The Abominations of Modern Society

T. De Witt Talmage, Brooklyn, January 1st, 1872

Massacre by the Sewing Needle

Very long ago the needle was busy. It was considered honorable for women to toil, in olden time. Alexander the Great stood in his palace showing garments made by his own mother. The finest tapestries at Bayeux were made by the Queen of William the Conqueror. Augustus the Emperor would not wear any garments except those that were fashioned by some member of his royal family. So let the toiler everywhere be respected! The greatest blessing that could have happened to our first parents, was being turned out of Eden after they had done wrong. Adam and Eve, in their perfect state, might have got along without work, or only such slight employment as a perfect garden, with no weeds in it, demanded. But, as soon as they had sinned, the best thing for them was to be turned out where they would have to work.

We know what a withering thing it is for a man to have nothing to do. Old Ashbel Green, at fourscore years, when asked why he kept on working, said, "I do so to keep out of mischief." We see that a man who has a large amount of money to start with, has no chance in life. Of the thousand prosperous and honorable men that you know, nine hundred and ninety-nine had to work vigorously at the beginning. But I am now to tell you that industry is just as important for a woman's safety and happiness. The most unhappy women in our communities today, are those who have no engagements to call them up in the morning; who, once having risen and breakfasted, lounge through the dull forenoon in slippers and with dishevelled hair, reading George Sand's last novel; and who, having dragged through a wretched forenoon and taken their afternoon sleep, and having spent an hour and a half at their mirror, pick up their card-case and go out to make calls; and who pass their evenings waiting for somebody to come in and break up the monotony.

Arabella Stuart never was imprisoned in so dark a dungeon as that. There is no happiness in an idle woman. It may be with hand, it may be with brain, it may be with foot; but work she must—or be wretched forever. The little girls of our families must be started with that idea. The curse of our American society, is that our young women are taught that the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, tenth, fiftieth, thousandth thing in their life—is to get somebody to take care of them. Instead of that, the first lesson should be, how, under God, they may take care of themselves. The simple fact is, that a majority of them do have to take care of themselves, and that, too, after having, through the false notions of their parents, wasted the years in which they ought to have learned how successfully to maintain themselves. We now and here declare the inhumanity and cruelty of that father and mother, who pass their daughters into womanhood, having given them no facility for earning their livelihood. Madame de Stael said: "It is not these writings that I am proud of—but the fact that I have facility in ten occupations, in any one of which I could make a livelihood."

You say you have a fortune to leave them. O man and woman! have you not learned that, like vultures, like hawks, like eagles—that riches have wings and fly away? Though you should be successful in leaving a competency behind you, the trickery of executors may sink it in a night. Or some elders or deacons of our churches may get up some sort of religious enterprise sanctioned by the church, and induce your children to put their money into a hole in Venango County. And if the sunken money cannot be pumped up again, they will prove to them that it was eternally decreed that that was the way they were to lose it, and that it went in the most orthodox and heavenly style. O the damnable schemes that professed Christians will engage in—until God puts his fingers into the collar of the hypocrite's robe and rips it clear down to the bottom!

You have no right, because you are well off, to conclude that your children are going to be as well off.

Have you nothing better than money to leave your children? If you have not—but send your daughters into the world with empty brain and unskilled hand, you are guilty of assassination, homicide, regicide, infanticide! There are women toiling in our cities for three and four dollars per week, who were the daughters of merchant princes. These suffering ones now would be glad to have the crumbs that once fell from their father's table. That worn-out, broken shoe that she wears, is the lineal descendant of the twelve-dollar gaiters in which her mother walked; and that torn and faded calico had ancestry of magnificent brocade, that swept Broadway clean without any expense to the street commissioners. Though you live in an elegant residence, and fare sumptuously every day—let your daughters feel it is a disgrace to them, not to know how to work.

