[Most of the essays in the 1865 collection on "Woman's Work" by Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925) had previously appeared in the English Woman's Journal. - Graham Law]

Women's Work

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very woman ought to read Miss Parkes's little volume on Woman's Work. Miss Parkes has nothing which is absolutely new to say or to suggest; and that is, indeed, one of the attractions of her Essays. With all the talent and with all the zeal which she exerts in behalf of her sex, she is determined not to be betrayed into extravagance, not to fail of moderation, not even to hint at what is impracticable. A woman can do no greater wrong to women just now than by the assertion of impracticable schemes for the supposed behoof of the sex; and we rejoice to say of Miss Parkes that, in dealing with this extremely difficult question of the position of women, she shows that she has inherited not a little of the good sense and practical turn for which her father was distinguished.

But when we dwell upon this characteristic of her little book, the inevitable question arises, - If Miss Parkes has nothing new to suggest what is the object of her volume? Now, we believe that no one can accomplish more good for womankind at present than by stating clearly and forcibly, truthfully and soberly, what is the precise position of the sex in the present stage of our civilization. Within living memory, the position of women in the world has sensibly altered; Miss Parkes undertakes to describe wherein that alteration consists; and there is nothing more necessary now than to have the altered state of things recognized. Miss Parkes has accomplished her task with much ability, with a feeling that commands our sympathies, and with a tact that saves her pleadings from ridicule. It is but too easy to make mirth of petticoats. We have heard so much of woman's rights, and this whole subject of women has been so vulgarized by coarse treatment, has been so inflated by nonsense, that few now care to give in the serious attention which it deserves. In Miss Parkes's volume the reader will not find a word about woman's rights - not a sentence which is disturbed with the spirit of Bloomerism. Her discourse is of woman's duties, woman's wants, woman's work. What is expected of women in the altered condition of modern society? How are women to get their living? And how can we assist them in their efforts? In answer to these questions Miss Parkes writes with ample knowledge, and with the shrewdness of a political economist. She desires no more than we desire, - that the facts should be acknowledged. As soon as a position is accepted, instantly it becomes easy and natural. It is a position false, forced, unnatural, and surrounded by difficulties until it is fairly recognised. And Miss Parkes argues that the position of those ladies, who have to earn their bread is not fairly recognized. It is the position of a minority of ladies; therefore it is treated as an exceptional position - therefore, also, as one which it is not necessary to recognize, to respect, and to facilitate. We give pity to such a position, but pity, with all its kindliness, may be injurious. What is wanted is not that the women who have to earn their bread should have upon them the slur which is implied in pity, but that they should be recognized as engaged in a natural and honourable duty to which no social disadvantage ought to be attached.

From these observations it will be understood that when Miss Parkes sits down to write Essays on woman's work she means not the work of the vast majority of women. The vast majority of women are engaged in the work of managing their homes. They are wives, and mothers, and mistresses of households. The work which Miss Parkes thinks of is the work of those who either have no household cares, or have something more than a household to look after. If these are a minority among the women of England they are certainly a very large minority, when we consider the number of women among the lower classes who have to seek employment away from their homes, in great mills and factories, in cornfields and turnip fields, in domestic service, in shops, in dressmaking, in bookbinding, and in all the lighter trades. It is not, however, of women in the lower classes that Miss Parkes now writes. Their position as bread-winners is perfectly recognized, and if it were not recognized they would not much care. It is enough for them that the position is recognized among themselves; and being recognized it is accepted as a matter of routine, it is surrounded with no difficulties. A girl of the lower class is not supposed to be out of her position when she leaves her father's home to become a chambermaid, to go into millinery, or to help in making steel pens. The whole difficulty concerns women of the middle class, and especially women who are ladies or set up for ladies. In the middle class, and especially in the upper ranks of this middle class, the theory is that the men provide for the women, and therefore that the women have nothing to do. Husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons take care for the most part of their female relatives - at least keep them from want if they cannot indulge them in affluence. That is the theory, and the theory usurps authority over facts which may be opposed to it, teaching us insensibly to underrate these facts, and to treat them as wholly exceptional. In truth, however, the exceptions are very numerous, - far more numerous than people suppose; we mean the cases of women, most of them ladies, who are forced upon the world, and who have to fight their way there. They are to be counted in this land, not merely by thousands, but by tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands. There are widows left penniless, and daughters left homeless; sisters whose brothers can afford them but the scantiest maintenance, and mothers who see the hunger of their babes which they cannot assuage. What is to be done for these? They can go out as governesses, and they can turn authoresses: what else can they do? There are heaps of things which they might do if only it were properly recognized that they might do them and that they ought to be prepared to do them. The theory is that no woman who is born in the position of a lady will ever require to do anything, and so she is never taught anything which she can afterwards turn to profit when she is thrown upon her own resources. Miss Parkes's argument is that this state of things should be recognised - that women in the position of ladies have to help themselves, that they ought to be prepared to help themselves, and that we ought to facilitate their attempts to do so. What if a lady is not by nature an artist, cannot be an authoress, and has not the gift of teaching? Is she to have no chance of doing anything else? Ought we not to give her chances in other descriptions of work? Ought it not to be arranged in her education that, as, however fair her prospects may be, there is always at least a chance of poverty overtaking her, and no help near at hand, she should be prepared by solid acquirements to encounter and overcome the miseries of such a lot? And when she is thus accoutred and can undertake duties different from those of a governess, or an authoress, or an artist - duties which women are not usually called on to accept - need we pity her as a victim? Need we brand her as strong-minded? Why should we not accept her as an honest woman honourably doing her duty in her proper sphere? [10c]

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[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland.] "Woman's Work," The Times (31 August 1865): 10c. [Review of Bessie Rayner Parkes, Essays on Woman's Work, London: Strahan, 1865.]

Created 2 February 2024