Women telegraphists

Victorian working-class women were - by definition - obliged to take employment. Many jobs were available to them in workshops, laundries, factories and the homes of the better off. Therefore to be a middle-class women was to be in a position where you did not need to take up work. If you wanted employment as a middle-class women (to pass the time until you married of course) it had to be improving, non-physical and safe. It had to be the kind of work that relied upon middle-class skills, such as reading and writing, that separated it from the jobs of the lower orders. Employment for Victorian middle-class women was therefore largely limited to either nurturing roles, as a teacher or governess, or caring roles, as a nurse or companion. Middle-class work needed to avoid the places and skills attributed to lower-class work. 

When the first telegraph clerks were being recruited in the early 1840s it was into a wholly new industry; new staff, new skills, new offices, new equipment, new business structures, and - importantly - new expectations. The telegraph office offered a blank slate in terms of 'acceptable' work for women. While telegraphy was decidedly non-domestic, being neither an extension of caring or nurturing, it was indoor, seated, non-manual work with limited exposure to the (imagined scary male) public. Offices were clean, secure and in central, easy to access locations. The burgeoning telegraph industry was requiring of educated and disciplined persons and - importantly for the recruitment of women - required these in huge and rapidly growing numbers. Telegraph companies targeted women for these new jobs, not least because they could be paid %25 less than a male telegraph clerk. Telegraph clerk joined the list of acceptable jobs for women.

Charles Garland, writing in 1901, looks back at this pioneering moment from a full sixty years later. His testimony (included below) is international in scope and compelling reading. Written on the cusp of the Twentieth century, he sketches out a world still struggling with the idea of employing women in telegraphy. A world that blithely uses language to describe women and women's employment in ways that make a modern reader cringe and writhe. 'It's of it's time' is our rational, thoughtful response. 'It's from the beginning of a long struggle. It's laughable. It's not like that anymore'. These are simply protective platitudes. While the language used to discuss women's employment has been largely sanitised (with a few exceptions, see Janusz Korwin-Mikke's comments in the European Parliament this week) we are still struggling with the excruciating persistence of many of the issues outlined by Garland. The fact remains that here in 2017, 175 years after telegraphy first expanded the sphere of women's work, the gender pay gap has closed by just %7.

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Women as Telegraphists 

Charles H. Garland 

The Economic Journal, Vol. 11, No. 42 (Jun., 1901), pp. 251-261 Full text available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2957169.pdf

'Most of the larger and many of the smaller administrations allied to the Postal Union employ women as telegraphists or telephonists. The progressive diminution of the mean profit from telegrams, due to the decrease in the tariffs, and the continual public demand for further cheapness, have pushed postal authorities of all countries to seek some means of reducing the cost of the service. In fact, the question of economy would seem to have been the main reason for the experiments with female labour in practically all cases. And in general, the result has been satisfactory, and a saving is stated to have been effected. In England the introduction of women appears to have been facilitated by another influence. When Mr. Scudamore first caught from the Telegraph Companies the idea of employing women, he saw in addition to their cheapness, that the plan offered another advantage. Women simply required a nomination for admission to the postal service, and their employment on a larger scale opened up a light and relatively remunerative occupation for the female relatives of postal officials. There is little doubt that this prospect secured some support to the scheme among the colleagues of Mr. Scudamore. In Germany the first introduction of women as telegraphists, between the years 1874 and 1877, seems to have been assisted by what the administration describes as "lack of male staff." It is not stated what was the cause of this lack. In Sweden another motive assisted-the primary attraction of cheapness. In 1863, the Swedish States-General sent a humble address to the king, drawing his attention to the fact that the number of women in the kingdom of Sweden largely exceeded the number of men, and consequently a large number of women were cut off from their natural vocation, marriage. The States General were of opinion that the duty of the State was to find employment for these women. The Swedish Government, without admitting its responsibility, agreed that exceptional cases might arise, and directed the Telegraph Administration to arrange for the admission of women. Allied reasons are officially stated to have weighed with the Government of South Australia.

