Why Women Cry, Or, Wenches With Wrenches

​May 1 (otherwise known as International Workers' Day) seems like a good day to enthuse about one of my favorite books, by one of my long-time favorite writers.

The book is Why Women Cry, or, Wenches With Wrenches, and you can read it at HathiTrust. The author, Elizabeth Hawes, was a fashion designer and labor organizer (how often do those occupations go together?) who also wrote the fabulous Fashion is Spinach (the name is an allusion to this famous New Yorker cartoon). The Wikipedia article on Hawes is well worth reading.

Reading Wenches today (let's call it that, as opportunities to use the word 'wench' are so rare nowadays) is a disconcerting experience. Published in 1943, Wenches is ostensibly about how American women can best handle running the "American Home" -- with special attention paid to war workers, based on Hawes's own experience working in a war plant.

Wenches is disconcerting, in part, because the arguments it sets forth are the ones we are still having today. In short: how can women have rich, full lives? Hawes begins with a kind of taxonomy of the women she has met. She talks about the problems of Forgotten Women, aka housewives ("Anything which appears to be an effort to make their work lighter is merely an attempt to sell one more housekeeping device on the installment plan") and describes the phenomenon we now call "Rich Housewives of X", who have "but one object in view--and that is to have more clothes and more jewelry and more houses and cars and servants than anyone else. If having more husbands than anyone else is going to make them able to have more of the other things, they do that too."

She also describes Ladies, and their cousins the Gentlewomen ("If you have all the attributes of a Lady, but no money, you are known as a Gentlewoman.") Hawes argues with the Feminists (capital-F) of her time, believing their drive to make men and women legislatively equal would be better spent extending the special privileges women enjoyed (such as the right to sit down in a factory when not on the clock!) to men. Hawes worried that, instead of bettering working conditions for everyone, paper equality would only encourage the bosses to continue insisting on suboptimal working conditions for both men and women.

Hawes herself is what she calls a "She-Wolf": a successful businesswoman, "a large number" of which "manage to have their work, get married, have homes, have children, and not quite collapse under the strain." Men married to She-Wolves "are as capable of taking care of the baby from the day it gets home" and "can usually cook" -- although they "prefer child care."

But the largest part of Wenches is dedicated to the "Womenworkers". "They are never thanked publicly ... They just do--the laundry, the typing, the welding, the serving, the teaching, the nursing." And they do it without paid help. And when they are discussed, it's mostly their looks that matter, whether or not they should. ("I doubt seriously if business was impeded by the fact that Margie wore a satin dress while taking dictation from her boss in 1925.")

The list of problems Hawes sets out as occupying the Womanworker's time is depressingly familiar: "Can my husband and I afford my giving up my job to have a baby? If I am sick, who will take care of the kids? If prices go up, how can I get back to work ... Shall I clean the house today--or can I put it off?"

As a wartime book, a large part of Wenches is occupied with the question of women defense workers. How could women be encouraged to work for the war effort? Hawes had a commonsense solution to the problem of not enough women working for defense (essentially, "It's the lack of child care, stupid") but without plant experience, no one took her seriously. So she went and got a job at a plant making aircraft engines.

In training and working at the plant Hawes suffered the usual slate of familiar indignities: instructors who refused to teach women; instructors who claimed women would become sexually undesireable if they wore slacks, and women being the last to be hired out of the training class. At the plant, women weren't taught to maintain or repair their own machines, standing idle while workmen were called. Men were forbidden to swear in front of the new women workers and seemed terrified to give feedback on their work, lest they cry. And when the solution used in the grinding machines caused rashes in several women, nothing was done about it until a man got the rash, too.

As Hawes predicted, childcare concerns drove the majority of the women war workers' decisions. Every one of the women in her training class asked for third shift, so they could work while their children slept, and sleep while their children were in school. Hawes estimated she herself got less than six hours of sleep a day. When a fellow worker's mother -- who was taking taking care of her child -- got sick, the child care agency the plant recommended told her that the only option they could offer was putting her child in a foster home!

But Hawes also loved the machines in the plant, comparing them to "helpless little dogs" which needed to be coddled and patted, and which, more importantly, gave many women their first opportunity to do creative work.

Of course some things have changed in the past sixty years -- nobody has uttered the phrase "Gee! I wish I dared wear slacks!" in at least the past fifty -- but so much of Wenches could have been written last week.

In addition to advocating for comprehensive child care for working families, Hawes supports labor unions, more research into women's health, living wages for domestic workers, and making contraceptives widely available, op-eds proposing any of which you probably read in a newspaper at any point in the last five years. (One thing Hawes supported that has actually come to pass? Hot school lunches.)

So why do I love this book? Doesn't it make me depressed that we're still arguing over the same issues? Part of the joy of Wenches is Hawes' snappy style ("it's delightful to talk about making a Better World -- like wandering around in a fairy tale. Nobody expects you really to be specific about anything") but part of it is like traveling to an alternate timeline, where nobody went through the Red Scare and where 'socialist' was still a word you could use without putting "but I'm not a" in front of it. Reading Hawes, who only wants to see women able to do the work she knows they can do, who only wants children to be well-fed, well-educated, and well-taken-care of, and who assumes that any group of well-organized women can pull off anything they choose to do, is inspiring. There's no partisanship, there's no name-calling, and there's the outright assumption that men can, should, and will be interested in working for the same things -- good schools, convenient child care, and better working conditions for everyone.

I don't know what Hawes, who died in 1971 (at the Hotel Chelsea in New York!), would think of us still fighting the same battles today. I do believe that if she could, she'd pick up her wrench, though, and help us work!