Select Page

Relation of Woman’s Work
in the Household to the Work Outside

October 1873 — First Woman’s Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Woman, Union League Theatre, New York 


There is one dogma, I believe, which has been taught and accepted universally. It asserts that the paramount social duties of women are household duties, avocations arising from their relations as wives and mothers, and as the natural custodians of home. I make haste to endorse this dogma; fully, and without equivocation. The work nearest and clearest before the eyes of average womanhood is work within family boundaries, — work within a sphere which men cannot enter; surrounded by a still wider area of duties and privileges that very few of us desire to relinquish. I yield to none in the earnestness of my faith that to women preeminently has been committed the happiness, the usefulness, and the dignity of the homes of Christendom.

But does it follow that there is no work equally imperative awaiting women outside the household ? As reasonably insist that because Peter Cooper owes allegiance to the State of New York, therefore, that he is not a citizen of the General Government. We believe in State Rights, properly limited — the state of matrimony included — but we believe also in a sovereignty outside the bounds of domestic interests. All agree in admitting that there is a special woman’s sphere; yet every dogmatist who attempts to limit its boundary lines varies of necessity from every other. Here is no natural basis of agreement, because every woman must find the domain of her work to be widely different from her neighbors, as defined by her differing circumstances, tastes and capacities. These are not her radii. Each sphere is personal, not the limits of a class.

One wiser than we, when He had fasted long and was an hungered, still refused to sacrifice the greater good to the less. * Man cannot live by bread alone,” He declared. If women devote their energies to preparing bread only, the race must starve miserably for the want of proper nutriment. Granted that they are the natural bread-makers, as men, the ordained bread-growers ; yet while the grandest men are sowers and reapers of ideas, the grandest women will toil much also among these nobler elements. When securely moored to the home-life, so much the better; but it is utter destruction for any human being to be compressed wholly within any merely domestic world.

What would be the consequence if mechanics could be compelled to live and die in their workshops — forbidden all rights of occupation of citizens outside? When the weaver has watched his shuttle through the weary ten hours, he has no desire to camp beneath his loom to eat and sleep. Home on the other side of the village, with the walk to and fro, is vastly more refresh ng. His garden, if he will dig in it, is a better rest than idleness. Election days and Sundays are rising knolls reaching towards a broader life. The more pleasant and diversified his interests, the happier and stronger the man.

If the majority of women could be hemmed in, day and night, by home duties, never quite freed from the world of care, and seldom looking outside for other occupation, this would be utter destruction. Better any amount of outside frivolity and extravagance. Better the lot of the washerwoman who spends some portion of her time in other laundries than her own. She breathes an other ‘atmosphere, though it be misty with soapsuds. She has change of food and surroundings to occupy attention and relax the over strained nerves. There is no human being who can hopefully and without ruffling of temper, endure fourteen to eighteen hours of exacting details ; even sleep, ” balm of hurt minds,” allowed only on sufferance? In this country, mothers of a young family, without nurses to divide the responsibility, enjoy broken rest enough to make the lives even of country doctors become a burden, unpoultied by the accompanying fee.

The newspapers tell of an old lady who walked over a bridge marked “dangerous” without seeing the sign, and when informed of the fact on the other side, turned back in great alarm and hastily recrossed. The Women’s Journal calls the story a “joke” which illustrates the ” barbarous contempt ” felt for woman’s intellect. Very likely, yet it may be true all the same. Any woman of fifty, after thirty years of omniscient supervision in a large household, or of unceasing toil in a smaller one, should be sufficiently broken down in body and mind to do things equally absurd.

Our countrymen have also nerves fairly developed — as witness the late financial panic. Men, even in high places, are reported to have turned back affrighted and recrossed bridges marked very dangerous indeed. Some diseases may descend only in the female line; but irritability of nerves apparently is not so narrowly limited. Sleeplessness is becoming the national disease, paralysis following stealthily in its wake. We may attribute the evil to over-pressure in our modes of doing business, male and female alike. A thousand side causes will swell the result; yet we must trace the baleful stream back at last to parental influence upon the impressible child.

Here, action and reaction clash endlessly, like waves against the sea shore. A modern baby, keeping its mother awake half the night by restless tossing in his little crib may be descended from four grand-parents, all of whom were able to sleep soundly eight or ten hours upon a stretch. But not so the father or mother. The former may take a next day’s tonic of change and fresh air ; but how with the mother ? Yet human nature cannot stay twenty-four hours daily in the nursery and either live the beautitudes [sic] or teach them properly to childhood. The evening return of the husband must be about as refreshing morally as the unchanged atmosphere is physically to the imprisoned occupants.

