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Chicago Women

October 9, 1893 — “Chicago Day,” The Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL


Twenty-two years ago to-day, as I was about to take the train from my native town to this city, a telegram came, saying that Chicago was in ashes, that the people needed food and clothing. I turned back, began a canvass of our own and our neighbor’s kitchens and wardrobes, and the next day we shipped a carload of necessities for the destitute. I followed after in a few days; my duties as a medical student called me to the barracks, where the sick and destitute were cared for, and where I had an opportunity to observe the devoted work of Chicago women. From that day to this I have been in touch with them and feel qualified to speak both of their faults and their virtues. The young women then are matrons now, the matrons, many of them are dead and a new generation is filling the homes of a new Chicago. But the old spirit born of the war and the fire is still the ruling spirit.

Though we deplore calamity we must acknowledge its humanizing effects. The proof of this in the great calamity of 1871 is found no less among Chicago’s own people than in the noble response of the world at large. While it is too true that here and there a human vulture was found who feasted upon the dire necessities of his neighbors, yet, for the most part, the lost image of God was found again in the every day man and woman. The common sorrow, as in war times, drew people closer together and made it easy for them to work side by side.

So the genius for organization has found here a fruitful soil, and it is to this power born of affliction that Chicago women owe their advancement. There is probably no city in the world whose women are so bonded together for the promotion of the various interests of life. Indeed, this has gone so far, and the societies of women have multiplied to such an extent, it is a serious question if the healthful limit has not been reached.

Twenty years of unbounded prosperity have tended to make us vain–the height of prosperity is the most dangerous period in the life of any community or individual.

Again, this tendency to organize is not conducive to the highest individual development. While we have great organizations of women, we have few, if any, great women. I scarcely know one who has made any great and original contribution to any department of thought or work. The great people of the world, as a rule, are not developed in societies, but almost always in solitude. Then, too, if one belongs to an organization which, by the united effort of its members, accomplishes this or that work, quite frequently one is deceived into the belief that he individually has done the work, and thus is begotten an exaggerated opinion of one’s own powers.

In brief, the Chicago woman has attracted so much attention of late, has been the recipient of so much adulation, it is well for us, for our own sakes, as well as for all women, to bring out the quadrant and the line, take our latitude and longitude and sound our depths. Of one thing we may be assured, without quadrant and soundings, we have not arrived! We are still at sea! And many of us who are known as great commanders are only common sailors. Common, did I say? All honor to the commonest of common who does his duty. Who knows if in the infinite adjustment of the relation of things the common shall not be exalted, as the last shall be first?

In our population of fifteen hundred thousand, probably about one-half are women, for we are midway between the excess of one sex in New England and of the other sex in the West.

What are these six or seven hundred thousand women doing? Probably one hundred and fifty thousand of them are domestic servants. They are taking care of our homes at the greatest possible expenditure of resources, in the greatest possible extravagance. In the three hundred thousand homes of Chicago it would be hard to find a scientific domestic department. Domestic science is scarcely germinated. Here is an army of at least one hundred thousand women representing unskilled labor; worse than a devastating army of soldiers destroying health, life and property.

Here is a problem for Chicago women, a real home mission. I am glad to say that the Columbian Association of Housekeepers has made a beginning, but it deserves more encouragement from women than it has yet received. The truth is American people do not know how miserably and extravagantly they are fed and housed. Cooks and housekeepers need training schools just as much as nurses need them. Good as our nursing schools are, they are defective in one great essential, viz., economy. It is almost impossible for people of moderate means to satisfy the many demands of a trained nurse. Our people have yet to learn that economy is a great fundamental principle of universal application — the exact adjustment of means to an end, and not something to be practiced merely when people are poor. It is the great and almost only preventive of poverty.

We do not think seriously enough of this alien population, which forms an integral part of our households. These girls come to us young, their characters unformed. They represent, sooner or later, a hundred thousand homes, each with its children, the future citizens, good or bad, of Chicago. What are we doing for them? Literally nothing. Why should we be puffed up with vain glory, our heads in the clouds, when this great population of wasteful, unskilled labor stands upon our thresholds? Let no Chicago women boast of her sex until her sex has grappled with and solved the problem of problems — household economics — the one department which undisputably belongs to woman. One is positively filled with despair to think of the amount of hot bread and greasy pie daily consumed in Chicago. Still we have the face to raise money and send missionaries to the heathen; the mote in our brother’s eye is such an irresistable and universal temptation.

