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Woman, the New Factor in Economics

May 1893 — The Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


When a speaker or writer is assigned a theme for elucidation it is important at the outset to have a clear understanding of the terms of that theme. “He shall be as a god to me who can rightly divide and define,” said Plato; and as the world gets older it subscribes more to Plato. A definition of the terms of my theme, as presented in dictionary and encyclopedia, arrays it as a paradox; establishes woman as the oldest as well as the newest factor in economics; the earliest and latest, according to the area to which the term “economics” is applied. It is important to note all that this fact involves.

We find that economics in its primary application signified the science of household affairs; the adjustment of domestic expenditures to the income. We may rationally conclude that in early forms of society the responsibility of the then narrow domain of economics fell almost entirely upon woman, inasmuch as we find it illustrated at the present day among races that have not yet risen out of primitive social phases. A recent writer upon the customs of Central Africa states that the work in an African village is done chiefly by the women; they hoe the fields, sow the seed, and reap the harvest. To them too falls all the labor of building the houses, grinding the corn, brewing the beer, cooking, washing, and caring for almost all the material interests of the community.

It is from this primitive social outlook that we find woman to be the principal factor in economics; the initiator at least of the whole system which follows, whether its area be the family, the community, or the nation; the original source from which all world-wide economics are evolved. For although as defined, political economy “is a science of the laws which providence has established for the regulation of supply and demand in communities,” yet the same authority affirms that the disposition to adapt the expenditure of a household to its income is one of the phenomena which make up those laws of nature.

From this point of view woman is the original factor in all systems of economics, the demure goddess at the fountain-head, determining the quantity and quality of the waters that flow therefrom. As an organic body grows only through the cells which compose it, and as the household is the cell of the social organism, so domestic economy is the original unfolding principle of all larger economics.

I am desirous that this truth should become established in the consciousness of woman, here, now, and evermore, that she may have a just estimate of her place and power in the evolutionary scheme of life, when it reached the point of the social beginnings of the race; that she may perceive that neither from the present nor the future does she receive her credentials as an economic factor, but from the primal constitution of society itself, as the originator of the vast scheme of economics which introduces and links the nations to each other, of which man alone has been the recognized exponent and director. Although man has cast a blind eye on this truth, yet if woman perceives it clearly, she can well afford to smile serenely on his self-gratulation as umpire of economics. For the woman soul, in the discovery and realization of its high place in the scheme of things, will find that power of equanimity which sooner or later converts every obstacle into an auxiliary, all hindrances into means of advance. This interior ascension of the spirit into an imperturbable equanimity is our great need as women. If we would make all external advantage more swiftly our own, we must abolish all interior sense of bondage and disadvantage, and sailing into externals on the fullness of that strength, believe and take the whole arena of affairs as our native domain. Emancipate the thought from the ever-present cramping sense of personal disadvantage, and internal wrong, and a miracle follows. The spirit at once assumes its proper majesty, and gathers up the reins of directing power. A few individual examples, here and there, among women demonstrate my statement, and we call them the World’s Representative Women. Their persevering and telling efforts for woman’s advancement are not from the standpoint of woman as woman, but from the standpoint of the unity and solidarity of the race; the proper balance of the social forces.

Woman has been, and forever will be, a hero-worshiper, but the hero enlarges. It is neither man nor woman, but humanity. To her, the woman cause means the “righting up” of this deformed hero, humanity. She labors for justice to woman as a means to an end, and that end the conformity of civilization to the perfecting organic principle which Spencer styles “a moving equilibrium.” The women invested with largest power to bring about this state of social equity are women who in their spiritual forces have attained this condition of “a moving equilibrium.” There is perhaps nothing else that will bring the rank and file of women so quickly and surely into this state of spiritual balance and power as a realization of the magnitude of woman’s relations to the entire system of economics.

The lad who believed himself to be the child of a peasant, expressed in his personality and bearing only the common nature and manner of the peasant life; but learning one day from a stranger that he was the child of a king, he was transformed, by his consciousness of the fact, from the peasant weakling to the dignity and power of spirit native to his true relation.