There seems little doubt that a still further consideration with many of the administrations has been the relative docility of the women. In England'and France the women are practically unorganised, whilst the men have followed the general tendency to form unions for the protection of their interests and the improvement of their position. The Italian Administration describes this quality of women thus: " The women do not generally concern themselves with political questions, and are strangers to the struggles of parties and interests. This endows them with the best qualities requisite for the telegraphic service, namely, patience, discipline and application." 

Such are a few of the stated reasons which have led to the employment of women in the various Telegraph Administrations of the world. So widespread has become this employment that of the forty-seven Administrations of the Union, no fewer than thirty-five actually employ or have employed, women as telegraphists and telephonists. The European Administrations employing women are: Germany, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Spain, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Italy, Holland, Roumania, Serbia, Sweden and Switzerland. The extra-European Administrations employing women are: South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Cape Colony, Cochin-China, the Portuguese Colonies, Dutch Indies, British Indies, Argentine Republic, Japan, Ceylon, New Caledonia, Senegal, Tasmania and New Zealand. Women are excluded from the following European Administrations: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Tunis, and Turkey, and from the following extra-European Administrations: Egypt, Natal and Siam. It must however, be added that Belgium has renounced completely the ad- mission of women since 1889, so far as the telegraph service is concerned, and female telegraphists are a moribund class in Germany. The reasons for this suspension of employment will be referred to later. 

In America the Telegraphs are not under the State, but are administered by private companies. The Western Union Telegraph Company which is the largest of these companies employs women as telegraphists, but I have no information as to their efficiency. The Eastern Telegraph Company also employs women in its London office, but not as operators. 

It will be seen that the profession of telegraphist is practically world-wide and the employment of women is sufficiently general to promise important results. This promise is justified when we examine the facts available. It will be of advantage in discussing the questions to select the experience of a state yielding fairly typical results, and then to examine how far the experience of other states confirms these results, and in what respect they differ. 

Reporting its experience to the International Bureau in 1899, the English Telegraph Administration said: " Generally speaking the women are as efficient as the men, but they are more frequently absent for sickness, and their number is limited because they are not eligible for night duty; in addition their pay is about twenty-five per cent less than that of the men'. In short the employment of women offers great.advantages." This report is somewhat cryptic, unless read in conjunction with other utterances by responsible officials. It will be seen that the chief causes of inefficiency stated are large sick-absence and what may be termed a lack of adaptability to the requirements of the service. Under the regulations of the English Service the duty of the women must be performed between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.2 Although liable under the terms of their engagement, to perform Sunday duty English female telegraphists are in practice practically exempt from this duty. But the passage: "Generally speaking the women are as efficient as the men," requires some elucidation before it can convey a precise meaning. Ordinarily women are employed on the minor wires of the larger offices or on the less important duties of any office. What is apparently intended is that women perform the duties allotted to them as efficiently as men perform the same duties. On this point the evidence of Mr. (now Sir) H. C. Fischer, the late Controller of the London Central Telegraph Office, given to the Playfair Commission, is instructive. I think," he said, an average male clerk is superior to an average female clerk. There is no duty which a female performs better than a male. There are duties which they perform equally well, for instance working minor circuits. This work is now left principally to them in the Central Office." There is some further testimony to the same effect of a considerably later date. On October 23rd, 1893, the Postmaster-General appointed a committee to "inquire into the work of Telegraphists and their supervisors." This committee consisted of expert officials who had every possible facility for minute inquiry and they set about their work with a very large experience and knowledge. Their opinion is therefore of the highest value. On May 4th, 1894, they reported as follows on the question of the employment of women. " Testimony has been very generally given in favour of the work done by women. While it is held that they cannot well be employed at " Y.Q." (News) wires, at stick-punching, or on night work, it is admitted that at all the ordinary duties of a telegraph office they are as useful as men; and that the department would gain financially and not lose in efficiency if their employment were considerably extended." The net result of these authoritative opinions appears to be that women perform the duties allotted to them as well as the same duties are performed by men. It must be pointed out that the work on "Y.Q." (News) wires mentioned above is work involving considerable physical strain and makes some heavy demands on the powers of endurance, whilst what is known as " stick-punching" is also closed to women merely on account of lack of muscular strength and not from any intellectual shortcoming. 

