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What Do Working Girls Owe One Another?

Spring 1890 – Association of Working Girls’ Societies, New York City


All great social and political causes, a recent critic observed, have first made their way among the working classes. The inspiring ideas came perhaps from a dreamer, but they waxed strong because the masses welcomed what the wealthy and cultivated have frowned upon or persecute. We workers of to-day are pledged to the noblest of causes. A great idea, a lofty purpose must by our conduct and preaching be made to prevail in modern society and mold the industries of the future. It is the idea that the advancement of women depends as largely upon those women who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, as upon the education or training of idlers or students or even homekeepers and care-takers. Women in business life are the entering wedge which will cleave custom or prejudice and make a wide range possible fore female effort. Alone, singly, our powers and reach are feeble. But standing by each other, we can show the value of union. Backing this great crusade for every worthy post must be the purpose, the firm resolve, never to fall back upon our womanhood as excuse for deficiency or failure. As Helen Campbell says, it must be a question of character and efficiency, not a question of sex. We have it in our power to make the employment of women in nearly all pursuits a recognized necessity, not as now a favor accompanied with lower pay and other odious discriminations. To render woman’s work indispensable her services must be thorough and unassailable at each point. Unless conscience directs every step in the process, somewhere her handiwork will fail. Hitherto, conscience is just what girls have not always put into their task. Their work has been secondary to the need of maintenance, instead of being pursued as men pursue theirs, as though it were the only object in life. Let us change all that – excellent work first, honest service first, study of employers’ interest first, last of all the gain. Wage-earning women owe it to one another to uphold the dignity of labor and the character of workers as if we alone represented the whole industrial army and the eyes of the world were on us as its flag-bearer. Every toiler must do her duty as though there were no other worker living on whom she might depend to tae up dropped threads or repair neglect. Sacredly as we uphold honor and virtue, this standard of perfect work must we uphold, until it shall become as much a reproach to our band that outsiders should say, “She is inefficient,” She is careless,” as it would sting and hurt to have the finger of scorn pointed at one of our family denoting,  “She is a thief.”

Indeed, the same feeling that binds together loving families should animate all toilers under a common roof. Next to thoroughness and integrity in our service, ranks our obligation of faithfulness and loyalty to each other. The sisterhood of the clubs should include also the workroom where – is it not sadly true? – girls are sometimes far from loyal to each other. Severe is the temptation, when living is hard at best and want is imminent, to take unfair advantages to secure more work or a better job. Even without such awful goad of poverty it happens sometimes that great opportunities are lost to women workers through petty faults, or temper, or spite. Girls often abuse their fore-women, quarrel among themselves, or stand up foolishly for their rights when trifling concessions would accomplish more. A hundred times I have seen such a sad strife; yet a half hundred times also have I seen the culprit who betrayed an ugly spirit, act in crises or moments of distress like the veriest heroine. The same young women who in great things show wonderful beauty of soul, in paltry things are selfish and jealous, bringing discredit on all womanhood, on all workers. As a result, an employer, harassed with unnecessary bickerings, turns off all his girls; or a deserved promotion causes such wrath that he resolves no more to reward merit, but to keep everyone at the same low wagers.

These set-backs in our steady progress are caused by blind and fatal egotism, which, when a companion is advanced while we go unpromoted, is wont to say “I did just as much as she, and I won’t stay here to be walked over by her.” Not one of us can judge correctly our own value. The moment we estimate our services as worth what we wish to receive from them, that moment we become less useful, less alert to the interests of employer, less ambitious to accomplish more. Admit that favoritism reigns. In the work-room we must learn early the lesson, burned in by after-experience, that, although honest merit sometimes does not succeed so well as flash and impudence, there is something nobler and better than success, a sustaining sense of duty done. The virtue we need to cultivate is magnanimity, until, in place of heart-burnings at the preferment of our own sex, every woman’s soul with thrill with almost a personal pride in the achievements of the loftiest or the humblest of her sisters. “Looking not each of you on his own things, but each of you on the things of others” was written eighteen centuries ago, and ever since the world has been slowly growing up to this vital truth.

Men, with good reason, charge that it is difficult to operate plans of any worth which require unselfish action among large bodies of women. “Girls have more grit than men,” said the leader of a strike, “when you get them on their high horse in a meeting. But if one wants a spring frock, or another’s young man is out of work and money, why, she’ll slip back to her loom, and before you know it there’s an end of the fight and you’re dead whipped.”

Women also, who have tried to conduct righteous strikes in behalf of the suffering and abused, declare that they cannot depend even on the girls whose injuries are greatest, one and another falling away from the cause, as her private interests seem to clash with the general good. Not only is the leader who has risked all this left shamefully in the lurch, but the downfall is wrought of a great reform, which would have helped all women. When some brave girl consents, if others will speak out, to put a grievance before the employer, often at the decisive moment the supporters weaken and withdraw, leaving the spokeswoman in the attitude of a faultfinder with whom non sympathize. The history of woman’s advancement is the history of just such failure in concerted action, hence have we moved but by inches instead of miles.

Until self is subordinated to the common welfare, until we strengthen instead of undermining each other, the day will never dawn of equal wage and equal opportunity for women with men.

