Working with the working woman

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Behind the row of presses by the windows stood the hand ironers who did the fancy work. First came Ella, neat, old, gray-haired, fearfully thin, wrinkled, with a dab of red rouge on each cheek. After all, one really cannot be old if one dabs on rouge before coming to work all day in a laundry. Ella had hand ironed all her life. She had been ten years in her last job, but the place changed hands. She liked ironing, she said. Ella never talked to anybody, even at lunch time.

Behind Ella ironed Anna Golden, black, who wore striped silk stockings. She always had a bad cold. Most of the girls had colds most of the time--from the steam, they said. Anna had spent two dollars on medicine that week, which left her fourteen dollars. Anna was the one person to use an electric iron. It had newly been installed. The others heated their irons over gas flames. Every so often Miss Cross would call out, "I smell gas!" So did everybody else. After Anna, Lucile, blackest of all and a widow. And then--Mrs. Reilly.

Mrs. Reilly and Hattie were the characters of the sixth floor. Mrs. Reilly was old and fat and Irish. She had stood up hand ironing so long the part of her from the waist up seemed to have settled down into her hips. Eleven years had Mrs. Reilly ironed in our laundry. She was the one pieceworker in the building. In summer she could make from twenty to twenty-five dollars a week, but she claimed she lost a great part of it in winter. She said she was anxious to get on timework. One afternoon I saw Mrs. Reilly iron just two things--the rest of the while, nothing to do, she sat on an old stool with her eyes closed.

The first afternoon, Mrs. Reilly edged over to me on pretext of ironing out a bit of something on my press.

"An' how are you makin' out?"

"All right, only my feet are awful tired. Don't your feet never get tired?

"Shure, child, an' what good would it do for my feet to get tired when they're all I got to stand on? An' did you ever try settin' nine hours a day? Shure an' that would be the death of anybody.

Mrs. Reilly's indoor sport was marrying the sixth floor off. Poor Lucia's widow's weeds of five weeks were no obstacle to Mrs. Reilly. She frequently made the whole floor giggle, carrying on an animated Irish conversation with Lucia over the prospects of a second marriage--or rather, a monologue it was, since Lucia never knew she was being talked to. If ever there was a body with a "sex complex it was old Mrs. Reilly! When I asked her once why she didn't get busy marrying off herself, she called back: "The Lord be praised! And didn't I get more than enough of the one man I had?"

At least twice a week Mrs. Reilly saw a ghost, and she would tell us about it in the morning. She laughed then, and we all laughed, but you could easily picture the poor old fearful soul meeting that inevitable 2 A.M. guest, quaking over it in her lonely bed. Once the ghost was extra terrifying. "It may have been the banama sauce," admitted Mrs. Reilly. And Mrs. Reilly's feet did hurt often. She used sometimes to take off her worn shoes and try tying her feet up in cardboards.

The other workers on our floor were Mabel and Mary, two colored girls who finished off slight rough edges in the press ironing and folded everything; Edna, a Cuban girl who did handkerchiefs on the mangle; Annie, the English girl, lately married to an American. She had an inclosure of shelves to work in and there she did the final sorting and wrapping of family wash. Annie was the most superior person on our floor.

And Miss Cross. In face, form, neatness, and manners Miss Cross could have held her own socially anywhere. But according to orthodox standards Miss Cross's grammar was faulty. She had worked always in our laundry, beginning as a hand ironer. She knew the days when hours were longer than nine and pay lower than fourteen dollars a week. She remembered when the family floor had to iron Saturdays until 10 and 11 at night, instead of getting off at 12.45, as we did now. They stood it in those days; but how? As it was now, not a girl on our floor but whose feet ached more or less by 4 or 4.30. Ordinarily we stopped at 5.30. Everyone knew how everyone else felt that last half hour. During a week with any holiday the girls had to work till 6.15 every night, and Saturday afternoon. They all said--we discussed it early one morning--that in such weeks they could iron scarcely anything that last hour, their feet burned so.

The candy factory was hard--one stood nine hours, but the work was very light.

