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Title: Women's Wages
Author: Smart, William
Language: English
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Women's Wages

     "Give her the wages of going on, and not to die."

Women's Wages





9th Dec., 1891.


It is not necessary to prove that women's wages are, as a rule, much
under those of men. In the textile trades of Great Britain, which
constitute the largest department of women's work, the average of
women's wages is probably--in Scotland it is certainly--about ten
shillings per week. This labour is not by any means unskilled, as anyone
who has ever seen a spinning or weaving factory knows. Twenty shillings
per week, however, is a low average for a man possessing any degree of
skill whatever.

In a paper read before the British Association at Cardiff, Mr. Sidney
Webb gave some valuable statistics on the subject. Women workers he
divides into four classes--manual labourers, routine mental workers,
artistic workers, and intellectual workers. The two latter classes may
be dismissed in a word. Sex has little to do in determining the wages of
their work. A novelist, a poet, a writer of any sort, is under no
disadvantage that she is a woman, while in many departments of artistic
work women have an obvious advantage. But in the third class, that of
routine mental workers, Mr. Webb finds that women's earnings are
invariably less than men's. In the Post Office and Telegraph
Departments, in the Savings Banks, and in the Government offices
generally, where women do precisely similar work with men, and are
sometimes, as in ledger work, acknowledged to do it better, they
invariably earn much less. The largest experiment yet made in this
direction is that of the Prudential Life Assurance Office, which began
in 1872 to substitute women clerks for the lower grades of men clerks.
There are now 243 ladies employed in routine clerical work, which they
are said to do more efficiently than men. The salaries run thus:--£32
for the first year, £42 for the second, £52 for the third, and £60 on
promotion--probably half of what men might be expected to accept. In
Glasgow lady typists and shorthand writers are offering their services
from 9.30 till 5, with one hour for dinner, for £25. In the teaching
profession women almost invariably receive lower remuneration than men.
The Education Department Report of 1888-90 gives the average wage of
teachers throughout England and Wales as £119 for men and £75 for women.
Similarly low salaries are found under the London School Board, in the
Secondary Schools, and in girls' schools generally as compared with
boys' schools.

The exception noted by Mr. Webb is interesting and, I think, suggestive.
In the United States, where women teachers often alternate with men in
the same school, the salaries of women are habitually lower. But in the
State of Wyoming, where women have a vote, the salaries are equal.

Coming now to the manual workers, Mr. Webb takes the statistics
furnished by the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labour in 1884.
These give the average of 17,430 employés in 110 establishments in Great
Britain, and 35,902 employés in 210 establishments in Massachusetts,
representing in both cases 24 different manufacturing industries. The
women's wages show a proportion of one-third to two-thirds the amount
earned by men, the nearest approach to equality being in
textiles--cotton goods, hosiery, and carpetings in Great Britain,
woollen and worsted goods in Massachusetts. Without going further into
statistics, I think we may assume the fact of a great disparity between
men's and women's wages, and go on to ask the reason of it.

If we put the question in general terms, Why is a woman's wage less than
that of a man? there are some answers that spring to the lips of
everyone. First, it is said that it is a mere question of supply and
demand. Second, that women are not usually the sole bread-winners in the
family to which they belong. Third, that their standard of living is
lower than that of men. Fourth, that their work is not so good as that
of men. Fifth, that the commodities made by women have, generally, a
less value in the market. There is truth in all these answers, but I
propose to show that each of them is at best a half truth, raising as
many questions as it settles.

The first answer given is that women's wages are low because of the
equation of supply and demand. Only certain branches of industry are
open to women. In these there is a great number of women competing for
employment. They are free to take work or refuse it. But over the
industrial community there are found enough women willing to take the
low wage which employers find they can offer, and free competition
determines the level. If two women run after one employer, wages will
fall; if two employers run after one woman, wages will rise.

