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Poverty and Woman

June 6-13, 1917 — 44th Annual Session of the National Conference of Social Work, Pittsburgh PA


The relation of woman to this subject is two-fold. One is through the effect of her essential mental attitude upon the problem of life when she is in full social relation. By “full social relation” I mean, doing half of the world’s work. The other connection between woman and poverty is the connection between the present industrial status of woman and the industrial conditions of the rest of the world. Both come rather towards the end of this brief talk, but I want to tell them to begin with.

There is a distinction between legitimate poverty and illegitimate poverty. Iceland is a poor country. That is no discredit to its people. It is a poor country, the land is poor, the climate is not conducive to lavish production, the people who live there are necessarily more or less poor. Labrador is a poor country for the same reason. It has good hunting, but the climate is severe and people do not thrive, as they cannot raise crops.

Legitimate poverty is where there is a lack of the necessary materials of living, where there is a lack of facilities for production and distribution, or where there is a lack of power on the part of individuals. Any or all of these lacks tends to produce poverty.

If you have a country where there is ample material, a great, rich land, a good and varied climate, no lack whatever in the natural sup plies, and if such a country possesses remarkably good facilities for production and distribution, and possesses unusual powers, both individual and mechanical, if you have poverty there it is illegitimate poverty, it is unnecessary poverty, and such poverty is due to wrong and mistaken ideas.

The conduct of the human race is governed like that of all other creatures, by natural laws, the laws that govern all life, but the conduct of the human race is governed also by what we believe, and that is a stronger force than any or all the natural laws. Let me mention as a proof those ascetic Greek monks who wall themselves in for life and live in a stone cavern of their own choice until they die. That is dead against every law of nature and rests on an erroneous idea, and yet they do it. The idea is stronger than all the facts of nature. If any of the things we believe happen to be incorrect it has an effect on our conduct.

What are the erroneous ideas that produce and maintain poverty in a country and among a people where there is not the slightest excuse for it? Before I go to those ideas you will be saying, “But the cause of poverty is the incapacity of the individual. He is not as strong as the others and therefore cannot get as much, and therefore is poor.” I want to show you that poverty is a social product, that it appears in all civilizations in proportion to their social evolution, that when you begin with a primitive people you may find them living in poor conditions but they do not have relative poverty. There is nothing you can call poverty until you also have wealth. You do not find relative poverty until you come to a highly developed civilization. Evidently poverty is produced by the progress of civilization. How does that work?

Take as a parallel the matter of education. When all men had to use the brains they were born with, in a free environment, when there were no books and no traditions, nothing but the world and men, then what each knew depended upon his own brain power. That is a very primitive condition. Today when you go to school you learn the accumulated knowledge of all history. You do not have to be<rin with your own brain and invent things for yourself. You have taught to you the accumulated knowledge of the world. Suppose a child grows up and does not have the accumulated knowledge of the world given to him. He may have a better brain than the child educated in the school, but he cannot conceivably know as much if he has to begin and do it all for himself. We have recognized this, and have seen that to keep society together, to keep it wholesome and sound, to help it on in its evolution, we must gather together the knowledge of the world and give it to all the children and make them take it. We have recognized this as a social duty, not as charity nor correction, but as a means of safeguarding society.

If that is true of education, so I think you can see also that in a primitive condition where each individual man using his own powers, with nothing to assist him, can secure more from his environment than any other individual man, it proves he was more able, but today there is not one of all these great trades in which men work that is not a social process. It is no longer an individual process. It is built up of our accumulated knowledge and skill, and our accumulated machinery. That is like the accumulated knowledge of the world, which is education. To say that a man who has none of these things has an equal opportunity in life, or that his poverty is due to his incapacity, is not true any more than to say that his helplessness was due to his incapacity if he had no education.

As society develops it necessarily specializes in industry, and produces unskilled labor. You do not find unskilled labor among savages. Society itself in its developing process necessarily segregates greater and greater masses to limited areas, and unless society itself provides to all its citizens their full share of the social advantages which make people what they are today; if a large part of its citizens are denied their rights of citizenship, not merely political rights, but economic rights and industrial rights, all the others have to suffer from the presence of this underfed and underpaid, this unprovided for majority. You will find all through society stage after stage, some getting ahead, some left behind, until there is produced the evil of extreme wealth and of extreme poverty.

