Elevate Difference

Breadwinners: Working Women and Economic Independence 1865-1920

My take on wages parallels my elementary understanding of the laws of quantum mechanics versus those of Newtonian physics. Come the revolution, wages won’t be necessary; but now, different rules apply. With bills to pay, I want money. Earning one’s own money brings self-respect and a sense of independence. It beats charity or being a dependent in a family. Many of the working women profiled in Breadwinners certainly shared this opinion, as does the author herself.

This history, one in the Women in American History series, takes for its subject the large-scale entry of women into the workforce over the years 1865 to 1920. Between 1870 and 1890, the number of women working for wages, outside of agriculture, doubled. The period covered by Breadwinners was marked by industrialization and urbanization and encompassed the rise of unfettered capitalism and development of the women’s suffrage and union movements. The exploitation of workers under the industrial system, discrimination against women workers in jobs and wages, and society’s expectations of women all impinged on this “great transformation.” Lara Vapnek focuses on the working women of Boston, New York, and Chicago and tells their stories through very human profiles of the few working women who left a historical trace. Each chapter illustrates a step, or rather a facet, of this historical change.

My favorite working woman is Aurora Phelps, who had an idea called Garden Homesteads (think urban agriculture with a feminist twist). She wanted women, who had sacrificed much during the Civil War, to have their own plots near the city where they could obtain subsistence by selling produce—and also work in the cooperative laundry. The scheme didn’t really get off the ground; the state would not grant the women free land, though sixty acres were eventually purchased through subscriptions. It stands out because it allowed for ownership of the means of production, provided an alternative to the masculine option of “Westward Ho,” and worked against transformation of small-scale producers into the “free labor” commodity that was part of the capitalist revolution. In short, Phelps’s project would have made working for wages less necessary.

A recurrent theme is how native-born White women, and then immigrants, fled from domestic service. Middle class women complained that they could not get good help—and had to “settle” for African American maids and nurses. Because of racial discrimination, African American women were excluded from jobs as clerks, industrial workers, and waitresses. Women wanted defined working hours and their own lodgings—in short, independence. Blinded to their own defects as employers, and by their presumption that domestic labor was women’s work, middle class women didn’t understand this desire.

As state governments started to track labor statistics, domestic workers (and prostitutes) were arbitrarily not included as working women, the thinking being that “domestic labor” was woman’s "natural" sphere. This exclusion is echoed today in the continuing efforts of domestic workers to be included in labor legislation. Women, working in professions largely closed to them in the past, now need nannies to care for their children while they work.

Vapnek teases out the complications: the impetus to protect women from the brutalities of industrialization, the sexism of organized labor, the working class woman’s perspective on political rights, and ethical consumerism, and boycotts. She writes with directness about the class rifts that emerged in social movements and the difficulties of women workers trying to keep their own organizations from being hijacked by more affluent supporters who “know better.”

Sadly, this problem continues today. As demonstrated by the contributors to the anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, no matter the arena or supposed intent, money shapes the agenda, rather than those impacted. I can’t wait until working people, not just their labor, are valued, and—I can dream—wages don’t mean so much.

Written by: Frances Chapman, February 21st 2010

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