It is estimated there are about five thousand day laborers among the women of Chicago who earn upon average about six dollars a week. They work in all sorts of factories, the manufacture of liquor being about the only industry in which they are not engaged. This group of women is still more isolated and alien than the domestic group. They almost never come into contact with women who have greater opportunities. Yet if you were to know them intimately and analyze their aspirations you would find that their standard of getting on in the world is a purely material one, just like ours; a finer house, more clothes, more jewelry, especially more jewelry. It has always been a mystery to me why people as they acquire money begin to hang out signs. They soon move from one street to another, or, as in Chicago, from one side of the river to another — for what? That their old neighbors may be envious of them and their new neighbors visit them and estimate the cost of their furniture and food. We set the example and the women we are pleased to call beneath us follow hard after. The pinchbeck jewelry and the gaudy plush furniture are pitiful, but they are all potent indices of the actuating motive. If we do not see to it carefully the advent of this great Columbian Exposition will simply accentuate this monstrous error of life. The real, the artistic will be crowded out of its influence upon the masses, and the greed of gain will be the only survival. For it must be remembered the fittest to survive is not always the best, but too frequently merely the strongest. Have we, as individuals, or have our boasted great and influential clubs anything to give to these women in domestic and factory life? They do not need charity, they are self-supporting. Do they need us? Do we need them? Are there no reciprocities which have gone unrecognized while we are searching for causes to espouse and missions to support? As to how these factory women are doing their daily work we have little information, they stand or fall with the market. They must do mechanically well or they would not be employed. Is it possible that a knowledge of the ideal can be breathed into the life of the factory girl, that she can put a soul into the tobacco leaf or the tin can? Is the work of the Chicago woman complete while the domestic or the factory girl, or she herself, spends her money for that which is not bread?

We have also a great army of women teachers, more than three thousand strong, to say nothing of the private schools. Our pride was a trifle wounded when a visitor told us the truth about our boasted public schools. How perfectly absurd to undertake the education of the masses with educators who are grossly illiterate. And how much more absurd, even criminal, it is to try to destroy the only institution in our midst that recognizes pedagogies as a science — the Cook County Normal School. How much do we know or care about the quality of mind that is molding the minds of the children of the city? All talk of education is as sounding brass when primary education is neglected. Primary! it is well named, in that the first is the greatest. In our present system the accomplishment of adult life is left unaccomplished in trying to unlearn things which never should have been taught. A great professor is called to teach our young men and women, but anybody may teach the children. Let the child have the great, yes, the greatest professor. The young man and woman can teach themselves; if their infancy has been directed they know what they need and how to get it. What are the women of Chicago doing for the public schools of Chicago? Do we not feel that our school work is finished since we have helped to place two women on our school board, and — left them to their fate?

After the domestics, the factory women and the teachers, come the comparatively few professional women. They compare favorably with the average, some of them above the average professional standard, but none of them can be said to be great. I know of no woman who has made any new contribution to science, art or literature. I am fully aware that the great men of the earth are few and far, and that this is an age of greatness in masses rather than in individuals. Mediocrity is the genius of modern times. Still we should welcome a great book, a great picture, a great scientific discovery with unfeigned delight, especially if made by a woman, and a Chicago woman. May the time draw near.

We have a fair share of society leaders, and these have been compared to the women of the French salon–possibly the women of the salon have been over-estimated. Be that as it may, our type is very different, as it should be. The environment is totally different. Commercialism does not develop socially brilliant men. The yardstick and the steelyards are not at home with the lace handkerchief and the fan. The socially brilliant women of all ages have developed in the same atmosphere that develops socially brilliant men, from the age of Aspasia to that of the Hotel Rambouillet. A woman can not will to be brilliant and straightway shine. She must have an atmosphere and perspective. Her relations in time and space must be correct, and these things are not of her own volition. The whole thing is more or less traditional, and far better is it for the American woman when she elects to ignore the traditions which, however she may try, she can not counterfeit, and be that to which she was born, the uncrowned queen of the people.

