Women and work in literature

Examples from fiction to illustrate the Paula Principle in relation  to  female success (or lack of it) in education are quite easy to find;  Maggie Tulliver in Mill on the Floss is particularly well-known, as bright and bookish Maggie is denied access to school, whilst cloddish brother Tom is sent, at great cost, to a useless tutor.  But the other side of the PP equation is more problematic –  I’ve had more difficulty finding my way to illustrations from novels of how women don’t make it to positions at work which exercise their full competence.  I have the data, but need the colour.

At the foot of this blog is one example which I’ve included in the relevant chapter of the book.  It comes from High Wages by Dorothy Whipple, published by the delightful Persephone Press.    It’s not bad but doesn’t quite nail the point as well as I would like.  Carol Shield’s Stone Diaries has a wonderful account of the impact on Daisy Flett of losing her (very part-time) job as gardening columnist for a local paper.  Another is again from George Eliot:  Dorothea’s self-generated reduction to menial secretary to the uselessly scholastic Casaubon in Middlemarch.  But I’m relying heavily and unashamedly – or actually quite ashamedly – on others to supply me with examples from literature work.   One of my friends has been mobilising her bookgroup on my behalf.  They are obviously a quite classically-minded bunch –  although the suggestions  include Dolly Parton’s rendering of Nine to Five , which certainly tackles the issue of exploitation at work.

The group’s suggestions so far include Cold Comfort Farm,  various works by Doris Lessing,  Monica Dickens’ The Angel in the Corner,  Clarissa by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Try No Name by Wilkie Collins, and Ch24 of Jane Eyre.  The problem with the older references is that they tend to show how women were constrained or oppressed at a personal level, rather than  occupationally – not surprisingly, since women didn’t often have occupations in those days.  So the examples are powerful of how women’s talents were suppressed by individual men, but they are usually a function of the personal relationship, not of the job; but I’m looking for examples which spring from how the workplace operates.
 The obstacles are various.  As Virginia Woolf observed (in a lecture on ‘Professions for Women’), there were for most occupations quite obvious financial as well as cultural entry barriers for women – which is one reason why writing was a prominent option: “When I came to write, there were very few material obstacles in my way.  Writing was a reputable and harmless occupation…The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reaons why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in other professions.”
Getting a job could be difficult.  It still is, especially for young people and for the increasing nummbers of graduates (mostly women).Illustrations from fiction of how and why women at work stick below their competence levels would be gratefully received!   (By the way, for readers of my earlier blog on educational aspiration, Lydia Holly in South Riding does make it back to school, and succeeds there, but her spirit has been permanently impaired.)


High Wages

High Wages is the ironic title of a book by Dorothy Whipple first published in 1930 (and recently smartly reprinted by Persephone Books).  Jane Carter is a single woman, intelligent but with an education which did not equip her with anything in the way of marketable skills.  She has no family to support her, and is grateful to get a job in a draper’s store, owned by Mr Chadwick.  She and her fellow shopworker Maggie are paid a pittance,  cheated by Mr Chadwick of commissions she earns on sales and by his wife of the food which forms part of their employment ‘package’.   They are definitely not part-time;  as far as I can tell, they work at getting on for a 12-hour day, 6 days a week.

Jane lacks qualifications, but not competence.  She is also enterprising.

“Jane, hearing from Mrs Briggs that Northgate, a great  house on the fringe of the town, was to be turned into a V.A.D. hospital, suggested to Mr Chadwick that he must tender for the supply of bed-linen, table-linen, towels and so on  Jane went to Manchester and returned with a specimen V.A.D. uniform, dressed a wax model in it, and announced that such uniforms were supplied within.  Jane got to know about the Y.M.C.A. hut to be opened near Northgate, and Jane again procured the blue overalls and veils for the voluntary helpers.  Mr Chadwick was busier than he had ever been in his life before; money rolled in.  Yet he paid Jane one pound a week, and Maggie thirteen and sixpence, and looked with complacency on his wife’s schemes to deprive them of their food rations.”  High Wages pp152-3.

The point of the quotation is not that exploitation exists.   It is that the gap between competence and reward has always existed, and that it has often been quite closely tied to gender differences.   The formalisation of competences (through qualifications) has done something to reduce this – though much less so in poorer countries.



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