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Special Legislation for Women

June 27, 1899 — Industrial and Legislative Section, International Congress of Women, Great Hall, St. Martin’s Town Hall, London, England


I have been asked to describe the position with regard to factory legislation which is taken up by the English Factory Acts, supported by the trade unionists, both men and women, and now generally accepted by progressive public opinion. Let me say once for all that I am myself personally convinced of the necessity of regulating the minimum conditions of employment of all classes of wage-earners, men, women and children, in all respects and in every trade. But I do not wish to evade the issue raised by the words “special legislation for women.” Women philanthropists and women wage-earners have cordially accepted from Parliament regulations from which men have been exempted — not because men ought to have been exempted, but as a useful instalment of reform. This is a question of political expediency. But this is not all. We assert that in some cases legislation specially adapted to the particular needs of women, and not of general application, is permanently desirable. This is a question of economic principle.

It is unnecessary for me to enter at any length into the argument in favour of general factory legislation. We believe that a century of experience has proved what economic theory now demonstrates, that if we leave the conditions of employment absolutely unregulated — if, that is, we let them be determined by individual bargaining between employer and wage-earner — that the sanitary condition of the workshop will become such as to breed disease in the operative, and infection for the rest of the community; that the hours of labour will be gradually lengthened until the life of the wage-earner becomes one unceasing toil; and that the wages will be progressively reduced, so that the wage-earners as a class will be without the nourishment necessary for their continued efficiency. We object to any such degradation of the wage-earning class not only, and perhaps not even mainly, because we are moved by the sufferings of particular men, women and children; but because their degradadation hampers as as a nation in our straggle with other nations for manufactaring and commercial pre-eminence.

Industrial success depends ultimately upon making the factors of production as efficient as possible. The ordinary manufacturer knows this about his own machinery. He may be tempted, in the struggle for immediate cheapness of production, to stint his outlay for repairs and renewals. But the result is that he succumbs to his wiser rival who keeps his machinery at the highest pitch of perfection. In the case of machinery, Nemesis comes too quickly to the individual manufacturer for him to go far wrong. He cannot throw his old machine out of the window and find a new one in the street free of any expense to himself. But with regard to the human machines — the men, women and children whom he employs — it may positively pay him to use up successive relays of workers, throwing them, when exhausted, on the rubbish heap of charity or the Poor Law, and taking in a new generation at his mill gate. But this does not pay the com- munity. Hence we enact a long code of factory legislation so as to ensure that, in the mad race for immediate cheapness, the most important of all the factors in production, the human beings, shall not be unduly depreciated in value, but shall, on the contrary, be progressively increased in efficiency. Thus it is a positive advantage to England, Germany and Switzerland, in the struggle for international trade, that they already enforce systematic factory legislation. We in England are only slowly realising how great this advantage is, and hence our factory code is still imperfect. When we have fully understood this economic aw we shall insist on enforcing a legal minimum for all workers, not only as regards sanitation, education and leisure, but also as regards wages.

Now I come to the cases in which Parliament has passed or will pass a factory act applying to women, but refuses to apply it to men. Are we, who believe in factory legislation, right in accepting this instalment of reform? I say unhesitatingly, yes. I do not base my acceptance on the fact that, in many cases, a law which professes to apply only to women, does, as a matter of fact, impose the same regulation on the men who work in the same mill. This has, as you all know, been the result in our great cotton industry. But this may be an accident. It does not, for instance, hold good of the printing trade. We are in favour of accepting an instalment because we believe in our main argument that regulation positively improves the economic and social position of the persons regulated. Exactly as we English are prepared to accept factory acts for England which we cannot hope to see enforced on our trade rivals in China or Japan, or even in Italy or Russia, so we progressive women are prepared to accept for our sex regulations which we cannot at present enforce on men. What injures women as a class in their struggle to obtain employment, is not their occasional competition with men, but their reckless underbidding of each other. It is this reckless underbidding of each other, as regards hours of work, conditions of work, and wages of work, which makes women-workers, as a class, underfed, overdriven, untrained and incompetent. And this, therefore, is why they find themselves, as a class relegated to the inferior grades of work.

But I do not want to shirk any part of the controversy. Legal regulation, if it is to be effective, must always take the form of special legislation. A general law fixing for all workers one wage, one normal day, one set of sanitary conditions, would be a futile absurdity. Any factor inspector will tell us that it is only when the mere general regulation has been worked out into special rules applicable to the technical details of particular trades, or even particular grades of trades, that it can be really enforced. Hence factor legislation ought to become ever more and more highly specialised. In the vast majority of cases this specialisation will have nothing to do with sex. A female cotton-weaver must necessarily find herself under special regulations not applicable to the engine-driver; but this will be not because she is a woman but because she is handling a powerloom. The engine-driver will have his own set of regulations, not because he is a man but because he is driving an engine. But there are exceptional cases in which difference of sex corresponds to so permanent a difference in needs that, in order to secure any real equivalence in the standard of life, the women-workers in those exceptional occupations must obtain regulations different from those to which the men are subject. Take the case of working immediately after the birth of a child. It is only in the Basque Provinces that it could be suggested that, because a child had been born in the family, both the father and the mother should be forced to remain at home. If it should be physiologically demonstrated that women as women are more subject to lead poisoning than me, we must in the interest of the community, insist that women working in this process should be permanently required to take special precautions, which may not be necessary for men. If it is proved that women cannot habitually work in underground mines, or take the night-shift in a factory, without serious deterioration of health or character, whereas men can do so and yet retain a high standard of citizenship, it is not in the interest of women to insist that they should be free to do whatever the men do. I need hardly say that this principle applies both ways. It would be suicidal for the men compositors’ trade, to allow their members to accept wages below a man’s standard of life. We must, in fact, get rid of this idea of sex rivalry. Each distinct set of workers, whether men or women, or both together, must aim at enforcing the particular minimum conditions which their particular circumstances render necessary. These will differ from trade to trade, from age to age, and occasionally from sex to sex. Without the enforcement of such minimum conditions as will protect every set of workers, whether men or women, from physical and mental deterioration, the nation will not reach its maximum strength, and women, therefore, will fail to attain their maximum development.



Source: Women in Industrial Life, The Transactions of the Industrial and Legislative Section of The International Congress of Women, London, July 1899 (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1900), pp. 40-43.