MY husband had refused to listen when I suggested that I might help to restore a margin that had been wiped out; and as I had never had a day’s business experience in my life, and was not of the type recognizably commercial, I knew it would be hopeless, even if he listened, to try to convince him that I could earn enough to be of any use. So it was with an ostensible object quite different from the real one that I left home and began my search in New York for a job.
What were my assets? Several years of college and university training, many years past; a novel published; a good deal of experience in public speaking, though only as an amateur; wide travel, but entirely for pleasure. An unimpressive list to present to the hard-headed business man. However, I had developed a taste for tackling the thing that looked impossible, and people had been, wherever I found them, my field of observation. In some way or other this last should make me of use. Just how, I had little idea. I was ignorant of the very existence of such a thing as an employment department and had never heard of welfare work. Perhaps it was as well for me that I did not know there was nothing the average business man believes in less than a ‘knowledge of people.’
The name at once electrified and frightened me. I knew no one in the company to which I was going to offer my services, and the fact that it was ranked as one of the greatest banking investment houses in the world did nothing to quiet my beating heart as I entered its vast marble entrance hall, white and cold and inhospitable as a morgue,
A burly man in uniform stepped forward and, when I told him I was interested in selling bonds, conducted me to the desk, one of many, of a young man with a mop of long curly hair, turning gray, a brainy long-nosed face, and a good-natured though rapid-fire manner which I found rather disconcerting. This keen young man, I found later, was an assistant salesmanager. After a brief talk, he asked me to step into an adjoining chamber which, from its dark paneled walls and august portraits, appeared to be the Board room.
Presently a middle-aged gentleman arrived. I had no idea of his rank. His ruddy face, topped with sandy hair, was amiable, and he talked in a very affable, leisurely way calculated to put me at my ease; but to my intense chagrin I found great difficulty in controlling my voice.
‘So you want to sell bonds? Do you think you can sell?’ he asked. As I look back, my assurance seems highly audacious, as I had never sold so much as a ticket for a charity concert.
We talked awhile, and then he seemed to be going over something in his mind. ‘Well, we’ll see,’ he said at last. ‘Come back to-morrow about three.’
The next day he began at once: ‘How would you like, instead of selling bonds, to be put in charge of the employment and general problems of women in this company?’ It would pay, he said, in time at least, as much as I could make selling, unless I proved a phenomenally successful saleswoman. In the end I was turned over to a good-looking young giant of about thirty, a Mr. Barney, recently created office manager.
Day after day I went by appointment to see Mr. Barney, arriving promptly, and always waiting an hour or longer before he was ready to receive me. I began to be anxious. Perhaps my age was an obstacle. Finally I took the bull by the horns. ‘You want to know how old I am,’ I said, laughing lightly, to hide my inner tumult, ‘only you’re too gallant to ask. Well, I’m not yet wholly atrophied — or I believe not. And if I’m still growing, that’s all that matters, is n’t it?’
Mr. Barney’s rather sullen face lit up with a sudden boyish smile.
‘We’ll let it go at that,’ he said.
To admit I was forty-six would, I knew, toll my death knell in Mr. Barney’s young ears.
‘We’re not undecided about you,’ he assured me one day; ‘ but we have n’t made up our minds whether we’re actually going to have an employment department. Some of the executives are still to be convinced that it’s necessary.’
What a revelation! I had supposed business, particularly ‘Big Business,’ made its decisions quickly. But at length the matter was settled and my salary was broached for the first time.
‘ What do you think you should start with?’ Mr. Barney asked, rather uneasily, I thought.
‘That is for you to say,’ I insisted, a more astute move than I was aware of, and he named a figure larger by half than I had expected. I tried to conceal my delight.
Everybody I talked with about employment work had advised me to see Miss Douglass, one of the first recognized employment managers in New York, a pioneer in the field. I found the reception room outside her office crowded almost to suffocation.
‘You won’t mind,’ she greeted me with a gracious smile, ‘ if I eat my lunch while we talk.’ A tray with sandwiches and fruit was before her on her desk. ‘It saves time, though I suppose it’s a wretched way.’
Miss Douglass was different from the other women or men I had met in this new profession. She seemed full of joy, abounding in happy impulses. It was hard to realize that she had battled her way up from girlhood in the grime of the New York business world.
She entered enthusiastically into my prospects. In her low, soft, rapid voice she told me a few things that she thought, from her own experience, might be of value.
‘For a woman to make her way in a man-made institution, her work must grow, oh! so quietly, as a plant throws out its leaves, noiselessly, till before the men are aware what has happened she has attained her stature among them. Your maturity is no drawback — it’s an advantage. The business world needs mature women, though it is so loath to admit it.’
Her last words, as she grasped my hand, were almost in a whisper: ‘And don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid!’
