Labor is the Right
January 1855 — Richmond IN
The objections which are too often made to what is called Woman’s Rights arise, I think, from considering the subject without that care and discrimination which its importance demands. When it is asked that woman should have the same right to vote, to employment, and to the acquirement of knowledge as her brother, the minds of people are startled, and they at once pronounce the thing impracticable and dangerous. And yet, when they come to examine the grounds upon which either one of these claims are based — separately and distinctly — when they look at their reasonableness, their justice and their fitness in the natural order of things, they are constrained to admit that there is far more truth in what these women are saying than they at first supposed. When they come to know that we ask for no rights for our sex which do not belong to the whole race, when they come to understand that our object is not to degrade, but to elevate woman—not to make her less, but more than ever a true wife and mother — not to crush out the affections and sensibilities of her nature, but to elevate and purify them by pointing her to a nobler field for their development, then they are ready to extend to us the right hand of encouragement and bid us go forward in the good work in which we are engaged.
And thus I come to you, my friends, tonight, to enter my plea in behalf of woman for a wider field of employment and a better remuneration for her toil than she has hitherto enjoyed. I ask you to listen to me in soberness and candor, and if my words are as earnest and convincing as the sincerity with which they are urged, then certain I am that you will go away from this house determined to give your influence in behalf of the cause for which I plead.
Are we not mistaken in supposing labor a curse instead of a blessing?
Surely in our present state of being, labor comes to us as a kind relief from the torpor and listlessness that would otherwise seize upon all our faculties, enervate our minds and render us unfit to discharge the duties of intelligent beings. The bread which sustains life comes to us sweetened by the toil which its production costs, and the cool beverage of nature that slakes our thirst is all the more refreshing when reached only after weary journeyings over the sandy plains which fall in the path of our earthly pilgrimage. Labor ennobles and purifies man’s nature. It prepares him to meet the burdens and responsibilities of life and fits him for the enjoyment of its richest blessings. If we study our own physical frames, we shall find that they are eminently fitted for exertion. Every muscle and fibre seems to have been made for use. The limbs and the body were designed to perform their appointed duties, just as much as the eyes were made to see and the ears to hear; and it follows, therefore, that the former have no more a right to refuse to move and act in their appropriate spheres than the latter. Activity is indeed the great law of the universe, and whether we turn our eyes to the planetary system that rolls in majesty above us, or to the ever changing events of life and time upon the earth, we find this law everywhere written, as it were by the pen of the Infinite.
Labor is necessary for man’s existence. Without it the earth will not bring forth the fruits necessary to sustain life. The savage must pursue his game over his native hills, and man in a civilized state must cultivate the hills and plains ere they will yield their richest food. The ore, in its unsightly bed, can only be shaped into forms of usefulness and beauty by the hardy hand and powerful arm of the worker. And so with everything that ministers to our wants and pleasures; the full measures of nature’s gifts can only be secured by unceasing industry and skill.
The mind, too, must labor. It cannot expand to the full measure of its greatness and power until it has been disciplined and brought into action by weary hours of application and toil. But when this has been done with that care and attention which a matter of such vital importance as the education of a human mind should receive, then we may look for its highest attainments in excellence and true greatness.
Finally, labor is the right of man—and of every man and woman that exists upon the earth. It is a right that rests upon the same basis that all other rights rest upon — namely, that it is necessary to his existence and his happiness. To deny to any portion of the race, then, this avenue to health and happiness — this gateway to the enjoyment of the noblest gifts — is to debar humanity of its inalienable rights.
It may be said that all this is true and trite enough, that no one ever doubted that labor in some form, both of the head and hand, was necessary and right for all. Be not too certain of that, friends, for unless I am greatly mistaken I shall convince you, ere I close, that in this country at least this right and necessity has actually been denied to one half of our race — unless indeed it be performed within certain narrowly defined limits and in such a way as will not contribute to the development of either mental or physical excellence. And it may even well be questioned whether governments have ever fully recognized the inherent right to labor in all its [sic] citizens. Most certainly had our government recognized this right, it would not have so long hesitated to throw open its broad domain to the labors of the husbandman, would not have so long persisted in holding its millions of acres of public land as a source of national revenue, instead of opening those broad acres freely for the occupation and settlement of the great body of the American people, to whom they rightfully belong.
On this question of the right to labor, man and woman stand in a very different position. While the former does not enjoy it to the full extent which he has a right to claim, he still possesses a vast advantage over his sister. Comparatively speaking, before him the whole universe stands open, and he may enter upon and cultivate whatever portion of it he sees fit. He may level the trees of the forests, upturn the virgin soil of its prairies, dig deep into the rich mines that lie beneath its surface; he may build cities and ships, traverse the earth and the ocean, call to his aid all the powers of mind, of water, and of steam; may chain the lightening to his car and make the thunderbolt of Jove submissive to his commands; and no one may dare to impede him in his course, or say to him, “thus far and no farther shalt thou go.” In the domain of mind, and of the intellect, too, no limit can be fixed to his attainments. He may revel in whatever height of knowledge his soul may delight in and may gather the golden fruits from whatever tree his heart may covet. He may unlock the mysteries of science at pleasure and dispense their blessings and benefits as to him shall seem fit, in whatever field of labor and usefulness he may choose to enter.
