other walking in cool quiet, her whole life stretching behind and before her in fair order and freshness, milestoned with gracious duties remembered afar off and beautifully finished with love and care, each in its own time and for its own sake. The contrast cannot be explained by the difference in years and temperament, for in sketching one I have meant to typify us all. It is the CENTURY that speaks as loudly in the transformation of us young matrons as in any of its more obtrusive revolutions ; and all our domestic imperfections are chargeable upon the modern feminine education, which differs so entirely from that of fifty years ago, that the housewifely devotion of our grandmothers is as difficult and disagreeable to us as our accomplishments and extravagance would be impossible to them. In a general way, we feel that we ought to look after our households, and, since we earn nothing for our families, to save what hired labor we can. But our fragile American physique, as well as the fastidious taste born of school-day studies and fanciful young-lady pursuits, makes us shrink from kitchen and stereroom nor can we bear to lose uphold, feeble as it may be, upon the music, the drawing, the varied culture of books, travel, and society, that made the interest and happiness of our girlish years, Pulled one way by necessity and another by inclination, we try to pay an equal homage to opposing and jealous gods. But we have not reconciled the quarrel between mind and matter. Our smattering of the arts and sciences does not emancipate us from the old feminine slavery to manual labor. Cooking, sewing, dusting, arranging, it still stands there to be done ; and, slight it as we may, we are yet compelled to attend to it just sufficiently to prevent our doing anything else well. So we accept superficiality in everything, and, as a consequence, find ourselves at many a turn unequal to the situation. Goaded by her aspirations and fretted by her imperfections, it is no wonder that the young American matron grows thin, nervous, even prematurely old ; for she hurries along in the general rush, thorough neither as cook, seamstress, musician, student, or fine lady, but a atch-work apology for them all!
THE PROBLEM OF THE HOUR.
Thus the feminine paradox remains, that, though never before our time were so many privileges and advantages accorded to the sex, yet never was feminine work so badly done, never was there so much frivolity, so much complaint, so much sadness, anxiety, and discouragement, among women as now. Easy as modern housekeeping, modern child-rearing, and even (owing to ether) modern child-bearing are, compared with those of former times, women seem to hate them and to want to get away from them more and more every day. The evil is so great that men are growing afraid to marry even in this country, while those that are married are so uncomfortable that they have begun to talk in the papers about the necessity of establishing cook-shops and laundries, in order to rescue the delicate American wife from the unequal conflict with pans, and kettles, and impudent servants!
But shall men do all the work of the world ? Are we indeed come to be made of porcelain, that we must be shelved from all practical utility, and stand like the painted figures of the mantel-piece, looking down from our narrow perch at the toiling and earnest multitudes at our feet ? It is time that faithful women ask themselves these questions, and try to find out what is the matter with our work that we cannot do it well, with ourselves that we cannot take delight in it. We seem to have allowed the grand and simple outlines of the old feminine idea to escape us, and now toil confused at a meaningless and elaborate pattern of existence whose microscopic details develop ever faster than the hand can follow or the weary spirit master them.
THE HOUSEWIFE IN HISTORY.
What was the old feminine function, and what was its value ? — for how immensely the condition of women in these latter days has changed from the immemorial woman-life of tradition and history, few of the sex know or realize. Throughout long millenniums the feminine duties, occupations, and surroundings were the same, — the ideal woman of every successive period of the old bygone world being still found in the masterpiece of character-painting for all time,—the “virtuous woman” of King Solomon.