What was it I was not to be afraid of? I could not get her last words out of my mind. What did she mean?
Later I knew. In the years that followed, there were few mornings when I did not repeat to myself on waking the warning of that wise and gracious lady — ‘Don’t be afraid!’
I was given a desk in plain view of Mr. Barney’s, hung up my hat and coat, and began my first day. His stenographer was to take my dictation as well as his. Dictation! I had never dictated. What was I to dictate and to whom? It was one of the minor frights of an agonizing day, but I found almost immediately that here was a place where you asked no questions. You watched, listened, and survived if you could.
The telephone on my desk rang. Someone was talking, but to my dismay, what with the roar outside and the unaccustomed click of typewriters all around, I could not make out a word that was said. The others in the room seemed to be hearing perfectly. Was I to admit that I could not? At twenty I should have had no hesitation in doing so. At forty-six I did not dare.
‘Yes, yes,’ I answered in a low voice, and hung up.
I had hardly taken my fingers away before it rang again. I concentrated my whole attention, but with no better result, except that now I could catch a suggestion of impatience at the other end. I felt faint, almost sick.
At the desk behind mine sat a Mr. Waterman, who like myself had entered the company that day, to assume charge of the employment of men in the newly created employment department. Mr. Waterman had been a teacher, also a salesman. His jovial easy-going air struck me as slightly incongruous in this dignified environment, but I had reason to be grateful to him when my telephone rang for the third time. As I made the same strained effort to hear, he came to my side and, shielding me with his broad back from many watching eyes, said in a voice not to be overheard, ‘Try this,’ and showed me how to shut out the sounds that were bothering.
And now the job-seekers began to arrive. Heretofore the chief clerk, the secretary, anybody had done the hiring. Nothing could have been more haphazard than our start. We were given no instructions, almost no information of any sort except that a certain number of workers were wanted — typists, stenographers, file clerks, and so on. One of the first questions an applicant asked was, ‘What will the job pay?’ and this was the last thing we could find out. A list of employees with salaries paid them was open to our inspection, but the salaries were in code, and when we asked Mr. Barney for a key to the code he was plainly annoyed. New in his own position, he was extremely vague as to wages, knew none of the starting rates, and seemed to question our right to know them. Mr. Waterman and I found ourselves in a perplexing position.
About noon, when almost everyone had left the office for lunch, we discussed our predicament. We talked in low tones, but a small dapper man across the aisle, assistant chief clerk, — known in the company as ‘the English Sparrow,’ — had caught something. Crossing to us now with long strides, he began in the deep sonorous voice so often a compensatory gift to undersized men: —
‘ I ‘ll tell you the whole thing. Listen to me! You want to get everybody as cheap as you can. That’s the game. Name the least figure you think they’ll take. If it don’t catch ‘em, raise a little. There are n’t any regular rates. Why, in one department there’s fifteen guys gettin’ different pay and all doin ‘ precisely the same thing. There’d be merry hell, of course, if they found out. But you want to warn everyone you hire that salaries are confidential,’ he added with a slightly pompous air. ‘They’re liable to find the company can get along without ‘em if they go blabbing what their pay is.’
My commercial education had begun.
Each morning, before I got off my hat, applicants began to arrive — the high-heeled mincing miss, carrying her vanity case; the painted girl with roving eyes, who chewed gum without pause and whose parrot phrase, ‘Chance for advancement,’ inevitably met my inquiry, ‘Why did you leave your last place?’ Sometimes flowerlike girls, with deferential manners and vague ambitions, arrived in limousines, accompanied by their maids. A young Russian woman who spoke eleven languages wanted a place in the foreign department. A poetess not without fame wanted any sort of job in which she could earn enough to keep from going hungry. There were middleaged women, worsted by life, a bit drabbled perhaps, sensitive and apologetic, and the unforgettable well-bred girl who had sunk to the depths and done time in Bedford Reformatory, struggling to start again.
As one after another took the chair at my side, I smiled and shook hands. Some of them looked surprised. But it did no harm that I could see, and enabled me more quickly to thaw out an applicant and learn something about her. I soon found myself taking my lunch, as I had seen Miss Douglass do, off a tray on my desk, for the lunch hour was the time when the best class of applicants came, those already in a job and seeking to better themselves.
Meantime I was getting acquainted with the company’s executives, the lesser ones who headed departments. If I displayed my ignorance of business at every turn, they were tactful enough not to seem aware of it. They were furiously pressed in the wild tempo of Wall Street, all distracted with internal troubles of their own departments, without exception deathly afraid of the higher executives, and only too glad, it seemed, to find someone with whom they could talk over their problems. In hurried daily visits, now to one and then to another department, I was instructed in their respective routines so far as I was able to grasp them. In those early days in Wall Street I stood in the most profound awe of all commercial knowledge.
