Read To Miss Margaret Riley of A Woman of the World, free online book, by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, on

Shop Girl, Concerning Her Oppressors

Your letter has been destroyed, as you requested, and you need not fear my betraying your confidence.

Your mother was so long in my employ that I feel almost like a foster-mother to you, having seen you grow up from the cradle to self-supporting young womanhood.

The troubles and evils which you mention as existing about you, I know to be quite universal in all large shops, factories, and department stores, indeed in all houses where the two sexes are employed.

I know that a certain order of men in power use that power to lower the ideals and standards of womanhood when they can.

A pretty young girl once in my service related to me the cold-blooded suggestions made to her by her employer to increase the miserable wage paid her in a sweat-shop.

The sacrifice of her virtue seemed no more to this man than the sale of an old garment.

The girl did not make the sacrifice, however, and she did not starve, freeze, or die.  She managed to exist and to better her condition by doing domestic work and saving her money to fit herself for more congenial employment.  When I last saw her she was planning to become a trained nurse, and had paid for a course of instruction in massage.  I tell you this merely to illustrate a fact I fully believe, that any girl who is determined to live an honourable life and retain her self-respect can make her way in the world and rise from lesser to higher positions, if she is patient and willing to do what is termed menial work as a stepping-stone.  You tell me that scores of girls are kept in poorly paying, inferior positions when capable of filling better places, simply because they will not accept the dishonourable attentions of some of the men in authority.

You beg me to arouse the good women of America to a crusade against what you say is a growing evil and to boycott such shops and stores.

But you ask me to do what is an impracticable thing.

You would not like to be called as a witness were this matter brought before the courts.  Were all the good women of America to begin such a crusade, where would they obtain the proofs of their accusations?

And even if the witnesses were ready, there is not a newspaper in the land that would dare champion the reform.  And no great reform can be made without the aid of the press.  The daily papers, as you say, give columns to protests against lesser evils, but you must know that these newspapers are largely supported by the profitable advertisements of manufactories and dry-goods houses.  Glance over the columns of any of our large dailies and see how much space such advertising occupies.

Imagine what it would mean to lose all this high-priced patronage.  Therefore, even if the most moral of editors knew that these establishments were undermining our social conditions and invading our homes, I doubt if he could be induced to make a protest.  It is a curious thing to see how many are the kinds of victims caught and held in the clutches of the money-devil-fish in our wonderful land of freedom.

Even clergymen who are preaching morality and brotherly love are compelled to keep their mouths shut on certain evils and abuses, lest they offend the pillars of the church and deprive the treasury of its income.

In a certain New England town famous for its educational institution, a clergyman denounced a corporation which had swindled the poor and deceived scores of citizens.  He was requested to discontinue further references to the matter, as the church treasury was supplied by the money which accrued from this monopoly.

The most powerful members of the church were officers in the corporation.

The young clergyman sent in his resignation and gave up an assured salary to follow the light of his own conscience.  But there are few with his bravery and, therefore, the strongholds of selfishness and self-indulgence remain impregnable.  While we admire the splendid character which makes a man capable of refusing a salary which means hush-money, we can at the same time understand the difficult position of a clergyman with a hungry brood of children to support, who hesitates at such a move.  We can understand how he argues with himself, that by taking the money of the monopolists, he is able to do more good for humanity than by refusing it, and losing both influence and income.  It is a false argument, yet the worn and weary mind of the average orthodox minister will accept it as the advisable course to pursue.  So you will see how difficult is the task you suggest my undertaking.  You tell me that it is useless for you to leave one shop and go to another, as all are more or less conducted on the same lines; and that it is mere chance if a girl finds herself in a position where she can advance on her merits.  Even then a sudden change in heads of departments some day may destroy all her hopes.

You say I have no idea how many girls go wrong just through the persecution and tyranny of these men-forced to fall in order to keep herself fed and clothed.  I repeat what I said already in this connection,-that I am certain any girl determined to keep herself above reproach and ambitious to rise in the world can do so.  She may have to endure many privations and sorrows for a time, and that time may seem long and weary, but a change will come for the better as surely as spring follows winter, if she does not waver.

If you will look carefully into the facts of the cases which fall under your observation, I am confident you will see that it is vanity and indolence, not hunger and oppression, which cause the majority of the girls you mention to go astray.  They desire to make as good an appearance, and to be given the same privileges of leisure, as the favourite who has been promoted through unworthy methods.

You tell me you would rather jump from Brooklyn Bridge and end the struggle at once than lose your self-respect, but that you are weary of seeing the girls with less conscience, and lesser capabilities, pushed ahead of you and your worthy associates.  Yet I am certain from the tone of your letter that you will never forget your self-respect, and I have faith that you can make your way in the world in spite of all the designing masculine oppressors in existence.

So will any woman, who sets her mark high, and believes in the invincible power of her own spirit to conquer all the demons of earth.

Do not imagine your position is one of unusual trial and temptation.  A young actress of my acquaintance has been obliged to fight her way slowly to partial recognition because she would not accept the conditions offered, with leading roles and fine wardrobe, by two polygamous-minded managers.

She is making her way, however, and the very battle she is fighting with life has strengthened her powers as an artist.  A young stenographer has been compelled to give up two positions because she would not allow the loverlike attentions of married employers.  She was called a silly prude and discharged.  Yet she is occupying an excellent position with a clean high-class business house to-day.

Domestics are sometimes driven from private homes by the same pursuit of the employer.  Men are only in a state of evolution, and the animal instincts are still strong in them.  The world has allowed them so much license, and society has been so lenient with their misdeeds, that it has been difficult for them to practise self-control and aspire to a higher standard.  You must be sorry for them and do what you can to help them understand the worth and value of true womanhood.  Never for one instant believe that you can be hindered by the machinations of a few unworthy men, from reaching any goal you set.

One good, intelligently virtuous woman, determined to make the most of her capabilities by fair methods, can overcome a whole army of self-indulgent, sensual men, and compel them to doff their hats to her.  I am always deeply sympathetic toward the girl who is tempted through her emotions, or her affections, to forget herself.  But I have no great pity for the woman who sells herself.  There are always charitable societies, and there are always menial labours to do, and either door of escape from the sale of honour would be sought by the girl of right ideals.  It is a bitter experience to see the woman who has stepped down into the soil of life flaunting her finery and her power in the face of virtue.  But look about you and see how soon the finery becomes tatters-how soon the power is transferred to another.

Woman’s position in the world is growing better, brighter, and more independent with each year.  There are more avenues open to her-larger opportunities waiting for the employment of her abilities.  She has tried a thorny path for centuries, but she has small reason to despair of her outlook to-day.

Each woman must fight her battle alone, and walk by the light from within.

The world gives her only a superficial protection, either through its courts or its society.

Men demand virtue from woman and endeavour in every way to lead her away from its path.

But the divinity within her can carry her to the heights, if she will not be lured by the voice of the senses, or frightened by the demands of the appetite, or debased by the mercenary spirit of the age.

Go on in your brave determination to lead a sensible and moral life, my dear girl, and let your example be a guide to others, and prove that woman may succeed on the right basis if she will, in spite of temptations and oppressions.