Addams and Working Women

Women who worked in the marketplace suffered from a number ofinjustices including socialization detrimental to their developmentin the public arena. Trained to respond first to their "familyclaims," women had to respond instead to "social claims"in order to survive in the male-dominated business world. Womenwere taught to identify with their families to such an extentthat they did not organize to defend their rights. Women undercuttheir fellow laborers when they limited their female vision tothe immediate needs of their families. Addams strongly criticizedthis:

The maternal instinct and family affection is [sic] woman's mostholy attribute; but if she enters industrial life, that is notenough. She must supplement her family conscience by a socialand an industrial conscience. She must widen her family affectionto embrace the children of the community. She is wrecking havocin the sewing-trades, because with the meagre equipment sufficientfor family life she has entered industrial life. [57]

Because Addams supported the labor movement and many unions wereorganized by men and barred women as equal participants, [58]the women's labor unions in Chicago were organized primarily throughHull-House. In 1892 the cloakmakers were organized there, andin 1891 the shirtmakers. The Chicago Women's Trade Union Leaguewas also organized there, and yet another two women's unions metat the settlement. [59]

Union organizing required more than merely providing a setting.The women workers needed to define themselves in relation to theconflicting family and social claims. The residents, accordingto Addams, could facilitate this change in consciousness. Theycould also help working-class men and women to communicate withone another.

The residents felt that between these men and girls was a deepergulf than the much-talked of "chasm" between the favoredand unfavored classes. . . . There was much less difference ofany sort between the residents and working-class than betweenthe men and girls of the same trade. [60]

Addams' approach to the methods of settling labor disputes wasa dramatic illustration of her belief in feminine values. Forshe felt that strikes and violence associated with the labor movementwere ill-fated and destructive.

Men thus animated may organize for resistance, they may strugglebravely together, and may destroy that which is injurious, butthey cannot build up, associate or unite. They have no common,collective faith. The labor movement in America bears this traceof its youth and immaturity. [61]

In the same vein, she believed that the working class and capitalistswere not warring classes, but part of the same democratic society.The apolitical and largely economic character of American unionswas foreseen by Addams as a limited and unsatisfactory direction.She advocated the workers' goals of a shorter workday, increasedwages, better industrial and general education, and worker protectionin the marketplace, but qualified her support when she wrote thatthe movement "does not want to lose sight of the end in securingthe means, nor assume success, nor even necessarily the beginningsof success, when these first aim are attained." [62] Workersneeded to struggle for self-definition and independence. Protectionwas only a stopgap measure and concern. [63] Addams saw the definitionof society as warring classes as one that doomed society as awhole. The "literal notion of brotherhood" demandeda conception of universal kinship: "before this larger visionof life there can be no perception of "sides" and "battlearray." [64] Labor unions became, in fact, the tools of capitalistsby reducing their negotiations to single industry issues.

Addams clearly did not support the Marxist vision of labor, althoughshe frequently read writers adopting this perspective (discussedin the next chapter). As a pragmatist, Addams advocated a numberof laws to "protect" the worker, especially women workers,which led to her advocacy of positions far less radical than herlong-term goals. For example, she was against the militant suffragistsand their later proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment becauseof her defense of protective legislation. Her efforts to avoidclass distinctions within the movement have also been criticized.[65]

Addams was intrinsically committed to a trade union movement orientedtoward large-scale social change, and not the limited economicbenefits of a short-term contract. She failed to have this visionadopted by the unions, and she became increasingly critical oftheir use of strikes. She saw the latter actions as generatingsevere hardships for the workers who wanted relief from such misery.[66]

Because Addams wanted to understand the strengths of the communityas well as its problems, she described poor, aged, and workingwomen as vital members of the community. They had a strength ofspirit and power of mind to create a vision of happiness in themidst of degradation. She was fascinated by this "aestheticsensibility": [67] "Years of living had taught themthat recrimination with grown-up children is worse than useless,that punishments are impossible, and that domestic instructionis best given through tales and metaphors." [68] Older women,in particular, gained strength from their process of teaching,so that "the old people seemed, in some unaccountable way,to lose all bitterness and resentment against life." [69]The ability to do this was based on their verbal power and imagery.Women, according to Addams, developed mythical stories and fairytales to establish some control and order in a world that waschaotic and oppressive.

Women who lived with bitter poverty and family abuse were ableto transcend such squalor. Women thus developed "the strengthof stout habits acquired by those who early become accustomedto fight off black despair." [70] This analysis of women'scourage did not condone the conditions that generated the needfor it. On the contrary, Addams felt that such conditions wereuseless and could be changed through community struggles. Movingwomen out of the home enabled them to widen their visions of life:Working women "possess the enormous advantage over womenof the domestic type of having experienced the discipline arisingfrom impersonal obligations and of having tasted the freedom fromeconomic dependence, so valuable that too heavy a price can scarcelybe paid for it." [71] Thus, working women were exploitedin the marketplace in exchange for a degree of freedom from therestrictions of domesticity. However, the feminine values allowedthese same women to bear their costs with dignity. Working womenwere able to translate their unique experiences into an appreciationfor the community and loved ones whereas men's militaristic andwarring theories allowed them to only see their suffering andfailures.

Thus working women were urged to accept their new roles in thecommunity. This labor, however, was often misused and antitheticalto their training as women with "family claims." Despitethese contradictory demands and the high costs of living in poverty,women were able to lead courageous lives, generating social bondsand happiness. This triumph could not be explained if the poorwere seen only as oppressed and without indigenous culture andvalues. Addams saw these paradoxical forces and explained themas a function of cultural feminism.


ENDNOTES

57. Jane Addams, "The Settlement as a Factor in the LaborMovement," in HH Maps and Papers (New York: Crowell,1895), p. 190.

58. See Heidi Hartmann, " Capitalism, Patriarchy, and JobSegregation by Sex," Signs 1 (Spring 1976):137-69.

59. Addams, "The Settlement as a Factor in the Labor Movement,"p. 188.

60. Ibid.

61. Ibid., p. 194.

62. Ibid., p. 195.

63. Ibid., p. 197.

64. Ibid., p. 200.

65. Virginia Fish, "The Hull-House Circle," mimeo, n.d.

66. See the collection of articles on labor in the CentennialReader, pp. 192-217.

67. Jane Addams, The Long Road of Women's Memory (NewYork: Macmillan, 1916), p. 6.

68. Ibid., p. 9.

69. Ibid., p. 10.

70. Ibid., p. 68.

71. Ibid., p. 100.

From Mary Jo Deegan, Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918.New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Books, 1986, pp. 235-238.


Forward to "Jane Addams and Pacifism"
Back to "Prostitution"
Back to the Index