The Future of the Woman War Worker

By Mary Stocks

[The Living Age, March 30, 1918; from The Athenaeum]

Economic theories die hard. Economists kill them and bury them; but they live on in the minds of generations of politicians and journalists. Such a theory is the old "wages fund," with its supposition that a definite sum of capital is available at any given time for the payment of wages, and that the average rate of wages is therefore predetermined by the amount of that capital sum, together with the number of hungry laborers among whom it has to be divided. In 1869, this theory was repudiated by one of its leading advocates, John Stuart Mill; and during the decade or so which followed, the so-called "produce theory" crept into its place. Wages ceased to be regarded as part of a capital fund, and came to be regarded as part of the national income, and upon the bargaining powers of the parties claiming a share in its distribution. In so far as the amount of capital in existence affects the productivity of labor, and therefore the extent of the national income, wages may be said to be dependent upon the existing amount of capital. Again, in so far as the existing amount of capital and the number of available laborers, by the operation of economic competition, affect the bargaining powers of Capital on the one hand and Labor on the other, they may be said to determine the rate of wages. But the connection is not so straightforward; the old simple formula that "wages not only depend upon the relative amount of capital and population, but cannot, under the rule of competition, be affected by anything else," has gone; economists no longer ignore the fact that an additional month in the labor market, carries with it an additional pair of hands for the augmentation of the source of wages, or that the requirements of that mouth widen the market for the produce of industry. And yet today we can trace from time to time an underlying implication that one man's employment is another man's exclusion, that post-war industry will find it difficult to make room for demobilized men plus war-working women—in fine, that somewhere there is a sort of artificial limitation to the demand for labor. It is an aftermath of the "wages fund," and an exceedingly pernicious one when we remember to what an extent our economic recovery after the War will depend upon increased labor power, making for new capital accumulation and the re-establishment of our pre-war national income.

The problem is, of course, a problem of adjustment; of the distribution of labor, skilled and unskilled, male and female, among the various existing and potential occupations which the return of peace conditions will offer. And from the workers' point of view it is predominantly a question of how to stifle the renewed competition which would necessarily prejudice the bargaining power of Labor in the coming scramble for the produce of industry, with special reference to the outstanding problem of how to deal with the army of women workers which war conditions have called from home duties or unenterprising idleness, as the case may be. It is here that we see looming ahead of us the horrible possibility of something like an industrial sex war, in which the men's trade unions, and, no doubt, for sentimental reasons, a large section of the public, will be on one side—the industrial women, supported by the employers for purposes of their own, on the other.

Broadly, the position of the women is this: In normal times they have had, for various reasons, to put up with a wage-level considerably below that of the corresponding class of male wage-earner. Among these reasons we may include their inferior physical capacity in a number of occupations; their lower subsistence-level, "resulting from the general absence of dependent families and the frequent existence of home resources independent of their industrial earnings; the temporary nature of their industrial careers, resulting from the fact that they frequently regard industry as a stopgap pending marriage, and the consequential absence of vital and lifelong interest in industrial conditions which is the moving spirit of an effective trade unionism. These are among the interacting causes of the inferiority of women's earnings; but the widest and most profound cause lies in the fact that women, though of course constituting a minority in the industrial world, are nevertheless competing for employment in such a comparatively restricted area that the competition among them is more intense than it is among male workers. To put it metaphorically, the volume of the flood is less, but its channel is relatively narrower, therefore its action is more destructive.

When we begin to inquire into the reasons for this restriction we find ourselves lost in a perfect maze of speculations. To begin with, obviously the genuine physical limitations of women must necessarily impose a natural barrier to a whole host of occupations. Supposed physical limitations not improbably add to the number. In addition there are less definite social causes such as differential factory legislation, the inconveniences of a mixed staff and the liability of women to get married, which must account for a considerable restriction of the demand for their labor. And behind all this brood many centuries of tradition, custom, prejudice and sex jealousy.

With the development of war conditions, however, some very profound modifications have occurred in the conditions sketched above. In the first place, the urgent national necessity of replacing the large numbers of men withdrawn from the labor market has accounted for the dissolution of much irrational prejudice against women's work, and broken down innumerable barriers of custom and tradition. And under the hard schooling of necessity the economic world has learned that much of the physical and mental incapacity, much of the administrative inconvenience, of women workers has disappeared under the test of actual practice. In the second place, the heavy war mortality among young men must mean that, for a generation at least, large numbers of young women will have to find in the world of industry the main interest of their lives, though how far this fact will affect their industrial psychology, it is, of course, impossible to estimate.

When we come, therefore, to re-examine the old causes of inferiority we find that, while many of them remain presumably unaltered, one or two of them have been profoundly affected. First and foremost, the field in which women are competing for employment has been almost indefinitely extended; and it has been so extended as to include grades of comparatively well-paid work hitherto closed. Women workers remain, for the most part, unorganized, an easy prey to industrial exploitation; but given the will to combine and the power to bargain collectively, circumstances point to the possibility of better conditions for women workers in the near future. But, of course, all this presupposes the continuance of the new opportunities, takes for granted that what is now open will necessarily remain open. Will-it? Certainly much of it will, for there is no mending of broken traditions and no re-erecting of shattered illusions; but there is such a possibility as the rebuilding of industrial or professional barriers for reasons other than the actual capacity of women to do the work, and that brings us back to our opening problem, the readjustment of industrial conditions when a demobilized army returns to the labor market.

