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Have the Rich a Right To Work?


“What do you think of  my giving music lessons?” asked Mary, of her family, assembled at breakfast.

“I don’t think of it; I am able to support my family. It would injure my credit in business,” replied her father.

“No, indeed!” said her mother. “We’ve never come down in the world so much that the women in the family have had to go to work. It’s not to be thought of. It would injure your social prestige.”

Mary looked disappointed and dropped her eyes. After a moment’s silence she spoke again in a different tone. “I shall have to have a new dress; can you let me have the money, to-day, Papa?”

“I’m afraid I can’t, my child. Your wardrobe is very expensive. You must learn to be satisfied with looking respectable, my means are limited, you know.”

“But I don’t look respectable. That’s the difficulty,” said Mary. “That’s why I want to give music lessons. The money I could earn would buy all these extra things that I need, and hate so to ask for. I love to teach; I am not satisfied to just go on self-denying, when, by working, I could earn what I long for, and feel that I am useful in the world, too.”

“Women have no call to be useful in the world,” said her father. “Their sphere is the home. Why don’t you help your mother in the house? Two servants are more than I can afford; dismiss one and seek to fulfill the duties of womanhood.”

“Do you wish me to wait on the table and wash the front windows?” asked Mary.

“No, don’t be foolish; of course not. I wish you would make cake; and weigh the meat. The butcher robs us. And such things.”

“The maid doesn’t make cake; but she does wait on table and wash windows. I am not fit for her work, you see. Will you pay me as much for weighing the meat and making cake as I could earn by six music pupils at a dollar each?” asked Mary.

“If I haven’t money to give you when you ask for it, I certainly shall not throw it away on such an unbusinesslike arrangement. Your mother pays two dollars and a half, and Grace works all day, I don’t ask you to do that. I’ll give you a dollar a week.”

“I could better afford to buy off my time at two and a half and pocket the difference,” said Mary. “Fifty dollars a year would not pay for all my dress.

I need a new hat, and shoes, and neckties, and more music lessons for myself, besides. And that is why,” continued Mary, with heightened color, “I did not say anything about giving music lessons till I found I could. I have the tuitions of my first quarter’s lessons in my pocket this minute, enough to buy all the things I spoke about.”

“Are those pupils going to take any more lessons?” asked Mary’s father, in a tone between chagrin and anxiety.

“Yes; they are all satisfied, and I am promised two others.”

“In that case, as you did not ask my advice in the first place, I have nothing to say,” said Mary’s father. “You’ll regret it, though.”

“I wish you had had more regard for our feelings,” said her mother. “But now your father has left the room I will say that I couldn’t see where you were going to get your spring suit, and, as it is, you can have what you please.”

* * *

Mary’s determination caused a good deal of comment at the music club of which she was a shining light.

“Have you heard that Mary is giving music lessons?” asked the secretary of the president.

“What a shame,” said the president. “What right has a girl with a father able to support her to take the bread out of the mouth of those that are obliged to depend on their own exertions?”

“I don’t see how she can reconcile it with her conscience,” remarked the secretary. “There is the case of Maria Benson, in Bozrah. She studied in Boston and made herself very competent indeed, and then just because she was tired of being idle and wanted something to do she supplanted Miss Pettibone, who had a mother to support and till then had had all the teaching. Of course, Maria was a better teacher than Miss Pettibone; but I thought she was much to blame.”

“Why, I understood that Miss Pettibone was very unfit to teach, her pupils couldn’t play,” suggested the treasurer.

“That’s true, but she needed the money, and Maria Benson didn’t. Miss Pettibone was obliged to give up teaching, and apply for the post-office. The town had to send to Washington and get her the appointment, because there didn’t seem anything else she was fit for. It is an example of the harm women do when they thrust themselves into business-life. They upset everything.”

“You haven’t made me understand exactly,” answered the treasurer, who held advanced ideas. “Didn’t Maria Benson satisfy the parents of her pupils?”

“Oh, certainly. She had a genius for teaching, you know. Since she went home to Bozrah the town has grown quite musical.”

“And I understood Miss Pettibone made a very good postmistress ?”

“The best they ever have had.”

