The question of how to find a greater amount of remunerative work for educated women is one which involves many difficulties; but it is at the same time becoming so necessary, and is now so nobly advocated, that apology can scarcely be needed for any attempt to throw light upon this complicated subject.
In the first place, it may be asked, what would the country gain by introducing women into any of those departments already filled — and more than filled — by men? Well might the accountant and the clerk complain, should women attempt to “push them from their stools.” Where, then, is this remunerative occupation to be found, for the want of which so many educated women are now compelled, without inclination and without qualifications for teaching, to offer themselves as candidates for an employment which, above all others, requires the entire devotion of the heart, as well as the head.
Anxious, as all who are interested in this question must be, to engage the attention of enlightened women on behalf especially of those of their own class who from stress of circumstances may be looking for remunerative employment, we would venture to inquire whether some plan could not bo devised by which women of the privileged classes might assist in promoting the good of this portion of the community without any loss or trouble to themselves.
We allude to women’s work, or perhaps it would be speaking more to the point to say ladies’ work. That ladies do work, and that most industriously and patiently, how many an elaborate and beautiful piece of embroidery bears evidence; to say nothing of work in coloured wool, not always, perhaps, quite so beautiful.
It seems almost a necessity of woman’s nature that she should work; and in all ages of the world, at least down to the present times, some of the most elaborate and exquisite kinds of work have been executed by women of the higher ranks. The beautiful and accomplished Marguerite d’ Angouleme, sister of Francis I., was often surrounded by a circle of ladies of honour, whose occupation was alternate reading, and working in ornamental embroidery; and in later years, when death had robbed her of those for whom alone life had been valued, her favourite resource was the working of tapestry, of which she completed an almost incredible amount.
Women are all the more in need of some resource of this kind, because of the fertility of their own fancies, and sometimes of the many feelings which they have to beguile or keep down from bursting into expression. It is no stretch of imagination to say that gushing tears have often been checked by the assortment of colours necessary for the weaving of a group of flowers, or that the tinting of a rosebud has sometimes soothed the beating of a troubled heart. The old Spanish ballad of “The Bridal of Andalla” is at once true to nature, and illustrative of this phase of woman’s life:
Rise up, rise up, Xarifa!
lay the golden cushion down.
Whence comes it, then — for this brings us to the gist of the question — that, with all this work, and all this tendency to work, the productions of the fair fingers of tho present day illustrate so little that is new,—so little that is beautiful of their own inventing? No doubt the patterns from which ladies work are in fault wherever there is an absence of truth, or harmony, or grace in their productions.
But, then, who makes the patterns? Who makes the patterns, not only of ladies’ work, but of all the beautiful things by which we are surrounded? Who makes the patterns of the papering of our walls, of our silks, our muslins, our drapery, our ornaments in general? Does the artisan, the tradesman, the mere mechanic, make these patterns? Does the handicraftsman weave together, first in idea, those wreaths of luxuriant fruits and flowers which hang around our rooms? Does it devolve upon him to unfold the classic scroll, to trace the light arabesque, or to blend those exquisite harmonies of tone and colour which charm the eye by a visible concord of sweet influences? Wo should have thought the fairest fingers, and the most cultivated taste, would have been the originating source of these inventions.
To whom, in fact, should we look for inventions in this department but to ladies themselves? Who would be so likely to originate fresh combinations of form and colour, arranged according to the highest order of conception and taste? Ladies now travel to every part of the habitable globe, and thus have opportunities of observing at their leisure the artistic embellishments of all countries. The curious mosaic, than which nothing can be more appropriate for the square stitches of their worsted-work; the delicate tracery of the Moorish arch, now brought near us in the Crystal Palace; every line of beauty, every harmony of colour, every trick of art, from ancient to modern times, all the different adaptations both of nature and art, to atmospheric, to geographical, and to other influences — all these, in their endless variety, come under the observation of our travelled ladies; and out of these, it would naturally be supposed that fresh combinations and improved effects would be continually suggesting themselves to minds whose appropriate study is the beautiful under every variety of aspect, whether presented by art or nature.
If half, or one-hundredth portion of the time bestowed by ladies upon following, with monotonous labour, those lines and figures which may now be bought in any country shop, were given to invention, instead of servile imitation, what a new and glorious era would dawn upon our manufacturing world! So soon as figures of beauty become so common as to be exhibited in the windows of every shop, they ought surely to be left to mere mechanism to multiply and carry out.
The higher orders of taste and fancy should then invent others, fresh from those cultivated and expanded minds which have enjoyed the advantage of observing what art has accomplished at different times, and in different regions of the globe, as well as of what nature exhibits under her most favourable aspects. So soon as machinery is able to take up any kind of work, or even so soon as the poor are able to make a trade of it, the hand that is not obliged to labour should lay it down, and take up something new and better. So soon, also, as science has invented fresh dyes, or new materials, the same fair hands should assume the office of assortment into fresh patterns, and new combinations of such colours and materials, keeping always the highest agency employed upon the noblest work, and thus maintaining, by a just balance, the true economy of labour.
Ladies often want amusement; here is a wide field open to them — a field of intellectual amusement, too; for, while the fancy is busily engaged with the creative process, all the higher principles of art must be called in to aid in the construction of something which shall afford lasting pleasure and improvement to the beholder.
And when we think of all the dolightful associations, the pleasant memories, the indelible impressions, and the images of beauty which might be enlisted in the service of this pursuit; as well as the quickening of the eye to present things, and the perpetual amusement of laying up stores of beauty and of grace for future work, the wonder is that all minds delicately constituted, and keenly alive to impressions of beauty, should not from choice embrace such occupations as amongst the greatest enjoyments of a privileged and happy life. The wonder is, perhaps, still greater, that any minds so constituted should remain satisfied with work which consists of mere imitation of things never in themselves worthy of being repeated.
In suggesting any improvement in taste or habit, the next important thing is to propose some plan likely to accelerate this change. Might not the Crystal Palace aid us in this respect? Exhibitions of various kinds are successfully conducted there. Prizes are offered for excellence in various departments, from poetry and art, to floral and animal life. Why not prizes for the work of educated women? Why not have a day, or two days, appropriated to such an exhibition, only allowing ample time for preparation? Tickets of merit might then be awarded according to the higher and lower ranges both of design and execution, the whole to be divided into two classes, original and copied; the highest award being appropriated to the largest amount of valuable specimens of original work exhibited by any single contributor; and the same gradation of merit, only in a lower degree, attaching to the class of work not original.
Towards such an exhibition ladies from all parts of the kingdom might be invited to contribute; and it is surely not too much to anticipate, that such a project would be the means of bringing together a larger number of visitors than are often seen within the walls of the Crystal Palace. Amongst such a selection of work, too, surely some channels of a remunerative nature would be opened, so as to afford lasting occupation to those who desire to employ their time, not only profitably, but agreeably to themselves.