One morning, a few weeks after I had entered the company, I had an unexpected call from Mr. Wells, the affable gentleman who had suggested I take charge of the employment of women instead of selling bonds. He was assistant to the president, it seems, and it was the first time I had seen him since I had been taken into the organization. My heart had begun to beat fast when I saw him approach. ‘How absurd!’ I said to myself, but I could not help feeling agitated. Everyone around me lived in a state of constant dread.
Mr. Wells did not sit down. ‘How many Remington-Wahls have we?’ he asked, in a casual, pleasant enough tone.
Remington-Wahls! What in heaven’s name were they? In my former protected private life I had never even heard the term.
‘I don’t know how many,’ I was forced to answer, hoping my face was not coloring.
He started away and then came back. ‘What about the Hollerith machines? Keeping them supplied? We’ve always had trouble getting key-punch operators.’
Hollerith machines! Key-punch operators! They might have belonged to the Neolithic Age for all the words conveyed. I do not know what I replied. Six months later I should have realized that Mr. Wells was only strolling around, asking a question here and there, to appear interested. But in those early days the nature of man in business was still as profound a mystery to me as the Remington-Wahl and the Hollerith machine.
Before seven that evening I had stuffed my unmechanical and unmathematical head with such knowledge of those machines as I could take in, and, what was more important for my purpose, had found out why it was difficult to get people to run them. Mr. Wells had done me a service.
If by day I was trying to get better acquainted with this intricate organization of which I had become a part, by night I was seeking out the theory of my job. Little had then been published on the new profession of what someone had called ‘human engineering.’ But this comparatively little was sufficient to keep the light above my bed burning till two or three every morning. There was so much to learn.
With what delight, then, I found that a course in Employment Management was to be given in the city, and by a group of men reputed to be authorities on the subject. It was to be an evening course, so I could avail myself of it. Believing that my position as employment manager would render me eligible, I laid my qualifications, with no misgivings, before the academic gentleman who received me. He cleared his throat. He was afraid my preparation was not adequate. I admitted I had no degree, but my credits for college and university work were more, in the aggregate, than is necessary for a degree. When he still refused me any encouragement, I asked if I could come to hear the lectures, paying the fee, and asking for no certificate or endorsement of any kind. He was afraid not, and definitely ended all my hopes with a final dry ‘ Sorry! ‘
It was a keen blow, and I had hardly recovered from its sting when one evening, long after closing-time, Mr. Barney, staying late also, summoned me with a lift of his head. What had I done wrong? To my surprise, as I came up he blurted out: ‘ I want you to know we’re delighted with your work. Holy Moses! The way you handle the crowd is a marvel, and everyone leaves you with a smile, whether she gets a job or not.’
Here was balm for my recent wound, but it was the English Sparrow who deserved some of the credit Mr. Barney had given me. At the end of a frantically busy Monday he had come to my desk and asked, ‘Do you mind if I tell you something?’
‘Why, no,’ I answered, not too cordially. The little assistant chief clerk’s busybody manner annoyed me when I was tired.
‘I know it’s none of my business,’ he began, ‘but you’re making a lot of applicants hopping mad. You don’t take ‘em in order.’
‘How can I, with such a mob?’
‘Oh, well, it’s none of my business, of course; but I thought maybe you’d like to know.’
The little whippersnapper, telling me how to run my job! I tried to dismiss the incident from my mind, but it stuck. All of a sudden, on my way home, a light broke. I was handling the waiting crowd badly.
Next morning I noticed my neighbor, the assistant chief clerk, fidgeting even more than usual. It was not long till he crossed the aisle. ‘I want to beg your pardon,’ he started. I stopped him. ‘Don’t you dare! You did me a great service. I’m going to work out a system that will take care of applicants in order, or admit I’m unfit for this job.’ He looked a trifle foolish as I ended warmly, ‘Thank you more than I can say. I consider you my friend.’
It was the beginning of my alliance with the English Sparrow.
The first ‘first-line’ man I met was the treasurer. Mr. Barney acted as escort. It was apparent that Mr. Barney felt it was something of an event for me to meet a man of such rank. And, indeed, I felt it an event myself. The treasurer proved to be a grave bald-headed man of the fewest possible words. He indicated a chair. He did not, of course, rise to meet a mere employment manager. I have forgotten the occasion of the call. What I shall never forget is that I had great difficulty in keeping my voice from trembling as I answered the treasurer’s questions or volunteered remarks. In vain I reminded myself that the treasurer was an ordinary man, by no means so distinguished as men of my social acquaintance in whose presence I had always been perfectly at my ease. What caused this difference in the way they affected me?
