Read CHAPTER II of Mobilizing Woman-Power, free online book, by Harriot Stanton Blatch, on


The group of nations that can make the greatest savings, will be victorious, counsels one; the group that can produce the most food and nourish the populations best, will win the war, urges another; but whatever the prophecy, whatever the advice, all paths to victory lie through labor-power.

Needs are not answered in our day by manna dropping from heaven. Whether it is food or big guns that are wanted, ships or coal, we can only get our heart’s desire by toil. Where are the workers who will win the war?

We are a bit spoiled in the United States. We have been accustomed to rub our Aladdin’s lamp of opportunity and the good genii have sent us workers. But suddenly, no matter how great our efforts, no one answers our appeal. The reservoir of immigrant labor has run dry. We are in sorry plight, for we have suffered from emigration, too. Thousands of alien workers have been called back to serve in the armies of the Allies. In my own little village on Long Island the industrious Italian colony was broken up by the call to return to the colors in Piedmont.

Then, too, while Europe suffers loss of labor, as do we, when men are mobilized, our situation is peculiarly poignant, for when our armies are gone they are gone. At first this was true in Europe. Men entered the army and were employed as soldiers only. After a time it was realized that the war would not be short, that fields must not lie untilled for years, nor men undergo the deteriorating effects of trench warfare continuously. The fallow field and the stale soldier were brought together.

We have all chanced on photographs of European soldiers helping the women plough in springtime, and reap the harvest in the autumn. Perhaps we have regarded the scene as a mere pastoral episode in a happy leave from the battle front, instead of realizing that it is a snapshot illustrating a well organized plan of securing labor. The soldiers are given a furlough and are sent where the agricultural need is pressing. But the American soldier will not be able to lend his skill in giving the home fields a rich seed time and harvest. The two needs, the field for the touch of the human hand, and the soldier for labor under calm skies, cannot in our case be cooerdinated.

Scarcity of labor is not only certain to grow, but the demands upon the United States for service are increasing by leaps and bounds. America must throw man-power into the trenches, must feed herself, must contribute more and ever more food to the hungry populations of Europe, must meet the old industrial obligations, and respond to a whole range of new business requirements. And she is called upon for this effort at a time when national prosperity is already making full use of man-power.

When Europe went to war, the world had been suffering from depression a year and more. Immediately on the outbreak of hostilities whole lines of business shut down. Unemployment became serious. There were idle hands everywhere. Germany, of all the belligerents, rallied most quickly to meet war conditions. Unemployment gave place to a shortage of labor sooner there than elsewhere. Great Britain did not begin to get the pace until the middle of 1915.

The business situation in the United States upon its entrance into the war was the antithesis of this. For over a year, depression had been superseded by increased industry, high wages, and greater demand for labor. The country as measured by the ordinary financial signs, by its commerce, by its labor market, was more prosperous than it had been for years. Tremendous requisitions were being made upon us by Europe, and to the limit of available labor we were answering them. Then into our economic life, with industrial forces already working at high pressure, were injected the new demands arising from changing the United States from a people as unprepared for effective hostilities as a baby in its cradle, into a nation equipped for war. There was no unemployment, but on the contrary, shortage of labor.

The country calls for everything, and all at once, like the spoiled child on suddenly waking. It must have, and without delay, ships, coal, cars, cantonments, uniforms, rules, and food, food, food. How can the needs be supplied and with a million and a half of men dropping work besides? By woman-power or coolie labor. Those are the horns of the dilemma presented to puzzled America. The Senate of the United States directs its Committee of Agriculture to ponder well the coolie problem, for men hesitate to have women put their shoulder to the wheel. Trade unionists are right in urging that a republic has no place for a disfranchised class of imported toilers. Equally true is it that as a nation we have shown no gift for dealing with less developed races. And yet labor we must have. Will American women supply it, will they, loving ease, favor contract labor from the outside, or will they accept the optimistic view that lack of labor is not acute?

The procrastinator queries, “Cannot American man-power meet the demand?” It can, for a time perhaps, if the draft for the army goes as slowly in the future as it has in the past.

