A Celebration of Women Writers

"Compensation." by Mrs. Alice Asbury Abbott.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 645-648.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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As the time draws near when the curtain shall roll down upon this extraordinary drama of the exposition of the economic and æsthetic forces of the world, those who have known the history of the unusual difficulties confronting women are tempted to run up the story and look forward to some hoped-for compensation.

There are always people of loftiest impulses and purest ideals (occasionally they are illogical in their radicalism) who have little patience with the tread-mill course of human progress, who do not take kindly to the study of social economics, and who in practice, though not perhaps in theory, deny the scientific principle of emulation unless they can see the wheels go round. Such people hold there was no use for a woman's building, and none whatever for a special exhibit through an independent representation, or in any sort of fashion. True, the interests of men and women are indivisible as a race, but they do not stand upon the same plane in respect to their opportunities, their social, legal and political rights. As an actual fact, the position she occupies, unarmed and defenseless, is at present that of:

"Let her get who has the power,
 Let her keep who can."

The standard-bearers of the cause of women of an earlier period found it hard to recognize the conditions which now confront us. It is so difficult to adjust one's self to the life where the radicalism of yesterday has become the conservatism of today. Never in the history of the world has a radical principle become an accomplished fact until, after having served its purpose as an educator, it expresses the conservative sentiments of the mass.

There are social theorists and sound administrators of justice who insist that the way to repeal a bad law is to enforce it. There are people who would make war odious by carrying on war until conditions become so intolerable that all nations being waste and humanity rendered delirious by suffering, men should declare that peace must reign because the land is desolate and the very air heavy with the lament of the living for the dead. At the critical period when the opportunity for place and influence is to be seized, or at that sublime moment when public opinion is to be molded into tangible form, the statesmen, the politician and the man of affairs waste no time in reflections upon ideal theories.

Human nature being the same in man and woman, whatever difference there may be being the result of environment, success is never attained except through the recognition of one inexorable law of social and political economy. Expediency is the lever which has always finally forced the cause of human rights, and expediency will carry the advance all along the line. Not until it is proved that infraction of the great unwritten code of justice is detrimental to the true interests of the body politic has any vantage-ground been obtained by the individual sufferer. The appreciation of opportunity is the very genius of reform. When that opportunity is seized there may be frantic outcries of protest, ludicrous and sometimes malicious criticism and indignant howls from those who are compelled to keep up with the procession, but it is all futile. The inevitable logical result of the imperious demand of existing conditions carries the standard along the highway of progress, to be planted on the next vantage-ground, [Page 646]  and presently along come the laggards round the corner, grateful, though breathless, to find the flag flying after all.

Now this was exactly the position of this queer thing called the woman question in connection with representation at the Fair. The rapid development of women has produced among them the beginning of the close study of the social economic condition of society. No building was necessary to prove that woman is an essential factor in the economic world; that because she is such it behooved loyal citizens, anxious to carry out intelligently the opportunity afforded by governmental recognition, to see to it that a more accurate knowledge of her share of this labor be obtained and daily honored. The time having come when woman is entering every known field of action, she who is forcing her way to the front in the ideal arts, in the learned professions and in all those lines emphasizing individual progress, should wake up to the disabilities surrounding the women workers of that vast army, whose daily bread is earned under conditions disastrous to that personal development and prosperity which she, the more fortunate, is conquering for herself.

A skeleton exhibit of the work of woman, where she has been or remains a complete artisan, was deemed the most valuable upon which to base knowledge and future organization for the amelioration of the social economic condition. Supplementing this by the exhibition of the enormous work of women throughout the departments, the relative value of the artisan and the human part of a great machine, such as the average workman has now become, is a matter of grave study.

The man or woman who hopes to amend or ameliorate cruel conditions along the material side alone is undermining the foundations of good government, as well as assuring the demoralization of the race. On the other hand, the idealist who would neglect the improvement of the material interests of the individual who would not first aid the attainment of the comforts of the physical nature, is doing much to crush out that respect for the sacredness of human life, without which any lofty standard of personal responsibility and personal purity is absolutely impossible. Consequently, while the board of managers was, undoubtedly, mainly intended to stand before the world for a representation of women, as an economic factor of society, this is not the entire extent of its obligation.

Until there are national boards of labor and a more perfect system of census returns in every country of the globe, the light which statistics logically arranged bring to bear upon the study of social science will in a measure be unattainable. In the present condition of industrial competition an unauthorized, because not governmental, demand for statistical information as to numbers, wages, social condition and the consequent deduction of the result of all three, would be received with jealousy, distrust and absolute mendacity on the part of the employer.

It is well that art and architecture have done so much for the Fairgrounds. If it were not for the lovely exteriors and enchanting landscapes, the tremendous force of the materialism expressed by the exhibits would oppress beyond belief. To the multitude there is but one building, and that the Woman's, which stands for an idea. They may not formulate this into a thought, they may not voice the sentiment, but this truth carries them along in its intangible vortex. Whether the motive be curiosity, intelligent conception of the spirit prompting its erection, or a vital interest in the woman question, they all come. There is not an official, foreign or native-born, who has not desired audience of the president of the board; there is not a keen-eyed politician, though he may be somewhat antagonistic if he has studied logic, who is ignorant of the value of the building and the additional weight given the claims of woman by its existence. There is nothing like an object lesson to impress the popular mind with the importance of a growing idea. Occasionally, along comes some superficial observer who pronounces the whole thing a failure; he does not condescend to inform in what it is a failure, but he has no conception of its real purpose. All criticism is of value as it argues interest. It is only the inconsequent things which escape comment, ridicule, sarcasm. Caricatures are never brought to bear upon individuals or official [Page 647]  bodies unless the principle which they represent is of considerable moment to the general public.

