Women's Invasion of British Industry
An Economic Drama and Its Possible Dénouement
By Spencer Brodney
(An English Journalist)
[The New York Times/Current History, April 1916]
A woman's proper place is in the home—but not in the belligerent countries, and least of all in Great Britain. There, to an extent the most enthusiastic exponent of woman's economic independence never dreamed of, the war has wrought a change. Woman as a self-supporting wage-earner has come into her own—for the time being at any rate. It is easy to understand the process which has taken place under our eyes; but how are we to gauge the effects after the war, when the men come home again and want their jobs? Is the "provisional occupation" of the industrial field to be brought to an end, and are the women to be displaced in favor of the original occupiers? Will not the women fight hard for the jobs which the fortune of war has given them, particularly the many jobs by which they are earning as much as the men and justifying the claim of "equal pay for equal work"?
Here, then, in the displacement of men called to the duties of the battlefield we have the first act of a great social and economic drama. The second act will be the clashing of the sexes for the industrial field won by the women, with possession worth its nine points in law. The third act will bring the dénouement, perhaps the most startling in the history of man—and woman—for there is already more than a hint of a revolutionary solution which Governments may have to adopt to get women back to their proper place in the home.
It is not easy to imagine an able-bodied and intelligent young woman who has proved that she is capable of earning a man's wage at a steel lathe or in the driver's seat of a street car relinquishing her position without protest in a country where before the war the excess number of women over men made marriage not the certainty it ought to be. After the war the number of marriageable men will be still smaller by reason of those lost in the war or crippled and invalided by service at the front. At the same time the men able to marry will be less likely to do so when good employment is scarcer and the cost of living higher.
The woman who is now economically independent, as she has never been before, will have acquired the skill and training required for her work; she will have a grasp of it, and therefore in many cases she will be kept at it by her employer, who will prefer not to dislocate his business by bringing in a man who has been unfitted for civil life by soldiering. No employer is anxious to lose an employe who is competent, whatever he may say in his moments of patriotic enthusiasm about finding a place for the man who has served his country at the front. This is no cynical view of human nature; this thing happened in England after the South African war and will happen again.
When, therefore, the men return after the war the women who have displaced them will have many allies among the employers. In a country burdened by the cost of war the most serious result from the returning soldiers' standpoint will be the tendency for wages to drop. Economic pressure will force the employers to turn to their advantage the discovery that women can do all kinds of work for which it was thought formerly only men were suited. Female labor will have the preference because it is cheaper.
In a world in which everything harmonized as prettily as in a fairy tale, the returning soldier would no doubt solve the problem by marrying the girl whose job he wanted, and she would go home to fulfill the functions of wife and mother for which nature intended her. But England after the war is going to be no land of faery, but one where illusions will be stripped aside by disconcerting realities.
One series of these illusions—masculine illusions for the most part—which will disappear will be those concerning the work which women have not been supposed able to do. The war has shown that there is apparently nothing that a woman cannot do. In fact, it is conceivable that, apart from the necessity of having fathers for the succeeding generations, women could get along quite easily without men, and that, in contradiction to all our most cherished masculine beliefs, woman is after all the more important sex. Without being formulated in this extreme form, this idea or tendency of thought has subconsciously developed in women's minds since the war, and will give new color and force to the feminist movement when it again surges forward after peace returns. A modern industrial state is no figment of the imagination, because England is every day the war lasts falling more and more into the hands of the women, and it is certain they will retain a substantial part of what they have gained.
Before the war the woman's movement was already a solvent in the problem of modern civilization in England. The demand for political rights by the suffragettes and their—to some minds—outrageous methods of propaganda were only outward signs of a much deeper tendency. Without going back so far as the publication in 1790 of Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women," we may say that the woman's movement began in the middle of the nineteenth century when Frederick Denison Maurice became the pioneer of the higher education of women. Within a few years came the foundation of the political movement, followed by the election to Parliament of John Stuart Mill, who placed woman's suffrage in his election address.
The result of over sixty years' activity in education is that today England is remarkable for the number of women in every branch of learning and public life. Probably nowhere else and at no other time in history have women counted for so much. It is true that they cannot vote for or sit in Parliament, and that they cannot practice as barristers, but in every other walk of life they are strongly in evidence. Even in the highest political circles their influence is enormous, and not merely because of the feminine capacity for intrigue, which is common enough everywhere at the courts of monarchs and in the councils of statesmen, but by reason of genuine qualities of intellect and character. Could the secret history of the day be made an open book, it would reveal a striking spectacle of feminine influence. But without going behind the scenes, we can see enough of women in public life to estimate them as a factor of first-class importance.
