Current Legislation for Working Women, September 20, 1912

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Current Legislation for Working Women.

There has been much discussion during the past few years concerning the <protection for> working girls! need of protection Legislation has been secured in twenty states to set some limit to  the number of hours they may be permitted to work and at least one state has appointed a Commission to consider the feasibility of a minimum wage standard.

Certainly all American women should be interested in these measures which so closely affect the lives of eight million of their working sisters, the majority of them under twenty years of age. <Women> quite irrespective of <their> political [affilitations] or of their desire for suffrage should endeavor to understand this current legislation.

Only those of us who are familiar with the unecessarily harsh conditions which environ working girls can sufficiently appreciate their needs. For many years I have known night shift girls whose lives were shortened through sheer exhaustion, totally without protection <save in these states> in America, although twenty-nine countries of the civilized world have prohibited all night work for women. There is perhaps no more dangerous moment in the life of a working girl than that one of relaxation and reaction which follows the long hours of severe nervous strain when her "rush" work has been prolonged far into the night. If she has worked all night long, She goes home in the early morning, at the very hours when the streets are filled with dissolute men <seeking or> returning from their pleasures. That more girls [page 2] sore pressed in this moment of over-fatigue, do not yield to the invitation "to brace up with a drink" always offered with the basest designs, is due to their inherent sturdiness of character.

Much of that ill health and discouragement which sometimes makes such a sudden onset upon a bright, promising girl is due without doubt to her long hours of work, often at a machine whose set speed determines the quantity of her output. A girl who pushes down a lever with her right food eight or nine thousand times a day is making but a poor preparation for motherhood and will later corroberate the grave medical statement that "The industrial overstrain of women constantly re-acts in three ways; in a heightened infant mortality, a lowered birthrate and an impaired second generation." Certainly it is the business of women to prevent "an impaired second generation," above all if we are living in a republic whose very continuance depends upon the intelligence and vigor of its future citizens.

The hours of working women were made a matter of federal concern when the United States Supreme Court rendered its decision in the Oregon Ten Hour Case and gave a new impulse to judges in many states who were hesitating to sustain such legislation.

Minimum wage boards are as yet new to America, although such legislation has been in successful operation in Victoria, Australia since 1896 and in Great Britain since January, 1910.

In Australia such boards are established in one industry or another in response to demands, sometimes of workers, sometimes [page 3] of employers, and in either case a prolific source of strikes is removed and conditions bettered. In England these boards have been established in four of the worst paid industries in which women are engaged, box making, lace finishing, tailoring and chain making. It seems strange to Americans to connect the latter with women's work, yet no one who has [traveled] through the remoter parts of "the black country" in northern England will ever forget the half clad women and girls standing at the forges in the cottage doorways or backyards, pounding strips of iron into the links of a chain; nor does an American woman who has been in East London easily put from her mind the groups of working girls noisily walking up and down the streets -- gangs we would call them if they were boys -- who are so poorly paid for box making that they are unable "to pay for continuous shelter and in the slack season huddle together as best they may. Certainly American girls have not yet come to such a pass and yet there is no doubt that young girls often lose out in the struggle to live honestly upon wages too small and intermittent to support them, while the community is powerless to discover the economic basis of their danger.

A girl working in a factory situated in a small town in a western state, from seven in the morning until six at night sews twenty-one seams in every pair of corsets for which she receives a wage varying from five to nine cents a dozen pairs. Is there not a connection between this low wage and the fact that this town sends a larger number of girls to the state reform school than any other town in the commonwealth? A girl recently left her village home [page 4] at the solicitation of an agent representing this same factory who had promised her that she would make "good money." She found her pay envelope at the end of her first week of factory work contained one dollar and thirteen cents. When she went to the office of the manager to reclaim the agent's promise that "the boss would look after her until she was expert," she was so frightened at the implication of his conversation that she was afraid to accept the money that he finally offered her, although she was terribly harrassed by her increasing bill at the cheap boarding house and <frightened by> "the kind of talk she heard there."

The relation of low wages to despair and wrong doing can, from the nature of the case, never be determined but the bare fact that one fifth of the working women of the United States earn less than two hundred dollars a year and three fifths less than three hundred and twenty-five dollars a year is fraught with significance and gives the public a stake in this most human side of industry.

It is after all "the daughters of the poor" who are most persistently pursued by those wretched men who make it a business to <discover> discouraged girls.

Minimum wage boards have been recommended only for the most ill paid of women's industries in which the wages often depend more upon tradition and the worker's helplessness than they do upon the ability of the women to perform the work required of them. If Minimum Wage Boards, investigating such industries in every state made clear the moral danger to the community from the very existence of a large body of young girls underpaid at the best months of their trade and often totally without resource during the months of the dull season, the nation would realize that standards of wages come within [page 5] the sphere of governmental control quite as sub-normal sanitary conditions do because they threaten the general welfare.

Every city in America dictates to all the property owners within its borders the sort of plumbing they must provide, the size of the light <inner> courts, the number of windows in sleeping rooms and so on through a long and complicated building code, because only through such careful regulation can the health of the owner's family and tenants be secured. The city insists that it has a direct interest in the health and vigor of its citizens.