That wise and gracious lady is represented not only as “bringing her food from afar, rising while it is yet night, and giving meat to her household and a portion to her maidens,” but also as spinning and weaving at home all the clothing of the family, and such a surplus besides of “ girdles ” and “fine linen,” that with the sale of them she can buy fields and plant vineyards. “ She is not afraid of the snow for her household ; for all her household are clothed in scarlet ” woollen, dyed, spun, and woven under her direction. Her own garments were rich and beautiful as became her state and dignity. “ She maketh for herself coverings of tapes try; her clothing is silk and purple ” ; while the conspicuous elegance of the robes worn by her husband makes him "known when he sitteth among the elders in the gates.” Five hundred years after the date of this description, we hear of a fearful tragedy at the court of Persia, that grew out of a magnificent robe made for Xerxes the king by his chief queen Amestris ; and still five centuries later, we find the Emperor Augustus, lord of all the wealth of Rome, refusing to wear any stuffs excepting those woven for him by his wife and daughters. The ancient kingdoms and nations crumble into dust ; but as the new peoples spring up, we find the women, from the queen to the peasant, still at the distaff and the loom. The four sisters of the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelstan were famous for their skill in spinning, weaving, and embroidery ; and the Saxon ladies in general were so accomplished in needle-work, that it was celebrated on the Continent under the name of opus Anglicanum. Mr. Wright, in his History of the Domestic Manners and Sentiments in England, informs us that, down to about the close of the sixteenth century, “ women as a rule were closely confined to their domestic labors, in spinning, weaving, embroidering, and other work of a similar kind ; a hand-loom was almost a necessary article of furniture in a well-regulated household ; and spinning was so universal that we read sometimes of an apartment in the house especially devoted to it, — a family spinning-room. Even to the present day, in legal language, the only occupation acknowledged as that of an unmarried woman is that of a spinster. The young ladies, even of great families, were brought up not only strictly, but even tyrannically, by their mothers, — who kept them constantly at work, exacted from them almost slavish deference and respect, and even counted upon their earnings.”
Finally, we may complete the picture by glancing at our own countrywomen of only a hundred years ago as sketched by the Rev. Lyman Beecher in his account of his boyhood. Among their other crops, he and his uncle raised “an acre or two of flax, though it was impossible to keep Aunt Benson and niece in spinning for the winter.” “ In June we sheared the sheep ; the fleece was washed, carded, and spun ; Aunt Benson spun it in the house. Flax in winter, wool in summer, — woman’s work is never done.” “ They made all sorts of linen-work, table-cloths, shirting, sheets, and cloths. If it had n’t been for this household manufactory, we never should have succeeded in the Revolution.” I can see Aunt Benson now as plain as I see you ; she and Annie got breakfast very early. Our living was very good, rye-bread, fresh butter, buckwheat cakes, and pie for breakfast. After the dishes were washed, Annie and I helped aunt milk. Then they made cheese, and spun till dinner. We dined on salt pork, vegetables, and pies, corned beef also ; and always, on Sunday, a boiled Indian pudding. We made a stock of pies at Thanksgiving, froze them for winter’s use, and they lasted till March.”
Now the various industries that “Aunt Benson and niece ” thus carried on alone were, before the Reformation, the common occupations of all women ; and not only the farmer’s wife, but every noble lady, every gentlewoman, in her own house, was a manufacturer on a scale proportioned to the number of her servants. She probably could not read or write ; and in those perilous days she never dared to travel unless for the solemn purpose of a pilgrimage. Before the age of Henry VIII., ladies never even went to court ; hence there was no great centre of feminine fashion, and one or two handsome gowns lasted a woman of rank a lifetime, without change of cut or ornament. The rooms of her hall or castle were so few and so gloomy, and their furniture so scanty and uncomfortable, that a modern housekeeper would be frightened almost at the description of it, while the single neighborhood in which she lived generally contained all her interests, and bounded all the sphere of her ideas. Nevertheless, in spite of her ignorance, her limitations, and her deprivations, the woman of all those twilight generations lived a life of beneficent activity. “ Lady,” that is, “ Loaf-giver,” because from the time when the Princess Sara, Abram’s wife, baked cakes for his guests, down to the age of the great Elizabeth, to prepare and distribute food was one of woman’s noble trinity of industrial offices. She superintended the salting tubs of beef and pork ; she brewed great casks of ale; she saw to the making of butter, cheese, soap, and candles ; she directed the spinning and weaving of linen and woollen fabrics, from carpets and wall-hangings down to shifts and kerchiefs ; she distilled essences and flavors, and compounded medicines and ointments ; 1 she delighted her guests with the fantastic elaborations of her cookery; and the splendors of her intricate embroidery shone on holy altar and priestly vestment quite as often as on her own person.
