The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Modern Girl's Demand for Work.

by Miss Bannatyne.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 612-620

We have long been accustomed to the charge that, as a nation, we are not a philosophical people. We are apt indeed to pride ourselves on this fact, and to maintain that things work along as smoothly as they generally do in our country just because, from our Constitution downwards, our laws and customs are mostly unwritten, and are only reformed from time to time under great pressure from without, in order to meet more fully the growing needs of our practical activities. We do not frame our Poor Law Acts, our industrial legislation, our public measures of any kind according to some ideal of the abstract objects of government; we can discuss an Education Bill for months and find no lack of things to say about it, but only a stray voice here and there ventures to speak of what is, after all, the great purpose of any scheme of national education.

This characteristic of ours--to judge a matter first by the test of practicability, and only secondly, if at all, by that of abstract right or wrong, logicalness or illogicalness, has undoubtedly its good side, e.g., our legislation is generally eminently workable. But on the other hand, it has this drawback, that it often prevents our foreseeing as quickly as we ought the inevitable results of our own actions.

Thus, in the matter now before us, we should have been prepared long ago for this almost universal demand on the part of the modern girl to be allowed to work, and yet as matter of fact, it appears simply perplexing, distasteful and unreasonable to many parents, guardians--to their elders generally. Yet what is it if not a perfectly logical outcome of the higher education of women in our days, in their right to which we practically acquiesced more than a quarter of a century ago? (I don't like the expression "Higher Education," but there seems no proper substitute.) That education, including college or university, has now become part of the natural order of things, but because it was only ceded under pressure when it could be no longer withheld, and not thought out, as it were, in all its issues, many of these most legitimate issues are still regarded by us as unwarrantable innovations.

For what does the gift of such education really mean to the average girl? It ought to mean, and we are now daily seeing that it does mean, the awakening and developing in her of greater capacity and powers of mind, a stronger will, more self-reliance of character, new aspirations--and therefore new ambitions, desires, ideals. It means above all things, and especially to the best of our girls, a wider, deeper sense of their responsibilities to others. For while it does not lessen their sense of the sacredness of home and family ties to which our British women have been so faithful for centuries, it brings home to them, as Ruskin says, the sense that if a woman has a personal work or duty relating to her own home, she has also a public work and duty, which is simply the expansion of the other. And as "the man's duty is to assist in the maintenance, in the advance, in the defence of the State . . . so the woman's duty, as a member of the commonwealth . . . is to secure its order, comfort and loveliness." In other words, they realise that they, too, are citizens--and citizens of "no mean city,"--and are filled with longings, often passionate longings, to spend themselves worthily in the service of that citizenship, in doing work of which the community has need and which they know they are now fitted to offer.

And it is because the modern girl is fitted to seize them and to follow in the paths to which they lead, that opportunities hitherto shut open one after another at her approach, and if she is only allowed to go forward, a richer, fuller life, and that satisfaction which is akin to and yet better than joy, will in all probability fall to her lot. But if, on the contrary, these outlets are arbitrarily barred against her, then she will be thrown back upon herself with that sense of being somehow unjustly thwarted which is so apt to spoil the life and embitter the spirit of either man or woman.

If, then, the modern girl's demand for work is but a logical outcome of the wider education she now receives--and had we been a little more philosophically minded, we would have perceived this long ago--and if we are prepared to give her that education, we cannot justly, or kindly, deny her the further right to work. It would be wasteful, worse than wasteful; it would be to create a new capacity in a human being and then deny it its proper satisfaction. For it is absurd to expect that the capacities developed by girls' education in the present day can be properly satisfied by the occupations and interests which sufficed for the leisured women of fifty years ago, after they had finished with school or governess.