Where, then, is the remedy? Can it lie in adding kitchen to nursery for relaxation ? Is attaching plain sewing and dressmaking establishments to every household a good sanitary measure? The most thrifty American women are out-vieing all other nationalities by attempting to do everything which an exacting household needs to have done for it, single-handed, or at best, by superintending its being done within their own domiciles. The plan is economical of money, but utterly destructive to all higher interests. An English woman in the same rank would give up tucking and ruffling, and be content to dress her household simply in strong plain clothing. With us it is fine clothing versus nerves, and the clothes always win.

Shall we cry out, then, that women have already too much to do in the household, and therefore prohibit all work outside ? Exactly the reverse. It would be as reasonable to decree that because the baby tosses in his little crib all night that, therefore, as he has had exercise more than enough, it will be proper and desirable to keep him tied up in his high chair all day to give him rest and quiet. Many mothers have learned that plenty of play, and out of doors are excellent sleep producers for children ; but they are slow to pre scribe some remedy for their own infirmities. So far from admitting that women have occupation enough in their family duties, I maintain unqualifiedly, that every woman, rich or poor, not actually an invalid, confined to one room, is in imperative need of a daily distinct change of thought and employment. The change of mere recreation is not sufficient. None but very young children can find adequate satisfaction, or even health, in unlimited play.

Women need a purpose; a definite pursuit in which they are interested, if they expect to gather from it tone and vigor, either of mind or body. If their necessities compel this, let them seek for the stimulus of pecuniary gain, with the hopeful feeling that they can earn more abroad than they can possibly save at home. If one is unskillful and yet very poor, better to go out every day as a rag-picker, than to pinch and pine at home in unbroken weariness. Better turn char-woman and leave a six-year old girl to play mother and housekeeper a few hours of pleasant daylight, waiting hopefully for mamma’s return with a little hoard of luxuries as the result of her earnings. Two poor neighbors might help each other, one superintending the children of both in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, that each family may receive a double advantage. Wife and husband could be mutual helpers with admirable effect. Let her take his place in garden or field or workshop an hour or two daily, learning to breathe more strongly, and exercising a fresh set of muscles in soul and body. To him baby-tending and bread-making would be most humanizing in their influence, all parties gaining an assured benefit, and the whole family might be expected to rest well at night.

The application of this mutual-exchange principle could be varied indefinitely. It might be made to abolish needle-work, the present baneful method of eking out a scanty income. It would promote a cure of the hurtful sentiment, that the women of the family have a right to be supported ; comfortably if possible, but otherwise that they must endure a meagre fare inertly, to the detriment of all higher interests. Wives and daughters not only may starve rather than earn, but they still must do so or lose caste. Our “Woman Movement ” is changing this sentiment, yet to-day ten thousand women would gladly be self-supporting if they could do so with no more loss of position than their brothers. Genius can make its own place honorable; but this seems infinitely harder to the great body of womanhood. As an alternative they double the time required in making each new garment, and quadruple it by altering over’ each old one, tempting their already over-worked sisters into the same destructive fashion-seeking.

Women are in less need of more work than of a more sensible class of occupations on which to wisely expend their energies. To this end, also, we need a general reconstruction in the division of labor. Let no women give all their time to household duties, but require nearly all women, and all men also, since they belong to the household, to bear some share of the common house hold burdens. Many hands make light work, and hearts would be lightened in proportion. I would seek to have society so readjusted, that every man and every woman could feel that from three to six hours of each day were absolutely at his or her own disposal; and that the machinery of business or of the family would go on unimpeded meantime.

This systematic leisure is essential. It would promote morality, and restore our national robustness. From the President and the Secretaries of State and of Finances down to every hod-carrier and every drayman, and to every woman of their respective families, as much as three hours of every day should be conscientiously set aside for rest or recreation, or when that is fairly impracticable, then, at least, for a complete change of occupation. This is a duty to one’s self, to the family, to society, and to posterity. The work done would gain in quality vastly more than it could lose in quantity. The nerves of all coming generations would rise up and call us blessed if we could inaugurate such a change!

The majority of people now, probably, get much more than three hours daily of comparative leisure ; but it is only comparative. A thousand cares hang suspended above their heads ; their occupations are not going on to completion, but waiting their return; and the claims of social life, instead of aiding to make their time really available for good, fritter it away, often to their hurt.

I should rejoice to see springing up in every city, distinct classes of three to five hour industries, with a fresh relay of workers at stated intervals, arranged for the express benefit of men and women, who desire to give but a small portion of their time to outside pursuits.

