Living in the Margins

Student demonstrators. Paris, 2007.

At the first glance, and even when longer survey has been made, both Paris and Berlin — and these may stand as the representative Continental cities — seem to offer every possible facility for the work of women. Everywhere, behind counter, in shop or café, in the markets, on the streets, wherever it is a question of any phase of the ordinary business of life, women are in the ascendant, and would seem to have conquered for themselves a larger place and better opportunities than either England or America have to show.

But, as investigation goes on, this larger employment makes itself evident as obstacle rather than help to the better forms of work, and the woman’s shoulders bear not only her natural burden, but that also belonging to the man. The army lays its hand on the boy at sixteen or seventeen. The companies and regiments perpetually moving from point to point in Paris seem to be composed chiefly of boys; every student is enrolled, and the period of service must always be deducted in any plan for life made by the family.

Naturally, then, these gaps are filled by women,—not only in all ordinary avocations, but in the trades which are equally affected by this perpetual drain. In every town of France or Germany where manufacturing is of old or present date, the story is the same, and women are the chief workers; but, in spite of this fact, the same inequalities in wages prevail that are found in England and America, while conditions include every form of the sharpest privation.

For England and America as well is the fact that law regulates or seeks to regulate every detail, no matter how minute, and that the manufacturer or artisan of any description is subject to such laws. On the continent, save where gross wrongs have brought about some slight attempt at regulation by the state, the law is merely a matter of general principles, legislation simply indicating certain ends to be accomplished, but leaving the means entirely in the hands of the heads of industries.

'Not happy'. Workers' rights demonstration, Paris.
Unhappy, but not defeated. Labour demonstration, Paris.

Germany has a far more clearly defined code than France; but legislation, while it has touched upon child labor, has neglected that of women workers entirely. Within a year or two the report of the Belgian commissioners has shown a state of things in the coal mines, pictured with tremendous power by Zola in his novel “Germinal,” but in no sense a new story, since the conditions of Belgian workers are practically identical with those of women workers in Silesia, or at any or all of the points on the continent where women are employed.

Philanthropists have cried out; political economists have shown the suicidal nature of non-interference, and demonstrated that if the state gains today a slight surplus in her treasury, she has, on the other hand, lost something for which no money equivalent can be given, and that the women who labor from twelve to sixteen hours in the mines, or at any industry equally confining, have no power left to shape the coming generations into men, but leave to the State an inheritance of weak-bodied and often weak-minded successors to the same toil.

For France and Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, at every point where women are employed, the story is the same; and the fact remains that, while in the better order of trades women may prosper, in the large proportion, constant and exhausting labor simply keeps off actual starvation, but has no margin for anything that can really be called living.

For Paris and Berlin, but in greater degree for Paris, a fact holds true which has almost equal place for New York. Women-workers, whose only support is the needle, contend with an army of women for whom such work is not a support, but who follow it as a means of increasing an already certain income. For these women there is no pressing necessity, and in Paris they are of the bourgeoisie, whose desires are always a little beyond their means, who have ungratified caprices, ardent wishes to shine like women in the rank above them, to dress, and to fascinate.

They are the wives and daughters of petty clerks, or employés of one order and another, of small government functionaries and the like, who embroider or sew three or four hours a day, and sell the work for what it will bring. The money swells the housekeeping fund, gives a dinner perhaps, or aids in buying a shawl, or some coveted and otherwise unattainable bit of jewelry. The work is done secretly, since they have not the simplicity either of the real ouvrière or of the grande dame, both of whom sew openly, the one for charity, the other for a living.

But this middle class, despising the worker and aspiring always toward the luxurious side of life, feels that embroidery or tapestry of some description is the only suitable thing for their fingers, and busy on this, preserve the appearance of the dignity they covet. Often their yearly gains are not more than one hundred francs, and they seldom exceed two hundred; for they accept whatever is offered them, and the merchants who deal with them know that they submit to any extortion so long as their secret is kept.

Adapted from Prisoners of Poverty Abroad (1889), by Helen Campbell. Published under a Creative Commons license. Photographs courtesy of  Philippe Leroyer.