It is interesting to note how the experience of the English administration as thus set forth has been confirmed by the other Telegraph administrations. Thus the Austrian administration "I finds that women make tolerably clever and well disciplined servants, and are not inferior to men in all the occupations more or less mechanical." Belgium reports that: "The major portion of the female staff exhibits the aptitudes and intelligence required for telegraphic work, notably for the manipulation of the apparatus, without however displaying any special or particular qualities which are not found at least in an equal degree among men." Evidence of practically the same character is given by Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Holland, Roumania, Serbia, Switzerland, Japan, New Zealand and all parts of Australia. Italy qualifies her opinion by the remark that "only a few have succeeded in exceeding, or even equalling, the skill of good male telegraphists." The experience of France deserves a larger share of attention. The Budget Sub-Committee of 1895, in recommending an increase of female labour in the French Post-Office dealt at some length with the relative value of the work of the two sexes. "Many women," said the report, " have proved themselves to possess qualities of zeal, intelligence, and activity, under circumstances when their duty has been arduous and difficult, and have carried out the counter and postal work with eminently satisfactory results. In other cases it has been found necessary to retain them permanently in inferior positions." 

 So far there is abundant evidence that in the lower or routine class of work women compare favourably with men. There is a, fairly unanimous opinion that women become fatigued more quickly and are incapable of long-continued strain. The next question, however, in order of importance seems to be how far women have been successful when placed in a position to perform duty of a higher than mere routine kind. In Italy women are employed for the most part as auxiliaries, but in each office two of their number are chosen as assistants for the performance of the work of supervision. In order to secure such a position the women must pass an examination in the Italian 'and French languages, Arithmetic, Physical Geography, Physics and Chemistry, Political Geography, the theory and practice of Telegraphy, and the regulations of the service. They are then appointed to the establishment, and in order to secure as lengthy a service as possible, permission is given them to marry without quitting the service. Despite the fairly broad academic education which they possess, and the other advantages detailed above, this higher class of women employees is stated by the administration not to come up to expectations. They are found to be lacking in authority over their staff and unable to respond to heavy and sudden requirements of the service. From exhaustive inquiries which I made on the spot in 1899, they would appear to be lacking in judgment and decision, and unable to apply effectively the technical knowledge they possess. The chief of one of the largest offices in Italy said to me, " They want as much looking after as the staff themselves." 

From France the report concerning women in the higher grades of employment is equally unsatisfactory. " It is a matter of reproach," says M. Mesurier, in the Report of the 1895 Budget Sub-Committee, " that they cannot answer all the questions put to them, and it must be noted that they possess no technical knowledge, and frequently become confused in face of the innumerable details of the complex service in which they are engaged. Another objection is that the postal operations are not peformed so rapidly by women as men. The employment of women is perhaps advisable and useful on condition that they are chosen with discernment, according to their aptitudes, and the importance of the duties to be confided to them, but a selection is imperative." The result of the experiments of the Austrian administration is practically the same. "Women," runs its report, " have not sufficient energy to obtain authority over other persons, and the surveillance of women is always entrusted to men chosen specially for this task." 

But the English experience appears to be better. Women are largely employed in the English service on supervising duties, and would appear to give every satisfaction. Their supervision is mainly confined to their own sex, and although the discipline in their sections is less severe, less unbendingly mechanical, than in the male sections, it would appear to be well suited to their staff, and calculated to promote good working. They are not, however, left in sole control, a number of their sections being under the further surveillance of a male superintendent, upon whom the higher duties of organisation and management devolve. One of the divisions of the Central Telegraph Office, in which practically all classes of ordinary telegraphic work are performed, and in which the wires are of considerable importance, is staffed and supervised entirely by women under the further surveillance of a man. Even the minor technical service is performed by a woman. It is admitted that the staff is a picked one, but the results obtained are stated to compare even to the disadvantage of the average male division. This notable instance proves beyond dispute that the best telegraphic work can be performed by women, and that a great deal of the work of supervision and management can be safely left to them. The evidence on this point is meagre, women being in most countries confined to the lower duties without chance of proving their capacity in the higher grades. The testimony so far as it goes is hardly encouraging, but I think it proves that a number of women are capable of some- thing more than mere routine duties, and that the number is increasing. 