It was, I think, in part the solemnity with which executives in big business more or less consciously surround themselves. Part of my fright was due to my ignorance of business. Inside the International Investment Corporation it was difficult to remember that there was any important knowledge in the world except that of business. Then, besides, I had been inoculated with the all-pervasive fear that haunted every corner of the vast building, fear of the bread line or its equivalent, fear of not measuring up, of getting ‘kicked out’ — a phrase I heard every day.
The president, at this time, I had only seen. I was in the domestic sales department, talking to the metropolitan sales manager about the sort of private secretary he wished me to secure. The new girl was to be as wise as Socrates, as beautiful as Cleopatra, as steady as a churchwarden. Suddenly the sales manager’s eyes became riveted on the centre aisle. The air had become charged. ‘Mr. Maynard,’ the sales manager said in a low voice and, following his glance, I saw approaching between the marble balustrades of what was known as ‘The Great White Alley’ a man who suggested a lion more than any other human creature I had ever beheld. Truly magnificent!
The president fairly exuded power. ‘The worst-hated man in Wall Street,’ I had been told, ‘the most feared, and the most admired.’ I could believe it all. If I had trembled in talking to the treasurer, what should I do when I reached the formidable chief executive, if I ever did? The test soon came.
The assistant treasurer had for some time past been withholding from employees who had been discharged a certain amount due them by contract. Not all discharged employees realized that the amount was due them, but those who did began to complain to the employment department of unfair treatment. I made up my mind to go straight to the assistant treasurer, thus giving him an opportunity to change what was an illegal as well as an unfair practice. When I told him of the growing dissatisfaction with this manner of settling their final pay with employees, he laughed nervously, and admitted it was ‘a thing we have been getting away with.’ Just who ‘we’ was I did not know, and thought it unwise to inquire. But the assistant treasurer made no promises and the practice continued. Finally I suggested to my associate, Mr. Waterman, that we lay the matter before Mr. Barney.
‘Let it alone! ‘ Mr. Waterman counseled. ‘They don’t expect a thing like that probed. You’ll get fired for your pains, though of course on some other pretext.’
When I still urged that we should do something, Mr. Waterman, always jocular, interrupted me with a laugh: ‘Not for me! You go to it, if you want to.’
Mr. Barney heard me with an expressionless face. Later in the day he suddenly appeared at my desk. ‘Come with me,’ he said under his breath. ‘The Big Boss wants to see you.’ In the anteroom outside the president’s door he whispered: ‘ Stand your ground! Don’t let them stampede you!’
Six or seven executives were sitting around in a hushed circle, among them Mr. Sydney, the assistant treasurer. None of them offered me a chair, so I crossed the Persian carpet and took the only vacant one, near the president, who was sitting behind his mahogany desk in a far corner, partly screened by a tall silver vase of pink roses and facing the open wood fire which made a bright spot in the big dusky room.
As I sat down, the president grunted out my name. Mr. Barney broke the ominous silence that followed. ‘Tell Mr. Maynard,’ he said, addressing me, ‘what you told me.’ Intent on being concise, I was free from my usual oppressive sense of fright. At the end of my recital the president roared: ‘Mr. Sydney, what about it?’
The assistant treasurer got to his feet. He was a lean, refined-looking man in eyeglasses, in appearance not unlike a college professor. He was trembling like a leaf and his voice shook as he denied my allegations.
It was a veritable bellow that broke from the president this time, as he turned again to me: ‘Well, now what?’ I felt sorry for Mr. Sydney, but, facing him squarely, repeated our conversation in which he had admitted ‘getting away’ with the practice in question.
The president brought his fist down, jarring the silver vase till it threatened to topple over. ‘It’s the last we’ll have of “getting away” with things in this place!’ he shouted. ‘Hear that, Sydney?’
Mr. Sydney squeaked faintly in reply. The president got up, shook hands with me, and thanked me very decently for coming. There was a twinkle in his slightly clouded eyes that showed me he rather enjoyed these scenes in which he played the devouring beast.
As Mr. Barney and I emerged into the hushed foyer of the president’s suite, he clutched my arm and whispered gleefully: ‘I guess they’ll know you’re on the map after this!’
Curiously enough, after this day in the president’s office, the assistant treasurer was friendly to me as he had never been before. I wondered sometimes if he were not at heart rather grateful to me for having had a stop put to one of the practices he had fallen into — a species of petty ‘dirty work’ from which he must, however, have expected reward. At any rate he did me many kind services and, so far as I know, never raised a finger against me.
This meeting in the president’s office marked a definite change in the manner of nearly all the upper executives. Henceforth they seemed to know I was among them. They no longer passed me in the corridor with a cool stare, but began to send for me to talk over various problems of personnel. Presently, instead of sending, they called on me. The first vice-president, in charge of organization, became a frequent caller. Short and dark, his pugnacious face in odd contrast to the massive sloping forehead above it, his light and genial manner, masking an iron will, and his keen though merciless wit made him a man of great, if Satanic, charm. He was the one person in the organization entirely unafraid of the president, meeting the latter’s theatrical rages with unruffled composure.
