Shall Woman's Work Be Regulated by Law?


THE question of special labor legislation for women is becoming increasingly important. Laws which at one time seemed beneficial now begin to look menacing. Scarcely a legislature convenes without having on its slate a law which would regulate woman’s work in some way. At present, because of unemployment, the married woman’s right to work is being challenged.

Not only are women in this country becoming concerned over this tendency in legislation, but women of all countries have been roused to action by the recommendations and conventions of the International Labor Office, restricting women’s right to work. The formation in Berlin last summer of the Open Door International for the Economic Emancipation of the Woman Worker was the direct outcome of the activities of the International Labor Office. At this conference women representing thirty countries were unanimous in their opinion that labor legislation which does not apply to men and women alike harms women, and will eventually harm men as well by forcing them to accept lower wages.

Women, however, are not united on this issue. There are, it is true, many clear-cut feminists who ask for no special privileges and stand firmly for the principle of equal rights for men and women nationally and internationally. There are also many women who still ask for special legislation.

Everyone knows that when women were first employed in industry they were outrageously exploited, working in unsanitary surroundings for long hours and very low wages. For that matter, men as well worked under frightful conditions in the early days of our industrial awakening. Men organized and bargained for better working conditions and higher wages. Women unfortunately did not organize to any great extent, and special legislation for them was obtained for the most part on the advice of and with the aid of social-service workers and men’s labor organizations. In those days when women were finding their way in industry and business and were not considered seriously as permanent workers, special legislation may have been the only possible step. At any rate it improved conditions for women.

To-day conditions have changed radically. Women are no longer casual temporary workers or extras. They are a permanent factor in our economic life. The eight and one-half million women employed in gainful occupations are not working for fun, for careers, or self-expression. They are working to support themselves and their families, to give themselves and their families more of the comforts and better things of life. Women are now in active competition with men, and will remain so. As soon as this is realized, it will not harm, but help, them both.

Women have always worked for lower wages than men, because public opinion has labeled them inferior workers. Although they have proved that they are not inferior workers, the impression still persists even to the extent of producing an inferiority complex in some women. Now that women have proved their ability in industry, in business and the professions, the next step should be equal pay for equal work. This, however, will never be possible as long as women are put in a special class by so-called ‘protective’ legislation.

There is no doubt whatever that socalled ‘protective’ labor laws for women lower women’s wages. If two people are competing for the same job and one demands certain privileges while the other does not, it is evident that the job will go to the one demanding no privileges unless the one who demands the privileges is willing to work for a much lower wage. If because of special privileges women are forced to work for lower wages, they will undercut men and take away their jobs. This will eventually mean that men must work for lower wages. Such is the inevitable result when any class of workers is obliged to work for less than another class.

At first, however, this may not seem to be the case. The first effect of restrictive legislation for women will be the curtailment of the employment of women. When there is an ample supply of labor an employer is not going to bother with a class of employees whose hours of work are regulated by law. Men realize this. Men are feeling the pinch of unemployment caused by the introduction of labor-saving machinery. Instead of acknowledging the real cause of unemployment, they in their panic are prone to blame it upon women, who they think have flooded the labor market, and in many cases they become advocates of special labor laws for women which they hope will curtail women’s employment. They do not always proclaim their real reasons. ‘Health’ and ‘morality’ have a more persuasive sound. These men, however, do not see that the very laws which they are now advocating and which for a time may help their chances of employment will eventually act as a boomerang. Women cannot be driven out of the labor market. The increased introduction of labor-saving machinery means that less skilled labor is necessary and that employers will look for cheap unskilled labor. Women, unorganized and handicapped by special labor legislation, will qualify, and men, if they wish to compete, will have to lower their wage standard. If, on the other hand, men will encourage women to organize, if together they will work for equal pay for equal work, for an adequate wage for both, they will be able to maintain a higher wage standard. It is strange that the American Federation of Labor does not see this.

The American Federation of Labor, however, stands almost solidly for special labor legislation for women. Organized labor in this country has in most instances been decidedly unfriendly toward the employment of women in so-called ‘men’s work.’ The Federation may claim that its interest is purely altruistic, that it wants to protect the womanhood of America, but it tells a different story when its members appear at legislative hearings on bills in favor of restricting the working hours of women. At such times, in a flash of temper the truth comes out. Anyone skeptical of this need only read the records of such hearings. One held in the State House in Boston last spring gave ample proof. At a hearing in Albany, New York, on the no-night-work law for women, a representative of the American Federation of Labor opposed the repeal of the law on the ground that if waitresses were permitted to work at night four thousand men waiters would lose their jobs. The gist of the whole matter is that the American Federation of Labor fears its members may be jobless unless women’s opportunities to work are restricted by law.

Another argument frequently advanced by labor leaders is that, since men support women, women have no right to take away men’s jobs. However, hundreds of women are not being supported by men, and many women are working to piece out the meagre salary earned by their husbands. They are working so that they can give their families or prospective families better homes and better educational opportunities. Often these women have a double responsibility, housework in addition to their paid work. There are also many women supporting disabled husbands. All this makes it very evident that it is necessary for women to work, and that they are not working to defy the labor unions, or to take jobs away from union members.


