Madeleine Robins

October 4, 2018

The Factory Girl’s Song

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,History — madeleinerobins @ 11:14 PM

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.


April 16, 2018

Notice, Class, How Angela Circles…

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Memory — madeleinerobins @ 10:21 AM

MrTrenchI was once chased around my parents’ kitchen by a friend of my father’s. But I’ll come back to that.

One of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was to leaf through a 25-year collection of New Yorker cartoons. Even at the time (the mid 1960s) many of them referred to a world that was vanishing or had vanished: references that must have been side-splitting at the time they were published, but were totally opaque to ten-year-old me. I still remember some of the cartoonists fondly–Chas. Addams, of course, but also James Thurber, Helen Hokinson of the deep-bosomed, slightly clueless club women, and Syd Hoff. But there was a class of cartoons–by guys like Peter Arno and Whitney Darrow, Jr.– that might loosely be termed a critique of modern relations between the sexes. And while they weren’t opaque, even to me as a kid they were troubling.

A staple of these cartoons was the young, buxom woman being variously leered at, groped at, chased, etc., by an older, usually wealthier man. In some of these the woman is clearly playing along in hopes of–what, a diamond bracelet? A fur coat? As Cole Porter had it in Kiss Me Kate, “Mr. Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat: if a Harris pat means a Paris hat, Okay!” But in others, the woman looks uncomfortable and apprehensive. In the cartoon to the right, the head of a monorail company has a one track mind, all tracking on cleavage. His secretary does not look amused.

As for the men in these cartoons, a few of them look hapless, as if they’ve stumbled into a situation where a woman is forcing them to ogle etc. “Honest, officer, I was just sitting here at my desk in my loud checked suit when my secretary perched on my desk to take dictation. What could I possibly do?” Others appeared to at least pretend to be looking at something other than the cleavage–pearls, in the image below–but that was the joke, right? Because everyone, even a ten-year-old girl, knew that he was really ogling the woman’s breasts. But mostly these men look like they’re predators.

As a eight-, nine-, or ten-year old, what was I to make of all this? The takeaway appeared to be that all (powerful, elderly, white) men were letches. That working for such men inevitably meant some sort of harassment. That the wives of these men (who were all portly and dripping in the signifiers of their husbands’ success–furs and diamonds etc.) could do nothing but occasionally fume and nag. That the women being ogled etc. deserved it because they had breasts, because they wore provocative outfits and should have known what would happen, because they had jobs that took them out of their homes and into contact with the aforementioned predators. Some of the cartoons also suggested that there were young women who made the attraction of older, wealthier men into their jobs. All those portly, powerful, older white men were their marks (in which case it must be reasonable that the men would treat the women as prey, because the women were treating them as prey and…).

So there I am in my parents’ kitchen. I was 16 and home from school with a really horrendous cold of the streaming variety–my recollection is that I was a walking river of snot in a plush bathrobe. As I’ve said before, I grew up in a barn, and the living room windows overlooked a valley and a river and fields… very picturesque. One of my dad’s friends was painting a landscape of that view. I heard the downstairs door open, went out to the landing, saw it was–let’s call him Fritz–said hi, excused myself on accounta sick, and went back to bed. An hour or so later I went downstairs to the kitchen to make myself some tea and, being a well-raised child, I asked Fritz if he wanted a cup. He said sure, and I put the kettle on.

I’m not clear exactly how the subject of wouldn’t I like to have an affair came up–I was standing there in my blue plush bathrobe with a handful of tissues, blotting my nose and waiting for the kettle to boil.  I answered in the negative (this was all rendered more surreal by the fact that I had a crush on Fritz’s son) and may have made some comment about Fritz being my parents’ friend, and it would be weird, shading toward wrong. I was still trying to be polite, and perhaps he took that as an invitation to explain why it would be fine, don’t worry about it. Note: our stove was on an island in the middle of the kitchen floor. Gradually, Fritz moved around the island toward me, and I moved around and away. I felt rotten, and this was the last straw, but I did not want to be rude to my father’s friend. And all the time the image in my head was the one to the left: “Notice, class…”

The kettle boiled. I poured the water, told him where to find milk and sugar, should he want them, and decamped to my room. I think I may have locked the door, but in the event, Fritz didn’t push the issue, and while I saw him a number of times after that, his invitation was never mentioned between the two of us.

When older people excuse men for predatory workplace behavior (or predatory behavior generally) by saying “they came up in a different time,” well, yes, they may have done. But even in that “different time,” the cartoonists who were depicting these “funny” chases got the look of dismay on the faces of the women, the look of “I need this job but…” The look of being trapped. Even when I was eight- or nine- or ten-years-old I couldn’t see how that was funny.

March 19, 2016


Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Semiotics — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM

GallantrySo I got into one of those conversations with an old, slightly older than I am, friend last week. Who has a hard time with the idea that unsolicited compliments from strangers on the street is a bad thing. “It’s nice. It’s… ” he searched for the word. “It’s gallantry.”

I think that in his head this phrase called up visions of Camelot, and courtly love and deep bows over the hands of delicately scented ladies wearing satin and lace (I’m pretty certain those are the images… I’ve known him for a while). And those are all charming images. And about as far away from my experience of a guy following me down the street cooing “chickie-chickie-chickie,” escalating to “why aren’t you talking to me, you stuck-up bitch?” as I can imagine.

On my mother’s fortieth birthday several men at a construction site saw her passing and (according to her) burst into a chorus of “God Bless America.” It made her feel a lot better about moving in to the woman-of-a-certain-age demographic. And I’ve always felt kind of good about the sort of exchange where the underlying message is “you’re a human female and I’m a human male, and that’s kind of nifty, isn’t it?” which often shapes into nothing more complex than “Y’all have a nice day, now.” I suspect that’s what my friend is thinking of when he imagines the “gallantry” of addressing a woman unknown to you on the street. 

The reality, as most women know, is a little different. Gallantry should not make its object fearful. Gallantry should not make its object feel dirty. Or like a piece of appealing wallpaper. Gallantry should be aimed at a target that welcomes it. Most street calls (barring “God bless America,” of course) are not.

Where’s the line between a pleasant exchange and a threatening one? Well, maybe at that point where what Robert Heinlein used to call “the gallant response” comes into it.* If someone says to me, “that color looks great on you” that might be nice. If the underlying message is that I am somehow responsible for the speaker’s state of arousal, that is not.

Look, I am rapidly aging out of the cat-call demographic. But I have daughters, and they are beautiful. And thank God, when someone attempts a “gallantry” they don’t like, they don’t put up with it. But afterward they are still, often, left with that shaky feeling of violation.

And there’s nothing gallant about that.

*for those who’d never heard the term: an erection.

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