Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 27 - Woman's Work

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[-264-]

WOMAN'S WORK.

    PUBLIC attention has been deservedly drawn of late to the very important fact that the industry of this great country is practically closed to the educated element of Englishwomen. Beyond the mere servile occupations, to the English lady who has been tenderly nurtured, but who is reduced to distress by misfortune, there remains, indeed, a sorry choice of professions, descending in very rapid steps from the governess to the sempstress. The boys of a large family may, and do, push their fortunes in the world in a hundred directions. The girls, on the contrary, find every door shut against them. To them, as a class, delicacy of eye and hand are gifts with which the Almighty has endowed them, but which we Britishers steadily ignore. We allow our women to toil in the fields, and to do the work of brute beasts in coal mines; but when it comes to tasks for which the delicacy of their organization is particularly adapted, we find no place for them in our industrial economy. Nay, it is boldly asserted, that their employment would only result in displacing the labour of the other sex. If this were a valid objection, our argument would be at an end. But it must be evident to all, that nature herself has drawn the line between male [-265-] and female labour; it is a nice question of physical power. When we see half-a-dozen stalwart young men selling ribbons in a mercer's shop, there is a palpable waste of power, and we feel almost inclined to ask for only one hour of the old days of the press-gang. On the other hand, when we see women in the fields, bent double with hoeing in the mid-day sun, we feel that they are overtasked. The Anglo-Saxon, it must be remembered, is not like a. French tradesman, who is content to sit and smoke in his thrumb night-cap, whilst his wife does the work. He must be doing, and if not at home, he pushes out to the new empires he has conquered and built up by his energy. With the better class of educated women, however, it is far different. In the first place, it must be remembered, that there are many hundred thousands in excess of the young men, an excess which every year  will probably increase as our male population swarms out in increasing numbers to our colonies. The females of the mere working-classes are amply provided for in our great manufactures and in domestic service; but the question is, what shall be done with the young daughters of our respectable households. The time inevitably comes when the bread-winner that has sustained them in comforts is called away; probably leaving but little provision behind him, and the happy little circle is broken up, and its members have to commence a fierce struggle face to face with the hard world. According to Mrs. Grundy, there are but two situations which young ladies so situated can possibly seek — that of governess, or nursery governess, according to the nature of the education they possess. Even here the "market" is fearfully overstocked. If [-266-] they answer an advertisement for a situation, the advertiser meets them with the chilling fact, that she has already received a hundred applications before luncheon-time. It is clear that the first thing to be done is to educate this tyrant society, this terrible Mrs. Grundy, who rides upon our shoulders as pitilessly as ever the Old Man of the Sea did upon those of Sinbad.
    If it were not considered such a horrible thing for an educated woman to do for money what she may do for amusement with applause, the difficulty would be at an end, and it would speedily be discovered that in the field of intelligent labour the female organization would be enabled to work harmoniously beside that of the other sex, and, in many cases, to rival it. With regard to the higher class of occupations, there can be no doubt that the closed door is gradually giving way. We see light between the chinks, and before another half-century it will be open wide. Let us take the art of design, for example. Up to the present time, no woman ever dreamed of initiating even in needlework anything beyond punching holes in cambrick and then sewing them up again. Take the piece of embroidery out of your sister's work-box, good reader, and see what you can make of it if there is head or tail, form of beauty, rectilinear or curvilinear, to be found in it, your sister must be a rara avis. Our mothers and grandmothers, as we know by those prized pieces of silk and worsted-work which still hang on the walls and fade gradually a way in gloomy comers of upper bedrooms, were not an atom in advance of ourselves. How could it be otherwise? Art culture, as a matter of national education, is only just beginning to be recognised. In the Great [-267-] Exhibition of 1851, we suddenly discovered that we were utterly deficient in both form and colour; but since then we have gone to work with a will. In every important manufacturing town in England there is now a Government School of Design, spreading a love of art over the entire country, and educating the eye in the appreciation of all beautiful forms, and practising the hand in their reproductions. These schools are attended by fully as many ladies as gentlemen. The visitor need only visit one of these schools to be convinced that intelligent female labour in these admirable establishments is educating itself for scores of occupations entirely new to this country. As it is, we are indebted to the French for all our first-class designers. Most of the great manufacturers interested in the production of articles in which there is an Art-element, employ a French designer at a very high salary. We have no hesitation in saying, that in future the Schools of Design will supply native artists for these posts; and not only in designing for our textile fabrics, but in modelling for the goldsmith, and the statuary, female labour through this door opened for them by the Government will speedily flow in. We have heard many intelligent men doubt the female aptitude for the fine arts; and, certainly, as long as we could only point to the works of an Angelica Kauffman, it was difficult to gainsay them; but Rosa Bonheur has cleared away that difficulty, and has proved that the female brush can paint with the vigour of Snyders and the poetical grace of Landseer. The reason why they have not hitherto challenged the men in the field of art is plain enough.
