The Work of Wives

F. M. THOMPSON June 1 1909

The Work of Wives

F. M. THOMPSON June 1 1909

The Work of Wives


From the Outlook

A DECISION lately made in the General Sessions Court in New York City has raised the question, Are wives supported by their husbands? A man brought into court on a complaint of having abandoned his wife because, as he said, he could not support a household on his earnings of six dollars a week, was discharged by the judge, who concluded his decision with the admonition, “Let the wife go to work for her living.”

It is a popular American notion that the work wives do in the household is not really work. Women so engaged are not counted in United States Labor Reports as being “in industry”; in the United States Census Reports they appear as having no occupation. The whole matter of their situation, a ; determined for all practical purposes, is neatly set forth by an American political economist thus:

“Only a minority of the population which inhabits the country is actually engaged in economic production. The general ride is that a laborer has a wife and family. The former is lending him material aid by cooking his food and mending his clothes, but there is no need of complicating the matter by considering her as a separate agent of production.”

Let us see whether or not that which the wife produces in the home comes within the scope of economic production. What is she doing there? At a glance, we discern that nr.

she is producing things which are actually articles of commerce— manufactured food, manufactured clothing, and that supreme work of domestic art, a poor imitation of which is marketed in hotels, lodging and boarding houses—comfort. Moreover, as buyer for the family and administrator of the family funds, she is performing services as distinctly and essentially related to the production of wealth as any similar work done by men in business houses. But this is not the full extent of the contribution she makes to the wealth of the nation. She bears children ; that is to sav, she produces labor.

Wives employed in the home engage in two separate and distinct forms of production—one is purely industrial in character and differs not at all from the production in which men engage ; the other is the unique work of women—child-bearing; and the product is, labor. Marriage, therefore, so far from placing wives in the category of a “great majority of the population of a country who are not actually engaged in economic production,” confers upon women a dual power in production : wives produce wealth the same as men do, and besides they produce the most indispensable of the requisites of wealth, labor.

It is quite true that the American wife is not regarded as a “separate agent of production,” and what are the consequent conditions of her work as compared with conditions

of the labor of women wage-earners?

It has been established by law in most civilized countries that the maximum amount of time a woman shall be required to work in industry—work for wages—is sixty hours per week; in the home, the wife, because she works for nothing—or shall one say for love?—may be forced to toil, day after day, all day long, far into the night, and all night if the convenience of the family shall so be served. The law requires that the shop or factorv where women work for wages shall conform to certain standards of health and physical welLbeing; in consideration of the woman’s particular physical needs, she must be provided with a seat so that she may rest properly even while at work, and any occupation deemed threatening to her life is forbidden her. The sanitary condition of the home, the wife’s workshoo, is a matter of no public concern : every man’s home is his castle; the work done there is his personal affair; the rest of the world may mind its own business. If the wife work in the home in foul air, bending over a wash-tub all day and nursing a sick child all night, that is a family matter; science does not apnly here, and here remedial legislation has no mission. Bv law in England and by custom in France it is decreed that a woman engaged in industry shall not return to work for one month after confinement : the wife at work in a home in the United States may be comnelled to resume her accustomed labor the dav after, or two or three days after, confinement, and it is to nobodv’s interest to nrevent her. Yet the woman's bodv is the same : the strain unon her maternitv is the same; the burden of her task tnav be greater in the home than if she labored in industrv: and her contribution to wealth is worth monev: but because of the sanctitv of the home—such sanctity! such homes!—the situation of the wife’s labor is ignored on

principle ; no record is made of the profit and losses of her production : and if the health, happiness, and even the life of the wife go to balance the account, the assumption is that this is quite right and proper: it is a fine instance of the beautiful spirit of devotion to duty which makes wives and mothers toiling in the home so eminently fit to die and go to heaven.

In Great Britain the employment of wives in industrv has lately received special attention. In the government report for the year TQO6 on factories and workshops, the Principal Lady Inspector states that the employment in industry of married women is rapidly on the increase, and that, as asserted by manv of the women, this is not because these women need to work fat wageearning). but because they prefer it to housekeeping.

“Throughout the year,” savs the Principal Lady Inspector, “I have given special attention to the queslv, that the employment of married women. In nearlv all the towns visited, from a quiet cathedral town to a large manufacturing city, T obtained the same information ; nameIv. that the emnloyment of married women is rapidly on the increase. A mother suffering from leadpoisoning, visited bv me in her home, acknowledged that her husband was in good employment, that there was no need whatever for her to seek a job as was her custom at the factorv. and said, T do not need to work, but I do not like staying at home.’ Another woman, the mother of several children, whom I had visited during her absence from the factorv, said. ‘I would rather be at work fin the factorv) a hundred times than at home : T get lost at

home.’ Mrs. F--is an experienced

damask weaver and earns fair wages : her husband is a casual worker: she has six children and is shortlv to be confined. She frankly admitted that she preferred working in the factory to housekeeping

and the rearing of children, and that she returned to the factory as soon after confinement as possible. Mrs.

