Shall American Girls Become Servants

Shall American Girls Become Servants?

Where to obtain good servants, and how to furnish remunerative employment for the numerous class of women who must be self- supporting, are two great social problems of the day. And there are those who fancy that the solution of one of these problems necessarily involves the solution of the other. But such persons take only the most superficial view of both subjects. There is no lack of servants, such as they are; it is the need of good servants which is so severely felt. And to increase the quantity would not necessarily improve the quality, while it would result in a reduction of the wages of domestics, which, despite the cry of exorbitance, are already quite as low as they should be.

But I will first refer to the actual practicability of this scheme. In the contemplated general exodus of needy women from their garrets into the kitchens of the wealthy, the fact is overlooked that a large proportion of these women are widows with families to support, and are compelled, for the sake of these families, to keep a home about them, however poor that home may be. These will not desert their little ones for the good homes, high wages and wholesome food which our social economists know how to descibe in such glowing colors. And who can blame them, if they feel that it is better that all should starve together, than to have their little flock scattered hither and thither, dependent on the cold charities of a pitiless world?

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Then, of those women who are bound by no family ties, a large number are physically incapable of performing the duties which would be required of them as domestics. Neither habits nor education have fitted them for the position; and though they might accept, and fill it after a fashion, it would be a most unsatisfactory one for both employer and employed, and they would become broken in health, and aged before their time. For housework is not the light and trivial employment that those who have never attempted it seem to imagine. Washing, ironing, scrubbing, sweeping, standing for hours in a close, dark, and heated kitchen, cooking, building fires, and lifting heavy articles, rising early and retiring late, though they may be endured without seeming inconvenience by persons of robust constitution, will never improve and strengthen those who first attempt them with impaired health and weakened muscles. And it is a fact that admits of no question, that American women are not so strong, and cannot endure so much as foreign women. Whether this weakness and this constitutional delicacy are the natural and unavoidable results of our climate; whether they proceed from incorrect habits, and manner of dress, or from improper food, I leave for others to discuss.

Of the small fraction remaining of these women there may be a few who might with advantage to themselves seek employment in domestic service. But this is a matter that they, and they only, can decide. If they have no liking for this employment, a life spent in it would be one of perpetual weariness and disgust, and it would be folly for them to attempt it—cruelty for any one to force them into it. But if, on the other hand, they have a taste for domestic duties, and can really do better pecuniarily as servants, than in their present mode of living, it is no harm to suggest the matter to them, though we have no right to go further. Nor can we blame them if they find the scant crust of independence sweeter than the sufficient food and moderate wages offered them as the price of unremitting labor, and perpetual servitude to the requirements and whims of sometimes the most exacting and unreasonable of masters and mistresses. Let each grave counsellor make it a personal matter, and ask him or herself the question, what would be his or her decision in such a case; bearing in mind that the relations between mistress and servant are unlike those of employer and employed in any other department of labor. Between employer and employed, the pledges and exactions are mutual; whilst the mistress exacts everything from the servant and yields nothing, or as little as possible to her.

In all occupations of men, and in most of those of women outside domestic service, there are stated hours of labor. At seven in the morning they begin, and end at six in the evening. And then comes entire personal freedom which can only be interfered with by the consent of the employed, and with the understanding of extra compensation. But the duties of the servant must begin and end at just such an hour as her mistress chooses to require. And the sole respite from this unceasing toil is the half day or evening in the week grudgingly yielded, and with the usual understanding that there shall be no neglect or omission of duties, which must be performed either before going out, or after her return.

But many of these girls have no taste that lead them to the kitchen, and have really abilities, which, if rightly cultivated and directed, might lead them far higher. I know I may shock a large and respectable class of people, who are just now urging that domestic duties are not only the most appropriate but the most honorable and the highest that women need aspire to. Even Horace Greeley has said that he would rather his daughter should know how to make a pudding than to edit a newspaper. For a woman who has a household which claims her attention, there is no degradation in performing even the most menial duties in the care of that household, if it becomes necessary. If she does her work faithfully and earnestly, there is, on the contrary, something really ennobling in it—not in the labor itself, but in the spirit which prompts its performance. But in the case of a girl who has no domestic claims upon her, and to whom the matter is presented, stripped of all sentiment, it must be considered in a far different light. She should herself consider, and others should consider for her, before they dare to advise her in the matter, whether it will be for her good, morally, intellectually, physically, and pecuniarily, that she shall enter another person’s house, and perform these menial duties. She must endure, while in this position, a constant wear upon her physical system, and with the present relations between mistress and servant, few if any opportunities are allowed for moral or intellectual improvements, while the wages, large as many may consider them, sink into utter insignificance besides those which she might obtain in other positions. There are plenty of employments now beginning to be opened to women in which the labor is light in itself, and which do not stunt the growth of mind and heart, but rather contribute to their development; and in which, after a sufficient time allowed for the acquirement of a thorough and practical knowledge of them, a woman may find herself in receipt of an income of ten, fifteen, or twenty dollars per week. Added to this, her personal liberty and independence of action will be shielded by the safeguards which are thrown around all trades and professions, and her hours of labor will have a definite limit. I think, viewing matters in this light, there can be little doubt as to which position, in her peculiar case, should be designated the “higher.”

