Portrait of Anna J. Cooper who wrote "Colored Women as Wage-Earners" in 1899. The article called for full gender equality including wage compensation for domestic work.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File.
by Anna Julia Cooper
First Published in August 1899
Southern Workman and Hampton School Record
I shall not take time to discuss ideal situations on the speculative side. There may be those who think that woman has no business to enter the struggle for existence as a wage-earner; who think that she should be as the lilies of the field, and should toil not except to spin and array herself in gorgeous raiment to delight the Solomons in all their glory.
The fact remains that a large percentage of the productive labor of the world is done by women; and also another fact, recently brought out through investigations under Atlanta University, that "of 1,137 colored families 650, or 57.17 percent, are supported wholly or in part by female heads." So that in comparison with white, female heads of families and others contributing to family support, there is, by a house to house enumeration, quite a large excess on the part of colored women.
Sentiment aside then, if men will not or cannot help the conditions which force women into the struggle for bread, we have a right to claim at least that she shall have fair play and all the rights of wage-earners in general, or, as Herbert Spencer puts it, "Justice demands that women, if they are not artificially advantaged, must not at any rate be artificially disadvantaged."
I shall have to ask first, therefore, careful attention to a few of the dry but fundamental principles of economics, to which science our subject properly belongs. Wage-earning is the complement or proper corollary to the human element in the creation of wealth. Land, labor, and capital are the factors in the production of wealth. The term land includes all natural opportunities or forces; the term labor, all human exertion; and the term capital, all wealth used to produce more wealth. The whole produce is distributed in returns to these three factors. That part which goes to land owners as payment for the use of natural opportunities is called rent; the part which constitutes the reward of human exertion is wages; and the part which constitutes the return for the use of capital is called interest.
The income of an individual may be made up from any one, two, or three of these sources according to the nature of his contribution to the product. But the laborer is always worthy of his hire. Should the owner of the land and the capital have the power and the greed to disregard the claims of the man who contributed the labor, and pocket the entire product, he is manifestly a robber whether the jailors can catch him or not.
In many thousands of homes the indoor partner of the firm, who undertakes to discharge the domestic and maternal duties within, is just as truly a contributor to the product gained, as the outdoor manager who conducts the business and controls the wages. The woman in the home has a right to a definite share in the wealth she produces through relieving the man of certain indoor cares and enabling him to give thereby larger effort to his special trade of calling.
But, say you, the highest services can not be measured by dollars and cents. It is sordid to talk about paying mothers to be mothers, and giving a wage to wife to be wife! True, there is a class of services transcending all rewards; but because the wife of your bosom does not take you by the throat saying, "Pay me that thou owest!" should she be made to feel like a pensioner on your bounty every time she needs a pair of gloves?
The family tie is a sacred union - the most sacred on earth. It is full of mystery and God-appointed sanctity. But does it not at the same time recognize the existence of some very plain and practical rights founded on simple justice as between man and man? Two human beings have voluntarily contracted to unite their forces for mutual help and advantage. The fact that they pledged themselves to the partnership "Till death do us part" but adds solemnity to the duties and obligations on either side. That the partnership carries divine sanction makes all the more inviolable those duties and obligations. That the interests involved are the most precious to the state, - the building of homes and the rearing of its citizens, insures the guardianship of society over those duties and obligations.
Of this partnership, the one member goes forth in the morning, whether to dig ditches or to add figures. The world knows him as the bread winner for the firm. The silent partner toils in the home, whether to cook the dinners or direct little feet and hands. Her heart is in the work. Faithfulness and devotion are hers. At the end of her monotonous round of days' doings she prepares to welcome in the eventide the battle-scarred veteran of the outer life.
She opens the door with a smile. That smile is an important part of her program. She leads him to the dinner that she has prepared; he eats with a right good relish, for he likes to be fed. Yes, she eats of the dinner too, for she has her food and her shelter and her clothes whenever she asks for them.
But it never occurs to this "boarder" that his wife earns a definite part of the wage that he draws; and that, though she has never figured it out and presented the bill, his account is greatly in arrears for simple wages. On the other hand every right implies a duty, and woman on entering this partnership should see to it that she contributes a real increment to the stock of value.
When we pass from the home and enter the dusty arena of the world, we find women wage-earners shoulder to shoulder with men in the struggle in almost all the avenues of labor and here it may be well to repeat [that] this term labor with its correlate wage-earning, in the broad economic sense, includes all the capacities in man, intellectual as well as physical and moral, which have economic significance. Moral and intellectual qualities increase the productiveness of labor.
"Temperance, trustworthiness, skill, alertness, perception, a comprehensive mental grasp - all these," says an eminent writer on political economy, "and other good qualities belonging to the soul of man are of chief importance in man. The economic value of intellectual training," he continues "is generally not sufficiently appreciated. It has been ascertained that with no exceptions, the higher in any part of the United States the per capita expenditure for schools, the higher is the average of wages, and the larger, consequently, the production of wealth." This is a fact I would like specially to emphasize for those who intend training either girls or boys for self support as laborers or wealth producers. The broadest and fullest development of all powers, though it cost a greater outlay, pays the best interest in actual returns of dollars and cents.
It may be hard to do without your daughter's help while she studies a few more years in preparation for her labor, but the greater productiveness of that labor will more than repay your abstinence. And now let us apply what has been said to the special class of women mentioned in our subject. The colored woman as wage- earner must bring to her labor all the capacities, native or acquired, which are of value in the industrial equation. She must really be worth her wage and then claim it.