However, at any moment a full realization may come to us of the significance of the fact that while the United States is putting only three percent of its workers into the fighting forces, Great Britain has put twenty-five percent, and is now combing its industrial army over to find an additional five hundred thousand men to throw on the French front. It is probable that it will be felt by this country in the near future that such a contrast of fulfillment of obligation cannot continue without serious reflection on our national honor. Roughly speaking, Great Britain has twenty million persons in gainful pursuits. Of these, five million have already been taken for the army. The contribution of France is still greater. Her military force has reached the appalling proportion of one-fifth of her entire population. But we who have thirty-five million in gainful occupations are giving a paltry one million, five hundred thousand in service with our Allies. The situation is not creditable to us, and one of the things which stands in the way of the United States reaching a more worthy position is reluctance to see its women shouldering economic burdens.

While it is quite true that shifting of man-power is needed, mere shuffling of the cards, as labor leaders suggest, won’t give a bigger pack. Fifty-two cards it remains, though the Jack may be put into a more suitable position. The man behind the counter should of course be moved to a muscular employment, but we must not interpret his dalliance with tapes and ribbons as proof of a superfluity of men.

The latest reports of the New York State Department of Labor reflect the meagerness of the supply. Here are some dull figures to prove it: comparing the situation with a year ago, we find in a corresponding month, only one percent more employees this year, with a wage advance of seventeen percent. Drawing the comparison between this year and two years ago, there is an advance of “fifteen percent in employees and fifty-one percent in wages;” and an increase of “thirty percent in employees and eighty-seven percent in wages,” if this year is compared with the conditions when the world was suffering from industrial depression. The State employment offices report eight thousand three hundred and seventy-six requests for workers against seven thousand, six hundred and fifty applicants for employment, and of the latter only seventy-three percent were fitted for the grades of work open to them, and were placed in situations.

The last records of conditions in the Wilkes-Barre coal regions confirm the fact of labor scarcity. There are one hundred and fifty-two thousand men and boys at work today in the anthracite fields, twenty-five thousand less than the number employed in 1916. These miners, owing to the prod of the highest wages ever received the skilled man earning from forty dollars to seventy-five dollars a week and to appeals to their patriotism, are individually producing a larger output than ever before. It is considered that production, with the present labor force, is at its maximum, and if a yield of coal commensurate with the world’s need is to be attained, at least seventy percent more men must be supplied.

This is a call for man-power in addition to that suggested by the Fuel Administrator to the effect that lack of coal is partly lack of cars and that “back of the transportation shortage lies labor shortage.” An order was sent out by the Director General of Railways, soon after his appointment, that mechanics from the repair shops of the west were to be shifted to the east to supply the call for help on the Atlantic border.

Suggestive of the cause of all this shortage, float the service flags of the mining and railway companies, the hundreds of glowing stars telling their tale of men gone to the front, and of just so many stars torn from the standards of the industrial army at home.

The Shipping Board recently called for two hundred and fifty thousand men to be gradually recruited as a skilled army for work in shipyards. At the same time the Congress passed an appropriation of fifty million dollars for building houses to accommodate ship labor. Six months ago only fifty thousand men were employed in ship-building, today there are one hundred and forty-five thousand. This rapid drawing of men to new centers creates a housing problem so huge that it must he met by the government; and it need hardly be pointed out, shelter can be built only by human hands.

One state official, prompted no doubt by a wise hostility to coolie labor, and dread of woman labor, has gone so far as to declare publicly that any employer who will pay “adequate wages can get all the labor he requires.” This view suggests that we may soon have to adopt the methods of other belligerents and stop employers by law from stealing a neighbor’s working force. I know of a shipyard with a normal pay-roll of five hundred hands, which in one year engaged and lost to nearby munition factories thirteen thousand laborers. Such “shifting,” hiding as it does shortage of manpower, leads to serious loss in our productive efficiency and should not be allowed to go unchecked.

The manager of one of the New York City street railways met with complete denial the easy optimism that adequate remuneration will command a sufficient supply of men. He told me that he had introduced women at the same wage as male conductors, not because he wanted women, but because he now had only five applications by fit men to thirty or forty formerly. There were men to be had, he said, and at lower wages than his company was paying; but they were “not of the class capable of fulfilling the requirements of the position.”