I know indeed that family cares have still and will always have a large place in most women's lives, and I believe these will fill the lives of educated women more, and not less, as the years go on. And moreover it were a dire misfortune if, as pessimists too often fear, that grace and beauty of life which depends for its very existence on some section of the community being at leisure, and freed from the responsibility of earning its daily bread, were to be swept away. We would only all be the losers thereby. But society is not a machine of which each part, or section, has merely one function to perform. On the contrary, society is made up of individual men and women, each demanding on their own behalf a many-sided life--each girl in these modern days, e.g., claiming the right to satisfy her instinct for service in this world, as well as the instinct to make her surroundings beautiful and her social environment gracious and attractive. For once, then, let us be logical, and either cheerfully accede to her demand for work, as the natural outcome of the education we have ourselves bestowed on her, or else--but I do not think this other course will commend itself to anyone these days--let us give her only that limited and old-fashioned education that prepared her predecessors to be satisfied and happy with a far less strenuous life.

Of course I am not now considering the case of girls who are obliged to work for their own support, whether they wish it or not; their claim requires no defence, and admits of no opposition. I am thinking only of those girls whose daily bread and butter--and oftentimes much more--is secured to them by the labours of others, and who are free to work, or play, as they choose. Such girls may be divided into two classes, those who do paid work and those who do honorary work, and in urging that our girls be allowed to take up work, I do not mean that it should necessarily be paid work. Not that we need object for a moment to their doing the latter on the ground that they are thereby taking the bread out of their poorer sisters' mouths. We know nowadays that there is no limit to the amount of good work that the world requires to be done, so neither is there any limit to the wages that may be paid for it; for all good work creates its own price in one way or another, and the community cannot afford to lose the best services of any of its members.

But why are our girls so often discontented with the idea of unpaid work and beg to be allowed to take up the other, even if it involves living away from home? Is it not because they feel that the standard of voluntary work is fixed too low? Regularity, punctuality, the sense that her work has a real value to someone, that it is really worth someone's while to have it done,--all of which the payment of a salary alike recognises and requires,--are qualities so often lacking, so often not even demanded in voluntary work; and this it is, I am sure, that frequently leads good workers to crave the responsibility and greater demands of paid work. Surely this is to be deplored? Surely, if we may adapt some words of the late Lord Derby, on the difference between the rich man and the poor man, we would say that, "ethically, the only difference" between the paid worker and the honorary worker is this--that while the "former only gets his wages when his work is done, and only gets them if that work is done, the latter receives them beforehand, and is bound as a matter of honour to earn them afterwards."

But in order to raise the standard of voluntary work, so as to make it satisfactory to the girls themselves, the cooperation of their parents, and of older people, is absolutely essential. For is it not her elders who so often make it difficult for a girl to be punctual and regular in her work, who so often insist that such things as bad weather, distance, a passing headache, some social function, shall prevent her keeping her engagement, say, at the girls' club at which she has promised to help, who discourage rather than encourage her interest in outside interests, educational, industrial, political or charitable? I repeat that I do not mean these have not their place, and an important place, in the ordinary girl's life, but only that they should not be allowed to occupy too large a part of her time, to the detriment alike of her happiness and usefulness. If, in every other respect except that of salary, honorary and paid work were regarded as precisely alike, I believe we would speedily find that the quality of the former would improve as rapidly as its interest and attractiveness in the eyes of the girl-worker to-day.

But while many ought to find ample scope for themselves in honorary work, some will doubtless be obliged to accept paid work, perhaps because the nature of the work they desire involves their living away from home, or expenses they could not otherwise meet. And in these days when so many fields of work are opening up to women, it is strange indeed if a girl cannot enter the one best suited to her special gifts and tastes. And this, remember, is the test by which to judge all occupations, not by the artificial test of whether we think this or that work is fitting in the abstract for a lady to undertake, but whether it will best draw out and turn to good account her special capacity for service. Theoretically, we would now probably all admit the truth of this, and condemn the old-fashioned idea that held that only the post of governess, companion, or that mysterious office known as a "position of trust," was open to a gentlewoman.