So far as my observation has gone, this higher capacity seems to run hand in hand with a wider entry into public life. The English girl is more free than the Italian or French girl to move and interest herself in worldly affairs, and the traditions of her race give greater encouragement to this course. By this means she gains in business capacity and judgment and becomes a more useful servant to her employer. Whether this gain will compensate for losses in other directions it is impossible yet to say, but it is certainly worthy of note that a broader experience and riper worldly education seem to remove one of the causes of inferiority in woman's work, and would perhaps tend to remove others that are regarded at present as inherent. Even so small an indication of a possible extension of the sphere of woman's endeavour is valuable and suggestive. 

Let us pass now to another aspect of the case. The chief stated reason for the employment of women in all countries is their cheapness. The English administration declares that women are twenty-five per cent. cheaper than men. This economy requires proof. There are factors which seem to reduce, if they do not entirely swallow up, this saving in money wages. The French Budget Sub-Committee's Report of 1895 hints at these in the following words: " Certain opponents of the employment of women have expressed the opinion that the expenses of replacement, necessitated by the leave granted to women on account of fatigue and sickness, will swallow up the saving consequent on their lower salaries, and further it is always necessary to replace a male staff by a much larger number of females." It is noteworthy that, in the same year as the issue of this report it was proposed to make the following conversions: 262 male appointments at a mean salary of £90, into 325 female appointments at a mean salary of £56, and two further numbers, of which the salaries are not stated, as follows: 61 male clerks' appointments into 128 female appointments, and 263 male appointments into 423 female appointments. No evidence is forthcoming from other sources upon this point, and it would be of the highest interest to know how far the experience of France is confirmed. Should it be the universal experience, there is evidently a very large deduction to be made from the apparent money saving. It is certainly the duty of the State to give the fullest information concerning the relative individual output of the male and female worker. This is a matter of interest not only to the State departments employing women but to employers at large and women in general. 

Another factor which tends to increase the actual cost of the employment of women is the necessity of having at each office where they are employed two sets of lavatories and cloak-rooms. In England this factor has materially retarded the extension of female employment. In some of the smaller offices it has prevented it altogether. The expense of installation and maintenance of these separate offices must always be set off against the money saving effected by the lower wages of women. 

There is abundant evidence on another matter that detracts very considerably from the value of women as workers, namely the large amount of sick-absence. Every State which has expressed an opinion on the point complains that the women's sick-absence is greatly in excess of the men's. The English experience is typical of the whole. In the Central Telegraph Office of London the average sick-absence for the men during 1895 was eight days, that for the women being 14-3 days. To take a wider field, the Annual Report of the Postmaster- General for 1900 shows the averages for the whole Postal Staff in London as follows: 

 Average per sick officer

Men 12.9. Women 14.2

Average per officer employed

Men 8.1. Women 11.4.

It is noteworthy that some eighty per cent. of the women share in this sick-absence as against 62 per cent. of men, and it is made up largely of short periods.' Following upon the same theme of the natural disabilities of women, is the universal testimony that they suffer more than men from fatigue, and do not exhibit anything like equal powers of long-continued endurance. The Danish Government says, " the work seems more fatiguing." The Dutch Government says, " they are inferior to men in point of endurance." "They are quicker to tire than men," says Roumania. Sweden, again, says: " They are inferior to men in endurance when it comes to a question of forced work." In England the authorities make the same complaint against the women that they are more liable to fatigue. Following on this pronounced lack of endurance, women are almost universally employed upon the lighter class of work and during chosen hours of the day. We shall see presently that the choice of hours of the day does not seem necessary. In England, as already stated, the women are mainly employed upon those wires which have a steady flow of easy monotonous work, the heaviest wires, working to large towns, and involving the manipulation of complex code and cipher messages, being staffed by men. Press work, in which it is necessary to write large numbers of copies with the aid of carbon blacks, is performed in London mainly by men, although in the provinces, where a smaller number of duplicate copies are needed, women sometimes transcribe these messages. The heavy rapid work of race meetings is done entirely by men. Some years ago a picked staff of women in London did the racing work, but were later on entirely replaced by men. In France it is recommended that women should not be employed " in those offices situated near railway stations, where at the time of the departure of the mail-trains there is a great increase of work, to which the natural nervous organisation of women is unable to adapt itself. In every place, how.-ever, where the work is regular and equal, the substitution of women appears to cause no inconvenience." This seems to sum up fairly well the experience of every administration. 

