Under What Conditions Women Work
December 16, 1913 — Suffrage School, Washington DC
Yesterday I spoke on the question of men in industry and tried to show that even in this enlightened state of New York there is much room for improvement. Recently the Anti-suffragists made a statement showing how superior the legislation for women was in this great state where the women do not vote, to the legislation in those states where the do vote, and how unnecessary, therefore, Votes for Women are. I have tried to show that at least where men are concerned very little has been done except by their own efforts in trade organization. Let us today consider under what conditions women work.
There are about 800,000 working women in this state, where according to the anti-suffragists, men’s chivalry toward women has made votes for women an unnecessary demand.
The fire hazards which I mentioned yesterday, and which still prevail, apply to women as well as men of course, as do sanitary conditions, cleanliness and comfort in factories. I wish you could have been with me while employers showed me with great pride their dressing rooms for their employees, bare and barren rooms of varied sizes, sometimes so full of lockers there was scarcely room to turn round, sometimes so empty of all furniture — even chairs — that you wondered what the room was meant for; sometimes indeed with solitary couch and chair in factories where hundreds of women were employed. I have yet to find a men who had any kind of an apology to offer for any kind of a thing he showed. They open the door with a grand sweep of the arm and as you enter the desolate comfortless rooms have announced with great satisfaction, “Here are the dressing rooms.”
There are many factories and trades where women stand all day where there are even no chairs, though those are called for by the law. There are many kinds of work at which girls could sit instead of stand if the pressure of work were not so intense, if they were not speeded up to the highest point of endurance.
If you go into a tobacco, or canning factory you will frequently find little boxes, or low slabs of wood with boxes underneath, used as seats; and I’ve gone into a laundry and seen girls sitting on the raised platform upon which the machine rested, eating luncheon because there were no seats whatsoever. When the commission proposed a law requiring backs to chairs wherever possible, the idea seemed so preposterous that one of the prominent senators got upon the floor and protested vigorously against such a law, declaring that this law was simply a fore-runner, of course, for the demand for velvet cushions and velvet cushioned backs with a spread eagle on the top! He made an eloquent plea and the law was not passed by the illustrious senators of New York State for the comfort of young working women. And though this law has been passed since, many girls are found standing because it takes too much time to sit down, and many girls in different stores keep standing because the rule of the store is to stand, though the state requires seats.
A mercantile inspector found some girls standing in a store when they were not busy and asked the reason of this. One of the girls had the temerity to say that the rule of the store did not allow her to sit down. The inspector went to the manager who asked the inspector which department this was and said he would fix it. On his return the manager said, “I have settled that,” and on being asked how, he informed the inspector that he had dismissed the girl. The mercantile department was trying to get the girl to testify before the court that she had not been permitted to sit down, but she refused, for the simple reason that she was afraid of not finding work elsewhere. But what an absurd law, to require employees to testify against their employer before action can be taken I mention this particularly because the effect of standing upon women is detrimental to their health. Dr. George W. Golar, commissioner of health for Rochester, stated before the commission, “I have a photograph of the feet and legs of women who stand and the great tortuous varicose veins upon those legs could make on expend as much pity on those women as upon the horse that was being whipped in the street!” Also he expresses himself in no uncertain terms upon bad ventilation saying “The general effect, of course, is to lower the health of the worker and with that lowering health there comes ansemis, and the diseases of the lungs and when you couple the bad ventilation with low wages and the increased cost of living, it simply means that you are going to interfere with the proper support of their families.
When you go to a factory as I have done, and see young girls in the first flush of womanhood bending their backs to the machine, or sitting crouched upon a chair putting stitches into men’s hats; or standing with the stench of dead beasts in their nostrils in packing houses, putting sausages into sausage skins, standing on slime-soaked floors with wet feet; or when you see them in the laundries in steam filled rooms because there is no adequate hood over the machine, you marvel at the courage, or buoyance or youth. And then when you see middle aged women with their drawn faces, still at the same kind of work they were doing as young girls, with evidently the life, buoyancy and hope crushed out; or when you see the old, old women who should be tenderly treated because of their age, we marvel at the tragedy of life which held such promise and gave so little fulfillment.
