Sandburg’s vivid ode to his scrappy city, “Chicago” (1914)—a muscular piece of verse if ever there was one—is kind of a bromance. Amid the butchers and railroad men, the cons, sluggers, and stackers of wheat, it contains only two references to the other half of the population: “painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys” and the downtrodden women on whose faces the speaker has seen the “marks of wanton hunger.”
It is interesting to me, as someone who writes fiction about women’s lives in history, that Sandburg saw only half of his city, only half of the backbreaking tasks that kept it running like a hot engine. What did he miss?
Well, inside just about every home, from the squalid tenement to the Gold Coast mansion, he would have found flushed women plucking, chopping, boiling, stuffing, kneading, and pickling. On laundry day they turned to beating and scrubbing, wringing, and pinning garments on a line. They sewed and darned and patched. They ironed and scorched and cursed. When their children got sick they turned from their work to nurse them. They walked in the cold in a borrowed coat for medicine. They were nameless and faceless and forgotten, but they kept many a body and soul together: their children’s, their husbands’, their parents’ and relatives’. These women may not have been “bragging and laughing” as Sandburg’s bold working men did, but their work was just as important to the story of the city.
And by no means were all women ensconced in kitchens and laundries, their own, or someone else’s; nor was prostitution the only way they earned a living. In Chicago in 1914, women worked as clerks, typists, stenographers, and bookkeepers. They toiled in crowded garment factories where their pay was docked for every broken sewing needle. Jane Addams and the Women’s Trade Union League organized to lobby for better working conditions for telephone operators and women who worked in the packinghouses, among others. Just the year before Sandburg’s poem was published, shop girls at Marshall Field testified at the state legislature about their employer’s refusal to pay them a living wage—of course, women still did not have the vote, so the legislators were not beholden to them. The Visiting Nurses Association converged like the National Guard in poor neighborhoods to provide basic medical care to the sick and deliver babies.
All women, all working and probably “flinging magnetic curses” too–but all invisible to the Sandburgs of the world. The story he tells is epic, beautiful, and true, but it is only half the story.