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The Problem of Employment
For Negro Women

July 1903 — The Hampton Conference, Hampton VA


It can be broadly said that colored women know how to work, and have done their full share of the paid and unpaid service rendered to the American people by the Negro race. This is a busy world; the world’s work is large, complicated, and increasing. The demand for the competent in all kinds of work is never fully supplied. Woman is constantly receiving a larger share of the work to be done. The field for her skill, her endurance, her finer instincts and faithfulness is ever enlarging; and she has become impatient of limitations, except those imposed by her own physical condition. In this generalization, colored women, of course, are largely excepted. For reasons too well under stood here to be repeated, ours is a narrow sphere. While the kinds and grades of occupation open to all women of white complexion are almost beyond enumeration, those open to our women are few in number and mostly menial in quality. The girl who is white and capable is in demand in a thousand places. The capable Negro girl is usually not in demand. This is one of the stubborn facts of to-day. Shall we waste our energy and soul in fretting over it, or shall we bravely say “Well, what I would do, I cannot, so I will do that which I can in the best way I can.” Thoreau once said that “if people would spend half as much effort in trying to be happy with what they have, as they spend in wishing for what they haven’t got, the world would be far happier.” It seems to me that this bit of philosophy aptly applies to our case in this matter of employment. In the face of this condition, then, what can we do? To answer the question, there is required large-heartedness and much wisdom.

The answer must be worked out, not by our women alone, but by the co-operation of the best minds and best hearts of all the people.

In considering the present-day opportunities and lack of opportunities for colored women I shall not consider the teachers nor the few women here and there who are in the professions. We need have no anxiety about the superior woman. She will make her way in the world in spite of restrictions. But it is with the average colored woman that we must reckon. We find her engaged in some one of the following occupations: — domestic service, laundering, dressmaking, hair dressing, manicuring, and nursing. Here and there is a typewriter and stenographer, a book-keeper, or a government employee. In Southern communities colored women as a rule are not employed in factories, nor do they anywhere form part of the great army of clerks.

In the city of Chicago domestic service is the one occupation in which the demand for colored women exceeds the supply. In one employment office during the past year there were 1,500 applications for colored women and only 1,000 of this number were supplied. Girls of other nationalities do not seem to compete with colored women as domestics. It is probably safe to say that every colored woman who is in any way competent can find good employment. Her wages for general housework range from four to seven dollars per week, while a good cook receives from seven to ten dollars. Now what is the condition of this service? The two most important things are that the wages paid are higher than those given for the same grade of intelligence in any other calling; and that colored women can command al most a monopoly of this employment.

It might be safe to presume that as our women are so much in demand for this service they give perfect satisfaction. In considering this it is important to bear in mind that there are two kinds of colored women who perform domestic service: — First, there are those who take to the work naturally and whose training and habits make them perfectly satisfied with it; and second, those who have had more or less education and who are ambitious to do something in the line of “polite occupations.” The women of the latter class do not take to domestic service very kindly. They do not enter the service with any pride. They feel compelled to do this work because they can find nothing else to do. They are always sensitive as to how they may be regarded by their associates and friends, and shrink from the term servant as something degrading “per se”. There is a general complaint among housekeepers that the younger and more intelligent colored women are unreliable as domestics. They say that as soon as a young woman has earned enough money to buy a fine dress she leaves her place; that she demands a holiday every time there is a picnic or a funeral and wears herself out in social dissipations of all kinds. These are some of the complaints that may be heard concerning the present generation of young women who “work out”. I am sorry to say there is a great deal of truth in them. Women who take up any kind of work with a fixed dislike and shame for it, are not apt to win the good will of their employers.