One result of the splendid position which women of education have won in a couple of generations is that the great mass of their less fortunate sisters have excellent leaders in all the social and political movements which affect them. How much, for example, has been done since the war began for woman wage-earners by the leaders of their trade-union movement it is at the moment impossible to calculate. And these leaders are only a section of those who may be depended upon to stand up for the women when the new struggle for their position in the industrial world begins.
Let us try to get some idea of how much industrial territory women have invaded since the war. In the manufacture of munitions alone there are now nearly 300,000 employed. According to an official report, presented to Parliament in January of this year, these workers include dressmakers, laundry workers, textile workers, domestic servants, clerical workers, shop assistants, university and art students, women and girls of every social grade and of no previous wage-earning experience; also, in large numbers, wives and widows of soldiers, many married women who had retired altogether from industrial life, and many again who had never entered it.
We reach the millions when we try to estimate the number of women who are now doing the work formerly done by men in professional, commercial, and industrial pursuits.
It is well-nigh impossible to mention any kind of job, from policeman, car conductor, engineer to specialized machinist, into which women are not stepping every day, and the remarkable thing is that—except where several years of special or technical training are essential—they are acquiring the required skill and knowledge and adapting themselves to their new occupations with a rapidity not easy to credit. One reads, for example, of a turbine segment building where women are cutting off blades, boring the distance pieces and blades, building up the turbine segments, and brazing the whole, and that this work was before the war considered to be so highly skilled that an expert fitter received a good deal above his ordinary rate for doing it. Imagine the look of incredulity or consternation on the face of one of those highly skilled fitters before the war if he had been told that a woman, a mere woman, could take his job and make good on it in a few months.
The factories making munitions will, of course, close down as soon as the war is over, and the women, as well as the men, who have been drawn on for this labor will no longer be required. But there will still be the women in the other professional, commercial, and industrial occupations in which there will be no closing down. It is there that the great struggle will take place. The readjustment to normal conditions will withdraw part of the women, but the outstanding fact will be that the number of female wage earners will be enormously greater than before the war, that many will have learned the meaning of economic independence, and in so learning will have acquired new ways of life and thought.
The problem of unemployment among men will, as we have seen, be acuter than it has ever been. It will not be the only problem. There will be another, the solution of which, along the lines that are now being suggested, may ultimately prove the way out of the difficulties to which women's invasion of industry has given rise. Great Britain, like the other belligerent countries, is suffering from a terrible wastage of manhood. The loss cannot be made good in less than a generation. But even then the nation's supply of men will not be fully replenished unless it be possible for the women of this generation to become mothers. If the women engaged in industry increase, so far from the wastage being restored, the tendency will be in the opposite direction, and a still greater fall in the birth rate will take place. Obviously, as the French Government has clearly recognized, means must be found whereby women may become mothers instead of remaining wage-earners. In some quarters it is urged that every woman able to fulfill her natural function should as a duty become a mother; and so, for the first time in Christendom, we get a hint that partial polygamy is to be pardoned in the interests of the State, and more boldly the demand that the unmarried mother should no longer be regarded as a sinner.
It is curious how the war should have led to this departure from moral tradition when we remember that one of the origins of polygamy and concubinage among less civilized peoples has been precisely the same national, or tribal, necessity of replenishing the supply of men killed in war. We have here an illustration of the saying of a certain moralist that the only difference between polygamy, polyandry, and monogamy is arithmetical.
But whatever the moral issue may be, since the war is inevitably going to alter the moral status, as well as the social and economic position of women, we have to recognize that statesmen are more accustomed to mold their morality to the needs of the nation than to make national policy subservient to morality. For the good of the State it will be necessary after the war that women should be mothers rather than wage-earners, and that as mothers they should be enabled to bear and bring up the healthiest children possible.
The solution, then, that is now being suggested is that the State should offer women an inducement to become mothers, or, in other words, pay them for their services as mothers so that they can afford to abandon their wage-earning activities. In many countries social legislation already contains the germs of the more comprehensive measures which will be forced upon the belligerent nations. If the problem is solved as is now being proposed, it will go a long way toward sending the women back to their proper place in the home and leaving industry open to men, not because, as we have now learned, the men cannot be dispensed with, but because, unlike women, they are of no use except as wage-earners. That woman will prefer the home to the factory, provided an equivalent inducement is offered, is certain, since it is a primary fact that woman would rather perform her natural function as mother.
If this solution is going to be effectively embodied in legislation, it will provide the happy ending to the drama, the first act of which is already being enacted by the women who have in such overwhelming numbers invaded man's industrial domain and are there so strongly intrenched under the flag of economic independence. For the men the happy ending would be the reconquest of their position in the industrial world, and for the women the guarantee of their economic independence, not as rival wage-earners, but in their own territory, the home.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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