I shall never forget a woman coming before the State Factory Investigation Commission in Troy. She was an old woman somewhere in the sixties, she was frail and delicate, dressed all in black which emphasized more than anything else could have done the pallor of her face, the only color of which was in the red-rimmed eyes. She was timid and in her testimony it was quite clear that she did not want to offend her employer. She had worked in that factory for some twenty-six years, and when she was asked by the counsel what time she came to work she said that her employer was very good to her, and that while they opened at seven she did not have to get there until 7:30; and while they closed at six she let at 5:30. When asked how much she made a week she said, — of course she could not male as much now as she had made; she had made as much as $11.00 but now she could not make more than $4.00 a week, but her employer was good to her in allowing her to come! A little while ago they had changed their machine and so she had to buy a new one and she was very fortunate in getting one second-hand from a girl who was going to be married, but she had to pay $35.00 for it! Thirty-five dollars for a machine, the worker of which made not over four dollars a week! Eight and a half week’s wages as price of the machine without which she had not even made those $4.00. I think that if that frail and delicate woman could be taken through the state just to tell her story as she did before the commission the people might realize the need of an old age pension.
But today there is no hope for any woman who is forced to labor to have any respite even in her remotest old age. It is said, of course, that her children should take care of her; but what of the woman who does not marry, or who, having married, has lost her children and husband? Or of the old mother who is too proud to be a burden upon her young son who himself is supporting his family with difficulty?
There are thousands of girls and men working in the textile mills of this state under conditions which are almost a guarantee for tuberculosis, and yet there are not only these external conditions which are detrimental; there is even a more menacing problem, more menacing because we are at least recognizing the necessity of having cleanliness in factories, and certain sanitary conditions. The thing I mean is the sub-division of work as the result of the extraordinary mechanical inventions. Do you realize that ninety-nine people take part in making a shoe? That corsets are made by about thirteen hands, a man’s coat by twenty-nine people? We have machinery running a the rate of 450 stitches a minute, and many machines running anywhere from two to seven needles, and the young workers behind these machines must feed the cloth into them as fast as team power, or electric power demands. There are girls working at piece-work rates which act like a whip over them demanding the highest possible speed to make any sort of a wage. We have women pressing petticoats at the rate of 72 dozen a day; girls seaming 1500 yards a day (or tucking), and what we are asking is that the dedicated hands machine will follow the pace of the electric power which is ruthless in its demand.
This question of nerve exhaustion as the result of modern inventions has practically not been studied by anybody except that workers themselves have stuck against intolerable conditions. It is perfectly clear that they eye-strain upon girls watching four or seven needles is greater than if she watched one. We have with great difficulty managed to establish in the New York State a 54 hour week and a 9 or 10 hour day, according as we get a half holiday on Saturday.
A few years ago there was a strike of the telephone operators in Toronto. A Royal Commission to investigate conditions among telephone operators was appointed. Twenty-six physicians testified for this commission. Without a dissenting voice they said that the exacting demand of the telephone business was such that it caused nerve exhaustion very soon. Some testified that in their judgment, no woman could work at the telephone business for more than three years without so shattering her nervous system that she could never regain her health. Some went so far as to say that if women worked so long it was impossible for them to be normal, or to bear normal children, and at least one physician sated that he had known of cases of sterility among telephone operators and that in his judgment tit was due to the kind of work they had done In the United States there is one strong telephone girls union — namely in Boston, they organized there for self-preservation. We do not realize the nerve strain — eye, ear, voice and hand are in constant use. In some exchanges girls have to answer in busy time 200 calls an hour. The girls in Boston tried to avoid a strike but were finally forced into it, and then the telephone company in Boston hurried 500 girls there from other parts of the state and from Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, put them up at the swellest hotel, the Copley House, and promised them $25.00 wages in order to break the strike. No amount of money is saved to break strikes and every possible means are used to continue to pay young women such wages upon which it is almost impossible for them to live.
The State Factory Investigating Commission had some interesting hearings on home work. They came to the conclusion that all home work should be abolished eventually, but they started by only prohibiting the making or preparing of all food stuffs, children’s clothes and children’s toys in the home. The investigation showed that New York City was not the only offender, but that all smaller towns like Utica, Little Falls, Gloversville, Rochester, Niagara Falls, Syracuse, etc indulged in home work It was very demonstrated that licensing tenement houses was utterly inadequate to insure either sanitation or other conditions of work which were not health destroying. Of course, the advantage to the manufacturers in having home work is very apparent. He saves rest, there is no limitation of hours, no limitation as to the ages, no expense as to machinery, light or heat. Our investigator states that in a “Large majority of cases home-work is done to augment the family income, the small addition being not only welcome but necessary and constitutes the margin which saves the family from destruction, or often application for relief.”
The great menace to society from home work is not so much a danger of transmitting disease, although this is constant as it is the menace which results from exploited childhood and womanhood. It is impossible to guard children from being exploited in their homes. There is little Giovanna who says “I get up at five o’clock in the morning and then I work with my mother; at nine o’clock I go to school, I have no time for play, I must work by feathers; at ten o’clock I go to bed.” Little nine year old Antoinette says “I earn money for my mother after school and on Saturdays and half a day Sunday; no, I do not play, I must work, I get up to work at four o’clock and go to bed at nine o’clock.”
