Meditations of a Wage-Earning Wife


IT seems a bit strange that the mere dropping of a letter into the post box should at the same moment drop on to my shoulders such a feeling of weight — especially since the letter had been written and lying on the desk for a month. The deliberate severing of connections with the monthly pay-check, unless of course there is another pay-check in the offing, is always a serious thing, for, plebeian as it sounds, one must eat.

The letter was my husband’s resignation — his deliberate abandonment of a position he has held unhappily for about twelve years. We have been talking about his resignation for two years. He finally wrote the letter a month ago, and then left it on the desk where we could read it occasionally until we were sure we knew what it meant.

It really means that I, the wife, am to be the breadwinner for some time to come. A reversal of the usual domestic situation, true, but one that, under the circumstances, I am happy to be able to be a party to.

The emotion that flooded me on the short walk home from the post box must be the same that comes to every man when he marries and promises to provide for his wife and the children that may come to them. It is a feeling of awful — and holy — responsibility. Our friends will not feel that way about it when they learn what we have done, but we have not done it for the benefit of our friends. We did it because, since I am earning as much as my husband earned in his distasteful work, there is no longer any need of his making himself unhappy in an uncongenial occupation. And we did it because he is happy in doing something else that will, in time, bring him a comfortable living, but that will probably require several years of apprenticeship on a small income. Life is too short for unnecessary unhappiness.

For a number of years my husband has made an avocation of writing. He has sold some of his articles and, now that he will have all of his time for this work instead of the occasional weekends his job gave him at home, he will sell more of it. But the path of a writer is steep and stony, and so, since the die is cast, I am flooded with questions. Suppose I, temporarily the family breadwinner, — and a free-lance publicity and advertising woman at that, — should be ill? Suppose it is true that such an arrangement as ours always works out disastrously? Suppose the woman’s-page writers of the newspapers are right, and a man always hates a woman on whom he is dependent? Suppose my husband, who has lived in hotels and trains most of the past twelve years, finds hours at a desk at home too monotonous? I know how cramping four walls can be. He has that to learn.

And I fear that I am responsible for his decision. At least, I planted the germ of the idea. It began when he was in the hospital with blood-poisoning two years ago, and the doctors thought for a time that the amputation of a leg was the only thing that would save his life. When I went in to see him I said, ‘You have always wanted to write. You don’t need two legs to do that. And I’ll feel justified in having been a business woman instead of a good housewife if you’ll let me pay the bills while you get started.’

A serum, tried as a last resort, brought him out of the hospital with two legs. But during the weary uncertainty we talked about all the ways and means of his having a try at the work he loved. When he was well and ready to go back to his job of selling steel, he said half jokingly, as if he thought it an impossibility, ‘When you can earn as much as my present salary, then I’ll chuck the job and let you pay the rent for a while.’ He has had a raise in salary since then, but this year I earned as much as his new salary.

I know so many men, and women too for that matter, w ho are unhappy in their jobs and who dare not leave those jobs to hunt more congenial work because of loved ones dependent upon them, that I am happy to be able to make it possible for my husband to be one of the few who dare to take a chance. I feel, as I told him in the hospital, that my years of work have been justified. I have worked when I ought to have been helping him entertain customers and when, according to the rules of the game, I ought to have been playing up to the big boss by entertaining his wife and daughter when they were in town. Kotowing to the big boss and his womenfolk goes against the grain with me and I have n’t. done it. I have n’t noticed that such efforts have advanced other men in the company, either. So I have gone on working because I wanted to work, and because I liked to work, until work has become such a habit that I should be unhappy if I were not busy.


For eighteen years, since the age of seventeen, I have earned my own living. For two or three months after the war I tried being a housewife, but we were both so unhappy in the effort that I gave it up.

In the early years of our marriage neither my husband nor I earned much money and we needed our combined incomes for living expenses. I remember how I resented the joint checkingaccount we had then, which I came to refer to in my mind as a ‘put and take’ account — I deposited my checks and my husband paid the bills. I felt that I got much less out of my earnings after I was married than I got before. Now we are going to have another joint account — and right there another question pops up. Have I grown more unselfish during these past ten years, or shall I think of the trips and other luxuries I might have had if my husband had kept his job? Have I come to love work enough for its own sake to be happy in it, or do I love it for the dollars it brings me? And shall I continue to love it when these dollars must be shared?

