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Issues written of in this 1891 article, about “working girls” in San Francisco, resonated into the twentieth-first century. The author, Di Vernon, of whom nothing is known, was obviously a member of a social organization called “Flower Mission,” with a goal to uplift the spirits of San Francisco working women. Vernon addresses what was a key social problem then, and now: “...a woman is always fair prey in the business world. She has to take less pay than a man receives, not because her work is performed less acceptably, but simply because she is a woman.” Certainly a strong statement for 1891.


By Di Vernon.

How to help working girls is a problem that agitates the soul of the professional reformer, and taxes the minds and hearts of the truly philanthropic. It is hard to help those who do not wish to be helped, still harder to help those who rightly resent the air of superiority, and of patronage that many of our society ladies assume when they become active members in a “leading charity.”

For every woman who is engaged in an honest attempt to earn her own living, there should be the warmest sympathy and a hand outstretched to give the hand clasp of fellowship, or the firm sustaining grip of an upholding encouragement I do not mean that women who work should be aided by ”charity” as that word is now understood. No working women wishes to receive anything in that way. I am perfectly safe in saying that when a woman earns her own living, she becomes more independent that is the man who earns his. She resents receiving gifts from more fortunate women; she prefers to walk by her own efforts. All she asks is to be given a fair chance and a clear field to take care of herself, and she will do it. But a woman is always fair prey in the business world. She has to take less pay than a man receives, not because her work is performed less acceptably, but simply because she is a woman. When it comes to business transactions, many presume upon her supposed ignorance of business forms and try to take advantage of that ignorance. The world is full of those who “devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers,” and at the same time reach out after the orphans’ scanty substance.

How can working girls be helped? If they will not receive well-meant “charity,” how shall they be assisted? There are many ways of solving this problem. A woman can work until sickness robs her of her ability. But who ever heard of expenses shrinking to accommodate themselves to a contracted income? The out-go never stops. The Native Daughters of the Golden West have gone bravely to work to meet this emergency. Their parlors, particularly those in this city, are composed of girls who earn their own living, and who, when sickness comes, are left without a cent. As soon as the numerical strength of a parlor warrants the assumption of the responsibility, it pays sick benefits to its members, not a large sum, it is true, from five to seven dollars a week. Besides, they pay the funeral expenses of a deceased member. To many a woman the thought of not becoming that last great tax upon poor relatives or sympathizing friends removes one element of worry.

One of the most direct ways of helping these working girls who are trying to help themselves is to aid them when they are trying to raise funds to carry on their work. The public grows tired of taking tickets for benefits, but when a charitable society or a sick-benefit association calls upon the public to come and be entertained in return for a dollar or two, let the public respond, not grudgingly, but with cheerful alacrity.

It is evident that any idea that will help a working woman to continue her work with the best results to herself is a worthy one. In the East they have worked out this problem with such success that it well may encourage philanthropic California to emulate their excellent example. The Working Girls’ Vacation Society presents facts to show what can be done under the inspiration from George MacDonald: “Nothing makes a man so strong as a call upon him for help.” In all, the society has sent away about nine hundred girls, giving all of them a vacation of two weeks in the country, and in some cases four weeks, and in three instances two months. “One of these,” says E. Anna Buchanan, the Assistant Treasurer of the Working Girls’ Vacation Fund, “was a young dressmaker, who was very feeble and had a bad cough. She was sent to the mountains, where she not only gained strength, but her cough disappeared, and she came home comparatively well, and ready for her winter’s work.” This noble enterprise needs but to be mentioned to enlist the active support of many a staunch friend. The Christian Union of New York plunged into the cause by opening the Christian Union Vacation Fund, and by keeping the subject before its readers, as been able to turn over donations to the amount of $1,826 to the Working Girls’ Vacation Fund.

But even this fund contributes proof to the assertion that it is difficult to help the self-respecting working girls. As one of the leading members of the Eastern society says: “It is almost impossible to compel these girls, no matter how great their need of a week’s respite from the ceaseless toil of their lives, to accept aid from one that they know personally; but this fund is so impersonal, it is so clearly the offering of loving interest, that it reaches girls who never could be reached in any other way.” To effect the same result, benefit associations have a law that all members who are entitled, by reason of sickness, to sick benefits, must take them, otherwise those who really needed the money and who could not refuse the assistance, would come to be regarded in some sense as recipients of charity.