The first vice-president seemed to have plenty of time. He took me under his charge and I learned more from him of business structure and business psychology than I ever learned from anyone else. A fluent and diverting talker, he was the first man in the organization who seemed to realize that it was neither derogatory to his dignity nor detrimental to my work if he chatted with me sometimes about a new play, or the relative merits of Scotch and Irish terriers, thus granting me a human as well as a business status.
My fear of ‘man in business’ had by this time vanished. Business had ceased to be a mystery, and the executive I had daily dealings with was, after all, the same creature I had known as cousin, uncle, father, husband, or dinner partner.
The road to executive consideration was not, however, so easy as may appear. As time went on I often had calls from women who, like myself, in middle life, through financial reverses, were considering entering business. They had heard that without previous business experience I had almost immediately attained to a responsible executive position. They wanted a job like mine, and were not interested in considering anything else. By this time I had my own suite. They had been received by my secretary, had waited in the adjoining reception room, had been ushered into my private office by a page in uniform. All this was impressive. There was a decorative quality to my job that appealed to them, and it was dignified. From their remarks it was evident that they thought it no more arduous than receiving at afternoon tea or playing hostess at the country club. They saw none of the hard, nerve-racking work behind the scenes, none of the slights I had received and was still receiving. I wondered how many of them would have cared to stand while a boor in a big position kept his back resolutely turned and barked out: ‘Well, state your business! What is it?’ How many of them would have cared to wait almost a year before a man whose office they entered thought of offering a chair? How many of them would have cared to fight against sneers and even insults in the hope that certain measures, which had nothing to do with their own advancement, and even threatened it, might go through?
My work, which was growing by leaps and bounds, soon included not only employment, but conferences on promotion, transfer, discharge, absence — all the problems that arise with a force of nearly two thousand employees. I was overwhelmed, and needed an assistant. But you do not get, in a business organization, merely by asking. If I needed an assistant I must fight for one. And I did.
After I had acquired capable helpers, I often visited other employment departments, sometimes employment agencies with which we had dealings, and sought to establish an entente cordiale with commercial and other schools and colleges in the city and suburbs that were sources of labor supply. There was never a lull in the rush of the day’s work, never a time convenient for going; but I turned things over to my associates and went just the same. Once, when I returned, my secretary met me with a scared look in her eyes. One of the higher executives had called during my absence. ‘He seemed surprised not to find you, and asked where you were.’
Not long afterward, as I was again returning from one of these brief educational tours, I saw the first vicepresident just turning away from my office. Without bothering to remove his hat, he accosted me with marked coolness: ‘Been to the matinée?’
‘No,’ I returned, a little disturbed, but smiling at him; ‘nor shopping. I’ve been trying to avoid a disease I find very common here.’
‘A disease, eh?’ He stared at me quizzically, his derby still on.
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘The disease that attacks men and women who never leave their desks. My job is dealing with people, an unending stream of them all day long. I must be alive. I give out — a good deal. So when I need recharging I go and get recharged, find out how I can do things better, and come back with fresh enthusiasm.’
There was a moment of silence; then the first vice-president’s pugnacious face relaxed and he said with a comical look: ‘Office blight hasn’t damaged you much yet, I should say!’
There was never afterward the least intimation from any quarter that I should not govern my time according to my own judgment. My freedom astonished and even alarmed some of the other women in the Wall Street district. One of them I saw frequently. A well-bred mature woman, always handsomely dressed, as befitted her sumptuous surroundings, she was always in a tremulous state, perpetually glancing back uneasily over one shoulder or the other. ‘Oh,’ she said to me one day, in a subdued, secretive voice, ‘I wish I had the liberty you have! But they’d never give it to me here!’
‘Give it!’ I echoed laughingly. ‘Is liberty ever given? Don’t individuals, like nations, usually have to struggle for it?’
‘You’re right! You’re right!’ she came back, a wistful look in her fearridden eyes. ‘ But I should n’t dare — I simply should n’t dare do what you’re doing. They’d never stand for it here. They don’t fancy my visiting our own departments, much less going outside. I’m Director of Women, — we have a thousand girls in this company, — but it’s only in name. You see, men don’t think much of women in business, anyway, and if I asserted myself I’d simply be let out.’ Then, darting at me a look almost of suspicion, she begged: ‘Oh, don’t ever repeat what I’ve said! My position is really very pleasant. I really would n’t want any more responsibility than I have. After all, “Safety First,” you know,’ she laughed in her furtive way, as she clasped my hand in parting.
