It is a polemical essay by a young Ukrainian socialist, Anna Pavlyk, about urban female workers and the challenges of their status as wage-earners and low-paid participants in the urban labor market. Anna knew about the peculiarities of this status from the first month. The woman worked as a seamstress or a maid for most of her life. The essay was published in Lviv in 1887 in a women’s almanac, “The First Wreath.” It was initiated and published by writers Natalia Kobrynska and Olena Pchilka as the first Ukrainian-language publication of women authors. Anna Pavlyk attempts to produce a collective portrait of the lowest strata of the social ladder – the daughters of “poor relatives” who began to earn their own money from childhood, without any education, with few options for feeding themselves, except for exhausting physical work as an employee at a factory or in a private household. The portrait proposed by Anna Pavlyk is an attempt at an anthropology of female poverty, gender stereotypes, and social inequalities of Galician society at the end of the 19th century.


Anna Pavlyk Essay “Worker girl” Lviv, 1887

Anna Pavlyk
Printed in:
Pershyi vinok. Zhinochyi almanakh. Lviv: Drukarnia Tovarystva imeni Shevchenka, 1887. C. 361-365. [The first wreath. Female Almanac. Lviv: The Shevchenko Society printing house, 1887. P. 361-365.]
Original language:

Worker Girl.

(A sketch from a woman’s life.)

Tough is the life of a young burlaka laborer

This kind of truthful and sad song as for this burlak should be composed about a poor female laborer who is indeed in a worse position than the male burlak worker, and who is hardly noticed any time. Most men see them only as defenseless and yielding victims. As to women, the higher they stand on the social ladder, the more they look down on their servant sisters. Few will look into their hearts and into their miserable lives. That’s why the women’s initiative to compile the female almanac is such a great idea; there, every woman can tell about her ill fate or good fortune.

Next, listen to what the laborer has to tell you.

If a girl was born to a poor family, she must leave them and look for the job she could use to be able to live independently, so as not to be a burden for the family. Parents can keep her by their side for up to 12 years, and until that age she can hardly learn many things. And this is because they either have no money to send her to school or to other studies, and in addition, she must help with the work around the house. If she leaves her parents and goes to any work, e.g. to the seamstress’, she only works for food, which is not the best, and she can only be happy about living by herself, and she thinks that she will learn more skills here, and hopes that it will get better one day.

Meanwhile, she lives among such poor things that have to live in a crowded house of three and four families staying together. And if she manages to get accommodation at the work place, she must do longer hours, until late at night, to repay the owner. But all of it can be overcome by hope and young age, although the hope is feeble. She learns few things because in the workplace no one pays attention to her, not enabling her to learn new things but let her do only what she already knows.

However, such a worker would learn things by herself, trying to soak in anything new. This kind of training takes several years. In the meantime, neither the worker girl, nor others ever pay attention how she lives or what she wears. But when she comes off age (17, 18, 20) and has already learned all kinds of work, then she begins to think more about herself. The first thing she thinks about is how to leave this work find another job where she could negotiate so that she could regularly be paid. Or, if she does not plan to leave the current job, she wrestles with how to make them pay her on a regular basis. This second option is very difficult to achieve for her, for the workshop managers get frustrated, and as soon as she manages to get higher pay they keep reproaching her as they taught her all things she knows and also wants to get paid for that. When such a worker girl leaves the old workshop and seeks another place for herself, she is in for another trouble: other people from the old workshop start gossiping about her claiming she must have been incited by someone to act that way, and that she is seeking for easy ways. Thus a great harm is done to worker girls because if the rumour has her, she then will have to take long to find a new job. If she finds a place, then in a larger city she can get some 12 to 15 zl. per month for 12 to 14 hours of hard work a day. That money, she must use to rent a place to stay, to heat it, to get some food, and cover other smaller but necessary expenses. As for the clothes, it is out of question that the worker girl can afford buying some clothes, so now she is trying figure out how to cut down even on the most necessary costs and save for some clothes for herself. Almost always, she lives in a cellar with only a bed in, where she sleeps overnight, and she must pay for this at least 2 zl. a month. However prudent she is trying to be, she still needs to buy some firewood, salt, light, and some washing soap, some starch, and so on.

She has to cooks and wash her clothes at night, of course; for she stays at work from the 7 or 8 in the morning until 9 in the evening; and she also has to face some trouble from her room-mates for they keep complaining that she bother their sleep.

Soon, the worker girl has enough of that complaining and she says she would only come here to sleep and she would eat out in the eatery. For this reason, others start gossiping about her again. “What is she going to wear to go to the tavern if she has nothing  to choose from?”

The worker girl does not pay attention to all these things and goes out wearing whatever she has. However, she herself thinks that, compared to others, she looks like a beggar, and she does not have any lunch but only tells her roommates she goes to eat out. So, at lunch break, she would go out and wander around an empty street, or wherever, and returns to the workshop hungry. She only lives by breakfast and dinner. The breakfast, and especially the dinner, are not much of a thing! At breakfast, she would have a glass of milk and a bun for 2 kr., and for dinner she would grab as much as slice of dry bread, not more. So she saves every krajcar (penny) and this way gets to slowly save enough for clothes. In one month, she would buy one thing, and another piece next month, and so on, one small thing at a time. If she needs to buy something more costly, it takes several months, or even a year, to save enough. Even when she manages to get some new clothes, they would judge her again, stronger than before, trying to suggest all kinds of dirty ways of earning: after all, the monthly pay of 15 zl. would hardly ever suffice for that! It is a shame to listen to this but she feels cheerful anyway, for she is happy she could get some neat clothes because the untidy girl would be labeled lazy or unskilled, and if the rumour spreads around it would be hard to find a job again. This way, she manages to save on her living to be able to pay back to where she used to stay or study; but eventually she would realize that the cloths are wearing down, and he needs to get another. When the groundless or false news circulates too much, or when the worker girl gets out after work in the evening, or when she is out in the street for other reasons, the poor thing would sometimes find it difficult to cross the street, as men of different age and status, even those bound with knots of fidelity with other women, would chase her. They say she should not reject the offers as they say to her openly that she should not be hiding because everyones gossiping about her all over, about how she lives. 

Whenever any such worker girl manages to get married, the husband will also be a poor worker, and it will still be considered a big luck for the girl. But what kind of luck is that? She may only think so in the beginning but in fact, that kind of marriage is the double trouble because the man’s earnings would be spent for him himself, and the woman must try hard to provide for herself and the children, too. If a husband is decent he would help the wife, but most of them, in addition to making her work hard, would beat and degrade her at night. Such women usually do housework at night, and during the day they go to the workshop, leaving her children on their own, and they would get wild without any school, and they would often be hungry and cold. That’s how a poor married worker plows her labor, trying her best, and she would often die before her time. Her children will have to follow the same life and cry the same tears.

Anna P.

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Worked on the material:
Research, comment

Ivanna Cherchovych

Translation into English

Svitlana Bregman

Text transcript

Asia Pavlenko

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