The Influence of Business Life on Women
WOMEN AND THE HOME
Anna Richardson in Woman’s Home Companion
THE woman wage-earner is today the nation’s most serious sociological problem, its most insidious menace. Legislation may restrict immigration, curb trusts, eliminate child labor, enact uniform divorce laws and subdue the “Yellow Peril,” but it cannot stem the constantly swelling tide of intelligent women who are fleeing the home life to seek careers in the various fields of money-making. From the ranks of these women, future statesmen, law-makers and law-breakers will spring, and millions of future mothers are being trained for the pitiless warfare of wage earning rather than for the gentler but more potent art of home-making.
In Greater New York alone half a million girls and women are partly or wholly self-supporting. Half a million women, or one fifth the population, are under business rather than domestic influences. Of this number it is estimated that twenty thousand are stenographers and typists.
In one department store, at the height of the Christmas trade, six thousand persons are employed. Four thousand of these are girls and women.
Labor statistics (gleaned from one of the standard almanacs) show that under the census of 1905, 1,065,884
women and girls over sixteen years old are engaged in those manufacturing interests of the United States which come under the head of the factory system. These women draw in wages $317,279,008, or more than $300 a year per capita. In the same manufacturing interests, men and boys over sixteen are employed to the number of 4,244,538. Their combined wages are $2,266,273,317, or an average of $533.95 a year. The number of women wage-earners has increased sixteen per cent, since the census of 1900 was taken, and their wages have been increased 27.5 per cent. It must be borne in mind that these figures do not cover custom dressmaking and millinery, in which trades women practically have a monopoly.
Study the average household in cities, large and small, in county seats or in towns which can boast of unimportant industries giving employment to women. To what end is the girl given an education? Almost invariably to fill some position in the commercial or professional world. Statistics show that comparatively few girls go beyond the grammar grades. At sixteen they graduate into a business college, a shop, a factory or an office.
In days gone by, mothers planning for the future would say: “When
Nellie is married we will do so and so.” To-day they say: “When Nellie has a good position or makes fifteen dollars a week I will do this or that.” The old-fashioned mother pointed with pride to the daughter happily married, mistress of her own wellmanaged home. To-day the power in the household to whom all bow is the daughter who earns the largest salary.
Many mothers frankly admit that it does not pay to train daughters in housewifely habits. The girl who is to be in business should not be troubled with domestic matters. Instead of teaching the girl how to dust, mend or cook, before and after school hours, the mother dictates shorthand exercises.
Is it remarkable that the girl accepts her mother’s view? Surely this mother, drudging more or less patiently at home while the daughter is preparing for business, must know whereof she speaks when she says her child shall never lead the narrow life that has been hers? Is it strange that the girl sees the domestic life through distorted lenses, and decides in favor of a life of individual and absolute independence ?
Not until the wage-earning women of the present generation have married and reckoned the full measure of their loss will a second, or perhaps a third, generation of daughters be taught to choose intelligently between the domestic and the business life. Not until thousands of women have scored either failure or deadening mediocrity in wage-earning will girls be taught that there is drudgery in the factory, store or office as well as in the kitchen. Until mothers learn this by actual experience daughters will continue to fling themselves recklessly, unadvisedly, into the maelstrom of business life.
What influences does business exert on this inexperienced, expectant girl? They are purely psychological. The question of comparative health and comparative morals in domestic and in business life is narrow, as compared with the broader one of psychological conditions.
I believe that just as many women break down under the strain of bearing children and domestic burdens as have nervous prostration from trying to do a man’s work in business and live a woman’s life at home.
But there is this difference : The woman who sacrifices herself on the domestic altar may leave behind her a living, breathing memorial in the sons and daughters who revere her memory, and who hand down to posterity the influence of her strong character, an ever widening circle for good ; while the woman who sacrifices herself to business success can leave only a few tangled skeins in office or store for some other woman to straighten out. The woman who is normal and healthy, and performs her work in the normal, commonsense way, will not break down either in the home or in a wage-earning field.
Wage-earning women as a class I believe to be even more moral than their sisters who lead the protected life. Contact with the world shows them the wages of sin as well as the wages of work. They are less credulous, less trusting, than the girl who idealizes every man who comes upon her horizon. The girl whose virtue is inherent and strongly entrenched does not yield to the blandishments of the man she meets in business ; rather she becomes absolutely impregnable. On the other hand, the girl who is naturally wild and unrestrained does not require the influence of office, store or factory environment to show her the downward way.