But of course there is another side to this story. It must be remembered that the ordinary mistress of a house is far from being an angel. Although I am a woman and a housekeeper, I must admit that the average housewife is apt to be a petty tyrant, and while she has smiles, graciousness, and gentleness for the parlor, she may show all kinds of meanness and harshness in the kitchen. She seldom assumes that there is a higher nature in her helpers that might sometimes be appealed to. Many mistresses cannot rid themselves of the idea that the woman whom they employ to do housework is inferior and servile by nature, and must receive the treatment accorded to inferiors. The woman who understands this haughtiness of spirit and exaggerated superiority is always resentful and on the defensive. If it were possible to change the disposition and heart of the average American housewife, and so to elevate the service that the cook or housemaid would not be looked down upon because she is a servant and as such not supposed to possess womanly instincts and aspirations, a better grade of helpers would gladly enter this field of employment.

It is of course an easy thing to condemn our young women who have been fairly educated and have had good home training, because they prefer idleness to domestic service, but I am rather inclined to think we must share in that condemnation. If our girls work for wages in a nice home, rather than in a factory or over a counter, they are ruthlessly scorned by their friends and acquaintances. Our young men, whose own occupations, by the way, will not always bear scrutiny, will also give them the cut direct, so that between the scorn of their associates and the petty tyranny of the housewife, the colored girls who enter domestic service are compelled to have more than, ordinary strength of character.

But after all is said, I believe that it is largely in the power of the young woman herself to change and elevate the character of domes tic service. She certainly cannot improve it by taking into it ignorance, contempt, and inefficiency. There is no reason why a woman of character, graciousness, and skill should not make her work as a domestic as respectable and as highly regarded as the work of the girl behind a department-store counter. For example, if by special training in domes tic service, a girl can cook so well and do everything about a house so deftly and thoroughly that she will be called a real home helper and an invaluable assistant, it is in her power, with her intelligent grasp upon the possibilities of her position, to change the whole current of public opinion in its estimate of domestic service. These young women, as a general thing, belong to families that are too poor to keep them well dressed if they are idle, yet colored girls on the streets of Chicago and other cities are often better dressed than the girls of any other race in like circumstances. There is a strong suspicion prevalent that this fine dressing is at a cost that demoralizes the social life of the colored people. This is the most serious consequence of our restricted employment. The girl who is barred from the occupation she would like to follow, and has no taste, talent, or desire for what she must do, is apt to become discouraged and indifferent. If she finds that society on all sides is hostile to her ambitions, she will become in turn hostile to society and contemptuous of its ethics and code of morals.

What, then, shall we do for the young colored woman with refined instincts and fair education? She is ambitious to choose and follow the occupation for which she best fitted by talents and inclination, but she is shut out from most of the employments open to other women, and does not realize that her refinement and training are as much needed and as well paid for in domestic service as in other occupations. We are afraid of the word “servant.” In England the terms master and servant are not hateful to the thousands of self-respecting Englishmen who bear them. If we could in some way create a sentiment that the girl who can carry as much intelligence and graciousness of manner into the kitchen will be as much respected and will get married just as soon as her sister in other occupations, much of the present-day false notions about domestic service would be changed. A young woman of character and intelligence who is competent to do domestic work, can never be a servant in an offensive sense and will not be so regarded. To bring about this change of sentiment so as to enable our girls to enter upon this occupation without loss of self-respect and without the danger of ostracism by so-called society, is a problem worthy of the best thought and devotion of our men and women.

What is called the servant-girl problem is one of the most vexatious of the many social questions of the hour. The work of house keeping is neither a trade nor a profession; it is without discipline or organization and is largely irresponsible and uncertain. It is usually a case of a good mistress and a bad servant or a bad mistress and a good servant. Thousands of housekeepers attempt to manage their help who have never learned to manage themselves. The housekeeper’s manner to the butcher, the baker, the milkman, the shoemaker, the dressmaker, and the milliner, and to every other person upon whom she is more or less dependent, is often more respectful than it is to the woman upon whom she is dependent every hour of the day for ease and comfort, health and happiness. Many of the leading women of the country have begun to study this problem for the purpose of elevating the service. The first thing to be done is to bring it strongly to our consciousness that domestic service is not necessarily degrading. In the city of Chicago, schools of domestic science are as eagerly patronized as schools in which book-keeping and typewriting are taught. They are slowly teaching the all-important fact that the thing we call domestic service has in it the elements of high art and much science.