    They have never been trained. The young girls of the [-268-] upper ten thousand are indeed taught drawing at finishing schools by some wretched drawing-master; instructed in the production of sickly rose groups, or set pencil landscapes, in which the usual formula is half a dozen woolly trees, a church spire of course, and three crows to enliven the vast expanse of sky. Here we see the blind, indeed, leading the blind. The daughters who do not go to finishing schools have never been taught even how to make a straight line. Yet watch them working at the schools of design. Intelligent young girls, whose dress betokens the struggles of the homes from which they issue, after a year's study handle the crayon with a freedom and boldness ,that at once dissipates the notion that art is not for them. The secret of their success is, that they have adopted drawing as a profession. How many thousands of respectable young girls there are in this country predestined to labour for their bread, whose parents know that they must do so, yet we find them left utterly untrained for any really useful purpose in life. The curate, with his proverbially large family of girls, brings up his fair family to present poverty and to the prospect of bitter struggles to sustain life when he is gone. They may some of them marry, but the chances are against them; some of them will, in all probability, descend to the posts of nursery governesses, or of female companions. If that terrible Mrs. Grundy would cease to tyrannize as she does, why may not this fair family determine with woman's courage to prepare to do woman's work? The means, even of the curate, would suffice to give them admittance to the schools of design, and then Rose may take wood engraving as a profession. The abolition of the paper duty will give an immense impetus to literature, [-269-] and artistic labour such as hers will be in great demand ; and Mary, why should she not be a modeller for the jeweller? and Kate, why should she not enter the field of art, as a painter? We can imagine a family thus working at their different art tasks with somewhat more satisfaction than in reading insipid novels, or embroidering fierce brigands in worsted work, in which the coarseness of the canvass causes that delightful man's nose to ascend in a series of well defined steps. In the one case they would work with the feeling of real artists, and therefore their labour would be a labour of love, and we may add, of profit also.
    Mr. Bennett, who has laboured so earnestly to open the manufacture of watches to women, told us an anecdote the other day, which illustrates at once the difficulties women have to contend with (from the other sex, we are sorry to say,) in making their way into a sphere of labour hitherto considered sacred to the men, and the success that attended their courageous efforts. Three young ladies, after a preliminary training at the Marlborough House School of Design, applied to him for occupation in engraving the backs of gold watches. Although perfect strangers to this kind of work, in six months, he tells us, they became as practised artists as a mere apprentice would have been in six years. At the end of this time, when they were making each three pounds a week by their labour, the men in the shop struck. These "foreigners," as they were termed, must go, or they would; and Mr. Bennett was obliged, sadly against his will, to comply with their wishes. These brave girls, however, were not to be beaten; they immediately turned their attention to engraving on glass, and are now employed at this delicate employment, and [-270-] earn as much thereat as they did before at watch engraving. What these young girls did, thousands of well-educated young ladies may do also. And yet, despite Mrs. Grundy, we dare maintain that to engrave a watch, or to embellish the crystal for our table, is quite as elevated an occupation as to see that Master Tommy's nose is properly wiped, or that his linen is duly cared for.
    We have instanced the decoration of watches and of glass as mere instances in point. The delicate female hand, the most beautiful and pliant instrument in the world, once thoroughly educated, the whole world of design is opened to her, and the field of her labour is almost boundless. There is scarcely an article of home manufacture in which we have advanced much beyond the rude old Saxon style. Every article of household use, as far as design is concerned, has to be reformed, and will be, as our tastes advance. Why, then, should not the trained female artist hasten to share the work with her brother-artist?
    But why need we stop at the fine arts, when we look around for employment for intelligent female labour? We trust Clerkenwell will not demolish us, for alluding to watchmaking as an art that seems to demand the exercise of the female hand. "I cannot get on without the woman's hand," says John Bennett, in a letter to the Times, and he very justly points to the Swiss watch, which is now rapidly taking the place of the English second-class watch. He calculated that no less than 200,000 of these watches are imported or smuggled annually into England, whilst 187,000 is the whole produce of English watchmakers. In order to discover the reason of their very cheap and beautiful production of watches, he [-271-] determined to go to Switzerland himself, and the reason was soon apparent. He found that no less than 20,000 women were employed in Neufchatel alone in making the more delicate parts of the watch movement, not cooped up in squalid courts as the men are in Clerkenwell, but in their own cottage homes on the slopes of the Jura., overlooking the beautiful Lake Leman.
    The foundation of their art, it must be remembered, is their intellectual culture; every woman thus employed is well educated; if she were not, her fingers would lack that subtle intelligence so necessary to the calling of a watchmaker. The manner in which the labour is divided is also remarkable. Every workwoman and workman (for the labour of the former, instead of superseding that of the latter, only calls it into more active existence for the production of the heavier work) selecting exactly that portion of the watch-movement which he and she can do best. They have also a decimal standard gauge for all the different portions of the wheel-works; in this manner all the parts are interchangeable, just as those of the Enfield rifles are with us. Our great London watchmakers are too high and mighty to descend to this levelling process; consequently, we hear of Frodsham's size, Dent's size, or Bennett's size, but of no standard size that all watchmakers can work to. Moreover, among these rural districts, where one would think that manufactures were carried on in the most primitive manner, we find, on the contrary, the greatest system possible prevailing in this particular trade. In consequence of every workman and every workwoman being registered, together with the exact nature of the work they do, any of the wholesale manufacturers, by [-272-] using the telegraph, can procure, within a few hours, the details of the watch-movement to any extent. The facilities in this metropolis, which is a kingdom within itself, for such an admirable division of labour and concentration at will of its products at the command of the watchmaker are very great; the labour also is but too plentiful, were it only trained.
    Mrs. Grundy would doubtless turn up her nose at intelligent and educated Englishwomen directing their attention to a mechanical trade, forgetting that shirtmaking also is a mechanical trade, and that the needle and thimble are as much tools as the fine implements used in watchmaking; nay, and much coarser tools too. In Switzerland 20,000 women in this trade earn on an average fifteen shillings a week, which goes as far in their country as double that sum would in London. Here, then, is another occupation, that, to intelligent women, would prove a perfect mine of wealth, and most heartily we trust that Mr. Bennett will be successful in his attempts to open it to the intelligence of women. It is in vain that we sing the "Song of the the Shirt," and get up annual subscriptions for downstricken sempstresses. It is in vain that we hold midnight tea-meetings to tempt Lorettes from their evil courses; as long as we shut young women out from honourable means of employment, so long will their labour be a drug in the market, and their degradation but too facile a matter to the tempter.