Those who think this answer an easy and satisfactory one must be unaware
of the unsettling of many problems since Mill's day. Mill had no less
than three laws of value--that of the Equation of Supply and Demand,
that of Cost of Production, and that of Differential Cost of Production.
The former law, he said, applied to goods of which the quantity was
naturally, or artificially, or temporarily, limited, and it was,
besides, the sole determinant of the value of labour. But then Mill was
assuming a definite Wage Fund--a fixed portion of the circulating
capital of the country predestined for the payment of wages. This
definite sum, and no more, was to employ all the workers, however many
they might be. If, then, wages fell, the reason was obvious--there were
too many workers. Wherever Mill touches on low wages we have a sermon on
the evils of over-population, and his favourite explanation did not fail
him here. "Where employers take full advantage of competition, the low
wages of women are a proof that the employments are overstocked." But
this is logical only if "overstocking" is the sole possible cause of low
wages--which might be doubted even under a Wage Fund theory. But the
Wage Fund is now one of the antiquities of political economy. Since
Jevons we have looked for the measure of value in marginal utility; for
the value of productive goods in their marginal utility as instruments
of production; and for the value of labour in the value of its products,
and not in any predetermined fund divided out among a variable number
of workers by the action of supply and demand. And where invention is
constantly widening and strengthening our power over natural resources
and increasing the productiveness of labour, the presumption is against
the idea that over-population is even a strong factor in modern wages.

There is, indeed, no formula in political economy on which the modern
economist looks with more suspicion than that of Supply and Demand. The
operation of supply and demand as determining market price is, of
course, perfectly definite; but to say that any concrete price is fixed
by the equation of supply and demand is a mere statement of an observed
fact which says little, unless one knows and defines accurately what is
involved in the "supply," what is involved in the "demand," and how
those two factors stand related to each other. The price of railway
stock to-day is determined by supply and demand; the price of a man's
labour, whether unattached or working under restriction of the Trade
Union, is determined by supply and demand; the earnings of the poor soul
who sells her body on the streets are determined by supply and demand.
What does this formula tell us unless we know the complex phenomena
which determine the supply of railways and the demand for transit, the
supply of labourers and the demand for work, the supply of hapless women
and the demand for human souls? To say, then, that women's wages are low
because there are enough women who take the low wage, is little more
than to say that wages are low because people are paid low wages. We
have still to ask: What are the factors, or influences, or motives,
that make women take a wage below that of men, and what are the factors
that make employers offer the low wage?

Apart from the general insufficiency of this first answer, it is enough
to remember that the determination of wage by this mechanical equation
of supply and demand could be tolerable only under absolutely free
competition, which would involve perfect mobility of labour. But labour
has this unique characteristic among all commodities that, physically,
it is not mobile; historically, it has never been mobile; and ethically,
it should not be mobile. A man's labour is--and should be--his life, not
the mere instrument of providing a living; and, therefore, in the
question of wages it is impossible to ignore the ethical consideration.
Civilised society could not hold together if the workman and workwoman
could only get their fair share of the world's boundless wealth by
changing their trade, their residence, or their country, as a higher
wage offered itself.

The second reason given is that, women not being as a rule the sole
bread-winners of the family, their wage is auxiliary to that of its
head; the woman's wage is, as it were, "found" money in the household
purse. Underlying this statement is an assumption which is at least
questionable. It is that the economic or wage-earning unit is the
_family_. This is an old-time idea which, however beautiful and
desirable, is a little out of place in the conditions to which the
factory system has brought us. Once-a-day it was recognised that
children had a far greater claim on the persons who brought them into
the world than we now allow. It was thought that the one wage should be
earned by the head of the house, and should be large enough to maintain
the wife and daughters without outside work, and to educate and
apprentice the sons till they were able to hive off for themselves. Any
money earned by the junior members of the family was, in this case,
supplementary, and determined by a different law. Perhaps in time we may
come back to this view. Mr. Frederic Harrison is sanguine that we shall.
But meantime the factory system has changed all that, and it is scarcely
worth while looking for laws of wage in a condition of family life which
does not now obtain. Putting aside the objections that many married
women are not members of a family, and that many married women and
widows are the sole bread-winners of the family, it is perhaps
sufficient to point out that this answer would not be taken as
explaining or justifying a low wage among what we call the "better
classes." It would not be counted an excuse or reason for a publisher
asking a lady novelist to accept a lower price for her books, or for a
patient offering a lower fee to a lady doctor. If the sex of the author,
artist, musician, doctor, intellectual or artistic worker generally, has
nothing to do with her remuneration, why should sex determine the wage
of the factory girl?