It is an occupation that intelligence elevates, that character adorns and ennobles, and that even now brings a higher salary to women than al most any other kind of employment.

When domestic service becomes a profession, as it surely will, by the proper training of those who follow it, what will be the condition of colored girls who would participate in its benefits? It is now time to prepare ourselves to answer this question. In my opinion, the training for this new profession should be elevated to the dignity and importance of the training in mathematics and grammar and other academic studies. Our girls must be made to feel that there is no step ping down when they become professional housekeepers. The relative dignity, respectability, and honor of this profession should first be taught in our schools. As it is now, the young woman in school or college knows that if she enters domestic service, she loses the relationships that she has formed. But schools of domestic science cannot do it all. The everyday man and woman who make society must change their foolish notions as to what is the polite thing for a young woman do. The kind of stupidity that calls industrial education drudgery is the same kind of stupidity that looks upon the kitchen as a place for drudges. We must learn that the girl who cooks our meals and keeps our houses sweet and beautiful deserves just as high a place in our social economy as the girl who makes our gowns and hats, or the one who teaches our children. In what I have said on this particular phase of our industrial life, I do not wish to be understood as advocating the restriction of colored girls to house service, even when that service is elevated to the rank of a profession. My only plea is that we shall protect and respect our girls who honestly and intelligently enter this service, either from preference or necessity.

It seems to me that we lose a great opportunity if we fail to take hold of this problem in a thoroughly broad and philosophic way and work out its solution. If we wish to contribute something substantial to the social betterment of American living, we have the opportunity in helping to solve this servant-girl problem. Vexation of spirit, waste, in digestion, and general demoralization cry out from the American home for relief from its domestic miseries. We have it in our power to assist in answering this Macedonian cry. It would help to give our race a standing if we could count several of our men and women as the best thinkers and most effective workers in the solution of this problem. Shall we lead or shall we follow in this movement? Shall we, in this as in many other things, beg for an opportunity further on instead of helping to create opportunities now? There is still another consideration which suggests the importance to the colored people of taking the lead in helping to improve and elevate this service. Race prejudice is kept up and increased in thousands of instances by the incompetent and characterless women who are engaged in this work. While there are thousands of worthy and really noble women in domestic service who enjoy the confidence and affection of their employers, there is a large percentage of colored women who, by their general unworthiness, help to give the Negro race a bad name, for white people North and South are very apt to estimate the entire race from the standpoint of their own servant girls. When intelligence takes the place of ignorance, and good manners, efficiency, and self-respect take the place of shiftlessness and irresponsibility in American homes, one of the chief causes of race prejudice will be re moved.

It should also be borne in mind that the colored girl who is trained in the arts of housekeeping is also better qualified for the high duties of wifehood and motherhood. Let me say by the way of summary that I have dwelt mostly up on the opportunities of domestic service for the following reasons: —

1. It is the one field in which colored women meet with almost no opposition. It is ours almost by birthright.
2. The compensation for this service, in Northern communities at least, is higher than that paid for average clerkships in stores and offices.
3. The service is susceptible of almost unlimited improvement and elevation.
4. The nature of the work is largely what we make it.
5. White women of courage and large intelligence are lifting domestic service to a point where it will have the dignity of a profession, and colored women are in danger, through lack of foresight, of being relegated to the positions of scrub women and dishwashers.
6. The colored girl who has no taste or talent for school teaching, dressmaking, or manicuring is in danger of being wasted in idle ness, unless we can make domestic service worthy of her ambition and pride.
7. There can be no feature of our race problem more important than the saving of our young women; we can perhaps excuse their vanities, but idleness is the mildew on the garment of character.
8. Education has no value to human society unless it can add importance and respectability to the things we find to do.
9. Though all the factories and offices close their doors at our approach, this will be no calamity if we are strong enough to so trans form the work we must do that it shall become an object of envy and emulation to those who now deny us their industrial fellowship.



Source: Southern Workman, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for Negroes and Indians, 1903, pp. 432-437.