Friday, 10 July 2015

The Supply of Working Women

From The Illustrated London News, 10th July, 1915. 


We shall all feel glad that the Government have called on women to register for possible war service—and women up to sixty-five years of age, too—even although the previous request for women volunteers for this service produced 87,000 offers, of whom but some 2300 have been found any work to do.  It is to be hoped, however, that women will not be set to tasks too hard for their strength, producing a crop of broken-down girls to match the lads wounded in the war, but without the same provision and compensation.  It is also to be hoped that women will not be too much called away from the vitally important work on which so large a proportion of us are now engaged.  The female sex, as a whole, is mainly occupied in rearing and educating the next generation, and in providing the necessary cooked food and other requirements of the present working population.  We hear too much in ordinary times of exclusive attention to their own household work being required of wives and mothers.  Even skill in other forms of work acquired by long, costly, and devoted study, as in the case of lady doctors or women certificated teachers, has been constantly relegated by men on public boards to be wasted for life if the holder of it should elect to marry.  But now we are suddenly going too far in the reverse direction.  As unreasonable and wrong in the public interests as it is to command absolute servitude for intellectual or business women to domestic cares alone, so it is, on the other hand, wrong to call women too largely away from those wifely and motherly and educative duties upon which both the present and the future generation so greatly depend for health and well-being.

That there is not really a superabundant supply of women available for physically hard work has long been plain from the scarcity of domestic servants.  That such scarcity is a fact every employer of that class of labour knows.  The money wages of domestic workers have advanced fifty per cent. in as many years, without any strikes or combinations, merely by reason of the scanty supply of labour, consequent on the large number of new occupations that have been opened to women in modern times.  That it should have followed that domestic workers should become too few to meet the demand, in consequence of the opening of other employments, is a token that there is not an adequate supply of female labour, for wages, for hard physical work.  So it must not be supposed that the National Service census will discover a vast army of healthy women hitherto merely sitting lazily unoccupied.  ..... Many—not all—middle-class married women, however, might well work harder than hitherto in their own homes, even to the point of dispensing with one domestic servant.


[This all seems a bit muddled.  It's not clear to me whether Filomena is suggesting that the Government was wrong to expect women to work rather than looking after their families, or just warning that there would not be as many suited to physical work as expected.  But in fact, many working-class women were already working out of economic necessity - often at jobs requiring 'physically hard work'.  And as far as I know, domestic service was unpopular, not because it was hard work, but because it was badly-paid drudgery with very little freedom.  A job in a munitions factory with fixed hours and better pay was far preferable.]  

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