The Poverty of Women (1870)

It would be a curious and pathetic statement if we could have placed before us the sums which women have added to the wealth of the world, to which they have no title, and for which they receive no credit. Thousands of men, if they spoke the truth, would be obliged to acknowledge that the foundations of their fortunes were laid by their wives; not indirectly alone, by furnishing them with an incentive, with something to work for, but directly, in the way of counsel, encouragement, and active help.

If these women could come into their own– into what they have actually added to the productive capital of society–they would not be the paupers they are to-day, nor mere beneficiaries upon the bounty of men. The entire talents and energies of an average housekeeper are given to the care of her family, the comfort of her husband, and still, to all intents and purposes, she is a beggar. There are thousands of men, yea millions, like the old down East farmer, of whom it is related that he was an excellent husband and father, but he never could see what a woman wanted with five dollars. These men are good to their “women folks,” in country parlance, until their pockets are touched, then every dollar that is extracted for a needful pair of shoes or a new gown comes like drawing teeth. In the rural districts, at least, the belief still prevails that women cannot be trusted with money. The wife goes to the store “to trade,” at the last pinch of need; the husband stands by to check all extravagance, and when the purchases are made, reluctantly draws forth his pocket-book and pays the bill.

Multitudes of men lean on their wives every hour in the day, and often consult them on affairs of business, knowing their practical ability to be greater than their own, who have never had the generosity to draw out fifty dollars and say, “Here, take this, go and buy what is needful for yourself and the girls.” I have seen genial men transformed into sour, crabbed, disagreeable old curmudgeons at the simple question, “Father, won’t you please give us some money to day?”

The male intellect finds it exceedingly difficult to comprehend why a woman wants or requires money. I have known women to deprive themselves of the necessaries of life rather than submit to the humiliation of asking for what is rightfully their own–what they have earned by the sweat of the brow and the toil of the hands. In agricultural districts the wife and daughters are active partners in the business of the farm. Besides attending to their own special province of housework, they help milk the cows; they assist at butter and cheese-making; they gather and preserve fruit, and prepare it for market, and in harvest time they often go into the field. They labor more hours, and have infinitely more responsibility, than any hired hand on the farm; and yet, when at the end of the season the farm-hand goes away with his pocket well lined, they have not a penny to show for their summer’s work.
If a married woman is appealed to for charitable aid, she must wait to consult her husband before she can bestow a dime upon the good work in which her heart may be enlisted. In fact, she has not the dime at command. It must be drawn from that most jealous of receptacles–a man’s pocket. A hundred times a year she is obliged to confess herself a pauper under circumstances mortifying to a proud spirit. The joy of doing what she pleases with her own is never hers from the time she begins her life of toil until she lies down in the last sleep.

In rural districts, it is not uncommon for the father to collect the wages of the daughter, who goes out to keep school or to hire in families, even after she has attained her majority. Custom permits the wrong, so deeply is the idea entrenched in the male mind that women are not rational, responsible beings fit to disburse the money which by their own wit and energy they have been able to earn.

This classing of women with children, idiots, and other irresponsible beings, and not any lack of industry and business tact on their part, is the direct cause of their poverty. I believe it is Mrs. Owens who boldly states that quite half, if not more, of the work of the world is done by women; and yet they have neither banks nor exchanges, nor influence upon the money market. What they acquire goes to swell male capital. It is constantly said that man is the provider for the family. Where this is true, woman is the distributor of what is provided, and has the largest share of the labor. But there are multitudes of cases where woman is the provider. Actresses, as a class, in spite of the stigma which often unjustly rests upon them, are among the most laborious and untiring of their sex. They nurse and mend all day long, and their appearance before the footlights is only a brief interlude in the round of family labors and anxieties. The husband of the actress is often nothing more than a mere appendage, who pockets the earnings of his wife, and lives in inglorious ease, if he does not actually squander the money in dissipation. The late MacFarland-Richardson trial brought out some testimony strongly corroborative of this statement. Where woman is the provider, as she is in such a multitude of cases, it is simply iniquitous that idle or dissolute men should have the power of squandering her hard-won means.

There are multitudes of other cases where women are equal partners in the business in which their husbands are engaged, and yet never receive one tithe of the profits. Men who are just and upright in all else have yet to receive an education of the conscience in this regard. Women are the toiling paupers of the world, and never can their emancipation be fully attained until they have money to command. Wendell Phillips once said that the example of a woman who should amass a fortune of two millions would give a great impetus to the woman cause. So it would; and some man whom she has, through long years, assisted to swell his bank account and increase his credit ought to have generosity enough to come forward and help her earn it. A story is going the rounds of the papers of a man in Salem who has placed his wife’s name, with his own, on the sign-board over his shop-door. The story is almost too good to be true; but if it should prove so, all honor to the man who has made himself a pioneer in this good work–of giving to woman the things that are woman’s.

We would not withhold honorable mention of the somewhat infrequent cases where men, in the heyday of their prosperity, do legally assign to their wives a certain share of their worldly goods. In other instances where it is done to evade the law, of course no credit is due. Men in precarious and fluctuating lines of business, making them rich to-day, and leaving them poor to-morrow, would consult their best interest, and insure the future comfort of their families, by making over to the independent use of their wives a handsome share of their gains. Therefore, policy, as well as the highest justice, demands that women shall be raised from the condition of paupers to that of property owners. To the same degree that they become less impecunious, they will become more self-respecting.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s Women’s Suffrage Collection. We can provide access to fully searchable newspapers by and for women including The Lily (1849-1856), National Citizen and Ballot Box (1878-1881), The Revolution (1868-1872), The New Citizen (1909-1912), The Western Woman Voter (1911-1913), The Woman’s Tribune (1883-1909) and the antisuffrage newspaper, The Remonstrance (1890-1913).

Source: The Revolution, November 3, 1870
Photo: Women working in Struts, 1923

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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