Working-Class vs. Middle-Class Women

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The statement in Western Heritage that “A vast social gap separated poor working-class women from their middle-class counterparts,” is an overgeneralization of the truth. In the late 19th and early 20th century, single women of the lower middle class often had a similar lifestyle to those in the working class. It was only after marriage that the gap between the social classes could be considered “vast.” Women who worked at newly-emerging department stores and were considered “fashionable” suffered from similar poor working conditions and financial hardships as working class women.

The work of a salesgirl was as unskilled as any women working in a sweatshop at the time. Like a servant, their lives were controlled by their occupation. The stores provided housing for about half of unmarried women. However, they were no better than a maid’s room. The quarters provided for women by the Bon Marché were small with low ceilings with only the necessary furniture. Along with lodging, the store took on a paternalistic role in the life of its employees, especially the women. “A concièrge kept track of the employees, ad her permission had to be requested in order to go out at night. Such permission was nearly always granted as long as the eleven o’ clock curfew was respected.” Like a domestic servant, they lived where they worked and their employer knew everything they did. “Surveillance by inspectors and supervisors assured that employee behavior was as uniform as their dress. Employees were expected to begin work at 8 a.m. …if she were two hours late, she could lose an entire day’s wage.” Salesgirls worked for about twelve to thirteen hours each day (ten after a law was passed in 1900) with one lunch break. This break was less than an hour long in which they were not allowed to leave the store. Clerks often had to work overtime with no special compensation. Although clerks “had a few hours of leisure” compared to working class women, the difference cannot be considered...
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