The distinctions which people make as to what they may receive as a gift from strangers, without offending their own sense of dignity, is sometimes very funny. When I went hospital visiting, on a committee of the Flower Mission, this was often demonstrated to my own irritation and annoyance, for no one likes to be repulsed when trying to do a kind act. In the paid wards the patients would refuse the proffered fruit with grand airs and accept a bunch of flowers in gratitude. The distinction seems to be without foundation, as if what could be enjoyed by one sense was more of a humiliation to receive than that which could be enjoyed by another.

In the ardor of the Flower Mission’s desire to do good, we decided to distribute flowers to the girls cooped up in large cloak and dressmaking establishments, under the mistaken idea that those girls would be pleased with our bouquets. Permission to enter the workrooms was gained from the proprietors, on condition that we should not stop to talk with the girls or otherwise interrupt them in their work. So the tour was begun. Some of the loveliest flowers were reserved for this purpose. With what results? Some of the girls refused them from the first, others took them with effusive thanks, while not a few received them as if their love for flowers had done violence to their self respect. The next time the girls went with their flowers fewer bouquets were received, and several visits more convinced the zealous members of the Flower Mission that their efforts were unwelcome. I never blamed those working-girls. I did not at the time. Some of those girls who sat behind the machines at the cloak rooms had once sat behind the same desks with us in the public schools. It must have been galling to have those, with whom they had associated on equal terms, see them in the midst of their toil, to receive gifts from them in their new rôle of Ladies Bountiful. What wonder that the color flamed up in their cheeks and that they shook their heads as the flowers were offered. No American girl could have stood it. Such feelings should be respected. Sometimes it take more grace to receive than to give. Had those flowers been sent in the name of the society, in an impersonal way to those girls, without the hand-to-hand distribution, doubtless they would have been received with gratitude. If you would help a working-girl, do not wound her self respect.

San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser
October 31, 1891

The California State Library system lists these items which may be used for further study of women’s issues in ninteenth-century San Francisco:

Author: Coolidge, Mary Elizabeth Burroughs Roberts Smith, 1860-1945.
Title: Almshouse women; a study of two hundred and twenty-eight women in the city and county almshouse of San Fransisco. [Palo Alto] Stanford University, 1896.

Author: Englander, Susan.
Title: Class coalition and class conflict in the California woman suffrage movement, 1907-1912 : the San Francisco Wage Earners’ Suffrage League / Susan Englander. [San Francisco] : Mellen Research University Press, c1992.

Author: Historical Carnival (1896 : San Francisco, Calif.)
Title: Souvenir program of the Historical Carnival given by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union of San Francisco : during the week beginning Monday, September 21, 1896. San Francisco : Women’s Educational and Industrial Union of San Francisco, [1896]

Author: International Brotherhood of Bookbinders of North America. Local 125, San Francisco.
Title: Constitution and by-laws of Bindery Women’s Local Union No. 125 of San Francisco, California / International Brotherhood of Bookbinders. — Organized September 10, 1902; constitution revised February 1913. [San Francisco] Brunt Pr. [1913?]

Author: Matthews, Lillian Ruth, 1880-
Title: Women in trade unions in San Francisco / by Lillian R. Matthews. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1913.

Author: Old Nurenberg (1893 : San Francisco, Calif.)
Title: Souvenir program, Old Nurenberg : Mechanics’ Pavilion, San Francisco, Nov. 11th-18th 1893, for the benefit of the Women’s Educational & Industrial Union. [San Francisco, Calif. : Women’s Educational & Industrial Union, 1893].

Author: San Francisco Girls’ Union.
Title: San Francisco Girls’ Union : its history and the work before it. [San Francisco, Calif. : The Union, 1884?].

Author: Woman’s Congress (1895 : San Francisco, Calif.)
Title: Papers and extracts from papers read at the Woman’s Congress, held in San Francisco, May 20th to 27th, 1895. [San Francisco? : s.n.], 1895 (San Francisco : Thos. J. Davis)

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