More clearly does this objection emerge when we consider the third
answer. It is said that the inferiority of women's wage is owing to
their standard of living being less than that of men. It is true that a
woman, as a rule, eats less, drinks less, and smokes less. Tea to her
is, unfortunately, both meat and drink, and it would be counted
extravagance in a working woman if she took to eating twopence worth of
sweets a day as balancing the man's half ounce of tobacco. But I am
afraid a woman's standard of life differs from a man's rather in its
items than in its cost. I have yet to learn that her standard of dress
is less than ours, and I am quite sure she takes more medicines, and
spends more on doctors' bills. As in the former case, we change our view
according as we look at different classes. Among the "upper" classes, as
we call them, the woman's standard of life is very much higher than that
of the man. It is only because the poor seamstress, when put to it, will
live on a shilling a-day, while a man will become a tramp or go to the
workhouse first, that we say the woman requires less.

In a word, it is not that the physical and mental needs of woman are
less than the physical and mental needs of man, but that many women, for
some reason or other, can be got to accept a wage that will only keep
them alive. If so, the answer, translated, simply runs: women's wages
are less than men's because, for some reason, women accept less.

It is to be noted, however, as very significant of the popular ideas
about wage, that the second and third answers just given account for the
standard of women's wages by the _wants_ of the worker. A woman's wage
is low because she does not _require_ a high wage, whether it be because
her father partly supports her, or because her maintenance does not
require so much. Now it may be said in passing that it is quite against
our modern ideas to represent wage as regulated by wants. Under a
socialistic régime, indeed, the wages of all might be thrown into a
common purse, and divided out according to the wants and necessities of
each; but under an individualist régime, like the present, what the
worker _is_ is nothing, what the worker _does_ is everything. To assess
the value of goods by the cost to the human life which makes them is to
take ground on which the world is not prepared to follow the economist
whatever it may say to the moralist. It is not the cost in killed and
wounded that decides the battle. To the purchaser it is indifferent
whether the cloth he buys wore out the fingers and heart of a woman, or
only took a little tear and wear out of a machine. The one question he
asks is: How will the cloth wear? _Caveat venditor._ If a man-worker,
then, is supposed to get a high wage when he produces much, a low wage
when he produces little, why should a woman's wage be determined by
another principle? We cannot hunt with the individualist hounds and run
with the socialist hare.

The next two reasons, accordingly, put the low wages of women on quite
different and more scientific ground, namely, that of the work they
produce. Of these the fourth says that women's work is not so good as
men's. As a statement of fact this is probably true. It is no
disparagement to the sex to acknowledge that, if women are necessarily
off work several days in the year because of little ailments common to
them, if they are insufficiently nourished relatively to their needs, or
are naturally more delicate than men, their wage at the week's end will
be less than that paid to the average man who scarcely knows what a
headache means. Or, if the woman is compelled by law to leave the
factory at six, while the man can stay and work overtime; or, if she is
driven to the street for an hour at meal-time, while the man can gulp
his tea within the walls and get back to his work half-an-hour earlier;
we can see that the wage of the man will be higher by the time and the
overtime he works. Similarly, if it requires not only skill but strength
to work a heavy loom; or, if a man can do two jobs, the one alternative
to the other; or, if he can "set" and "point" his tools as well as work
his machine, while a woman has to go to the mechanic's shop for these
things; in cases like these--and they are, of course, very many--we
require no answer to our question. It is simply a case of better wages
for better work--better in quantity, or in quality, or, at least, in
advantage to the employer. That is to say, if men and women are working
side by side at the same trades, and under similar conditions, it
requires little explanation to say why the wages of men should be 20s.
and the wages of women, say, 15s.

If this were all, the inferiority of women's wage would not be primarily
a question of sex at all; it would be very much a question of unskilled
labour as compared with skilled labour. Women would get lower wages than
men for the same reason as the dock labourer gets lower wages than the
artisan, and the artisan than the physician. The world might suffer
nothing in pocket by adopting the principle--which, however, I am afraid
is yet far from general acceptance--of Equal Wages for Equal Work,
whatever the sex of the worker. And here it is that Mr. Sydney Webb
deserves thanks for having accented a fact which we all indeed knew, but
of which few of us saw the bearing. It is that men and women do not, as
a rule, produce similar work alongside of each other, and that any
argument which compares the wages of both sexes, without taking account
of this fact, quite misses the mark.