Of the ideas which tend to produce poverty where there is no excuse for it there are two that seem to me predominant. One is the prevalent notion that poverty is a good thing. Another is the idea that labor is something done in order to get something, to obtain a reward, that that is the incentive to effort and without it there would be no effort. We see social advantages as a reward of activity instead of as a means to activity.

The connection between these two ideas and the position of woman in society is this: men represent the competitive principle in life. It is natural to all male creatures to fight with one another. Women represent the nurturing principle, the taking care of others. That is what it means to be a mother, to take care of people. We need in our social life that mother principle expressed socially. At present the mother’s love and care are confined to her own family at home, and the world is a world of men. Being men, they naturally and necessarily manage life their own way, and their way is the competitive way. Therefore, we have this theory that life is a struggle, that we go to battle in the world, that we have to get ahead of one another. Imagine woman bringing up her children that way! The mother takes care of all the children, and takes the most care of the one who needs it most. I am not urging this as any claim to superiority, but as a different governing principle in the two sexes. The one makes a battle of life; the other makes nurture, care, service, of life. It is the natural instinct. I hold that we need that mother principle in the public as well as in private service.

Society is a half orphan. It has not the mother serving as a whole. The fathers have given us the institutions that we have. All the social gains we have had have come through men, but doing their best they lack that mother instinct which the world needs. In recognizing humanity, the whole of applying the same faculties that we use at home in public, we shall see new aspect of what now- called poverty; see that this mass of people neglected society are not nurtured, are not granted those social advantages which would enable them to do better work, that the duty of society as whole to apply the utmost social opportunities to all its members on exactly the same principle that we apply compulsory education to the poorest children.

The other point with regard to woman is her position industry. We women, with the utmost sense of duty, help to keep the world poor the criminally expensive way which we carry on our domestic industry. That method this: for a hundred men who are fathers of families there are a hundred women who are mothers of families. The men work, the women wait on them. Now, on the average, there would be better service one woman took care of four. There great waste, waste of eighty per cent of the labor of women. A hundred women are doing what twenty women with proper organization and training could do. This waste of labor which helps keep the world poor. And yet under the present system hundred men expect hundred women to cook for them. Another element of waste the enormous expense involved buying and preparing food in the smallest quantities those little retail shops we call kitchens. There waste of fifty per cent of what we pay out for food. While half the world wasting eighty per cent of its labor and paying twice as much for food as necessary, the world kept poor. We women,when we recognize our social duty industry, can enrich the world by releasing eighty per cent of our labor and reducing fifty per cent of our food expense.

I want to finish with a poem, which some of us have perhaps read:

Said the Slumchild to the Wise —
To the people of place and power Who govern and guide the hour,
To the people who write and teach, Ruling our thought and speech,
And all the captains and Icings — Who command the making of things “Give me the good you know,
That I, the child, may grow! Light, for the whole day long, Food that is pure and strong, Housing and clothing fair,
Clean water and clean air, Teaching from day to day,
And room — for a child to play !”
Then the Wise made answer cold : “These things are not given, but sold. They shall be yours today,
If you can pay.”
“Pay?” said the child. “Pay you? What can I do?
Only in years’ slow length
Shall I have strength.
I have not power nor skill, — Wisdom nor wit nor will
What service weak and wild
Can you ask of a little child ?” But the Wise made answer cold: “Goods must be bought and sold; You shall have nothing here Without paying —paying dear!” And the rulers turned away.
But the child cried on them : “Stay ! Wait! I will pay!”
“For the foulness where I live.
Filth in return I give.
For the greed that withholds my right Greed that shall shake your might.
For the sins I live in and learn, Plentiful sin I return. For my lack at home and school, Ignorance comes to rule.
From where I sicken and die, Disease to your homes shall fly. My all uncounted death
Shall choke your children’s breath. Degenerate — crippled — base,
I degrade the human race. — And the people you have made These shall make you afraid.
I ask no more. I take the terms you make, And steadily, day by day,
Faithfully, I WILL PAY!”



Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work at the Forty-Fourth Annual Session held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania June 6-13, 1917, pp. 10-15.