A permanent Woman's Building could not stand for a nobler or more practical aim, as one of its grand functions, than as the headquarters of a great system of state and international councils devoted to the temperate study of the condition of the women workers of the world. How long would it be before this vast educative influence would result in striking from the statute book of every state in this Union laws inimical to the interests of women. How long would it be before the limitation of the hours of labor for both men and women would be a possible and constitutional enactment sustained by the consensus of public opinion, without which no law can become public practice. How long before the question of child labor, with all its attendant complications of compulsory education and manual training schools would receive active attention of legislators and rouse the supine interest of the mere sentimental theorist.

Truly there is the noblest, the most inspiring result to be anticipated if the women are now equal to the next step in human progress, made possible by the vantage ground they now occupy. If they neglect it or supply it, it may be twenty-five years before we regain the position. We are continually exhorted nowadays to be prepared for dangerous and wondrous changes to be wrought in the condition of society in the near future. It is one of the most curious fads of the time, this role of the Jeremiah of the economic system, and is a very convenient form of an attempt to shake off all present sense of personal responsibility for evils around, possibly in our power to alleviate. It is the role of the hopeless pessimist. Suppose it is the bad quarter of an hour. It is then the time for action. It is always the bad quarter of an hour, and has been from the beginning of time to those who recognize the necessity of reform of present evils. There always comes a time when education has performed its work and an advance in civil and ethical progress becomes a feasible attainment.

We are also told nowadays that the danger, should women attain actual political influence, is their tendency to introduce the ethics of the family with the ethics of the state; that it is the nature of women to confer benefits in proportion to the lack of merit of the recipient–that is, the more worthless the citizen the more she will do for him. A sort of application of the maternal instinct to care most assiduously for the worst of her children. This is not a special feminine weakness, but simply the impulse of sentimental misdirected and uneducated energy in both men and women. It arises from confounding that wise degree of care which the state must bestow upon its helpless, unfortunate or depraved classes with the injudicious use of governmental protection and beneficience which becomes absolutely detrimental to the development and usefulness of the citizen by its paternal character.

Manual labor is not all the vital work of the world, though sentimental audiences clap their soft hands at the reiterated enunciation of this proposition on the part of professional agitators. While as a practical matter it is but a small proportion of humanity which does not daily do some share of manual labor, slight though it sometimes may be; it is a preposterous proposition that actual physical exertion, to the extent of earning a subsistence, is the inherent obligation of each member of the human family. What a world of barbarians we would be! There are limitations to human endurance, though the brainwork which does so tremendous a share in the advancement of civilization is as exhausting labor as that of the purely physical. The only difference is that, as a general result, we find the physical laborer working under humane surroundings is granted a longer lease of life.

This deification of manual labor by half educated theorists is based upon crude notions of shortening hours by division. The uncertainty in the public mind, in that condition of society where intelligence is not general, as to the character of the obligation of government in this respect, is another reason for the false reasoning we meet so often. Hence, we find the attempt to revive the era of the complete artisan in an age when the spindle, the loom and the marvels of steam and iron fingers have all [Page 648]  combined to make the human being the mechanical addition to the plant, by confining him to the manufacture of certain parts only of the complete product; with the further result also of shortening the hours of labor, and, except under specially adverse circumstances, of increasing the amount of his wages.

The exhibits in the Woman's Building show most conclusively that, at the present day, it is only in those countries where the masses have not yet attained a high plane of education, and where the general condition of the industrial classes is the most deplorable in point of wages, and consequently comfort attained, that the complete artisan is to be found of either sex. The main object of exhibiting the work of the complete artisan in this place is to show if there may yet remain a place where these trades can be carried on with profit and under conditions neither antagonistic to sound economic law nor injurious to human life. If antagonistic to present economic conditions it is childish to attempt their revival. Some of these trades, indeed most of them, may be of the class of luxuries for which there is but a limited demand, and wise women would desire to limit and diversify rather than to increase the number in such avocation. If, however, this class of display is in the ideal arts where machinery and steam may never become a rival, it is safe to compete in the open market. It then becomes the highest purpose and noblest individuality of expression, combined with the capture of opportunity which wins a livelihood, fame or fortune.

While striving for a loftier conception of the dignity of labor, which may be considered one of the ideal uses of the Woman's Building, it would fail utterly of its purpose if it did not rouse women to that knowledge of conditions which should make them clasp hands with the many toilers pleading for shorter hours and that legislation which will insure protection for life and limb and secure sound sanitary conditions.

We hear much of a demand for a higher education for women nowadays. There is not in all this building one material thing which indicates any advance along any lines where the higher education of women in its scholastic sense touches or has produced it, unless it may be through inference in the organization room, or where the application of scientific knowledge in the care of the sick or the maimed has made the art of nursing a profession.

There is small use of the higher education if its sole use is to enable women to devote themselves to the learned or scientific professions, leaving out its noblest purpose the application of the science of government and economics to the correction of the miseries of mankind. The mightiest lever in society, next to the relentless giant necessity, is sympathy, and for that noblest, most ennobling attribute of the human race, this building stands today, and through this subtle influence its permanent successor will for the future accomplish its mission, as one more step along the highway of human progress.

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Mrs. Alice Asbury Abbott is a native of Illinois. Her parents were Kentuckians. Her father, Henry Ashbury, was a lawyer well known in Illinois during the past fifty years. She was educated in Quincy, Ill., and in Germany. She has traveled in Europe and America. She married Abial Ralph Abbott, a lawyer of Chicago, who was born in New York and was a graduate of Amherst. Her principal literary works are translations from the German, magazine and newspaper articles. Mrs. Abbott's postoffice address is No. 353 East Fourth Street, Chicago. Ill.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Hitchcock.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom