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The Woman With the Broom

March 24, 1903 — 35th Annual Convention, National American Woman Suffrage Association, New Orleans LA


Once upon a time I was the unwilling possessor of a remarkably fine monkey, that inspired my old black cook with relentless hatred and ceaseless curiosity. One day, after watching the wise, shrewd, furrowed black face of the little creature — so strange like her own, — the old woman turned impetuously to me, and exclaimed: “Miss Do’thy, I hates to say it, but ‘fo’ Good dat monkey is kin to we all cullud folks!” 

While listening to the brilliant women who have occupied this platform for the past few days, I have been wondering if somewhere in the back of the head of every man in the audience the same thought has not been struggling into conviction. They hate to say it, but before God they have recognized that woman is of their kinship in mind as well as body, entitled to the same rights in making the laws by which she is judged, the same right to earn a living by the talents heaven gave her, the same right to share in all the privileges and perquisites of the world – co-heir with them in the heritage of all the ages. If there ever was a time when women were invertebrate creatures, forced t hang on to man like a monkey on a limb because they had not backbone enough to stand alone, if their heads were ever filled with sawdust instead of good gray matter, they have lost those defects in the process of evolution, and every woman lawyer, and doctor, and preacher, and orator, and business woman, to whom you have listened, is a connecting link that not only establishes a kinship with man, but proves that the feints sex has reached point of development when it possesses almost human intelligence, with some slight power of speech, and an ability to understand a few of the fundamental facts of life.

Perhaps to the general public there has been no feature of this Convention that has been of such interest as the number of successful business and professional women that it has brought together; for, stripped of all the chiffons of gallantry, and poetry, and romance i which the matter has been shrouded for ages, the one burning desire of every woman’s heart is for financial independence, and she looks to the woman who has solved the problem of owning an individual pocketbook as the female Moses who will point the way to the promised land where in no woman will have to explain to husband or brother or father what she did with that quarter he gave her week before last. 

Fifty years ago people borrowed trouble speculating whether women were fitted for a career or not, and grew black in the face discussing what women might accomplish in law and medicine and in the pulpit if they got the chance. A Susan B. Anthony, an Anna Shaw, a Gail Laughlin, a Dr. Eaton, a Carrie Chapman Catt, have shown what women can do without a chance, and, as diplomats say, that incident is forever closed. Every dollar that these women have made, every client they have, every patient who knocks at their office door, are the incontrovertible proof of woman’s fitness for the professions, and the living indicators that women have not only entered the race for money and position with men, but are going to be pacemakers in it; and so it is no wonder that the working women should turn to them as Mohammedans to Mecca. 

In the South, those of us who have not even reached middle life can recall when matrimony and school-teaching were the only two avocations open to a lady, and, failing one of these, — and without the number of husbands had been miraculously increased and scholars had grown on the bushes, some woman was bound to miss a job, — there was nothing for the needy woman but to eat her heart out in bitter dependence, a martyr to a social convention that made it more respectable for her to beg than to earn an honest living. 

Mrs. E. J. Nicholson, the owner and editor of the Picayune, was the first woman of gentle birth in Louisiana who ever had the courage to attack these conditions. She was the pioneer of woman’s work in the South. She went to work on a newspaper in a sphere before sacred to man. By the brilliant of her own work she made all work respectable, and when the Picayune passed into her own hands, she not only hired women, but she set the precedent of paying equal wages. To the woman who did a man’s work she gave a man’s pay, and it is largely owing to her ceaseless advocacy of woman’s right to labor that to-day almost every avocation is open to the women of the South, and no limit is set to their achievements but the limit of their own abilities.

But I am not here to speak for the working woman. She can speak for herself. My plea is not for justice for her, but for the domestic woman — the woman who is the mainstay of the world, who is back of every great enterprise, and who makes possible the achievements of men — the woman behind the broom, who is the hardest-working and worst-paid laborer on the face of the earth.

Not every woman has a call to preach the gospel; not every woman has a talent for law, or medicine, or writing; not every woman has a gift for finance, or desires to go out into the world to earn her living. For the vast majority of women, the profession of wifehood and motherhood and housekeeping is the occupation to which they are called by destiny and inclination, and in which they find their greatest and most congenial employment, and best serve their day and generation. These women form an enormous army of toilers who have no settled status in the world of labor and no fixed wage. Their hours of labor are twenty-five hours out of the day, and yet they are debarred from the privilege of throwing down their tools and going out on strike. Even the census report, that consoling source of information, takes no account of their work, and among all the hundreds of gainful occupations that are enumerated in which women are engaged, the woman who is raising a family and doing her housework is not mentioned. 

It is one life’s little ironies that we speak of the woman who is engaged in business or a profession as a working woman, thereby implying that the home keeping woman is leading a life of inglorious ease and sybaritic luxury. Nothing could babe a greater error; and what makes the mistake all the more piquant is the fact that women themselves have come to share in the delusion. It is a singular commentary on the esteem in which they have been taught to hold their own occupation that women who toil like slaves from morning to night so often express a wish that they could “do something.”