Woman in history, then, appears in general as preparing the food, making the clothing, and ordering the households of the race. The practical value of these vocations will be taught us by Political Economy.
SOCIETY AS CLASSIFIED BY POLITICAL ECONOMY.
This science separates mankind into two chief classes, viz. those who produce the wealth and supplies of a community, and those who consume them. Consumers are divided again simply into productive and unproductive consumers, but producers 2 are of various types, the three principal being as follows : —
1 st. Agricultural and mining producers, or those who obtain from nature the raw materials of food, clothing, and shelter.
2d. Manufacturing producers, or those who prepare these materials for human use.
3d. Distributing producers, or those who convey the raw material to the manufacturer, and the manufactured article to the consumer, — comprehending the commission merchants, wholesale dealers, importers, grocers, butchers, and shop-keepers of every description ; their vast machinery being the ships, railroads, highways, wagons, horses, and men by which this distribution is effected.
PLACE OF THE HISTORICAL HOUSEWIFE IN POLITICAL ECONOMY.
Such is a rough classification of the great army of workers by whom all mankind are clothed and fed and sheltered, and some made rich ; and from what we have just seen to have been the former occupations of women, it is evident that production, of the second of these types,— namely, manufacturing production, —once constituted the TRUE FEMININE SPHERE, for throughout unnumbered centuries woman assumed and adequately fulfilled the task of preparing the food and clothing of the race, out of the raw materials that man laid at her feet. It is true that this domestic manufacture was carried on in the privacy of her own home, and in a rude and simple way ; but that does not alter the value of the performance. Human knowledge and human needs go hand in hand. Our ancestors knew nothing better, and wanted nothing better, than what their wives and daughters could do for them. In that day, therefore, women must have created nearly half the wealth and supplies of the world, because they did one half of its necessary work. Hence every woman in her own house was self-supporting that is, earned her own living there by virtue of her indispensable labor; not only so, she contributed with her husband to the support of their children, and, it she chose to extend her enterprise, was able, like the virtuous woman of King Solomon, to exchange the fruit of her hands for fields and vineyards, and so help to make her family rich.
THE FEMININE PRODUCERS OF TO-DAY.
Now the women who do all the cooking, washing, and sewing of their families, the wives of small farmers, mechanics, and laborers, as well as those who hire out their time, servants, mill-hands, shop-girls, seamstresses, etc., are still self-supporting, still producers, because they perform a large part of all the lighter manual labor needed for the sustenance and well-being of the community.
THE FEMININE CONSUMERS OF TO-DAY.
But the whole class of women who keep servants, — a class which is intelligent and refined, and many of whose members are cultivated, accomplished, and intellectual, — this immense feminine host, I say, has sunk from its former rank of manufacturing producers into that of unproductive consumers, i. e. of persons who do not pay back in mental or manual labor an equivalent for the necessaries they use or the luxuries they enjoy. Children, the aged, and the infirm are the only persons that in a well-regulated community by right compose this class,-—-the first, because, if nourished and educated during their period of helplessness, they will grow up producers of material or intellectual values ; the others, because they may have once been such producers, and, were they not disabled, would still be so. But for healthy, educated, intelligent adults by millions to be supported by the extra toil of the rest of the community, as educated women are now, is a state of things entirely contrary to the natural division of labor, — is one of the monstrous defects of modern civilization, and perhaps the most fruitful source of disorder, suffering, and demoralization that could possibly be devised.