A woman may be absolutely moral, upright and honest, and yet be unhappy and possess the faculty of making every one around her unhappy. The real test of success or failure for a business woman lies so deep in her own life, in her very heart, that it cannot be measured by casual acquaintances or by the ordinary investigations of sociological students who have never lived with her, worked with her and suffered with her.
Before you can decide the influence of business on the woman you must
study the motive which makes her join the world of wage-earners. Present economic conditions drive thousands of half-grown girls into factories, shops and other underpaid avenues of money-making. These girls, springing from homes of poverty and ignorance, must be helped and uplifted by state and national laws, private and public charities, such as clubs, night schools and settlements, and every possible means which will teach them the right way of living and give them an insight into the art of home making when they leave the factory to take up their duties as wives and mothers.
There is a second class of girls, who from choice would lead the protected home life, but who are forced into the wage-earning field by various emergencies, loss of family fortune, death, illness, etc. To me these girls are the real heroines of the business world.
But there is a third and ever-growing class of young women, who, because they cannot be reached by any institution, state or otherwise, are invulnerable in their independence and dangerous in their intelligence. They are not compelled by financial necessity to work. They could remain comfortably, if not luxuriously, supported under the parental roof. They can afford to work indefinitely on a small salary, and thus they reduce the wages paid to their less fortunate fellow-workers. Every dollar they earn they may spend for personal comfort, luxury or adornment. They take precedence over girls just as capable and competent, but who cannot present as good an appearance. And, having, by the deliberate methods possible in their situation, achieved either financial competency or a brilliant success, in their life of independent luxury they present to girls farther down the ladder a false goal. These successful women who had every advantage at the start, a home life free from worries, financial backing in case they failed, social or family influence, superior education, the poise and confidence which come with good grooming, good
gowning and good manners, are the commercial will-o’-the-wisps which lead the unsophisticated, unskilled, restless girl just leaving school to believe that business success spells enduring happiness. You do not find them in factories, but in better-paid lines of work.
While these articles were in course of preparation I planned a conference of representative business women, some of whom belong in the above-mentioned class. They had been fully informed of the topic to be discussed. Each woman stands for success in her respective line. Some of their names are used to conjure with in the marts of trade. Twelve women, practically from as many states, most of them having started at $5 a week or less, to-day standing shoulder to shoulder with men as exponents of intelligent labor and advanced thought, drawing the same salaries and enjoying the same privileges as the men among whom they work! Women who have worked with girls and for girls ; women who have it in their power to start girls in the pathway that leads to business success ; women who have never failed to give a helping hand to their sex in the business world, and yet who, when pinned down to an honest opinion, in the good of the cause admitted that, had they their lives to live over, they would choose the domestic and not the business career.
Not one of these women is a pessimist. Not one is really unhappy in her work, because to be successful in business you must be philosophical. Some of these women had supplanted men in their positions, and are drawing better salaries than the men whom they succeeded. Some have married ; some hope to marry in the near future, and others frankly admit that because of their new view of life as a whole and men as a class they do not expect to marry.
These facts I am stating in order that the girls who read this article will realize that it is not women who have failed or women whose hearts are eaten by disappointment who were
chosen to talk frankly on the influence of business over women. The statements which follow were taken verbatim at that conference.
Said a woman who is buyer in a department store : “Ask the average girl of to-day who is seeking a position to name her ambition—and she has none. She has set before her no goal toward which she will bend her energies. She will tell you she needs the money, or that her parents expect her to pay board now that she has left school, or that she has some friends employed down town and she wants to work with them. Only the exceptional girl has outlined some definite plan of action, or can name some definite end toward which she is working.
“ With a man, business is a permanent career, an end which he never permits to drop out of sight. With the average woman it is merely expedient. With a man, success in business is all-absorbing, matrimony and love are incidents. With a woman, in time love and matrimony become the real things of life, and business the incident. Success with the business man is satisfying. If the right woman is a factor or is benefited by his business success, he counts this as an added blessing. The woman cannot enjoy success alone. She must share it with someone. This is the natural out-cropping of unselfishness in the woman. With a man, success, or efforts toward success, dwarf all other feelings. With a woman, sentiment, affection, the unexpected assertion of the feminine nature are liable to imperil her business success at any moment.
