Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/October 1913/Women in Industry




The Physical Effects of Wage Work

WOMEN'S efforts to obtain a vote have directed attention to other problems which confront members of their sex. Long hours of work in factories and stores and the evils of the sweat shop have been investigated, but little has been written upon the effect that working may have on women's ability to bear children.

It is said that the hue and cry over the work of women in industry is misplaced and overemphasized. Women have always been employed at the very same things for which they now draw wages. Since history has been recorded they have woven cloth, prepared food and borne burdens. The only difference between former times and the present is that most of this work was once done individually in the home, whereas now it is carried on collectively in a factory. Women are not doing men's work. They can not, for they are smaller, less agile, less strong. Rather it is true that men in spinning, weaving and sewing are invading women's sphere and crowding out the women. It is claimed that the work in mills is for no longer hours, nor under worse sanitary and hygienic conditions, than women's tasks have always been. A parallel argument is that scarlet fever is not a dangerous disease because it is no worse than smallpox. If it is true that there are 156 women sick for every 100 sick men in the cotton mills; if the sick-insurance societies of England, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France report that women are ill oftener and for a longer duration than men; if medical authorities report that 40 per cent, of married women who have been factory girls are treated for pelvic disorders before they are thirty years old; then it must also be true that factory work has in it something that is more injurious to health than similar employment at home. When the labor is performed away from the domestic hearth new elements enter into it that make it dangerous. In the home the woman prepared the raw material for spinning, twisted it into thread and then wove the cloth. Each of these operations called for a change of position. In the factory the whole task has been so subdivided that each woman does only a very small share of it, and so she must stand or sit continually in one place. Such intense specialization permits no variety in the motions of the work, thus producing a monotony that is deadening. Furthermore, the number of machines to which a woman must attend, and the speed at which the machines are driven are constantly being increased. Coupled with piece-work wages, the "speeding up" results in a nervous tension and strain almost wholly lacking in the domestic system.

Although a woman might work for long hours at home, she could stop when it was necessary to attend to her natural bodily needs. In the factory she has not that freedom, and the result is a whole train of ills.

As a quadruped the female suffered little handicap because of the functions peculiar to sex, except when actually carrying or nursing the young. But after mankind had learned to stand erect, her support was far from ideal. The bones of the ankle and feet are too small to sustain great weight. A woman's knee is not so well adapted as a man's to form part of a sustaining column. The muscles of the leg, too, have a shorter purchase than a man's, hence the leverage between the trunk and the extremities is less. The strain of support is transferred to the back. Thus any work which requires long standing for a woman is injurious. All the pressure of the body's weight is brought to bear upon a portion where the sex organs and others are crowded together, and produces a dragging feeling above and about the hips. Women performing such work are especially liable to congestion of all the organs enclosed by the hip bones, because standing and the habit of resting on one leg only, causes a narrowing of the hips. This narrowing is especially apt to occur because the greater proportion of women workers are too young to have become securely and permanently established physiologically before going to work. The average age for men at work is between 25 and 30, whereas the average age for women is between 16 and 20. In 1900 49.3 per cent. of the women were under 25 years of age. In the silk, knitting and hosiery mills there are as many girls between 16 and 20 years as all women over 21 years. By far the greater number of girls do not break down while they are at work, but after leaving the work for matrimony the deformities caused by the work become apparent. Specifically the uterus is very apt to be crowded out of place, or to be congested. Menstruation is made irregular and difficult. Factory women frequently stand at their work to within a few hours before giving birth to a child, with the result of premature labor. Miscarriages occur oftener among factory wives than in the general population. It is more frequently necessary to use instruments in childbirth among such women.

The mill hands are not the only women who suffer from long standing. The girl clerks in department stores are subject to the same conditions. Although 37 states require seats to be placed for clerks, there is no law enforcing their use. Many stores have a rule that clerks must stand at all times, because they look less alert when seated. Clerks on the first floor are seldom allowed to sit down. When sitting is permitted at all, the number of seats is inadequate for the sales force. In addition to standing, clerks suffer from lack of space behind counters, which increases the strain of lifting and puts a further burden upon the pelvic organs. The secondary effects of long standing, among which are broken arches in the feet and enlarged veins in the legs, is to add to the nerve strain, and indirectly affects other functions.