Yet I am not sure that we are really much less prejudiced and whether we do not draw different but equally artificial distinctions, e.g., do we not need to enlarge at least in one direction the true idea that the work of teaching young children is pre-eminently suited for a lady? Putting aside all other occupations legitimately open to women, as doctors, as nurses, as domestic servants, as clerks, and in many other trades and professions, I want to devote the few minutes that remain at my disposal to an earnest appeal to girls to consider the importance of one branch of the teaching profession, and to parents not only to allow, but to encourage, some of their daughters to adopt it. I refer to the work of teaching in our Board of Elementary schools. Surely it ought to appeal to them for several reasons. First, because it has to do with children; secondly, because it turns to best account their own education; thirdly, because it has much of that element of public or social service in it that appeals so strongly to many good women to-day. For few things can strike a thoughtful observer more at the present time than the never-ending efforts made to improve the lives of the poorer classes, to try to relieve distress, to redeem men and women who have "gone under," or to do what is described as "hopeful work" in saving the children. Yet that "hopeful work" appears often only to mean a generous bestowal on them of gifts of clothing, or free meals, Sunday school treats or country holidays, and all the time we are overlooking the most splendid opportunity of getting hold of these same children in a far more effective fashion. Surely when they are in school and actually placed in our hands to teach not only direct book lessons, but whether consciously or unconsciously, all sorts of indirect lessons of good and evil, of gentleness or roughness, lessons in that power of self-control in small as well as in large matters, for lack of which it seems to me most poor folk shipwreck their life--and not poor folk alone--surely that is our unique opportunity? Think of what we might do with these children in our care for so large a part of their waking life; with the brief dinner interval, e.g., chiefly devoted to loafing or tearing aimlessly about the play-ground which we might easily claim for the purposes of really useful, happy play. Why will we let the opportunity slip of thus preventing in childhood what years later it will be so hard, often quite impossible, to remedy in men and women?

And yet as we can none of us put into our lessons that which we do not possess in ourselves, so we cannot put it through these lessons into our pupils. And until the great body of our national school teachers have themselves dwelt for a little space in that larger world of thought and imagination which, perhaps, only a true university life opens to men and women, our system of elementary education will continue to lack that "sweetness and light," in which Matthew Arnold says we are as a nation so painfully deficient.

Nor is it our educational authorities, but public opinion that is chiefly to blame in this matter--to blame for the attitude it adopts towards the post of teacher in our elementary schools. Why do we not consider that post as honourable, and as much to be sought after as that of any master or mistress in one of our great Public or High Schools? Why do we act as if it were easier, or less important, to teach the less well-cared for and more slowly developed children of the poor, children who from their babyhood have been surrounded by all these painful influences and suggestions to evil from which our own children are so carefully guarded? We do not doubt that the future greatness and goodness of our country depends at least as much on the character and conduct of the thousands of children now attending our elementary schools, who will form the working-class of the next generation, as on that of the hundreds gathered together in the other schools. I do not indeed mean to speak slightingly for one moment of the splendid work many of our teachers have done, and are doing, in the elementary schools to-day. But neither can it be denied, I think, that we are too content to accept as teachers those who are only teachers in the technical sense that they have passed through a stipulated training entitling them to teach. Their power to maintain discipline is wonderful, and their carefully prepared lessons are clear and accurate, but it is apt to be all too mechanical, too narrow, too much framed solely in order to meet the requirements of grants and codes and routine. We expect some of our University men, Oxford and Cambridge men, to devote their lives nowadays to charitable and social work. Why do we not insist that some of our College women shall likewise enter the ranks of our national school teachers and leaders? And if this became common, would it not speedily obviate the other objection often brought forward against girls taking up elementary school teaching, viz., that it would throw them into uncongenial surroundings and perhaps not wholly desirable companionship at an age when they are themselves still very impressionable? But even now are we not doing our girls an injustice here? Is it inevitable that if thrown with persons whom we must remember are as intrinsically good as any companions with whom they would elsewhere be associated, although their views and experience of life may be limited and they themselves somewhat lacking in refinement, our girls must necessarily be levelled down in these respects? Is it not possible that, on the contrary, the other should be levelled up to the higher standard? If our girls' education has been as broad, strong and morally sound as it has been intellectually wide, are we not doing them a wrong in fearing that their surroundings will react on them instead of their reacting on their surrounding? We have learned not to think that undertaking the task of domestic service necessarily destroys a girl's refinement. Can we not go a step further and believe that refinement will equally resist, unharmed, the influence of other trying surroundings, and be only made stronger and better by the new comradeships she will form which reveal to her new forms of human worth, set sometimes, it may be, in rather rough settings?

