Women Can’t Have It All: 19th Century Edition

Continued from parts one and two of the series on Economic History and Women’s Rights.

While married women lost their individual identity and control of wealth and property due to coverture laws in the 19th century, single women were able to do things that coverture prevented: own property, sign contracts, sue and be sued. Single women could work outside the home without scrutiny, in acceptable fields such as teaching or nursing, and though they did not have the same job opportunities as men, they could at least earn and keep their own wages. Once a woman got married, the rules of coverture applied unless exceptions had been made with the husband’s consent.

With just these facts, being single in 19th century America sounds pretty good.

Yet, being single wasn’t really an option.

Women were expected to get married, have children, and keep house. Very few women remained single. Just 7.3 percent of women born between 1845 and 1849 remained unmarried (Kahn, 1996). That percentage did not increase much over the next half-century.  Furthermore, the cultural norms at the time dictated that women choose between marriage or career. Marriage bans were in effect in several sectors, including teaching, which prohibited women from working once married (Costa, 2000). The career options for women were quite limited: jobs tended to have no room for advancement because it was assumed the woman would leave once married. The glass ceiling of the 19th century was barely above the doorknob.

The Expansion of the Women’s Labor Market

Industrialization opened the labor market to young, single women with the creation of mill towns in the first half of the 19th century. Farmer’s daughters left the family farm and headed off to work in factories (Costa, 2000).  The creation of the clerical sector transformed women’s labor force participation once again, this time in the late 19th century. This era marked the development of a new model of business: large in size with a hierarchical structure and specialized departments within the organization.

Before the 1870s, the US economy was very agrarian in nature and small businesses prevailed. Yes, industrialization brought about factory jobs for women, but most women in those roles represented the lower class and the jobs were dismal and dangerous. Once the “modern office” came about, job openings for this new type of work – suitable for middle class women, not to mention less arduous than work in a factory – were sought-after. In 1870, less than 2,000 women were employed in offices in the United States. By 1930, the number of women bookkeepers alone stood at 465,000.  (Wootton and Kemmerer, 1996)

Stenographers at the turn of the century.
Stenographers at the turn of the century.

This is an important piece of the puzzle: women were not temporarily filling a man’s job, the clerical job market was opening up a niche for them.  The niche, however, remained a bit of a dead-end: the shift in the nature of clerical jobs reflected the shift in gender of who filled those roles.  Clerical work started out as managerial level work for men with opportunities for advancement in the small business model prior to 1870. With the advent of the “modern office” structure, it switched suddenly to repetitive daily tasks for women without room for promotions (Wootton and Kemmerer, 1996).

Women still left the workforce once they got married. Goldin (1980) notes that “work in the labor market for women from 1870 to 1920 was the realm of the unmarried whose occupations [offered]…little long-range advancement.” This didn’t exactly help women become men’s equals. However, an office job paid more money than other job possibilities, and brought with it a level of respect.  Wootton and Kemmerer point out that it was now acceptable for middle-class women to “be employed as bookkeepers, typists, clerks, stenographers, and secretaries.” While this is true for single women, Costa notes  that it took until the 1950s for the social stigma associated with a working wife to ease, but agrees that the rise of clerical work certainly helped lessen the stigma, “with its better conditions of labor, and the entry of college educated women.”

Was it the sudden exponential demand for workers in the clerical sector that brought about the shift in thinking about a woman’s role in society? Or was the shift also due to the slow but steady expansion on women’s property rights across the states, with a more amenable labor market as the logical next step? Whatever the reason, be it social, political, economic, or all of the above, attitudes began to change toward women in the workforce in the late 19th century. Issues of equality in the workplace remain today, but over the past 140 years the collective glass ceiling has been shattered again and again.

Note: All sources mentioned the difficulty of identifying exact census data in the 19th century, as definitions of what qualified as work outside the home changed frequently. The numbers used are the authors’ best estimates using the data available.

Further Reading

Costa, Dora L. “From Mill Town to Board Room: The Rise of Women’s Paid Labor.The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 14, No. 4, (Autumn, 2000), pp. 101-122.

Goldin, Claudia. “The Work and Wages of Single Women, 1870 to 1920.” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 40, No. 1, The Tasks of Economic History (March, 1980), pp 81 -88.

Kahn, B. Zorina. “Married Women’s Property Laws and Female Commercial Activity: Evidence from United States Patent Records, 1790-1895.” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 56, No. 2, Papers Presented at the 55th Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association (June, 1996), pp 356-388.

Wootton, Charles W. and Barbara E. Kemmerer. “The Changing Genderization of Bookkeeping in the United States, 1870-1930.The Business History Review, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter, 1996), pp. 541-586.

Photograph: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Detroit Publishing Co. Collection, LC-D4-43033 DLC. Via http://www.officemuseum.com/photo_gallery_1900s.htm.


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