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Professional Work for Women by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

From, Maids Wives and Bachelors


That man should provide and woman dispense are the radical conditions of domestic service; conditions which I believe are highly favorable to the development of the highest type of womanhood. But at the same time they are far from embracing all women capable of high development, nor are they perhaps suitable for every phase of character included in that myriad-minded creature—woman.

For just as one tree attains its most perfect beauty through sheltering care, and another strikes the deepest roots and lifts the greenest boughs by self-reliant struggles, so also some women reach their highest development through domestic duties, while others hold their life most erect through public service and enforced responsibilities.

It has taken the world, however, nearly 6,000 years to come to the understanding that these latter souls must not be denied their proper arena, that brains have no sex, and that it is well for the world to have its work done irrespective of anything but the capability of the workers. But it has now so far accepted the doctrine that women who must labor if they would live honestly and independently need no longer do so under sufferance or suspicion. Wherever they can best make their way the road is open, and they are encouraged to make it; nor am I aware of any serious restriction laid on them, except one, whose true kindness is in its apparent severity,—namely, that the debutante must justify her work by her success in it. I call this kind, because favor and toleration are here unkind; since she who stands from any other reason than absolute fitness will sooner or later fall by an inevitable law.

The great curse of women, educated and yet unprovided for, is not that they have to labor, but that, having to work, they cannot find the work to do. Nor is it generally their fault; they have probably been miseducated in the old idea that marriage is the only social salvation provided whereby woman can be saved; and no one having married them, what are these compulsory social sinners to do?

A great number turn instinctively to literature for help and comfort; and their instinct in many respects is not at fault; for literature is one of the few professions that from the first has dealt kindly and honorably with women. Here the race is fair; if the female pen is fleetest, it wins.

But writing does not come by nature; it is an art to be seriously and sedulously pursued. My own reflection and experience lead me to believe that within the last thirty years its methods have radically changed. That condition of inspiration and mental excitement once considered the native air of genius has lost much of its importance; and people now ordinarily write by the exercise of their reason and reflection, and by the continual and faithful cultivation of such natural powers as they are endowed with. Upon the whole, it is a mark of rational progress, and opens the field to every woman who is thoughtful and cultivated and willing to study industriously. Not undervaluing the mood of inspiration, I yet honestly believe that for practical bread-winning purposes reason and study are the most effectual aids, and the hours devoted to personal culture by acquiring information just so much “stock in trade” acquired.

The motives for writing, too, have either changed with the method, or else writers have become more honest, as they have become more reasonable. I can remember when every author imagined himself influenced by some unworldly consideration, such as the desire to do good, or to instruct, or at least because he had something to say which constrained him to write. But people now sell their knowledge as they sell any other commodity; the best and the greatest men write simply for money, and no woman need feel any conscientious scruples because her own pressing cares sometimes obliterate the full sense of her responsibility. God does not work alone with model men and women. He takes us just as we are; and I know that the stray arrow shot from the bow when the hand was weary and the mind halting has often struck nearer home than those set with scrupulous exactness and sped with careful aim.

Besides writing, there are other literary occupations specially suited to women, such as index-makers, amanuenses, and proof-readers. The first need a clear head and great patience, but the remuneration is very good. An amanuensis must have a rapid hand, a fair education, and such a quick, sympathetic mind as will enable her to readily adapt herself to the author's moods, and in some measure follow his train of thought. Proof-reading pre-supposes a general high cultivation, enough knowledge of French, Latin, etc., to read and correct quotations, and an intimate acquaintance with general literature, as well as grammar, orthography, and punctuation. But though a responsible position, women, both from physical and mental aptitude, fill it better than men. They have a faculty of detecting errors immediately, often without knowing why or how, and are both more patient and more expert. The editors of the Christian Union practically support me in this opinion, and the carefully correct type of the paper is evidence of the highest order. The conditions of these three employments being present, the mere technicalities of each are of the simplest kind, and very easily acquired.

“A fair field and no favor” has also been freely granted to women in every department of music and art. But in its highest branches public opinion is inexorable to mediocrity; and success is absolutely dependent on great natural abilities, thoroughly and highly cultivated. But there are many inferior branches in which women of average ability, properly educated, may make honorable and profitable livelihoods. Such, for instance, as engraving on wood and steel, chasing gold and silver, cutting gems and cameos, and designing for all these purposes.

Not a few women (and men too) make good livings by designing costumes for the large dry-goods houses and the fashionable modistes; but the good designer is a creator, and this faculty has always hitherto been confined to a small number both of men and women. The ability to draw by no means proves it; this is only the tool, the design is the thought. Therefore schools of design, though they may furnish natural designers with tools, cannot make designers. If designing, then, is a woman's object, she must not deceive herself; for if the “faculty divine” is not present she may devote years to study, and never rise above the mere copyist.