How different from all this is the position of woman! Confined to a narrow circle of duties, she has few opportunities to engage in those ennobling pursuits which so improve and dignify man. Her physical frame must suffer because she is deprived—whether by positive law or custom — of the privilege of exercising and strengthening the fibres and muscles which were given her to use and improve. Her mind must run to waste because it would be unladylike in her to aspire to the higher achievements of science, to revel in the glorious creations of art, or to drink from the fountains of knowledge scattered so richly along the pathway of her brother.
Do I hear it said that woman is not fitted like man for labor and toil? Who told you that, or where did you learn it? Look the world over today and you will find more real labor is performed by woman than by man. In all uncivilized and barbarous countries — and in some that are civilized—woman is compelled to perform the hardest species of labor and to toil in the lowest descriptions of drudgery. She carries the game, she builds the wigwam, she cultivates the earth, she paddles the canoe, while her lordly master hunts, fights, and sleeps according to his sovereign pleasure. And this proves, not that man should be idle and woman the worker, but that she has the capacity for labor, and the nerve and power to perform it. And even here, in this enlightened country, the few employments which are open to our sex are, some of them at least, far more laborious than many of those in which men are engaged. It is, for instance, a great deal harder to spend a day over the wash tub, diligently employed in the service it requires, than it is to measure tape and calicoes behind the counter. It is more laborious to scrub the floors of the kitchen, than it is to mend watches; to clean a dirty house, than it is to set type; to heat the brain and exhaust the body over a cook stove, than to write at a lawyer’s desk, or declaim from the bar or pulpit.
No, my friends, there is nothing in the physical constitution of woman that justifies the assertion that she is not fitted for work and that she has not an equal right to labor with her brother. The truth is undeniable, that in strength, in nerve, in courage, in presence of mind, in firmness, in perseverance and self-sacrificing devotion to whatever duty she sets her hands, she need fear no competition with man when she is placed in circumstances where these qualities are as fully brought out in her case as in his.
Still, it may be said by some that admitting all this, woman has enough already to do in her appropriate sphere and that the plea we make for a wider field of employment is wholly destitute of any real foundation. But is this true? Let us examine your position and see whether it be really so. What would you have woman do? “Work in the kitchen,” says one. Far be it from me to speak lightly of the duties of the kitchen, and so I too say she may work in the kitchen, at proper times. But suppose she has no kitchen to work in. What then would you have her do? “Let her take care of her husband and keep his clothes in order,” says another. I grant she should do all this — more especially as some husbands have not wits enough to take care of themselves — but suppose she has no husband to take care of. What then shall she do? “Educate her children,” is another duty enjoined upon woman, and heaven forbid that I should say aught to relieve her from its fulfillment; but then all women have not children to educate, and many of those who have are not qualified to do it.
What then have those women to do who have neither kitchens in which to labor, husbands to take care of, or children to educate?
Before answering this question, let me say that it is a mistake to suppose that the domestic duties, of every woman who has them to do, are sufficient to fill up all the days and years of her lifetime. Every intelligent wife who husbands her time as she should will find many spare hours which may profitably be devoted to study and reflection. Some, I know, fill up these hours with fashionable follies and dissipation, but how much wiser is that woman who devotes a portion of her time to some useful study or pursuit! Far better would it be if every woman were trained in early life to some useful employment, so that when deprived of the sustaining hand of a husband and left destitute, with a family of little ones looking up to her for bread, she could have the means of earning for them with her own hands the comforts and necessaries of life….
Again, no one can tell how soon they may be forced to rely upon the labor’ of their own hands for a subsistence. Those who are rich this year may be poor the next. Those who now have parents and friends to provide for them a home may, ere many moons have circled their course, be left destitute of both.
Change is written on the tide,
On the forest’s leafy pride,
On the streamlet glancing bright,
On the jeweled crown of night;
All, where e’er the eye can rest,
Show it legibly imprest!
No one condition in life is exempt from these changes, and when they fall upon woman how terrible and crushing is their power!
“I was not reared for hardship, I was trained to be a lady,” said a destitute young woman of American parentage, who had seen some twenty summers. Suppressed emotion almost choked her utterance, while she solicited employment. And why was she ashamed to ask for work? Because she had been taught to look upon labor as dishonorable. During her childhood and early youth, her parents were wealthy. She had been educated at a fashionable boarding school—had been taught to sew a little and to play on the piano — but not expecting that she would ever be under the necessity of earning her own living, she had been taught nothing useful. And now her father was insolvent — all his property had gone to pay creditors — their home was broken up, and the daughter must either work or starve. And yet she had no trade, knew nothing of business or how to work.