Woman then being the oldest factor in economics, under what aspect of truth do we now regard her as the new factor? Looking at her economic relationships to-day, and comparing them with those of the past, the contrast is as marked as that of day with night. It is the recognition of this contrast that fixes her as the new element in industrial development. The light of morning is new to one who wakens, but that same light was on its way through the darkness, and it is old with travel. What engineer has ever laid out the line where darkness terminates and dawn begins? So with woman’s industrial advance. She attains new areas, but the attaining is old with continuity of unflinching struggle.

The new economic area to which woman has attained in this latter half of the nineteenth century is that of the creation of wealth. Her economic responsibilities are no longer limited to the application and distribution of supplies; she is a wealth-producer in the broadest meaning of the term — not indirectly, but directly; and this it is which constitutes her new relation as an economic fact. What is it to be a creator of wealth? What is wealth? No one has furnished us with a better definition than Henry George. “Wealth,” he says, “consists of natural products modified by human exertion so as to fit them for the gratification of human desires; it is labor impressed upon matter in such a way as to store it up. When a country increases in wealth, it increases in certain tangible things, such as agricultural and mineral products, manufactured goods of all kinds, buildings, cattle, tools, machinery, ships, wagons, furniture, etc.” Into this spacious wealth-producing domain, the autonomy of which determines a nation’s place among nations, woman has found entrance as an active agent among its complex forces. Still further does she illustrate Henry George’s definition of a producer of wealth, as he adds, “Nor should it be forgotten that the investigator, the philosopher, the teacher, the artist, the priest, the poet, though not engaged in the production of wealth, are not only engaged in the production of utilities and satisfactions to which the production of wealth is only a means, but by acquiring and diffusing knowledge, stimulating mental power, and elevating the moral sense they may greatly increase the ability to produce wealth; for man does not live by bread alone. “

Into this higher atmosphere of wealth production, where professions are ranked and ideas generated, woman has seemingly compelled her own ascent; for whenever and wherever we lift our eyes to these intellectual ramparts, she passes before our vision. I state this advisedly, for the number of industries and professions now open to woman runs into the hundreds; and one authority states that all occupations and callings are now open to her, if she have the courage to enter them. If a general should say to his soldiers, “My boys, the enemy’s intrenchments are ours if you have the courage to take them,” it would not mean that the intrenchments were thrown open for possession. So far as women have hitherto made headway into the promised land, even from the first step upon its boundaries, they have cast up this highway of courage every inch of the route. So I dare not claim large comfort from this authority, certainly none that justifies us in laying aside our armor or stacking our arms. The hopefulness of the outlook arises from the fact that the area yet to conquer narrows, the line of struggle shortens, the intrenchments of opponents weaken and diminish. This fact is due, not simply to the persistent courage of women, not to their tireless importunities, but to many causes inherent in the increasing complexity of our civilization. Society being an organization, it experiences all the expansions and transformations of any cell or egg. There is a time in the history of an egg when the limitation of the shell is a protection to the homogeneous, inchoate substance within; but differentiations beginning in this life substance, functions being specialized, and the whole individualized, that which was protection becomes imprisonment. The organism wrenches and struggles, the walls gradually yield, and the organism walks forth into the light and responsibility of freedom. If the beak of the hatched eagle could speak for itself, it would claim that the weakening of its prison-walls was due to its own persistent knocking and battering; and the wing and talon would put in a similar claim of merit for themselves. But it was the increasing complexity of the entire organism, the one differentiating life within, that compelled the beak to knock, the talon to scratch, and the wing to push and struggle.

