Women in Industry


IN all the animal world one can hardly find a place where orderly effort, planned to secure some future advantage, does not appear. Getting food, defending life, and caring for offspring, have all combined to drive not only the descendants of Adam, but his ancestors as well, to sweat-producing effort. Of course this is not definitely planned by the workers; getting food often waits on appetite; defense is sometimes merely running away; and the young are frequently left to feed themselves or die. But the fact remains that in digging burrows, building nests, laying up honey and nuts, and in protecting and providing for the young, a vast deal of effort is put forth in forest and field which is not immediately productive of pleasure.

This work is seldom shared equally by all the members of the group. With bees, the drones and the queen alike are exempt from work, and an asexual group has been developed to feed and protect them. Some ants compel others to do their work; and everywhere there seem to be individuals who are constitutionally lazy, and others who, because of strength or sex-attractiveness, are able to get more than their share of food and protection with less than their share of effort.

From the first, some division of work between male and female grows almost inevitably out of their different relations to reproduction. Following conception, the male can always run away and leave the female to feed and fight for herself and her offspring, and he is very prone to do so. Even when he stays by and shares in the joy of the newly-born, he generally leaves the female to get ready the nest, and for the most part she protects and provisions it.

Among domesticated animals, where their working possibilities have been very highly developed, females are much more desirable workers than males. The maternal function partly explains this, as in the case of cows and hens, which give us milk and eggs; and even with mares and sheep the offspring adds to the general working value. Still, it seems to be true that, even for purposes of draught, the males are of less value than the females, unless reduced to the non-sexual condition of geldings and oxen. The stallion, bull, or ram is too katabolic, too much of a consuming, distributing, destroying force, to be very valuable in the daily routine of agriculture or commerce. While the female is generally smaller and less powerful than the male, she is quiet, easily enslaved; and, as we have said, her maternal functions can be diverted to our daily use. She produces more workers, and her flesh is more palatable, because less distinctive, than that of the male. Hence, among domesticated animals, selection based on considerations of work multiplies females and keeps males only for breeding purposes.

As a quadruped, the female suffers very little handicap from the functions peculiar to her sex, except when actually carrying her young or nursing them. When she stands erect, however, the support for the special organs of reproduction is far from ideal; heavy lifting, or long-continued standing, often leads to disaster; and the periodic functions, even in the healthiest conditions, must always place women at a working disadvantage as compared with men. Add to this the fact that women are smaller, less agile, and far less strong, than men, and even when not encumbered with young it is clear that a woman when confronting physical work in competition with men needs something more than a fair field and free competition. Idealists and travelers among primitive people love to tell us how easily women meet their special functions: carrying burdens equal to those carried by men, when on the march, and dropping out from the caravan for only a few hours to give birth to a child; but the fact remains that women in all primitive societies age quickly, and that those who are spoiled are thrown aside and forgotten. Woman’s handicap as a working animal in competition with man is too obvious and too deep-seated to be idealized away.

In all savage societies work is clearly specialized between the sexes. The man, because of his superior strength and mobility, fights, hunts, and makes weapons of the chase. The woman fetches and carries, digs and delves, cures the meat, makes the rude huts, clothing, and pottery. Gradually she changes wild grasses to domesticated plants, and rears the young animals brought home from the chase till they follow and serve their human masters. She is truly the mother of industries, and it in no way detracts from her credit, that her motherhood is here, as elsewhere, mainly unthinking.

With the exhaustion of the supply of wild animals, man is forced to turn his attention to the world of vegetation, and he takes over the direction of the plants and animals which woman has largely domesticated. In his career as fighter and hunter he has learned to coöperate with his fellows to a degree which aids him greatly in dividing the arable land, protecting his crops, and using grazing lands in common with the tribe. He has also learned to make stone hatchets, spears, and bows and arrows. Woman has not felt the same necessity to invent in her work; such new tools as she has devised have been helpful; but men who could not invent have been wiped out by those who learned to make stronger spears or better arrow-heads.

It is the same difference in adaptability which one observes to-day between the farmers on the western frontier of America and those who remain in their peasant homes in Europe. The peasant has even greater need of inventing than has his expatriated countryman in Colorado, but he lacks the driving impulse. It was the same with women and men under the conditions of savage life. Thus it came about that man’s greater strength and mobility, backed by power of coöperation and invention, gave him the leadership in such primitive life as we find depicted in the pages of Homer, or in the epic of the Jews. True, woman was his first lieutenant, but he spoke for her in most of the larger matters of the industrial life.

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. Meanwhile, 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 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 wait 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.


Meanwhile the forces had long been 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 farmhouses 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, spinningjennies, and a thousand other machines driven by steam or water-power, which have changed the civilization of Europe and America. Miss Edith Abbott has shown us how this change, involving increasing segregation and specialization, came into America even in the pre-Revolutionary time.

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 is done in the packing-house, the canning establishment, the bakery, and the delicatessen store. These industries needed hands, therefore the women followed them to the factories.

As 1870 marks the beginning of higher education for woman, 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, created a demand for many 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 are fitted to meet these requirements.

The increased cost of living, the lessened demands for labor in the home, and the attractions of the pay envelope, have called millions to work in industrial plants. In 1890 there were 4,005,532 wage-earning women in the United States; in 1900,5,319,397; while in 1910, we had probably 8,000,000 independent working women.

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 payslips, or the failures fell out of sight, and so the next week and the years followed. Country populations moved away; cities grew enormously, their growth 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 which are occupied during the day only by the young and the infirm.

