Despotism of the Needle*

Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage

“So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter” (Ecclesiastes 4:1).

Very long ago the needle was busy. In olden days it was considered honorable for women to toil. Alexander the Great stood in his palace showing garments made by his own mother. The finest tapestries at Bayeux were made by the queen of William the Conqueror. Augustus, the Emperor, would not wear any garments except those that were fashioned by a member of his royal family. So let the toiler everywhere be respected!

The needle has slain more than the sword. When the sewing machine was invented, some thought that invention would alleviate woman’s toil and put an end to the despotism of the needle. But no. While the sewing machine has been a great blessing to well-to-do families, in many cases it has added to the stab of the needle the crush of the wheel; and multitudes of women, notwithstanding the reinforcement of the sewing machine—work hard as they will—can make only between $2 and $3 a week.

The greatest blessing that could have happened to our first parents was being turned out of Eden after they had done wrong. Adam and Eve, in their perfect state, might have gotten along without work, or only such slight employment as a perfect garden with no weed in it demanded. But as soon as they had sinned, the best thing for them was to be turned out where they would have to work.

We know what a withering thing it is for a man to have nothing to do. Old Ashbel Green, at 80 years of age, when asked why he kept on working, said: “I do so to keep out of mischief.”

We see that a man who has a large amount of money to start with has no chance. Of the 1,000 prosperous and honorable men you know, 999 had to work vigorously at the beginning. But I am now to tell you that industry is as important for a woman’s safety and happiness. The most unhappy women in our communities today are those who have no employment to call them up in the morning; who, once having risen and breakfasted, lounge through the dull forenoon in slippers down at the heel and with disheveled hair, reading Ouida‘s last novel; who, having dragged through a wretched forenoon and taken their afternoon sleep, and having passed an hour and a half at their toilet [grooming], pick up their card case and go out to make calls; and who pass their evenings waiting for somebody to come in and break up the monotony. Arabella Stuart never was imprisoned in so dark a dungeon as that.

There is no happiness in an idle woman. It may be with hand, it may be with brain, it may be with foot; but work she must, or be wretched forever. The little girls of our families must be started with that idea.

The curse of American society is that our young women are taught that the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, tenth, fiftieth, thousandth thing in their life is to get somebody to take care of them. Instead of that, the first lesson should be how under God they may take care of themselves. The simple fact is that a majority of them do have to take care of themselves, and that, too, after having, through the false notions of their parents, wasted the years in which they ought to have learned how successfully to maintain themselves. We now and here declare the inhumanity, cruelty, and outrage of that father and mother who pass their daughters into womanhood, having given them no facility for earning their livelihood.

Madame de Staël said, “It is not these writings that I am proud of, but the fact that I have facility in ten occupations, in any one of which I could make a livelihood.”

You say you have a fortune to leave your daughters. O man and woman, have you not learned that like vultures, like hawks, like eagles, riches have wings and fly away? That though you should be successful in leaving a competency behind you, the trickery of executors may swamp it in a night? That some officials in our churches may start up a mining company and induce your orphans to put their money into a hole in Colorado? and if by the most skillful machinery the sunken money cannot be brought up again, prove to them, that it was eternally decreed that that was the way they were to lose it, and that it went in the most orthodox and heavenly style? Oh, the damnable schemes that professed Christians will engage in until God puts His fingers into the collar of the hypocrite’s robe and strips it clear down to the bottom!

You have no right, because you are well off, to conclude that your children are going to be as well off. A man died leaving a large fortune. His son fell dead in a Philadelphia grog-shop. His old comrades came in and said as they bent over his corpse, “What is the matter with you, Boggsey?”

The surgeon standing over him said, “Hush you! He is dead!”

“Oh, he is dead,” they said. “Come, boys. Let us go and take a drink in memory of poor Boggsey!”

Have you nothing better than money to leave your children? If you have not, but send your daughters into the world with empty brain and unskilled hand, you are guilty of assassination, homicide, regicide, infanticide.

There are women toiling in our cities for $2 and $3 a week who were the daughters of merchant princes. These suffering ones now would be glad to have the crumbs that once fell from their fathers’ table. That wornout, broken shoe that she wears is the lineal descendant of the $12 gaiters in which her mother walked. That torn and faded calico had ancestry of magnificent brocade that swept Broadway clean without any expense to the street commissioners.