“Then Maria hasn’t taken the bread out of her mouth. And the parents in Bozrah have been getting their money’s worth, for the first time. How has any public interest been injured?”

“The person who has been injured is Si. Kratz; he allowed he was going to be postmaster, because he was tired of farming it; and now Miss Pettibone has done so well he couldn’t get it away from her; and it’s a case of women’s occupying positions that ought to be given to men. He’s joined the Populists, because he’s mad.”

“I can’t understand how the fact that Si. Kratz raised seventy bushels of potatoes and five tons of hay has impoverished the community. As I see it, the town of Bozrah is seventy bushels of potatoes better off than it would have been if Maria had not gone into music teaching.”

“You always were very queer, Matilda,” said the president to the treasurer, candidly. Then the treasurer gathered up her papers, and prepared to leave the room and the president and the secretary to themselves. She turned at the door, however. “There are two points of view to consider,” said she, with her hand on the knob; “in the first place, it is the birthright of everyone, woman or man, to seek life, liberty, and happiness. But work is the only way to obtain any of the three. No one has a right to debar May and Maria from the work they need for their well being. The circumstance that they have a present assurance of support is no more a reason for shutting them out of activity than it would be Mary’s brother or Maria’s cousin, who are in exactly the same circumstances. They need the work for their characters; and the world needs the kind of work their characters make them do. Miss Pettibone’s support does not come into their problem at all. Miss Pettibone’s support is her own problem, not Maria’s. I understood that Mary’s father offered to dismiss the second girl and let her do the housework. But why should Grace be turned out of her place so that Mary should work any more than Miss Pettibone? She has fewer resources than Miss Pettibone, and equal need for earning.

“The other point is that when women with means don’t work; or, if working, do not use their powers to the best advantage, the world is impoverished by the loss of their labor. Suppose five people were on a desert island and only four of them worked to procure the necessities of life. Is it not clear that 20 per cent. of the earnings of the four workers would be absorbed without return? The actual situations of life are more complex, but the idler is just as great a tax on the community as in the more primitive condition cited.

“The entrance of women into music with sufficient capital to prosecute their profession to advantage is the best thing that could happen. No profession can thrive without capital. Music is not like a city wood-yard, where applicants show their willingness to work before receiving their dole. It is a profession and an art; and the more favorable the conditions under which it is prosecuted, the better for art and for the community. Society grows rich by industry, not by abstinence from industry.”

The treasurer closed the door and left the ladies, who had heard her with respect, because, she, being a businesswoman herself, wore a certain suggestion of the aureole of masculine prerogative. But when she was fairly out of earshot they returned to the case of Mary and Maria. “There’s nothing to prevent their going into the profession of music if they wish,” said the president; “but I can tell them one thing: they will not marry as well. They are nice girls and promise to develop into superior women. There’s nothing the average young man is so much afraid to undertake as a superior woman, who has shown a liking for independence, and they’ll find it out.”

“I think there’s something in what Matilda said, though,” said the secretary. “I can’t see why the fact that Si. Kratz joined the Populists reflects on Maria.”

“Well, my husband says it does,” responded the president, with an air of conviction. “You see, Si. has always voted the straight ticket, and every vote counts where there are so many more women than men, like Bozrah. I did say that about Si.’s raising potatoes where Maria couldn’t, myself. But he said I didn’t know anything about political economy.”

“What is political economy?” asked the secretary, with a slight hardness in her voice.

“Economy is getting along with half you need, and political economy is making womankind do it, I guess. At any rate, my husband said Maria and Miss Pettibone had intruded because they were only women, and women don’t count. I shouldn’t wonder if Si. got Miss Pettibone out.”

The eyes of the two women met, and their mouths drew slightly at the corners, but neither made any comment. They didn’t count either. The president now gathered up her possessions, and in her turn departed, leaving the secretary alone.

“Don’t count!” said the secretary, who was unmarried, to herself; “and he is a nice man, too, quite as nice as I thought he was a long time ago. Well; no man has a right to say that to my face. I hope Mary and Maria will make a success of it, even if they don’t count for as much as a turn-coat like Si. Kratz. Don’t count at all, in fact.”

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You are reading Have the Rich a Right To Work? from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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