Friday, April 9, 2010

Working Women In Earlier America: Not So Uncommon After All

In collecting vintage books, paper and photos, it's especially interesting how frequently we find women in the workplace in earlier times. Traditional life always included working women, and they and their occupations and businesses were commonly profiled in magazines and textbooks long ago.

Of course mothers were needed at home in eras when most clothes were home-sewn and most food was home-grown and home-preserved, and when there was so much work around the homeplace that even lower-income people hired helpers. But there were also those who worked for pay, at whatever jobs they were interested in doing, despite what we may have heard. According to the USDA, a full quarter of all American women held jobs outside their homes in 1910! (A similar statistic was reported for 1900 by PBS, although manipulated to highlight only "married women", and including a data point that was not tracked until 1950.)

The first woman Postmaster in the USA was appointed in 1775, and she wasn't alone. Women weren't just telephone operators - before that they were telegraph operators, and paid as well as their male counterparts. Women didn't just collect eggs to sell, they bred poultry and turkeys to create commercially better birds, and operated the leading mail-order poultry businesses of the day.

Women in every town worked in retail businesses, manufacturing, newspapers, restaurants, groceries, department stores, banks, book stores, laundries, farms, milneries, print shops, beauty salons, accountants... I wonder if we looked at statistics from 1900, if we wouldn't find that most businesses in most towns employed women, and at a ratio of women workers to women in management very similar to what we see today.

I think the reality was that most working women then worked for the same reasons and made their choice of job in the same ways we do. Some women sought careers, and some of those sought advancement in their careers, while others were happier with the balance of a job they could leave behind at the end of the day and put their main energy into personal and family life.

Isn't that true of women today?

Come to think of it, isn't that true of men as well?

So: why are we taught in the media that women "weren't allowed" to work before WWII, or that they couldn't be anything other than nurses and teachers? Why do we continue to hear claims of "glass ceilings"? Looking at original source material - whether from earlier or from recent history shows a very different reality.

Photos, in order from top to bottom:

From a 1906 edition of Muncey's Magazine, the caption on this photo reads "Mrs Rebecca Lukens, of Coatesville Pennsylvania, the first American ironworker to roll boiler plates successfully." The article further reads "Mrs Lukens was far more than a mere owner. She weas an inventive, practical woman, who drove the business toward success in the face of tremendous difficulties. Her boiler-plates became so famous that George Stephenson used them in the building of his first locomotives." Rebecca Lukens was born in 1794.

Claudia Staggs, in the Coggin National Bank, Brownwood, TX.

Katherine Stinson Otero (born 1893 or 1891), got her pilot's license in 1912, the 4th woman to do so, and became the first woman to carry airmail. During WWI, she drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in France and trained Canadian fighter pilots, later working as a draftsman for the US Navy.

A group of women picking fruit, circa 1910.

Maria Edgeworth (born 1767), Irish Novelist first published in 1795 who wrote and published prolifically thereafter until her death in 1849. The book I have is part of an 18 volume set of her works published in London in 1833.

UPDATE Jan. 15, 2011: Here are two recent posts on this topic that may be of interest:

Part 1 - 18th Century Equal Opportunity & Success: Some Women Printers in Colonial America

Part 2: 18th Century Business Women: Limited Only By 20th Century Interpretation


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Thank you Lucy. It's good to know that, and I appreciate having you here. :-)

    Have a great weekend!




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