One influence that pulls down instead of lifting our whole sisterhood, is the class difference that marks off the factory girl from the saleswoman, the tobacco worker from the dressmaker, and so through the whole social scale, with as many variations in the humblest shop as on the wealthiest street. By class distinction is not meant that self-respect which rightly holds one aloof from vulgar or imprudent companies, for we all need to be careful of our associations and good name. What is blame-worth, what we owe it to each other to suppress, is the air of superiority or condescension. The only superiority on which we toilers and standard-bearers for our sex may pride ourselves, is the capacity for conscientious work. All other causes for self-complacency, are really causes which bind us to be servants, not patrons of our fellow-laborers. If we are better educated than they, does not this good fortune lay upon us the sacred obligation to help them retrieve lacking advantages? Our social standing is higher, perhaps. Is not a duty thus market out for us, to life others to our level not push them back into obscurity? Have we personal gifts above our companions? Then wit, tact, grace, or accomplishment should be used to brighten sadder lives. Look at it how we may, there is no superiority but includes the debt of service to others – influence exerted over every character, good flowing from each act and word.  Those of us live ignobly who live without making our associates better for knowing us, without giving new impulses to stranded hopes, without rousing the shiftless and inspiring the faltering with courage. It is a sign of failure or lack on our own part, when we leave friends and intimates satisfied with themselves. Not that friendship authorizes the saying of disagreeable things; on the contrary, the closer the relation, the more necessary do tact and courtesy become. But what the world needs is less of the flatter so easy to offer, and more stirring, more honest criticism and encouragement. Hold up high ideals, make men restless and prone to new ventures. It is a healthful sign when workers branch out after the fresh and untried, even though the object appear beyond reach or useless. The very effort consumes oxygen, and starts the mental circulation. A Latin poet sings: “Thing nothing done while aught remains undone.”

To lift others beings to a higher plane is impossible unless we are climbing, or have climbed. Next to the blessing of serving others, is the sacred trust, binding all workers, to make the most of themselves and their own aptitudes. We need skill. Trained intelligence and exact habits bring business success. In the fight for existence, bitter and often unsuccessful, not only mutual helpfulness, but higher training tells. We need education, knowledge sharpens our tools, and shapes finer ideals. We must learn what consecration to work involves. The real meaning of labor is unrevealed to millions. Work weight merit or demerit, tests fitness, and is not merely service rendered for hire, but in a higher sense is a contract we make, a responsibility we assume, to every detail of which we must be true.

To promote woman’s advancement, we must strive for her economic independence in society and before the law, protecting her from degrading industries or conditions. As wage-earners, it behooves us to open new trades and lines of work, claiming wherever possible equal pay for equal service and responsibility. Free competition with men is not desirable. Under our present social system, who would not be hammer must be anvil, who would not trample others must be trampled. Woman can be equal with man, without being like man. Special vocations for the sexes, suitable occupations fore ach must be our aim, lest we become second-rate men.

At present most women are dependent for a livelihood on some man, or want to be. The power to earn her own living in proper channels would assure her economic equality, or need she then form her whole character and model her career alone with a view of attracting men. As an independent wage-earner, she would be better able to develop her special gifts of woman-hood; and whether married or single, the ability to maintain herself honorably whenever she chooses, is essential to her dignity and freedom. To gain these ends women must stand shoulder to shoulder. There must be no falling back on comfortable homes as a reason for taking less than our services are worth; ;o working for mere pocket-money, thus underbidding the self-supporting girl without a home; no lowering of already small wages by forcing in child-rivals; no desertion of useful organizations from the pinch of personal want, or motives of personal resentment. The essential fact of organization is that when on member suffers all members suffer with it.

This is better than competition, which mean warfare. Organization means united effort, and women must test its power, less for aggression than for resistance and progress. All the best work on the world is done by organization. One weak wage-earner is a cipher, but backed by a hundred brave, steady, loyal, and keen-witted working girls, bound by common zeal for the general good, this one feeble toiler becomes a tremendous object. Did we know how to get our rights, fewer wrongs would cry for remedy. What our sex lacks is clear thinking prompt doing. We scatter, where we should combine our energies. Each denounces wrong, and all agree to denounce wrong together. When the time comes for effective clamor, for making men tremble at our thunder, alas! We resemble the people in Holmes’ threadbare story who conspired to shout at the same time all over the world, and see whether the sound would be noticed and cause response at the moon, but so anxious were all to hear the great noise that nobody spoke at the signal, save one Fiji Islander, and a deaf man in Borneo. A better era of recognition and justice to women will be ushered in when five thousand girl-workers. Representing fifty thousand alert self-educating and self-denying toilers, will rally and, abreast and trumpet-tongued, voice a common woe or a common want.



Source: Graffenreid, Mary Clare de. “What Do Working Girls Owe One Another? In Association of Working Girls’ Societies, Discussions of the Convention Held in New York City, April 15th, 16th, and 17th, 1890. New York: Trow’s Printing and Bookbinding, 1990, pp. 74-79.


Also published in Gender Roles in American Life: A Documentary History of Political, Social, and Economic Changes, Volume 1: 1775-1954, ed. Constance L. Sheehan, Santa Barbara: ABD-CLIO, 2018, pp 132-136.