To recur to the facts adduced by Mr. Webb: it seems to be impossible, he
says, to discover any but a few instances in which men and women do
precisely similar work in the same place and at the same epoch. In the
tailoring trade, for instance, men do one class of garment, women
another. In the cigar trade women make the lower-priced goods. So in all
the Birmingham trades. In paper mills men do the heavier, women the
lighter work. In cotton spinning, the mule tenders, called, _par
excellence_, "spinners," are men, while women take all the preparatory
processes. But there is one exceptional trade where this does not hold.
"Weaving," says Mr. Webb, "appears to be nearly always paid at equal
rates to men and women, whatever the material or locality." This seems
to hold as regards the weaving industry generally, from the hand-loom
weavers of Ireland to the carpet weavers of our own country; and it
extends also to other countries, as, for instance, to the cotton and
silk weaving in France. That is to say, as I understand, that the
piece-work rate is the same, although in special cases strength may give
the man an advantage in handling heavy looms. But what is most
remarkable is that, over the great weaving district of Lancashire, not
only are the rates of piece-work the same, but men and women do exactly
the same work side by side in the same sheds, practically under the same
Factory Act restrictions, and earn equal wages, namely, an average from
17s. 11d. in Carlisle to 21s. 4d. in Burnley. This, however, is
distinctly and notably an exception. Women compositors, for instance, in
London, receive uniformly lower piece-work rates for exactly similar
work; for the same work the union man gets 8½d., the non-union man 7½d.,
and the woman only 5½d. As an exception, however, we shall have reason
to recur to the Lancashire weavers later.

We thus come naturally to the fifth answer given to our question. It
points to the fact that the kind of commodities made by women, or in
women's trades, have, generally, a less value in the market--they are
"cheap" goods. Even as a mere statement of fact this proposition is very
loose. What are cheap goods? In the absence of any absolute standard of
value, goods can be called cheap only as comparing present prices with
prices of similar goods in the past, or in consideration of their cost
of production as compared with other goods. If the former is meant, all
modern manufactured goods are cheap, and this would not explain the
lower wage of one sex. If the latter, it is prejudging the whole
question. But to make this statement an explanation, and suggest that
cheap prices are the cause of low wages, is surely to turn the causal
connection the wrong way about; for the value of goods such as we are
speaking of depends, according to the recognised theory, on cost of
production, and of this cost of production wages is a large part. It is
true that the connection between prices and wages is one on which
economic science is somewhat slow to speak. We may not now be so
confident as Mill was when he put the proposition "high prices make high
wages" among common erroneous notions. And we may not be prepared to
say with him that the effect of prices on wages is only indirect,
through increased profits adding to capital. But we are not prepared, I
think, to go in face of all our old faith, and declare that the _prices_
of goods determine their cost of production!

But as a fallacy is not usually put in a bald form, we must consider the
concrete case in which it is assumed. Let us take an industry--say a
branch of the textile trade--where labour constitutes a great part of
the costs of production. Suppose that for many years low prices have
ruled for the particular class of goods made. Any attempt to raise wages
here meets with an obvious criticism. It seems most plausible to say: It
is the wants of the people which have established this demand. The
present price is all the consumers can or will pay, and the low wage is
all that these prices can afford.

This is probably quite true. Once the prices are down, it is difficult
to see how wages can be higher. But what brought down the prices? Is it
ever the case that the world of consumers, practically, go to the
workers and ask them to accept low wages on the ground that they can
only afford low prices? Experience does not bear this out. So far as I
know, the initiative of reducing prices, as a rule, comes from the
producers, not from the public. The history of prices of most
commodities of large use is something like this. They are at first dear,
and only a small circle of consumers can afford them. As the production
becomes organised, and capital brings more and more appliances to bear
on the manufacture, the goods become cheaper, and a wider circle of
demand is found. But below each circle of actual demand there are
endless and widening circles of potential demand ready to take any
particular commodity if it can be had cheaper. Thus, as, up to a certain
point, large production is cheap production, there is always an
inducement to the manufacturer and merchant to produce more cheaply. If
they can reduce prices, and get down to a lower circle of consumers, it
is well known in practical experience that the increase of trade which
follows is out of all proportion to the degree of the reduction of
price. But when this movement has gone on for some time, and goods have
become very cheap, the demand has a way of appearing imperative,
especially if these goods have entered into the standard of comfort of
great classes. The goods become "necessary;" the low prices meet a
"natural" demand; and these prices are just enough to yield an average
profit to the employer--for profit must have its average, or capital, as
we are often warned, will fly the country.