The October report of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor makes it plain that organized labor has been the most important factor in obtaining special labor legislation for women. Organized labor has been and still is completely in the hands of men. Men, with few exceptions, can never understand the needs of women as well as women themselves. They are very sentimental about the hard work women must do outside the home. It seems wrong to them that women should have to get up early to go to work or work late at night in factory, restaurant, or store. The work that women have done early and late for generations in the home has never had that sentimental light thrown upon it. It never occurs to these same men that if women are restricted in their right to work they will be in a sorry plight indeed. It is always better for a woman to work than to be hungry or a prostitute, or to have those dependent upon her in need. For some reason or other it is very difficult for men to see women as human beings like themselves. They look upon them with either sentiment or superiority.

The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor is the great champion of special labor laws for women. In this connection it is interesting to note that the Secretary of Labor is a firm believer in ‘protective’ legislation for women. It would naturally follow that the head of the Women’s Bureau must hold the same views. The Women’s Bureau claims to make unbiased investigations among women as to the effect of and demand for ‘protective’ labor laws. When every investigator sent out is an ardent believer in ‘protective’ legislation, it is humanly impossible to turn out an unbiased report. It has also been proved many times that the social-service worker and the investigator with the social-service point of view do not always know what the people want. Their own theories become so important that they fail to see the real needs of the people. But the leisure class and the comfortable well-to-do in this country are very easily sold to any so-called humanitarian measure. In fact they cry for special legislation as long as it does not affect their own bread and butter. That is why to-day there is so much false sentiment about special labor laws for women.

Women who are now pleading for these special laws will find before long that they have fastened a heavy yoke upon women which will limit their possibilities of employment, lower their wages, and interfere with their advance into better-paid executive positions. Are women who have been working toward equality and economic independence going to allow themselves to be shackled again all for that old myth of the weaker sex, the myth which they have repeatedly shattered in the past?

Labor legislation which will protect the worker without unreasonably hampering business is necessary, but it is most important that this legislation apply to men and women alike.

When equalitarians say that if a state labor law is good and applies to women only it should be changed by the state to apply to men as well as women, then men protest and say it is unfair to legislate so as to infringe upon man’s right to work. Certainly it is true that, if man’s right to work is inviolate, woman’s right to work is just as inviolate. If that overworked plea of special ‘protective’ legislation for ‘potential mothers’ is brought forward, the reply is that if legislation is necessary for ‘potential mothers’ it is just as necessary for ‘ potential fathers.’ In fact the duty of ‘potential fathers’ has been too long overlooked. When the weakness of woman and her physical impotence are put forward, it is interesting to consider that in Sweden men receive larger old-age pensions and receive them earlier than women, because women are supposed to be hardier and to live longer than men.

If it is asserted that the high death rate of women in childbirth shows that there should be special legislation to protect women, this can be answered by the recent investigations which show that the high death rate is not due so much to overwork before childbirth as to the appalling lack among physicians of training in obstetrics. Often the so-called ‘protective’ laws which prohibit the employment of women two weeks before and after childbirth do not work out as beneficially as intended. For four weeks these women are without their wages, unless some form of insurance is provided. This often means lack of food and proper care. It also means that in many instances the woman will be doing harder, heavier work at home than she would be doing in her paid job. Women should be given the right to decide whether or not they shall engage in paid work immediately before and after childbirth.


Let us consider more in detail some of the special labor legislation for women to see what the objections would be to applying it to men as well, and, if there are objections, why it might not better be dispensed with altogether. Laws such as those requiring safe, sanitary working conditions or seats in stores can and should be made to apply to all workers, men and women. Men do not enjoy standing up behind a counter all day any more than women do. Florida now has a law requiring seats for both men and women employees engaged in mercantile or other business pursuits. Several states require seats for conductors, motormen, and certain other workers. Labor leaders often argue that it is harder and more injurious for women than for men to be on their feet all day and therefore that women are unfit for certain jobs. Doubtless these men forget that women for generations have spent many hours on their feet working in the home. Some states require a period of rest for women in certain industries. Pennsylvania has applied such laws to men as well in some industries. In the case of poisonous trades, there should be protection for every worker, man or woman.

Ohio, for instance, has laws which bar women from sixteen different classes of occupation. Men would not tolerate such laws if applied to them. Neither should women tolerate them. Women will not enter occupations with which they cannot cope, and as free human beings their right of choice should not be interfered with. California has a law providing that no one shall be disqualified on account of sex from entering into or pursuing any lawful business, vocation, or profession.

If legislation is especially needed in certain trades which now employ women exclusively, that legislation can be made to apply to the trade, or to adult workers. History has shown that trades which employ women exclusively to-day may in a few years employ men as well, and vice versa. Minimumwage laws for men and women alike may be applied to the trades where demands for a living wage are necessary. Minimum-wage rulings are in effect for public employees, both men and women, in cities and states. So far, trade-unions have opposed as unconstitutional minimum-wage laws including men. It is hard to see why a measure considered unconstitutional for men is not unconstitutional when applied to women.

