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A Part of the Working World

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


In the history gleaned from the pages of holy writ are the cradle-song of a Virgin Mother; the noble love of a penitent Magdalen; the gentle suasion of a womanly Salome; the first Sister of Charity, Dorcas of Lydia; the Christian mothers and scholars, Lois and Eunice; the woman merchant of Thyatira, Lydia; the tent-makers, Aquila and Priscilla, model workers and wives. Turning pages to the days of Roman power we read with tender pity, pride, and even surprise, of the slave maiden and martyr of Lyons, Blandina; the patrician dame, Perpetua; Marcella of the Eternal City, pupil of philosophy; Fabiola, the city missionary; and Pukacia, the foster-parent of an emperor. In the ages that follow are such examples as Genevieve of Nontare, the shepherdess; Clotilda, Bertha, and Ethelberga, queens and reformers; Lioba, counselor in matters spiritual of bishops and abbots; Hilda, of a royal race, student of Scripture and foundress of many schools; Gisella, sister of the mighty Charlemagne, patroness of science and literature; Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, writer of classic comedies; Herrade, compiler of the first encyclopedia; Margaret of Scotland, queen and architect; Elizabeth of Hungary, foundress of hospitals and orphanages; Catherine of Siena, apprenticed in the dye-house of her father; Joan of Arc, leader of a royal army; Theresa of Avela, mystical writer; Cassandra Fidele, professor at the University of Padua; Helena Kanaro, honored by this same institution with its highest degrees; Maria Agnesi, mathematician, eulogized by Fontwell, Bosway, and Colson of Cambridge; and lo! we touch the history of our own century replete as well with its familiar examples of woman’s work in every field of labor.

“Like a man choosing a profession, when a woman marries,” says John Stuart Mill, “it generally may be understood that she makes a choice of the management of a household and the bringing up of a family as the first call upon her exertions during so many years of her life as may be required for the purpose, and that she renounces all other objects and occupations but those which are consistent with this.” And again he exclaims with great earnestness, “Women are most wanted for the things for which they are most fit.”

Horace Mann writes, “God has created the race of male and female on the principle of a division of labor.” And he adds, as if to give a key to his dictum, “No higher respect is due the greatest inventor or discoverer than to the woman who has mastered the science of domestic economy.”

From this point begins the outward influence of the home, as into a busy, demanding world crowd workers of both sexes, cultivated according to the home’s tone and elevation.

Labor sustains the homes, and in a free land it is the trades-people, with the knowledge of a craft, that make, support, and dignify a great nation.

To-day a puzzling picture greets the observing eye, and the truly philosophical pause and ask themselves what can be the natural outcome of an evolution which places woman in position broader and more exacting than that enjoyed by her grandmother and her mother. She labors for love of labor, when conditions do not demand it. She walks side by side with her brothers in the halls of learning, on the business thoroughfares, judging and adopting opinions of life freely for herself, and making her mark for excellence in certain lines so frequently and brilliantly that the skeptic pauses, and for a brief moment at least doubts his own preconceived opinions. Still she is a woman, and as long as she remains such, respect is her due. No true man will deride her, and no honest member of her own sex misunderstand her; but let the mantle of her female modesty and womanly attributes fall from her, revealing an identity that uses privileges as rights, progress as license, and mistakes clamor for applause, and we have before us something which is possible when woman leaves the home shelter not to benefit but to impress humanity.

There never was an age since the day of woman’s creation when so many legitimate opportunities were given her to become a part of the working world, a beneficiary of its latest and best crafts, and a sharer alike with man in its emoluments. Setting aside the professions of politics, law, and arms, wholly, for the majority, unfitted to a woman’s nature, we find her as the physician of her own sex, the trained nurse of the hospital, the successful pharmacist, the student of astronomy and botany, the teacher of the young, the publisher, the printer, the artist, the architect, and the housekeeper, all of which occupations open to her fields replete with chances for a cultivated and honest life, without one iota of compromise as regards the position of her sex, while unlimited ways of doing good, advancing the interest of human society, and growing mentally and morally herself, blend with these conditions.

If in these varied avenues she does not find a congenial occupation, then her own individual nature and not social usages are at fault. She need not weep, and claim her vocation is as “Hobson’s choice.” There is plenty of work for the willing laborer, but there is no sure antidote known for the chronic grumbler. The old adage of “room at the top” applies to woman as well as to man in their suitable occupations. Her possible trades, her legitimate professions, are, because so ordained by God, and sustained by reason and common sense, more noble the closer they are allied with her domestic nature. Her influence over man lies in this very fact.

“Her well-ordered home,” says one who has studied her, “dignifies and ennobles a well-ordered state,” and “wide and illimitable,” claims John Stuart Mill, “as is her work of love, its center and beginning must be home.”



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