Now we could report one story after another showing how the children are forced to work. Of course the moment an opportunity offers for them to enter the factory they do it, their vitality and vigor already sapped. Is this an intelligent way we have of dealing with the citizens of our Republic? Yet for a few children who go to school and work after school, we have thousands and thousands who escape school; and when at fourteen they leave school to go to work, what do we find? Here is a young caramel wrapper whose business it is to wrap caramels from 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. with one hour for luncheon — she is paid $3.50 a week. Here is another who weights the candy, and gets $3.50; and here is one who makes flowers, the kind women wear on their hats, and she gets $3.00. And so you can enumerate many tirades where our young children of 14 spend eight hours of their day, forty-eight hours a week at such intelligent work as wrapping caramels. We think we have a wonderful law in New York limiting the hours to eight, but I would like to ask you if it is common sense for democracy to allow its children to wrap caramels at $3.50 a week instead of training and educating them in industrial schools so that when they are mature they may be intelligent citizens, and wen they are married become intelligent mothers.
Of course eight hours a day is very much better than twelve, but let me quote to you from one of the leading educator sin New York, Director of Technical Education at Teacher’s College. He says this, “One half of our school children leave school at seventh grade. Of those over 16 years, 17 percent are not in school. This is in cities of 25,000 population and over. The years in which the majority enter occupation are 14 and 15 mostly, they are entering casual occupations or drifting here and there into crime.” This is testimony abundantly substantiated.
To come back to our older factory working girls anywhere from 16 to 25 or 30 years of age. We have in recent years experienced a tremendous awakening on the part of these young women who have risen up and struck against conditions. Se have had some very picturesque strikes in New York, picturesque enough to arouse public interest though a perfectly plain, simple, necessary strike of a few hundreds; When nothing particular happens except suffering on the part of those who are striking it does not arouse any particular interest or enthusiasm, or any support. Girls who are working for $3.50 or $4.50 a week, — women with families to support earning six to seven or eight dollars a week, and yet employers spend many thousands of dollars on private detectives and so-called thugs, to break those strikes, and nothing but endurance on the part of the workers have brought about a change of conditions. We expect very heroic action on little break and butter. My sister went into the home of one woman whose husband was working in one of the big garment trades. She had a new-born baby by her side and three or four other young children, cowed because they had nothing to eat. Yet she urged her husband to stick and not go back to work, and when asked how she found courage to do it she replied, “We do not live by bread alone, and I would rather see them starve and die than for us to betray our faith.”
We certainly do not have to go far afield to find heroism; our industrial life calls for it constantly, not only of men, or only of women who are grown, but asks it of little children and young delicate girls. From the point of view of spirit, this heroism is magnificent and it is well perhaps for us to know that we have it, and yet how wasteful from the point of view of democracy and how dangerous! Because we cannot continue repeatedly to ask this sort of heroism without losing it.
Bread and butter, shelter and clothes and adequate food are absolutely necessary to people, and more than that we need time for other things, — of the spirit and mind — and, what is more, we need money for it, and when they talk of minimum wages and say that a girl can live on six or eight dollars a week they hake nothing into account except bare necessities; and when they say that eight or nine hours a day is reasonable they take nothing into account except work, and they do not for one moment consider the needs of the mind and spirit and the right of every individual to have leisure for the development of the higher qualities of man.
Then with 800,000 women working in our own state alone, we are told that in this state conditions are so good, that so much has been done that we women as a whole should be satisfied or content.
I want to say to you suffragists, especially to some of you who are saying that the working women are not taking part in this great suffrage movement, and that they are not coming to the fore as they should, how can they? Working nine, ten hours a day and then on their return home attending to their home duties, where is the time for them to take active part in even a suffrage movement? Many times they have to stay in the factory and work through the evening, they cannot make engagements without the reservation that they can break them if work calls. And when these women join their union, attend their meetings and pay their dues they are doing more for social betterment than any other group that we know of. They are getting their suffrage training. It is no easy task for a girl to be chairman of her shop of 30 or 100 or 200 girls. They adjust the difficulties, wisely advise and lead and in conference with their employer get splendid training. Many times they have special assessment to hep their fellow workers, either in their own city or in a remote state, to better their conditions through organization; and the sinews of war in times of strikes have been carried by thousands and thousands of women as well as men who, out of their limited wage, have accepted an assessment of fifteen or twenty-five cents a week. In their own Trade Union organization they work side by side with men; they confer side by side with them, voting on the questions in the union on the same terms as men. There they discuss what affects not only their own organization, but what is affecting their own community or state; matters which could only be met through the ballot they heard discussed and form their judgment upon, and they decide in their own organization, for instance, whether it should stand for the initiative referendum or recall, what kind of workman’s compensation it wants, or what other law may be of advantage to the state or nation. Yet when they leave the Trade Union meeting place, they are disenfranchised working women unable to use their judgment for the benefit of society as a whole. Woman suffrage will only accomplish the results we expect of it and hope of it if women develop into an intelligent electorate, and I would like to impress upon you the need of becoming familiar with industrial conditions so that when we get the power we can change them; and it seems to me that it is up to the women of leisure who are working in some way in the suffrage movement not to cry out or protest against the working woman’s indifference to suffrage but to recognize her distinct contribution as an organized worker and to be ready to stand by her in her heavily handicapped struggle to better her conditions. Some of the leaders of the New York State have done this magnificently, but there are thousands who have not and who stand aloof and indifferent to the great struggle.