This is all quite true. The fallacy emerges only when it is suggested
that the low prices are the cause of low wages. Here there are two
possibilities: (1) All the reduction of cost may have been effected by
perfecting machinery, organising production, and bringing producer and
consumer together--that is to say, all the cheapening may have come from
the side of capital. In this case there is no room for laying low wages
at the door of cheapened prices. Or (2) as wages constitute one of the
chief costs in all production--in the United States, for instance, they
make up on an average a quarter of the manufacturing cost--they may
have been reduced along with the capital expenses, and the low prices be
partly due to these low wages.

What this does prove is, of course, that it was the reduction of wages,
among other things, that made the reduction of prices possible. But what
it was proposed to prove was the converse proposition, that the low
prices made the low wages! To put it, then, in the plausible way, that
the reduced prices "do not allow" of higher wages, is simply a very
pretty specimen of the argument known to the vulgar as "putting the cart
before the horse." What, however, we may very well learn from the wide
acceptance of this view is that it is a very difficult thing to raise
wages once they are down; and it may suggest that employers have some
responsibility in reducing, and the public some responsibility in giving
excuse for them being reduced.

Thus we seem to be still without an adequate answer to the question: Why
is a woman's wage less than that of a man? But the last answer,
unsatisfactory as it is in itself, seems to me to have a value in
something further that it suggests. It seems to draw attention to a
notable fact, and to point the way to a new formulation of the whole
question. The fact is this, that women are in almost exclusive
possession of certain branches of trade, and that, in these branches,
the commodities made are recognised by public opinion as being "cheap."
The observation of most of us must confirm Mr. Webb's conclusion, that
there are certain trades where men do not compete with women; indeed,
that there is a well marked relegation of women-workers towards certain
ill-paid trades; while, at the same time, there is as well marked a
movement of men towards the better-paid trades. If this is so, the
difference of wages between men and women takes a new and definite
aspect. It is not a difference of wage between workers of various
degrees of efficiency. It is very much a question of difference of wage
between two non-competing groups, and of groups where the levels of wage
are determined by a different law. The question is not: Why are men and
women employed in equal work at unequal wages? but, Why are men and
women employed in different groups of employment? and, comparing these
two groups, Why is the wage level of skilled female labour lower even
than that of unskilled male labour?

The reasons may be found in observing a course of events constantly
under our eyes. There are always certain trades where women are still
competing more or less directly with men. In these, women are under
certain disabilities of sex which make their work less remunerative or
less profitable to their employers. They are, as I said, physically
weaker; subject to little ailments which make them less regular in
attendance; more liable to distraction of purpose; perhaps worse
educated; and, probably, more slipshod in their methods. They get less
wages because, either in quantity or quality or both, their work is not
so good. This competition of the women tends to drag down wages for both
sexes, and, as a consequence, men hive off to trades where there is more
opportunity, or retain certain better-paid branches within trades, and
certain trades or branches of trades are left to women. Whenever this is
the case the women lose the advantage of competing with workers who will
not accept wages under a certain level. Their disabilities, thus become
cumulative, are taken advantage of by unthinking or unscrupulous
employers, and all other employers are forced to follow.

If tailors and tailoresses are working side by side making coats and
vests indifferently, it is not difficult to understand why the men may
earn 20s. to the women's 15s. But if, in time, the men get all the
coats, and the women all the vests, we have a good reason why the
women's wage goes down to 10s., while the men's remains at 20s.

Or equally common is another course of events. A certain industry, we
shall suppose, has been worked exclusively by men. By a "happy"
invention machinery is introduced which can be tended perfectly well by
women. For a little time the dead weight of custom will probably retain
men to tend these machines, and the wage will certainly not fall below
the average wage of men generally, which we shall, for simplicity's
sake, put down at 20s. But, either gradually or as result perhaps of a
dispute or strike on the part of the men, women are introduced to tend
the machines. Does their pay bear any proportion to that of the men they
replace? It is quite certain that the women's remuneration will not be
determined by the 20s. wage which they displace, but will be fixed at
something like 10s. If we ask why, the only answer given is that 10s. is
the "customary wage" for women.

