San Francisco History

Employment of Women
1884



Employment of Women in San Francisco.

THE subject of women's bread-winning has of late years been earnestly taken up by many writers. Many a delicately nurtured woman by the death of the bread-winner, be he father or husband, has been thrown upon her own resources, and after the first agonizing thought—"How can I miss him from my daily life? Oh, God ! take me, too ! "—has come the crushing knowledge that she, with her weak woman's hand, inured to no harder labor than guiding the pencil or touching the piano, must now go forth and battle for bread for herself, and, perhaps, for others.

There is no little for the luxury of tears in the solitude of her chamber. With courage, born of desperation, she must go forth to struggle for existence as best she may; and the higher she has seen in the scale of wealth and fashion, the greater her difficulty becomes. The poor, take them as a class, sympathize much more deeply with each other, for they have felt the stings of poverty, and so are mach more generous to one another; and poverty is no new thing to the already poor woman, when her hard-working mechanic father or husband is taken; life only becomes harder; while to the delicate woman, whose life has been guarded like a tropical plant, there is a terrible transition. The fashionable friends to whom she goes for employment either meet her coldly, or with empty words of sympathy and regrets that they are powerless to help. Not that they are heartless, but perhaps chiefly because the social intercourse of fashionable life is so largely formal that it does not create close friendships, which may be drawn upon in case of need. Then, too, it is utterly impossible for a purely society woman, who has never felt either cold or hunger, to realize that they can exist; still less, can actually threaten some one from her own set. She can have no such deep sense of her friend's need as to make it seem her duty to dismiss trained and satisfactory teachers, for instance, and intrust her children to amateur hands. "I know you have been carefully taught—but you have had no experience in teaching; and, besides, I think it needs a man's discipline to make those spoiled young misses learn anything. If I were you, I would try to get employment in the Mint, or copying—copying is a nice employment for a lady." Such answers she must necessarily get to attempts to sell among her own acquaintances her musical or other accomplishments. They have no market price: they are those of an amateur, not a professional. Educated and accomplished she may be, but only as most girls in her rank in life are educated and accomplished; to earn money by education, she must have more than others. And, moreover, in many of our fashionable schools, the education is designed rather to adorn life than to give severe training to the faculties, or anything that prepares a girl for self support. I shall not soon forget the bitterness of the remark made by acquaintance of mine—a graduate of one of our fashionable seminaries. She had been an only child, petted and spoiled: and upon her mother's death found that life had suddenly become very real, and the future was to be no longer a struggle for pleasure and flattery, but for bread. A friend who chanced to meet her after a year of this, remarked:

"How glad you must be that your mother gave you such a good education."

"Yes; she tried to. I can play a little, paint a little; know a little French, German, and Italian; but I have found to my sorrow that my education is too superficial to be of any use. I am good for nothing in particular; I know nothing well. I could not even get a third grade certificate to teach school. Oh, if I had only been taught one thing perfectly !"

She had to battle with the world with pointless weapons. There are many who are thus disqualified; but many others who are perfectly competent, yet unable to get work. Everywhere the difficulty of this seems to increase. Except in the Mint or Attorney General's office, where there are probably ten applicants for each place, women seem to be at present increasingly shut out from every lucrative employment. I have heard this disputed. It is true that they are now admitted to the bar and the medical profession, but these callings demand a special training such as men receive. The large mass of womankind who by death have been thrown upon their own resources, have no such training. Certain sorts or work, which it has been demonstrated that women can do as well as men, such as copying, watch-making, etching, have been taken from them. Even from type-setting the men of the craft have been trying to exclude them, because they cheapen labor by offering to do it at lower rates. Their very offering to do so, is evidence of the greater difficulty they find already in seeking work. Every one in San Francisco remembers how last year [1883] all the women were turned out of the City Hall, and their places supplied by men, not because they could do the work better, but because they could vote.

A woman left helpless may labor with pencil or pen, but if she be not much above mediocrity, she cannot hope to succeed. The needle! a feminine weapon truly; and yet men are taking this in these days of "ladies' tailor-made suits." Yet 18,000 women in Boston alone depend upon the needle for their support. They are not getting rich very fast; they are paid only a dollar and a half a suit—coat, vest, and trousers—and eighty-five cents for a morning dress. It is starvation, but it is better than suicide. In this city, a dollar a dozen is paid for shirts. It is appalling to think of the crowds of self- respecting, self-dependent women in our great cities, who, by continued exertion, are barely able to sustain life. Cincinnati has 23,000, Boston 20,000, to say nothing of New York and Philadelphia. San Francisco has probably not more than two thirds of this number, but their range of employment is more circumscribed, owing to Chinese labor. There are many shirt factories here where they employ about 120 Chinamen to 20 white women. The usual price paid to white women for button holes is 50 cents a dozen; Chinamen will make them for 0.07 1/2. A few proprietors are beginning to realize that Chinese work is not so well done as white, and to act accordingly; but much of the underwear exhibited in stores is shipped from the East, which, of course, lessens the demand for labor. We receive, however, a little more for labor here than they do there. The average weekly income of the working woman in the East, including regular earnings and addition from outside work, is $5.17 a week—think of that, for food, clothes, and shelter; and about 85 per cent. do their own sewing beside. The average sum earned here is about $6.50 per week. In Cincinnati, shop girls begin with $2.50 per week, which, in six months' time is increased to $3, and so on until it reaches $10, which is the average amount paid for skilled labor. Here, when they are fortunate enough to secure a position at all, they are paid from $4 to $6 at first, and it is gradually increased to $10; $10 is the average amount paid for skilled labor. Forewomen or heads of departments receive much greater prices, of course, $25 or $30 a week being no uncommon price; but it takes years to become qualified for such a position. Walk down Kearny or Market streets, and look in at the windows of cheap underwear; 85 cents for skirts elaborately tucked and ruffled! Think what the poor creature who made them must have received! And other things are sold in like proportion. Truly, Hood's lines