Alas! how pitiable her condition! And it is for just such a fate as this that half of the young women of our day are preparing….
… Said a widowed mother, “I have six little children — the youngest is but four weeks old. We are left with nothing. I have no trade and no resources by which I can supply their wants.”
This woman settled in early life with fair prospects, and for a time all was well with her. But what could a husband and father do when health failed, means were expended, and death approaching? And without she is skilled in some branch of business [sic], what can a bereaved mother do to save her children from beggary or the poor house? Nothing! — in the present state of society, comparatively nothing.
And yet there are some things which woman can do — which every woman can do, even though they have no kitchens of their own to work in, no husbands to take care of, no children to educate, no fathers to support them in idleness or husbands to provide for their wants.
What then can these women do? “They can enter upon domestic service,” say you. “There certainly is a great scarcity of this kind of help. Let them go into our kitchens, cook our victuals, wash our dishes and our clothes, clean our houses and take care of our children.” Very well. And what will you pay them for this excessive wearying toil? Supposing they know how to perform it well, which is by no means always the case. Oh! the enormous sum of one dollar, or one dollar and a quarter per week, or from four to five dollars a month! Hardly enough to pay for the shoes they wear on their feet and the cheap clothing that covers them—nothing for the six children they may have left in some wretched home.
And how will you treat them the while? Confine them to your kitchens, nor ever permit them to eat with, or sit with, the great folks in the parlor. You will look upon them as inferiors and menials, and your children will treat the “hired girl” with the insolence and harshness which they see so plainly manifested in their superiors. Surely such a position has few attractions for American women, and until those employed in domestic service are treated with more respect and consideration than now, it can hardly be expected that many will engage in it.
“Well, then,” you say, “let them go to work in factories and learn to weave and spin.” Yes, let them work in factories when factory owners will pay them fair wages and require them to work no more than ten hours a day. This business pays better, at least, and is more independent than that of the domestic servant. Again you say, “let them teach school.” But suppose they have not received at the hands of their parents an education sufficient for this business? Then this resource must fail. But even where such obstacle does not exist, school teaching holds out to woman but a feeble gleam of hope. A few women, it is true, secure good situations and command wages equal to one third, or one half of the sum that a man would receive for the same service, but to the great mass of young women engaged in this pursuit, how uncertain is the tenure which it holds out and how inadequate the compensation it offers! They may secure situations for three, four or five months in the year, at from one dollar to one dollar fifty or two dollars per week, and then when winter comes they must give up even this poorly paid and illy appreciated employment, to be superseded by young men, who, while they perform the duty no better, if as well, will yet be paid twice or thrice as much for it.
But the last great refuge for the needy and dependent of our sex is the needle — that one-eyed monster which seems to delight in the ruin and death that it spreads among its votaries. In city and country, it affords to thousands of women the only means of eking out a scanty subsistence for themselves and those dependent on them for bread. I am no enemy to its use at proper times, and in a proper manner, or when the toil it imposes is properly rewarded. It creates a thousand forms of usefulness and beauty which go to make the necessities and luxuries of life. Placed in the hand of the skillful and inventive, its creations vie in beauty with the works of nature itself. But the hands which wrought and the minds which conceived all this beauty — alas! who considers — who thinks of their toils and sufferings? Who remembers that the needle which put together that elegant dress — which wrought that beautiful collar or which made that nicely fitting coat—was held by the feeble hand of one suffering from the deepest sorrow which poverty and disease can bring! How few remember that these weary workers
Stitch, stitch, stitch
In poverty, hunger and dirt;
Sewing at once with a double thread
A shroud as well as a shirt.
The great difficulty with this kind of employment is that the market is overstocked. There are a great many more workers than there is work to be done. The consequence is that the wages of sewing women have been reduced to the lowest possible rate.
Some two years ago I was applied to to attend a meeting of seamstresses in a large village in Western New York, for the purpose of aiding in securing an increase of their wages. These women had been working for a clothing merchant for a mere pittance and now, to use a common expression, they had struck for higher wages. Their employers refused to grant the increase asked, and so for a time they were left almost destitute—many of them depending from week to week upon a charitable fund raised by the citizens, until their employer should come to their terms. The lady who called upon me in their behalf told me of some very affecting cases of destitution and suffering among these needle women. One, the wife of a miserable drunkard and the mother of several children, had to supply with her own hands all the living for the family. Another, a widow with several children and an aged mother dependent on her, relied solely on her needle as a means of procuring enough of the necessaries of life to keep them from starvation. And now by this strike, even the scanty supplies were cut off, and they knew not what to do.