No one seems to think that the work of keeping house amounts to anything. Women are supposed to dash that off in a white heat of inspiration, as amateur poets do their effusions. We are not broad enough to realize that housekeeping is the most exacting and never-ending work in the world. A merchant may fail to deliver a bill of goods on time, and professional man may delay an appointment, and on one takes it amiss; but let dinner be half an hour late, and the housekeeper has to face an infuriated mob who are ready to devour her. You may trifle with a man’s heart and be forgiven, or his pocketbook and retain his affection, but the woman who trifles with a man’s stomach does it at her peril.

Moreover, of the housekeeper we demand a universal genius. We don’t expect that our doctor shall be a good lawyer, or our lawyer understand medicine; we don’t expect a preacher to know about stocks, or a stock-broker to have a soul; but we think the woman who is at the head of a family is a rank failure unless she is a pretty good doctor, and trained nurse, and dressmaker, and financier. she must be able to settle disputes among the children with the inflexible impartiality of a supreme justice; she must be a Spurgeon in expounding the Bible to simple souls and leading them to heaven; she must be a greater surgeon than Dr. Lorenz, for she must know how to kiss a hurt and make it well; she must be a Russell Sage in petticoats, wo can make $1 do the work of $2, and when she gets through combining all of these nerve-wrecking professions we don’t think that she has done a thing but enjoy herself. It is only when something happens to the housekeeper we realize that she is the kingpin who holds the universe together.

A few years ago, a famous poet roused the compassion of the world by portraying the tragedy of hopeless toil by the “Man with the Hoe.” He might have found nearer home a better illustration of the work that is never done, that has no inspiration to lighten it and looks for no appreciation to glorify it, in the woman with the broom. However wearing and monotonous the work of the man, that of the woman is infinitely more so. The hardest row must come to an end, the longest summer day close at last, and at set of sun the man goes home to rest; but long after he, fed and satisfied, is taking his ease with his pipe, his wife is still cleaning up the dishes he sued and sweeping out the dust he brought in with him. If the man with the hoe, “bowed by centuries of toil,” is “brother to the ox,” the woman is understudy to a perpetual motion machine. 

Whatever grievances the man with the hoe has against society, the woman with the broom has the banner injustice of the world. When one thinks that it is woman who herself does, or has done, all the cooking and cleaning, mending, nursing, making, purchasing and saving and body-speaking of a family, and who is besides expected to be counselor, comforter, companion, consoler, inspirer and ornament to a household, and that for these services she has no salary, but is expected to be satisfied with her board and clothes, the wonder is that she has not long ago brought the business end of her broomstick into play and made a stand for her rights. As it is, she has not even the poor consolation of independence, of being called a working-woman and earning her board and keep. Everything she has is considered as given to her, and she is expected to be property grateful to the man who takes her labor and feeds and dresses her in return.

There is no other piece of sarcasm equal to that which makes us speak of the average man ‘‘supporting” his wife. If the woman who makes a man a comfortable home on a limited income, and that is what most domestic women are trying to do, isn’t earning her living, in heaven’s name, who is? She is giving services so great and so unpurchasable for money that it becomes an absolute financial ne- cessity for a widower to remarry. If he tried to pay any other woman, but a wife, what her work was worth, she would have a mortgage on his very eyelids in two years’ time. 

It is easy enough to understand why men think that the services of the woman with the broom are not worth paying for. It is because they don’t know — they have have never tried it, and it is the contempt of ignorance. The man who has never attempted to run a house thinks that it is a mere matter of telling the cook that you want three good meals a day, mentioning to the housemaid to be sure to clean up thoroughly and sweep up under the bed, and an admonition to the children to run along and play like little dears, and not get dirty. After that, Benedict pictures his wife as reclining on a couch until it is time to go to the matinée or lead the rush on the bargain counter. If that isn’t an easy life, he doesn’t know what is, that’s all; and when she dares voice a complaint, he honestly believes her to be the most unreasonable creature in the world, and says he wishes he had nothing else to do but to stay at home with the children; though it is observable that one Sunday afternoon with the baby reduces him to a physical wreck. As for a woman’s work never being done, man simply sets that down to bad mangement. ‘Look at me,’ he says, ‘twhen I am done for the day, my work is over. I turn my key in my office, and leave everything behind. Why don’t you do that way? Why don’t you do all your sewing in the fall and spring, and not be forever with a needle in your hand?” Alas! that is part of the pathos of woman’s work. She has nothing to show for it. She has spent her time in cooking dinners that were forgotten as soon as eaten, in making clothes that wore out, in darning socks that had to be darned over again when the next week’s wash came in. 

