1905 | New York City

It Takes a Village

What is a woman of leisure to do with herself?

There is an immense amount of feminine talent and energy wasted in the world every day. This is not due to the indifference or the laziness of woman, for she is eager to do, to accomplish, to go out into the field of life and achieve for herself and for her kind. But she simply does not know how. One of the most important movements of the day, therefore, is the reawakening of woman, the building her up on a new basis of self-help and work for others. That movement will set loose an amount of energy and talent that will revolutionize our social life.

Among the idle rich of today are many women whose families have grown up so that they are largely relieved of household responsibility and occupation. Such women have much time, money, and executive ability; but they do not know how to apply them. They only await suggestion or, better still, good leadership to devote their powers to effective work. These women, finding their domestic occupation gone, drift quite naturally into club life; and clubs made up of this class are, as a rule, of a useful and beneficent nature. 

The question broadly is, Is woman’s sphere of usefulness becoming enlarged? Now, while it may not be expanding, still it is adjusting itself more effectively to her various talents. There is no doubt that woman’s highest duty is the home, that her influence there is more powerful for the lasting good of mankind than anywhere else. But many women of high intelligence who are not married, or whose children have gone abroad into the world, carrying there the influence of their mothers’ training to sweeten and strengthen their own homes, are bound by every law of morality to find a beneficent outlet for their powers. It is absurd to suggest that women who have a talent for music or literature or art should be enslaved by domestic drudgery, while the struggle for the civilization of the world is going on.

I am not at all concerned with the question whether women are qualified to enter the fields of labor that have been so long preempted by men. Many of our grandest women are doing the work of men in the environment of women. As a matter of fact, the limitations of woman’s field of endeavor are almost wholly physical.

The question, then, is not what our women can do, but what they must do. With all the privileges and blessings that are their heritage go commensurate responsibilities. The moral law is just as exacting as the natural law. God had a purpose in planting high-toned and good women in American soil, both North and South. The women of the two sections are as different from each other as day and night, but each is a splendid type in itself. God meant America to be a nation of brains, or he would not have made it a free nation. He demands that those brains shall be used to cultivate themselves and the brains of others. Now the woman of today has demonstrated the quality of her talent, courage, and endurance. Therefore there is no excuse for her not working. True, she is still far behind man in the matter of executive ability where great enterprises are involved, or as an organizer, but she is overtaking him with rapid strides. Just now, in civic affairs, her courage is perhaps a little in advance of her judgment. Her methods may not be so sophisticated, nor possibly so judicious, as those of her brother; but one is safe in saying that her purposes are infinitely more idealistic than his, and her attitude decidedly less compromising. A man may trade municipal for presidential votes, thus sacrificing his city for the nation, his domestic welfare for the policy of the party in power. But whoever heard of a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union who would in the slightest degree relax her attitude on the temperance question? I am not referring now to the women who form so-called patriotic clubs for the sole purpose of social life and without the slightest sense of the true import of the word patriotism. The women of the land must learn that there is more real joy in work than in idleness; that eternal happiness is reached through work and sacrifice; that the temporary, butterfly pleasure is the ignis fatuus that lures through the beauty of youth and the strength and wisdom of mature womanhood into the slough of discontented old age. 

The Lord bestowed upon American womanhood virtue, beauty, strength, and, in many cases, wealth and time. He expects what? First that the seed of virtue shall be disseminated throughout the race. Beauty is the manifestation of a pure heart and must be retained unsullied, that others may emulate it through purity of heart. It inspires as nothing else can. From strength, the Lord demands effort in the direction of civilization. 

God has put woman with these tools into his vineyard and commanded her to work. 

The field of labor for the women of the idle class is vast. There is no village so small, no town so free from corruption that it does not afford ample opportunity for missionary work. Every woman can make her village or town better. She can form a “sunshine club,” the individual rays of which may penetrate and cheer the sick chamber or render the abode of poverty less desolate. Her excuse for interesting herself in civic affairs is that her husband has paid taxes or rent, which is the same thing; and it is just as much her duty to see that he receives full value for his money as it is to see that the butcher does not cheat him. She must see to it that the village is properly policed, so that her daughter may be protected from ruffianism, or that her son may be guarded from evils that lurk in the dark. Her husband has paid for good sanitary conditions, and she must see to it that the money appropriated for that purpose is properly expended, so that the health of her family may be secured against infection.

Woman has brains, energy, and courage, and no one has any moral right to waste time. Time is the most precious thing in the world because it is the only thing that cannot be replaced when lost. Woman is responsible in proportion to the wealth and time at her command. While one woman is working for bread and butter, the other must devote her time to the amelioration of the condition of her laboring sister. This is the moral law.


Margaret Olivia Sage

From “Opportunities and Responsibilities of Leisured Women.” In 1906 Sage inherited $75 million upon the death of her husband, Russell Sage, a financier and railroad baron who opposed philanthropic work and was once convicted of violating lending laws; the following year Sage established a charitable foundation in his name, the early projects of which promoted workers’ compensation and laws against predatory lending. In 1916 Sage opened a women’s college despite her lawyer’s advice against founding a school: “There are enough already.”