Other engagements prevented my attending the proposed meeting, but I afterwards learned that after holding out for some time, these seamstresses were compelled to go to work again at the old rates — at which by the severest toil they could scarcely earn as much in a week as a good mechanic ordinarily receives for a single day’s labor. And in large cities the situation of the poor needle women is infinitely worse. There, thousands work from early morn till midnight hour, for wages that would seem utterly incredible to those unacquainted with the depths of human misery. Sixpence or a shilling a day, a dollar or so a week, is the highest reward many can hope to secure for their unceasing and painful industry. A home in a wretched garret or damp dreary cellar, a crust of bread to keep them from starving, and a garment of the cheapest and coarsest material to cover their nakedness — these are the returns vouchsafed by the thoughtless and unthinking public to the weary and sorrowing victims of the needle. Ah! how truly was their situation understood by [Thomas] Hood when he thus gives utterance to the thought of the shirtmaker,
Work, work, work!
My labor never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread and rags; That shattered roof, and this naked floor,
A table, a broken chair;
And a wall so blank, my shadows I thank,
For sometimes falling there!
. . . We often hear men express surprise at the low cost at which their garments are furnished them at clothing stores. They can buy a coat for a dollar and a half or two dollars, a vest for seventy-five cents or a dollar, and other garments at similar prices. And how much of these low sums went to pay the poor sewer who put the garments together? Small, small indeed, was her pittance! Ah! my friends, when you find these garments not as strongly made as you could wish, you should think of the reasons she had for hurrying the job through her hands, and moderate your petulance.
And not only are the wages of these poor workers depressed to the lowest possible rates, but they are often subjected to the most outrageous frauds at the hands of unprincipled employers. It is no uncommon thing for work to be given out to them on trial and when returned pronounced imperfect and the pay withheld, and the consequence of all this is that the poor sufferers not infrequently feel themselves compelled to choose between starvation or bread at the sacrifice of virtue! To this alternative thousands are yearly driven in our large cities. And as life is dear, it is not surprising that the latter is preferred, and thus the body for a time preserved at the sacrifice of the everlasting interests of the soul!
There is but one remedy for all this cruel wrong — but one way to redeem woman from the degradation to which she is now reduced by the poorly paid and wearing toil to which she is subjected — but one way to place her in a truly independent position — and that is, to open to her a wider field of employment and more enlarged opportunities for the display of her industry and business capacity. We have seen that the departments of labor hitherto open to her are entirely too narrowfor her capacities, and we have also seen that her needs, and her right to supply them, are the same as those of man. With society rightly ordered, and with women properly educated, there are many things which women can do—which every woman can do with perfect propriety, besides the few employments we have been considering.
Do you ask then what I would have woman do? I answer I would have her do whatever her heart prompts her to do, that is suited to her physical structure, and for which she possesses a natural adaptation. And I think her quite capable of judging correctly what is proper for her. No man has a right to prescribe her sphere or decide for her in the matter. Secure to woman the right to labor in whatever department she may choose, and you need have no fears that she will abuse the right. The teachings of nature and propriety and the particular circumstances in which she may be placed will direct her aright. Acting upon this rule she will not turn soldier and go to killing her brothers and sisters, nor will she unless her mind has been debased by evil companionship or a depraved “education” turn rumseller and go to dealing out liquid poison to destroy her race. Neither will she be often found at the blacksmith’s forge, following the plow in the field, swinging the axe in the native forests, acting as firemen on steamboats and railroad cars, digging gold in the mines of California, or sailing ships in the uncertain race for gold on the ocean. I say she would not be likely to do either of these things, yet she might be placed in circumstances where it would be right and proper for her to perform such of them as are in their nature right and honorable for man to do. There is no law of nature, or of God, which would forbid her to defend either her country or her honor when attacked, and there may be times in her history when it would be both the dictate of duty and necessity that she should work with all the strength she may possess, on the farm, in the shop, at the forge or on the sea.
In fact the solution of this much mooted question, “what is woman’s sphere?” depends entirely upon the circumstances by which she is surrounded. The sphere of a wife and mother is different from that of her who is neither the one or the other. And even among married women the duties required of each are quite varied. . . . Let wives perform the duty of wives—let mothers perform the duty of mothers—but beyond these duties there lies open a vast field into which woman may enter and labor. Into this field some women may enter who are wives and mothers and find profitable employment without neglecting the duties they owe to their families. But of course the greater number of those who would be found employed in the arena to which I would invite them would be those who were neither wives nor mothers, or where they were the one or the other, there would be circumstances which would fully justify their presence there. The neglected wife of a drunkard, the mother left a widow without means of support, or the wife of him upon whom sickness or misfortune had laid a heavy hand should be free to go forth to earn by her own hand, in whatsoever field she will, the necessaries and comforts of life. And she will be ennobled thereby. But let me specify some of the employments for which woman is peculiarly fitted and upon which she is called by the very conditions of her being to enter.