If the mere necessaries of life were given to us, as to an army of soldiers, even this would be a heavy burden upon society, as we learned during our war, when it cost the North one or two thousand millions to provide our troops with coarse food and clothing and rude shelter for four years only. But upon us are lavished the wealth and luxury of the world from generation to generation. The expensive residences, the costly furniture, the rich jewels, silks, and laces, the dainty or dashing equipages, the delicate tables, the thousand articles for comfort, convenience, or delight that one secs in even every modest home, — for whom are they created, by whom are they enjoyed, so much as by the women of the middle and upper classes ? And the only return that the most industrious of us know how to make for it all is to sew, — a few hours out of the twenty-four ! That is to say, after our education has cost the country millions, we sit down amid surroundings worth hundreds of millions, to compete with the illiterate Irish needle-woman to whom we only give a dollar and a half a day. For plain sewing we will allow her but seventy-five cents, scarcely enough to pay her board in an Irish tenement, and yet few of us will pretend to accomplish as much as she does, since, even if we would, our countless interruptions and distractions prevent us. If, then, we value so low the continuous toil of our sewing-women, what should we be willing to pay for our own fitful industry ? It would indeed be curious to know what one lady would give another for the actual labor performed between Monday morning and Saturday night, and yet even this little we are losing. Hitherto men have allowed us at least to make up, if we would, the fabrics they sell us. But this last corner of our once royal feminine domain they are determined now to wrest from us. They have invented the sewing-machine, and already it takes from us not far from five hundred million dollars’ worth of sewing annually. Our husbands are clothed entirely from the shops, and in all the large dry-goods firms they have marshalled the pale armies of sewing-girls to ply the wheel from morning till night in the production of ready-made garments for feminine wear also. Those who set the fashions are in their league, and help them to put down private competition by making the designs more and more complicated and artificial, so that professionals only can perfectly execute them, while they have so multiplied the " necessary ” articles of dress and housekeeping, and so raised the standard of their adornment, that no woman who does all her own sewing can do anything else. Glad and almost forced to save ourselves time and trouble, we purchase at our husband’s expense, as usual, and put not only the profit of the cloth into the pocket of the store-keeper, but the profit also that he has made on the wretched wages of his seamstresses. Meantime, our daughters are scarcely taught sewing at all, and in fifty years the needle will be wellnigh as obsolete as the spinning-wheel.
MASCULINE PREJUDICES ON THIS SUBJECT.
One might think that men would reflect on what they have done by their machinery in thus degrading women from the honorable rank of manufacturing producers into the dependent position of unproductive consumers, and, seeing the exhaustive drain that such an army of expensive idlers must inevitably be upon society, that they would be glad to encourage them in every way to find new paths for their energies that might replace the old. Instead of this, however, they all by common consent frown on our attempts to support ourselves, or on our being anything whatever but “wives and mothers.” The egotism of the French king who said to his subjects, “ I am the state,” is far surpassed by that of educated gentlemen toward the ladies of their families, — “ Be contented at home with what I can give you,” say they all,—which, translated, means, — “ As far as you are concerned, I am the universe, and whatever portion of it you cannot find in me, or in the four walls wherewith I shelter you, you must do without,” and they manage very adroitly to keep the feminine aspirations within these bounds without appearing to exercise any coercion whatever. Does a young girl love study or charity or art better than dress or dancing ? The young men simply neglect her, and she is deprived of social enjoyment. Has a wife an eager desire to energize and perfect some gift of which she is conscious, her husband “will not oppose it,” but he is sure that she will fail in her attempt, or is uneasy lest she make herself conspicuous and neglect her housekeeping. Or if a daughter wishes to go out into the world from the narrow duties and stifling air of her father’s house, and earn a living there by some talent for which she is remarkable, he “ will not forbid her,” perhaps, but still he thinks her unnatural, discontented, ambitious, unfeminine ; her relatives take their tone from him ; nobody gives her a helping hand; so that if she accomplish anything it is against the pressure — to her gigantic — of all that constitutes her world. If her strength and courage fail under the disapproval, they rejoice at the discomfiture which compels her to become what they call a “ sensible woman.”
CONSEQUENCES OF THIS PREJUDICE.
