The Economic Independence of Women


NOWHERE does a human being escape compulsion. Even were he alone in the world, he would be forced to obey the physical laws governing gravity, heat, cold, hunger, and disease. No matter what his desires might be, he would find himself limited and constrained by fixed laws, the inexorable penalties of which he could escape only by obedience. If the man were not alone, then each one of his companions would limit his freedom, and he would limit each one in the group, if they were to live together in peace and efficiency; and yet, each of the man’s companions would help to free him from the tyranny of physical forces, even from the bondage of his own nature.

Independence is thus an ideal to be achieved only through obedience. It begins in self-subordination and reaches its finest realization in social subordination. Since the beginning of time, men who thought have always dreamed of freedom; and during the past two hundred years, independence has been a word to conjure with. In so far as independence means freedom to follow one’s own unregulated desires, it is a fantastic and dangerous dream; and yet this dream has been among the greatest influences in furthering human development in the past.

The old-time dependence of one individual on the immediate caprices of another largely disappeared with the passing of slavery. But in place of this personal subjection has come a more complex and, in some ways, more compelling control through the monopoly of wealth. Property has become the medium through which the most binding of human relations are organized. Accumulated wealth has become a great reservoir of power, to which some individuals gain access through rights of birth, others through carefully-guarded privileges, and still others through cunning devices or through force. But the masses of ihe people must gain their fragments of (bis wealth through arduous life-long labor. Even the earth is parceled out, and all of it is now owned by individuals or groups who control it in their own interests. One man may thus have thousands of acres which he cannot use, and will not allow others to use, while another has not where to lay his head.

Laws jealously guard this wealth, which is the key to all opportunity; and public opinion, that most subtle, pervasive, and compelling of all forms of law, gathers a thousand sacred, initiations, rites, ceremonies, prohibitions, and excommunications round it. A man who beats his fellow into insensibility and sends him to the hospital for a month may be less punished by the law than one who signs the wrong name to a check for five dollars. It is also true that a man who has killed his neighbor, but has escaped the punishment of the law through a technicality, or one who has ruined bis friend’s family, may be less punished by society than one who cheats at cards.

In primitive life, a man can be a man, and have a man’s opportunities, only by virtue of what he is; to-day he may have all the rights and privileges of any man by virtue of what he possesses. In any of our communities can be found strong and honest men who, through misfortune, are begging bread and wasting their lives for want of money to live decently. And, beside these, one sees other men of weak physique and feeble minds, who have lived as parasites on society all their lives, but who arc handsomely dressed, well-fed, and possessed of power to do as they will, simply because they have access to wealth. It is no wonder that if one would seek freedom to-day in America he must look for her image on a gold coin.

It is not difficult to see why property has become such a powerful instrument in civilization. Anything which a person really owns, in a psychological sense, is a home for his soul. Really owning an object — a toy, a garment, a watch, or a home — means infusing one’s personality into it. A man who possesses significant things has a new body through which his soul can work; this body trains his powers; and it should give him life more abundantly. A landless man must in time become a soulless man. Of course, we are not here speaking of legal ownership. Many people own things legally into which they have never infused themselves; sometimes they have more things than any individual could possibly infuse himself into.

These conditions may prevail to some extent even in primitive life, but to-day they have been vastly increased through the fact that, with advancing civilization, money was devised. This is a system of counters, generally coin or paper, not really very valuable in themselves, but always resting back for value on the earth, or on something derived from it. In the past it was supposed that there were some things which, because of their nature, were not marketable, while others were beyond price. To-day we set values on everything, even on men’s bodies: eyes, ears, legs, and lives can now be priced. There are, in fact, insurance companies and factories that have regular schedules of value for various parts of the body. Our courts set prices on blighted affections, damaged reputations, social advancements, impaired digestions, damaged complexions, nervous shocks, and extreme humiliations. Even a woman’s honor may have a price in dollars.

These property rights, like the rights of the person, have always been subject to violence. Powerful individuals and groups have always been able to overstep legal restrictions and public opinion and seize what they desired. The land-grabbing going on in North Africa and Persia to-day, and the activity of great industrial monopolies at home, show us that some property rights still need to be secured by force. In this struggle, it has come about naturally that men, being stronger, freer, and less scrupulous than women, have outstripped them and have so far had a pretty complete monopoly of wealth. In fact, women themselves have at times become property. At such times, a man who stole or bought a woman naturally took over with her possession all her rights in real estate and personal property, as well as her person and her services.


Only gradually did women gain power to hold property themselves. Mainly because fathers wished to preserve property in their famines, the right of women to inherit became slowly established as civilization advanced. In Judea, Greece, and Rome, certain rights of a woman to hold property were clearly settled. In the reversion to force under feudalism, woman’s rights to outside property suffered; but they have been gradually restored during the last few centuries. To-day, in civilized lands, a woman’s rights to property inherited, or definitely given her, or purchased by her, are everywhere recognized, if she does not marry. In France, and in other Latin countries, she may still lose control of her property if she takes a husband; but in northern and western lands, even a married woman may retain her possessions.

