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For Her Daily Bread

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Robert Green Ingersoll


I HAVE read this story, this fragment of a life mingled with fragments of other lives, and have been pleased, interested, and instructed. It is filled with the pathos of truth, and has in it the humor that accompanies actual experience. It has but little to do with the world of imagination; certain feelings are not attributed to persons born of fancy, but it is the history of a heart and brain interested in the common things of life. There are no kings, no lords, no titled ladies, but there are real people, the people of the shop and street whom every reader knows, and there are lines intense and beautiful, and scenes that touch the heart. You will find no theories of government, no hazy outlines of reform, nothing but facts and folks, as they have been, as they are, and probably will be for many centuries to come.

If you read this book you will be convinced that men and women are good or bad, charitable or heartless, by reason of something within, and not by virtue of any name they bear, or any trade or profession they follow, or of any creed they may accept. You will also find that men sometimes are honest and mean; that women may be very virtuous and very cruel; that good, generous and sympathetic men are often disreputable, and that some exceedingly worthy citizens are extremely mean and uncomfortable neighbors.

It takes a great deal of genius and a good deal of self-denial to be very bad or to be very good. Few people understand the amount of energy, industry, and self-denial it requires to be consistently vicious. People who have a pride in being good and fail, and those who have a pride in being bad and fail, in order to make their records consistent generally rely upon hypocrisy. The people that live and hope and fear in this book, are much like the people who live and hope and fear in the actual world. The professor is much like the professor in the ordinary college. You will find the conscientious, half-paid teacher, the hopeful poor, the anxious rich, the true lover, the stingy philanthropist, who cares for people only in the aggregate, — the individual atom being too small to attract his notice or to enlist his heart; the sympathetic man who loves himself, and gives, not for the sake of the beggar, but for the sake of getting rid of the beggar, and you will also find the man generous to a fault — with the money of others. And the reader will find these people described naturally, truthfully and without exaggeration, and he will feel certain that all these people have really lived.

The reader of this story will get some idea as to what is encountered by a girl in an honest effort to gain her daily bread. He will find how steep, how devious and how difficult is the path she treads.

There are so few occupations open to woman, so few things in which she can hope for independence, that to be thrown upon her own resources is almost equivalent to being cast away. Besides, she is an object of continual suspicion, watched not only by men but by women. If she does anything that other women are not doing, she is at once suspected, her reputation is touched, and other women, for fear of being stained themselves, withdraw not only the hand of help, but the smile of recognition. A young woman cannot defend herself without telling the charge that has been made against her. This, of itself, gives a kind of currency to slander. To speak of the suspicion that has crawled across her path, is to plant the seeds of doubt in other minds; to even deny it, admits that it exists. To be suspected, that is enough. There is no way of destroying this suspicion. There is no court in which suspicions are tried; no juries that can render verdicts of not guilty. Most women are driven at last to the needle, and this does not allow them to live; it simply keeps them from dying.

It is hard to appreciate the dangers and difficulties that lie in wait for woman. Even in this Christian country of ours, no girl is safe in the streets of any city after the sun has gone down. After all, the sun is the only god that has ever protected woman. In the darkness she has been the prey of the wild beast in man.

Nearly all charitable people, so-called, imagine that nothing is easier than to obtain work. They really feel that anybody, no matter what his circumstances may be, can get work enough to do if he is only willing to do the work. They cannot understand why any healthy human being should lack food or clothes. Meeting the unfortunate and the wretched in the streets of the great city, they ask them in a kind of wondering way, why they do not go to the West, why they do not cultivate the soil, and why they are so foolish, stupid, and reckless as to remain in the town. It would be just as sensible to ask a beggar why he does not start a bank or a line of steamships, as to ask him why he does not cultivate the soil, or why he does not go to the West. The man has no money to pay his fare, and if his fare were paid he would be, when he landed in the West, in precisely the same condition as he was when he left the East. Societies and institutions and individuals supply the immediate wants of the hungry and the ragged, but they afford only the relief of the moment.

