Unsexed by Labor: Middle-Class Women and the Need to Work

Article excerpt

In the post-Civil War struggle in the United States to regain economic stability it was not uncommon for single, middle-class women to leave home and seek employment either out of necessity or, increasingly, out of a desire to develop a professional career. Whether needing money or discontented and unfulfilled, the number of women entering the job market continued to increase. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century the number of women employed outside the home skyrocketed: by 1890 almost 4 million--approximately 20 percent of American women--were what the Census Bureau called "gainfully employed" ("Change;" Foner 257). It was during the 1870s, however, that writers began to incorporate such women into their fiction, exploring these difficulties. During the first part of the decade, two works appeared that looked at such issues: Louisa May Alcott's Work and Lillie Devereaux Blake's Fettered for Life. In their portrayals of working women, Alcott and Blake raise most of the important, sometimes troubling questions working women faced, as well as those they presented to their society. The authors also examine why a woman would want to work, especially why a "properly brought up" young woman would desire to do so.

In 1873 Alcott published Work, a novel exploring the employment possibilities available to a young, middle-class woman forced to earn a living. Through a series of dead-end, but acceptable, jobs--seamstress, governess, companion, and actress--Christie Devon fuses the notions of the lady and the worker. Since she never enters the factory (which by this time had lost the genteel coloration of the Lowell Experiment (1)) or becomes an advocate for proletarian reform, Christie can be viewed as encompassing the "fine instincts [and] gracious manners" of the upper classes mixed with the "skill and courage" of working women (430). Within Work, Alcott's representation of labor focuses on "those too refined to stand it for long" and all but ignores the jobs and indignities faced by many working-class women. The novel's depiction of feminine labor outside the laboring poor, particularly those involved in factory work, represents a new area for women writers. (2)

A year after the publication of Work, Blake published Fettered for Life which, like Work focuses on the lack of employment possibilities middle-class women faced despite their intelligence, education, and drive. In fact, the two novels have many points in common: both feature young female protagonists who appear to be "driven by necessity, temperament, or principle out into the world to find support, happiness, and homes for themselves" (Work 11), and who feel that their father (in the case of Laura Stanley) or male guardian (in the case of Christie Devon) is overbearing and harsh; both fear that if they stay home they will end up in stifling, unhappy marriages; both encounter a wide range of characters as they search for an occupation; and both eventually find love. Yet the two novels do differ. Work, like most novels of the time, explores women's labor, especially that of the middle classes, as a continuation of their duties at home, thus supporting the concept of separate spheres and women's essential domestic nature. In contrast, Fettered for Life repeatedly demonstrates not only that women often possess the skills and intelligence to surpass men, but also that women who are not allowed a definition of self beyond wife and mother are frequently destroyed by their domestic lives.

The most notable difference between the two texts is in the narrative perspective. The perspective of Work is strictly Christie Devon's. Although she encounters a wide range of characters, many based on revolutionary people of the time such as Harriet Tubman and Henry David Thoreau, the focus remains on Christie and her search for "'a better sort of life'" than a "'dull one made up of everlasting work, with no object but money'" or a life of "'dependence where there isn't any love to make it bearable [. …