One of the most significant sociological changes in the nation’s history began in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the ramifications are still being felt today. This change consisted of the large numbers of women who entered the work force. This dramatic change in American society was accompanied by a great deal of controversy and prejudice directed towards women. It was predicted that female employment would bring about the downfall of society and the change of the American family. While a large portion of the public was appalled by the thought of independent young working women, they were also fascinated. Therefore, the attitudes of the public toward these women can be seen in the literature that was produced at that time.
The works of Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser immediately come to mind as dramatizations of the life of women of this period. Slowly, attitudes began to change. The employment opportunities for women enlarged and women began to slowly gain their rights as full citizens, finally receiving the right to vote in 1920. The attitudes of the women in the work force also changed as time progressed. At first, they struggled for even the opportunity to work.
As the century progressed, they became more active in union activities and, as newspapers from the period demonstrate, they fought to achieve better working conditions and better wages. By 1900, many poor and working-class young women, mostly of Northern white extraction, were leaving the confines and moral structures of their families and elders and venturing forth to the large industrial cities such as New York (Lunbeck 781).
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There they became enthusiastic participants of the new pleasures that were offered to consumers in the brand-new century. Essentially, these young women added a stage to the female life cycle that had not previously existed ~n adolescence (Lunbeck 781).
In the 1890 s, female factory workers were seen as a serious economic and social threat.
Because women generally worked at the bottom of the pay scale, the theory was that they depressed the overall pay scale for all workers (Kessler-Harris 98).
Many solutions were suggested at this time that all revolved around the idea of these women getting married’o the idea being that a married woman would not work for wages. Although this idea seems ludicrous from a modern perspective, it should be noted that the idea persisted well into the twentieth century (Kessler-Harris 99).
Even at the time, however, there were female voices that argued against the prevailing prejudices, thus showing that the attitudes of the women, themselves, were changing. Nevertheless, the prejudice against female workers essentially allowed their employers at the various factories to blame the women themselves for their low wages.
The standard argument was that these women did not ‘need’ to work. Part of this concept was that these women were supported by fathers, brothers, etc. and only wanted the jobs so they would have money for nice clothes and ‘extras’. Despite numerous government statistics that demonstrated financial need by many female workers, the prevailing attitude was that women brought their low earnings on themselves (Kessler-Harris 100).
This, of course, totally ignored the government statistics that pertained to immigrant families and minorities, where family finances were the prime motivating factor towards women joining the work force (Kessler-Harris 123).
Additionally, the census figures that showed immigrant wives as not working failed to take into consideration that these women were usually employed as their husband’s assistants (Anonymous 25; Kessler-Harris 124).
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Those knowledgeable about working conditions within New York’s factories found the facts to be far different from this scenario. While some women lived at home, many did not. At a weekly wage of eight to ten dollars per week, these women generally paid five to six of that for their rooms (Barnum 7).
Women who made less then eight dollars per week had to find a place that rented for less and she generally made up the difference by working for her board. This meant that many women rose at 5 a. m.
and did domestic chores for their board, then put in their workday, and then returned for home for more domestic work (Barnum 7).
A male, who generally made anywhere from 15% to 20% higher wages for the same work, had no such problems (Barnum 7).
However, it was on the women that society placed the responsibility of the continuation of civilization. The public opinion was that working could ruin a woman for the institution of marriage (Kessler-Harris 105).
In general, society warned young women that entering into the business world in any form ‘tended to make a woman coarse’ (Keep 401).
Women who ignored these warnings were viewed not only as a danger to themselves, but to the ‘moral integrity of the nation as a whole’ due to the fact that it was believed that the superior values of ‘civilization’ were due chiefly to the influence of women (Keep 401).
It was firmly believed that working outside the home breed discontent among women that could make them ill-suited for marriage. Considering the patriarchal nature of marriage at this time, one can readily see their point. Others argued for a new perspective on marriage, and said that by opening a woman’s horizons she became capable of being a companion and not merely a housekeeper (Kessler-Harris 106).
The hazards of the work environment were also seen as a threat that could possibly impair a woman’s fertility (Kessler-Harris 106).
Certainly, the dreadful conditions that accompanied most factory work constituted health threats to all workers, male and female. Few factory workers got sufficient sunshine or exercise.
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Those who labored at the early sewing machines developed back problems, digestive problems and frequently caught tuberculosis (Kessler-Harris 106).
Textile workers were prone to brown lung disease, and those workers who were compelled to stand for 12 to 18 hours at a stretch had trouble with varicose veins. There were rumors of hair getting ripped out by machines and hands being mangled (Kessler-Harris 106).
‘It was said that subjecting future mothers of the race to these evils would produce, in the jargon of the day, stunted and dwarfed children’ (Kessler-Harris 106).
The ways in which work was seen as a threat to female morality is best reflected in the literature of the day. Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) is the story of Lily Bart, a captivating ly beautiful young woman. Wharton’s novel primarily deals with the consequences of society’s false impression of what constituted a proper role for women had on the institution of marriage (Connell 557).
For example, Wharton contrats Lily Bart with a girl she meets through one of her cousin Gerty’s favorite charities, a Working Girls’ Club (Connell 557).
The young women who worked downtown used these clubs. An article from the period describes one such club in downtown New York on Cedar Street (Times, 4/16/00 7).