The brassworks was hard--one sat, but the foot exercise was wearying and the seat fearfully uncomfortable.

Ironing was hardest--one stood all day and used the feet for hard pressure besides. Yet I was sorry to leave the laundry!

Perhaps it was just as well for me that Lucia could not talk English. She might have used it on me, and already the left ear was talked off by Irma. Miss Cross stood for just so much conversation, according to her mood. Even if she were feeling very spry, our sixth-floor talk could become only so general and lively before Miss Cross would call: "Girls! girls! not so much noise!" If it were late in the afternoon that would quiet us for the day--no one had enough energy to start up again.

The first half hour Irma confided in me that she had cravings. "Cravings? Cravings for what?" I asked her.

"Cravings for papers."

It sounded a trifle goatlike.


"Yes, papers. I want to read papers on the lecture platform."

Whereat I heard all Irma's spiritual longings--cravings. She began in school to do papers. That was two years ago. Since then she has often been asked to read the papers she wrote in school before church audiences. Just last Sunday she read one at her church in New York, and four people asked her afterward for copies.

What was it about?

It was about the True Woman. When she wrote it, she began, "Dear Teacher, Pupils, and Friends." But when she read it in churches she skipped the Teacher and Pupils and began: "Dear Friends, ... now we are met together on this memorable occasion to consider the subject of the True Woman. First we must ask" (here Irma bangs down on a helpless nightshirt and dries it out well beyond its time into a nice bunch of wrinkles) "What is woman? Woman was created by God because Dear Friends God saw how lonely man was and how lonesome and so out of man's ribs God created woman to be man's company and helpmate...."

"Irma!" Miss Cross's voice had an oft-repeated tone to it. She called out from the table where she checked over each girl's work without so much as turning her head. "You ironed only one leg of these pajamas!"

Irma shuffled over on her crooked high heels and returned with the half-done pajamas. "That fo'-lady!" sighed Irma, "she sure gets on ma nerves. She's always hollerin' at me 'bout somethin'. She never hollers at the other girls that way--she just picks on me."

And Irma continued with the True Woman: "There's another thing the True Woman should have and that's a good character...."

"Irma!" (slight impatience in Miss Cross's tone) "you ironed this nightgown on the wrong side!"

Irma looked appealingly at me. "There she goes again. She makes me downright nervous, that fo'-lady does."

Poor, persecuted Irma!

During that first morning Irma had to iron over at least six things. Then they looked like distraction. I thought of the manager's introductory speech to me--how after two weeks I might have to make way for a more efficient person.

"How long you been here?" I asked Irma.

"Four months."

"What you makin'?"

"Thirteen a week."

"Ever get extra?"


Suspicions concerning the manager.

Irma had three other papers. One was on Testing Time. What was Testing Time? It might concern chemical tubes. It might be a bit of romance. And she really meant Trysting Time. No, to everybody a time comes when he or she must make a great decision. It was about that.

"Irma! you've got your foot in the middle of that white apron!"

Another paper was on Etee-quette (q pronounced).

"Irma! you creased one of these pajama legs down the middle! Do it over."

I pondered much during my laundry days as to why they kept Irma. She told me she first worked down on the shirt-and-collar floor and used to do "one hundred and ten shirts an hour," but the boss got down on her. It took her sometimes three-quarters of an hour to do one boy's shirt on our floor, and then one half the time she had it to do over. Her ironing was beyond all words fearful to behold (there must be an Irma in every laundry). She was all-mannered slow. She forgot to tag her work. She hung it over her horse so that cuffs and apron strings were always on the floor. Often she was late. Sometimes Miss Cross would grow desperate--but there Irma remained. Below, in that little entryway, were girls waiting for jobs. Did they figure that on the whole Irma wrecked fewer garments than the average new girl, or what? And the manager had tried to scare me!

