Bernard Shaw

Women in the Labor Market

Written: 1928;
Source: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism;
Published: Pelican Books, 1937;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan.

THE effect of the system on women was worse in some respects than men. As no industrial employer would employ a woman if he could get a man for the same money, women who wished to get any industrial employment could do so only by offering to do it for less than men. This was possible, because even when the man's wage was a starvation wage it was the starvation wage of a family, not of a single person. Out of it the man bad to pay for subsistence of his wife and children, without whom the Capitalist system would soon have come to an end for want of any young workers to replace the old ones. Therefore even when the men's wages were down to the lowest point at which their wives and children could be kept alive, a single woman could take less without being any worse off than her married neighbors and their children. In this way it became a matter of course that women should be paid less than men; and when any female rebel claimed to be paid as much as a man for the same work ('Equal wages for equal work'), the employer shut her up with two arguments: first, 'If you don't take the lower wage there are plenty of others who will', and, second, 'If I have to pay a man's wages I will get a man to do the work'.

The most important and indispensable work of women, that of bearing and rearing children, and keeping house for them, was never paid for directly to the woman but always through the man; and so many foolish people came to forget that it was work at all, and spoke of Man as The Breadwinner. This was nonsense. From first to last the woman's work in the home was vitally necessary to the existence of society, whilst millions of men were engaged in wasteful or positively mischievous work, the only excuse for which was that it enabled them to support their useful and necessary wives. But the men, partly through conceit, partly through thoughtlessness, and very largely because they were afraid that their wives might, if their value were recognized, become unruly and claim to be the heads of the household, set up a convention that women earned nothing and men everything, and refused to give their wives any legal claim on the housekeeping money. By law everything a woman possessed became the Property of her husband when she married: a state of things that led to such monstrous abuses that the propertied class set up an elaborate legal system of marriage settlements, the effect of which was to hand over the woman's property to some person or persons yet unborn before her marriage; so that though she could have an income from the property during her life, it was no longer her property, and therefore her husband could not make ducks and drakes of it. Later on the middle classes made Parliament protect their women by The Married Women's Property Acts under which we still live; and these Acts, owing to the confusion of people's minds on the subject, overshot the mark and produced a good deal of injustice to men. That, however, is another part of the story: the point to be grasped here is that under the Capitalist system women found themselves worse off than men because, as Capitalism made a slave of the man, and then, by paying the woman through him, made her his slave, she became the slave of a slave, which is the worst sort of slavery.

This suits certain employers very well, because it enables them to sweat other employers without being found out. And this is how it is done. A labourer finds himself bringing up a family of daughters on a wage of twenty-nine shillings a week in the country (it was thirteen in the nineteenth century), or, in or near a city, of from thirty (formerly eighteen) to seventy, subject to deductions for spells of unemployment. Now in a household scraping along on thirty shillings a week another five shillings a week makes an enormous difference: far more, I repeat, than another five hundred pounds makes to a millionaire. An addition of fifteen shillings or a pound a week raises the family of a laborer to the money level of that of a skilled workman. How were such tempting additions possible? Simply by the big girls going out to work at five shillings a week each, and continuing to live at home with their fathers. One girl meant another five shillings, two meant another ten shillings, three another fifteen shillings. Under such circumstances huge factories sprang up employing hundreds of girls at wages of from four-and-sixpence to seven-and-sixpence a week, the great majority getting five. These were called starvation wages; but the girls were much better fed and jollier and healthier than women who had to support themselves altogether. Some of the largest fortunes made in business: for example in the match industry, were made out of the five shilling girl living with, and of course partly on, her father, or as a lodger on somebody else's father, a girl lodger being as good as a daughter in this respect. Thus the match manufacturer was getting three-quarters of his labor at the father's expense. If the father worked in, say, a brewery, the match manufacturer was getting three-quarters of his labor at the expense of the brewer. In this way one trade lives by sweating another trade; and factory girls getting wages that would hardly support a prize cat are plump and jolly and willing and vigorous and rowdy, whilst older women, many of them widows with young children, are told that if they are not satisfied with the same wages there are plenty of strong girls who will be glad to get them.

It was not merely the daughters but the wives of working men who brought down women's wages in this way. In the cities young women, married to young men, and not yet burdened with many children or with more than a room or two to keep tidy at home (and they were often not too particular about tidiness), or having no children, used to be quite willing to go out as charwomen for an hour a day for five shillings a week, plus such little perquisites and jobs of washing as might be incidental to this employment. As such a charwoman had nothing to do at home, and was not at all disposed to go on to a second job when she had secured the five shillings that made all the difference between pinching and prodigality to her and her husband, the hour easily stretched to half a day. The five shillings have now become ten or so; but as they buy no more, the situation is not altered.