There is no objection to laws regulating hours of work when these laws apply to men as well as women. Men have won an eight-hour day with extra pay for overtime in certain occupations through the collective bargaining of their unions. Heretofore, with a few exceptions, it has been considered unconstitutional to enact legislation regulating men’s hours of work. Women, classed with children, have had their hours regulated by legislatures and have been given practically no chance to work overtime, for extra pay. Shorter hours have undoubtedly been a blessing in certain industries, but the lack of opportunity to work overtime has been a detriment. At certain seasons of the year in certain industries and mercantile establishments overtime work is essential, and women might share in the extra pay without harm to themselves. While the regulation of hours for women employed in stores may not handicap the cash and bundle girls, the majority of whom are under twenty-one and therefore minors, it does handicap women in executive positions. Women cannot qualify for the position of buyer, chief telephone operator, supervisor of the mail-order department, supervisor of the receiving department, or supervisor of the service department, if restricted by law from working overtime.

In New York a woman, however capable, cannot be a manager of one of the chain restaurants or chain drug stores because of the law regulating the hours that women may work. If a woman cannot work overtime, it is impossible for her to compete successfully with men in higher-salaried jobs. In 1919, when several so-called ‘protective’ laws went into effect in New York State, women railroad workers, elevator operators, women working in the printing trades, in restaurants, in ice-cream parlors, candy stores, and drug stores, were thrown out of work. As a result, these women were forced to seek employment in already overcrowded fields or to accept less desirable and lower-paid employment. Since 1919 various groups of women have secured exemptions, among them women writers and reporters in newspaper offices, women printers, linotypists, monotypists, railroad workers, and pharmacists. Women workers in candy stores and restaurants have been seeking exemptions for several years, but have not yet been successful.

Students of labor conditions are now predicting a five-hour day and fiveday week. Manufacturers are beginning to see that unless workers have leisure and wages sufficient to give them buying power production will soon exceed the demand. The American Federation of Labor at its meeting in Toronto in October asked that overtime work in every field be limited to emergency needs and that all employees of the United States be given the forty-four-hour week. With these tendencies so evident it should not be difficult to regulate men’s hours of work to coincide with women’s. There has been some progress in this line. Laws have been passed limiting the hours of both men and women in some dangerous trades. An Oregon law establishing an eight-hour day for men and women in many industries will go into effect when the adjoining states impose the same restrictions. There are Federal laws regulating the hours of seamen and interstate railway workers. In this connection the new Argentine labor law which went into effect on March 13, 1930, is of interest. This law provides for an eight-hour day and a forty-eight-hour week for all workers, men and women, except those engaged in agriculture, cattle raising, domestic service, or working in establishments in which only members of the family of the owner, manager, director, or principal partner are employed. Between the hours of 9 P.M. and 6 A.M. work cannot exceed seven hours.


There are decided differences of opinion regarding the harmful effects of night work. If it is harmful for women, it is also harmful for men. We often hear the argument that night workers are never out in the sunshine and therefore cannot be as healthy as day workers. However, men and women working at night often have more chance to be out in the sunshine than those working all day in electrically lighted offices. There are many women supporting families who prefer night work because the pay is higher and the work lighter, and because, as they say, they can always find someone to stay with their children at night, while it is much more difficult and more expensive to find someone to look after the children, give them their meals, and keep them off the streets during the day. It is often said that women in the mills are glad to be relieved of night work. The women in the Passaic mill district protested the law against night work, because they needed to work at night to piece out the low wage received by their husbands.

To prohibit night work to preserve woman’s morality is absurd. Work and wages do not encourage immorality, but poverty and starvation do. A woman working at night has no time to go to dance halls or night clubs or be enticed into immorality. Nor has anyone as yet, strange to relate, been greatly exercised over the dangers which might beset the path of telephone operators, chorus girls, nurses, or scrubwomen who work at night. If there are night-work regulations, it is only fair that they be made to apply to men and women alike.

We often hear it said that since women are economically weaker than men they must have special labor laws. In the past women were economically weaker than men. To-day they are emerging from many handicaps. If we fasten special labor laws upon them, we shall keep them in a state of economic weakness and make them lose all they have gained in the past twenty years. When women do their work as well as men, — and they do in almost every instance, and often they do it better, — they should receive the same pay and the same treatment as men. The old argument that a man must have a higher wage because he has a family to support is false. Hundreds of single women are supporting aged mothers and fathers, younger brothers and sisters, and invalid members of their families.

When women have to work, it is far kinder to them to let them work under fair competition than to sentimentalize over them and enact laws which are bound to interfere with their opportunities. Women must be organized. They must form their own unions which will look out for their interests. This is the great need to-day for women in industry and business. Too long have women been told that they must sacrifice their best interests for the good of the race. Women have learned that what is for their best interest is also for the good of the race. The sacrifice plea is an outworn myth.