Woman’s body, too, is increasingly looked upon as her personal property. With the raising of the age of consent, with increasing severity in laws punishing rape, and with the abrogation of judicial orders for the restitution of marital rights, it is now pretty generally recognized that a woman should have the right to control her own person. Still, in many lands there is much to be done before this right is fully safeguarded.

Where a woman has not yet achieved economic freedom is in the disposal of her labor. One must remember, however, in this connection, that not only is there no fixed standard of values in human service as yet, but that many indispensable forms of service have not even been legally recognized as valuable. In early forms of civilization, fighting and praying were considered the most important work the community profited by, and so warriors and priests gained the big rewards. They received lands, gold, servants, and dignities; while industrial workers, even the directors, were despised. To-day we have reversed all this; and we may pay a general only five thousand dollars a year, and a priest eight hundred dollars, while a man who develops a big industry may receive a hundred thousand dollars annually. Again, a man who invents a new gun may be given a fortune, like that of Herr Krupp, while a man who invents a surgical instrument is prevented by the ethics of his profession from even patenting it. If Pasteur had been paid for his services to France and to humanity, he would have ranked in the financial world at least with Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Schwab. We pay a professor of ethics in a university three thousand dollars a year; but Miss Jane Addams, as instructor in ethics to the United States, receives no salary; and she must even beg the money to maintain her laboratory at Hull House.

The whole question of payment for services is in a chaotic condition. Those who serve mankind most faithfully are rewarded on the principle, ‘From each according to his ability’; but nowhere is the remainder of the principle, ‘To each according to his needs,’ recognized. Hence our greatest servants must still beg support from our cleverest exploiters; and we must look to Mr. Carnegie or to Mr. Rockefeller to endow research.

Domestic service is indispensable to society, but it has so far remained in the field of semi-slavery and uncertain barter; in a word, it is still in the feudal si age. The woman gives what she is and has, and nominally she gets protection and support. Sometimes these fail and, on the other hand, she occasionally receives the unearned gifts supposed to befit a potentate or a shrine. As women become educated, they find this condition of uncertainty and instability unbearable. They are willing to work, but they must have a chance to think and to plan their lives according to their individual needs. Some degree of economic independence is necessary to intelligent thinking and orderly living. It is not that women are demanding more property; they are demanding some definite individual property as a home for their souls; and they are coming to realize that if this property rests on some one else’s feelings and caprices it is no home for the soul: it is only a tavern.

This conception is well illustrated by the case of a woman in the western part of New York State who married about 1850 and went to live on a farm with her husband. They had little means, but she brought seven hundred dollars to the altar, which was more than he possessed in ready capital. Her part was, however, soon swallowed up in the general business, and while there was a tacit agreement, voiced at long intervals, that she had put something into the business, her part never increased, though the man with whom she worked grew well-to-do. Certain feudal rights in the butter the woman made, and in the chickens she raised, yielded her small sums, which often escaped her; but what she secured she put into a few silver spoons and dishes for her table, a square of Brussels carpet, three lace curtains, a marble-topped stand, and six horsehair-covered chairs for her parlor. These things were considered in a very special sense her own. The man might have sold them and used the money; but public opinion would have condemned him had he done so.

Meantime, the woman cooked for the family and the hired men, scrubbed and washed and mended. She strained and skimmed the milk from a dozen cows, and churned the butter; she fed the calves, cared for the hens, dug in the garden, gathered the vegetables, did the family sewing, and stole fragments of time for her flower-beds. Her hours were from five in the morning until nine at night, three hundred and sixty-five days in the year, with no half-days or Sundays off.

Incidentally she read her Bible, maintained religious exercises in the village, kept the church clean, and provided it with a carpet by methods of indirection. She upheld a moral standard toward which men only weakly struggled; hunted down and drove away all other women who refused equal service to their lords; ministered to the neighboring sick; and doled out alms in winter-time. Her home was a social and industrial microcosm which she conducted as a feudal holding under the protection of her lord. It would be an interesting study to work out the rules of this feudal relation between husband and wife in any agricultural community, even to-day. They would be found as varied, as unjust and arbitrary, and as generous, as those of the old regime in France.

A woman in a home is supposed to furnish three kinds of service. She must be a housekeeper, a wife, and a mother. As housekeeper, her services can be estimated in current values running from three to twenty-five dollars a week, with board and lodging. The other two kinds of service have never been reduced to monetary values.

As a wife, a woman is supposed to give to her husband her love, her person, sympathy, inspiration, personal care, the latter including attention to his clothes, to his relatives and friends, and general management of his social position and reputation. If she fills this position well, she is mistress, valet, confidential adviser, and public entertainer. Possibly these services can be estimated, except the first; and even here the divorce courts scale alienated affections all the way from five hundred to twenty-five thousand dollars, according to the appearance of the woman and the skill of contending lawyers.

As a mother, the woman is supposed to give children a good heritage, nurse them, care for them, doctor them, and train them. We have established values for these services as wet-nurse, nursemaid, governess, doctor, and teacher; but who can estimate a woman’s value in giving a child a good heritage?