In this way the Labor market is infested with subsidized wives and daughters willing to work for pocket money on which no independent solitary woman or widow can possibly subsist. The effect is to make marriage compulsory as a woman's profession: she has to take anything she can get in the way of a husband rather than face penury as a single woman. Some women get married easily; but others, less attractive or amiable, are driven to every possible trick and stratagem to entrap some man into marriage; and that sort of trickery is not good for a women's self-respect, and does not lead to happy marriages when the men realize that they have been 'made a convenience of'.

This is bad enough; but there are lower depths still. It may not be respectable to live on a man's wages without marrying him; but it is possible. If a man says to a destitute woman 'I will not take you until death do us part, for better for worse, in sickness and in health and so forth; nor will I give you my name and the status of my legal wife; but if you would like to be my wife legally until tomorrow morning, here is sixpence and a drink for you, or, as the case may be, a shilling, or a pound, or ten pounds, or a hundred pounds, or a villa with a pearl necklace and a sable mantle and a motor car', he will hot always meet with a refusal. It is easy to ask a woman to virtuous; but it is not reasonable if the penalty of virtue be starvation, and the reward of vice immediate relief. If you offer a pretty girl twopence half penny an hour in a match factory, with a chance of contracting necrosis of the jawbone from phosphorous poisoning on the one hand, and on the other a jolly and pampered time under the protection of a wealthy bachelor, which was what the Victorian employers did and what employers still do all over the world when they are not stopped by resolutely socialistic laws, you are loading the dice in favor of the devil so monstrously as not only to make it certain that he will win, but raising the question whether the girl does not owe it to her own self-respect and desire for wider knowledge and experience, more cultivated society, and greater grace and elegance of life, to sell herself to a gentleman for pleasure rather than to an employer for profit. To warn her that her beauty will not last for ever only reminds her that if she takes reasonable care of her beauty it will last long past the age at which women,'too old at twenty-four', find the factory closed to them, and their places filled by younger girls. She has actually less security of respectable employment than of illicit employment; for the women who sell labor are often out of work through periods of bad trade and consequent unemployment; but the women who sell pleasure, if they are in other respects well conducted and not positively repulsive, are seldom at a loss for a customer. The cases which are held up as terrible warnings of how a woman may fall to the lowest depths of degradation by listening to such arguments are pious inventions, supported by examples of women who through drink, drugs, and general depravity of weakness of character would have fallen equally if they had been respectably married or had lived in the strictest celibacy. The incidental risks of venereal diseases are unfortunately not avoidable by respectable matrimony: more women are infected by their husbands than by their lovers. If a woman accepts Capitalist morality, and does what pays her best, she will take what district visitors call (when poor women are concerned) the wages of sin rather than the wages of sweated labor.

There are cases, too, where the wedding ring may be a drawback instead of a makeweight. Illicit unions are so common under the Capitalist system that the Government has had to deal with them; and the law at present is that if an unmarried woman bears a child she can compel its father to pay her seven-and-sixpence a week for its support until it is sixteen, at which age it can begin to help to support her. Meanwhile the child belongs to her instead of to the father (it would belong to him if they were married); and she is free from any obligation to keep his house or do any ordinary drudgery for him. Rather than be brought into court he will pay without demur; and when he is goodnatured and not too poor he will often pay her more than he is legally obliged to. The effect of this is that a careful, discreet, sensible, pleasant sort of woman who has not scrupled to bear five illegitimate children may find herself with a legally guaranteed steady income of thirty-seven-and-sixpence a week in addition to what she can earn by respectable work. Compared to a widow with five legitimate children she was on velvet until the Government, after centuries of blind neglect, began to pension widows.

In short, Capitalism acts on women as a continual bribe to enter into sex relations for money, whether in or out of marriage; and against this bribe there stands nothing beyond the traditional respectability which Capitalism ruthlessly destroys by poverty, except religion and the inborn sense of honor which has its citadel in the soul and can hold out (sometimes) against all circumstances.

It is useless to pretend that religion and tradition and honor always win the day. It is now a century and a half since the poet Oliver Goldsmith warned us that 'Honor sinks where commerce long prevails'; and the economic pressure by which Capitalism tempts women grew fiercer after his time. We have just seen how in the case of the parents sending their children out to work in their infancy to add a little to the family income, they found that their wages fell until what they and the children between them could earn was no more than they had been able to earn by themselves before, so that in order to live they now had to send their children to work whether they liked it or not. In the same way the women who occasionally picked up a little extra money illicitly, presently found themselves driven to snatch at employment by offering to take lower wages and depending on the other resource to make them up to subsistence point. Then the women who stood on their honor were offered those reduced wages, and, when they said they could not live on them, were told as usual that others could, and that they could do what the others did.

