Working Women

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As the pages detailing the arguments for women's suffrage illustrate, suffragists contended that women, specifically middle-class white women, needed the vote so they could protect working women.

        The antisuffragists recognized this claim as one of suffragists' strongest, and they sought to refute it with stories about how working women did not want the "protection" of middle-class women. This interesting article argues that wage earning and business women had strong reasons to oppose the ballot. How many different arguments can you identify in this essay? Evaluate the strength of these arguments. See also what this essay reveals about working conditions and gender roles in 1912.

Why Wage Earning Women Oppose Suffrage

   One cry of the suffragists been has up and echoed by them all over this country is "We want the ballot to protect the working girl" and they extend this to include all wage earning women; even those who are in business for themselves need this "privilege of expression" in order to obtain justice rather than "slavery."

    The suffragists have not explained in many instances what form that vague "protection" will take nor what sort of "expression" the business woman is seeking.

    They have in some instances become so definite as to declare that shorter hours for factory and shop girls, higher wages, and better general working conditions would result from woman suffrage. They have never explained how they could accomplish this when the men have not been able to accomplish such things for themselves by the ballot, and they have not been able to prove such accomplishment in suffrage states. In many instances the national speakers for the suffrage association have made the mistake of declaring that if women voted, eight hour bills for women would be passed, only to discover that they were talking in states where such laws already existed, -- passed without the aid of women’s votes.

    Harry Thomas, secretary of the Cleveland Federation of Labor, said when the fight for an eight-hour law for women was up in Ohio: "We men are going to get this law for ourselves in a short time, BUT OUR ONLY HOPE OF GETTING AN EIGHT HOUR LAW IS TO HAVE THE WOMEN GET IT FIRST."

    Now Mr. Thomas is a socialist and as such is an avowed suffragist, and I think from him a confession that the great and—according to the suffragists all powerful voting class must get its favorable labor legislation through the—according to the suffragists -- "poor down-trodden abused non-voting class" is most interesting and enlightening.

    Now the fact remains that the suffragists over the country have not been able to arouse the interest in their cause of the business and wage earning women. In Cleveland, Ohio, during the recent campaign there they tried in vain to organize these girls. The girls and women who have entered men's fields in competition with men are not lacking in intelligence nor in a desire to better ourselves. They don't want to be "slaves" any more than any one class would and they know what slavery is as well as do the restless women of leisure who form the greater ranks of the suffragists

What then is the reason they have failed to respond to the wonderful opportunity offered by the demanders of "votes for women"?

    "We women of the more fortunate class, we women of leisure want to protect the working girl," declared a suffragist speaker in Cleveland at a church meeting.

    I asked shop girls and stenographers if they could give me light upon the kinds of protection the women could give them.

    "The only kind of protection they can give us" said a girl in & ready-to-wear store, "is to be reasonable about their demands made upon us. If they come in here and demand a garment altered to fit them on a few hours notice and threaten to withdraw their patronage from the store, -- we are the ones who suffer. If women in their business dealings with us would be -- not charitable but reasonable -- we would be protected to the fullest. They are able to protect us.

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    "Don't you suppose I know that if we girls were willing to organize and stay organized as firmly as do the men," factory girl asked, "and" if we were organized strong enough to make our demands rest on supply and demand, -- if we could withdraw the supply—and if we could persuade the girls who are working for pin money to agree not to work for less than one of us who are really up against it, don't you think we know that THEN we would be protected and better so than all the women's votes in the world could do for us?"

    "We have one source of protection," said another factory girl that would become real protection the minute the women wanted to make it so--and that is the label of the Consumer's League. But how many women—including the most ardent suffragist—will refuse a bargain just because it isn't tagged with that?"

    "Why don't I get more wages?" reflected a capable stenographer. "Well, let me think. For one thing, my wages are pretty good, you know. I don't know whether they are as much as I earn or not. But for one thing, the boss learned a few months ago that I was engaged. When it came time for a raise, he didn't give it to me. 'You'll soon be gone,’ he said, 'I don't really believe your value to us deserves a raise for these few weeks.' '

    "He probably thought, too, that I wouldn't work quite so hard when I knew I was going soon. Now, that man over there, he is just about as capable, I suppose, as I, and he announced his engagement about when I did mine.' Sure he got his raise; and an extra good one just because he was engaged. The married ones always work harder than ever, you know, so he's worth it to the firm.

    "Then another thing, -- it's the same old question—girls come pouring out of the business college who just have to buy their own clothes with what they earn and they're around everywhere offering their services for half a living wage, What can you expect?"

    There's another reason why the business women don't; want the ballot thrust upon them.

    "It's bad enough now for a business woman to get along" an insurance woman said. "Competition with strong hustling men isn't the joke these 'economic independent' shouters seem to think it is. But there's one thing we don't have to meet. When I go into a man's office after a policy, he doesn't start to talk politics and when he finds out I voted for the other man for city treasurer or didn't vote the Progressive ticket—refuse his business. Oh yes, we do see that sort of thing a lot. There are men who draw a decided line against giving business to a man who has been on the other side politically, especially when it comes to a thing like insurance where we are all offering practically the same business inducement. And the results of my business show that I at least am not handicapped by not being the 'political equal of men.' Look at the prize winners in our business last year? It's a good picture of me, isn't it?"

    Now these things which may not seem important to "the more fortunate women" are realized by the wage-earning women, the women who are exerting every atom of their strength in competing with men in the business world, and to them they do seem important.

    And so, since the suffragists are unable to show anything they have accomplished for women in the suffrage states which have not been done in non-suffrage states and in many of them done better—and since the working girls and women realize that there is nothing they can do for them, and since moreover, it would only add to the cares and burdens already theirs and would make their business battle harder—it is not surprising that they have not risen in response to the cry of the suffragists that given the vote they, would "protect the working girl."

Lucy J. Price

From The Woman's Protest, Vol 2, # 3, Jan 1913.

For more information about the anti-suffrage campaign, see these pages on the perceived differences between the sexes and about the feared consequences of voting. You can also examine how the issue of woman suffrage featured in the political process of the election of 1912; just as you can examine the pro-suffrage arguments prevalent in 1912.

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