Thus the strongest influence in the feminine life, the masculine, combines with our own timidity and self-distrust to make us cherish the false and base theory that women always have been, always will be, and always ought to be, supported by the men; and hence the perfect good faith with which even the noblest women trifle away their time in shopping, visiting, embroidering, ruffling, tucking, and frilling, and spend without scruple on dress and furniture, pleasure and superficial culture, all the money that their husbands will allow them. From early girlhood we are told that “to please is our vocation, — not to act ”; and so we have come to believe and to live as though personal adornment were our only legitimate ambition, personal vanity our only legitimate passion.
In England and France, owing to the multitude of trained servants, and their low rate of wages, the baleful work seems completely accomplished of rendering the educated part of the sex, from the princess to the shop-keeper’s daughter, thoroughly useless.3 And having driven every noble ambition out of women’s minds, and crowded them all into the narrow arena of social competition, the lords of creation are turning round upon the victims of their own encroachment and selfishness with the most frightful abuse. It is horrible to read that article in the Saturday Review called Foolish Virgins ; and malicious satire or contemptuous rage against the sex seem to be the only utterances possible to a formidable portion of the most brilliant writers of Europe. Judging from the newspapers and reviews, however, the practical position of European gentlemen toward women is greater wrong and contumely still. Men, by the forces and influences themselves have put in motion, have made women vain, they have made them frivolous, they have made them extravagant, they have made them burdens to society, and now they are repudiating them.4 “ Unless you possess a fortune that will support you, we will not have you. The perquisites and privileges of wifehood are too great for such expensive fools. We prefer to take mistresses from the humbler walks of life, who will be less exacting.” Such is said to be the tone and practice cf large classes of men both in France and in “ Christian England”; to-day, over a million of the marriageable ladies of the latter country are living in enforced celibacy, while for every one so deprived of her birthright of wifehood, some girl in a lower rank is given over to dishonor.
Thus the evil takes root frightfully downward and spreads correspondingly upward, Nor is it with us, even, a thing of the future. It is here among ourselves. The respect and deference so long accorded by American men to their countrywomen is perceptibly on the wane. It is an inheritance which came down to us from the religious devotion, courage, and industry of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers who encountered with true feminine fidelity the perils of wilderness and war by the side of the fathers of the nation.5 But like every other inheritance it must be kept up by effort similar to that which created it, or it will be lost forever to us as it seems now to be lost to the women of India, of Greece, of Rome, of Gaul, of Germany, of England, who can be proved to have once possessed it proportionally with ourselves, and from the same causes, — the virtue and high spirit of the primitive maidens and wives of each nation. As they emerged from barbarism into civilization, however, all of them in turn have made the fatal mistake of trying to fashion themselves after the wayward masculine fancy, instead of striving to be true to the eternal feminine ideal, and hence in the end they have largely become but slaves and panders to masculine passion. God gave unto woman grace and fascination wherewith to allure man, her natural enemy, into her homage and allegiance, but these alone cannot suffice to keep him there. Feeble and suffering as she often is, for this the very highest qualities of human and of feminine nature are necessary; and there is now too much in the lives of American women that is false both to God and to womanhood to cause any surprise should men waver in their loyalty. That they are thus wavering, the unrebuked and increasing immorality of the young men, their selfish luxury, their later marriages, the thinly veiled sarcasms of the press, the licentious spectacles of the stage, all proclaim loudly enough. The English club-house, stronghold of intensest egotism, built of women’s hearts and cemented with their tears, — the living tomb of love, — is beginning to rise against us all over the land ; so that, utterly excluded as we are from their business and their politics, men may shut us out also from their pleasures and their society, and even from their hearts, — for club - men, as is well known, easily dispense with matrimony. In short, all the signs of the time are against us, and the question simply is, Shall we float blindly down the current of unearned luxury and busy idleness, as our Asiatic and European sisters have done, until we find ourselves, like them, valued principally for our bodies? or shall we determine by earnest effort to keep at least the relative positions with which the sexes started in the American wilderness,— to catch up quickly with our winged-footed brother, and render ourselves so dear, so indispensable to him, that he not only cannot, but would not, leave us behind ?
