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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Some Working-Women

Title:     Some Working-Women
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

It is almost a stereotyped remark, that the women of the more fashionable and worldly class, in America, are indolent, idle, incapable, and live feeble and lazy lives. It has always seemed to me that, on the contrary, they are compelled, by the very circumstances of their situation, to lead very laborious lives, requiring great strength and energy. Whether many of their pursuits are frivolous, is a different question; but that they are arduous, I do not see how any one can doubt. I think it can be easily shown that the common charges against American fashionable women do not hold against the class I describe.

There is, for instance, the charge of evading the cares of housekeeping, and of preferring a boarding-house or hotel. But no woman with high aims in the world of fashion can afford to relieve herself from household cares in this way, except as an exceptional or occasional thing. She must keep house in order to have entertainments, to form a circle, to secure a position. The law of give and take is as absolute in society as in business; and the very first essential to social position in our larger cities is a household and a hospitality of one's own. It is far more practicable for a family of high rank in England to live temporarily in lodgings in London, than for any family with social aspirations to do the same in New York. The married woman who seeks a position in the world of society must, therefore, keep house.

And, with housekeeping, there comes at once to the American woman a world of care far beyond that of her European sisters.

Abroad, everything in domestic life is systematized; and services of any grade, up to that of housekeeper or steward, can be secured for money, and for a moderate amount of that. The mere amount of money might not trouble the American woman; but where to get the service? Such a thing as a trained housekeeper, who can undertake, at any salary, to take the work off the shoulders of the lady of the house,--such a thing America hardly affords. Without this, the multiplication of servants only increaseth sorrow; the servants themselves are often but an undisciplined mob, and the lady of the house is like a general attempting to drill his whole command personally, without the aid of a staff-officer or so much as a sergeant. For an occasional grand entertainment, she can, perhaps, import a special force; some fashionable sexton can arrange her invitations, and some genteel caterer her supper. But for the daily routine of the household--guests, children, door-bell, equipage--there is one vast, constant toil every day; and the woman who would have these things done well must give her own orders, and discipline her own retinue. The husband may have no "business," his wealth may supersede the necessity of all toil beyond daily billiards; but for the wife wealth means business, and the more complete the social triumph, the more overwhelming the daily toil.

For instance, I know a fair woman in an Atlantic city who is at the head of a household including six children and nine servants. The whole domestic management is placed absolutely in her hands: she engages or dismisses every person employed, incurs every expense, makes every purchase, and keeps all the accounts; her husband only ordering the fuel, directing the affairs of the stable, and drawing checks for the bills. Every hour of her morning is systematically appropriated to these things. Among other things, she has to provide for nine meals a day; in dining-room, kitchen, and nursery, three each. Then she has to plan her social duties, and to drive out, exquisitely dressed, to make her calls. Then there are constantly dinner-parties and evening entertainments; she reads a little, and takes lessons in one or two languages. Meanwhile her husband has for daily occupation his books, his club, and the above-mentioned light and easy share in the cares of the household. Many men in his position do not even keep an account of personal expenditures.

There is nothing exceptional in this lady's case, except that the work may be better done than usual: the husband could not well contribute more than his present share without hurting domestic discipline; nor does the wife do all this from pleasure, but in a manner from necessity. It is the condition of her social position: to change it, she must withdraw herself from her social world. A few improvements, such as "family hotels," are doing something to relieve this class to whom luxury means labor. The great undercurrent which is sweeping us all toward some form of associated life is as obvious in this new improvement in housekeeping, as in cooeperative stores or trades-unions; but it will nevertheless be long before the "women of society" in America can be anything but a hard-working class.

The question is not whether such a life as I have described is the ideal life. My point is that it is, at any rate, a life demanding far more of energy and toil, at least in America, than the men of the same class are called upon to exhibit. There is growing up a class of men of leisure in America; but there are no women of leisure in the same circle. They hold their social position on condition of "an establishment," and an establishment makes them working-women. One result is the constant exodus of this class to Europe, where domestic life is just now easier. Another consequence is that you hear woman suffrage denounced by women of this class, not on the ground that it involves any harder work than they already do, but on the ground that they have work enough already, and will not bear the suggestion of any more.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Some Working-Women