Look in yonder store: there stands a broad-shouldered, stout-fisted, strongly built man behind the counter from morning till night, selling tape and ribbons, silks and muslins to the customers who throng the store. But ought not that man to be ashamed of such a business, so long as his sisters are suffering for want of employment? Let him go forth and plough the fields, fell the forests, dig the mines, build railroads and steamships, and engage in the many other avocations which require strength of muscle to carry them forward; while his sisters, who have less physical power, and are therefore not so well adapted to perform heavy labor, sell the tape and ribbons, the pins and needles, the hose and shoes, the silks, muslins and calicoes.
Let women be accountants, bookkeepers, copyists, proofreaders, reporters, etc. Their natural love of neatness and order, the ease with which they learn to write gracefully and rapidly, and the quickness of their perceptions all fit them peculiarly for these stations.
Literature is a field in which woman has won some of her proudest triumphs. The works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Fanny Fern, of “Grace Greenwood,” of Mrs. Sigourney, of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, and many others, in our own country, and of Hannah More, Mary Howitt, Elizabeth Browning, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Somerville and Madam de Stael, in other lands, have been read by millions of readers and constitute some of the brightest pages in the history of the world!
And woman has not accomplished the half in this field of which she is capable. She may not only write books, but she may edit newspapers, deliver lectures and in many other ways contribute to the diffusion of a literary taste and a love for books among the people. And as an evidence that she is capable of dealing with the most difficult as well as important subjects, I will mention, what I have recently seen stated as a fact, that the able articles which have appeared in a leading London journal upon the Eastern War and the questions growing out of it, were written by a woman. Let me cite also the case of Lucy Stone, whose lectures have been universally admired for their eloquence and beauty, as showing with what success woman can go upon the forum as an instructor of the people.
As a teacher, woman should take a higher position than she has hitherto occupied in this country. She should be content with no inferior place, but aspire to the highest position, as instructor, lecturer, professor or president; in academy, college or university. We have in history more than one illustrious example of women who have adorned with the greatest learning the highest seats which such institutions can confer.
In the professions, women may be physicians, surgeons, lawyers, ministers and missionaries. They have minds capable of understanding, and bodies capable of performing the duties of each of these positions. Colleges for the medical education of women have been already established in several states, and there is a number of their graduates now practicing the healing art in some of our large villages and cities….
We have no female lawyers yet, but cases quite frequently occur where women plead their own causes before the courts. And if they can plead in their own behalf, why not in behalf of others?
In the primitive church of the first four or five centuries, women held the office of deacon and preached the gospel. We have those of our own day who are doing this to a limited extent, and nothing could tend more to the diffusion of vital religion than the rapid increase of these missionaries of the cross.
Horticulture and rural employments are, to a certain extent, highly desirable for woman. They would impart to her health, strength and beauty—would clothe her face and form with all the freshness and vivacity that so greatly distinguish the women of England, and which all agree is caused principally by outdoor exercise and labor. And besides this, what more desirable way can be found to pass away a few hours each day, than in the culture of plants, fruits and flowers? Oh! it would be for this that I should relish the farmer’s life!
There are several branches of mechanics in which woman may profitably engage. Shoemaking, in its lighter forms, is one of these, and has already been entered upon to a considerable extent, in a private way. Mrs. [Jane Grey Cannon] Swisshelm, of the Pittsburgh Saturday Visitor [sic], says she makes her own shoes, and I have noticed paragraphs in Detroit papers, as well as those of other sections, saying that many women in those places are manufacturing shoes for themselves and [their] families. And if they may do this for themselves, then others who want employment may open shop and make shoes for the public. Typesetting is another branch of business which women may enter upon. Many are now at work at this in various offices throughout the country, and although men manifest a great deal of opposition to their engaging in it, I think the time will soon come when this branch of the art of arts will be almost exclusively performed by women. Every attempt of men thus far to prevent such a result has proved a failure.
Women may also be bookbinders, papermakers, jewelers, clockmakers, etc. Even those branches of mechanics which are more laborious may sometimes be performed by women with perfect propriety. There are women employed in a cabinet shop in Massachusetts, at the turning lathe and in the manufacture of tables, etc. When questioned as to how they liked their work, they nobly replied that they liked it well—that it made their hands a little hard, but they preferred hard hands with ten shillings a day in them, to soft hands with two shillings a day.
In the arts, women may be sculptors, engravers, designers, painters, daguerreotypists, and telegraph operators. In most of these employments a few women have already engaged. Miss Hosmer is winning an enduring fame as a sculptor in Florence, not having been deterred from entering upon the study of the art by the scruples of the gentleman, who, when he saw the unmistakable evidence of genius in a rough model chiseled by a young girl, exclaimed, “What a pity she is not a man!”