Do men, I wonder, so question themselves when they are about to become responsible for the future comforts of the girls they marry? Under the circumstances, are these natural questions? I wonder.

I have been going back over the ten years we have been married and the eight years of free-lancing before that, and have been trying to face the future in the light of the past. Between the situation at the time we were married, when my two mottoes were ‘Take a chance’ and ‘Do as you darn please,’ and the present situation, there is this difference — I fell in love with my husband during his illness two years ago. I thought I loved him when I married him, but there was always the thought in reserve that nothing but death need be permanent. I thought I loved my husband on the day we were married. I doubted it before the day was over, and there were other times during the first eight years of our marriage when I doubted it. To-day I think I’m one of the luckiest women in the world, because I have n’t a doubt left on the subject. I know.

There is time, plenty of it, during the nights when one’s husband is fighting for his life to discover one’s real feelings. During that winter I found that I’d been breaking one of the first rules of our younger generation. I had been deceiving myself. I discovered that I really loved my husband. Perhaps I had loved him all the time. Perhaps the sort of love I have for him now is something that must grow with the years. Perhaps the care and watching before the doctors took him to the hospital brought it about. I have been told that it is impossible to care for a helpless infant for a time without coming to give it something akin to mother love. Caring for a very ill husband may have had the same effect, although it is n’t entirely a maternal love I have for him now. There may be something maternal mixed up in it, for we have no children, and there is something of the maternal in all women that we must pour out in some direction.

When we announced our marriage to a friend she laughed and said, ‘Well, the first five years are the hardest. If you stick that out you’re safe for the next hundred.’ She was right. They were the hardest, for me at any rate, for it required just about five years for me to adjust myself to the state of matrimony.


I remember a sentence from a book I read recently: ‘Only lasting desires can carry one into action.’

It took two years of considering this step to bring my husband to the point of resigning. During those two years there were more unpleasant episodes than usual in his work — and selling steel during the ups and downs of the business situation since the war has not all been pleasant.

Selling steel involves, for instance, entertaining buyers. Often they are men who began as workers on the openhearth floor, and who learned about steel from making it. Good fellows of many good qualities, nevertheless their development has been one-sided. They retain to the end of their lives the physical vigor and toughness that enabled them to stand twelve-hour shifts in the heat of the steel mill. When they come to New York on business, or when business takes them to the many conventions that are a part of the steel game, they must be entertained. And showing the sights of the metropolis to steel men under Prohibition is — well, to put it mildly — is apt to pall on a minister’s son. Yes, my husband is a minister’s son.

Part of a steel salesman’s job, especially in New York City, is entertaining the out-of-town steel man. It means putting in the regular eight-hour day at the regular duties, and then arranging a dinner party, a theatre party, and a midnight-show party, and then probably putting the visitor to bed if he is unable to put himself to bed. Then, in order to snatch every possible minute of sleep, the salesman usually sleeps in a hotel downtown, rather than waste precious minutes on the subway. The salesman must be back on the job the next day, and there may be other visitors the next night, or the man who was put to bed at five in the morning may be sufficiently revived to look for more amusement.

After the last of these parties, a threeday one, my husband complained that he did n’t feel quite normal. He went to see his doctor, who put him on a coffeeless, meatless, alcoholless diet, and told him the pace was showing. Then I precipitated the decision by remarking, ‘Why kill yourself? I’m not keen on collecting insurance money.’

During the five or six hours which followed, we had one of those accusatory and confessional conversations that always leave the participants feeling as if their souls had been stripped bare and paraded before a shocked audience. We dragged family backgrounds, inherited tendencies, youthful experiences, personal proclivities, and everything that could possibly pertain to the subject, out of their decent oblivion and looked them over.

‘It’s all right for you to advocate taking a chance,’ protested my troubled husband. ‘Taking chances is the breath of life to you.’

As we talked, my unmarried years unrolled before me. From a girl I had the knack of selling and the ability to show others how to sell. Right now I sell my strictly utilitarian articles at higher prices than my artistic friends get for their adventures in belles-lettres. I study the market and know what my editors want, just as I used to study my customers and their wants. There was a time when I traveled back and forth across the country between state fairs where my agents engraved ‘Darling’ or ‘Mamie’ or ‘Papa’ on cheap ruby-glass tumblers. Many a rural sideboard paid me toll. Then in another profitable campaign I helped to make ‘Melba’ a boudoir word in this country, organizing, instructing, and managing squads of demonstrators who went from one department store to another showing American women how to keep their faces clean.