It is no wonder that such a difficult problem has remained thus far unsolved. Here and there a man gives his wife a household allowance, from the money they earn in common, and she struggles to save from it some fragments for her individual needs. Others put their wives on a salary; and some others divide the income on a fractional basis. But the slightest study of existing conditions must convince any one that women are everywhere deeply dissatisfied with their economic relations to the family,


Meantime, economic changes have transformed our homes, and nearly eight million women have gone outside toearn money. Thegladness with which they have gone shows that they were not afraid to work; though at first the money did not belong to them but to their families. Almost everywhere in the United States the money they now earn is their own; only in Louisiana can the husband collect the wife’s wages. Any one who reads the masterly studies of the evil effects accompanying woman’s economic dependence, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and by Olive Schreiner, must feel how far-reaching is not only t he discontent, but also the evil influences, of our present system, through the emphasis of sex and the corruption of public thinking and feeling as to services and wages in general.

Yet no one can seriously approach this problem in his own person without feeling that the relations of husband and wife contain elements that not only make it impossible to resolve the woman’s service into money-values, but that would make it useless to do so even if it could be done. The most marked quality of love is its desire to give. Love that seeks to get is not love. If, when a woman has given herself, she tries to secure individual property, it will be only that she may give it to the man she loves. Marriage is a partnership of soul and body, and this includes property. It still remains true, however, that each must have in order that he may give. Besides, there are always outside obligations and special needs within the group that require individual properly for their realization.

In the past, the partnership of marriage has been incomplete on the property side; why not reorganize our law and our public opinion so that two people who establish a family, putting into it all they have, — and anything less than this is not a family, — shall pay out of the income the necessary family expenses and then divide all else between the partners, — that is between the husband and wife? No man should be contented with a wife who is not worth half of what he makes; and the same holds true of the woman. Property acquired before marriage, and all inherited property, might well be held by the individual, since it should never be a prize for prostitution, not even when euphemistically termed ‘a good home.’


The last two hundred years have revolutionized nearly all of our deepest conceptions concerning the relations of human beings to religion, government, property, and to one another. New knowledge has given us partial control over vast forces of nature, and has so increased mobility as almost to free us from limitations of space. We have had wonderful visions of the possibilities that lie in intelligent human cooperation, and have begun to realize them in a hundred new forms. In the midst of these compelling changes women could no more remain undisturbed, within the confines of kitchen and nursery, than men could remain on their little New England farms, or cobble shoes and make tin-pans in the petty shops of a century ago. But meanwhile the special interests of women have been sadly confused because of the larger changes in which all human relations have been involved in this time of readjustment. Instead of talking of ‘unquiet women’ to-day, we should talk of an unquiet world.

In the midst of this confusion, most of those who have sought to secure greater freedom and a truer relation of women to the life round them have worked on the lines of minimizing sex differences. It has been felt that the educational, industrial, social, and political limitations under which women rested were due to the desire of men to exploit them. Men, being economically free, had developed for themselves an ideal world of thought and work; and, if women wished to be free anti happy, they needed only to break down the barriers separating them from this man’s world.

Most of these barriers are now down; but the women who study in universities, teach in the schools, maintain offices as doctors or lawyers, collect news for the press, tend spindles in a factory, or sell ribbons at a counter, have found that the man’s world is far from ideal and that by entering it they have not escaped the special limitations of their sex. Everywhere the feeling is abroad that, instead of having arrived at a destination, women have embarked on a journey fraught with many uncertainties.

These articles have been written in the belief that men and women alike will achieve the greatest freedom and happiness, not by minimizing sex-differences, but by frankly recognizing them and using them. If we could reduce men and women to equality, we should destroy at least half the values of human life. They are not alike; but they are perfectly supplementary. The unit can never be a man or a woman; it must always be a man and a woman. This means that in all the activities essential to human development men and women must carefully study to find what each can best provide.

All the efforts to open the doors of opportunity, through which women can pass into the man’s world, are but preparations for the beginning of a journey. The sooner all such doors arc opened the better; then a great source of dangerous sex-antagonism will pass away; and the energy of reformers will be set free to solve the difficult problem of supplementary sex-adjustments.

And meanwhile sex remains the greatest mystery and the most powerful thing in human life. Its deeper values are lost sight of when men and women are warring over work, wages, and votes, just as the power of religion has been lost when priests and laity sought to advance their meanly selfish interests. But in the great crises of life it always comes back. When a great ship founders in mid-ocean, and but a third of the people can be saved, there is then no question of woman’s rights. In the darkness of early morning, eager men’s hands place the women in the life-boats and push them off. The poorest peasant woman takes precedence over any man. Almost every woman there would prefer to stay and die with her man; would glory in staying and dying if he might thus be saved; but in her keeping arc the generations of the future, and she is weak,— therefore, the strong gladly stand back and go down to death. The solution of woman’s place in the society of the future must be based on a recognition of the supplementary forces that send women to undesired safety while men die.