The Labor Administration announced on its creation that its “policy would be to prevent woman labor in positions for which men are available,” and one of the deputy commissioners of the Industrial Commission of the State of New York declared quite frankly at a labor conference that “if he could, he would exclude women from industry altogether.”

We may try to prevent the oncoming tide of the economic independence of women, but it will not be possible to force the business world to accept permanently the service of the inefficient in place of that of the alert and intelligent. To carry on the economic life of a nation with its labor flotsam and jetsam is loss at any time; in time of storm and stress it is suicide.

Man-power is short, seriously so. The farm is always the best barometer to give warning of scarcity of labor. The land has been drained of its workers. A fair wage would keep them on the farm this is the philosophy of laissez faire. Without stopping to inquire as to what the munition works would then do, we can still see that it is doubtful whether the farm can act as magnet. Even men, let us venture the suggestion, like change for the mere sake of change. A middle-aged man, who had taken up work at Bridgeport, said to me, “I’ve mulled around on the farm all my days. I grabbed the first chance to get away.” And then there’s a finer spirit prompting the desertion of the hoe. A man of thirty-three gave me the point of view. “My brother is ‘over there,’ and I feel as if I were backing him up by making guns.”

The only thing that can change the idea that farming is “mulling around,” and making a gun “backs up” the man at the front more thoroughly than raising turnips, is to bring to the farm new workers who realize the vital part played by food in the winning of the war. As the modern industrial system has developed with its marvels of specialized machinery, its army of employees gathered and dispersed on the stroke of the clock, and strong organizations created to protect the interests of the worker, the calm and quiet processes of agriculture have in comparison grown colorless. The average farmhand has never found push and drive and group action on the farm, but only individualism to the extreme of isolation. And now in war time, when in addition to its usual life of stirring contacts, the factory takes on an intimate and striking relation to the intense experience of the battle front, the work of the farm seems as flat as it is likely to be unprofitable. The man in the furrow has no idea that he is “backing up” the boy in the trench.

The farmer in his turn does not find himself part of the wider relations that attract and support the manufacturer. Crops are not grown on order. The marketing is as uncertain as the weather. The farmer could by higher wages attract more labor, but as the selling of the harvest remains a haphazard matter, the venture might mean ruin all the more certain and serious were wage outlay large. In response to a call for food and an appeal to his patriotism, the farmer has repeatedly made unusual efforts to bring his land to the maximum fertility, only to find his crops often a dead loss, as he could not secure the labor to harvest them. I saw, one summer, acres of garden truck at its prime ploughed under in Connecticut because of a shortage of labor. I saw fruit left rotting by the bushel in the orchards near Rochester because of scarcity of pickers and a doubt of the reliability of the market. The industry which means more than any other to the well-being of humanity at this crisis, is the sport of methods outgrown and of servants who lack understanding and inspiration. The war may furnish the spark for the needed revolution. Man-power is not available, woman-power is at hand. A new labor force always brings ideas and ideals peculiar to itself. May not women as fresh recruits in a land army stamp their likes and dislikes on farm life? Their enthusiasm may put staleness to rout, and the group system of women land workers, already tested in the crucible of experience, may bring to the farm the needed antidote to isolation.

To win the war we must have man-power in the trenches sufficient to win it with. To win, every soldier, every sailor, must be well fed, well clothed, well equipped. To win, behind the armed forces must stand determined peoples. To win, the people of America and her Allies must be heartened by care and food.

The sun shines on the fertile land, the earth teems with forests, with coal, with every necessary mineral and food, but labor, labor alone can transform all to meet our necessities. Man-power unaided cannot supply the demand. Women in America must shoulder as nobly as have the women of Europe, this duty. They must answer their country’s call. Let them see clearly that the desire of their men to shield them from possible injury exposes the nation and the world to actual danger.

Our winning of the war depends upon the full use of the energy of our entire people. Every muscle, every brain, must be mobilized if the national aim is to be achieved.