A lady of my acquaintance in New York has received a patent for a beautiful design for stoves of which she was the inventor. The law does not allow her the right to the profits of this invention, but her husband is reaping a handsome income from it.
One of the stations of the Cleveland and Cincinnati Telegraph line is in charge of a woman, and I have heard of a few others being thus employed in different sections of the country.
In the Odd Fellows Hall in Mount Vernon, Ohio, I saw a large frame filled with daguerreotypes of the members of the lodge, which I was told were all taken by a female artist.
A lady of my acquaintance in Elmira, New York, has acquired the art of engraving and is now associated with her brother in that business. The School of Design for Woman, located in Philadelphia, will turn out many such artists.
Thus we see that woman has, in a few instances, entered the domain of the arts, and that she may succeed there as well as in the printing office, the book bindery, or the counting room. So too of the sciences. I can see no reason why women may not be chemists, geologists, botanists, mineralogists, astronomers, or proficients of whatever other branch of the exact sciences they may choose to undertake.
Woman has capacity for the prosecution of various kinds of business—no matter whether it be agricultural, mechanical or commercial. I know of women who have made good farmers, and good merchants, and I have heard of those who owned ships and made their ventures successfully upon the high seas.
There is a woman who runs a boat on the Erie Canal, in New York. Her husband died several years ago, leaving this boat as his sole property. Instead of selling it and then resorting to the needle or the washtub for a support, she determined to follow the business of her husband, and so she manned the boat and entered it herself as captain. This boat makes its regular trips up and down the canal every season, and, what no doubt will appear surprising to some, the woman is treated with the greatest respect by the boatmen on the whole length of the line.
The largest china and glassware merchant in Philadelphia, and I believe in the United States, is a woman. At the death of her husband many years ago, she assumed his business, and not only succeeded in paying off all his debts, but has amassed a fortune. This woman is highly respected as a mother and a philanthropist. She has now retired from active duties, leaving the business in the hands of a son. The largest woolen and linen manufacturer in Europe is a woman. Beginning with a handful of wool a week, which was given her by the peasants, she gradually increased her store, and by perseverance and industry, after three years found herself in circumstances to open a spinning factory. This factory has now become the most thriving and important establishment in all Spain . . .
In Lowell, Massachusetts, there is an extensive shoe establishment owned and managed by a woman. Her business is prosecuted in all its branches with skill and success, and she is rapidly amassing a fortune by the ability and assiduity with which she has prosecuted the business. She commenced on a very small scale, but now controls the shoe trade of Lowell. We have in the United States about a hundred post offices filled by women. This shows woman’s adaptation for the discharge of civil functions, whenever our rulers shall cast aside the unjust restrictions which now, so far as our state governments are concerned, debar her from their exercise.
“But,” says one in terror and alarm, “what will the men do if women take our trades and our business from us?” We would not have woman take business away from you, friends, but we would have her share it with you. But even though she should monopolize some of the lighter branches, have no fear that men will be thrown entirely out of employment. There are forests to be felled, prairies to be cultivated, mines to be opened, oceans to be navigated—a world to be beautified and improved. There is room and work enough for all and none need fear that they will be reduced to want because their sisters are allowed the opportunity to earn an honest livelihood by their own industry. I was forcibly struck with the folly of this outcry, that there would be nothing for men to do, by an occurrence that came under my observation last spring. The typesetters in the Visitor office at Mount Vernon, who left the office because they were required to give some instruction in the business to a woman, published in another paper a statement of their grievances — the principal one of which they alleged to be that if women were permitted to become typesetters there would be no work for men to do, and consequently they and their families must suffer. And yet the very same paper which contained this doleful complaint contained also a notice that in the neighboring city of Sandusky mechanics of all kinds were in great demand, and that two and three dollars per day was paid for their labor, while those printers had not been earning over nine or ten shillings per day at the most. In all of the western papers we see accounts of the scarcity of laboring men, and in many sections crops have been lost for the want of hands to harvest them.
Passing by then this objection as idle and captious, let us now proceed to the last branch of this subject which I propose to discuss at this time. What should be the rate of compensation paid to woman for her labor?
We have the best authority for saying that the laborer is worthy of his hire, yet this truth has been too often forgotten in the daily transactions of life. The real workers—the men and women who rise early to their daily toil and retire late at night, weary and worn—are the most poorly rewarded, although the most useful members of society; but whatever may be the scanty sum too often eked out to them, there is a marked difference in the wages they receive. The toiling man receives twice or three times as much as does the toiling woman—even though the woman may have worked just as laboriously, toiled just as long and accomplished just as much. What justice is there, I ask, in this rule? Why should not both be paid the same wages, where they perform the same amount of labor? If I buy a pair of shoes, it can certainly make no difference to me whether they were made by a man or a woman, so long as they suit my purpose. If you eat a good dinner at a hotel, you do not stop to enquire whether it was cooked by a male or a female, nor does it make the least difference when you come to pay your bill. If the type in my newspaper which I peruse every morning be set by a woman, that will make no difference in the price I pay for it, nor will it lessen my interest in its contents. And so if your child is only taught to read and write properly, you care little whether it be so taught by a woman or a man; then why should there be any difference in the amount of your school bill? If you are cured of a dangerous disease, what do you care whether the medicines that saved your life were administered by a man or a woman? Or how should that circumstance in either case make any difference in the amount of your doctor’s bill?
