A few weeks ago, a trained female make-up artist’s application for membership to a make-up artists’ association in Mumbai was rejected on the grounds that if women started entering the profession, make-up men would be deprived of their jobs. The letter of refusal she received was almost funny in the way it brought to the fore men’s anxiety regarding women entering professions over which the former hold unquestioned sway. Beleaguered males have been nurturing this unease down the ages. More than 150 years ago, Emily Faithfull (picture), founder of London’s Victoria Press, which employed women as compositors, was fighting the same fear in her writings. Delivering a lecture in August 1861, she says that the principal objective of her paper is to question the frequently voiced opinion that “the result of the introduction of women into the printing trade will be the reduction of the present rate of wages”.
She goes on to explain that the reduction in wages, if any, will even itself out since men will be relieved of the burden of maintaining female relatives who could not support themselves financially. Her argument must have made sense. For Victorian England was filled with women who, in order to be considered respectable, had to sit idle at home, as part of the drawing room décor. Emily herself must have felt the pressure of conformity keenly as the youngest of eight daughters of an upright clergyman. Yet while her sisters were busy playing house, Emily was setting up a printing house as demonstration of women’s capacity for skilled labour. In doing so, she was creating the new, almost oxymoronic, category of the respectable working woman.
It was a tenuous category, always at the risk of being dismissed with either outright scorn or nervous titters, for women’s ‘work’ in the public domain had other implications. The first female salaried journalist, Eliza Lynn Linton — Emily’s contemporary, and, like her, a clergyman’s daughter — writes in an essay: “The fast young lady and the strong-minded woman are twins, born on the same day, and nourished with the same food, but one chose scarlet and the other hodden gray; one took to woman’s right to be dissipated and vulgar, the other to her right to be unwomanly and emancipated.”
Women like Emily and Eliza, and others who answered their call for dignified labour, were clearly losing much by becoming non-women. For one, they lost the deadening weight of crinoline as they took to wearing simple skirts to facilitate free movement. Shedding baggage — including, sometimes, men — they were inching closer to a more equal social and political life, which also held out the hope that one day in the near future, they would get the right to vote.
I got to know about Emily Faithfull from a recent novel, which fictionalizes the Victorian scandal of the divorce of Henry and Helen Codrington, in which Emily was involved. Emily’s love for Helen Codrington, and for some of the women she later co-habited with, may have been of the kind that dare not speak its name. Rainbow-plumed gay parades were still a world away. But Emily, besides publicly campaigning for women’s right to work, equal wages and property, was also perhaps, in a quieter way in her private life, upholding women’s right to decide their sexuality.