Riis quotes a report from the Working Women’s Society, which argues that men’s wages never sink below a certain limit, but there is no such limit to the depths of women’s wages. And if they cannot make a living as a saleswoman, many find it necessary to turn to the “paths of shame.” Riis has heard of one woman, unable to eke out a living on her own, who threw herself out a window rather than embarking on prostitution. She was one of at least 150,000 women who have to support themselves in New York, often receiving as little as than $1.75 per workweek of 16-hour days. Girls are often told to lie about their age in order to be able to work, though truant officers rarely check.
Having detailed a number of the ethnic and racial communities of New York’s tenements, as well as of other social “types,” Riis now moves on to discussing the specific difficulties faced by women. As with some other (though certainly not all) groups, Riis shows himself to be ahead of his time in terms of attempting to understand rather than condemn different behaviors—here, prostitution, which provides greater stability for some women than other kinds of work.
Riis lists the expenses of one woman employed in the manufacturing department of a Broadway store. She usually received three dollars a week: half goes for her room, she has a cup of coffee for breakfast, and no lunch. She is young and pretty, and might well marry young and imprudently—a reasonable solution even if such marriages are, according to many, a cause of major distress among the poor.
Riis acknowledges the arguments of other Progressive-era reformers that poor women are only harming their own chances at upward mobility by marrying young. Instead of condemning these choices, though, he asks us to imagine why these women find themselves making them.
Riis describes the testimony of one girl before the State Board of Arbitration during a recent shirt makers’ strike. She worked eleven hours in the shop and four at home, and had to find her own thread and pay for her sewing machine out of her wages. Meanwhile, many clothing firms now have their work done by farmers’ daughters in Maine, who are happy to earn 2-3 dollars a week as extra money—driving down the wages in New York. Riis asks his readers not to be amazed at the poor quality of work done in the tenements as a result.
At the start of the chapter, Riis had argued that women’s work is even more precarious than men’s in the tenement neighborhoods. This is in part because women are expected to bear more of the expenses of their own work; but in addition, the uneven nature of industrialization has created unsustainable levels of competition between urban and rural workers.
Riis recounts visiting a West Side tenement last Christmas, where an old woman had just been stricken with paralysis: her sister sat by her bedside in despair. They had come 40 years ago from Ireland as lace embroiderers. As the years went on, wages continued to fall, and they had to work harder as they grew older and tired, faced with the constant threat of starvation or the poor-house. Riis asks a hypothetical moralist if he would blame the younger version of such women for choosing prostitution instead.
Here Riis traces one specific story of immigration, poverty, and female labor. Rather than make better wages and secure improved living conditions over time, these women instead found themselves living in ever-greater precariousness—in part because of the large-scale national changes Riis has just described.
Riis notes that most New York working girls are hard-working, virtuous, and reluctant to complain, always showing a cheerful face to the world. Slowly society is realizing that women’s work needs to be properly compensated and supported, as revealed by the rise of unions and working girls’ clubs. Riis is encouraged by such changes.
Riis concludes his sketch of New York “working girls” by arguing for their upstanding moral character. While this is in a way another kind of identity-based essentialism, here such sweeping judgments are meant to improve the lot of working women.