Articles by the thousand have been written for the purpose of showing that women should become servants in houses, and the writers of these articles are filled with astonishment that any girl should hesitate to enter domestic service. They tell us that nearly every family needs a good cook, a good chambermaid, a good sweeper of floors and washer of dishes, a good stout girl to carry the baby and draw the wagon, and these good people express the greatest astonishment that all girls are not anxious to become domestics. They tell them that they will be supplied with good food, that they will have comfortable beds and warm clothing, and they ask, “What more do you want?” These people have not, however, solved the problem. If girls, as a rule, keep away from kitchens and chambers, if they hate to be controlled by other women, there must be a reason. When we see a young woman prefer a clerkship in a store, — a business which keeps her upon her feet all day, and sends her to her lonely room, filled with weariness and despair, and when we see other girls who are willing to sew for a few cents a day rather than become the maid of “my lady,” there must be some reason, and this reason must be deemed sufficient by the persons who are actuated by it. What is it?

Every human being imagines that the future has something in store for him. It is natural to build these castles in Spain. It is natural for a girl to dream of being loved by the noble, by the superb, and it is natural for the young man to dream of success, of a home, of a good, a beautiful and loving wife. These dreams are the solace of poverty; they keep back the tears in the eyes of the young and the hungry. To engage in any labor that degrades, in any work that leaves a stain, in any business the mention of which is liable to redden the cheek, seems to be a destruction of the foundation of hope, a destruction of the future; it seems to be a crucifixion of his or her better self. It assassinates the ideal.

It may be said that labor is noble, that work is a kind of religion, and whoever says this tells the truth. But after all, what has the truth to do with this question? What is the opinion of society? — What is the result? It cures no wound to say that it was wrongfully inflicted. The opinion of sensible people is one way, the action of society is inconsistent with that opinion. Domestic servants are treated as though their employment was and is a degradation. Bankers, merchants, professional men, ministers of the gospel, do not want their sons to become the husbands of chambermaids and cooks. Small hands are beautiful; they do not tell of labor.

I have given one reason; there is another. The work of a domestic is never done. She is liable to be called at any moment, day or night, She has no time that she can call her own. A woman who works by the piece can take a little rest; if she is a clerk she has certain hours of labor and the rest of the day is her own.

And there is still another reason that I almost hate to give, and that is this: As a rule, woman is exacting with woman. As a rule, woman does not treat woman as well as man treats man, or as well as man treats woman. There are many other reasons, but I have given enough.

For many years, women have been seeking employment other than that of domestic service. They have so hated this occupation, that they have sought in every possible direction for other ways to win their bread. At last hundreds of employments are open to them, and, as a consequence, domestic servants are those who can get nothing else to, do.

In the olden time, servants sat at the table with the family; they were treated something like human beings, harshly enough to be sure, but in many cases almost as equals. Now the kitchen is far away from the parlor. It is another world, occupied by individuals of a different race. There is no bond of sympathy — no common ground. This is especially true in a Republic. In the Old World, people occupying menial places account for their positions by calling attention to the laws — to the hereditary nobility and the universal spirit of caste. Here, there are no such excuses. All are supposed to have equal opportunities and those who are compelled to labor for their daily bread: in avocations that require only bodily strength, are regarded as failures. It is this fact that stabs like a knife. And yet in the conclusion drawn, there is but little truth. Some of the noblest and best pass their lives in daily drudgery and unremunerative toil — while many of the mean, vicious and stupid reach place and power.

This story is filled with sympathy for the destitute, for the struggling, and tends to keep the star of hope above the horizon of the unfortunate. After all, we know but little of the world, and have but a faint conception of the burdens that are borne, and of the courage and heroism displayed by the unregarded poor. Let the rich read these pages; they will have a kinder feeling toward those who toil; let the workers read them, and they will think better of themselves.

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