The article states that the initiation fee was $2 and that monthly dues were 50 cents, so it is logical that even the poorest factory worker could probably afford to join (7).
Nettie Strut her is a member of such a club in Wharton’s novel. She suffers from ‘poverty, illness and despair’ (Connell 557).
In dramatizing this character, Wharton also addressed the way in which society viewed these women, as did Theodore Dreiser in another novel produced in this period, Sister Carrie.
Dreiser, even more then Wharton, portrayed how a ‘good’ girl could fall under the wrong influences in the environment of a big city such as New York. In Dreiser’s novel, Carrie is discouraged by how hard she has to work to make ends meet, and impressed by finery and the ostentatious show of wealth that is all around her, Carrie succumbs to temptation and is seduced by a wealthy older man. By the end of the novel, when Carrie has obtained material success in New York, her attitudes have come full circle, and she was no longer impressed by wealth. However, she has become a cynical judge of character ‘She could feel that there was no warm, sympathetic friendship back of the easy merriment with which many approached her’ (Dreiser 356).
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Nevertheless, despite the harsh conditions and the moral decline that was predicted by society for women in the work force, many women sought the independence that wages earning offered. This naturally led to a desire for better conditions and a higher wage. By the early 1900 s, three women who were born in nineteenth-century Russia had managed to make their way to the garment shops on New York’s Lower East Side. From there, Rose Schneider man, Fannie Cohn and Clara L. Shavelson also found their way to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) (Fennel 773).
These women were instrumental in the early labor movement that brought much needed improvement to the conditions and wages of working women in the early part of the century.
These early labor pioneers had to struggle with condescending male comrades who made contentious allies in the labor movement as well as do battle with employers and shopkeepers (Fennel 773).
Accounts of a typical strike that took place in early 1913 demonstrate that women were quite active in their participation in these efforts to obtain better pay and better conditions. An article printed January 2, 1913 shows that although an early settlement was expected, a strike was, nevertheless, going to take place. The article also indicated that 20, 000 women and 2, 000 young girls who made ‘waist, kimono and wrappers’ had joined forces with white goods workers under the auspices of the ILGWU (Times, 1/2/13 3).
A follow-up article in the Times that ran January 8, 1913 showed that more and more branches of the ILGWU were joining the strikers and that the strike, overall, was escalating.
The Times reported on February 12, 1913 that the strike had been settled. Negotiations, which had previously broken down when management tried to restrict an increase for piece workers to $1 per week, were successfully concluded as management eventually gave up this provision. A settlement was agreed upon that increased the wages and improved working conditions for both men and women garment workers. One of the organizers of the strike, Gertrude Barnum, was quoted as saying that ‘the victory was a clean sweep’ (Times, 2/12/13 8).
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Barnum had authored a long article for the Time that ran on January 12, 1913. In this article, Barnum, a college graduate, outlined what life was like for the women working in the garment district. This article included a detailed account of how difficult it was to make ends meet for many of these women as well as the harsh working conditions. The article showed immigrant children finishing out articles of clothing for as low as $2 per week. This surely elicited the sympathy of the general public and put pressure on factory management to hasten the end of the strike.
Also it demonstrated how female labor leaders were becoming adept at utilizing the printed word to alter perceptions and public attitudes towards women factory workers and the female work force in general. Today, young women take it for granted that they can apply to any institution of higher learning in the country, that they can choose any profession. There are women doctors, lawyers, senators, and judges. These freedoms have come to be taken so much for granted that many of these young women deny that they are feminists as they go about a profession that would have been barred to them not so long ago.
Today’s women owe a great deal to these early pioneers who ventured into the American workforce despite prejudice and obstacles. Works Cited Anonymous. Report of the Industrial Commission on the Relations and Conditions Of Capitol and Labor Employed in Manufacturer and General Business, v 14 (Westport Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1970).
‘Quick settlement for garment strike… 20, 000 employees, mostly Women, will vote on proposal qui work… ,’ The New York Times (1913): 2 January, p. 3. Anonymous.
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‘100, 000 more to strike,’ The New York Times (1913): 8 January, p. 6. Anonymous. ‘Woman’s Work,’ The New York Times (1893): 15 October, p. 18.
Anonymous. ‘Women in their clubs,’ The New York Times (1900): 16 April, p. 7. Anonymous, ‘Protocol Adopted in Garment Strike,’ The New York Times (1913): 12 February, p.
8. Barnum, Gertrude. ‘Graduate tells about the life of strikers,’ The New York Times (1913): 12 January, p. 7. Connell, Eileen. ‘Edith Wharton joins the working classes: ‘The House of Mirth’ and The New York City Working Girls’ Clubs,’ Women’s Studies, v 26 n 6 (1997): November, pp.
557-604. Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. (New York: W. W. Norton and Co.
, Inc. , 1970).
Fennell, Dorothy E. ‘Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965,’ Industrial and Labor Relations Review, v 49 n 4 (1996): July, pp.
773-774. Keep, Christopher. ‘The cultural work of the Type-Writer Girl,’ Victorian Studies, V 40 n 3 (1997): Spring, pp. 401-426. Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to work: a history of wage-earning women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
Lunbeck, Elizabeth. ‘The ‘girl problem’: female sexual delinquency in New York, 1900-1930,’ Journal of Social History, v 30 (1997): March, pp. 781-783.