Mrs. Warren’s Profession forces its audience to consider the problem of the exploitation of women in British society. The play challenges the idea that working as a prostitute is immoral, suggesting instead that society is immoral because it limits opportunities for women, often making prostitution the safest and most lucrative work available to them. The play suggests that a variety of individuals share personal responsibility for women’s exploitation, ranging from those who invest in brothels, to those who own factories where women are underpaid, to those who accept the profits of any business that treats women unfairly.
The play pinpoints two factors that lead to exploitation of women: the limited number of professions open to women and the poor conditions in those professions. The play contends that prostitutes earn more money than women working in other professions, and also face fewer occupational dangers to their health. When Mrs. Warren reveals to her daughter Vivie that she has worked as a prostitute and brothel-owner, she gives a practical defense of why the conditions for working women forced her into this line of work. As a young woman without an education, she needed to earn a living. Certain professions were open only to women with talent, like acting, singing, or writing for newspapers. Other professions were open only to pretty women, like working as shopgirls or barmaids. But in these professions, the women earn very little money while allowing someone else to profit from their beauty. Women who are neither talented nor pretty have no choice but to work in factories, where they ruin their health and earn poverty wages.
Vivie’s perspective on her mother’s profession mirrors the play’s own complex verdict on the issue of prostitution. Though Vivie feels compassion for her mother’s choice when prostitution was the best job she could get, Vivie is less sympathetic to the fact that Mrs. Warren has continued to run a brothel even after becoming rich, since she is now part of the organized system that exploits women’s labor. Mrs. Warren’s excuse for continuing in this profession is that if she doesn’t do it, someone else will. Furthermore, she believes that because the underlying economic system is immoral, individuals can be absolved of any personal responsibility for their actions. Vivie has no tolerance for this defense. She believes that it is fair and understandable that her mother sought to escape exploitation, but unconscionable that her mother is now perpetuating the same system that exploited her.
But Vivie’s own opportunities as a woman entering the workforce are portrayed as exceptionally lucky, which undercuts her moral authority. Vivie has been brought up in affluence with the money her mother earned as a brothel-keeper paying to give her a great education. She also lives at the very moment in history—the late 19th century—when new professions, previously closed to women, are being opened up to some well-off, well-educated, upper-class women in Great Britain. If she did not have money, an education, or live at that moment in history, Vivie could not pursue a career in business. When, at the end of the play, Vivie refuses to accept any more of the money her mother earned as a brothel-owner, it’s not a straightforward moral statement, since Vivie can reject her mother’s money (and the taint of immorality that comes with it) only because that money bought her a place in the educated upper class. Since Vivie has benefited from exploitation through her mother’s money while not having personally struggled, her moralizing lacks the weight it might otherwise have.
Though Vivie’s privileged self-righteousness is obviously powerless to free other British women from exploitation, the play does suggest that British society can take concrete steps to stop exploiting women. First, the taboo on talking about prostitution should be lifted, and citizens should be forced to think about the social and economic conditions that make prostitution the best choice for many women. Second, labor conditions for women should be improved, with women paid higher wages to work in safer conditions. Finally, educational opportunities like those afforded Vivie should be made more widely available.
Exploitation of Women ThemeTracker
Exploitation of Women Quotes in Mrs. Warren’s Profession
The notion that prostitution is created by the wickedness of Mrs Warren is as silly as the notion—prevalent, nevertheless, to some extent in Temperance circles—that drunkenness is created by the wickedness of the publican. Mrs Warren is not a whit a worse woman than the reputable daughter who cannot endure her. Her indifference to the ultimate social consequences of her means of making money, and her discovery of that means by the ordinary method of taking the line of least resistance to getting it, are too common in English society to call for any special remark. Her vitality, her thrift, her energy, her outspokenness, her wise care of her daughter, and the managing capacity which has enabled her and her sister to climb from the fried fish shop down by the Mint to the establishments of which she boasts, are all high English social virtues. Her defence of herself is so overwhelming that it provokes the St James Gazette to declare that "the tendency of the play is wholly evil" because “it contains one of the boldest and most specious defences of an immoral life for poor women that has ever been penned." Happily the St James Gazette here speaks in its haste. Mrs Warren's defence of herself is not only bold and specious, but valid and unanswerable. But it is no defence at all of the vice which she organizes. It is no defence of an immoral life to say that the alternative offered by society collectively to poor women is a miserable life, starved, overworked, fetid, ailing, ugly. Though it is quite natural and right for Mrs Warren to choose what is, according to her lights, the least immoral alternative, it is none the less infamous of society to offer such alternatives. For the alternatives offered are not morality and immorality, but two sorts of immorality.