There is a seed in Southern California (I think it is a variety of clover) that if it had consciousness would surely claim that it planted itself. It lies upon the surface of the packed soil during the dry season, but when the rain of winter comes it takes a notion to bore a little depression in the softened earth and put forth roots. “Behold my efficiency,” it might well say. “Yet mine made yours available,” the rain might reply. But the incubating genius of life brooding over mountain, cañon, and mesa could say, “I am the awakener and supply of all your forces.” A like interdependence of progressive forces permeates the entire structure of modern society. Simultaneous transformations, seemingly foreign to each other, are occurring in the body politic, the genius of evolution burning at its center, having the providence to initiate all normal expansion in radii, thus preserving the equilibrium of growth. Impartially breathing her quickenings throughout the entire structure, she thereby secures balance with movement, and links progress to order. A long-headed deviser does this genius of evolution prove herself to be, in that she puts in the heart of each separate reform a feeling that the true welfare of society depends almost wholly on its own special success. It is this feeling which secures the most remarkable concentration of effort, and leads each reform to battle victoriously, step by step, with the obstacles of progress. In the vantage-ground of industrial emancipation which woman has already gained, I would in no wise divest her of the feeling of the superimportance of the woman cause. For I believe Spencer affirms it is feeling and not opinion that moves the world. But I speak rather to establish scientifically and philosophically in woman’s comprehension the fact that her special movement has the backing of the universal movement; that the divine mania which has taken possession of her for culture, independence, complete freedom, and full responsibility holds even cosmic relations. Woman will not abate her zeal, but give larger possession to the ideas which compel her to do battle for them, when she understands that they emanate not from woman in the interest of woman, but from the one life in the interest of life. This is the true basis of our faith, the genuine “substance of things hoped for.” “Attractions are proportioned to destinies.” The line of movement is forward and upward, and the destiny of the woman is above, not below, the present outlook. It is the inevitable. The urgent fire in the woman-soul, forever impelling her to larger enterprise and venture in every department of human action, that leads a Mrs. Sheldon into the heart of Africa, is the Pentecostal flame of this same destiny. It is well to keep in remembrance the interrelation of the entire output of social reforms to which I have referred, and the fact that the permanent success of each and all of them depends upon this relationship. It is not difficult to perceive that the woman cause is allied to temperance reform.

It requires closer scrutiny to perceive its relation to tariff, ballot, and tax reform, to government ownership of railways, and a financial system less open to individual and class manipulation. Nevertheless the fact is there; for woman being industrially emancipated, a recognized independent factor in the production of a nation’s wealth, every reform that affects the production and distribution of that wealth touches the woman cause. After this manner and direction has been the movement of freedom for any class or people from the beginning.

The interrelationship of all economic factors to which I have referred always reveals itself along the lines of justice and injustice. For example, it is preeminently a matter of equity that woman should receive equal wages with man for like quantity and quality of work. When this is withheld the standard of wages which working-men combine to maintain in their own interest inevitably lowers. There is no real security for man’s good fortune except through equity to woman. The want of this has really been the source of all his woes. For the race is one, and “a house divided against itself shall not stand.” Observe the social scourges that follow in the train of the unequal wage. How it bears direct relation to the dark problem of poverty, and how that darkness widens and merges into the sloughs and slums of immorality! How it broadens the margin of unemployed men who constitute the industrial reserve which enables capital to dictate its own terms to labor! How it compels the latter to array itself against its own kith and kin and do battle for its enemies! How it necessitates in the names of sympathy and pity the effort and expense of organized charities to eke out the earnings which are either not sufficient for maintenance or not sufficient to meet the exigencies of misfortune! Surely a knowledge of the one fact that the average yearly income of the working-woman of Boston exceeds her yearly expenses for positive needs only about eight dollars might well fill the consciousness of every man who is normally bright and apprehensive with a sense of impending doom. Yet this is but one illustration of the evils which follow a special line of injustice, afflicting the wrong-doer even more than it does the wronged. And were we to follow out all the social iniquities in which woman has been involved, we should surely find that there is a certain point in these entanglements where the same disastrous lesson and result for man is revealed.

“Every benefactor,” says Emerson, “becomes a malefactor by continuation of his activity in places where it is not due.” From the hour when woman was sufficiently awakened through intellectual quickening to board deliberately the car of progress, every obstacle that man puts in the way of her advance reveals him as a malefactor; that is, a trainwrecker. All the constabulary of the universe are after him, and the law of equity or equilibrium has dealt and will deal out punishment to him proportionate to his crime.