Of course there is more money in that sort of thing than in writing. Still a woman who will not keep house may not long keep a husband. My trunk stayed in the storeroom; but if I could not use the trains, I could still use the mails. Writing seemed to be the one refuge for a home-biding woman. And having next to no formal education, but plenty of rough-and-tumble experience with business, I drew upon that experience for trade papers. No matter what my household cares might be, I never failed to sit at the typewriter five hours a day. At my desk in a ‘walkup’ apartment I analyzed trade problems, and then went out and sold the solutions — sometimes to trade papers, sometimes to manufacturing firms, sometimes even to publicity experts. Day in and day out for years I wrote, rewrote, corrected, mailed — and in the end sold — a thousand words a day. At first the rates of pay were low and the returns small; but gradually the checks grew in size and multiplied in number. Each year of the last three has doubled my income of the year before. My best returns have come from helping others sell their goods; the list includes automobiles, glue, paper, ribbon, sealing-wax, china, glass, and lamps. Perhaps the very lamp under which you are reading made its bow to the trade under my adjectives.

During our long evening of debate we covered the subject of education. My husband is a college man; my schooling ended with the first year of high school. Spanish and French and shorthand have been my only instructed subjects since then, and I needed them in my work. I have had to learn a great deal about a great many vastly different subjects in the course of my writing, so that between the things I have studied for my own pleasure and the things I have had to study because of work to be done I have tucked away quite a mass of unrelated facts. However, like most people who missed out on a college education, I feel that I have lost something now unobtainable. Therefore I told my husband that he had a great advantage over me in that he has had college training.

‘But I don’t want to do your sort of work,’ he protested. ‘I want to write fiction.’

‘Well, then, why don’t you write it? Nobody is going to do it for you.’

‘I will,’ was the final word. Thus began our great experiment.


To-day there are too many wageearning wives to make our ten years together seem unusual. Even so, the wage-earning wife has problems all her own. We are still too much in the minority to have had anyone work out rules to fit our cases. Each wage-earning wife has to work out her own rules. She has to find ways and means of holding down two jobs at once — three if she is a mother — and doing each work creditably.

We have some advantages, though, we working wives. We have passed that dissatisfied period that comes to every woman, whether she be married or single. Most of us have been told by doctors and friends, if we voiced our dissatisfaction, that we ought to have children — or, having some, then more children. Almost never do doctors or family or friends realize that a woman, as much as a man, needs an interest completely divorced from herself and her family and household. We working wives have that interest.

In the usual course of events, one of the most terrible moments in a woman’s life comes when she discovers that her husband has limitations. It is akin to the moment when the small child discovers that his father is not the strongest and the most powerful man in the world — a man who can somehow bring all the desired things to pass. Tragedy, such a moment is — the sheerest tragedy!

What this discovery does to a wife depends upon the sort of woman she is. The wage-earning wife is quite likely to love her husband the more because of his limitations. If his limitation extends to his earning capacity she is not helpless before it, for she appreciates her own capacity to earn. The maternal element is likely to enter into her love for him at this point and that will bind her more closely to him than any amount of conjugal affection.

The first problem the married woman has to solve, usually, arises from her husband’s objection to her working for pay. That was one I missed. I had always worked, therefore I kept right on working.

The second problem for the working wife lies in so managing her ménage that her husband is not made unhappy by an untidy home and by delicatessen meals. Any woman who wants to work can earn money enough to pay a competent maid — and have some money left over. Meantime, if her work makes her happy, she need not worry about the outlay for the maid’s wages.

Another problem for the working wife is to find the sort of work in which she can continue for years without having to compete with the new crop of eighteen-year-old girls that each year brings into the business market. For the reason that many employers prefer youth, the wife must find or make for herself a job in which age does not count adversely, and where the quality of the service rendered is the main thing. Social-service work, charity work, politics, selling, free-lance work of any sort, and a business of her own, are the things that appeal most to the wise working wife. She looks ahead toward the time when her experience and years are assets and not the liabilities they become in the general business office.