The noon bell rings--we dash for the lunch-room line. You can purchase pies and soup and fruit, hash and stew, coffee and tea, cafeteria style. There are only two women to serve--the girls from the lower floors have to stand long in line. I do not know where to sit, and by mistake evidently get at a wrong table. No one talks to me. I surely feel I am not where I belong. The next day I get at another wrong table. It is so very evident I am not wanted where I am. Rather disconcerting. I sit and ponder. I had thought factory girls so much more friendly to one another on short acquaintance than "cultured" people. But it is merely that they are more natural. When they feel friendly they show it with no reserves. When they do not feel friendly they show that without reserve. Which is where the unnaturalness of "cultured" folk sometimes helps.

It seems etee-quette at the laundry requires each girl sit at the table where her floor sits. That second day I was at the shirt-and-collar table, and they, I was afterward told, are particularly exclusive. Indeed they are.

At 12.45 the second bell rings. Miss Cross calls out, "All right, girls!" Clank, the presses begin again, and all afternoon I iron gentlemen's underpinnings. During the course of my days in the laundry I iron three sets round for every man in New York and thereby acquire a domestic attitude toward the entire male sex in the radius sending wash to our laundry. Nobody loves a fat man. But their underclothes do fit more easily over the press.

I iron and I iron and I iron, and along about 4.30 the first afternoon it occurs to my cynical soul to wonder what the women are doing with themselves with the spare time which is theirs, because I am thumping that press down eight hours and fifty minutes a day. Not that it is any of my business.

Also along about five o'clock it irritates me to have to bother with what seems to me futile work. I am perfectly willing to take great pains with a white waistcoat--in one day I learn to make a work of art of that. But why need one fuss over the back of a nightshirt? Will a man sleep any better for a wrinkle more or less? Besides, so soon it is all wrinkles.

The second day I iron soft work all morning--forever men's underclothes, pajamas, and nightshirts. Later, when I am promoted to starched work, I tend to grow antifeminist. Why can men live and move and have their beings satisfactorily incased in soft garments, easy to iron, comfortable to wear, and why must women have everything starched and trying on the soul to do up? One minute you iron a soft nightshirt; the next a nightgown starched like a board, and the worst thing to get through with before it dries too much that ever appears in a laundry.

After lunch I am promoted to hospital work. All afternoon I iron doctors' and interns' white coats and trousers. It is more interesting doing that. But a bit hard on the soul. For it makes you think of sickness and suffering. Yet sickness and suffering white-coated men relieve. It makes you think, too, of having babies--that being all you know of hospitals personally. But on such an occasion you never noticed if the doctor had on a white coat or not, and surely spent no time pondering over who ironed it. Yet if a doctor wore a coat Irma ironed I think the woman would note it even in the last anguished moments of labor.

Irma did an officer's summer uniform once. I do wish I could have heard him when he undid the package. While Irma was pounding down on it she was discoursing to me how, besides papers, she had cravings for poetry.

"You remember that last snowstorm? I sat at my window and I wrote:

"Oh, beautiful snow When will you go? Not until spring, When the birds sing."

There were several other stanzas. And about then Miss Cross dumped a bundle of damp clothes into Irma's box and said, "Iron these next and do them decent!" I peered suspiciously into the box. It was my own family laundry!

"Hey, Irma," I said, cannily, "leave me do this batch, eh?"

I might as well be paying myself for doing up my own wash, and it would look considerably better than if Irma ironed it.

The third day my feet are not so weary, and while I iron I mull over ideas on women in industry. After all, have not some of us with the good of labor at heart been a bit too theoretical? Take the welfare idea so scoffed at by many. After all, there is more to be said for than against. Of course, provided--It is all very well to say labor should be allowed to look after itself, and none of this paternalism. Of course, the paternalism can be overdone and unwisely done. But, at least where women workers are concerned, if we are going to wait till they are able to do things for themselves we are going to wait, perhaps, too long for the social good while we are airing our theories. It is something like saying that children would be better off and have more strength of character if they learned to look after themselves. But you can start that theory too young and have the child die on your hands, or turn into a gutter waif. The child needs entire looking after up to a point where he can begin little by little to look after himself. And after he has learned to dress himself it does not necessarily mean he can select his own food, his hour of retiring, his habits of cleanliness and hygiene.