CROFTS. Mayn't a man take an interest in a girl?
MRS WARREN. Not a man like you.
CROFTS. How old is she?
MRS WARREN. Never you mind how old she is.
CROFTS. Why do you make such a secret of it?
MRS WARREN. Because I choose.
CROFTS. Well, I'm not fifty yet; and my property is as good as it ever was—
MRS [interrupting him] Yes; because youre as stingy as youre vicious.
CROFTS [continuing] And a baronet isn't to be picked up every day. No other man in my position would put up with you for a mother-in-law. Why shouldn't she marry me?
MRS WARREN. You!
CROFTS. We three could live together quite comfortably. I'd die before her and leave her a bouncing widow with plenty of money. Why not? It's been growing in my mind all the time I've been walking with that fool inside there.
MRS WARREN [revolted] Yes; it's the sort of thing that would grow in your mind.
[He halts in his prowling; and the two look at one another, she steadfastly, with a sort of awe behind her contemptuous disgust: he stealthily, with a carnal gleam in his eye and a loose grin.]
CROFTS [suddenly becoming anxious and urgent as he sees no sign of sympathy in her] Look here, Kitty: youre a sensible woman: you needn't put on any moral airs. I’ll ask no more questions; and you need answer none. I’ll settle the whole property on her; and if you want a checque for yourself on the wedding day, you can name any figure you like—in reason.
MRS WARREN. Why, of course. Everybody dislikes having to work and make money; but they have to do it all the same. I'm sure I've often pitied a poor girl, tired out and in low spirits, having to try to please some man that she doesn't care two straws for—some half-drunken fool that thinks he's making himself agreeable when he's teasing and worrying and disgusting a woman so that hardly any money could pay her for putting up with it. But she has to bear with disagreeables and take the rough with the smooth, just like a nurse in a hospital or anyone else. It's not work that any woman would do for pleasure, goodness knows; though to hear the pious people talk you would suppose it was a bed of roses.
VIVIE. Still, you consider it worth while. It pays.
MRS WARREN. Of course it's worth while to a poor girl, if she can resist temptation and is good-looking and well conducted and sensible. It's far better than any other employment open to her.
I always thought that it oughtn't to be. It can't be right, Vivie, that there shouldn't be better opportunities for women. I stick to that: it's wrong. But it's so, right or wrong; and a girl must make the best of it. But of course it's not worth while for a lady. If you took to it youd be a fool; but I should have been a fool if I'd taken to anything else.
MRS WARREN [indignantly] Of course not. What sort of mother do you take me for! How could you keep your self-respect in such starvation and slavery? And whats a woman worth? whats life worth? without self-respect! Why am I independent and able to give my daughter a first-rate education, when other women that had just as good opportunities are in the gutter? Because I always knew how to respect myself and control myself. Why is Liz looked up to in a cathedral town? The same reason. Where would we be now if we'd minded the clergyman's foolishness? Scrubbing floors for one and sixpence a day and nothing to look forward to but the workhouse infirmary.
MRS WARREN Don't you be led astray by people who don't know the world, my girl. The only way for a woman to provide for herself decently is for her to be good to some man that can afford to be good to her. If she's in his own station of life, let her make him marry her; but if she's far beneath him she can't expect it: why should she? it wouldn't be for her own happiness. Ask any lady in London society that has daughters; and she'll tell you the same, except that I tell you straight and she'll tell you crooked. Thats all the difference.
MRS WARREN. Well, of course, dearie, it's only good manners to be ashamed of it: it's expected from a woman. Women have to pretend to feel a great deal that they don't feel. Liz used to be angry with me for plumping out the truth about it. She used to say that when every woman could learn enough from what was going on in the world before her eyes, there was no need to talk about it to her. But then Liz was such a perfect lady! She had the true instinct of it; while I was always a bit of a vulgarian. I used to be so pleased when you sent me your photos to see that you were growing up like Liz: you've just her ladylike, determined way. But I can't stand saying one thing when everyone knows I mean another. Whats the use in such hypocrisy? If people arrange the world that way for women, theres no good pretending it's arranged the other way. No: I never was a bit ashamed really. I consider I had a right to be proud of how we managed everything so respectably, and never had a word against us, and how the girls were so well taken care of. Some of them did very well: one of them married an ambassador. But of course now I daren't talk about such things: whatever would they think of us! [She yawns]. Oh dear! I do believe I'm getting sleepy after all. [She stretches herself lazily, thoroughly relieved by her explosion, and placidly ready for her night’s rest].