In certain occupations prostitution thus became practically compulsory, the alternative being starvation. Hood's woman clad in unwomanly rags, who sang the Song of the Shirt, represents either the woman who would starve rather than sell her person or the woman neither young enough nor agreeable ,enough to earn even the few pence she could hope for from the men within her reach. The occupations in which prostitution is almost a matter of course are by no means the sensationally abject and miserable ones. It is rather in the employments in which well-dressed and good-looking but unskilled women are employed to attract the public, that wages are paid on which they cannot possibly keep up the appearance expected from them. Girls with thirty shillings a week come to their work in expensive motor cars, and wear strings of pearls which, if not genuine, are at least the best imitations. If one of them asks how she can dress as she is expected to on thirty shillings a week she is either met with the old retort, 'If you wont take it there are plenty who will', or else told quite frankly that she is very lucky to get thirty shillings in addition to such a splendid advertisement and show-case for her attractions as the stage or the restaurant, the counter or the showroom, afford her. You must not, however, infer from this that all theatres, restaurants, showrooms and so forth exploit prostitution in this way. Most of them have permanent staffs of efficient respectable women, and could not be conducted in any other way. Neither must it be inferred that the young gentlemen who provide the motor cars and furs and jewels are always allowed to succeed in their expensive courtship. Sir Arthur Pinero's play Mind the Paint is instructively true to life on this point. But such relations are not made edifying by the plea that the gentlemen are bilked. It is safe to assume that when women are employed, not to do any specially skilled work, but to attract custom to the place by their sex, their youth, their good looks and their smart dressing, employers of a certain type will underpay them, and by their competition finally compel more scrupulous employers to do the same or be undersold and driven out of the business.

Now these are extremities to which men cannot be reduced. It is true that smart ladies can and do hire dancing partners at fifty francs an evening on the Riviera; but this quite innocent transaction does not mean that Capitalism can as yet say to a man,'If your wages are not enough to live on, go out into the streets and sell pleasures as others do'. When the man deals in that commodity he does so as a buyer, not as a seller. Thus it is the woman, not the man, who suffers the last extremity of the Capitalist system; and this is why so many conscientious women are devoting their lives to the replacement of Capitalism by Socialism.

But let not anyone imagine that men escape prostitution under Capitalism. If they do not sell their bodies they sell their souls. The barrister who in court strives 'to make the worse appear the better cause' has been held up as a stock example of the dishonesty of misrepresenting for money. Nothing could be more unjust. It is agreed, and necessarily agreed, that the best way of learning the truth about anything is not to listen to a vain attempt at an impartial and disinterested statement, but to hear everything that can possibly be said for it, and then everything that can possibly be said against it, by skilled pleaders on behalf of the interested parties on both sides. A barrister is bound to do his utmost to obtain a verdict for a client whom he privately believes to be in the wrong, just as a doctor is bound to do his utmost to save the life of a patient whose death would, in his private opinion, be a good riddance. The barrister is an innocent figure who is used to distract our attention from the writer and publisher of lying advertisements which pretend to prove the worse the better article, the shopman who sells it by assuring the customer that it is the best, the agents of drugging and drink, the clerk making out dishonest accounts, the adulterator and giver of short weight, the journalist writing for Socialist papers when he is a convinced Liberal, or for Tory papers when he is an Anarchist, the professional politician working for his party right or wrong, the doctor paying useless visits and prescribing bogus medicines to hypochondriacs who need only Abernethy's advice, 'Live on sixpence a day, and earn it', the solicitor using the law as an instrument for the oppression of the poor by the rich, the mercenary soldier fighting for a country which he regards as the worst enemy of his own, and the citizens of all classes who have to be obsequious to the rich and insolent to the poor. These ate only a few examples of the male prostitutions, so repeatedly and vehemently denounced by the prophets in the Bible as whoredoms and idolatries, which are daily imposed on men by Capitalism.

We see, then, that when the reproach of prostitution is raised neither woman nor man dares cast the first stone; for both have been equally stained with it under Capitalism. It may even be urged by special pleaders on behalf of women that the prostitution of the mind is more mischievous, and is a deeper betrayal of the divine purpose of our powers, than the prostitution of the body, the sale of which does not necessarily involve its misuse. As a matter of fact nobody has ever blamed Nell Gwynne for selling her body as Judas Iscariot for selling his soul. But whatever satisfaction the pot may have in calling the kettle blacker than itself the two blacks do not make a white. And the abstract identity of male and female prostitution only brings out more strongly the physical difference, which no abstract argument can balance. The violation of one's person is a quite peculiar sort of outrage. Anyone who does not draw a line between it and offences to the mind ignores the plain facts of human sensitiveness. For instance, landlords have had the power to force Dissenters to send their children to Church schools, and have used it. They have also had a special power over women to anticipate a husband's privilege, and have either used it or forced the woman to buy them off. Can a woman feel about the one case as about the other? A man cannot. The quality of the two wrongs is quite different. The remedy for the one could wait until after the next general election. The other does not bear thinking of for a moment. Yet there it is.