Is Self-Support Possible
for Girls During the Years of Secondary Education?
Summer 1893 — Women’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
Some schools still make a boast in their annual reports that certain pupils have paid all their expenses during the year by work performed out of school — so many hours in the kitchen, laundry or sewing room. The Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children should expostulate with the ill-judging managers, however well intentioned, of these schools. There is not one girl in a thousand between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five who can do this without danger of becoming a permanent inmate of an insane asylum or a hospital. By all means, if possible, let the mature generation bear the burdens of the rising one until it also is fully matured, thoroughly developed, and carefully trained. We do not allow even our baby rose-trees and infant geraniums to bear blossoms until they are well grown. We do not call on them for production until they have had their due period of nutrition from every kindly exterior influence that we can bring to bear upon them. No, it is not desirable that our girls should assume the burden of self-support during these years, with the accompanying dangers of physical and mental injury. But what of the girl who will not accept this decision? who says in answer to our remonstrances that she will gladly shorten her life, or even dedicate it to pain and suffering, if she may but be permitted to enter upon her inheritance as the heir of all the ages, if we will but give into her hands the key that opens the Gate Beautiful of the wonderful Paradise of Culture? Are there such girls, and are there so many of them that it is a present duty to spend thought upon them and make such provision for them that they may not be degraded by becoming the recipients of charity to accomplish their end, nor embittered by going through life with the consciousness of powers undeveloped and warped ? Let us see. Katie is a farmer’s daughter. She has received all the elementary education which the little country schoolhouse or the village academy can give her. She has a bright, eager intellect, whetted by the little it has received to an appetite for more. Her father has other children, and is one of that large class of worthy citizens who is just able to feed, clothe and physic his family and meet the necessary expenses of keeping up his farm or his business. He has no money with which to pay board for Katie, even at the least expensive school or college. If she were living in the Arcadian days of factory-life, when Harriet Martineau and Captain Hall visited us and described our institutions, she would take employment in one and earn the money for her further advancement in knowledge. But many things have changed since that time, and Katie must be carefully protected for some years to come. There is something even more important for her than culture, as her wise mother knows. If her brother Jack has the same ambitions, there is no trouble in his case. He has muscle and bone. These are not ill-paid in this favored land. There are railroads to build, mines to dig, crops to gather at all times. Jack can soon earn enough to take a course of instruction at one of the schools whose advantages have been made so inexpensive by the beneficence of individuals or denominations. But Katie’s wage earning powers are very small, and she is too young to go from home for the purpose of making larger gains unless she can have watchful guardianship and protection. Is it possible for her to obtain this?
Katie will spend one-third as much of the year out of college as in college if she is ever so fortunate as to get there. She will have in some places even more than that proportion of leisure time during the year. In my own state, she will have thirty-six weeks in college and sixteen out of college. Now suppose, instead of closing the college buildings for these four months, we were to keep them open, as you so wisely propose to do with your new University — at least to keep open the dormitory and refectory (I have in view the old-fashioned type of college). Suppose a sufficient number of college officials to be kept on duty for guardianship and protection, then let all the pupils who need self support engage daily in some profitable industry in buildings belonging to the college and reserved for this purpose. There might also be a night school, for backward pupils who wish to prepare for a particular class, but this feature should be carefully looked after that it may not become an injury, and should never be allowed to occupy more than two hours. No wages should be paid in money. The employee should have board and lodging, and should be credited on their board for next year with the amount of wages which they earn after deducting the actual cost of board and lodging. They should sign a contract, agreeing to these conditions, and to the further one that in case of their not remaining, to obtain payment of their wages in board, these should be forfeited to the college.
But the objection may be made that the capital invested in this industrial plant must lie idle for three-fourths of the year. Even if this should be the case, it would not be nearly such poor economy as the prevailing practice of letting thousands of college buildings remain unemployed for one-fourth of the year. Why have not our practical communities in all these years felt a little trouble at this great waste of the capital invested in that plant? But we will not imitate the college in this respect. We will try to arrange our industrial plant so that there shall be no unnecessary lying idle of capital. There are several ways in which this might be done. I will not stop to enumerate them all, but will only make one or two suggestions. Our industry might be operated by relays of pupils, each having three months of work and nine months of study. The companionship of the workers and students will be helpful to both.
However, there is one industry in which capital necessarily lies idle during the very months in which Katie has leisure. This is the canning factory. If I have been correctly informed but a small capital is needed to establish a canning factory which will employ twenty girls and have an output of five hundred cans daily. Twenty-five acres of tomatoes and a few acres of corn, strawberries and peas will keep this factory busy for four months. The work is light and well suited to girls. In Michigan there are said to be two factories carried on entirely by women without the aid of even a boy. The pay is much more than Katie could earn by housework or sewing, and she has not yet learned any skilled labor. In Michigan I learned that from one dollar to a dollar and a half per day is the usual wages for girls. If Katie can earn seventy-five dollars during the summer, and if the college is one where she is charged only the actual cost of food and fuel, tuition being free, she will be able to pay by far the greater part of her next term’s school expenses. A benevolent man or woman is often reported to have given five thousand dollars to found two or three scholarships in some girls’ colleges. The same amount invested in an industrial plant to be attached to a college would pay for the education of a hundred girls, or rather would enable them to pay for their own education, a much nobler form of benevolence. Now, here are sisters from the East and West and the North and South, and I ask them to tell me whether such a plan has ever been attempted anywhere, and if so, with what success?
I cannot close without expressing my sense of the great blessing to womanhood of this wonderful opportunity of thus taking counsel together and unbosoming ourselves to each other. So many women have schemes for the helping of their sex, or still better, of their race, fermenting in their brains and hearts, and are brain-sick and heart-sick for the lack of advice and sympathy. Here, for the first time, but not, thank God, for the last time, we have come together from the ends of the earth to this magic city to listen to each other’s plans and hopes, and give wise warning or kindly encouragement.
Source: The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham (Chicago: Monarch Book Company), 1894. pp. 36-38.