Mis employed in spinning, and

her husband is in regular night work. She has had ten children, seven of whom have died ; the remaining ones are aged respectively fifteen years, four years, and ten months, and she is ¿o be confined again shortly. Her husband objects to her working, but she has just returned to the mill after an absence of eight years. In the majority of cases I have found that neglected, delicate children and dirty, ill-kept homes are the natural concomitants of the employment of married women.”

Concerning the unemployment of the husband in relation to the emplovment in industry of the wife, the Lady Inspector says, “Much of the work formerly done bv men is now done by their wives at a lower wage.” Lower wages of men must therefore be enumerated with the other concomitants of the employment of wives in industry.

The United States Census Report, “Women at Work,” published in T907, shows an increase in the percentage of married women employed in American industry. The relation of this situation to infant mortality has been verv distinctly traced by medical authorities in Great Britain. Tt is the consensus of British medical opinion that “any attemnt to combine the offices of child-bearer and breadwinner in one person must, of necessity, result in feeble, bottle-fed badies and premature births.” It has been pointed out, moreover, bv a medical officer of health in an English factory town that “the damage done cannot entirclv be measured by mortalitv figures, for these take no account of the impaired vitality of the infants who manage to survive to swell the ranks of the degenerate.”

Catcgoricallv stated, then, as determined bv scientific investigation, diese evils are associated with the

employment in industry of married women—the slaughter of infants, degeneracy of children, neglect of children and of the home, lower wages, unemployment of men. None of the sorrow, pain, privation, degradation, resulting from these evils do the women themselves escape by their occupation in industry, yet, in ever-increasing numbers, wives abandon work in the home for wage-earning. Why is it? What impels them, against the will of their husbands, when no actual necessity exists, to seek work in shop and factory at any price rather than stay at home? Is not the reason this:

Wives to-dav realize that the situation of their work in the home is more intolerable than the worst possible consequences of their wageearning.

Industry, at least, admits the fact of the woman’s individual existence, of her individual contribution to production, of her individual right to live as well as to labor, to have her labor measured, the burden of it weighed, the product of it known, valued, priced, and paid. In the home, on the contrary, her labor is lost to sight ; none of the evils of her situation there are known, her work there is not so much as credited with being work : during not one moment of the dav. week in and week out, year in and vear out. can she extricate consciousness from the overwhelming burden of toil, the prostrating sense of failure, the wastage of life—her own, her children’s. her family’s life—which her work imposes unon her. It seems perfectly reasonable, therefore, to conclude that the increasing demand of married women for occupation in industry is. au fond, a revolt of wives against the intolerable conditions of their occupation in the home.

in the United States other indications appear marking this revolt among wives. These are, in particular among women of the well

to-do class, the increasing number of divorces and the increasing tendency to race suicide. It is perfectly idle to preach against these evils, and tell women, as some good, foolish men do, that woman’s place is in the home ; that intermittent marriages and childless marriages are not pleasing in the sight of Heaven ; that the family is the corner-stone of the nation, and therefore women should seek to make the family permanent and numerous, and love to work at home. The American woman cannot reasonably consider any duty to the familv which does not properly provide for the fulfillment of her duty to herself. Before the good of the family can be urged upon her as a motive for doing, or not doing, it must be shown that the family will be good to her. Heaven may wait to welcome her into glory when, as a wife and mother in the home, she shall have worked herself to death ; but the education she has received and the ideals she has been taught to revere compel her, while working in the hope of heaven, to have some hope of life, liberty, happiness, and fair wages to recompense her here below. American women are bound to crowd into men’s work, and to regard matrimony as an experiment and matern-

ity as unprofitable, until the work done by wives is recognized as being work—work which has value; work which, as it is well or ill done, as it is well or ill conditioned, adds to or subtracts from the wealth of the nation. The work done by wives in the home is the last determining factor of the problem of the cost of living, and is also the first determining factor of the cost of all production. Labor itself—the numerical strength of the workers of the nation and their efficiency—depends in the beginning upon the industrial situation of wives.

Carroll D. Wright said once, “Some notion of the economic importance of the labor which wives do in the home is to be had by considering what would be the consequences to general industry if these women were “to walk out.” If all the women working without wages in our homes were suddenly to quit cooking, cleaning, sewing, taking care of babies, and planning to make ends meet, it would mean nothing less than a cessation of general industry. If one thinks of this situation as continuing indefinitely and including a strike against maternity, it would mean the collapse of our industrial empire and the end of the nation.”