"It is not linen you're wearing out,
But human creatures' lives,"
are just as applicable now as they were before sewing machines were invented. There are many wealthy ladies who could afford to pay well for having underwear made, who buy these cheap garments, but think nothing of sending to Paris for $500 dresses.

Quite a contrast to the miserable prices paid to sewing girls are those paid by the theatres for walking ladies, soubrettes, or chorus singers. They none of them receive less than $15 a week; and yet so strong is modesty in women that many prefer to shun publicity and accept the hard life of "a slave at the wheel" instead. Many, however, who have widowed mothers or younger sisters to support, and who take up the hard life of soubrettes, are modest and lady-like girls, who, between the acts, employ themselves with their needles in making lace or embroidery. I heard of one girl who made a lace curtain worth $40 in these intervals. There are other industries where women are employed at moderate wages. Glove makers receive from $8 to $12 a week when expert; printers about $15; bookbinders from $9 to $12; cigar makers about $5—but this is such repulsive employment that few women engage in it.

You often hear the remark made by ladies with reference to the difficulties women experience in self support: "Well, if I were forced to support myself, I should seek domestic service; it is more healthful, more romunerative, and more sheltered than other kinds of work." That is one of the lessons Miss Alcott and Mrs. Whitney strove to inculcate in "Christie's Work" and "The Other Girls." But the homes and mistresses in those books were largely imaginary. I wonder if Louisa Alcott would, with the patience she ascribes to Christie, have pulled off any man's muddy boots. I suspect there would have been a new Declaration of Independence stronger than any Christie ever gave. No; although Miss Alcott has described many of her own experiences in her books, that is something she never tried to do; and very few American girls of any spirit would attempt it—not because there is anything degrading in the work itself, but simply because of the stigma attached to it. Times are vastly different now from the old Puritan days, when the girl was a "help" instead of a "servant," was treated as a friend by her master and mistress, ate with them at table, and shared as an equal their home life. Imagine any girl in the position of a servant being permitted to enter the parlor of her mistress as an equal now, no matter how bright or well-bred she might be! A house-wife remarked in my presence once: "I don't want a lady in my kitchen; a servant is like a sewing machine, valuable so long as she can be kept running." And this is the general feeling of employers. There is embarrassment and annoyance to both mistress and maid in too much equality between them. Said an English friend:

"Your American ideas are all wrong. Your servants are good for nothing, because they always anticipate the time when they shall not be servants. In England we have no such trouble. Our servants are attached to us, and bring up their children to serve from generation to generation."

This is true of all countries where caste is strong; but while it may make the lives of the few pleasanter, is it as well for the many? At all events, an American girl will toil on in shops for a mere pittance, returning at night to a small room and small comfort, but retaining her independence of speech and action, and preferring this to a life that at first thought would seem far easier and more profitable. For one reason, she is treated with more respect in shops, and if she does her work well she is retained as long as she desires, and there is a chance of her being advanced. She has the companionship of others, which she is denied in housework; and although there is some one above her to inspect and guide her work, it is always some one who is capable of so doing, and who understands it better than she does. In household labor she finds many inefficient mistresses, who arbitrarily direct her to do what they do not know how to do themselves, and despises them accordingly. There is no home feeling. Now, while a bright girl, with plenty of pluck, might surmount the difficulties which lie in the way of being happy and helpful in domestic service, even winning her way to the heart of her mistress and becoming indispensable to the comfort of the home, it is equally true that such a girl would find fewer hardships and equal success in other lines of work, which she seeks accordingly; and so housework is left to raw Irish or apt Chinese.

Nor is she, as a sewing or shop girl, without the opportunity for reading and study that domestic service would give; she has her evenings and mornings to herself; and a girl of this sort will employ them in reading, studying, or sometimes, in making her own dresses. Said the superintendent of a large establishment where many girls were employed: "I do not wonder that from the middle and working classes come our great minds. It is a rest to turn from physical to mental labor, and as our girls have no money to spend in the frivolities of fashion, they turn to books instead of gossip. I really believe that many of our working girls are better informed in politics and the news of the day than the belles of society. It is wonderful what a vast amount of knowledge they acquire in their spare moments."