This is a practical suggestion, which I commend especially to the consideration of the Woman’s Congress. Tens of thousands of women could wisely devote three or five hours daily to fitting industries, when the whole day would exact too great a home sacrifice. Persons of limited means, those in feeble health, students who wish to defray some portion of their expenses, those who would gladly attempt intellectual pursuits uncertain of remuneration, and multitudes of others, would rejoice to accept of partial work, with proportionate pay. The relay system would require special adjustments, and would have to contend with difficulties and disadvantages; but it would take rank among the most noble of philanthropies. Business in general, would, in time, largely adapt itself to the new method, as the necessity for it became generally recognized.

That division of labor which makes skilled artisans into ten-hour machines, that exercise only one set of muscles, may teach them to do their work well. But it would be difficult to convince me that an engraver or a worker in fine jewelry all the morning would not find an immense advantage from out-door gardening, or from the use of the carpenter’s saw and plane, in the afternoon. Possibly, the quieter old world may be successful in manufacturing stocks and stones of humanity on the old plan, but in this country it seems that we are more likely to produce shattered nerves, provocative of reckless speculation, wholesale fraud, and commercial panic.

If required to work many hours a day to support one’s helpless dependents, most laborers of every degree would gain vastly by choosing two complementary occupations, each of which would be a relief against the other. Let the tailor and the blacksmith enter into practical partnership — each working alternately at both trades. Twelve hours then would be less wearing than ten now. If the wife and daughters would add each — say a quarter of a day’s earnings in addition to their household duties — the entire family might fall back upon the eight-hour system, and yet live comfortably, surrounded by luxury and leisure, with the temptation to unwise speculation in fancy railroad stocks and other lotteries reduced to its minimum.

Under the new conditions of modern society, particularly in this country, the work of the world must be divided afresh, according to some principle of common sense and revised philosophy. When a poor man is required, by the usages of the community in which he lives, to earn enough to maintain a wife and two or three grown daughters — idle, aimless, and therefore extravagant women, who must keep abreast with their neighbors — he is naturally tempted to clutch at every straw which promises to lighten his burden.

Womanhood gives no more claim to a life of idleness than does manhood. Daughters would have little more right than sons to be provided for by fathers, if custom did not force them into this most uncomfortable position. It is our duty to change all this, and to enforce a greater equality of work between the sexes.

Still, I am ready to concede, most fully, that the mothers of young children ought not to be considered the bread-winners. Their leisure should be largely play, recreation — the most perfect freedom to follow whatever personal bent will injure neither themselves nor their offspring. They, more than any others, should secure the daily leisure. No well-to-do household, where there are children under ten years, if it would consult its own interests, can afford to let the mother toil for many hours daily, in kitchen, laundry, or sewing-room ; and her nursery should secure some competent and trustworthy supervision during the hours when she needs rest and change — a complete laying down of all family cares. It may not be desirable that she should be entirely an idler, even in her most unfettered moments, but that is for herself to determine. Let her secure fresh air and exercise, among new scenes, as her necessities require. Our physiologists should teach her the laws of life in early girlhood, giving special heed to the maternal duty of being always fresh and vigorous, at whatever cost ; not selfishly, but for the sake of her children, and in the interest of the peace and quietness of the home to which the husband should come as to a haven of comfort.

It was conceded in the beginning of my essay, that the nearest social work of average womanhood was our work in the household. But there is the earlier, the equally imperative duty of self-culture, beginning in infancy, but never ending, not if one should live, as I think all women ought, in excellent health and vigor, for nearly a century. One is weary of hearing that men out grow their wives mentally, and that women fade, sicken, and deteriorate from the over-burden of rearing half a dozen children. Some insects die before the eggs which they deposit are yet quickened into active life; but man is entitled to three score years and ten or twenty additional. Facts will prove that the most active, as well as the most sensible workers, who have maintained a steady balance between work and rest, are both the longest and most vigorous livers, physically and mentally. We have too many M.D.’s in our Woman’s Congress to entitled me to speak at length on this branch of the subject; but my experience, my observation, and my studies in physiology and hygiene, convince me that with social life properly adjusted, women should have a positive advantage over men, both in health and in gaining a longer term than they, for active usefulness.

