The Reaction of Simple Women to Trade Union Propaganda, July 1, 1916

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The Reaction of Simple Women to Trade
Union Propaganda

By Jane Addams

HOW one woman not only had caught a glimpse of the great social forces of her day, but had had the ability to modify her daily living by what she had perceived, was clearly revealed in a conversation I held with her when she came to confess that her long struggle was over and that she and her sister had at last definitely turned their faces toward the poorhouse.

Perhaps under the shadow of this tragic surrender, she had obtained a new sense of values, or at least had made up her mind that it was not worth while any longer to conceal her genuine experiences, for she talked more fully of her hard life than I had ever heard her before in the many years I had known her. She related in illuminating detail an incident in her long effort of earning by ill-paid and unskilled labor, the money with which to support her decrepit mother and her imbecile sister. For more than fifty years she had never for a moment considered the possibility of sending either of them to a public institution although it became almost impossible to maintain such a household, after the mother, who lived to be ninety-four years old, had become utterly distraught.

She was still sharing her scanty livelihood with the feeble-minded sister, although she herself was unable to do anything but wash vegetables and peel potatoes in a small restaurant of her neighborhood. The cold water necessary to these processes made her hands, already crippled with rheumatism, "so bad" that on some days she could not hold anything "smaller than a turnip," although the other people in the kitchen helped her all they could and the cooks gave her broken food to carry home to the ever hungry sister.

She told of her monotonous years in a box factory where she had always worked with the settled enmity of the other [employees]. They regarded her as a "pace setter" and she, obliged to work fast and furiously in order to "keep" three people and full of concern for her old mother, had never understood what the girls meant when they talked about standing by each other. She had had little companionship and had always tried "to keep herself to herself."

She did not change in her attitude even when she found the prices of piece work going lower and lower, so that at last she was obliged to work overtime late into the night in order to earn even the small amount she had previously earned by day.

She was seventy years old when the legality of the ten-hour law was contested and her employer wanted her to testify in court that she was opposed to the law because she could not have supported her old mother all those years unless she had been allowed to work nights.

She found herself at last dimly conscious what it was that her long-time enemies, the union girls, had been trying to do. Fearing that she would yield to her employer's request, in sheer panic she abruptly left his factory and moved her helpless household to another part of town on the very day she was expected to appear in court. In her haste she left four days' unpaid wages behind her, and moving the family took all of the money she had painstakingly saved for the coming winter's coal. She had unknowingly moved into a neighborhood of cheap restaurants, and from that time on she had worked in any of them which would employ her until now at last she was too feeble to be of much use to anybody.

Although she had never joined the union which finally became so flourishing in the box factory she had left, she was conscious that in a moment of great temptation she had refrained from seeking her own advantage at the expense of others. As she bunglingly tried to express her motives, she said:

"The Irish -- you know I was ten years old when we came over -- use the word rue when they feel like that; it doesn't mean exactly that you are sorry after you have done a thing, nor so much that you don't do it because you know you will be sorry afterward, nor that anything in particular will happen to you if you do it, but it means that you haven't the heart for it, that it goes against your nature."

When I expressed my admiration for her prompt action she replied:

"I have never told this before except to one person, to a woman who was organizing for the garment workers and who came to my house one night about nine o'clock just as I was having my supper. I had it late in those days because I used to scrub the restaurant floor after everybody left. My sister was asleep back of the stove. I looked sharp not to wake her up and I don't believe the union woman ever knew that she wasn't just like other people.

"The organizer was looking for some of the women living in our block who had been taking work from the shops ever since the strike was on. She was clean tired out and when I offered her a cup of tea she said as quick as a flash, 'You are not a scab, are you?' I just held up before her face my poor old hands swollen red from scrubbing and full of chilblains, and I told her that I couldn't sew a stitch if my life depended upon it.

"When I offered her the second cup of tea -- a real educated looking woman she was -- and she must have been used to better tea than mine boiled out of the old tea leaves the restaurant cook always let me bring home -- I said to her, 'My hands aren't the only reason I'm not scabbing. I see too much of the miserable wages these women around here get for their sweat-shop work and I've done enough harm already with my pace-setting and my head so full of poor old mother that I never thought of anybody else. She smiled at me and nodded her head over my old cracked cup. 'You are a union woman all right, she said, whether you carry a card or not. I am mighty glad to have met you after all the scabs I have talked to this day.'"

Her simple story of life-long sacrifice to family obligations and of her one supreme effort to respond to a social claim had come to an end, but as the narrator sat there, [page 2] a tall simple woman, broken through her devoted affections, inevitably suggesting the industrial wrongs and oppressions suffered by the women who, forgotten and neglected, perform so much of the unlovely drudgery upon which our industrial order depends, I was filled anew with a sense of the folly and waste of those motives and affections registered in the very bodily structure itself which are so ruthlessly pushed aside and considered of no moment to the work in which so many women are now engaged. I found myself recalling a pensive remark made by a gifted woman, Rachel Varnhagen, a century ago: "Careless fate never requires of us what we are really capable of doing."