“If a busy man has a luncheon engagement with a woman, however dear she may be to him, and she fails to keep her appointment, he will invent all manner of excuses for her, eat his lunch philosophically and resume the routine of his afternoon work, leaving the settlement of his differences with the object of his. affections until business affairs have been despatched. Outwardly, if the case is reversed, the woman may do precisely the same thing, but she will
accumulate nervous indigestion during the luncheon hour and endure mental hysterics during the afternoon.”
The head of a large clerical staff, composed entirely of women, said:
“Though they will not admit it, nine girls out of ten look upon the business world as a matrimonial field well worth working. Thousands enter it to find a husband and remain in it to avoid needing one.
“Cupid does not find the average shop or office a congenial atmosphere in which to labor. Women who work shoulder to shoulder with men have few illusions left at the end of the first year. And say what you will about the weakness and credulity of the old-fashioned women, it is not a kind hand that tears away every illusion. With the departure of certain ideals, women realize that certain reason for their existence, certain possibilities of happiness, have slipped out of their grasp. The girl who has won her first little commercial triumph at twenty-three does not understand this, but the woman of thirty-three or forty-three, who has drunk the full measure of business success—and yet wonders why life seems empty— does understand, and suffers accordingly.”
Said a woman who at a comparatively young age has scored success in a field which few women enter :
“At twenty-five I returned to my native village from college. I had not decided on any career, but when I got back to the quiet town something palled upon me. It was the men ! I had known them all from youth—nice, prosiac fellows, anxious to settle down under their respective ancestral rooftrees—and I fled the scene. In a larger city, among bustling business interests, I would find a congenial mate. From the start I was a business success. One small triumph followed another, but I didn’t marry. I found myself measuring men by their business qualifications, not by their personal or domestic standards. At forty I woke to a realization that men were no longer interested in me as a woman, but as
a dangerous business rival, a person who needed to be watched, a creature to be flattered, alas ! not because of her womanliness and feminine charms, but because her influence was valuable. Was I flattered at this realization? No! I was furious, and I have hated men ever since !”
Another woman said:
“Women do not generally meet their matrimonial fate in the office or store where they work. If a man marries a business girl, he meets her not in the store or office, but at some social function. This is because the girl who works at his elbow loses the indefinable, illusive charm of the girl whom he idealizes when, she is not around. The familiarity of office or business life breeds contempt between the sexes. You say, ‘Better to feel this contempt before marriage than after.’ I say, ‘No. Better to trust to the saving strength of love after marriage than never to yield to it at all.’ ”
A woman whose apartments in a fashionable hotel are the admiration of her friends said : “The homing instinct of the woman is a dangerous element in her struggles for success. The man is content to use success as a means of securing the home, and he looks forward to the day when he can afford to install in that home a suitable mistress. On the other hand, the business woman has a curious sense of having to make a home for herself without the privilege of sharing it with the man of her choice. Generally, as soon as she can spare the money, she decides that she will have a home of her own. First come the struggles to raise the funds; then the small domestic problems, and in the end she finds that the home without the mate is not a home at all.”
Strange sentiments, you say, from women who stand on a commercial equality with men ? It brings us back to the original statement that business success for the woman does not mean domestic or individual happiness, and that on the whole a business life makes for restlessness, selfishness and discontent. You cannot measure the influence of business on the woman
by figures or statistics. You cannot count wrecked lives among women wage-earners as you can tally off divorce cases on court calendars, and trace them to certain causes, such as incompatibility, desertion, cruelty, etc. You cannot say that a woman in business is a failure or success according to the salary she draws. You cannot expect the trim, self-contained girl at your elbow to admit that her perfectly appointed little apartment, her perfectly trained maid, her perfectly ordered life of dinners, clubs, theatres and opera parties spell failure. She says she is a success. In her heart she knows that when the last guest has gone, and the trim little maid has been dismissed, the exquisite little apartment becomes a whited spulcher in which the starved soul of the woman sits alone weeping.
Hundreds of women who are drawing good salaries and holding positions of responsibility will claim that the successful business woman has no time to think of matrimony, and that this plea for the old-fashioned preparation for marriage means a reversion to domestic slavery.