If this latter, what then is the real root of the matter ?
It is that the times are changed and women are changed, but the Old World masculine and feminine prejudices and conventionalities have not changed with them. Because women once found an ample sphere and an absorbing vocation within the walls of their homes, it is believed that they can find them there still, though that vocation has been taken almost entirely away, and to their larger mental growth that sphere is narrowing fearfully round them. A great revolution has come about inwardly in ourselves and outwardly in our surroundings, but we have not attempted any adjustment of the new conditions. Hence society has lost its balance, and everything is dislocated. There is no well-ordered and comfortable arrangement for us, no definite and necessary work at once suited to our taste and commensurate with our ability. The favorite theory of our nature and destiny, and the one on which the current unsystem of feminine education is principally based, is that “a true woman” should be a harmonious mélange of everything in general and nothing in particular, — a sort of dissolving view, which at the least adverse criticism from the masculine spectator can softly melt into something exactly sympathetic with his particular requirements. Social opinion hardly leaves one a choice between eccentricity and triviality. Thus every year it is harder for thoughtful and earnest women to find their true places in life, and half the time they are discouraged, and wonder what they were made for.
A PROTEST AND A SEARCH.
For one, I say that this state of things is no longer to be endured. There must be some work in the world for educated women ! Why, then, do we not search for it day and night until we find i t ?
Ah, if the finding it were all, we should not have very far to look ; for let us consider only the three great types of production before mentioned, .— agricultural production, manufacturing production, and distributing production.
It is evident that the first of these affords no sphere for educated, nor indeed for any women. Out-of-door labor, except a little of the least and lightest, — gardening, — destroys womanly beauty and delicate proportions, and with these the very essence of the feminine idea. Not brawny strength, but subtile grace, harmony, and skill, contain the secret of our influence; and hence, in those countries where women work in the fields, they are observed to receive but little masculine respect and consideration.
The second type of production, though once our own, ought also to be out of the question; for though all women who sew are in so far manufacturing producers, yet, as sewing cannot possibly employ the higher faculties of the mind, for an educated woman to make herself a factory operative or a seamstress is as great a waste as if an educated man were to devote his life to digging or wood-sawing. The most precious labor to society is brain labor, because thought alone can energize matter and muscle, and wield the forces of nature for the increase of human comfort and happiness. The man or woman, therefore, who from talent or education is capable of giving brain labor to the world, and chooses instead to give the muscular or manual labor that ignorant persons can perform equally well, robs society of the thought-power that it needs, and the great unthinking mass of the only work that it can do. Educated women, then, should seek to produce, not with their hands, but with their heads, by the better organization of the millions of ignorant women who are already manufacturing producers,— the factory operatives, seamstresses, and servants of the civilized world. It should be a social axiom, that, wherever women work, there certainly is a feminine sphere ; and in accordance with this idea all the feminine productions of the farm — butter, cheese, the canning, preserving, and pickling of fruits and vegetables, and the making of domestic wines — should appropriately be superintended by women, because women are the workers. The same is true of sewing in every department, and also of much of the spinning and weaving in the large mills. The melancholy deterioration observable in the women operatives of England and the Continent could never have taken place if the refined and Christian wives and daughters of the mill-owners had, from the beginning of the system, watched over the moral and physical welfare of these poor workers as they should have done ; moving among their roaring looms and spindles, a beneficent presence of wise and tender charity, and weaving bright glimpses of comfort and a golden thread of beauty in the sordid pattern of their toilsome lives. But educated women have at present no capital wherewith to start farms or manufacturing enterprises, nor money to buy stock in those already established, sufficient to enable them to gain any control over the management of the operatives ; and so manufacturing, like agricultural production, is, for the moment, out of our reach.
DISTRIBUTING PRODUCTION LOOKS MORE ENCOURAGING.