It is usually conceded that antiquity and general “use and wont” confer a kind of claim to any office. If so, then women have an inherited right, almost wide as the world, and coeval with history, to practise medicine. Every one recognizes them as the natural physicians of the household, and under all our ordinary ailments it is to some wise woman of our family we go for advice or assistance. As Miss Cobbe says,—

“Who ever dreams of asking his grandfather, or his uncle, his footman, or his butler what he shall do for his cold, or to be so kind as to tie up his cut finger?” Yet women regard such requests as perfectly natural, and are very seldom unable to gratify them.

Medicine as a profession for women has almost won its ground; and as it is a science largely depending on insight into individual peculiarities, it would seem to be specially their office. An illustrious physician says, “There are no diseases, there are diseased people;” and the remark explains why women—who instinctively read mental characters—ought to be admirable physicians.

Indeed female physicians have already gained a position which entitles them to demand their male opponents to “show cause why” they may not share in all the honors and emoluments of the faculty. That the profession, as a means of employment for women, is gaining favor is evident from their large attendance at the free medical colleges for women in this city, nor are there any facts to indicate that their practice is less safe than that of men; and if accidents have taken place, they were doubtless the result of ignorance, and not of sex.

Theodore Parker favored even the legal profession for women, giving it as his opinion that “he must be rather an uncommon lawyer who thinks no feminine head could compete with him.” Most lawyers are rather mechanics at law, than attorneys or scholars at law; and in the mechanical part women could do as well as men, could be as good conveyancers, could follow precedents as carefully and copy forms as nicely. “I think,” he adds, “their presence would mend the manners of the court on the bench, not less than of the bar.”

But though, if properly prepared, there would seem no reason why women could not write out wills, deeds, mortgages, indentures, etc., yet I doubt much whether they have the natural control and peculiar aptitudes necessary for a counsellor at law. But no one will deny a woman's capability to teach, even though so many have gone into the office that have no right there; for mere ability is not enough. Teachers, like artists, are born teachers, and the power to impart knowledge is a free gift of nature.

Those, then, who accept the office without vocation for it, just for a livelihood, both degrade themselves and it. The duties undertaken with reluctance lack the spirit which gives light and interest; the children suffer intelligently, the teacher morally. But if a woman becomes a teacher, having a call which is unmistakable, she is doubly blessed, and the world may drop the compassionate tone it is fond of displaying toward her, or, if it is willing to do her justice, may pay her more and pity her less.

The question of a woman's right to preach is one that conscience rather than creeds or opinions must settle. It must be allowed that her natural influence is, and always has been greater than any delegated authority. She is born priestess over every soul she can influence, and the question of her right to preach seems to be only the question of her right to extend her influence. In this light she has always been a preacher; it is her natural office, from which nothing can absolve her. A woman must influence for good or evil every one she comes in contact with; by no direct effort perhaps, but simply because she must, it is her nature and her genius.

Whether women will ever do the world's highest work as well as men, I consider, in all fairness, yet undecided. She has not had time to recover from centuries of no-education and mis-education: She is only just beginning to understand that neither beauty nor tact can take the place of skill, and that to do a man's work she must prepare for it as a man prepares; but even if time proves that in creative works she cannot attain masculine grandeur of conception and power of execution, she may be just as excellent in her own way; and there are and always will be people who prefer Mrs. Browning to Milton, and George Eliot to Lord Bacon.

At first sight there seems some plausibility in the assertion that woman's physical inferiority will always render her unfit to do men's work. But all physical excellence is a matter of cultivation; and it would be very easy to prove that women are not naturally physically weaker than men. In all savage nations they do the hardest work, and Mr. Livingstone acknowledged that all his ideas as to their physical inferiority had been completely overturned.

In China they do the work of men, with the addition of an infant tied to their back. In Calcutta and Bombay, they act as masons, carry mortar, and there are thousands of them in the mountain passes bearing up the rocky heights baskets of stone and earth on their heads. The women in Germany and the Low Countries toil equally with the men. During the late war I saw American women in Texas keep the saddle all day, driving cattle or superintending the operations in the cotton-patch or the sugar-field. Nay, I have known them to plough, sow, reap, and get wood from the cedar brake with their own hands.

Woman's physical strength has degenerated for want of exercise and use; but it would be as unfair to condemn her to an inferior position on this account as it was for the slave master to urge the necessity of slavery because of the very vices slavery had produced. However, if women are really to succeed they must give to their preparation for a profession the freshest years of life. If it is only taken up because marriage has been a failure, or if it is pursued with a divided mind, they will always be behind-hand and inferior. But the compensation is worth the sacrifice. A profession once acquired, they have home, happiness, and independence in their hands; the future, as far as possible, is secure, the serenity and calmness of assurance strengthens the mind and sweetens the character, and from the standpoint of a self-sustaining celibacy marriage itself assumes its loftiest position; it is no longer the aim, but the crown and completion of her life; for she need not, so she will not, marry for anything but love, and thus her wifehood will lose nothing of the grace and glory that belongs to it of right.


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