THE clash between the traditional conception of woman's duty narrowed solely to family obligations and the claims arising from the complexity of the industrial situation, manifests scarcely a suggestion of that old apprehension cherished even by the Greeks, that, when the obscure women at the bottom of society could endure no longer and "the oppressed women at last struck back, it would not be justice which came but the revenge of madness."

My own observation has discovered little suggestive of this mood, certainly not among the women active in the labor movement. I recall the experiences of a woman whom I had long admired for her valiant services as an organizer in the garment trades and whom I have known from her earliest girlhood.

As an orphaned child she had been cared for by two maiden aunts who owned between them a little shop which pretended to be a tailoring establishment but which in reality was a distributing center for home work among the Italian women and newly immigrated Russian Jews living in the neighborhood. Her aunts, because they were Americans, superior in education and resources to the humble home workers, by dint of much bargaining both with the wholesale houses from whom they procured the garments and with the foreign women to whom they distributed them, had been able to secure a very good commission. For many years they had made a comfortable living and in addition had acquired a somewhat exalted social position in the neighborhood, for they were much looked up to by those so dependent upon them for work.

Although my friend was expected to help in the shop as much as possible she was sent regularly to school and had already "graduated from the eighth grade," when that happened which changed all her prospects. A law was passed in the Illinois Legislature popularly known as the anti-sweat-shop law, which within a year had ruined her aunt's business. After they had been fined in court for violating the law, a case which obtained much publicity because smallpox was discovered in two of the tenement houses in which the home finishers were living, the aunts were convinced that they could not continue to give out work to the Italian and Russian Jewish women.

Reluctantly [forgoing] their commissions they then tried crowding their own house and shop with workers, only to be again taken into court and fined when the inspector discovered their kitchen and bedrooms full of half-finished garments. They both flatly refused to go into a factory to work or to encourage their Italian neighbors to do so, and after a futile attempt to revive the tailoring business which had never been very genuine, they were finally reduced to the dimensions of the shop itself, which under the new regulations as to light and air could accommodate but three people. My friend was at once taken from school and made one of these ill paid workers.

The little household was held together on the pittance the three could earn, the aunts grumbling at the miserable pay and quite unconscious that they had contributed to the situation during the many years when they had persuaded the Italian women to supplement their husbands' wages. It was but natural perhaps, as these displaced proprietors became poorer, that they should ever grow more bitter against the reformers and the trade unionists who between them had secured the "high-brow" law which had destroyed their honest business.

The niece was married at eighteen to a clerk in a neighboring dry-goods store who worked four evenings a week and every other Sunday in his determination to get on. The bride moved into a more prosperous neighborhood and I saw little of her husband or herself for ten years during which time they had made four payments on the small house they occupied fully three miles away from the now abandoned sweat-shop.

Unhappily her husband lost his place and was out of work for three months. Without his wife's knowledge he forged a [check] in order to make the last delayed payment on their little house, was convicted and sent to the penitentiary for seven years. She felt that she could not support herself and two children on the uncertain wages paid in the garment trades as she had known them ten years before and she therefore found a position scrubbing in a downtown building, where the pay was at least regular, but unfortunately with such hours that she was always away from home during the very hours that her children were out of school.

She did not realize until her oldest child, a boy of nine, was taken into the Juvenile Court on a charge of stealing, that in striving to take a father's place she had also deprived her children of a mother's care. She worked on trying to support three people on $5 a week until her little girl was assaulted by a drunken man. Then she gave up the struggle and sent the children to institutions only one year before their father's return. Her desperate need had enabled her to hold on for six years but not for the crucial seventh. She then went back to the only trade she had, finishing garments, but when her husband came home with tuberculosis, for the years until his death she again faced the problem of earning insufficient wages for four people, the pang constantly augmented by the knowledge that in spite of her utmost efforts the invalid never received the food and care his condition required.

The clothing factory in which she then worked illustrated the lowest ebb in the fortunes of the garment workers in American cities. The sweat-shop had been largely eliminated through the efforts of the factory inspectors, and the workers from every land were crowded into the hastily organized factories. They were too separated by their diverse languages and, through their long habits of home work, had become too secretive to even tell each other the amount of wages they were receiving. It was as if the competition had been transferred from the sweat-shop contractors to the individual workers themselves, sitting side by side in the same room. It was perhaps not surprising that the workers felt as if they had been hunted down into their very kitchens and their poverty cruelly exposed to public view.

My friend shared this wretchedness and carried into it the bitterness of her early experience. She says now [page 3] that she never caught even a suggestion that this might be but a transitional period to a more ordered sort of industrial life.