When the married business woman becomes a success, especially if she earns as much money as her husband, she has new problems. A man may be perfectly willing to have his wife work for money if her happiness lies in that direction, but he hates to have her earn as much money as he does. It touches his pride. He feels his crown as master of the household slipping. He acquires an inferiority complex that sometimes causes him to do all sorts of queer things. It takes a steady hand to keep a marriage off the rocks at this period. The husband wants to be the strong one of the family. He wants his wife to look up to him, to admire his superior ability, and to come to him with a coaxing manner when she wants something, so that he may feel very magnanimous when he gives her what she wants. Really he wants her to keep her place as the minor part of the family. The wise wife learns, if necessary, to hide the facts of her progress, and always to give her husband the admiration he needs. If she fails as an admirer she can look for another woman in her husband’s life — and the chances are the interloper will be an inferior sort of woman, one whose main hold on the husband is that of flattery.

The difference between the way a successful business woman and a stay-at-home wife will handle the problems of ‘a woman in the case’ is vast and typical of the difference in their lives. The business woman says in effect, ‘You can’t give me anything but companionship anyway. If you don’t want to give me that there is nothing left between us. We might as well be divorced.’ The stay-at-home wife sees her very bread and butter threatened by the other woman, and what a fuss she makes about it! The queer part of it is that there are fewer successful business women dragged through the divorce courts than there are so-called parasite wives.

When the married business woman comes to the place where she earns as much as her husband the sea of matrimony becomes strewn with rocks. There are plenty of women who become so ego-ridden over their small successes that they are a trial to everyone. Such a woman does little to keep her marriage intact. Her income intoxicates her — and so does the deference shown her by business associates. She loses her perspective. Her conversations bristle with the pronoun — first person singular. She spends most of the time she is at home carefully balancing a chip on her shoulder. If her husband inadvertently brushes it off, there is another case for the divorce mills.

Business is too new to women for anyone to expect us to take it calmly. And when business success comes to a woman she needs a level head to keep cool about it. I was one of a group of business and professional women the other day when the talk turned to just this subject. Most of them admitted laughingly that they had gone through the ‘Look-at-me-see-what-I’ve-done!' stage, which one of them attributed to growing-pains.

One of the good things that come to a home from which both the husband and the wife go forth to business every day is a new comradeship — a new sort of partnership. A working wife has a better chance of being friends with her husband than the stay-at-home wife. And being friends with someone to whom the law binds one is not so easy as it sounds. The wage-earning wife meets her husband on an equality basis. She is no longer a dependent. She is an equal partner. The chances for domestic happiness seem greater than in the old-fashioned marriage where a woman could be nothing but what her husband made her.

There are many more problems that the wage-earning wife must face. The biggest thing that worries all of us is what our husbands think about it all and how they are affected by our independence.

In my own case, I am beset by doubts. Am I making it too easy for my husband to do what he wants to do? Certainly if I were not a wage-earning wife he would be unable to leave his position and gamble with his future. Will he be happy in the day-after-day grind at a desk? Will he be too much discouraged when his manuscripts come back from editors? Can he stand the gaff and be happy?

It takes a brave man and a man not bound by conventions to accept such an arrangement as ours. My husband is both. He is free for the first time in his thirty-five years — free to follow the path of ambition, inclination, and ability. I glory in being one of the factors of that new freedom, but still I wonder where that path will lead.


Since this was written, we have had two weeks of the experiment. The news having spread, we have been given a taste of what our friends think of a man who leaves a well-paying job to follow what they call a ‘mirage.’ Our men friends are torn between envy that a man may follow his inclinations, curiosity as to our financial circumstances, and the not too well concealed idea that it is a man’s duty to stick to his job, no matter if it is distasteful.

The women take me aside and tell me what a frightful mistake I am making; that it is all right for a woman to work but that she is foolish to lessen her husband’s responsibilities by her work; that no man can be happy if his wife supports him; that our marriage is careening toward the rocks; that my husband will lose all respect for me, and a lot of other equally unsolicited bits.

The truth is that my husband is completely happy, although he works at his desk and over his studies longer hours than he ever put in at his job. Our maid keeps the house shining to an extent she never did before — such is the subtle influence of a man in the house.

In the six weeks since the letter of resignation was written I have increased my output of finished work almost a third through a sense of responsibility to the landlord and the grocer — and I never was so happy in my life.