On the same ground, the state would be justified in prescribing a minimum wage if it could be made absolutely clear that when a given industry does not pay its employees enough to live on, it becomes a parasite on the community. Society in the end must pay for it, if any of the girls are forced into immortal lives or if they become a drain upon private and state relief organizations or if they are eventually the mothers of undernourished and defective children.

The Minimum Wage Commission appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts had a membership consisting of employers, of employees, and of representatives of the disinterested public. Their report says that "the purpose of this proposed legislation is not to compel the payment of wages in excess of actual earnings, but to check the clearly ascertained tendency of wages to become much less than actual earnings. It can have no tendency to compel any employer to pay any worker more than the fair value of that worker's labor." [page 6]

In one sense the proposed Minimum Wage legislation does not differ essentially from that which limits a woman's hours of work. An Illinois employer, who tested the constitutionality of the Ten Hour Law in the Supreme Court of the State, contended that one of the girls working in his box factory could not earn enough at piece work to support her widowed mother unless she was allowed to work over time far into the night <as she had been accustomed to do>. The girl was paid by the piece and her desire to earn extra money for Christmas presents fitted in very nicely with her employer's rush orders in fancy boxes for the holiday <season.> trade. Thus a law designed to protect women from excessive hours was interpreted gy the employer to interfere with "the iron law of of wages."

The arguments now used against the establishment of Minimum Wage Boards have been applied to labor legislation all along the line. The first Child Labor Law enacted in England in 1803, which prohibited children under ten years of age from working in the cotton mills all night was rigorously imposed in Parliament on the ground that it was "in restraint of trade."

This current legislation on behalf of working girls is sometimes objected to on the ground that eight or ten hours would be impossible in the work of a <private> household and that it would be most difficult to determine a minimum wage for domestic service. One can only say in reply that it is most improbable that such legislation should ever be applied to household affairs. In the first place housework is varied and while it is monotonous day after day, its routine is quite unlike the mechanical <requirements> set by a machine. A maid of all work in the average family who cooks, [page 7] cleans, washes and irons in the course of a week uses every muscle in her body and although she may go to bed Saturday night "completely  worn out," she is "tired all over" which is a much more healthy condition and much more in line with what her mother and grandmother have experienced before her, than if she had stood on one spot for fifty-four hours during the same week, feeding a machine with the same <identical> motions of her arms and wrists endlessly repeated. A girl who takes her bread out of the oven and places the loaves in an imposing row on the table, however tired she may be has at that moment a thrill of achievement. She alone has been responsible for those fragrant loaves from the beginning of the process <to the end> and even the element of chance that the yeast may have been too old, or the oven too hot, is not without its interest. Compare this to the girl who has spent the day packing crackers in a box, which come to her hand down a chute and are whirled away from her in the packed boxes upon a minature trolley. She has not had even a momentary interest in the crackers save to count them, because her wages are dependent upon the number of boxes she fills; she has never <even> seen how they are made, for the factory proper is separated from the packing room by a door which says "No Admittance."

The first legislation in America on the subject of working hours for women was designed primarily for the women working in factories, but has since then been applied to women working in stores, in office and in hotels. An attempt was made to exempt the latter from the operation of the Illinois <Ten Hour> Law on the ground that hotel employees [page 8] came under the head of domestic service. It was shown however that the Polish and Bohemian girls who scrubbed the corridors and washed the windows in the large hotels of Chicago, although they were supplied with sleeping quarters in the garret and given disorderly meals in the basement, were in reality subjected to all of the hard work of a factory with even less protection; and that before the passage of the ten hour law, many of them had worked continuously for twelve and fourteen hours.

While there is an essential difference between factory work and domestic work, the investigations of Miss Josephine Goldmark published in her remarkable book entitled "Efficiency and Fatigue" show the necessity of regarding hours as too long if a girl becomes so over fatigued that she is poisoned by the accumulation of her own waste products and therefore exhibits "that exhaustion which is the forerunner of countless miseries to individuals and nations." Certainly the wide discussion of the necessity for regulating the hours for factory women should make every employer of domestic service more intelligent and conscientious in regard to the <her> obligations it <and> should enable her to see that depletion and ill health do not come by chance. By far the larger numbers of girls who leave domestic service for factories do not object to the hard work in the household they have abonded, but to the lonliness and lack of pleasure. Recreation as well as rest are the antidotes to the "toxin of fatigue" and the girl who insists upon companionship and free evenings, has a certain physiological basis for her demand. [page 9]

The United States Bureau of Labor has recently published a comprehensive investigation into the condition of "the woman and child wage earners of the United States," the results of which ought to be familiar to every woman in the nation. This illuminating study makes it seem impossible that any employer should unwittingly place the profits of industry above the health and virtue of the future mothers of the nation, or fail to see the moral implication of exhausting hours and starvation wages.

Jane Addams [signed]


Chicago.> [page 10]

Current Leg. for Working Woman
Min. Wage [etc.]
Ladies Home Journal
article. sent Sept. 20 th 1912