People who have no practical experience are apt to think that economists
are theorising in speaking of "customary" wage. It will be said that the
steady replacing of hand labour by machinery, and of old machines by
improved machines, breaks up the continuity of wages, and weakens the
element of custom. A simple illustration from a trade I know very well
will show how far this is true. In the cotton thread trade,
spooling--that is, winding the thread on the small bobbin familiar to
every work-basket--was for many years done by women sitting at single
machines not unlike sewing machines, filling one spool at a time. The
customary wage was sixpence per gross of 200-yard spools; a good worker
could spool at least four gross per day, and make twelve shillings a
week. As in all industries, machinery was gradually introduced by which
cunning arrangements of mechanism did the greater part of the work;
instead of turning out one spool at a time the girl now watched the
machine turning out six, or nine, or twelve spools. When these machines
were introduced, how were the wages determined? For a few weeks the
girls were put on day wages, and when the machines were in good working
order, and the average production per machine had been ascertained, the
piece-work rate was fixed so as to allow of the girl making the same
average wage as she did before. That is to say, if the new machine
turned out in the same time six gross for every one gross turned out by
the hand machine, the price of labour per gross was reduced from
sixpence to one penny, and the wage continued at the customary level. So
far as sacrifice or skill goes, there was no reason why the worker
should get more, as, on the whole, it required less skill and attention
to turn out the six gross than it did to turn out the one. Thus it is, I
believe, over all the textile manufactures, with the exception, perhaps,
of weaving. The introduction of new processes displaces labour, but the
labour left does not get higher wages.

This, then, is the first conclusion I would come to: that in more cases
than we would believe the wage of women-workers is a "customary wage,"
fixed at a time when the world was poorer, and capital was more

This conclusion is, I think, strengthened by the case which, at first
sight, would seem to refute it. The great outstanding exception to low
wages in women's industries is, as before noted, in the Lancashire

There, not only are the rates of piece-work the same, but men and women
do exactly the same work side by side, practically under the same
Factory Act restrictions, and earn equal wages, namely, an average of
from 17s. 1d. in Carlisle to 21s. 4d. in Burnley.

But there is an exceptional circumstance in their case. It is that the
women are in the same strong Trade Union with the men, and under the
same obligations to the Union, and that any attempt to reduce the wages
of the one sex would be resisted with the whole strength of both. But
what if this Union were to break down?

It is as certain as anything based on experience can be that in a few
weeks, or even days, it would be possible for the employers to reduce
the wages of the women-workers; that, rather than lose their work, women
would consent to the reduction; that, as they accepted lower wages, men
would drop off to other industries, and would cease to compete for the
same work; and that, in a comparatively short time, power-loom weaving
would be left, like its sister cotton-spinning, to women-workers
exclusively, and wages fall to the general level of women's wage. For
what we are apt to forget is the constant inducement before the employer
to reduce women's wages. There are two ways in which a manufacturer can
add to his profits. One is by getting up his prices, the other by
reducing his costs. In the present state of competition we know what the
chance of getting up prices is, unless there is some element of monopoly
in the case, and even then it generally requires a combination or
syndicate of makers. But the employer is always looking out for ways of
reducing cost. Theoretically, the most obvious way of all is by reducing
wages. In men's trades, where reductions of wage are jealously watched,
employers think twice, however, before they try that particular
reduction of cost. In many factories, again, women's wages are purely
customary, and employers would not think of touching them. But in the
factories where wages are customary and almost fixed, the wages are also
_low_. If the customary wages in cotton-spinning were 16s. a week
instead of 10s., I venture to think that employers, in times of keen
competition, would be inclined to try a reduction. I mean that, if the
customary level of women's wages is 10s., the reason why it does not go
lower is chiefly because it cannot.

And here, I think, we are at the root of the matter. In looking over the
field of factory industries, in order to arrive at an average of women's
wages, it has struck me that the variations from the average of 10s. a
week are comparatively small. This is not an average made up from
widely different wage-bills, and from widely varying individual wages,
but from pay sheets that show small amounts of variation on one side or

This definiteness of average wage seems to me most explicable on the
supposition that women's wages are very near the only quite definite
level that political economy has ever pointed out, the level of

There are two ways, known to theory, of determining wage. In a
progressive society, where wealth is rapidly increasing, the tendency
will be towards payments by _results_, that is to say, by value of
product. Product being in this case the result of the co-operation of
land, labour, and capital, the problem is to find the share in that
product which is economically due to labour--that is to say, the share
"attributable" to the efficacy of labour. In a poor or backward society,
again, where labour and capital are struggling with an unfriendly
environment, and the return to industry is still uncertain, the risk and
the chances of speculation in the return are left to the only class who
can take risks, the capitalists.