Steady work at low pressure, and more or less mechanical  in character, necessitating little or no judgment, seems to be admirably performed by women, but where those conditions are lacking they are generally found inferior to men. The lack of judgment may be due, as I have hinted, in part at least, to educational disability, but there seems to be something more fundamental in the inability to work at high pressure. 

There is a disability which is mentioned by nearly every state as detracting from the value of women, namely the inability to perform night duty. Although it is accepted in most countries as an inherent and natural disability, it does not appear on examination to be much more than the result of an artificial social prejudice. The English women telegraphists are employed only between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., a few being kept until 9 p.m. in the summer months. There are a few instances in the provinces of women working until  10 p.m., and some counterwomen work' until 10 p.m. in the suburbs of London. In Paris women telegraphists work between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. In Berlin the ordinary duties of women extend to 10 p.m. Ten o'clock would seem to be the extreme limit set by social propriety to women's work in England, at any rate, so far as Telegraphy is concerned. Yet with women employed as night nurses, it is'impossible to regard this limit as a natural term to women's endurance. The expression used in the report of the Swiss Government appears to set the objection on its natural basis. " Their physical constitution does not permit their employment in the technical service and good morals forbid their employment on night duty." The ordinary work at night seems nevertheless to be specially suited to women's abilities. It is steady and at low pressure, which we saw were the qualities best adapted to the requirements of the sex. I feel convinced that the inability of women to perform night duty is merely an artificial and social one, and one that could be surmounted. These considerations indeed led the Dutch Government in 1899 to include night duty among the duties of women and the result appears so far to justify its action. Even the Swiss Government despite its careful observance of " good morals"' with regard to women telegraphists, places its telephone switchrooms at the large offices in charge of women during the night. It is to the interest of women themselves to overcome this prejudice that so seriously hampers their employment, and so remove one of the barriers to the extension of their working sphere.

' There is another very serious cause of relative inefficiency among women. Their service is always much shorter than the service of men. In most countries it is compulsory that they leave the service of the State on marriage. Even in those countries where resignation is not compulsory it is the custom for them to do so. This reduces very greatly their value, inasmuch as they seldom remain long in employ after attaining to full experience and skill as manipulators. Many indeed, never reach the full flower of their ability. The service is regarded as a prelude to marriage, and the work is not undertaken con amore. There is a distinct lack of desire to excel, which militates against the highest efficiency. The number of women in the English postal service who retired on marriage during, 1899 was 196, with an average age of 27, and an average service of between eight and nine years. In Belgium the average service of women leaving the service for marriage and other reasons is only about five and a half years, although retirement on marriage is not compulsory in that Country. 1 Since this was written an official statement has been made in the House of Commons which seems to show that the English administration has determined to follow to some extent in the footsteps of Holland. On March 28 Mr. A. Chamberlain said, in answer to a question: " As a general rule, female sorting clerks and telegraphists are not required to attend for duty before 6 a.m. or later than 10 p.m. but where local conditions are favourable it s sometimes not thought necessary strictly to adhere-to these hours." 

In France where retirement is not compulsory it is stated that marriage detracts from the value and trustworthiness of the women. Domestic cares and absorption in the attendance on their children remove interest and energy from their office work, which very naturally takes a secondary place in their minds. The comparatively short experience of some administrations makes the statement of mean service of doubtful value; but enough evidence exists to show that there is a continual drain of women from the service at a time when it is reasonable to suppose that they are of the greatest use to the State. In addition to this the near or remote prospect of marriage must distract the intelligence and attention of women workers in a way that is antagonistic to the highest efficiency and devotion to their employer. 