I denounce the idea, prevalent in society, that the idea of doing anything for a livelihood is dishonorable. It is a shame for a young woman, belonging to a large family, to be indolent—when the father toils his life away for her support. It is a shame for a daughter to be idle—while her mother toils at the wash-tub. It is as honorable to sweep house and make beds—as it is to run a shop.

As far as I can understand, the line of acceptability lies between that which is useful and that which is useless. If women do that which is of no value—their work is dishonorable. If they do practical work—it is honorable. That our young women may escape the censure of doing dishonorable work, I shall particularize. You may knit a tidy for the back of an armchair—but by no means make the money wherewith to buy the chair. You may, with delicate art brush, beautify a mantel-ornament—but die rather than earn enough to buy a marble mantel. You may learn fine music until you can squall Italian—but never make a penny. I scout these finical notions.

I tell you that a woman, no more than a man, has any right to occupy a place in this world unless she pays a rent for it! In the course of a lifetime you consume whole harvests, and droves of cattle, and every day you live—you breathe forty hogsheads of good pure air. You must, by some kind of usefulness, pay for all this. If we want a place in this world—we must earn it. The partridge makes its own nest before it occupies it. The lark, by its morning song, earns its breakfast before it eats it. The Bible gives an intimation, that the first duty of an idler is to starve, when it says "if he will not work—neither shall he eat." Idleness ruins the health; and very soon Nature says, "This man has refused to pay his rent—out with him!"

Society is constructed on the subject of woman's toil. A vast majority of those who would have woman industrious, shut her up to a few kinds of work. My judgment in this matter is—that a woman has a right to do anything she can do well. There should be no department of merchandise, mechanism, art, or science barred against her. If Miss Hosmer has genius for sculpture, give her a chisel. If Rosa Bonheur has a fondness for handling animals, let her handle the farm. If Miss Mitchell will study astronomy, let her mount the starry ladder. If Lydia will be a merchant, let her sell purple.

It is said, "if woman is given such opportunities, she will occupy places that might be taken by men." I say, if she has more skill and adaptedness for any position than a man has—let her have it! She has as much right to her bread, to her apparel, and to her home, as men have. But it is said that her nature is so delicate that she is unfitted for exhausting toil. I ask, in the name of all past history, what toil on earth is more severe, exhausting, and tremendous, than that toil of the needle to which for ages she has been subjected? The battering-ram, the sword, the carbine, the battle-axe have made no such havoc as the needle.

Go with me, and I will show you a woman who, by hardest toil, supports her children, her drunken husband, her old father and mother, pays her house-rent, always has wholesome food on her table, and, when she can get some neighbor on the Sabbath to come in and take care of her family, appears in church, with hat and cloak that are far from indicating the toil to which she is subjected. Such a woman as that has body and soul enough to fit her for any position. She could stand beside the majority of your salesmen and dispose of more goods. She could go into your shops, and beat one-half of your workmen at making carriages. We talk about woman as though we had resigned to her all the light work, and ourselves had shouldered the heavier. But the day of judgment, which will reveal the sufferings of the stake and inquisition, will marshal before the throne of God and the hierarchs of heaven—the martyrs of wash-tub and needle.

I say, if there is any preference in occupation, let woman have it. God knows her trials are the severest. By her acuter sensitiveness to misfortune, by her hour of anguish, I demand that no one hedge up her pathway to a livelihood. O the baseness, the despicability of men who begrudge a woman the right to work anywhere, in any honorable calling!

I go still further, and say that women should have equal compensation with men. By what principle of justice is it, that women in many of our cities get only two-thirds as much pay as men—and in many cases, only half? Here is the gigantic injustice—that for work equally well, if not better done—woman receives far less compensation than man. Start with the National Government: women clerks in Washington get nine hundred dollars for doing that for which men receive eighteen hundred. To thousands of young women of New York today, there is only this alternative: starvation or dishonor. Many of the largest mercantile establishments of our cities are accessory to these abominations; and from their large establishments there are scores of souls being pinched off into death; and their employers know it!