I look about at the laundry workers and think: Suppose we decide nothing shall be done for these girls until they demand it themselves and then have charge of it themselves. In other words, suppose we let welfare work and social legislation wait on organization. The people who talk that way are often college professors or the upper crust of labor. They have either had no touch or lost touch with the rank and file of women workers. It is going to be years and years and years, if ever, before women in this country organize by and large to a point where they can become permanently effective. What organization demands more than any other factor is, first, a sense of oppression; second, surplus energy. Women have been used to getting more or less the tag end of things for some thousands of years. Why expect them suddenly, in a second of time, as it were, to rear up and say, "We'll not stand for this and that"? If we are going to wait for working women to feel oppressed enough to weld themselves together into a militant class organization, capable of demanding certain conditions and getting them, we shall wait many a long day. In the meantime, we are putting off the very situation we hope for--when women, as well as men, shall have reached the point where they can play a dignified part in the industrial scheme of things--by sending them from work at night too weary and run down to exert themselves for any social purpose. I say that anything and everything which can be done to make women more capable of responsibility should be done. But the quickest and sanest way to bring that about is not to sit back and wait for factory women to work out their own salvation. Too few of them have the intelligence or gumption to have the least idea how to go about it, did it ever occur to them that things might be radically improved. (And the pity of it is that so often telling improvements could be made with so little effort.)

Nor is it anything but feminist sentimentality, as far as I can see, to argue against special legislation for women. What women can do intellectually as compared with men I am in no position to state. To argue that women can take a place on a physical equality with man is simply not being honest. Without sentimentalizing over motherhood, it seems allowable to point out the fact that women are potential mothers, and this fact, with every detail of its complexities, feminists or no to the contrary, is a distinct handicap to women's playing a part in the industrial field on a par with man. And society pays more dearly for a weary woman than for a tired man.

Therefore, why not lunch rooms, and attractive lunch rooms, and good food, well cooked? Yes, it is good business, and besides it puts a woman on a much more efficient level to herself and society. At our tables the girls were talking about different lunch-room conditions they had come across in their work. One girl told of a glass company she had worked for that recently was forced to shut down. She dwelt feelingly on the white lunch room and the good food, and especially the paper napkins--the only place she had worked where they gave napkins. She claimed there was not a girl who did not want to cry when she had to quit that factory. "Everybody loved it," she said. I tried to find out if she felt the management had been paying for the polished brass rails, the good food, and the napkins out of the workers' wages. "Not on your life!" she answered. She had been a file clerk.

Take dental clinics in the factories. Four teeth on our floor were extracted while I was at the laundry. For a couple of days each girl moaned and groaned and made everybody near her miserable. Then she got Miss Cross's permission to go to some quack dentist, and out came the tooth. Irma had two out at one dollar each. It was going to cost her forty dollars to get them back in. A person with his or her teeth in good condition is a far better citizen than one suffering from the toothache.

If I had my way I should like to see a rest room in every factory where women are employed, and some time, however short, allowed in the middle of the afternoon to make use of it.

Eight hours is long enough for any woman to do sustained physical work, with no possibility for overtime.

Nor have we so much as touched on what it means to live on thirteen dollars or fourteen dollars a week.

"But then you have taken away all the arguments for organization!"

Should organization be considered as an end in and of itself, or as one possible means to an end?

Word was passed this morning that "company" was coming! The bustling and the hustling and the dusting! Every girl had to clean her press from top to bottom, and we swept the floor with lightning speed. Miss Cross dashed to her little mirror and put powder on her nose. Hattie tied a curtain around her head to look like a Red Cross nurse. Every time the door opened we all got expectant palpitations. We were not allowed to speak, yet ever and anon Hattie or Mrs. Reilly would let out some timely remarks. Whereat we all got the giggles. Miss Cross would almost hiss, "GIRLS!" whereat we subsided. It was nerve wracking. And the company never came! They got as far as the third floor and gave out. But it was not until afternoon that we knew definitely that our agony was for naught.

