HCC: How Women May Earn A Living (1900), Part One

A change in your affairs has come. There are urgent reasons why you should economize. Presently you realize that this is not all—you must actually earn the money with which you are to be economical.

HCC GreenWith that opening paragraph both the tone and purpose of Helen Churchill Candee’s How Women May Earn A Living, first published in 1900, are set.

Over a century later, it’s still a surprisingly engaging read – even if you don’t happen to be a woman looking to enter a largely unfamiliar workforce. The range of professional and semi-professional positions women were beginning to explore and the conditions of each seem both familiar and antiquated. Each chapter moves along efficiently, and there are just enough surprising moments along the way to keep the reader alert. 

It’s Candee’s written voice, however, which still gives the text life after all this time. While never flashy or forced, she nonetheless brings savory verve to what would otherwise be a mere historical curiosity.

From the outset, Candee speaks with a sort of matronly forthrightness, simultaneously authoritative and intimate:

Those who labor from restlessness or caprice need no help, for success or failure is to them only an incident. Neither shall we consider the great army of young women who take up some sort of occupation as a stepping-stone between school days and matrimony…

{N}o amount of logic nor sociological study will alter the fact that the greatest barrier to woman’s success in business is the spectre of a marriage which she may contract, and which throws a shadow on her commercial value in the view of the hard-headed employer…

Unlike in her observations on life in Oklahoma Territory, Candee is uninterested in the foibles of potential employers or the interpersonal quirks of those she’s observing. Instead, she seeks to gently shake reality into her presumably female audience regarding the nature of the professional realm.

By casually dismissing “logic” or “sociological study” and going straight to the perceptions and priorities of potential employers, Candee makes it clear from the outset that this is a book of tough love and pragmatism – not an academic exploration or an assertion of how things should be.

{B}ut all those that go to work are not young girls: many, alas, are mature women to whom marriage seems undesirable or who are burdened with incompetent husbands, and these by their earnestness and constancy elevate the standard of efficiency as well as the estimation in which women’s work is held.

In 1895, Booker T. Washington gave his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech in which he encouraged Black Americans to “cast down your bucket where you are.” Struggling for admission to the best schools or demanding full social and political equality was counterproductive, he argued. Start where you are, whatever your educational or job opportunities, and apply yourself to them fully. Grow as individuals and as a people, while proving yourselves to those hesitant to accept your worth. Capitalism, not compassion, is what will eventually produce positive change.

It’s difficult to guess to what extent Candee was aware of Washington, or surmise what she may have thought of him. For all her human insight and periodic empathy towards Amerindians or other marginalized groups, she does not come across as particularly progressive the few times she references people of color in her reporting or her fiction. Still, there are certainly parallels in how he addressed “his people” and how she addresses hers:

In a confidential female way we will consider the interests of the woman who is about to determine the extent of her money value to the world.

First of all, she must realize that it is not enough that from her proud estate she is willing to enter business. That attitude is in itself a handicap. The truth, a hard one, too, is that the world is already full of workers, and there really is no place for untried hands. Then you must make a place, and to do this the woman that works must be of the right sort or her work is desultory and ineffectual. Failure is not always the fault of the occupation chosen, nor of the woman’s talents, but comes because she lacks those traits of character that force success.

Most any history student dealing with primary sources will discover early in the process that the author matters. Whatever our desire to consider ideas on their own merits, knowing the speaker changes how we process what’s spoken.

The suggestion that women’s difficulties in the professional realm came not simply from men’s attitudes or society’s imbalances but because too many women lacked key characteristics or mindsets necessary to succeed might have provoked argument or offense coming from a man – even in 1900. Coming from Candee, a woman from a proud estate who had found her marriage “undesirable” and who was now supporting herself and her children by her own enterprise, it comes across as blunt, but charitable. It’s as if she’s in her parlor with two or three younger intimates, leaning forward, voice lowered-but-firm as she brings them into her fullest confidence.

“So many avenues are now open to women,” is the stock argument of those who idly fancy that this makes things easier. As a matter of fact it makes a choice far harder. Years ago when there were but half a dozen occupations that society sanctioned, the talented followed art, the practical took boarders, and the well-educated taught school. It was easy to know which of these things suited the case. But now, with a long list unfolded, there is a feeling of confusion which brings indecision and indirection.

Freedom is a wonderful thing, but there’s security in structure – confidence in limitations. Choices can be daunting.

Anyone who’s ever chosen line dancing over free-form flailing about or consulted a recipe rather than improvising the main course the night their in-laws are coming over can appreciate the value of “restrictions” and the comfort they provide.

Again Candee insists on pragmatism:

It is of the greatest importance that you should be able to distinguish your abilities from what may be called your tastes or inclinations. The latter are far pleasanter to follow, but not always profitable.

I know a girl who is struggling to become an illustrator, with a determination worthy of more talent. She lives on a pittance, which is contributed by amiable ladies, until she can perfect herself in her art. Someone should shake her until her clumsy, maladroit pencil falls to the ground, and push her into a household where she would make a very superior waitress or nursery maid, which would lift her above either charity or privation.

If you weren’t in love with Helen before, that should do it.

But once her point is made, Candee softens her tone and offers concessions to the young lady and her ilk:

In her leisure hours she could pick up drawing for her own diversion, just as some play cards, or read tales, but never should she starve on a distant shadow of art when practicality sets a full table. I do not mean that artistic callings are to be rejected, but that a facility should never be mistaken for a talent, and if it proves to have no commercial value it must be put away as a diversion, and not followed as an occupation…

If, after a reasonable polishing of your talent, it disappoints you by proving only a facility, let me beg of you to recognize the fact, not with a lowering of pride, but in healthful recognition that it is better to be a success as an artisan than a failure as an artist…

Not quite what B.T. Washington was saying, but it’s unlikely he’d have argued.

If you draw, there is a large field in catalogues, decorative designs, and so on; and if you write without achieving success as a poet or storyteller, there is good honest hack work. It is hard, I know, to admit to yourself that your roc’s egg only hatched into a barnyard fowl, but there is, after all, a steadier market for spring chickens than for rocs.

For someone raised on northeastern ideals, this is coldly capitalistic. Maybe by her 40s, divorced with two kids, and fully installed in Guthrie, O.T., she figured the time for “living your dreams” had passed. Lest we think her too “Puritan Work Ethic,” however, she follows such exhortations with balancing caution:

Let me say to every woman, young or old, who takes up any sort of paid work, that health is her capital… Because of woman’s inborn love of self-sacrifice, it is natural for her to feel that a sacrifice of herself must benefit others. But it is not so.

If necessary, establish health on a pedestal as a vengeful little god who must be placated, and regard the care of him as an essential but impersonal matter. If you have not health, you cannot work; if you cannot work, then others suffer. This is the simple statement. Therefore, attention to health is not selfish…

Again with the pragmatism wrapped around just enough humanity to keep it palatable. A spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down.

Subsequent chapters detail the logistics, pros, and cons of more than two dozen professional possibilities for working women with sufficient skill and strong drive. We won’t try to address them all, but a few highlights may prove useful in fleshing out both Candee’s perceptions and expectations of the rarer sex as the 20th century arrived.


I think this is right. - Matrimonial

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