Now it must be remembered that much of the old exclusion of women from skilled industrial processes was the result of trade union regulations—agreements forced upon the employer by organized male labor. Women were regarded, and not without good reason, as undesirable fellow-workers, where a comparatively high standard of life was to be maintained. And when the exigencies of war made it necessary for Mr. Lloyd George to promote the utilization of female labor in skilled industry, he found himself up against one of the most cherished and hard-earned privileges of British trade unionism, and, as is well known, was only able to obtain the suspension of that privilege on the definite understanding that, after the return of peace, the said trade union regulations should be fully and legally re-established. Although in the meanwhile industrial processes have undergone such revolutionary changes of mechanism and organization as to render the literal fulfilment of that pledge appallingly difficult, if not practically impossible, yet Labor holds, as it were, an I. O. U. against the Government, and will be in a position, when the time comes, to demand its discharge in the spirit, if not in the letter. The spirit at the present time, if straws show the way of the wind, is undoubtedly an exclusive one as far as the woman war worker is concerned. Nor is the problem confined to those occupations where definite, trade union regulations have been suspended. The woman bank clerk, like the woman engineer, will, in days to come, find herself confronted by a male predecessor whose standard of remuneration, and probably of professional efficiency, are higher than her own.

Given the above-described circumstances, the situation to be avoided at all costs is one in which the trade unions will be fighting on one side for exclusion, women on the other for employment; the latter backed wholeheartedly by the employers in search of cheap and comparatively docile labor-power, the former backed halfheartedly by the Government in pursuance of pledges exacted in the hour of need. And the victory of either side will spell disaster. If the exclusive principle is carried through, women workers will find themselves at the mercy of trade union regulations for the first time possessing the force of law, and flung back into the old degraded and inadequate industrial channels, where they will compete all the more destructively by reason of their swollen numbers. They will suffer, and their suffering will generate bitterness at a time when all the good-will in the world will be necessary to face an uncertain future. Incidentally, the economic well-being of the nation will be prejudiced by the wastage of industrial capacity at a time when, with proper foresight and organization, the demand of industry for labor should be insatiable. Limitations on the power of industrial producers to produce will prove as harmful in the hungry years which must follow a world war as they are in face of the rapacious requirements of war itself. On the other hand, if for some reason the spirit of the pledge is never redeemed, if the employers succeed in utilizing the mass of women war workers as a cheap labor supply for post-war industry, and as a catspaw for the deposition of Labor's aristocracy, the result will be a serious menace to, if not the actual destruction of, such a life standard as over a century of trade union effort has painfully succeeded in building up. Here, too, will be a source of most disastrous and dangerous bitterness, and among that very section of the community, the home-coming army, which merits the first consideration of the nation.

It is not the business of this article to review the various broad lines of action by which the above-described dilemma may be avoided. After all, in foreshadowing such a state of affairs at all, a number of uncertain conditions have been taken for granted. It has been presupposed that the war will end decisively before the armies engaged are reduced to inappreciable numbers of able-bodied men. It has been presupposed that the return of peace will find British industry based upon the old system of private ownership of capital and haphazard production in response to the effective demand of individuals. It presupposes no change of heart on the part of employers, Government, or trade unions. But, in view of possible, if not probable dangers, the most urgent stress should be laid upon what is an undoubted palliative, if not a fundamental cure for such prospective economic ills; that is, the strenuous promotion and public encouragement of trade unionism among women. What women, by reason of underlying social and economic causes, are not able to do for themselves, the moral and financial support of the public must do for them, and such support should be regarded not merely as an interference in the old struggle between Capital and Labor, but as an attempt to ward off a national danger.

The root of the evil is the old incompatibility between male and female labor in the skilled and semi-skilled grades of industry. That incompatibility has arisen partly from fallacious theorizing of the "wages-fund" type, but largely from the fact that the industrial woman, in spite of the uphill and often successful trade union work which has been accomplished, mainly from above, during the past forty years, is regarded by her male colleague as nature's blackleg. And in spite of the short-sighted policy of hostility to women members displayed by a few trade unions, it is fairly clear that it is not the woman trade unionist that the man is afraid of, but the woman blackleg; not the well-paid woman, but the sweated woman. Now there are three ways of dealing with a blackleg: he may be elbowed out of the industrial world altogether; he may be penned up, as women have been penned up, in the lowest and most undesirable grades; or he may be turned into a trade unionist. As far as women are concerned, the first two are closed by national expediency, humanity and justice. The third lies open; and in view of the peculiar economic rocks which loom vaguely ahead of us, it may be said without exaggeration that one woman trade union leader is worth a hundred welfare workers.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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