We need not fold our hands, however, nor devote them to the futilities of worsted work, because into two of the great armies of the world’s wealth-makers we can find no admittance. That division of productive labor which consists in direct distribution to the consumer will afford "ample room and verge enough” for the energies and powers of most of us, if we only have spirit to undertake it. The RETAIL TRADE of the world is, in my opinion, and at this present stage of its progress, the true and fitting feminine sphere, the only possible function open whereby the mass of educated women may cease from being burdens to society, may become profitable to themselves and to their families, and, above all, helpful to the great host of womenworkers beneath them, whom now their vast superincumbent weight crushes daily more hopelessly to the earth.
ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST THIS SOLUTION OF THE DIFFICULTY.
“ The retail trade!” I think I hear the two millions of American ladies protesting with one voice, “why, even in the country, the wives and daughters of the village shop-keepers think it beneath them to stand behind the counter, and are those of our city merchants, of our professional men, to condescend to the sordid employment ? ”
Yes, and for various reasons.
1st. There is nothing else that we can do.
2d. It requires much conscientiousness, accuracy, tact, taste, and prudence, — .all eminently feminine characteristics.
3d. It is a peculiarly feminine employment because it needs little physical strength, and because the immense majority of retail purchasers are women.
4th. It now withdraws from the true fields of masculine effort an immense number of men who would otherwise be forced to add to the supplies and wealth of the community by agricultural and other productive enterprises. Thus the community loses enormously in two ways : it is deprived, on the one hand, of an army of producers (the retail merchants and their clerks) ; and on the other it has to support an army of unproductive consumers, — the women who might, but do not, carry on the retail trade.
5th. While it is a vocation wholly suited to women, it is just in so far improper for men, taking them from their natural vocations, herding them together in towns and cities where they live unmarried on small salaries, shrink physically and mentally amid their effeminate surroundings, and degenerate morally through the lying and cheating they unblushingly practise, and the dissipation that is often the only excitement of their vacant hours.
Finally, it is to be remembered that by so much as we pay the retail traders and their clerks for doing expensively what we could do cheaply, by so much we deprive ourselves and our families of the comforts and luxuries of life and of its higher influences and pleasures as connected with education, with art, and with beneficence. Why can many of us not have the beautiful dresses and surroundings that our fastidious taste longs for ? Because we cannot earn them. Why are the colleges shut against us ? Because we cannot knock at their doors with half a million in our hands. Why do the churches and charities that we love languish ? Because we have no means of our own wherewith to sustain them. Why are working-women only paid half as much as working-men ? Because it is impossible for men to furnish the whole support of one half the feminine community and pay the industrial half justly too. Why is our vote a matter of contempt and indifference to the country? Because we are poor, dependent on our fathers and husbands for food and shelter, and our vote, therefore, could represent neither physical strength nor money, — the two “ powers behind the throne ” that uphold all governments, and the only two that give the vote its value or even its meaning. I am not one of those who desire “ manhood suffrage ” for women, but I confess I am painfully impressed with the impotence and insignificance of my sex, when I see that “laughter” is all that generally greets the discussion of its enfranchisement, even in the graver hall of Congress !
If now there are any out of our two million "ladies” who are convinced from these reasons that it would be well if they could carry on the retail trade of the country, it is probable that several difficulties will present themselves to their minds as tending to make the thing impossible : —
1st. The want of capital wherewith to start retail stores ;
2d. The want of time, for daily household duties, trifling as they individually are, would wholly interfere with business ;
3d. The social prejudice, felt equally by both sexes, against women’s publicly engaging in trade, even if in its present demoralized state it were desirable that they should do so.
WHERE THERE IS A WILL THERE IS A WAY.
There is only one method of overcoming these objections, and of making the transition at once practicable and agreeable.
This method is by an entire reorganization of the domestic interior on the basis of the great modern idea of Co-operation, — in short, by CO-OPERATIVE HOUSEKEEPING.
THE ROCHDALE EQUITABLE PIONEERS.