Sitting in one position has an action similar to long-continued standing. Lack of exercise reduces the capacity of the lungs, and so they do not eliminate certain poisons from the body. Because the lungs fail to act the kidneys are forced to do extra work, adding to the congestion of the abdominal organs. Sitting augments constipation, a minor ailment in itself, but one which breeds more bodily ills than any other single cause that might be mentioned. This condition is very prevalent among working women because of their lack of careful personal attention. In mills and stores the toilets are often too few in number, unsanitary in condition and inconveniently placed. In many cases there is no separation for the sexes. In some stores and factories no employee can leave her work for more than five minutes. When in a many-storied building the toilets are not on the same floor with the worker this rule amounts to a prohibition. In other places girls must ask permission of men foremen or floor walkers to leave their work, a thing which many hesitate to do. When a store closes at 6 o'clock clerks frequently may not be absent from their posts after 4:30 p. m. Such conditions cause a partial paralysis of the alimentary canal, and abnormalities in the secretions, which puts an undue and constant strain upon the whole body. In women this strain is most apparent in functional abnormalities, hysteria and general anemic conditions. In addition to the restraint of sitting the indirect pressure against the abdominal organs by leaning over a sewing machine or against a desk augments the tendency to chronic inflammatory disease in the pelvis. The total result of long standing, or sitting in one attitude, is either absolute sterility or such organic disturbances as make child-bearing dangerous.

The second new element in modern industry is the monotony of the work, the unending recurrence of unavailing effort. It is difficult to trace any direct effect of monotony upon the more vital organs of the body. Monotony is a mental rather than a physical phenomenon. Modern factory work demands no feeling, no personal interest, no responsibility, nor inventive genius on the part of the worker. She does one thing endlessly, automatically. Work which demands nothing of the intelligence costs the intelligence more than work which demands too much. When only one brain center is employed the brain is more fatigued than if all the centers were worked harder. The result is either a stunting of mentality or an inordinate craving for excitement. The intimate association of the nervous system with the other functions of the body insures the reflection of injuries to the brain centers in the disturbance of all other organs.

The monotony of work is linked to the strain under which it is carried on. In the knitting industry a girl now has to watch from two to ten needles instead of one. In sewing shops the needles make 4,400 stitches a minute. The operator can tell when a needle or a thread is broken or a stitch misplaced only by a variation in a beam of light thrown on the needle. Constant attention to so minute a detail puts a fearful strain on the eyes and nerves. In textile mills the number of machines has so increased that the operator is kept always at the highest rate of speed. In a large publishing house girls who bind the magazine must handle 25,000 copies, each weighing three fourths of a pound, in ten hours. Piece work aggravates the evil of keeping up with a machine. In the millinery trade "rush work" is of a similar character. This speed coupled with the monotony of doing the same operation repeatedly brings about nervous exhaustion. The monotony of the work exercises only little patches of the nervous system. Mental and physical fatigue are closely bound together, A muscle in contracting uses nitrogen and liberates a poison or toxin. Under normal conditions this toxin is carried out of the body by way of the kidneys and lungs, and is neutralized by an antitoxin. If the muscle is exercised too frequently the toxins multiply faster than the ability to eradicate them. The poison accumulates and the muscle becomes fatigued. Further work is performed at the expense of the will, which puts a drain on the nervous system. Fatigue may go to the point of exhaustion, and result in death by chemical self-poisoning. Normally the tired body throws off the toxins during sleep and is then ready for another full day's work. But if the body does not get rest, the fatigued muscles on the second day can do only one half the normal amount of work before again becoming fatigued. At the beginning the overwork may pass unnoticed, but since fatigue is accumulative it eventually results in a complete nervous breakdown, because fatigue really weakens the brain centers that control the muscles, although the feeling of being tired is primarily felt in the muscles themselves, "Women are predisposed to nervous trouble, and their nerves are weakened by the various sex functions. Nervous tension exaggerates any bad tendencies already present. The industrial woman works to the point of over-fatigue and then goes home to do housework, or seeks excitement in dances and shows, thus adding nerve strain to nerve strain. Sleeplessness and loss of appetite follow; succeeding days of work pile up fatigue until the brain cells and nerves collapse. A usual accompaniment of nerve exhaustion is menstrual irregularities and poverty of the blood. The constant vibration in a mill may help bring about organic troubles, particularly if the organs have been weakened by other causes. The vibrations plus noise act on the nerves as a continual light tapping does on steel. Both steel and nerves disintegrate. One girl said that when her machine stopped at night she always felt like screaming, which proved that her nervous energy was being too greatly sapped by the day's work.

