Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 49.djvu/688

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

chinery found her an economic and financial cipher; it has transformed her into an economic and financial power. The invasion of women and children into the lower grades of paid industries has made possible the advance of females into higher pursuits. Untaught manual workers hewed the way for intellectual and professional workers.

I referred a while ago to the new woman's debt to primitive mothers. I would speak now of the new woman's debt to the real working woman; to her who first leaped over the home threshold and broke the fetters of tradition that confined the gentler sex strictly within the domestic sphere; to the first female wage-earners who dared public opinion, suffered odium, and underwent the hardships inevitable to new and untried conditions in order to open up all the noble crafts, trades, and professions on which the girl of to-day enters without strife or penalty. The multitude of pursuits in which the modern Eve may attain higher usefulness and development, the careers that crown her with honor, fame, and fortune, are a heritage to us of the last decade of the nineteenth century from women and girls who toiled in factories in the last decade of the eighteenth century.

These privileges are not of our creation. Let that fact sink deep and make us humble. Enjoying the fruit of economic liberty, we are apt to forget who won it for us. We are even prone to persuade ourselves that we won it, prone to magnify and vaunt ourselves, shutting our eyes to the struggles and tasks of hundreds of thousands of ignorant, despised mothers and maids and tiny children whose lives were one long martyrdom in mills and workshops in Great Britain and on the Continent, in order to render gainful pursuits and the control of their own earnings possible for womankind. All the blessings which we accept as a matter of course—the shortened working day, decent sanitary surroundings, frequent payments—are the outcome of a hundred years of toil and stress, of snail-like legislation following on timid protest, of concessions wrung from careless or hostile public sentiment, until, finally, the present factory acts were secured.

Nothing in history is more dramatic than that bitter industrial revolution by which the factory system displaced the domestic industries. Machinery came to stay. It had to be fed, fed actually with human fuel, females and little ones scarcely out of babyhood being set to tend it in buildings hastily constructed, in barns or barracks on village outskirts and in temporary sheds near cities. When in sparsely settled districts there was lack of small hands to run spindle and loom, the dregs of the population were utilized. Women, and children down to four and five years old, were brought in droves from afar, or taken from almshouses or pauper institutions and even from the prisons. These miserable crea-