ON SOME OF THE DRAWBACKS CONNECTED WITH THE PRESENT EMPLOYMENT OF WOMEN.
The movement in favour of the industrial employment of women has made considerable progress during the last three years. Its adherents have descended into the sphere of everyday life, and their theories have been put to the severe test of practical experiment. Popular prejudice has been in a great measure overcome, and public recognition has been obtained for the movement as one of those great spontaneous and ever-acting changes which it is the duty of society to wisely develop and modify. When the question of the employment of women was first raised, those who insisted upon the extension of the industrial sphere took their stand on the simple facts and necessities of the case. It was found from statistics that three-fourths of the unmarried, two-thirds of the widowed, and one-seventh of the married women, were maintaining themselves by their labours, exclusive of those who, as wives, daughters, or sisters, were sharing in the industry of their relatives, attending to the counter, plying the needle or the pen. To this extent, then, were women already engaged in independent industry, and to this and to an ever-increasing extent their individual and social necessities were daily forcing them into the labour market. For good or for evil? was the question raised, and attempted to be discussed on abstract theories about women’s natural rights, capabilities, and duties. Those who argued in the face of facts that a woman’s place was nowhere but by her own fireside, or the care of children, were readily enough answered: the firesides were not always to be had, and for every governess’s situation there were fifty applicants. But others contended, and with apparent justice, that women have minded less adapted to industrial employments than men. It was urged that women were inaccurate and that their exertions were of an intermittent nature, which would for ever prevent them from continuous application to the daily duties of active life. While I cannot deny that there is some foundation for such assertions, I do deny that these faults are inherent in women. I believe, if they passed through the same training as the men of their class, they would show the same capacity for business. Accuracy is essentially a habit—the result of careful training; and the want of it is as blameable in a woman as in a man. For instance, it is the duty of everyone to ascertain as far as possible the exact truth upon all subjects; and can it be denied that it behoves a woman, whatever position she may occupy, to learn this initiative step to all honesty of sentiment and feeling? I believe that it is to their defective education alone that women owe this failure of natural mental power, and I believe that this want of training is the first and greatest drawback to the employment of women. I do not see how women can be expected to do anything thoroughly well until their education is improved. How can we expect habits of consistent industry to succeed a girlhood of negligence, or through attention to work to follow the frivolous use previously made of her time. The amount and the nature of the work which a woman can obtain must, in the long run, be regulated by her qualifications; and if industrial employments are to be brought within the reach of women, their early training must be adapted to the attainment of that end. As Mr. Harry Chester observed, in an address on National Education, delivered in 1860, “If you wish to bring lucrative employment more generally than at present within the reach of women, you must enhance their qualifications by improving their education; and you may effect this improvement by providing for them, first, increased means of instruction of a better and more practical character; and secondly, that which has long been found necessary in the education of men—a suitable tribunal which shall test and attest their attainments.”
The educational need is the essential point in the case, and till it is met there can be no genuine establishment of women in a position of the independent industry. Duly qualified women, like men, are sure of employment; but it is worse than useless to force them into occupations for which, by their previous training, (or rather want of it,) they are in no way fitted. “I desire,” said Lady Morgan, many years ago, “to give every girl, no matter her rank, a trade—a profession if the word suits you better. Cultivate what is necessary in the position she is born to; cultivate all things in moderation, but one thing in perfection—no matter what it is for which she has a talent, drawing, music, or housekeeping even—give her a staff to lay hold of; let her feel this will carry through life without dependencies. I was independent at fourteen,” she adds, “and never went in debt.”
There was a proverb among the Jews, that he who did not teach his son a trade taught him to become a thief. And surely it is time for parents to secure for their daughters, as well as their sons, some remunerative employment instead of risking all on the continuance of prosperity, or on the father’s or husband’s life.
I would call upon parents to do justice to their daughters; not to rest content with the fact that they are not obliged at this moment to obtain their living, but to feel it their duty to place them as far beyond the reach of want and misery as they can, and to give them an occupation which will enable them to pass through life without being dependent upon the bounty of others for support. It so happens that the class which most needs training is the last to receive it. The daughters of the aristocracy have at any rate the means of exercising their intellects, and they have occupied for their hands and eyes; they have a more or less liberal education and opportunities for improvement in their association with persons of cultivated minds. The daughters of artisans and labourers are brought up to earn their bread, and to enjoy the personal distinction of becoming independent labourers, whose services have a special character and a certain value. The middle-class girl in the meantime learns (only to forget) various desultory things at a school where no aim is set before her, or entertained by her parents or teachers. She studies after this fashion until she arrives at the most important age—the age when a boy, having undergone a systematic course of study, commences acquiring the solid information which enables him to fight the battle of life.
The girl takes a position in the domestic circle, and her education is supposed to be finished; hours of uninterrupted study are considered unnecessary and even hurtful, and the disposal of her time is left entirely to her own unformed judgment; hence her occupations are of a frivolous and useless nature, and of no avail in improving her faculties, or qualifying her for obtaining an independence. Her days are for the most part spent in laborious trifling, relieved only by the hope of the evening dissipations. If she marries, her education has in no degree suited her for a domestic life: she is shiftless and without purpose; and if she should prove a good wife and mother, it is rather in spite of her training than in consequence of it. But if she should not marry, or if through the death of her husband the duty of providing for herself and her children devolves upon her, what power has she of getting her own living, except by entering some department of labour, into which she must of necessity come totally unprepared, and therefore unable to compete with workers who have served a long apprenticeship to the special duties which they are required to fulfil?
A fear has been expressed that if women had anything else to do they would be unwilling to marry, and a decrease in the number of marriages would ensue; but those who entertain such an apprehension must surely look upon matrimony as a most unhappy state—a refuge for the destitute! If women can only be forced into matrimony as a means of livelihood, how is it that men are willing to marry—are the advantages all on their side? The experience of happy wives and mothers forbids such a supposition. It is likely, on the contrary, that by making women more capable the number of marriages will be increased, for there are many men who would be glad to marry, but who now are deterred from doing so by prudential considerations. A woman instead of being less likely to adorn the married state would be found more truly a helpmate to her husband. She who can aid her husband in his business by looking well to the ways of her household, is an element of wealth as well as of happiness; and the better trained a woman is, the more distinctly will she see her duties, and the better will she perform them; and she will be none the less tender and loving because she has learnt to reflect and judge; and by improving her powers, and giving a practical turn to her natural capabilities, you would render her far less dependent upon contingencies, and better able in the hour of need to brave the battle of life alone.