Then there is another aspect of affairs. The policy of our country is to invite rather than repel emigration from foreign shores. Of this emigration that is pouring in rapidly and steadily upon us, a large proportion of the women are of a class to whom our domestic service, with its tolerable comforts, and its to them liberal wages, even with its drawbacks, offers a step in advance of their condition in their native countries—a step which it is necessary they should take before they can ascend any higher either in the scale of labor or of society. They have strength of muscle and vigor of constitution that might put even our men to shame, while besides them our American girls appear the veriest weaklings. Some place must be found for this numerous class, and if they are driven from our kitchens, incapable as they are of ascending higher, they will of necessity sink lower, and go to fill our alms-houses and prisons. We cannot check this tide of emigration; so we must provide for it in such a manner as to secure, as far as possible, the best social and moral results to both our native and our foreign population. Our Irish and German girls, often devoid of education and training, can yet, by proper care and culture on the part of mistresses, in time be made to fill, and to fill well the places of domestics in our kitchens. Our American girls are at least partially prepared to enter upon an apprenticeship to a trade, or to begin study for a business or profession which will not only call into play the faculties which are already developed, but arouse others into active life. They need only to learn the lesson that to labor is the duty of woman as well as of man, and to feel that they must turn to it with the same energy, perseverance and faithfulness that is required of a man, to find new fields of employment ready for them, in which they may experience that delightful independence, that blessed self-ownership without which the being is only half-developed.

Will any one dare tell our lady printers, who earn their weekly twenty dollars, that they would be better off as the occupants of some kitchen under the sway of even the most reasonable and considerate of mistresses, and in the receipt of their board and a salary of three or four dollars a week?

Would any one think of hinting to our lady editors and writers, some of whose names are powers in the land, and whose influence for good is unbounded, that, in agreement with Mr. Greeley’s idea, they ought never to have had ambition beyond the broiling of a steak and the compounding of a pudding? Or the successful lady physicians, who count their annual incomes by thousands, that they, if they had been unable to make a living by the needle, should have turned domestics? Many do dare to say all this in effect, I know, and, in spite of the most brilliant examples and encouraging results, persist in prophesying the most ignominious failure for all those who venture to step beyond what they are pleased to call “the proper and natural sphere of woman.” Whole books, to say nothing of a host of newspaper and periodical articles, are being written to prove that to be impossible which already exists beyond dispute. But these do no harm: they only set people thinking, and serve to point out more plainly to their notice the real facts in the case, which might otherwise escape their observation.

And if a certain number of women have succeeded in these and kindred occupations, what is to prevent many more from doing the same thing, provided they can be taught to look beyond the narrow limits within which prejudice prescribes a woman’s employments, and can be spurred on to give the same care, time and study in preparing themselves that the successful ones have done?

The class of women who might widen their sphere of labor, were they so minded, has much to learn which we cannot hope to teach them separately and individually. We may do so, however, through the agency of a gradually enlightened public sentiment, which the mass of them will in time come to reflect.

Of the besetting sins of women in regard to labor, I have already said much in previous papers, and shall say still more in those to come, so I will pass by the subject now.

We are told that a large class of foreign servants are ignorant and inefficient. Of course they are. How can they help being otherwise? But are they any more so than a large class of their mistresses, as far, at least, as concerns household affairs? And while the former may be excused by reason of their want of opportunity to learn the proper ways of doing things, the latter have no such plea to offer, and are simply inexcusable. Women should make themselves competent to do these things, and te teach others to do them, before they can be justified in complaining of the incompetency of others. Bridget is no more to be blamed for accepting a situation as a servant, the duties of which position she is only partially acquainted with, than is madam, her mistress, for accepting the far more responsible position of head of an establishment, with a like ignorance.

It is my firm belief, founded on both experience and observation, that good mistresses— those who are kind and considerate in their manner of treating servants, firm in their discipline, and well versed in all matters pertaining to domestic affairs—can scarcely fail to make good servants . There are exceptions, of course. There are servants who are intemperate, dishonest, or passionate, and whom no amount of patience and kindness seem capable of making otherwise.

But most mistresses lay down restrictions and regulations for their servants not only in matters concerning their work, but in things entirely of a personal nature with which they have no right to interfere, which they would find simply unbearable if imposed upon themselves or their daughters. Their incomings, their outgoings, their dress, their friends, are all subjected to rules and restrictions to an unwarranted extent. They are scarcely regarded as human beings at all, and are, by universal consent, placed beyond the pale of womanhood. No man thinks them entitled to the courtesy due to the rest of their sex. In many households the servant is nothing more than a machine, from which it is necessary to extract as much labor as possible. That she may have personal feelings and wants; that she has socially and morally the same requirements; that, as a woman; she may be subject in a degree to the same weaknesses, and be entitled to the same consideration as others of her sex, are things seldom ever thought of. But until they are— until the mistress descends, and allows her servant to arise, until they meet on the plane of a common humanity, there will be a constant and glowing antagonism between the two classes. There is much to be said on the relative duties of servant and mistress—duties and obligations which seem scarcely clear to either party, but which, if the truth must be spoken, are more often overlooked and omitted by the mistress than by her subordinate. But I have neither inclination nor space to discuss the subject further here. It is something really apart from the theme I have chosen, and deserves a separate consideration.— Arthur’s Home May .

Source: The Revolution – July 7, 1870

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