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National Expansion and Reform
Reformers and Crusaders
Jane Grey Swissholm, Crusader and Feminist

Jane Grey Swisshelm was an antislvery advocate, newspaper editor, lecturer, crusader, feminist, and Civil War nurse. Between 1858 and 1865, she wrote a series of articles and letters on women's rights. In the following excerpt, Swisshelm describes the plight of women workers in Washington, D.C. What is her view of Washington? How are women workers treated in the city? Swisshelm describes her disdain for many women workers in the nation's capital. Why does she scorn them? What reforms does Swisshelm support for women workers in Washington?

View the entire document from which this excerpt came, from Pioneering the Upper Midwest, ca. 1820-1910. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


Washington is, perhaps, the very worst place in the country in which to make any great pioneer movement in reference to woman's social position. It is, to all intents and purposes, a Southern city, and the centre of snobism. Here is the focus of that system of education South which makes all labor degrading, and of our common school education North, which teaches that manual labor is at most to be regarded as a means of reaching the Presidential chair. As our boys and men are all expecting to be Presidents, so our girls and women must all hod themselves in readiness to preside in the White House; and in no city in the world can honest industry be more at a discount than in this capital of the government of the people. Perhaps two-thirds of all important places in the departments are held by Southern men, or men who, by long residence here, have become thoroughly Southernized. If the free labor system, for men, in the rebel States, meets its principal obstacle in the ignorance of the employers, what must be the difficulties thrown in the way of the free-labor system for women, by men whose entire habit of thought regards the sex as slaves, drawing-room divinities, or toys? Of the clerks employed here, there is not one in twenty who can go into a room where women are employed, and transact any business with one of them without in some way reminding her of her womanhood. They are "sorry to trouble the ladies," or they hope the ladies are quite well," or "it is a pity to have ladies shut up in offices such fie weather," or "it is bad for ladies to come out in such unpleasant weather." In some way the ladies are to be deferred to or encouraged, and their shortcomings excused because they are ladies. The idea of treating them as copyists and clerks, simply this and nothing more, is beyond the mental caliber of almost any man with whom they are brought into personal relations, while the "ladies," in their dependent position, feeling no assurance of continued employment on any settled principle, naturally resort to personal favoriteism as a means of getting bread.

There is radical error in the manner of appointing women. It is not every man who is fit for any pioneer movement, and to expect that all women or even a majority, are fitted for this advance post on the picket line of civilization, is expecting superhuman perfection of the feminine half of humanity. Yet such is the system, or want of system, on which this grand experiment has been inconsiderately tried. To get an appointment no qualifications are required, except influential friends; and something near one-third of all the appointments are from the District or its immediate vicinity, and, of course, are women of the Southern idea that a woman's personal charms and decorations are her stock in trade--women who have as little idea of themselves as competitors for bread in the world's labor market, as have the men with whom they are associated of them in such a relation. Of the Northern women appointed, it is not always those whom the work wants who get the places.

Some Honorable Senator or Representative has a female friend without visible means of support. He gets her a place, as she makes her appearance, perhaps a little piece of painted impertinence, who might have been stowed away in the catacombs in the days of the Pharaohs for all one can tell of her age, but who studiously assumes the airs of a miss of sixteen. Her wrinkles are filled out with pipe clay or some other kind of light-colored mud; her eyebrows are made of black lead or lampblack, or something in that line, her hair is dyed until it is dead enough to satisfy any respectable undertaker of the propriety of burial; and one wonders that she does not add a setting of green leaves to the magenta-colored roses on her thin cheeks. She comes tripping in on the toes of her infinitesimal gaiters, gets off her things, and displays a head which reminds one of a drop chandelier trimmed for a ball and undergoing the process of dusting, while her pins, chains, bracelets, frills, and other fixtures would set up a tin box peddler in trade. She establishes herself at her table, opens her basket, gets out her beads, and goes to counting and stringing; "one, two, three, four, and then a large one; one, two, three, four, and a knot;" for you see, she is a philanthropist, and kindly instructs the lady at the next table in the mysteries of this becoming and lady-like employment. The superintendent gets fidgety, and brings this interesting toiler in life's workshop a piece of writing to copy. The lady looks injured, and as the superintendent is, of course, a Southern gentleman, who has been selected for that place with special reference to his amiability, he feels like "a horrid wretch." The dainty little hands take up the pen, and the dainty little brain keeps on, "one, two, three, four, and a large one--one, two, three, four, and a loop." "Loop?" Yes. Beg pardon! I said "knot," but [it] is a "loop" which comes after the second four. . . .

In the same bureau, where you find the assortment described, and that is most of them, there is perhaps a majority of female clerks with whose dullness and demeanor it would be difficult to find fault--women working like horses, scarcely taking time for lunch, making books of records second to none, and copies of importance papers with wonderful rapidity and correctness; some of them doing the same kind of work, and as much of it, as men at salaries of $1,200, $1,400, and 41,600 per annum, while they get $820. . . .

It is for the people to say whether influential man shall close their door against honorable women by making these place accessible to women of bad character and no character. Will they pay men double or treble salaries for doing what women can do quite as well, and will do for a compensation so much lower? Will they not sustain heads of departments against that type of Congressional influence which carries corruption of the worst kind into the departments, and makes government offices places of assignation, or exclude honorable women from honorable and suitable employment? The exclusion of women from these places will not improve the morals of the city or the country, while their employment in them, under proper regulations could not fail to exercise a most beneficial influence. There are thousands of women perfectly able and willing to perform the duties of any first or second class clerkship here; thousands who by the war have been deprived of their former names of support, and left with families dependent upon them; and it is mean and cowardly for the government to set the example of driving such from a class of occupations well suited to their capacity, as the shortest way of disposing of abuses for which government officials are responsible.
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View the entire document from which this excerpt came, from Pioneering the Upper Midwest, ca. 1820-1910. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.