The children of all ages at first 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. Schools, play-grounds, day-nurseries, institutional churches, college settlements, and public social centres, now bid against the streets, 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 schoolmistresses 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, where family clothing is made, and the family baking done. Practically, of course, our children are educated chiefly outside the schools, and under these conditions 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 was likely to discourage enterprise or frighten away capital. Like almost all 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 not only asking for a fairer division of the profits of work, but we are also inquiring what occupations are unfit for women in view of 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 sacrifices, as they did in the shirtwaist-makers’ strike in New York in 1908, which has commanded the admiration of all fair-minded observers. The more fortunately placed women have assisted these movements toward self-betterment, and through the instrumentality of such organizations as the Consumers’ League they have compelled manufacturers and shopkeepers to observe more reasonable hours, to pay better wages, and to 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 makes 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 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 always degenerate. For themselves, and for the sake of their children, they will demand a chance to live abundantly; and much of human living must always be through work. It is also clear that our present chaotic, unreasoned conditions are destructive of health, happy marriages, effective homes, and of that 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 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 that she makes in factories, or sells in stores, or wears, and that to put a workingwoman on the scrap-heap is worse than to throw aside needlessly 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. It is better that we should have 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 on 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. Education in 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 or for convents, but for work, and therefore well-graded and interesting manual training should run through all these years and should furnish a well-developed base for later special preparation of some kind. In the second place, the girls should be taught by men and women, married and unmarried; and the highest ideals of actual womanhood, not alone in shops and factories, in schoolrooms 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 devote 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 myself, 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 Gnauch-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 confronts these same experiences, but they do not affect his work as they affect the work of women. Surely there can be no doubt that the ideal termination of this period is a marriage in which a man and woman are so deeply bound together by love that there is no question of self-protection in terms either of work or of money; and the man, being freed from the burdens of maternity, should mainly earn the income.

We need also to determine, by careful study and experiment, the kinds of work that are specially fitted to women’s gifts and limitations. The specialization so rapidly going on in industry means infinite variety if we look at the whole field of human activity. No intelligent division of labor, from the point of view of the special qualities of men and women, has been attempted in the period since all work was transformed by our modern inventions. Possibly men should do most of the dress-making, and women should make men’s clothing; but no intelligent, man or woman can doubt that most work falls naturally into the hands of one sex or the other. Some day we shall know enough so that there will be little or no industrial competition between men and women.


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 20 to 35, one half are married; but it is only from 35 to 55 that as many as three fourths are married; over 55 there are less than one half married, and most of them are widows. The majority of the 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. As we have said, 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 of it. 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 must also work between the ages of twenty-five and fifty, 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 withdraw 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 shopor factory-work during the last months before childbirth, 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 continuous work even if it does not interfere with her effectiveness as a milk-producer.

The question of maternal care for children after they are weaned is more difficult to settle, but notwithstanding certain statistics gathered in Birmingham in February, 1910, which showed that infant mortality among working mothers was one hundred and ninety per thousand, while among those not industrially employed it was two hundred and seventy per thousand, it seems certain that infant mortality is extremely high in foundling asylums and in factory homes. In Fall River, where out of every one hundred women forty-five are at work, three hundred and five babies out of every one thousand born die before they are a year old; while even in New York City but one hundred and eighty-nine out of a thousand die. The natural location of Fall River should make it a very healthy city. One remembers, too, the classic statements that in Lancashire, the home of women factory-workers, deaths among little children fell off steadily during the six months’ strike in 1853, as they did in Paris during the four months’ siege of 1870-71. Little children seem better off in time of war with the mother at home, than in time of peace with the mother in the factory.

All logic breaks down in the presence of growing things, as inexperienced city farmers and chicken-growers know. Little children need love and constant personal adjustments. Love does for them what sunshine does for plants; it is an indispensable condition of good growth for minds and feelings. So, too, the social instinct, being among the earliest and most important of our powers to develop, needs constant personal adjustment as the condition of its best growth and realization. Nine hundred and ninety-nine mothers out of a thousand give these conditions to their babies, while the best-trained and most sanitary nurse cannot secrete love for several children any more than one mother can secrete milk for a group of children. It is not a matter of good-will; it is a matter of human limitations.

A few years ago we turned to pasteurized milk and other prepared baby foods as the solution for unhygienic feeding of infants; to-day we know that even a dirty and ill-conditioned mother secretes better milk for her baby than can be bought 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 talk of ignorant mother-love and of the necessary substitution of sanitary nurseries, canned care, and pre-digested affection, must go the same way. We shall probably get better 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 whether 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 own house, in addition to her factory-work, the burden is too great; and if the 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.

The only way to secure absolute economic independence is for the state to subsidize all motherhood. This seems a reasonable thing to do, but in that case let the subsidy be paid directly to the mother for the whole unproductive period of the child’s life. Already some of our states are considering a pension for widows, regulated by the number of dependent children; and this principle once admitted will be easily expanded.

Surely the ideal toward which we must work is that the mother, during the period when she is bearing and rearing children, should be supported by the father of her children, or by the state, doing the work meanwhile 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 of woman’s life, from fifty to seventy-five years, is now more shamefully wasted than any other of our national resources. If one visits a state federation of women’s clubs, he 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, the relations which they maintain to life are such irregular and uncertain ones as inhere in the careers of 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. Even debarred from real 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 case 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 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 prejudices, so that we may secure these best years of her life for private and public service. And meanwhile, it is well to remember that every step we take in making this a fit world for woman to live in, makes it a fit world for her father, her brothers, her children, and her husband.