The Factory Girl’s Song

Come all you weary factory girls
I’ll have you understand
I’m going to leave the factory
And return to my native land.
The Overseers need not think
Because they higher stand
That they are better than the girls
That work at their command.
–The Factory Girl’s Song, 1830

Reading up on something for work, I somehow got directed to an amazing document: a short book, The Woman Who Toils, by Mrs. John Van Vorst and Marie Van Vorst, published by Doubleday in 1903.

Mrs. Van Vorst and Miss Van Vorst went undercover, as we would call it today, as factory workers, to explore and expose what the lives of women working in factories was like. Undercover because both women were from the privileged upper class. The setup sounds like a movie–Black Like Meor Gentlemen’s Agreement:

My purpose was to help the working girl—to help her mentally, morally, physically. I considered this purpose visionary and unpractical, I considered it pretentious even, and I cannot say that I had any hope of accomplishing it. 

Mrs. Van Vorst (I have so far read her half of the book) chooses to start in Pittsburgh, “as being an industrial centre whose character was determined by its working population.” She puts together a shabby wardrobe, settles in a boarding house-cum women’ s shelter, and gets a job in a pickle factory. The work is miserable, 10 hours a day on her feet, doing things like capping pickle jars. It’s a brutal way to make a living. Van Vorst notes that there’s a real difference between how the male and female workers are treated: the men pay five cents a day for a hot meal provided by the company, where the women bring their own lunches: cake, jam, pickles–essentially junk food. When she comments on this inequity she’s told that if the women made a fuss the bosses would provide food for them, too. But of course the women of the time and of that class are unlikely to protest, so: no hot meals for them.

The book is a fascinating read in many ways, and I believe Van Vorst is sincere and her observations are frequently astute… but boy, do her prejudices shine through. Until she experiences the deadening experience of working in the factory, it’s hard for her not to be snarky about the fondness of her co-workers for what amounts to junk food: cake and pickles and jam sandwiches–until she experiences for herself the combination of  fatigue and monotony that makes her too crave sugar and salt–anything with a bright flavor that can cut through the dullness of the day. Van Vorst is sympathetic to the women who are working to support themselves or their family, but less sympathetic to young women who don’t have to work, but want money for clothes and other small luxuries:

This is the wound in American society whereby its strength sloughs away. It is in this class that campaigns can be made, directly and indirectly, by preaching and by example. What sort of women are those who sacrifice all on the altar of luxury?

As laudable as Van Vorst’s ambitions are, she can’t help judging the people–particularly the women–that she meets. She’s sympathetic toward young women who have dealt with the hardships of their lives with passivity, by shutting down; or with grit and determination, those “uniquely American” qualities. She doesn’t seem to have the same sort of sympathy for women who have become angry or desperate–she doesn’t say they’re not ladylike, but there’s that undertone. She doesn’t call out the old and the unpretty–but she does tend to dwell on their grotesquerie. And while her determination to go through with her experiment is laudable, she does know she can always go back to her real life:

In the Parisian clothes I am accustomed to wear I present the familiar outline of any woman of the world. With the aid of coarse woolen garments, a shabby felt sailor hat, a cheap piece of fur, a knitted shawl and gloves I am transformed into a working girl of the ordinary type. I was born and bred and brought up in the world of the fortunate—I am going over now into the world of the unfortunate.

It’s hard not to feel that this is philanthropy tourism: trying to help the lowly as a way of feeling better about your own benevolence. But by the end of her section of the book Mrs. Van Vorst is trying–really trying–to think of ways to help. She’s already figured out that merely exposing the poor to the the finer things in life isn’t going to magically improve their lives–like the main character in Sullivan’s Travels, she discovers that laughter is better than high art when your life is bleak. So what can she advocate?

In line with her prejudices, Van Vorst suggests separating the “breadwinner from her that works for luxuries.” The self-supporting women should be united with the others–men and children–for whom work = livelihood. These workers get the serious work–the work that will provide them with food and room and survival. But what about the women who have all the money they want, but not the money they need?

The non-self-supporting girls must be attracted into some field of work which requires instruction and an especial training, which pays them as well while calling into play higher faculties than the brutalizing machine labour. This field of work is industrial art: lace-making, hand-weaving, the fabrication of tissues and embroideries, gold-smithery, bookbinding, rug-weaving, woodcarving and inlaying, all the branches of industrial art which could be executed by woman in her home, all the manual labour which does not require physical strength, which would not place the woman, therefore, as an inferior in competition with man, but would call forth her taste and skill, her training and individuality, at the same time being consistent with her destiny as a woman.

The women who don’t need to work should be given work that engages their minds and calls forth “higher faculties”. Which leaves those who have to work doing the drudgery, the menial work, the crap. I’m sure that’s not Van Vorst thinks she’s suggesting, and I give her full marks for good intentions. But.

I cannot believe that Mrs. Van Vorst and Miss Van Vorst were not unaware of the settlement movement which was then in full swing. There’s a little bit of breathless “Oh, look! No one’s ever thought of this problem before!” I don’t know how much effect, in the long term, The Women Who Toil had. But it is, as I said, a fascinating read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s