She did not tell me just when and how she had come to the conclusion that wages must be higher, that legal enactment for better conditions must be supplemented by the efforts of the workers themselves, but it was absolutely clear that she had independently reached that conclusion long before a strike in the clothing industry brought her into contact with the organized labor movement. It was certainly not until the year of her husband's death that she became aware of the industrial changes which had been taking place during the twenty-two years since her aunt's business had been ruined.

She was grateful that the knowledge had first come to her through an Italian girl working by her side, for as she explained her old attitude toward the Italians as a people to be exploited had to be thoroughly changed before she could be of much real use in organizing a trade in which so many Italians were engaged. Even during the strike itself, to which she was thoroughly committed, having been convinced both of its inevitability and of the justice of its demands, she resented the fact that the leadership was in the hands of Russian Jews, and secure in her Americanism felt curiously aloof from the group with which she was so intimately identified.

A few months after the strike my friend fortunately secured a place in a manufactory of men's clothing in which there had been instituted a trade board for the adjustment of grievances, and where wages and hours were determined by joint agreement. When she was elected to the position of shop representative she found herself in the midst of one of the most interesting experiments being carried on in the United States, not only from the standpoint of labor but from that of applying the principles of representative government in a new field. She felt the stimulus of being a part in that most absorbing of all occupations -- the reconstruction of a living world. One evening at Hull-House, as she came out of a citizenship class which she had been attending, she tried to express some of the implications of the great undertaking in which more than 10,000 clothing [employees] are engaged. She repeated the statement made by the leader of the class that it was the solemn duty and obligation of the United States not only to keep a republican form of government alive upon the face of the earth and to fulfill the expectations of the founders, but to modify and develop that type of government as conditions changed. He had said that the spirit of the New England town meeting might be manifested through a referendum vote in a large city, and that it must find some such vehicle of expression if it would survive under changed conditions.

Her eyes were quite shining as she made her application to the experiment being carried on in the great clothing factory with its many shops and departments unified in mutual effort. Evidently, her attention had been caught by the similarity between the town meeting in its relation to a more elaborated form of government, and the small isolated sweat-shop such as that formerly managed by her aunts, in its relation to the "biggest clothing factory in the world." She had heard her fellow workers say that the "green horn" often found much friendliness in a small shop where his own language was spoken and where he could earn at least a humble living until he grew accustomed to the habits of a new country, whereas he would have been lost and terrified in a factory. She felt very strongly the necessity of translating this sense of comradeship and friendliness into larger terms, and she believed that it could be done by the united workers.

As she sat beside my desk, this woman, not yet forty years old, but looking much older as if illustrating the saying that hard labor so early robs the poor man of his youth that it makes his old age too long, she seemed to me for the moment to have gathered up in her own experience the transition from old conditions to new, and to be standing on the threshold of a great development in the lives of working women.

As if she were conscious that I was recalling her past with which I had been so familiar she began to speak again:

"You know that I have both of my children with me now, the girl graduates from the normal school in June and hopes to put herself through the university after she has taught for a few years. She reminds me of her father in her anxiety to know people of 'cultivation,' to get on in the world, and I am sure she will succeed. The boy has caught the other motive of pulling up with his own trade and of standing by the organized labor movement. Of course, sewing was too dull for him and besides he grew ambitious to be a machinist when he was in the industrial school where I put him with such a breaking of the heart when he was only ten years old. He has to admit, however, that even his beloved machinists' union, with its old-fashioned trade agreements and joint boards is far behind our own experiment.

"He went with me to the banquet on May Day. We had marched through the 'loop' in celebration of our new agreement and had stirring speeches at the Auditorium in the afternoon, but it was in the evening that we really felt at home with each other. When he saw the tremendous enthusiasm for our beloved leader -- my boy I am sorry to say is a little inclined to despise foreigners and also tailors because they aren't as big and brawny as the members of his dear machinists' union -- and really caught some notion of the statesmanlike ability required for the successful management of such a complicated and difficult experiment, and when he realized that the 10 per cent increase provided for in the new agreement was to go in greater proportion to those at the lower end of the scale, he forgot his prejudices and I saw him applauding with his hands and feet as if he had really let loose at last.

"Of course, it hasn't been easy for me even during these later years to keep Helen in school and to support my aunt who is now too old and broken to even keep house for us. But we have gotten on and quite aside from everything else I am thankful to have been even a small factor in a forward step in American democracy -- at least, that's what they called it at the banquet," she ended shyly.

IN spite of all their difficulties and handicaps, something of social value is thus forced out of the very situation itself among that vast multitude of women whose oppression through the centuries has typified a sense of helplessness and intolerable wrongs. Many of them, even the older ones, are being made slowly conscious of the subtle and impalpable filaments that secretly bind their experiences and moods into larger relations and they are filled with a new happiness analogous to that of little children when they are first taught to join hands in ordered activity.

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