England long ago passed from the latter to the former description of
society, and of her increased wealth the men-workers have obtained, we
may suppose, something like a share corresponding to the increased value
of the joint product. But, owing to want of organisation of
women-workers, it is yet possible to pay women by the other
standard--namely, according to their _wants_--and to keep them at the
same level of wage as they were content to take half-a-century ago.

It seems to me, in fact, that while men's wages, unless in the case of
unskilled workers, are determined ultimately by the value of product
which is economically "attributable" to their work, women's wages are
determined by the older and harsher law. "The wages, at least of single
women," said Mill, "must be equal to their support, but need not be more
than equal to it; the minimum in their case is the pittance absolutely
required for the sustenance of one human being.... The _ne plus ultra_
of low wages, therefore (except during some transitory crisis, or in
some decaying employment), can hardly occur in any occupation which the
person employed has to live by, except the occupations of women."

But, indeed, it is a lower depth to which women's wages have fallen than
the "sustenance of one human being." There may be persons that think
10s. a week is sufficient to keep a grown-up factory girl, living by
herself, in healthy and decent life. It certainly is true that in many
cases it has to serve till she accepts the release of marriage; but
surely the marriage of the English girl, factory or otherwise, is a
matter too serious to have the escape from a miserable wage added to its
attractions. It is sufficiently obvious that this level of wage was
never determined by sustenance, but by the competition of the "single
woman" with married women and widows who will take any wage rather than
see their children starve, with girls sent into the factory to add their
few pence per week to the earnings of the head of the house, and with

If this is so, what are the remedies? They are, briefly, organisation
and enlightenment of the public conscience.

First, organisation is necessary to protect women against employers and
against themselves--the one no less than the other. The true enemies of
the workers' organisations are, on the one hand, the grasping employer,
and, on the other, the "blackleg" worker. By the grasping employer I
mean the employer who really wishes to make a gain at the expense of the
people whom he employs; it is easy to see why he dislikes the trade
union. But the good employer--if he could only lift his horizon a
little--would see that he requires the help of the trade union, inasmuch
as he cannot keep up the wages if the workers do not assist him. The
best, the most amiable and just manufacturer, must sell his goods at the
same prices as his rivals. If these rivals, by securing low-priced
labour, can reduce the prices of their goods, he is almost forced to
reduce his wages. Consequently, if the trade unions could prevent
low-priced labour being offered they would most materially assist the
great majority of employers--for I am sanguine enough to believe that
most employers are anxious to pay their workers as high a wage as they
can. But the best employers are helpless to remedy the evils of a class
of workers who are hopelessly at war among themselves, and ready to take
each a lower wage than the other. Where a girl, coming out of a
comfortable home, is willing to take ten shillings a week because to her
it is "pocket money;" where the mother of five will take eight shillings
because her husband is out of work and she is the sole bread-winner;
where the mother of ten will accept six shillings because she has so
many mouths to feed; where the girl just in her teens will take four
shillings because she is a little girl--where all these different
women, with different motives, are competing against each other for
equal work, there is no remedy but the severe one of _preventing_ these
poor souls from dragging down the wage of each other. If women are ever
to get a fair day's wage on the ground of a fair day's _work_, as
distinguished from the wage determined by a woman's necessity, it will
only be by the old remedy of combination and the protection of the
average working woman against the more helpless members of her own sex.

But, second, enlightenment of the public conscience must supplement
organisation. It should not be difficult to convince educated people
that women's work should be paid on the same principle as that of
men--that is to say, according to their product, and not according to
their wants; and to make them pay, or insist on the worker being paid,
equal wages for equal work. But the point on which enlightenment does
seem very much needed is that of the supposed necessity for low wages.

I do not know how there could be any such necessity unless it was the
case that labour and capital, like land in some countries, had entered
on the stage of decreasing returns, and had, moreover, gone so far on
that down grade that the additional returns grew more slowly than
population--and no one has even suggested such an idea. I have already
tried to point out the fallacy that low prices explain low wages. It is,
however, perhaps advisable to note that they do not even, to any great
extent, condone, much less justify them.