To sum up: we have seen that women possess the ability to perform the routine duties of telegraphy when carried on at low even pressure, as efficiently as men. We have seen that a broader worldly education gives them the judgment and ability necessary to perform duties of a higher character. In addition, they are attractive to employers because they can be obtained considerably cheaper than men. They possess too, the sovereign advantage of docility. There are not lacking signs, however, that this docility will decrease as women become more conscious of their economic value and responsibilities. 

As a set-off to their attractive qualities they suffer from certain disabilities and disadvantages which detract from their value, and tend to neutralise the economy in money wages. They would appear to have a lower individual output than men, and as a consequence it is necessary to employ a larger staff of women than of men for the same work. They suffer much more from sickness than men, which reduces their trustworthiness and value. This sickness is largely due to causes that are natural and inherent, and therefore ineradicable. Their average service is considerably shorter than men's, and they are thus lost at the period of their higher efficiency. They possess less powers of endurance and are therefore of much less value in sudden emergencies, such as frequently arise in telegraph work. A social prejudice prevents the performance of night duty by women, although there seems reason to believe that this can, and will, be overcome. 

Administrations differ in the value they set upon these various qualities, and the resulting decisions are consequently different. The majority of administrations speak strongly in favour of female employment, but do not give the details of the reasoning which brings them to this conclusion. Weighing up the evidence which is to hand I think we must be forced to the conclusion that the factor which turns the scale in favour of women is their docility. Doubtless the authorities are influenced to a considerable extent by the necessity of justifying themselves in adopting female labour. But after allowing for this influence, there does not seem sufficient reason for the very general declaration in favour of women unless we allow a tremendous value to their docility. I feel quite certain that this characteristic of women is exceedingly attractive to busy administrative officers. With a male staff, torn and agitated by the labour upheavals going on around them, there is doubtless much. unrest and troublesome worry. Women are not so much affected by these disturbances. If this does not weigh as heavily as suggested it is hard to understand the present position of heads of departments. 

As illustrating the attitude that the remaining considerations are not so conclusively favourable, I will give an instance of a State that has boldly declared the experiment to be unsuccessful. Belgium has since 1884 been gradually brought to the conclusion that the employment of women is a distinct failure. In that year the employment of women in railway offices at the large stations was abandoned because of the exigencies of the service in such offices. The night duty, the tremendous rushes of work, and-other circumstances required work at high pressure, and under such conditions women proved of less value than men. Their employment was continued elsewhere however, as for example in the central town offices. But here also the inferiority of women asserted itself. They were found to be unable to perform long- continued work at the counters, or the reception of telegrams dictated by telephone subscribers. They could not be shifted rapidly from point to point or office to office, as the pressure of the work shifted. They could not be relied on for irregular work to meet the irregular needs or sudden emergencies, and they were more frequently ill. So the Belgian State decided that female labour was incompatible with a service seeking to give the best results to the public, such as moderate tariffs and celerity in transmission, without too large a financial sacrifice, and in 1889 the recruiting of women for the telegraph service ceased entirely. Germany is still undecided, and reserves its opinion on the value of female telegraphists, but meanwhile no more are being admitted to the service. A smaller administration, Senegal to wit, has abandoned the employment of women for practically the same reasons as Belgium. 

In conclusion, there is undoubtedly an excellent field for observation in the English Post Office, and many good results could be looked for if information were carefully collected, intelligibly classified, and frankly published. In view of the importance of the subject it is due to the public that some such work should be entered upon. Meanwhile our investigation of the material at hand, whilst bringing out many important facts, still leaves the main question of the relative value of male and female labour in the present day, to a large extent unsettled. But one result seems quite certain: Were it not for the docility of women there is no sufficient reason apparent to justify the favour with which they are viewed by administrative officers and others responsible for their employment. CHARLES H. GARLAND.