Beside all the women described there are several hundred thousand to be accounted for. A little girl whose schoolmates were telling what great avocations in life they intended to follow, declared that she intended to be a plain, married woman. The plain married women must ever constitute the great majority of any population, and it is right that it should be so. But of all the women we have named these home women are of the greatest importance. What they are thinking and doing is the thinking and doing of the city or the nation; this is true of any country, especially is it true of a republic. A lady in describing how she spent her time said: when she was not rowing with the servants, or ill in bed, she was doing fancy work. I should be sorry to believe that this described many, and yet so true an observer as Howells speaks of the prevalence of the women “in a permanent state of disrepair.” Let us hope these are few in Chicago. These so-called home women have the greatest influence and they should be able to use it intelligently. Everybody bewails the corruption of the state. Politics are a by-word. Now, if these home women cared very much for the state, if they could be taught the love of country, as the mothers of the revolution learned it, do you not think it would be improving to the politicians? We often hear of the phenomenon of double consciousness; it is an important question; but a double conscience is of far greater importance. It is quite the fashion now to have two consciences, one for private the other for public use. Now this divorce between the individual and the social conscience is the most dangerous evil of modern times; doubly dangerous because it is not recognized as an evil. If a man says, “that’s business,” or “that’s politics,” no other explanation is deemed necessary for any advantage he may take of his neighbor, or of a public trust. I was once asked by an anti-emigrationist what I thought to be the great evil with which we had to contend, if it were not the great influx of ignorant foreigners? I replied, the double standard of conscience among our own people. It is like our double standard of virtue. I am well aware that the relation between the intrinsic value of a thing and its market value is very elusive, but I am equally well aware that there is such a thing as selling an article for far more than it is worth, and no one knows it so thoroughly as the seller. The power to find the fine point of discrimination between this and stealing is left out of my moral sense. It was my fortune to know very well some of the so-called “boodlers” of this county, being officially associated with them in my hospital work. There could not be found a better illustration of what I mean by double conscience — the divorce between private and public moral judgment. Some of those men are truly excellent in private life. They would have scorned either to lie or steal from a neighbor, and yet?

But what has this to do with Chicago women? Very much. Women, especially home women, the class composing the great multitude, have much to do with this matter. The truth is, the ordinary town girl in marrying prefers a smart trickster to a plain everyday man, because the former can put on style, and that to her is priceless above rubies, and he knows it. To the heart of the ordinary city woman it is so much better to live in a fashionable hotel or boarding house, wear showy clothes and drive on the avenues than it is to go into modest quarters and honestly help an honest man to make an honest living. They frankly tell you that they marry to be taken care of, to be supported, and they do not propose to help support any man. That they fail of their object in the majority of cases does not prevent the procession from recruiting its ranks every year. It is the appearance, not the reality; the shadow instead of the substance, that all these people are striving for, and these shadows are so costly, conscience, comfort, even life itself are thrown into the scale to outweigh a mockery. Shakespere told it all as it never could be told again in Wolsey’s lament.

When wives can say to their husbands, I do not want ease and luxury, fine homes and fine clothes at the cost of your very soul; you must not take public office at the price of your honor! do you not believe the reign of the single conscience might be inaugurated?

Some one in trying to criticize “The Angelus,” called it the apotheosis of potatoes. This is just the need of the world and the especial need of Chicago, the idealization of the humblest things in life. And who is to do it if our women fail? Now more than ever, with this great material wave forcing itself upon us, do we need the apotheosis of quiet, homely, honest life, “far from the garish day.” Not for one moment must anyone infer that all Chicago homes are artificial and superficial. It is only that the artificial are so much more in evidence than the genuine.

I have always maintained that no woman in history ever had the opportunity that the Queen of England has had to help the cause of woman. I am equally sure that to no community of women has been given such great opportunity as the women of Chicago possess today. Our greatness then does not consist so much in ourselves; there is no one of us who could not be immediately replaced should her place become vacant. Our greatness lies in our opportunity, born of conditions and events which are for the most part inevitable, and for which we deserve little credit. How we shall use this gift from out the great eternity is for us to decide. Let us hope we shall not need the horrors of a great war or a great fire to arouse us from our self-admiration and make us realize that we are in no way exalted above our fellow beings, and that our only genius is the genius for hard work; our only greatness the greatness in opportunity to be useful. Let us hope that Chicago women are too thoroughly wholesome to be spoiled by the fulsome battery that well-meaning people have so bountifully bestowed upon them.



Source: The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: Monarch Book Company), 1894. pp. 708-712.