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American Women at Work in the Nineteenth Century

Mary Robinson Sive

Diaries are among the most useful documents for historical research. Mixed in with plentiful data about weather and farm and home chores, we sometimes find surprising information. That certainly is true of the record kept by an upstate New York woman from 1877 to 1928. One of the surprises was the extent to which the women of the community were gainfully employed.

In discussing women's paid employment, standard texts typically focus on girls in the Lowell textile mills, later immigrants in urban sweatshops, and on professional women. We do not find in them women like the diary's author, who taught, sewed, and took in boarders, the milliner for whom she worked occasionally, or the traveling corset agent who served the women of her town. That the diarist continued teaching after marriage was baffling until I learned that married women were eased out of public schools only about 1900, when teachers' salaries improved. Female neighbors also sewed at home or worked as housekeepers, in boarding houses and hotels. They were farm hands and worked a farm on shares. They traveled to cities near and far for both white- and blue-collar jobs. [1]

The women in these diaries did not stay meekly at home as conventional wisdom has it. A1993 reference work observed: "The range and variety of their (women's) work as described in the 1900 census astounds those who think of all women a century ago as homebodies." Exactly. Myths die hard, even in the face of one hundred years of facts.

The Civil War gave American women the opportunity to enter paid employment in government service, industry, and public schools in significantly greater numbers than previously. The Census Bureau was quick to recognize this, and the 1870 Report for the first time showed "Females Engaged in Each Occupation." It took a little longer for the Bureau to separate out data for married, single, divorced, and widowed women. That it did so in 1890 should lay to rest the belief that 19th-century married women - at least those who were white and middleclass - stayed at home pursuing their "true womanhood" destiny. "The wage labor of women is as old as the country itself and has merely increased in importance" stated a 1910 Senate report, finally reporting that in 1820 10% of industrial employees - and nearly one quarter in1850 - had been female.[2]

If it was only single girls who worked in the textile mills, why did Massachusetts warn that employment of married women in the mills was dangerous to the health of their children? Why did other states legislate equal opportunity employment and equal pay for men and women in the 1870s? Why did federal agencies issue reports and Congress legislate on behalf of working women in the 1880s and 1890s?[3]

A collection of essays, Woman's Work in America, saw publication in 1891, its author bemoaning the "hollow sentimentality" of those who questioned the propriety of women working. It did not escape the volume's attention that women received equal pay with men only in industries where men's pay was low.[4]

The trend of women working continued so persistently that a 1900 special report by the Census Bureau offered a detailed examination of "Statistics of Women at Work" for the preceding 30 years. It found only seven occupations in which no women at all were employed. There were no female firemen, roofers, soldiers and sailors, or telegraph and telephone linemen. Blacksmiths and machinists, yes.[5]

The remarks about the 1900 census quoted above could as easily have been made about the one in 1870, when women were present in over three-quarters of occupations (all but 76 out of 338). They were found in such unexpected places as iron and steel works, mines, sawmills, oil wells and refineries, and held such surprising jobs as ship rigger, teamster, or brass foundry worker. They made up one-third of factory "operatives" and two-thirds of teachers. There were five lawyers, 24 dentists, and 527 doctors. "There are few kinds of work from which the female sex is absolutely debarred, either by nature or law or custom," was the finding of the Census Bureau in 1900, when the overall percentage of women workers had risen to one out of five, primarily due to the emergence of white-collar occupations in offices and stores.[6]

The 1900 Census report accorded these working women respect by recognizing that they as well as men were "breadwinners." It found one out of six working women age 16 and over to be married, with one out of six of those a head of household. Three-quarters of teachers and professors were women. The percentage of female teachers married (4.5%) does not indicate total prejudice against married women in the classroom, but it was 21.2% among Black women teachers. Unsurprisingly, women of color escaped notice, and the stereotype of only single women in the classroom persists.[7]

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The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago was the first to honor women's achievements with a separate Women's Building.

The establishment in 1920 of a Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor placed women's work in the mainstream except for setbacks during the Great Depression, when women were expected to stay home again, and when male veterans returned after World War II.

Housework in one's family home was never considered "gainful" employment, and still is not, but in 1930 the Census Bureau at least recognized that women's unpaid work performed at home deserved to have the title "homemaker."

The above-mentioned Senate report one hundred years ago noted that "women have always worked" and that the number of occupations open to women in the early 19th century had been greatly underestimated. Why is it that later generations of girls and women hear so little about the women who performed "non-traditional" jobs so long ago? Scholarship on women's work often focuses on doctors and lawyers at the top and sweatshops and domestic work at the bottom. Extensive data available in Census Bureau publications tell us much more about the large numbers employed in the middle. And that includes 14,681 married women teaching in American classrooms in 1900.

[1] A topical synopsis of the diary, "When the Trains Ran," is available on CD from the Delaware County Historical Association, Route 10, Delhi, NY 13757, 607-746-3849

[2] U.S. Senate. Report on the Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States. Vol. IX: History of Women in Industry in the United States , by Helen L. Sumner (1910)

[3] Annie N. Meyer, Woman's Work in America. (1891); Barbara M. Wertheimer, We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America (1977); Mary Ellen Hulse, United States Government Documents on Women, 1800-1990. 2 v. (1993)

[4] Meyer, op.cit.

[5] U.S. Bureau of the Census. Statistics of women at work: based on unpublished information derived from the schedules of the Twelfth census, (1907)

[6] U.S. Bureau of the Census. Ninth Census of the United States (1870), Table xxvii; Twelfth Census of the United States (1900), Table iv; "Statistics of women at work" (1907)

[7] U.S. Bureau of the Census. Eleventh Census of the United States (1900), Table 91; "Statistics of Women at Work" (1907), p. 118