FRANK. Viv: theres a freemasonry among thoroughly immoral people that you know nothing of. You've too much character. That's the bond between your mother and me: that's why I know her better than youll ever know her.
VIVIE. You are wrong: you know nothing about her. If you knew the circumstances against which my mother had to struggle—
FRANK [adroitly finishing the sentence for her] I should know why she is what she is, shouldn't I? What difference would that make?
Circumstances or no circumstances, Viv, you won't be able to stand your mother.
VIVIE [very angry] Why not?
FRANK. Because she's an old wretch, Viv. If you ever put your arm around her waist in my presence again, I'll shoot myself there and then as a protest against an exhibition which revolts me.
VIVIE. Must I choose between dropping your acquaintance and dropping my mother's?
FRANK [gracefully] That would put the old lady at ever such a disadvantage. No, Viv: your infatuated little boy will have to stick to you in any case. But he's all the more anxious that you shouldn't make mistakes. It's no use, Viv: your mother's impossible. She may be a good sort; but she's a bad lot, a very bad lot.
VIVIE [hotly] Frank—! [He stands his ground. She turns away and sits down on the bench under the yew tree, struggling to recover her self-command. Then she says] Is she to be deserted by the world because she's what you call a bad lot? Has she no right to live?
FRANK. No fear of that, Viv: she won't ever be deserted. [He sits on the bench beside her].
VIVIE. I have shared profits with you: and I admitted you just now to the familiarity of knowing what I think of you.
CROFTS [with serious friendliness] To be sure you did. You won't find me a bad sort: I don't go in for being superfine intellectually; but Ive plenty of honest human feeling; and the old Crofts breed comes out in a sort of instinctive hatred of anything low, in which I'm sure youll sympathize with me. Believe me, Miss Vivie, the world isn't such a bad place as the croakers make out. As long as you don't fly openly in the face of society, society doesn't ask any inconvenient questions; and it makes precious short work of the cads who do. There are no secrets better kept than the secrets everybody guesses. In the class of people I can introduce you to, no lady or gentleman would so far forget themselves as to discuss my business affairs or your mothers. No man can offer you a safer position.
VIVIE [studying him curiously] I suppose you really think youre getting on famously with me.
CROFTS. Well, I hope I may flatter myself that you think better of me than you did at first.
VIVIE [quietly] I hardly find you worth thinking about at all now. When I think of the society that tolerates you, and the laws that protect you! when I think of how helpless nine out of ten young girls would be in the hands of you and my mother! the unmentionable woman and her capitalist bully—
VIVIE. I wish you wouldn't rant, mother. It only hardens me. Come: I suppose I am the only young woman you ever had in your power that you did good to. Don't spoil it all now.
MRS WARREN. Yes, Heaven forgive me, it's true; and you are the only one that ever turned on me. Oh, the injustice of it! the injustice! the injustice! I always wanted to be a good woman. I tried honest work; and I was slave-driven until I cursed the day I ever heard of honest work. I was a good mother; and because I made my daughter a good woman she turns me out as if I were a leper. Oh, if I only had my life to live over again! I'd talk to that lying clergyman in the school. From this time forth, so help me Heaven in my last hour, I'll do wrong and nothing but wrong. And I'll prosper on it.
VIVIE. Yes: it's better to choose your line and go through with it. If I had been you, mother, I might have done as you did; but I should not have lived one life and believed in another. You are a conventional woman at heart. That is why I am bidding you goodbye now. I am right, am I not?
MRS WARREN [taken aback] Right to throw away all my money!
VIVIE. No: right to get rid of you? I should be a fool not to. Isn't that so?
MRS WARREN [sulkily] Oh well, yes, if you come to that, I suppose you are. But Lord help the world if everybody took to doing the right thing! And now I'd better go than stay where I'm not wanted. [She turns to the door].