The homing and mating instinct is just as strong in the practical woman of to-day who designs wall paper for a manufacturer as it was in her dreamy-eyed ancestor who embroidered impossible roses on a screen—as strong in the woman who feeds a loom in a cotton mill as it was in her Colonial great-grandmother, who into the linen which she wove for her bridal trousseau threaded also dreams of stalwart sons and fair daughters.
A few generations of business women cannot overturn the divine plan of human life. You cannot stifle affection and mother love by the clatter of looms and the clack of typewriters. There are a few women, misers at heart, who find happiness in the mere acquirement of wealth. There are a few abnormal women who hate children, and therefore have no right to become mothers. But the vast majority of women still continue, and for generations will continue, to admit secretly, at least, the
existence within them of the worldold craving for a heart mate.
Normal woman finds her happiness in the multiplicity of small things that make for contentment. The perfect home life is built upon the firm foundation of her contented unselfishness, and the materials and tools which work to the perfection of its design are small courtesies, small attentions and small pleasures. The woman in business is consumed by large and often unrealized ambitions. She strains after the very privileges which turn to sting her, once they are in her grasp. She demands that men accept her in the business world as an intelligent, commercial, wageearning equal. Then when they no longer treat her as their social superior, when they no longer pay tribute to her womanly charms, she declares that men are no longer chivalrous !
A case in point: The elevator in a sky-scraper where men and women share the offices of a powerful insurance company was crowded almost to capacity when it stopped to take on board a tenant of other offices, accompanied by his wife. Instantly every man in the elevator removed his hat. This was not a tribute to the wife’s superior looks, for many of the women stenographers and clerks already in the car were fairer to look upon. It was not in compliment to the richness of her furs nor her waving plumes, because the raiment of some of her self-supporting fellowpassengers was quite as good. It was purely the tribute from the primitive man to the primitive woman, whom he may support and protect, as compared with the woman who can and will support herself. The woman who works at his elbow day after day is not his ideal woman. He does not mean to be rude to her; she is just part of the office equipment, a section of the commercial machinery.
As. we left the car, a young woman whispered :
“Pleasant, is it not, to be shown in this unmistakable fashion the status you take in masculine estimation when you work for your living?”
That was her ingenuous voicing of restlessness and dissatisfaction, not with the fact that she had to work for her living, but that, in her own relations with the opposite sex, she had lost her power to command the subtle tribute of manliness to womanliness. She had learned that a woman cannot be “a good fellow,” “a chum,” in business and still remain a man’s ideal.
Just as the man’s viewpoint of women shifts when they enter into business competition, so does the woman’s measure of men change in their new relations. She weighs him in different scales, and the result makes for discontent. The woman who is engaged in intellectual or artistic pursuits, and scores therein a success, demands for a husband the man who will satisfy her intellectually. The woman who scores commercial or financial success demands in her prospective husband success more brilliant than she has achieved. The man whose respectable attainments would satisfy completely the woman who has always led the protected life falls short as a matrimonial possibility when measured by the keen, critical business woman, and the more successful the latter, the smaller her chances of matrimonial happiness. Such is one price which the business woman pays for success.
Men who employ women because the latter will accept smaller salaries than men, and men who shift the responsibility of family support from their own shoulders to those of wives and daughters, are developing a new race of American women. To this fact future generations will owe a form of race suicide which President Roosevelt in his sternest moments has not pictured, or a race of men so spineless, irresponsible and effeminate that the first chapter in the degeneration of America shall have been written by the hand of greed and avarice.
You can legislate against the man who employs half-grown, half-nourished, half-paid girl children in his factory. You can send a woman to prison for trying to take her own life. But you cannot touch the intelligent
woman who enters a legitimate avenue of money-making which may lead to soul suicide. This woman, who by her very intelligence, her superior physique, would make an ideal mother, has a legal right to sacrifice her womanhood upon the altar of a commercial career, and later to feel her own soul wrung with regret. It is upon these women, the better-educated, better-nourished, better-equipped young women of the great middle class that the business life exerts its
most dangerous fascinations, leading them from the hearthstone, with its possibilities of peace to the great forge of commerce, on which heart and soul may be battered with relentless blows.
The cure of this national disease lies in the victim—the woman in business. Not until she sees the peril to herself and her individual happiness will she recognize in her occupation, in her present-day method of living, a peril to the nation.