Is there a God? Will there be a judgment? I tell you, if God rises up to redress woman's wrongs, many of our large establishments will be swallowed up quicker than a South-American earthquake ever took down a city. God will catch these oppressors between the two mill-stones of his wrath—and grind them to powder! Why is it that a female principal in a school, gets only eight hundred and twenty-five dollars, for doing work for which a male principal gets sixteen hundred and fifty? I hear from all this land the wail of womanhood. Man has nothing to answer to that wail, but flatteries. He says she is an angel. She is not. She knows she is not. She is a human being, who gets hungry when she has no food, and cold when she has no fire. Give her no more flatteries: give her justice!

There are thirty-five thousand sewing-girls in New York and Brooklyn. Across the darkness of this night I hear their death-groan. It is not such a cry as comes from those who are suddenly hurled out of life—but a slow, grinding, horrible wasting-away. Gather them before you and look into their faces—pinched, ghastly, hunger-struck! Look at their fingers, needle-picked and blood-tipped! See that premature stoop in the shoulders! Hear that dry, hacking, merciless cough! At a large meeting of these women, held in a hall in Philadelphia, grand speeches were delivered—but a needle-woman took the stand, threw aside her faded shawl, and, with her shriveled arm, hurled a very thunder-bolt of eloquence, speaking out of the horrors of her own experience. Stand at the corner of a street in New York at half-past five or six o'clock in the morning, as the women go to their work. Many of them had no breakfast except the crumbs that were left over from the night before, or a crust they chew on their way through the street. Here they come! the working girls of New York and Brooklyn! These engaged in bead-work, these in flower-making, in millinery, enamelling, cigar making, book-binding, labelling, feather-picking, print-coloring, paper-box making—but, most overworked of all, and least compensated, are the sewing-women. Why do they not take the city-cars on their way up? They cannot afford the five cents! If, concluding to deny herself something else, she get into the car, give her a seat!

You want to see how Latimer and Ridley appeared in the fire: look at that woman and behold a more horrible martyrdom, a hotter fire, a more agonizing death! Ask that woman how much she gets for her work, and she will tell you six cents for making coarse shirts, and finds her own thread! Last Sabbath night, in the vestibule of my church, after service, a woman fell in convulsions. The doctor said she needed medicine, not so much as something to eat. As she began to revive in her delirium, she said, gaspingly: "Eight cents! Eight cents! Eight cents! I wish I could get it done! I am so tired! I wish I could get some sleep—but I must get it done! Eight cents! Eight cents!" We found afterwards that she was making garments for eight cents apiece, and that she could make but three of them in a day! Hear it! Three times eight are twenty-four! Hear it, men and women who have comfortable homes!

Some of the worst villains of the city are the employers of these women. They beat them down to the last penny—and try to cheat them out of that! The woman must deposit a dollar or two before she gets the garments to work on. When the work is done it is sharply inspected, the most insignificant flaws picked out, and the wages refused, and sometimes the dollar deposited not given back. The Women's Protective Union reports a case where one of these poor souls, finding a place where she could get more wages, resolved to change employers, and went to get her pay for work done. The employer says: "I hear you are going to leave me?"—"Yes," she said, "and I have come to get what you owe me." He made no answer. She said: "Are you not going to pay me?"—"Yes," he said, "I will pay you;" and he kicked her down the stairs! How are these evils to be eradicated? What have you to answer, you who sell coats, and have shoes made, and contract for the Southern and Western markets? What help is there, what panacea, what resolution?

Some say: "Give women the ballot." What effect such ballot might have on other questions I am not here to discuss; but what would be the effect of female suffrage upon woman's wages? I do not believe that woman will ever get justice by woman's ballot. Indeed, women oppress women as much as men do. Do not women, as much as men, beat down to the lowest figure, the woman who sews for them? Are not women as sharp as men—on washerwomen, and milliners, and coat-makers? If a woman asks a dollar for her work, does not her female employer ask her if she will take ninety cents? You say "only ten cents difference;" but that is sometimes the difference between heaven and hell. Women often have less commiseration for women, than men. If a woman steps aside from the path of virtue—a man may forgive—but a woman never! Woman will never get justice done her from woman's ballot. Neither will she get it from man's ballot.