Though you live in an elegant residence and fare sumptuously every day, let your daughters feel it is a disgrace to them not to know how to work. I denounce the idea prevalent in society that, though our young women may embroider slippers, crochet, and make mats for lamps to stand on without disgrace, the idea of doing anything for a livelihood is dishonorable. It is a shame for a young woman belonging to a large family to be inefficient when the father toils his life away for her support. It is a shame for a daughter to be idle while her mother toils at the washtub. It is as honorable to sweep the house, make beds, or trim hats as it is to twist a watch chain.

As far as I can understand, the line of respectability lies between that which is useful and that which is useless. If women do that which is of no value [useless], their work is honorable. If they do practical work [useful], it is dishonorable. That our young women may escape the censure of doing dishonorable work, I shall particularize. You may knit a tidy for the back of an armchair, but by no means make the money with which to buy the chair. You may with a delicate brush beautify a mantel ornament, but die rather than earn enough to buy a marble mantel. You may learn artistic music until you can squall Italian, but never sing “Ortonville” or “Old Hundred.” Do nothing practical if you would in the eyes of refined society preserve your respectability. I scout these fine notions. I tell you a woman, no more than a man, has a right to occupy a place in this world unless she pays a rent for it.

In the course of a lifetime you consume whole harvests and droves of cattle; and every day you live, you breathe 40 hogsheads of good, pure air. You must by some kind of usefulness pay for all this. Our race was the last thing created—the birds and fishes on the fourth day, the cattle and lizards on the fifth day, and man on the sixth day …. In one sense we were innovators. The cattle, the lizards, and the hawks had preemptive rights. The question is not what we are to do with the lizards and summer insects, but what the lizards and summer insects are to do with us.

If we want a place in this world, we must earn it. The partridge makes its own nest before it occupies it. The lark by its morning song earns its breakfast before it eats it, and the Bible gives an intimation that the first duty of an idler is to starve. “If he will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Idleness ruins the health. Soon Nature says, “This man has refused to pay his rent, out with him!”

Society is to be reconstructed on the subject of woman’s toil. A vast majority of those who would have woman industrious shut her up to a few kinds of work. My judgement in this matter is that a woman has a right to do anything that she can do well. There should be no department of merchandise, mechanism, art, or science barred against her. If Miss Hosmer has genius for sculpture, give her a chisel. If Rosa Bonheur [artist] has a fondness for delineating animals, let her make The Horse Fair. If Miss Mitchell will study astronomy, let her mount the starry ladder. If Lydia will be a merchant, let her sell purple (Acts 16:14).

It is said, “If woman is given such opportunities, she will occupy places that might be taken by men.”

I say, “If she have more skill and adaptedness for any position than a man has, let her have it!” She has as much right to her bread, to her apparel, and to her home as men have.

But it is said that her nature is so delicate that she is unfitted for exhausting toil.

I ask in the name of all past history what toil on earth is more severe, exhausting, and tremendous than that toil of the needle to which for ages she has been subjected? The battering ram, the sword, the carbine, and the battle axe have made no such havoc as the needle. I would that these living sepulchers in which women have for ages been buried might be opened, and that some resurrection trumpet might bring up these living corpses to the fresh air and sunlight.

Go with me and I will show you a woman who by hardest toil supports her children, her drunken husband, her old father and mother, pays her house rent, always has wholesome food on her table, and when she can get some neighbor on the Sabbath to come in and take care of her family, appears in church with hat and cloak that are far from indicating the toil to which she is subjected. Such a woman as that has body and soul enough to fit her for any position. She could stand beside the majority of your salesmen and dispose of more goods. She could go into your wheelwright shops and best one-half of your workmen at making carriages.

We talk about woman as though we had resigned to her all the light work, and ourselves had shouldered the heavier. But the Day of Judgement, which will reveal the sufferings of the stake and Inquisition, will marshal before the throne of God and the hierarchs of heaven the martyrs of washtub and needle. Now, I say if there be any preference in occupation, let women have it. God knows her trials are the severest. By her acuter sensitiveness to misfortune, by her hour of anguish, I demand that no one hedge up her pathway to a livelihood. Oh, the meanness, the despicability of men who begrudge a woman the right to work anywhere in any honorable calling!

I go still further and say that woman should have equal compensation with men. By what principle of justice is it that women in many of our cities receive only two-thirds as much pay as men, and in many cases only half? Here is the gigantic injustice—that for work equally well, if not better, done, woman receives far less compensation than man.

Start with the National Government. Women clerks [cf Clara Barton] in Washington get $900 [per annum] for doing that for which men receive $1,800.

The wheel of oppression is rolling over the necks of thousands of women who are at this moment in despair about what they are to do. Many of the largest mercantile establishments of our cities are accessory to these abominations, and from their large establishments there are scores of souls being pitched off into death, and their employers know it.