Nearly all the world now knows the story of the twelve poor weavers of Rochdale, England, who twenty-four years ago met together to consult how they might better their wretched condition. Their wages were low, provisions were extravagantly high and adulterated besides. One man thought that voting was what they needed to right them,— another, that strikes would do it, and still other theories were propounded, when one immortal genius of common sense suggested that they should not strive for what might be out of their reach, but simply try to make a better use of what they had. They decided to pay each twenty pence a week into a common stock, until they got enough to buy a few necessary groceries at wholesale. It took them nearly a year, and then they elected one of their number as clerk, and opened the first co-operative store. Their stock in trade consisted only of about seventy-five dollars' worth of flour, sugar, and butter. Their plan was, First, to sell to each other and to outsiders at the usual retail prices, but to give a good article. Second, to sell only for cash down. Third, to make a quarterly dividend of the clear profits to the subscribing members, or stockholders of the association, the share of profit being determined in each case by the amount the stockholder or his family purchased at the co-operative store. Thus, whatever a man’s household consumed, whether much or little, he got back the third that would otherwise have gone to enrich some cheating grocer. Co-operative stores and societies of all kinds have been started in many parts of Europe, and are springing up in this country also in every direction ; but this one of the “ Rochdale Equitable Pioneers,” as they called themselves, still stands at the head of the movement, and is the most signal instance of its success. Its stockholders now number six or seven thousand, its capital is over a million of dollars, and the yearly profits of its business between three and four hundred thousand ; it has clothing, dry goods, and shoe stores, as well as groceries and butcher-shops; it carries on a farm, a cotton-factory, a corn-mill, a building society, a life-insurance and burial society ; it owns a reading-room, and a library ; it has lately taken a conspicuous part in the public improvements of the town of Rochdale, and as its proudest monument can point to a whole community raised in morals and intelligence no less than in comfort.
THE WEAK SIDE OF CO-OPERATIVE STORES, AND ITS CAUSE.
But there is another side to the picture. The opponents of the movement can tell us of many co-operative stores and associations that have failed. The members have lost their interest; their agents and clerks have been dishonest, careless, incapable, etc. But this is not surprising. The only reason that retail traders find business at all is, that they save the working community trouble by collecting, from the different places where they are produced, the silks, woollens, cottons, the meats, vegetables, and grains, that it needs for its food and clothing. If the retail trader, either singly or in league with the manufacturer, adulterate his goods, or if he make an intolerable profit upon them, the community, as in the case of the Rochdale Pioneers, may combine against him and supersede him. But the attempt is contrary to the modern idea of the division of labor. The men who compose the working community have each their particular craft or profession to attend to. One is a carpenter, another a doctor, etc. To organize and look after a co-operative store is, in fact, to undertake another business, and most men would rather pay the difference than be distracted from their own pursuits, and have the trouble of thinking about it. Thus, I think, that, in the long run, co-operative store-keeping will fail, and things come round again to just where they are now, unless cooperative housekeeping steps in to take its place, and to carry the idea to complete and noble fulfilment. Our husbands and fathers are already overworked in this mad American rush of ours. They cannot stop, too, to mend the holes made in their pockets by the relentless family expenses. But the wives and daughters, who enjoy the fruits of their thought and toil, can do it for them most daintily, if they will only lay their white hands together, and give to it a few hours of every day.
How this can be done I shall submit to the judgment of practical women in the next number of the Atlantic.
- In those days it was not “ unfeminine ” to heal the sick. ↩
- I endeavor to follow Mr. Mill here. ↩
- See Miss Ingelow’s story of “ Laura Richmond,” where it is kept as a profound family secret, and felt as a family disgrace, that one of the daughters of a village widow lady, on the diminution of her mother’s income, should choose to take care of the silver and glass and china, and to clear-starch her own and her sister’s muslins, rather than go out as a governess. One does not wonder that the authoress rewards such astonishing virtue with a rich husband, when it is impossible to discover from their novels what Englishwomen are born for except to sketch, play croquet. ride, drive, dress for dinner, and read to the poor, ↩
- See the opening chapter of Michelet’s lamentable book “ La Femme.” ↩
- As an example, read the heroic history of Mary Nealy in Harper’s Monthly for February, 1868. ↩