The Bohemian Woman
As a Factor in Industry and Economy
May 1893 — The Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
From time immemorial woman has controlled industry and economy in the home, but it is not long since she stepped from the home circle into the wider field of manufactures and public economy. The life of the woman of to-day varies greatly from that of the primitive woman protected and supported by husband or father. The work of woman has undergone a transformation. The people have not noticed this great change, they have grown accustomed to it; for day by day it is taking place before their very eyes, and is therefore becoming a necessity. This transformation has simplified the work of woman in the home. In this age of cheap mechanical manufacture it is unnecessary for women to make their own candles, soap, cloth, and bread, as their great-grandmothers were obliged to do. It no longer requires many women to perform the duties of one household. The social revolution has been and is being evoked by the strife for existence in which both married and unmarried women must take part. If woman is to conquer in the strife she must use all her mental and physical energy.
The development of manufactures and private economy necessitates a woman’s supporting herself and her family, for a man who is a day laborer is unable to do it alone. It has made woman’s position in the strife for existence in a certain degree characteristic. The question of woman’s higher education is morally important; equally important, however, is the question of the position which woman shall occupy in the field of labor.
Not only the revolution in manufacturers, but her intense desire for independence, has greatly modified woman’s condition. These influences have been so powerful that woman has occupied an ever-growing department of industry.
Statistics clearly show that there is not a branch of industry in which women are not employed. Besides the reasons for this stated above we must take also into consideration the technical perfection of machinery which makes great skill in the workman unnecessary. Manufacturing has thus become a mechanical operation easily performed by women.
In Bohemia there are one hundred and thirty-three thousand women, seven thousand and seventy-nine girls employed in factories; three and one-half millions in the Empire of Austria.
During 1890 there were in Prague and vicinity:
934 women at 139 gulden a year employed in book-binderies.
79 women at 138 gulden a year employed in millinery establishments.
400 women at 156 gulden a year employed in paper factories.
559 women at 180 gulden a year employed in printing establishments.
600 women at 136 gulden a year employed in laundries.
479 women at 173 gulden a year employed in working factories.
186 women a 159 gulden a year employed in powder-mills.
60 women at 140 gulden a year employed in confectioneries.
40 women at 165 gulden a year employed in brick-kilns.
80 women at 175 gulden a year employed in shoe factories.
70 women at 180 gulden a year employed in tailor-shops.
28 women at 165 gulden a year employed in leather factories.
524 women at 180 gulden a year employed in as waitresses.
Judging from these statistics we see that women are more and more employed in commerce and manufactories; but they are paid so little for their twelve hours’ labor that they can not earn even a meager livelihood. Such wages, and often less, are paid throughout Bohemia, Austria, yea, even Europe. A woman working twelve hours in the field earns thirty-five kreutzers a day, if providence be kind and the day pleasant, for every rainy hour is deducted from her small earnings. These women are employed only five or six months of the year for thirty or forty kreutzers per day. Glove-makers are paid sixty kreutzers per dozen, and they must furnish their own silk and machine. Women are paid fifteen kreutzers for thirty-six buttonholes, thirty-six, forty, or at most sixty kreutzers for making a dozen shirts. Women occupy a very unfortunate position in manufactures, for more than seventy per cent are paid wretchedly. They are so easily imposed upon that manufacturers prefer to employ them. A further reason for the increase of woman’s labor is the system of competition existing among manufacturers. Women are accustomed to doing their housework after working hours, and they are prevented, not only in Bohemia but in all Europe, from taking an active part in public affairs, and for that reason they lack organizing ability, and unorganized they are defenseless, and employers can treat and pay them as they choose.
Woman’s work in the home being underestimated by men, she is paid less for labor done outside of the home. It is not to be wondered at that men look with ill-favor upon the employment of women, whom they consider rivals, since the work of the latter, being cheaper, if of equal quality, is given the preference everywhere. Here we encounter a problem. How can this underestimation of the value of woman’s labor be prevented? The problem can be solved easily by moral suasion when public opinion strives to influence the speculator and manufacturer to increase wages according to quantity and quality of labor performed, so that they can no longer profit by the weakness of woman (or by the slight demands of women). If woman is forced to fight a hard fight for her daily bread, it is the duty of all to lighten her burden. Society must become interested, aroused; it must endeavor to have working hours lessened so that woman may have an opportunity to educate herself and to regain physical strength, so that she can live the life of a human being.
These questions of wages and shorter hours involve employers as well as employés. Women laborers throughout Bohemia and Europe should demand that women be employed as their overseers, for women, as more sensitive, more finely organized, require gentler treatment than men.
Apart from the branches of industry already mentioned, women employed as field laborers merit special attention; their condition is deplorable. These women wander about from place to place in search of employment. From spring until autumn they must do without the comforts of a home, the pleasures of home ties. The wealthy landowners impose upon these poor unfortunates, let them do thirteen or fourteen hours of hard work gathering sugarbeets, pay them from two to three gulden a week, and lodge them in so-called barracks.
These women must work even on the Sabbath-day, for in these places the commandment, “Remember the Sabbath-day to keep it holy,” is not observed. One can conceive how alarmingly all desire for home life disappears.
A pitiful life is led by women in restaurants and cafés, where they often receive no remuneration whatever for twelve, or even fifteen, hours of work, and are dependent entirely upon the fees of the guests. In the world-famed Karlsbad and Franzenbad waitresses must pay hotelkeepers, who are millionaires, one gulden and twenty kreutzers for the probability of breaking dishes.
I could mention many other employments in which men profit by underpaying women. One thing is evident; women are ruining themselves physically, especially mothers deprived of the necessities of life, for, according to statistics in Bohemia, one child out of thirty-six is still-born. Some people claim that women do not wish to return to the idyllic family hearth. Let such help to make it possible for women to return, and they will find but a small per cent remaining aloof from it. It is not woman herself who destroys family life, it is society; it is the employer’s unscrupulous thirst for gain; this is the scourge that drives woman from the home out into the battle of life. Therefore it is the duty of every thoughtful member of society to make an effort to improve, materially and spiritually, the wretched condition of women laborers. Woman can reach a higher social status only when she ceases to be an automaton. When her labor in the home is justly valued and paid, only then will she cease to be man’s competitor and become his companion.
Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Vol. 2 (Chicago: Rand and McNally), 1894, pp. 1-90.