How, then? God will rise up for her. God has more resources than we know of. The flaming sword that hung at Eden's gate when woman was driven out, will cleave with its terrible edge her oppressors.

But there is something for our women to do. Let our young people prepare to excel in spheres of work, and they will be able, after a while, to get larger wages. If it is shown that a woman can, in a store, sell more goods in a year than a man, she will soon be able not only to ask, but to demand more wages, and to demand them successfully. Unskilled and incompetent labor must take what is given; skilled and competent labor will eventually make its own standard. Admitting that the law of supply and demand regulates these things, I contend that the demand for skilled labor is very great, and the supply very small.

Start with the idea that work is honorable, and that you can do some one thing better than anyone else. Resolve that, God helping, you will take care of yourself. If you are, after a while, called into another relation, you will all the better be qualified for it by your spirit of self-support; or if you are called to stay as you are, you can be happy and self-supporting. Poets are fond of talking about man as an oak, and woman the vine that climbs it; but I have seen many a tree fall that not only went down itself—but took all the vines with it. I can tell you of something stronger than an oak for an ivy to climb on, and that is the throne of the great Jehovah. Single or affianced, that woman is strong, who leans on God and does her best. The needle may break; the factory may close; the wages may fail; but, over every godly woman's head, there are spread the two great, gentle, stupendous wings of the Almighty God!

Many of you will go single-handed through life, and you will have to choose between two characters. Young woman, I am sure you will turn your back upon the useless, giggling, painted butterfly which society ignominiously acknowledges to be a woman; and ask God to make you an humble, active, earnest Christian. What will become of this godless disciple of fashion? What an insult to her gender! Her manners are an outrage upon decency. She is more concerned of the response she strikes upon the dance floor—than how she will look in the judgment! She is more worried about her freckles—than her sins! She is more interested in her bonnet strings—than in her redemption! Her apparel is the poorest part of a woman, however magnificently dressed.

See the godless disciple of fashion. Take her robes—and you take everything. Death will come down on her some day, and rub the make-up off her eyelids, and the rouge off her cheeks, and with two rough, bony hands—scatter spangles and glass beads and rings and ribbons and lace and brooches and buckles and sashes and frisettes and golden clasps. The dying actress whose life had been wicked said: "The scene closes. Draw the curtain!" Generally the tragedy comes first, and the farce afterward; but in her life it was first the farce of a useless life—and then the tragedy of a wretched eternity!

Compare the life and death of such a one, with that of some Christian aunt that was once a blessing to your household. I do not know that she was ever offered the hand in marriage. She lived single, that untrammelled she might be everybody's blessing. Whenever the sick were to be visited, or the poor to be provided with bread—she went with a blessing. She could pray, or sing "Rock of Ages," for any sick pauper who asked her. As she got older, there were days when she was a little sharp—but for the most part Auntie was a sunbeam. She knew better than anyone else, how to fix things. Her every prayer, as God heard it, was full of everybody who had trouble. The brightest things in all the house dropped from her fingers. She had some peculiar notions—but the grandest notion she ever had, was to make you happy. She dressed well—Auntie always dressed well; but her highest adornment was that of a meek and quiet spirit, which, in the sight of God, is of great price. When she died, you all gathered lovingly about her; and as you carried her out to rest, the Sunday-school class covered the coffin with flowers; and the poor people stood at the end of the alley, with their aprons to their eyes, sobbing bitterly; and the man of the world said, with Solomon, "Her price was far above rubies!" And Jesus, as unto the maiden in Judea, commanded: "I say unto you—arise!"