The man who has built a house, or written a book, or painted a picture, has some visible token of his labor; but because the woman can point to nothing and say, ‘‘I did this,’’ she is thought to have been wasting her time. The woman with the broom gets no sympathy, either, with her eternal cleaning up. Men regard women’s eternal picking up of books and papers and clothes as a hobby, and their mania for washing dishes as a harmless lunacy for which they are not responsible. In his heart, every man’s ideal of comfort is to leave everything where it is dropped, and his faith in this theory is never shaken until his wife goes away and he gets all the glasses in the kitchen sink, and his clothes so scattered it would take an Old Sleuth detective to find a clean collar. 

Every injustice is the prolific mother of wrongs, and the fact that the woman with the broom is neither sufficiently appreciated nor decently paid brings its own train of evils. It is at the bottom of the distaste girls have for domestic pursuits, and the frantic mania women have for seeking some career. Political economists argue themselves into a comatose state trying to find out why the girls in poor families would rather go into stores and factories, where the hours are long and the pay scant, than go to work in their fathers’ kitchens. It is because there are few of us so overwhelmingly industrious that we yearn to work for the mere sake of working. When we labor, we want to see cold, hard cash in our hands as a result of our efforts. a girl knows that she may do all the cooking, and save not only the price of the cook, but the waste and stealage as well, but her father won’t think she is earning anything. He will give her her board and clothes, but he will think that he is supporting her, and she will have none of the freedom of the wage-earner to spend her money as she pleases. It is simply because the woman with the broom never gets paid that every girl is determined to get another tool if she can.

Nothing can be more inconsistent than the attitude of men toward the woman with the broom. They are always harping on woman’s sphere being at home, and inveighing against her leaving her own fireside to seek employment, but for the work which they declare to be woman’s work, and which they admire so much in theory, they are not willing to pay cash. There is hardly a day when some woman, the wife or daughter of a rich man, does nt say to me that she wishes she could dosomething. ‘‘Why?’’ I ask. ‘Surely you have occupation enough in your home to absorb your strength and energies!’’ ‘‘Oh, yes, but I want to do something that will bring in money — money that will be my own, and that I may spend as I please.” Sometimes there is a touch of pathos, as in the case of one woman who took in sewing, while her servants wasted and stole from her. I asked her once if she thought it paid, — if she didn’t see, as I did, that it would be better economy to look after her own house than try to make a few dollars at work that was plainly ruining her health. 

“I know it,’’ she replied, ‘but my husband never gives me a dollar of my own. My mother is old and poor, and the money I make with my needle I can give to her. I earnit. It is my own. I can make money that way, but my husband would never think of giving me a dollar for doing the cooking.”’ 

Always — always it is the frantic cry for financial independence — the demand of the worker for her wage, the futile, bitter protest of the woman with the broom against the injustice of taking her work without pay. Men will say that in supporting their wives — in furnishing them with houses, and food and clothes, they are giving the women as much money as they could ever hope to earn by any other profession. I grant it; but between the independent wage-earner and the one who is given his keep for his services is the difference between the free-born and the chattel. Is there a man among you so craven-spirited that he would not prefer to wear homespun and walk, rather than to be clothed in purple and fine linen and ridden in automobiles, if the one involved independence, and the other dependence? What man would bind himself for life to be taken care of for his board and clothes? What man would submit to having to give an account to even the best and most indulgent of wives for every penny he spent? Not one. And, gentlemen, we are of your blood. The same love of liberty that inspires you, the same passion for independence that animates your breast, beats in our hearts, and I sound a note of warning when I say that, unless domesticity is placed in the ranks of gainful industries for women — unless a wife’s and housekeeper’s services have an actual cash value, more and more women will throw down the broom and start out ona still hunt for a better-paying job. 

Nor is this all. The present state of affairs brings about a disastrous condition in the woman’s world of labor, so that the woman wage-earner must not only compete with the man worker but with the domestic woman who has her home and clothes supplied her, and who does things on the side in order to get a little money that she may spend as she pleases. This enables her to undersell the woman who might otherwise make a living by her pencil, or brush, or pen; and the managers of every woman’s exchange in the country will tell you that their greatest difficulty is in keeping out the work of the women who do not need to sell their work, but who only do it in order to earn a little money of their own. 

The avenues of public employment open to women are not so inviting, nor is the pay in them so great that ordinary women would be unduly tempted to enter them; and that so many women who apparently do not need to go out of their own homes for a support, are crowding into every profession and business that offers a prospect of a livelihood, can only be explained by the fact that the woman with the broom is getting tired of working for her board and clothes. She wants wages. When men grow just enough to abandon the idea that keeping house, and doing the family sewing, and rearing children, is a “snap” and not a profession; when they grow broad enough to realize that the woman with the broom is a laborer just as much worthy of her hire as a typewriter, we shall have fewer women yearning to go out into the world and earn a few dollars of spending money, instead of having their carfare doled out to them, and the privilege of running a bill.



Source: The Woman’s Journal, 1903-4-18: Vol. 34, Issue 16, p. 1, 122.