Does it not follow then from these premises that women should be paid the same as men for the same labor? I know of no other safe rule to establish than this, that each person should be paid according to the extent of work performed, the value of the article produced, or the amount of skill and genius applied to its production.
It costs a woman as much to live as it does a man. No one will rent her a house any lower or sell her a load of wood, a barrel of flour, a pound of pork, a bushel of potatoes, or any other necessaries a penny cheaper because she is a woman. The children which she may be compelled by the death of a husband to provide for will require the same food and clothing, the same care and attention, as though the husband were living, and yet none of them can be procured for a dime the less because she is a widow.
It costs a woman just as much for board, just as much to acquire an education, just as much to purchase a library, just as much to travel in steamboats and railroad cars — in short, just as much to make her way through the world as it does a man.
Our claim for woman, therefore, is that she should be as well paid for her time and labor as is her brother. She has toiled long enough at little better than slavery wages, and it is full time that this unjust rule was abolished. Let both be paid the full value of their labor, and then both will alike be encouraged to earn by their own industry, whether it be by the head or the hand, the bread which sustains life. Who can raise any objection to this rule? Not woman certainly, for it opens before her new incentives to industry. Not man, for it but places him on an equality with his sister and grants only to her what is clearly her right. Nay, it is better for man that it should be so, for it will prevent the employment of women at lower rates in pursuits for which he is equally well qualified, and in which he has an equal right with her to engage. Its observance will, therefore, do away with one of the strongest reasons which can be urged against the employment of women in many branches of industry heretofore confined to men. With the rule which we advocate in force, no fears from this cause need arise. Men and women will work together in the same shop, office, or factory and will receive the same compensation for their services. Those who do their work best will be preferred and will retain their situations longest, while those who prove incompetent to the work required of them will be compelled to withdraw and seek other employment better adapted to their capacity. From a competition like this, surely man with all his boasted strength and superior intellect ought not to shrink! . . .
[I]t would be far better for woman, and for every woman, if she were trained to habits of industry and made acquainted with business affairs. Employment for both mind and body is as necessary for women as for men, and in truth there is no reason why young women should not be usefully employed as well as young men.
It is considered a disgrace for the latter not to enter upon some business pursuit as soon as he attains to manhood, and no matter whether necessity compels it or not, he must labor to obtain a competence. The rich man’s son as well as the poor man’s son must have some visible employment or he suffers in reputation. No one thinks it disgraceful or wrong for the rich man to add to his wealth. And why should not young women — at least from the time they leave school till they marry — engage in some useful trade or profession whereby they may, by their own industry and perseverance, secure to themselves a competency? How common a thing it is to see merchants or tradesmen obliged to hire several clerks whom they can ill afford to pay, to assist them in their business, while they have two or three grown-up daughters at home who are spending their time in fashionable idleness. It would be much more praiseworthy for these daughters to assume the position and duties of the clerks and bookkeepers—and much more for the interest of both father and daughters to give them the situations and salaries now expended upon others. Then again the young woman with new fields of employment opened to her, and increased facilities for acquiring property, will not be dependent on marriage for a home and support. Being independent in her circumstances, and her mind occupied with things above the gayeties of the ballroom and the gossip of the parlor, she will be in no haste to marry and therefore will not fall in love with the first whiskered dandy that courts her hand, but will deliberately and wisely make choice of one qualified to be a companion and friend, on whom she can bestow her heart’s warm affections without danger of making shipwreck of her happiness.
Nor will the fortune she has acquired in business be any detriment to her as a wife. She will not come to the marriage empty-handed and a dependent, but by adding the fruits of her labor to that of her husband she will secure to herself and family additional means of comfort and happiness. How ennobling the position of such a wife, compared with her who is wholly dependent on her husband’s bounty for support!
By acquiring business habits before marriage, a wife would, in case of sickness or misfortune on the part of her husband, be able to meet and overcome the difficulties that surrounded her. The knowledge she possessed would be of great avail to her in providing for the wants of her household and looking after the interests of her husband. And should that husband be taken away by death, how much better would she be prepared to discharge the duties then devolving upon her in the settlement of his affairs and the securing [of] her family from want in the future than are the mass of fashionable, ignorant, inefficient and dependent wives of the present day!…
Again a woman whose mind is cultivated and educated to business—one with enlarged views and a just appreciation of life’s duties—cannot fail of making a good mother. She is well-fitted for the education of her children and to train them up to habits of industry, virtue, and temperance. Her own traits of character would be stamped upon her offspring, and a superior class of men and women, both physically and mentally, would follow those now upon the stage of action.