Very earnestly then would I plead that if a girl has any inclination to take up teaching in our elementary schools, we should be most reluctant to discourage, most eager to encourage her.

Moreover, for paid and honorary work alike, parents must recognise that their daughters, just as much as their sons, require special training for whatever occupation they are going to adopt. We do not consider that a boy's preparation for his profession or trade is achieved simply by a course of school and university. He has also an apprenticeship to serve in some shop or office or technical college. In the same way, and I repeat as much in voluntary as in paid work, we must arrange for our girls to serve an apprenticeship, to learn their work, step by step, under the direction and guidance of skilled teachers in whatever art or craft they have chosen.

In conclusion, I would just like to advocate that so far as is possible, in paid work as in honorary work, girls should try to live at home, and to work from home. One of the evils which is often regarded as inseparable from much women's work in these days is that it involves their separation from home and family ties. If this were only to last a short time, as it generally does in the case of young men, it would not matter so much. But whereas for the latter it is, as a rule, a passing stage between their parents' homes and homes of their own, it is apt in the case of women,--if only for the obvious numerical reason,--to become a permanent arrangement. Moreover, living bachelor fashion seems in the case of many women to have a disastrous effect, to lead to the limiting of their thoughts and interests solely to their work, to deprive them of the power to relax or play themselves, to encourage small selfishness in them. We do not wish to lose any of the good of the old in the new, and I fear that at present many women do run a risk of losing some of their old-fashioned sweetness and graciousness and fine consideration for others in all small matters of life, for which it is hard to feel any excellence of work will compensate. Those of us who have much to do with the poor are constantly saddened by the way in which boys and girls almost as soon as they leave school, leave home also and go into lodgings, treating the relationship of family life as just an irksome burden to be shaken off as quickly and completely as possible. "Why should we spoil our lives and our happiness," they ask, "by doing otherwise?" Why, indeed, except that no true happiness, no true life can be reached save in the spirit which does not stop to consider its own happiness, but only how it can make life less difficult for others, how far it can bravely fulfil all natural duties.

Therefore, while frankly admitting that in some cases the nature of their work, or their personal circumstances, oblige girls who have homes to leave them, I repeat that, as a rule, they themselves, and therefore their work, will gain more than it can lose by their living at home. And here again it lies more often in the power of parents and of older members of a family to make this possible than in the power of the girl-workers themselves. We often hear it said that everything must give way to the exigencies of work, but after all, important as our work may be, there is one thing yet more important to everyone of us, and that is our character. Work, even weighty work, derives its full importance from the fact that it is one of the best means we know of developing and disciplining fine character, in women as well as in men. It is a means to an end, and apart from that end it has only a very small value, or no value at all.

I know that at this moment, in the case of educated women, we are passing through a transition period, and that some of the evils always inseparable from such a time will naturally exhaust themselves by-and-by. But it lies within the power of many of us to modify these evils at once, and it is for this last-named reason that the right work is necessary to each one of us for the full development of that character which will make us not only good workers, but good women, good wives, mothers, daughters, good friends and good citizens--it is for this supreme reason that I plead once more that we do all we can to gratify the widespread demand on the part of the modern girl to be allowed to work.

Typed by Jasmin O, Sept. 2023; Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023