Lucia's machine got out of order--steam escaped at a fearful rate. While the mechanic was fixing it he discoursed to me on the laundry. He had been there nine months--big, capable-looking six-footer. Out of the corner of his mouth he informed me, "Once anybody comes to work here they never leave!" It surely does seem as if they had no end of people who had worked there years and years. Miss Cross says they used to have more fun than nowadays, before so many colored girls were employed. They gave parties and dances and everyone was chummy with everyone else.

To-day, in the midst of hilarity and all unannounced, "company" did appear. We subsided like a schoolroom when the teacher suddenly re-enters. A batch of women, escorted by one of the management. He gesticulated and explained. I could not catch his words, for the noise of the presses, though goodness knows I craned my ears. They investigated everything. Undoubtedly their guide dwelt eloquently on the victrola in the lunch room; it plays every noon. On their way out two of the young women stopped by my press. "Didn't this girl iron that nightgown nicely?" one said to the other. I felt it obligatory to give them the "once over."

The second the door was closed I dashed for Miss Cross. "Who were them females?" I asked her.

Miss Cross grunted. "Them were Teachers College girls." She wrinkled her nose. "They send 'em over here often. And let me tell you, I never seen one of 'em with any class yet.... They talk about college girls--pooh! I never seen a college girl yet looked any classier than us laundry girls. Most of 'em don't look as classy. Only difference is, if you mixed us all up, they're gettin' educated."

One of my erstwhile jobs at the University of California had been piloting college girls around through factories in just that fashion. I had to laugh in my sleeve as I suspected the same remarks may have been passed on us after our departure!

* * * * *

We have much fun at our lunch table. A switchboard operator and file clerk from the office eats with us. She and I "guy" each other a good deal during the meal. Miss Cross wipes her eyes and sighs: "Gee! Ain't it fun to laugh!" and Eleanor and I look pleased with ourselves.

In the paper this morning appeared a picture of one of New York's leading society women "experiencing the life of the working girl first hand." She was shown in a French bonnet, a bunch of orchids at her waist, standing behind a perfumery counter. What our table did to Mrs. X!

"These women," fusses Miss Cross, "who think they'll learn what it's like to be a working girl, and stand behind a perfumery counter! Somebody's always trying to find out what it's like to be a worker--and then they get a lot of noteriety writin' articles about it. All rot, I say. Pity, if they really want to know what workin's like, they wouldn't try a laundry."

"She couldn't eat her breakfast in bed if she did that!" was my cutting remark.

"Or quit at three," from Annie.

"Hisst!" I whisper, "I'm a lady in disguise!" And I quirk my little finger as I drink my coffee and order Eleanor to peer without to see if my limousine waits.

We discuss rich folk and society ladies, and no one envies or is bitter. Miss Cross guesses some of them think they get as weary flying around to their parties and trying on clothes as we do in the laundry. I guess she is partly right.

Then we discuss what a bore it would be not to work. At our table sit Miss Cross, Edna (Miss Cross calls her Edner), the Cuban girl, who refused to eat with the colored girls; Annie, the English girl, who had worked in a retail shoe shop in London; Mrs. Reilly, who is always morose at lunch and never speaks, except one day when she and Miss Cross nearly came to blows over religion. Each got purple in the face. Then it came out that there was a feud between them--two years or more it had lasted--and neither ever speaks to the other. (Yet Mrs. Reilly gave one dollar, twice as much as the rest of us, toward Miss Cross's Christmas present.) Then there are three girls from the office downstairs. Everyone there had had some experience in being out of work or not working. To each of them at such a time life has been a wearisome thing. Each declared she would 'most rather work at any old thing than stay home and do nothing.

Between the first and second bells after lunch the sixth-floor girls foregather and sit on the ironing tables, swing our heels, and pass the time of day. To-day I start casually singing, "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam." Everyone on our floor knows the song and there the whole lot of us sit, swinging our heels, singing at the top of our lungs, "A sunbeam, a sunbeam, Jesus wants me for a sunbeam," which is how I got the name of "Sunbeam" on our floor. Except that Miss Cross, for some reason of her own, usually called me "Constance."

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