My independent attitude was looked at askance by most of the other employment managers, men and women, whom I met, and in time I was acquainted with the employment representatives of nationally known concerns from coast to coast. Counting out a notable score or so, which included the forceful, courageous, often brilliant labor-managers in the clothing industry, their attitude was one of blind subservience to the higher powers in the concerns they represented. They actually resented the suggestion that one of their functions was to discover better ways of dealing with the enlisted personnel of their companies. It was disloyal, they considered, to assume that their business superiors ever made mistakes.
No shock I received in the business world was so great as my shock on discovering the personnel of personnel men. These were the men, then, to whom Big Business had delegated its intricate human side — the ragtag and bobtail among minor executives, or else arrogant , high-power men committed in advance, willy-nilly, to the employer’s point of view.
In spite of the extension of my job in other directions, to find new sources of labor and to winnow the human material that daily poured through the employment department continued to occupy much of my time. But it was gratifying when department heads began more and more to say: ‘You employ the girls. I don’t want to see them in advance. I’d rather you’d pick them. All I want is some more workers like the last.’
There were, of course, all sorts of special problems. For instance, the assistant treasurer, Mr. Sydney, could never keep a secretary. One of those men unable to delegate work, he was perpetually swamped, stayed late every evening, and expected his secretary to do so. Secretaries seldom remained with him longer than three weeks. His work was a very important part of the great organization and these constant changes were most upsetting. I began to ask girls whom I was interviewing for the job whether they minded working after hours habitually and Saturday afternoons as well. One was found, at last, who minded nothing, so long as she could advance. But she was a stodgy, oldish young woman, and the assistant treasurer declared it was impossible for him to dictate to so homely a person! There remained nothing to do, I assured him in a spirit of fun, but to reform his bad office-habits. And to this tremendous undertaking I had the temerity to address myself, not without a degree of success.
Middle-aged women were at all times among our applicants. There were clerical positions in the company, such as filing, that these women, if they were unqualified for higher work, could fill more acceptably than the average girl in her teens. Their greater steadiness, day in, day out, made up for their lack of speed. Everywhere, however, I met the same objection when I suggested one of them to fill a vacancy: ‘No elderly woman for me! You can’t bawl ‘em out!’ So when I did, after a while, persuade some of the more open-minded department-heads to try workers of this age, I warned the women in advance not to show resentment if they were ‘ bawled out.’ If they could take correction gracefully, they would hold their jobs. And every one of them who did so helped another woman of the same age to get a job.
But if there were objections to the middle-aged woman, so were there to the frivolous young thing in her teens on whom such an amazing proportion of the routine work of the company fell. I recall an energetic young executive coming to me one morning, his face flushed, and in a towering rage. ‘I’m through with Miss Tate! Little fool does nothing but fix her hair. Made a mistake yesterday that may cost the company thousands — may cost me my job. Fire her or what you please, but take her off my hands!’
There were evenings, as I made my way up Wall Street, when I felt like an executioner. I should hardly have been surprised to find my wrists dripping with the blood of my victims. We always set the employment department machinery to work in their behalf, a service touchingly appreciated, and one that I felt was not purely sentimental but perfectly ‘ sound business,’ for employers regarded as undesirable are ‘blacklisted’ among workers to no less extent than workers are ‘blacklisted’ among employers.
One of our frequent callers in the employment department was the girl who wanted a job, but just could n’t work under a woman. This ungallant proviso in regard to her own sex often proceeded from coquetry. By disparaging women she sought to flatter men. But usually it betrayed the slacker, who had found from her own or others’ experience that it was easier to ‘get away’ with things under the average man than under the average woman executive.
On the other hand, cases of friction between men executives and girl workers were of daily occurrence. I remember one case in particular. A young man, looked upon as a ‘rising fellow,’ had been given a sort of roving commission to increase efficiency in any department where he saw a lack of it. As a first step, he proposed to conserve space, always at a premium. In one department, where wide-carriage typewriters were used, he had the commodious desks on which they rested replaced by narrow tables. This change was effected on a Sunday. Even the supervisor knew nothing of it until she arrived on Monday morning.
A murmur arose. The old desks had suited the girls exactly. They could not work so rapidly at the new ones, which were inconvenient and uncomfortable. They begged the young man to give them back their old desks. He heard them politely, but would not agree to do so. When the girls failed, I tried to make him see things as they did. But I too failed utterly. I think he felt that his prestige was involved and that he could not afford to admit he had made a mistake.
Operators began to leave. But the large sales-sheets, on which the higher executives depended for their guidance, must be ready promptly. Pressure was put upon the supervisor, which she in turn put upon the girls. More operators left. Finally the supervisor herself handed in her resignation.