The effect of the strain of industry then is to add mental to physical fatigue, destroying the recuperative power of the body. Since the sexual organs and the nervous system both take the same food elements from the blood and are delicately adjusted to each other, the toll industry takes of the nerves is sooner or later reflected in organic maladjustments.

As with monotonous work, so with industrial diseases no direct result on the fecundity of women can be pointed out. The harm comes indirectly through a lowering of general vitality and nerve strain. Lead poisoning seems to attack women more readily than men. It is a most potent producer of abortion, for it is rare for a woman working in lead fumes to give birth to a healthy child at term. Often the poisoning results in sterility. At first, the odor of carbon bisulphide in a rubber factory makes girls excitable, but it is followed by headache and nervous lassitude, with a loathing for food. As with morphine and cocaine, the cause has the semblance of a cure, a feeling of normality only when drugged. This produces the vicious circle, of poisoning, lassitude and repoisoning. The excitement causes undue fatigue, while malnutrition culminates in poverty of the blood, general debility and organic disturbances. The eating of the hands by acids in pickling factories, bleacheries and soap works tortures the workers and exhausts the nerves. Dust dries the throat. The effort to cough produces asthma or an inflammation which is a good seeding ground for tuberculosis. A hot, damp workroom weakens the body by excessive perspiration, and renders it liable to rheumatism, bronchitis and tuberculosis. Lifting heavy weights or running foot-power machines so injure the sex organs as to induce sterility. This list might be lengthened, but enough has already been written to make the point.

Malnutrition plays a part in lessening the vitality of working women. When a mother has to prepare a breakfast for a family before hurrying away to a shop, that breakfast is to be commended for the speed of its preparation rather than for its adherence to principles of proper diet. Bread and butter, coffee or tea and greasy meat, with the addition of a pickle as a stimulant, is the usual bill of fare, varied but little in the three meals of the day. There is not enough of cooked food and vegetables are lacking. The mother's body is not sufficiently nourished to withstand the double tax of factory work and house work and if a child comes, the mother is sometimes too impoverished physically to nourish it. A baby should be fed every two hours, but a factory mother sees her infant once in six or ten hours only. Drugs are given to children only two weeks old to keep them quiet while the mother is away from home. Interference with lactation is injurious to the mother and fatal to the baby. The survivors of this heroic treatment grow up never having had sufficient nourishment. When it comes their turn to go to work, they do so not equipped with full vigor to meet the increasing stress of such work, but in a weakened condition, and are susceptible to all the ills before mentioned. Lifelong malnutrition added to pelvic deformities acquired by work is a serious drawback to the motherhood of working women.

Because children are a handicap, in calling for time and attention that is needed for other work, they are unwelcome or impossible to certain groups of women workers. A woman reporter or school teacher can not afford to have the demands of a child interfere with the requirements of her work, so in some branches of industry it can not be stated whether the women engaged in it are physically incapacitated for bearing children, or whether they have none because they do not wish them. All the social and economic factors which are causing a world-wide decline ia the birth-rate operate in the various groups of working women and complicate any general conclusions that might be drawn as to the injury done by the work itself.

A hundred and fifty years ago the man who ventured to predict that no women would be allowed to work in mines, bar rooms, buffing or polishing metals or as public messengers would have been laughed at in scorn, but we to-day look upon such occupations for women with horror. May not our children's children think of a time when women worked in factories as a barbarous age? Lawmakers may some day forbid such labor on the grounds of the injury to the future race. "We may not have to wait for such laws, however. Working conditions are usually the worst in the smaller concerns. The country is tending toward large-scale production, therefore conditions are slowly improving. But with large-scale production machines are larger, work heavier, speed and number of machines greater, so much so that men must be employed to do the work formerly done by women. The task a woman performs is largely of a mechanical nature, hence with large-scale production unreliable labor is replaced by a reliable automatic machine. The development of the loom from hand power to power driven, and from female to male attendance, and to final automatic action is an illustration in point. The more efficient machine may drive the less efficient woman out of the shop. In stores, offices and schools they must be more adequately protected by law, for it is evident that working, sooner or later, is reflected in fecundity.