There are ladies who, having excelled in some particular thing, have turned that knowledge to practical account when need came. There are two in this city that excelled, the one in making bread, the other in preserves and pickles; they lost their fortunes, and both are now making a good living in these industries. Another, finding it very hard to obtain employment, and appreciating the fact that she could not support herself and little one at the low prices paid for sewing, thought of the large number of bachelors and widowers who have no one to mend or darn their clothes, went to the proprietor of a gentlemen's furnishing store, and asked him to recommend her to his patrons. The result is that she has all the work she can do, and lives comfortably. But every one cannot do these things. What can those do who find no such special work—perhaps, have not the qualities necessary—and yet are obliged to support themselves? They must join the great army who are seeking clerking, copying, or teaching. But it requires influence to obtain teacher's positions; and copying, although it commands good prices when it can be procured, is usually done by lawyer's clerks, who study in the office of their employers; and type-writing is rapidly taking the place of the small amount that has been done heretofore, giving good wages to the few, but, cutting off the work of the many.

In dry goods stores fewer women are employed than formerly. Proprietors say that, in the first place, they are not constitutionally able to stand upon their feet all day, and in the second place, they do not do the work so well. The first is too true, unless proprietors are willing to have, as they do in some stores it New York, movable iron seats that fold in under the counter, for the girls to sit upon when they have no customers. But, as long as there is a great body of men who need no such provision, waiting and willing to take the places, that will never be done unless out of pure philanthropy.

For the second reason, let its look facts squarely in the face. A friend of mine was trying to get a position in a store for a young girl—refined, intelligent, and in need. The proprietor, an old friend, talked to her candidly. "I would greatly like to oblige you, my dear friend, and I do not doubt the young lady is all you say. But the fact is, I will not have any more girls in my store. They do not pay attention to business as men do; they are not so polite to customers; and are always ready any trivial pretext to ask for leave of absence. At noon they take an hour instead of a half, and look cross if spoken to about it. They always have to go to the glass to arrange their bangs, or have a letter to read, or something of that sort when they should he attending to business; and, in short, are not half so satisfactory as men."

There may be truth in all this. Let us find it, if possible. There are many girls who have been suddenly thrown from an atmosphere where they were the central light, who forget that they are so no longer, but must shine, if they shine at all, henceforward by reflected light. In the hard world of business, capacity only is considered. Everything is brought down to a cash basis. This men understand better than women, for the reason that women are not taught from their babyhood, as men are, to appreciate money. If employers would only think: "Would my own daughter, if I were dead, and she forced to take this position, do any better than this young girl?" and then speak gently but firmly to her, and show her her faults and the consequences that must follow, and then give her a chance before the curt dismissal, I venture to say there is not one in a hundred but would greatly appreciate the kindness and redouble her efforts to please, succeeding quite as well as the man who was to have taken her place could do. It is chiefly thoughtlessness. It must be overcome; but still, it is natural in one entering thus a new life. Any man shows the same sort of unfitness if circumstance thrusts him into woman's work at home. And if a little special patience will make good workers out of women, it seems right that it should be given; for consider what alternative is forced upon them, if all channels of legitimate work are closed to them: either to wed where they do not love, simply for a living, or—starve.

There is a worse alternative yet. If a woman alone, pretty, and attractive, seeks work, may God and his holy angels protect her, for there is many a wealthy black-hearted scoundrel to proffer her insult instead of the work she seeks. A gentlewoman, who came from the East a few years ago, bereft of both husband and wealth, and who had applied to a very rich distant relative to help her to some work, met in response with such an experience. And thus shut out from any help from him, the poor woman failed utterly to get employment (a stranger as she was) and lived on crackers and tea, which was all her slender means could afford, until Nature refused to rally her sinking powers, and death, kinder than man, came to her relief. I should fear to stand in that man's place before the bar of God.

Now, what to do about all this? I can only say: let women, who, by death or disaster, have had the hard life of labor thrust upon them, try prayerfully to discharge their duties as if they were mere machines, bending every energy to the work, and expecting no more consideration than men receive for the same labor. But there is much, too, in which a chivalrous sense of justice on the part of men would remove obstacles that shut women out from an equal chance to earn their living. And again, if only every girl were taught—and taught well—some art, trade, knowledge, or profession of good market value, just as the boy is, whether she ever used it or not, then she would be safe in case of need. It is common enough to sneer at match-making mammas fishing for eligible husbands for their daughters, and to condemn the daughters for looking to matrimony as the chief end and aim of existence. And yet, if they know at the bottom of their hearts that there is no way of existence for them but marriage—what can they do? Rather blame society that gives them no other way. But train a girl to self-help, and then if love came she could greet him as a welcome guest; if he did not come, she could still lead a contented life; and death, although it must always be a heart-ache, would cease to be the monster that it is in many homes. To provide the daughter as well as the son with the proper weapons wherewith to struggle for existence, would be a far better gift than the ballot.

H. A. D.


Source: Overland monthly and Out West magazine. Volume 4, Issue 22, Oct 1884. 387-391
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