Is there a God? Will there be a Judgement? I tell you, if God rises up to redress woman’s wrongs, many of our large establishments will be swallowed up quicker than a South American earthquake ever took down a city! God will catch these oppressors between the two millstones of His wrath and grind them to powder!

Why is it that a female principal in a school receives only $825 [per annum] for doing work for which a male principal gets $1,650? I hear from all this land the wail of womanhood. Man has nothing to answer to that wail but flattery. He says she is an angel. She is not. She knows she is not. She is a human being who gets hungry when she has no food, and cold when she has no fire. Give her no more flattery; give her justice!

There are 6,500 sewing girls [factory workers] in New York and Brooklyn. Across the sunlight comes their death groan. It is not such a cry as comes from those who are suddenly hurled out of life, but a slow, grinding, horrible wasting away. Gather them before you and look into their faces, pinched, ghastly, hunger-struck! Look at their fingers, needle-pricked, and blood-tipped! See that premature stoop in the shoulders! Hear that dry, hacking, merciless cough! At a large meeting of these women held in a hall in Philadelphia, grand speeches were delivered, but a needle-woman took the stand, threw aside her faded shawl, and with her shriveled arm hurled a very thunderbolt of eloquence, speaking out the horrors of her own experience.

Stand at the corner of a street in New York at six or seven o’clock in the morning as the women go to work. Many of them had no breakfast except the crumbs left over from the night before, or the crumbs they chew on their way through the street. Here they come! The working girls of New York and Brooklyn. These engaged in head work, these in flower-making, in millinery, in paper-box making; but most overworked of all and least compensated, the sewing women.

Why do they not take the city cars on their way up? They cannot afford the five cents. If, concluding to deny herself something else, she gets into the car, give her a seat. You want to see how Latimer and Ridley appeared in the fire. Look at that woman and behold a more horrible martyrdom, a hotter fire, a more agonizing death. Ask that woman how much she gets for her work, and she will tell you six cents [an hour] for making coarse shirts, and she must find her own thread.

Years ago, one Sabbath night in the vestibule of this church, after service, a woman fell in convulsions. The doctor said she needed medicine not so much as something to eat. As she began to revive, in her delirium she said, gaspingly: “Eight cents! Eight cents! Eight cents! I wish I could get it done, I am so tired. I wish I could get some sleep, but I must get it done. Eight cents! Eight cents! Eight cents!”

We found afterward that she was making garments for eight cents a piece, and that she could make but three a day. Hear it! Three times eight is twenty-four. She was earning 24 cents a day, at best. Hear it, men and women who have comfortable homes! Some of the worst villains of our cities are the employers of these women. They beat them down to the last penny and try to cheat them out of that. The woman must deposit $1 or $2 before she gets the garments to work on. When the work is done, it is sharply inspected, the most insignificant flaws picked out, and the wages refused and sometimes the $1 deposit not refunded.

The Women’s Protective Union reports a case where one of the poor souls, finding a place where she could get more wages, resolved to change employers, and went to get her pay for work done. The employer said, “I hear you are going to leave me?”

“Yes,” she said, “and I have come to get what you owe me.”

He made no answer.

She said, “Are you not going to pay me?”

“Yes,” he said, “I will pay you,” and he kicked her downstairs.

Oh, that Women’s Protective Union, 19 Clinton Place, New York! The blessings of Heaven be on it for the merciful and divine work it is doing in the defense of toiling womanhood! What tragedies of suffering are presented to them day by day!

Listen to a paragraph from their report: “‘Can you make Mr Jones pay me? He owes me for three weeks at $2.50 a week, and I can’t get anything, and my child is very sick!’ The speaker, a young woman lately widowed, burst into a flood of tears as she spoke. She was bidden to come again the next afternoon and repeat her story to the attorney at his usual weekly hearing of frauds and impositions. Means were found by which Mr Jones was induced to pay the $7.50.”

Another paragraph from their report: “A fortnight had passed, when she modestly hinted a desire to know how much her services were worth. ‘Oh, my dear,’ he replied, ‘you are getting to be one of the most valuable hands in the trade; you will always get the very best price. Ten dollars a week you will be able to earn very easily.’ And the girl’s fingers flew on with her work at a marvelous rate. The picture of $10 a week had almost turned her head. A few nights later, while crossing the ferry, she overheard the name of her employer in the conversation of girls who stood near: ‘What, John Snipes? Why, he don’t pay! Look out for him every time. He’ll keep you on trial, as he calls it, for weeks, and then he’ll let you go, and get some other fool!’ And thus Jane Smith gained her warning against the swindler. But the Union held him in the toils of the law until he paid the worth of each of those days of ‘trial.'”