Take notice: I do not claim that they should have equal strength with men, or that they have working capacity in early and middle life, but only that all the functions peculiar to womanhood are healthful and invigorating — while at the same time they demand that rest and relaxation from work which leaves both mind and body at fifty in the state of reaction which must make work thenceforward towards ninety easier for average women than for average men. Circulation is checked, not destroyed, in deciduous trees in winter, but every spring they leaf out into a new freshness of beauty, which the evergreens are destined never to experience. The work of manhood is evergreen. There are no ten or twenty years in which he has a right to be an idler, while nature works within and around him at will — he content to be the grateful, rejoicing and almost passive recipient of her highest beneficence. But women, the mothers of the race, often serve humanity the best when they only rest and wait. They may freely accept of all the best gifts under heaven, of the freshest air, of the choicest food, of the most comfortable surroundings, and, above all, they have not only the right, but it is their imperative duty to live in the most invigorating and elevating mental atmosphere which it is within their limits to command. Music, art, literature, science, philosophy, every pursuit that strengthens instead of enervates, they may enjoy without selfishness, accumulating steadily, though slowly, in middle life, a wealth of material, which, in the autumn, should be bound in sheaves and freely offered to all who may choose to accept; privately or publicly as choice may dictate.

May not physiology be called on, then, to confirm my position, that fifty or fifty-five should be but the prime — the very crown and summit of a woman’s life? Thenceforward she should aim at vigorous personal achievements, with a reach beyond the household — not at the sacrifice of the best family claims, but still in obedience to the highest home instincts. Women too often seem aged at fifty. Their only harvest, the earlier and more fleeting fruits, has passed already beyond their keeping; and their work, such as it is, is accomplished. But these have been the aimless women who indulged in slow lingering suicide — the mistaken women who over-burdened themselves with endless cares, breathing no higher and more bracing atmosphere as a perpetual alter native, or women whom accident or inheritance have made hopelessly invalids. With all these, later in life, there is no basis for a reaction towards a wider usefulness ; but they who cultivate many and worthy interests with discretion, are indirectly promoting enduring and robust health.

Do not suppose that I can be unmindful of the inevitable wear and tear in running all parts of the complicated domestic machinery. Endless friction must be expected here as elsewhere; but one who has other and broader — I do not say higher or dearer — absorbing interests, will find it easier to bear incurable discomforts, and she will be able to remedy or ameliorate the curable evils. I have but one suggestion to offer. We complain that women are treated too much like children, are held irresponsible in government, and in the higher intellectual pursuits, and that this mode of treatment is repressive, is enfeebling in its whole tendency. Apply the same principle to domestic service. If we desire or expect really competent assistance, we must confer an equal measure of responsibility. While we educate servants merely to be docile and obedient under a direction which is never abated, they will remain overgrown children indefinitely. Perpetual supervision and interference in details must promote eye-service and inefficiency. We, who know how very consoling it is to be classed with idiots and children by all the authority of law, may well abate something of the authority of custom which continues to treat a whole class of women as perpetually incompetent. Thus only may we hope to secure some hours of daily leisure. This will allow time to vote, to inform one’s self on the political situation, time even to study statesmanship, if we are so minded.

Then, after fifty, when the children have grown, allow the stateswomen who can prove their wisdom and ability to their constituents, to hold any office to which they may be elected, from town-school superintendent up to President. Why not? If the husbands are content, who else has a right to object?

Doubtless, a very competent women might prove herself, at once a good mother, and housekeeper, and yet act as merchant, physician, or pastor of a church. A family of young children need not wholly supersede her chosen business relations, though one should freely concede her especial temptation in that case to burn the life-candle at both ends. But she would be required simply to modify her modes of working — not the work-done. Each woman must choose her own calling, and she must follow it according to her own methods. The manner of working will require far more modification to adjust it to womanly and family needs than the work which waits to be done, beneficently caring nothing for the endless varied processes through which this may be finally accomplished.

Exceptional women have no home duties, and, with others, they are so few and infrequent that they offer no bar against continuous work in any chosen direction. Wherever men may find honorable callings, there may women find them also, without blame and with great praise. And whatever is not detrimental to the interests of the home-life, any woman and every woman may follow as a fitting occupation.

No home can be thoroughly attractive without intelligence, without a thousand wide-spreading interests, reaching out towards places of human weal the most remote from personal and family details, and the broader the sympathies, the efforts, both of father and mother, the better for the whole house hold, the better for the whole world. The co-operation of both sexes must reach everywhere, into industries, science, art, religion, and into the conduct and government of the State. Family interests, instead of suffering from this widening of womanly influence, must be surely ennobled and benefited proportionately with the wider sympathies of a more enlightened motherhood. Tenderness is not incompatible with a reach of intellect, nor have head and heart been so constituted by the All-father that they must dwell in perpetual rivalry. Nature is full of compensations. Women have no disabilities which are not equitably balanced by commensurate privileges, and men and women are equals, but not identicals, associates but not rivals.



Source: Papers and Letters Presented at the First Woman’s Congress of the association for the Advancement of Woman, (New York: Mrs. Wm. Ballard, Book and Job Printer), pp. 178-184.