Probably we are all familiar with an argument like this: Consider, it
is said, the great fact that calico is twopence a yard. Every woman in
England may now be clad in cotton fabrics which, a century ago, were
beyond the purchasing power of a queen. Beware how women are encouraged
to ask and to stand for higher wages, or calico will again be put beyond
the reach of any but queens. I confess I never heard this caution
without remembering Carlyle's indignant reply:--"We cannot have
prosperous cotton trades at the expense of keeping the Devil a partner
in them." The weakness of it will become obvious if we carry the matter
a little further and argue that if we can succeed in reducing women's
wages still more, say, to 5s. per week, we shall have a considerable
reduction in calico, and bring it within the reach of still poorer

It is Dickens, I think, who speaks of a horse that was fed on a system
which would have reduced his cost of upkeep to a straw a day, and would,
no doubt, have made him a very rampageous animal at that if,
unfortunately, the horse had not died! The idea that cheapness of goods
makes up for everything in the workers' circumstances is, perhaps, the
most deplorable of current fallacies. It is no less than that of
mistaking the whole end and aim of industry. The goal of economic effort
is not accumulation of wealth, but the support of wealthy human
beings--not "goods," as Aristotle told us long ago, but the "good life."
True economical cheapening of production is cheapening of natural powers
_outside_ of man--not cheap labour, but cheap machinery, cheap
organisation, cheap transit. This is a kind of cheapening of product
which can go on indefinitely. From the dawn of civilisation man has
been turning a hostile or indifferent environment into a rich and
friendly one. For ages, indeed, constant war hindered this conquest of
nature. It is only in this century that comparative peace among nations
has allowed the majority of men to give all their time and thought to
the economical life, and even yet the locusts of standing armies eat up
great part of our harvest field. But the changes which have been made on
the earth, as we know it, the natural resources of matter and force now
under our control, the complex and sensitive organisation which knits
the world together, all point to possibilities of wealth beyond the
wildest dreams of last century. There is some fatal leak in our
industrial system if every child in Great Britain this year is not the
heir of a richer heritage, at least of richer possibilities, than the
child of last year. If our fathers a generation ago earned 20s. by day
labouring, we should be earning 40s. by day labouring; or, if we are
still earning only 20s., the 20s. now should buy what 40s. did then.

Now, as this suggests, there are two lines which the economical progress
of the workers may take--that of advancing wages or that of cheapening
products. Which of these is preferable? Without entering on any more
discussion, two considerations may show that there is no comparison
between the two, so far as the workers are concerned.

First, the ideal condition of average human life is a condition of
well-paid wage earning; of steady assured labour, which does not strain
or stress, and is crowned visibly by the fruit of its own exertion.
There is nothing more depressing to the thoughtful economist than the
waste, positive and negative, which comes of disorganised labour; where
the working man and his wage are the sport of speculation, and the
period of high wages and overtime is succeeded by periods when the
worker is thrown on the streets to learn the bad lesson of spare time
without culture, and of leisure without rest. It is of small comfort to
the working man that the manufacturer and merchant share the bad time
with him, and that stocks are thrown on the market at "ruinous
sacrifices." In vain is the cheap sale advertised in sight of the
penniless buyer.

Second, while from one point of view it is all the same whether a
worker's wage is raised from 20s. to 40s. a week, or whether everything
he buys is reduced by 50 per cent., the balance of advantage is not so
simple as this. If the wages are raised the worker alone gets the
benefit. If commodities are reduced in price those who consume
them--namely, the whole community--get the benefit. If, by reducing
Tom's wages, you reduce the price of commodities which Tom, Dick, and
Harry buy, Tom divides the economic advantage, such as it is, with Dick
and Harry. Thus reduction of wages is never fully compensated by
reduction of prices. The seigniorage of current commodities is borne,
not by the community but by the workers.

Thus, I repeat that, while the fact that wider circles of population get
the advantage of cheap goods is some mitigation of the evil, it is no
justification of it. There is no reason why products should reach wider
and wider circles, except that the cheap products are a gain to the
wider circles. And if this gain tends to be outweighed by the evils of
reduced wages, calico at twopence a yard may be too cheap.

But if there is still some question whether, economically, it is
justifiable and advisable to organise workers to ask higher wages, and
to educate the public conscience to pay them, it may be settled, as
regards women at least, by this simple consideration. Wealth in Great
Britain, according to Mr. Giffen, increases annually by 3 per cent.,
while population increases by only 1·3 per cent. That is to say, wealth
increases more than twice as fast as population. In the light of this
statistic it _cannot_ be economically necessary that women's
remuneration for labour should remain at the subsistence level. If this
was a fair wage fifty years ago, it cannot be so now.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Women's Wages" ***

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