"Nature has made up her mind," says Emerson, "that what cannot defend itself shall not be defended," and if women enter the struggle for independent existence they should claim all the rights of advantage to men in the same positions. The world has a cold substratum of fair play and abstract justice, but it is so encrusted over with prejudices and favoritisms that the one who waits for its waters to bubble up spontaneously will die of thirst. No one deplores more than I do the "woman with elbows."
Aesthetically, she pains me. But every wage-earner, man or woman, owes it to the dignity of the labor he contributes, as well as to his own self-respect, to require the rights due to the quality of service he renders, and to the element of value he contributes to the world's wealth.
As colored wage-earners, we are today under a double disadvantage destined sorely to try our fitness to survive if it does not overwhelm us in the very day of its ostentation and self-satisfaction, we are "let go" to start from zero - nay, from a chasm infinitely below zero, to build up our fortunes.
As a consequence, the social wealth of the Negro is two hundred and fifty years behind that of the white American. You will understand what I mean by social wealth when you reflect on the many things owned by individuals which are really consumed by the society in which these individuals move. Take for example a child born in 1865 of emancipated parents. Leaving out hereditary drawbacks and losses, that child is born into a society without books, without pictures, without comforts, without homes. If he goes to school he has no dictionaries or cyclopedias to help him understand his lessons. His environment does not even furnish the language in which his books are written.
Now, suppose he struggles to accumulate, secures a home, puts in it a few comforts, some books and pictures, carpets and curtains, a piano perhaps, a dictionary certainly; or he goes further and acquires orchards and lawns, a country seat and carriages - these things are not for himself alone. All who associate with him are made the richer by such acquisitions of his, and would be to that extent impoverished should he, on dying, take them away from the society in which he had moved by bequeathing them to a white man.
Colored society is today in available social wealth in the position of a company of pioneers, or where the white American was when he conned his solitary book by the light of a pine knot, and contended with bears and Indians for the possession of his potato patch and his one-story cabin. But the white American at that stage of his social accumulation worshipped God in a log hut and his wife went to meeting in her linsey-woolsey gown and brogan shoes. The Black American, however, comes up on the stage when his white forerunner is becoming blasé with luxury and surfeiting. He takes the white man's standard of living just where he finds it, rears and tries to support churches as magnificent, gives presents as costly, maintains in his weddings and funerals a style as lavish and idiotic.
It is as if a little harpsichord with only middle and lower gamut were keyed up to a magnificent grand piano which stands with all its eight or more octaves already at concert pitch. A terrible strain results to all the strings of the little harpsichord. Its notes are but discordant shrieks and screams, ineffectual attempts to reach the easy ringing tones of the grand; and a miracle it is if you do not hear a snap, a pop - resulting in utter ruin to what might have been a very sweet instrument, had it only been allowed to keep its range.
Economically considered, the colored people in this country are a society of wage-earners, but their standards of living and their judgments of one another are as if they were a race of capitalists.
Perhaps the severest trial of all for the colored wage-earner is the impossible height to which the standard of life is raised among us. "Standard of life," in the economic sense, "is the number and character of the wants which a man considers more important than marriage and family."
Now I hold that not only does the strain from keying our life to the American pitch divert into the struggle to "keep up appearances" a large part of the wage which should go to physical comforts, such as sanitary housing and feeding and clothing our bodies, but worse yet, through this artificial and hopelessly high standard of living, many young men feel that they cannot support a wife and family; and so we lose the impetus toward a higher civilization that good homes would give us.
Our children make their first bow before the public in a dazzling shimmer of costly roses and laces; and however many pinches and sweat pounds it has cost the wage-earner to afford it, we somehow feel that our child ought to appear as fine as the rest, and so it goes. Wage-earners will have to learn to discriminate between wages and interest if we are ever to bequeath to posterity a capital out of our wages.
Indeed, if we are ever to start homes and families at all that in the next generation our name be not blotted from the face of the earth, it will be necessary for us to have plain living and homely virtues in honest homes, built and banded by honest earnings. For it is here, as I conceive the matter and not, as Prof. Kelly Miller suggests in his review of Hoffman, in the "surplus" of women among us, that lies the real explanation of unnatural conditions in our large cities.
Certainly the removal of the tension that comes from our effort to reach an extravagant and unattainable standard of life, by a return to simplicity of manners and naturalness of living, is a more facile remedy for increasing the number of honorable marriages and pure homes than by killing off the surplus women, the only remedy apparent as Prof. Miller depicts the situation.
Surely the greatest sufferer from the strain and stress attendant upon the economic conditions noted among our people is the colored woman, and she is the one who must meet and conquer the conditions. She must be too wary to be lured on with the chaff of flattery. When her fine appearance or that of her daughter is commented upon, let that be a signal for retreat. Study economy. Utilize the margins.
Preach and practice plain living and high thinking. Let the wife come in as a sensible helper in building up the fortunes of the family. Let her prove that she can contribute something more than good looks and milliners' bills to the stock in trade. If her husband starts a business, let her study how she can be useful to him in it, and, shoulder to shoulder, let them plant and till, and then gather and garner the fruits of their united industry. So, by her foresight and wisdom, her calm insight and tact, her thrift and frugality, her fertility of resource and largeness of hope and faith, the colored woman can prove that a prudent marriage is the very best investment that the working man can make.