Yet what better evidence can there be of a concession and recognition on the part of man, which must ultimate in the fulfillment of our largest hope, than the place so cordially assigned to women in this Columbian Exposition? It is no less than a world-wide announcement of her coming on in every form of art, literature, and industry. No niggardly dole is this to us, but the greatest privilege of all history, dating in myriad forms of art and mechanical skill, the fullness of time for woman’s economic début. Permit me to direct your attention to the wonderful significance of this sentence, “the fullness of time.” There is no sentence in all Scripture so crowded with philosophic meaning. It solves for us the vexing problem of delay and procrastination which seemingly attends woman’s advancement. If hope deferred has heretofore made the heart grow sick, this sentence from henceforward should preserve us from all such abnormal lapses. We must learn and remember that nature delights in appropriateness, and will have all things in keeping. She will not vary one hair’s-breadth from this principle, though humanity, frantic with desire and wild with importunity, should go down on its knees to her. As a woman of good taste will seek to have the details of her costume present that equalness of grade and quality which establishes harmony and unity of value, so nature, with faultless and exquisite judgment, arranges in like manner her evolutionary series through all the realms of matter and mind, proceeding always from the simple to the complex, from sameness to variety, from the coarse to the fine, from the crude to the finished. And though an æon should be necessary to each grade in the series, yet shall the details of this grade be held in perfect relation and keeping. For nature is congruous, whatever else she may be. There is due preparation for the proper advent of her successive creations or becomings, each of which waits on her fullness of time, and the longer the period of preparation the higher the outcome ranks in the scale of her series.

Who can guess how long vegetable life waited on chaos, and the perturbations of protoplasm, before cosmic propriety permitted the first lichen to drape the earth’s nudity? How long did the vegetable kingdom creepingly unfold as the expression of organic life before it was appropriate for the world to put in an appearance and accept all that had preceded as a gratuitous offering to the animal economy? How long before man “capped the climax of the vertebrate series in mathematical concurrence with the fullness of time?” And if at the era of his appearance on this planet he possessed even tolerably good sense and understanding, he must have congratulated himself on the minutiæ and perfecting of detail which delayed his coming. For it is ever the last result which utilizes preceding effects.

And for woman the logic of events has transformed obstacle and hindrance into those necessary equipments of character which belong not to partial but to complete citizenship. What does this equipment for the responsibilities of complete citizenship indicate? It is no superfluous trick of historic evolution. Desired or dreaded, woman is proceeding straight to the inevitable goal of largest social and political responsibility. We might as well endeavor to avert the fact that we were born as this fact; and we are under equal necessity to utilize resignedly these two facts. Industrial emancipation broadens by an inevitable principle into social and political equality; and as the combined forces of the stone, iron, press, and steam ages were engaged in shaping and molding civilization into fitness for woman’s economic cooperation, so the genius of religion and government far back in the mist of ages began the preparatory work for her ultimate début as the full complement of man.

In connection and parallel with the changes in religious and moral ideas, which antedated woman’s advent as an economic factor, are the transformations which have occurred in forms of government and social institutions. A beast of prey, the primitive man rose to nomadic forms of society, patriarchs gave place to kings and emperors, and these in turn to constitutional monarchy, and this to the democratic idea and the rights of man. The bloody track of governmental evolution, conspicuous with the panoply of war, was built upon fallen thrones and devastated dynasties, the patriotic sentiment broadening in the red struggle from the family to the nation. And woman waited. Not yet the fullness of time for her awakening to the world’s need of her citizenship. Something more of brute crudity must be eliminated from the tumultuous powers of civilization. Some larger and more sympathetic conception of human life and its universal relations must modify the world’s ferment ere woman would arise from her world-old hypnotic trance, with a new consciousness of her individual ability and power, and the necessity of her taking an equal hand with man in working out a universal order. The ages had thundered from date of chaos, and she had not wakened. But there came a noiseless white-winged thought into the human atmosphere, and woman rose, and stood upon her feet, and knew herself and the world’s need. And this was the white-winged thought which refined the way for her feet: “There is but one life, and humanity is its spiritual image.” As the genius of the spring-time sets all the forces of nature in sweetest passion for expression, so does this truth — the spiritual unity of the race — quicken the hearts of men and women into a mania to make the material interests of the entire humanity correspond in their unity to this spiritual fact. To a no less work than this is woman called and awakened: to convert discord into harmony, rivalry into emulation, jealousy into magnanimity, competition into cooperation, poverty into comfort, and the love of money into the love of man. Need I say that such transformation of the motives of human action, slow, silent, invisible, must sooner or later work out a system of society and government in which each shall stand for all and all for each? It is only a question of time. The century plant, that waits a hundred years for its life’s perfection, is no less sure of its final glory than the convolvulus that greets the dawn with expanded petals.

There is no uncertainty in the eternal goodness, and woman’s inevitable advance into all the lines of free citizenship is but a part of the “divine event to which the whole creation moves.”


Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Vol. 2, ed. May Eliza Wright Sewall, (Chicago: Rand and McNally), 1894, pp.1-90.