‘If only he’d talked to me before he made the change,’ was her parting lament. Tears stood in her eyes. ‘I could have told him it would n’t do. What the girls hate the worst in those new desks is that there are n’t any drawers in them — no place to put things away — their purse and handkerchief and powder, maybe a magazine, a box of candy or something — you know — ‘
Yes, I knew. The outcome was that, after a long battle, the old desks were put back, but not till the department had been so demoralized that it did not run smoothly for a year afterward. Here was support to the contention of Frances Perkins, the first woman Industrial Commissioner of New York State, that it is less wasteful for business to adapt itself to women workers than to await the slow process of women workers adapting themselves to business.
There was the case of the auditor — inconsiderate to the last degree and grossly overworking every girl who came under his dominion. The girls left as soon as they could find jobs elsewhere, or stayed till they became nervous wrecks. So many of them were breaking that I ventured to call upon him. Wheeling in his chair, a heavy, flabby man with a swarthy expressionless face, he blurted out: ‘I don’t give a damn what happens to these girls! Let ‘em break! Throw ‘em on the dump-heap! There’s plenty more where they come from.’
It was not more brutal than other executive admissions I had heard, but it was the most ruffianly in manner I had ever encountered. What struck me, however, was not so much the auditor’s uncouth behavior as his Southern accent and inflection. He was a native, perhaps, of my own state; at any rate, of a section where chivalry to women amounts to a cult. What women? It was apparent he had classed me with all other women who work for their living and had treated me accordingly. Would he have addressed his wife, his sister, or a social acquaintance in the tone he used for me? Would he ever have thought of his own daughter as a creature to be damned and thrown on the dump-heap?
Providence removed the auditor during an influenza epidemic not long after my visit to him. The unconcealed gayety that met the announcement of his sudden taking-off was something too terrible to behold.
But the outstanding discontent was due to the wages paid. They were so notoriously low as to have gained for the company the name of ‘the Slaughterhouse.’ Yet only capable workers, refined and well dressed, were desired. To secure this sort the company traded to some extent on its prestige.
The turnover was shockingly high. On our own initiative Mr. Waterman and I prepared monthly reports showing the number leaving and the reasons therefor. Practically all left for higher wages. The executives to whom we sent the turnover report received it with irritation, but they read it.
Wage increases, such as they were, were granted only at arbitrary periods, January and July. They were determined by a conclave anxious to get away to more congenial pursuits, golf or the ‘Follies,’ according to the season. It was a joke among the executives that on these fatiguing occasions they began to grant the small yearly advances to names beginning with A on the list of employees, worked through to the K’s or perhaps to the N’s, — determined by the lateness of the hour or the thickness of the cigar-smoke, — and then adjourned. Miss Perry in the P’s, ignorant of executive procedure, wondered indignantly why she had been overlooked again this year. Mr. Smythe in the S’s ate his heart out in silence when he found his loyalty and industry and accuracy again unrewarded. There was nothing personal in these omissions, but a list of almost two thousand was very long to go over when limousines were waiting below.
One morning I sought Mr. Barney. ‘Well, what now?’ was his salutation, with an obviously painful effort to smile. I went over the usual difficulty. ‘Do you realize,’ I asked, ‘that it is utterly impossible for a girl to live in New York on what we pay for —’
‘Rot!’ he broke in. ‘Don’t give me any “living-wage” stuff! That Bolshevism won’t go in this place!’
‘Bolshevism’ was just at that time gaining a place in the executive vocabulary, a useful word to apply to any sort of protest on the part of employees, or in their behalf.
‘Well,’ I said, forcing a light laugh, ‘I suppose the thing to do, then, is frankly to admit we’re a parasitic business.’
‘Parasitic! What the hell’s that?’ He liked to learn, Mr. Barney. A word new to him was sure to arrest his attention.
‘Any business that does n’t pay enough for its employees to live on is parasitic. It feeds on the community. You pay, I pay, somebody pays, the difference between what it costs them to live and what they draw as wages.’
‘Oh, that’s highbrow stuff,’ he objected, with a slight scowl.
At the end of our talk, Mr. Barney went so far as to admit that he knew the wages were entirely too low. But what was he to do? He could n’t approach the Big Boss.
But I did n’t stop. It was not business etiquette to go over Mr. Barney’s head, but in view of the critical situation I felt the step justified when I tackled next the first vice-president.
‘Shall we advertise,’ I asked him, though not, certainly, with a serious face, ‘for young men and women enjoying a private income? We might state that the company will be proud to receive applications from parties supported from other sources, as the company feels that the distinction of working for it should be sufficient reward in itself!’
The first vice-president grinned. ‘Sit down and make me a visit,’ he invited. ‘This thing of wages — well, nobody knows anything about wages. “The Theory of Wage Payment,” and all that sort of bunk — sounds well, does n’t it? But who knows what factors should enter into wage payment?’
‘You grant the matter’s important.’
‘Wage theories differ,’ he stated, and began to expound them at some length.