On the other hand, the great number of working women who have not yet been aroused to the necessity of organization nor to the need of the vote should be reached by suffrage in an intelligent and sympathetic way. They could do this by making them see the relation of the vote to the condition of labor; the relation of the vote to the life of the working woman who has to pump up water instead of drawing it from a faucet because of the indifference of the politician to her comfort; the relation of her vote to the milk and food with which her children are fed; the relation of the vote to the warmth of the so-called wool with which she has to cover her children; and then the relation of her vote to the enforcement of the law for the protection of her children in the street, in the factor or in the shop.
In this way the suffragists have a great opportunity to lay before a group of over worked women the power of their vote; in this way an intelligent electorate would be developed who knows before it has it, what it can do with the vote, and who will use it effectively. It is as we suffragists make ourselves intelligent upon the problems which we will have to solve that the vote will be of any use to us or to the community or nation.
I do not deny for one moment the natural right that women have to the ballot and perhaps we shall have to di the same as the men have done, — suffer for our own ignorance before we make the right use of it as a class. I hope not, I hope that we have learned by experience that men have had, that it is a blunt instrument unless intelligence is behind it; and that we may not have to spend may years in acquiring knowledge that could be ours now because of the many men and women who have labored to bring the great problems of the country before the people. One of the great problems of our time is the industrial problem and it has many angles.
If the women of leisure and opportunity would do as that young and extraordinary woman Carala Voerishoffer did we would more quickly get results, She, a daughter of privilege, born to a great fortune with the privilege of students years behind her, served her city and state as no other young woman of privilege has done. Unsatisfied with learning of conditions through others, she herself went into factories to get first hand knowledge. As a work in a laundry through one hot summer, she learned the conditions of that trade and the hardships of the workers. Through following up the young immigrant women, going on the trains with them as an immigrant woman direct from Ellis Island, entering the city of Chicago and other cities as an immigrant, she learned to know the conditions and difficulties that confront the young brave immigrant girls who come to this country because of there great dream of opportunities for work. As inspector in the labor camps of New York State she learned from her own experience of the exploitations of the simple hearted immigrant who comes here believing he has come to the land of freedom, and, knowing these conditions intimately she labored to change them and allied herself with the movements that are making for fundamental democracy, and so too, she allied herself with the Trade Union movement because she realized that through it could be obtained democracy in the workshop. In her death New York State as well as New York City, and the cause that makes for democracy, lost a staunch friend and fighter, because she not only recognized evils but fought hard to right them.
So, for instance, in the shirt-waist strike in New York where thousands of girls were arrested she went bail. She went to the day court, she was at hand in the night court giving bail for those who were arrested; she did it so modestly, simply as a matter of course that only a few except those who benefitted by her knew of it, and she did it in this way because she believed more than anything else that only that as people proved themselves in service on an equality with other people would they be of any value. There may not be may who can do like her, who are so situated or gifted in such a way as she was, and yet there are many who can ally ourselves to the great forces that make for righteousness and be adherents of them while working for woman suffrage. Political democracy will not do us much good unless we have industrial democracy; and industrial democracy can only come through intelligent workers participating in the business of which they are a part, and working out the best methods for all.
So once more I call upon you women to stand ready to help the working woman. Not to ask her to come out and help you get woman suffrage but to go to her and offer her your help to win woman suffrage. Show her that you understand her difficulties, are in sympathy with her struggle, eager to help her when the opportunity offers; that you want woman suffrage to give the working woman the much needed weapon to the end that all women together may work for the common good of mankind.
Source: Rose Schneiderman Papers, Brown University Library, Providence, Rhode Island
Also: Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers, 1635-1935, ed. Judith Anderson (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1984), pp. 151-175.