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XXXIV. social superiors.

Mr. Brander Matthews lately quoted, at a discussion held in New York as to the working of republican government, an early statement by Lowell, which seems to me to contain a brief epitome of the whole matter, and to be too good to forget. Lowell said (I quote from memory), “If it be a good thing for an English duke that he has no social superior, I think it can hardly be bad for an American farmer.” It reminded me of a saying by a classmate of mine, so fond of England and so ashamed of his own country that he used to define it as the mission of the United States “to vulgarize the whole world,” who yet resented being taken too literally in this remark; and would tell a story of the disgusting sycophancy of middle-class Englishmen towards people of rank, contrasting it with the perfect indifference of the average American traveller, unconscious of having a social superior anywhere.

But there is an aspect of this “social superior” question so obvious that I wonder to see so little said about it. Does it not really form a key to the [172] whole question of domestic service? It often seems to me that the estimable ladies who are always urging, and with many good arguments, that young girls thrown upon themselves for support should choose house-work rather than the factory, miss the most important point in the whole affair. Those who refuse house-work in this form do it, not because they dread work, for they usually work harder elsewhere; nor because house-work seems to them degrading, because they have almost all helped their mothers to do it, and they probably expect to do it for themselves when they are married. There is nothing that the ladies who advise them can say about it which has any effect upon their minds, because the main point is so often left untouched. The thing that really influences them is the dislike --which they share with dukes and duchesses-of having social superiors.

Say what you please, they are not made conscious, in the life of factory operatives or “sales-ladies,” of having distinct social superiors, whereas every day of domestic service seems to imply the clear and formal recognition of such a thing. The more distinct this recognition, the less it is liked. To be the “help” in a farmer's family, eating at the family table and coming in at the same door with the rest, reduces this sense of social inferiority to the smallest point, or extinguishes it altogether. Nor is [173] there much of it in the summer hotel, where the life of the hired men and girls is a thing by itself, and no sense of actual inferiority is pressed on them. Then there are many families where a tone of kindly friendliness prevails, and excludes all oppressive sense of social superiority; and if all families were like this, there would be much less scarcity of “living-out girls,” as they like to call themselves. But just in proportion as distinctions become marked and artificial, the dislike to anything that implies social superiority becomes greater. It is useless to tell those thus situated that labor is honorable, and household labor especially so; to say that a good servant ranks higher than a good factory land, and so on. The ladies who say this fail to convince others because they do not really convince themselves. That is the real difficulty.

The trouble is that these benevolent ladies themselves in their secret souls regard that member of a poor family who goes out to service as occupying a lower social plane than her sister who tends in a store or works in a shoe factory. It is the same with men. No novelist could ever put such a brand upon the whole class of farmers or mechanics as Thackeray puts upon his footmen. I remember an occasion, many years ago, when a whole suburban village was thrown into confusion because Mr.--'s man-servant was allowed to buy a ticket and dance [174] at a village ball, although the young farmers and mechanics were all expected and even begged to attend. “What is the difference?” I asked. “Why, of course,” said the ladies on the committee, “you expect to dance in the same set, at a country ball, with your milkman and shoemaker, but as to meeting on the same terms Mr.--'s man-servant, that is a very different thing.” I never could see why it was different, but long observation has convinced me that it is so regarded. Now if the very ladies who give all the good advice still make this distinction, and if they rank household service as socially inferior to the more independent lines of work, how can they expect not to be taken at their word? They may talk never so much about the dignity of household employment, but they do not really believe in it.

I have lately asked a series of ladies, who are all content with their own social positions, whether they would prefer to have a son or a brother marry a young girl who had been a seamstress or one who had been a domestic servant, and they have always said that they should prefer the seamstress. On being pressed for reasons, some said that they did not know, but that this was the way they felt. Others said that household service seemed “more menial ;” others, that it would be awkward to receive as an equal one who had opened the door for you or [175] swept your room. Each of these reasons seemed rather flimsy, but not more so than the general feeling of which it is a part. To me it is all unmeaning; the only things really important are character, intelligence, and refinement; and nothing can be less important than the mere question what a person's employment is or has been, so it be honest.

Who sweeps a room, as for Thy laws
Makes that and the action fine.

But the point now of interest is to know what tie general impression is; and so long as the employers themselves regard household service as being socially lower than working at the needle or at the loom, how can they expect that the persons most concerned will fail to see it? If we regard all this as a prejudice, let us go to work to correct it. In the mean time we must remember that those who are in our employ are really taking themselves at our own valuation, and cannot consistently be censured. When your best handmaiden leaves your employ and accepts lower pay in a “box factory” or at some “straw-works,” remember that she may be doing it for precisely the same reason that Queen Victoria got herself declared “Empress of India” as well as Queen of England — in order that she might thenceforth have no social superior.

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