‘But in this company,’ I interposed at last, ‘ there’s not even a theory.’
I repeated laughingly the early advice given me: ‘“Get everybody as cheap as you can.” If you add,’ I continued, ‘“and hold them as cheap as you can,” you have this company’s policy as nearly as I can make it out.’
‘ Exactly! ‘ he agreed, to my surprise; and, with the utmost good-humor, went on: ‘Now I ‘ll tell you something for your edification. To keep our firstline men, men capable of running a business like this, we have to let them dip their fingers pretty deep into the pot. So we shave the only thing we can shave — the wages bill.’
The subject of wages had at least been dragged into the open where it could be discussed.
I kept firing away on the same line. Executives began to listen with less irritation, and finally the fact that so many good workers were leaving the company for better wages reached the president. The president was something more than magnificent sound and fury. At once he appointed a salary committee, which was to meet monthly and give serious attention to the wages being paid, and was empowered to grant increases as seemed advisable. The announcement of this committee was the most satisfactory moment I had known since I entered the company.
It might seem that the chief troubles of the employment department were over. But it was strongly against the inclination of the salary committee to increase the pay roll. Mr. Waterman and I, meeting with the committee in an advisory capacity, were forced into the position of advocates. Late into the night, sweltering New York summer nights, meetings in the Board room went on. Blood was drawn, perhaps, on both sides. But I never felt more friendly toward the executives composing the salary committee than after such a battle, once the smoke had cleared away.
I had come to be a part, however small, of this high-power organization. I liked its speed, the stir and excitement of life in the Street; I liked these doughty fighting men with whom I did battle. Irascible, curt at times, fallen into selfish cold-blooded practices, there was fine human stuff in most of them, none the less. I had had an offer from a well-known company in upState New York. But my future here in Wall Street was perhaps as good as anywhere else. Why should I leave? Up-State New York was an unknown country. A manufacturing concern had made me the offer. It would take me into a broader field, be a bigger position, and I wanted the industrial experience. I was still torn between desire to stay and desire to leave when Mr. Barney sent for me.
‘We’ve given Waterman notice,’ he announced in a subdued voice.
I was not altogether surprised. ‘Mr. Waterman is well liked by the employees,’ I started, and urged everything I could think of in his behalf.
Mr. Barney made no response. He looked at me directly and, still in a low voice, said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you, too.’
My heart jumped. It was n’t the same thing that they had against Mr. Waterman, I knew that. I had been active. Far too aggressive — there was the trouble; too aggressive in behalf of the employees. The blood rushed to my face, and through my mind flashed the procession of girls to whom I had played executioner. I had thought I knew before how they felt, but I only realized now. The up-State offer was still open; but to leave voluntarily was one thing, to be ‘fired’ quite another!
‘Mr. Barney,’ I said, smiling faintly, ‘if my head’s to come off too, let’s have it done merrily. Chop away!’
Mr. Barney’s face was suddenly transformed by his irresistible boyish smile. ‘You!’he exclaimed. And then he informed me that my salary had been almost doubled. ‘And, by Jove, you’ve earned it!’ he ended.
How big-spirited he was! I had not been easy, I knew, to drive in harness, as his subordinate; I had angered him more than once by kicking over the traces. But he had worked for my advancement, rejoiced in it.
The advancement itself was more than gratifying. It was revealing. I had opposed many things I found in the company, and my opposition had met the most stubborn resistance on the part of the executives. Yet they had just placed the unmistakable seal of their approval on my services.
Their generosity made it harder than ever for me to think of leaving. But the question of Mr. Waterman’s successor arose. I urged Mr. Barney now to give me charge of the men’s as well as the women’s employment department. There should be but one head.
‘The Big Boss is for your doing it,’ Mr. Barney admitted. So it had been considered! ‘But some of the others are opposed. They’ll never agree to it. It is n’t that they think you could n’t do it, but they’re afraid it would injure our prestige to have it known a woman was interviewing men for us. They’re afraid the right sort would n’t apply.’
The matter was settled, I could see, and not to be reopened. In the end it was the issue that decided me to go.
When the day of my leaving arrived, a young girl whom I did not know was waiting outside my office door to stop me breathlessly; ‘I work in the record department. Someone just told me you were going. Oh, I hope it is n’t so! Seems as if you were the mother of us all!’
The mother! How proud I was that any of them had thought of me in that way! More than ever I felt like a deserter. And some of the old fears began to assail me again. I voiced them to an old family friend, a very old man, but still in active business, wise, full of humor and understanding.
‘My dear lady,’ he said, ‘you have passed your novitiate’; and then, his faded old eyes twinkling, ‘you have cut your teeth in Wall Street — the hardest place in the country. You have nothing to fear up-State!’
My wise old friend, however, proved but an indifferent prophet. The real struggles began for me in the years that followed.