Another paragraph: “Her mortification may be imagined when told that one of the two $5 bills which she had just received for her work was counterfeit. But her mortification was swallowed up in indignation when her employer denied having paid her the money, and insultingly asked her to prove it. When the Protective Union had placed this matter in the courts, the judge said: ‘You will pay Eleanor the amount of her claim, $5.83, and also the costs of the court.'”

How are these evils to be eradicated? Some say, “Give woman the ballot.” What effect such ballot might have on other questions I am not here to discuss; but what would be the effect of female suffrage on women’s wages? I do not believe that woman will ever get justice by woman’s ballot.

Indeed, women oppress women as much as men do. Do not women, as much as men, beat down to the lowest figure the woman who sews for them? Are not women as sharp as men on washerwomen, milliners, and mantua-makers [makers of women’s clothing]? If a woman asks $1 for her work, does not her female employer ask her if she will not take 90 cents? You say, “Only 10 cents difference.” But that is sometimes the difference between heaven and hell. Women often have less commiseration for women than men. If a woman steps aside from the path of rectitude, man may forgive—woman never!

Woman will never get justice done her from woman’s ballot. Neither will she get it from man’s ballot. How then? God will rise up for her. God has more resources than we know of. The flaming sword that hung at Eden’s gate when woman was driven out will cleave with its terrible edge her oppressors.

But there is something for women to do. Let young people prepare to excel in spheres of work, and they will be able after a while to earn larger wages. Unskilled and incompetent labor must take what is given: skilled and competent labor will eventually make its own standard. Admitting that the law of supply and demand regulates these things, I contend that the demand for skilled labor is great and the supply small. Start with the idea that work is honorable, and that you can do some one thing better than anybody else. Resolve that, God helping, you will take care of yourself. If you are after a while called into another relation, you will all the better be qualified for it by your spirit of self-reliance; or if you are called to stay as you are, you can be happy and self-supporting.

Poets are fond of talking about man as an oak and woman the vine that climbs it; but I have seen many a tree fall that not only went down itself, but took all the vines with it. I can tell you of something stronger than an oak for an ivy to climb on, and that is the throne of the great Jehovah. Single or affianced, that woman is strong who leans on God and does her best.

Many of you will go singlehanded through life, and you will have to choose between two characters. Young woman, I am sure you will turn your back on the useless, giggling, irresponsible nonentity that society ignominiously acknowledges to be a woman, and ask God to make you an humble, active, earnest Christian.

What will become of that womanly disciple of the world? She is more thoughtful of the attitude she strikes on the carpet than how she will look in the Judgement, more worried about her freckles than her sins, more interested in her apparel than in her redemption. The dying actress whose life had been vicious said, “The scene closes—draw the curtain.” Generally the tragedy comes first and the farce afterward; but in her life it was first the farce of a useless life and then the tragedy of a wretched eternity.

Compare the life and death of such a one with that of some Christian aunt that was once a blessing to your household. I do not know that she was ever asked to give her hand in marriage. She lived single, that, untrammeled, she might be everybody’s blessing. Whenever the sick were to be visited or the poor to be provided with bread, she went with a blessing. She could pray or sing “Rock of Ages” for any sick pauper who asked her.

As she grew older, there were many days when she was a little sharp; but for the most part Auntie was a sunbeam—just the one for Christmas Eve. She knew better than anyone else how to fix things. Her every prayer, as God heard it, was full of everybody who had trouble. The brightest things in all the house dropped from her fingers. She had peculiar notions, but the grandest notion she ever had was to make you happy. She dressed well—Auntie always dressed well; but her highest adornment was that of “a meek and quiet spirit, which, is in the sight of God of great price” (1 Peter 3:4).

When she died, you all gathered lovingly about her; and as you carried her out to rest, the Sunday school class almost covered the coffin with japonicas [flowers]. The poor people stood at the end of the alley, with their aprons to their eyes, sobbing bitterly. And the man of the world said, with Solomon: “Her price is far above rubies” (Proverbs 31:10), and Jesus, as to the maiden in Judea, commanded, “I say to you, Arise” (Mark 5:41)!

“”It is not work that makes you tired. It’s frustration that comes from lack of work or lack of accomplishment. Real frustration comes when you cannot find useful work to do.” ~Richard E Heckert

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Broadway (c 1880)
Featured for this series are photographs of old New York.

*Adapted from “Despotism of the Needle,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], New Tabernacle Sermons Vol I (New York: George Munro, 1886). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.