But it may be said by some that we shall by this course unsex woman — make her mannish — unfit her for the enjoyments of private life and take from her those peculiar graces and charms which make her society so much sought for and so highly prized. But let no one have any fears on this point. Woman cannot change her nature. The rightly-educated, prudent, well-developed woman cannot be inferior either as wife, mother, or housekeeper to the ignorant, frivolous, weak-minded women who are now so much admired. On the contrary, by being habituated to habits of industry and thought, she will be more likely to discharge all the duties of life acceptably. She will make a more intelligent companion, a better wife, a more discreet, intelligent and worthy mother. She will possess greater independence of character—her body better developed, her mind more expanded, her views more enlarged — her field of usefulness will no longer be circumscribed, but expand itself in every side. She will think and judge of matters beyond the simple limit of her household duties, and while she will neglect none of these, she will be able to give her opinions intelligently upon any proposed improvement in agriculture, upon any new invention in mechanics, or the arts, or upon any new theories of moral or political reform that may be broached. Thus will she become a pleasure to all. Her society will not then be courted because of her handsome face or symmetrical form, or her proficiency in the art of talking silly nothings, but for the more positive endowments of the mind, and the sound good sense and sober judgment that shine forth in all she does.
It is a commonly expressed opinion among men that women are all gossips—that they are weak in intellect and incapable of any great action. Admitting this to be so, for the sake of argument, who is to blame? Not woman alone, surely. Neither is this deficiency chargeable upon her Creator. He has endowed her with every faculty possessed by her brother and given her the same right to use them. If women do indulge in the vice of scandal more than men and are more weak-minded, it is from no natural propensity for gossiping, nor from any lack of natural good sense, but because their intellects are dwarfed, their opportunities for investigation and research limited, their sphere of thought and action circumscribed by pernicious custom and false education. The very curiosity and inquisitiveness which is now so much condemned in woman would lead to high scientific research were she permitted and encouraged to thus direct and develop the God-given power within her. But instead of this she is early taught that the kitchen, the parlor, and the nursery are to bound her sphere—that she must know nothing of the politics of her country, or the laws that govern her — that marriage is the great object to which she must look forward, and that this attained it is not necessary for her to know more than will enable her to cook good dinners to pamper the appetite of her husband, and be in all things obedient to his will and pleasure. She is taught that it is not for her to know aught of her husband’s affairs and that her opinions are not worth heeding on any subject of importance, that she is a mere cypher in the world — a sort of appendage to man, created solely to minister to his wants and pleasures — that she has no right to think or act for herself independently, but must ever be the mere echo of another; in short, that she is a being of inferior intellect, needs a protector, and is to occupy an inferior and subordinate position in the world. Such, directly and indirectly, by precept and by practice, are the lessons taught to woman, and what more can be expected under such a course of training than that she will have a weak mind and become a trifling nonsensical gossip?
The human mind must be active, and the thoughts of woman’s heart must find vent in some way; and if the garden of the mind instead of being highly cultivated, so that it may produce a rich harvest of fruits and flowers, is suffered to run to waste, it is not surprising that it yields nothing but weeds, briars, and thorns. Let those who sneer at woman for her gossiping propensity and her weakness of intellect try the experiment of educating her to all the branches of useful knowledge and then permitting and encouraging her to enter upon any branch of business she may choose to follow. By thus placing an object before her worthy of her thoughts and the means of developing her higher nature, they will prevent the evils they now deplore and condemn, and produce women worthy of the name of woman. . .
But woman herself must be the chief actor in this work. It is in vain that she has the right and the capacity to labor—it is in vain that there are occupations in nearly all the departments of industry which she is fitted to discharge — it is in vain that man stands ready to welcome her to new fields of usefulness, unless woman will avail herself of the opportunities afforded and by her own life and actions prove herself worthy of the new position she is called to fill. She must arise in her strength and perform well her part in the great drama of life. She must let her ambition rise above the petty conquests to which it has been so long confined and resolve to win an honorable place among the workers of the world. We want women who shall be ministers, lawyers, physicians, authors, artists, merchants, traders and mechanics; and this want can only be supplied by woman devoting herself to these pursuits and winning in them at once an honorable independence and an enduring fame. I call upon you, my sisters, to do your part towards meeting this want, and thus vindicate the claim of woman to a fuller acknowledgment of her rights and duties, and her ability to meet and perform them.
Copyright 2019. Seneca Falls Historical Society, Seneca Falls, NY. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Source: Hear Me Patiently: The Reform Speeches of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, ed. Anne C. Coon, (Westport: Greenwood Press), 1994.