Women in Public Life, Business, and Professions

views updated


WOMEN IN PUBLIC LIFE, BUSINESS, AND PROFESSIONS. Women have played a crucial part in the economic development of the United States since the time of the first colonial settlers. Women (endentured, slave, and free) worked long hours beside men cultivating the land. The jobs of child care, housework, spinning, weaving, and sewing were always exclusively theirs, and farm wives and daughters often brought in cash by selling butter or eggs. Although there were no opportunities for professional training for women in the colonial era, they served as nurses, midwives, elementary school teachers, shopkeepers, and innkeepers. And colonial women (particularly single and widowed, who could own property) sometimes managed or owned farms and businesses. Other women achieved public prominence through their writings, stage careers, or public service. Mercy Otis Warren, for example, was a well-known poet and political author, and Mary McCauley ("Molly Pitcher") was made famous for her service in the American Revolutionary War.

In the early ninteenth century, a new gender ideology arose in which women were ostensibly restricted to the home, or "private sphere," while men's domain was defined as the "public sphere." While it did restrict women's activites and opportunities, the distinction was largely ideological, and women nevertheless occupied public space and carried on public activites. The first factory workers in the United States were, in fact, women. The new textile mills of the 1820s drew their labor pool from young, unmarried New England farm girls. Over the years conditions deteroriated and in the 1840s, Sarah Bagley, a mill-worker in Lowell, Mass., helped launch some of the first formal industrial labor protests in the country. Organized on a large scale, the female millworkers created a permanent labor organization in 1844, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, which was at the forefront of the labor movement in New England. And in 1846 they lent their support to the New England Labor Reform League, an umbrella organization headed by five men and three women. Bagley and other female millworkers were pioneers in the long and still ongoing battle to achieve benefits and equal opportunity for women workers.

By midcentury, many of the new industries employed women, especially since both the migration westward and the Civil War produced manpower shortages. Often, women did spinning and weaving tasks as well as piece work (such as collars for shirts) in their homes for outside employers. Soon they constituted almost a quarter of the industrial workforce, although on the lowest level of pay and status.

Along with the labor movement, the abolitionist movement afforded women the opportunity to become leading public figures. Women comprised a large portion of the membership in antislavery societies, and they played critical, public roles within the organizations from raising funds to organizing petition drives. Other women broke with convention, which did not allow women to speak in public before mixed sex (or so-called "promiscuous") audiences. Nevertheless, many bravely did, speaking out against slavery and for women's rights: most notably, Maria Stewart, a northern black woman, and Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two white sisters from a slave-holding family in South Carolina. The Grimkes were threatened both with physical assault and admonitions from authorities as they began to travel about addressing large, mixed sex audiences. Stewart, the Grimkes, novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852), ex-slave Sojourner Truth (Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 1850), and others also wrote political tracts, novels, and memoirs against slavery which earned them substantial public notoriety. Countless women, like Harriet Tubman, took an active part in running the underground railroad by harboring and transporting runaway slaves. All served to inspire a new view of a woman's proper role. The women's rights movement grew out of these struggles. In 1848 several hundred women and sympathetic men met at Seneca Falls, N.Y., for a convention called by two abolitionists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. This gathering produced the Seneca Falls Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which set forth a clear picture of women's unequal civil status and demanded women's full citizen-ship and equal economic opportunity. The inclusion of a call for women's voting rights, however, was highly controversial and was nearly voted down. Modeled after the Declaration of Independence, it has inspired many women in the struggle for justice. Beginning in 1850, women's rights conventions were held annually, until the outbreak of sectional conflict in 1861. During the Civil War, some women's rights activists campaigned for the abolition of slavery by Constitutional Amendment through organizations like the National Woman's Loyal League. After the war, many were bitterly disappointed when black men were enfranchised but women were not. In response, women organized the first national organizations devoted exclusively to women's rights: the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), founded in May 1869 by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), founded in November 1869 by Lucy Stone. Both organizations devoted their energies to the question of the franchise. These women and others traveled the country speaking to crowds and organizing women, despite frequent opposition. Suffragists finally secured passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which enfranchised women, in 1920, but many black women could not vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Civil War and Reconstruction, women's activism, as well as an evolving economy forced changes in the roles of women. Although women could not vote for most of the nineteenth century, they were often eligible to hold public office. A number of women ran as candidates after the Civil War, sometimes winning local offices. Others were appointed to public offices, such as postmaster. In 1872, the controversial women's rights and free love advocate Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for President. In 1884 and again in 1888, suffragist and lawyer Belva Lockwood also ran for President as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party. Record numbers of women also entered waged work outside the home. In both the North and South, industry and agriculture functioned because of female labor, and for the first time women entered government office jobs in large numbers. Women also became a majority in the teaching and nursing professions. Both professions provided literate blacks with a route out of domestic service, as emancipation created a large demand for education and aid among the freed slaves. Universities began to open their doors to women after the Civil War. And more and more professions began to admit women, including the ministry and medicine, two of the most prestigious professions of the nineteenth century. In 1853, Antionette Brown Blackwell had been the first woman ordained in a mainstream denomination, and after the war, many other women ministers followed. After the pioneering efforts of Elizabeth Blackwell (Antionette's sister-in-law), who became the nation's first woman doctor in 1847, several female medical colleges were established, including E. Blackwell's own Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary (1868). Women also fought for and won the right to practice law. In 1910, when records of women entering various professions were first kept, there were almost 7.5 million women in the job market: 19 percent of college professors, presidents, and instructors were women; 6 percent of doctors; 3.1 percent of dentists; 1 percent of lawyers; and 79 percent of librarians.

In the decades that followed the gains made by women in the professions slowed, although an increase in the number of women in the workforce continued, particularly during World War II, when large numbers of women entered manufacturing jobs (earning them the nickname "Rosie the Riviter"). In 1950, 34 percent of women worked for pay; by 1970 that figure had grown to 43 percent. But, in that same year, only 7 percent of the nation's doctors were women, as were only 2 percent of its dentists, 3.5 percent of its lawyers, and 19 percent of its college presidents, instructors, and professors. On the other hand, women moved into new professions in the previous decades, notably as natural scientists (11 percent) and as real estate salesmen and brokers (40 percent). In journalism, radio, and television broadcasting, women made relatively few inroads beyond the traditionally feminine spheres of the women's pages, entertainment, and hostessing of shows. A few notable women journalists, including Dorothy Thompson and Mary McGrory, earned national recognition, but opportunities for women in straight reportage and news analysis were limited by conventions and long-standing prejudice. In the field of publishing, despite the remarkable success of Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, women were still relegated to the largely supportive roles of subeditors and agents. As for the corporate economy, women top executives were few and far between; a survey by the Harvard Business Review in the late 1960s found so few women in management positions that there was nothing to study.

In 1975, fifty-five years after the Nineteenth Amendment, there were only 17 women among the 435 representatives in the House of Representativesand no women among the 100 senators. The percentage of representation for women in the state legislatures across the country was not significantly higher, and in city and county governments only slightly so. As of 1975 only three women had held cabinet rank in the history of the countryFrances Perkins as secretary of labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Oveta Culp Hobby as secretary of health, education, and welfare under Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Carla Hill as secretary of housing under Gerald R. Fordand no woman had been asked to serve on the Supreme Court. In the federal government as a whole, only 147 women held the top positions (that is, grades GS 16 through 18) among the 849,421 in the civil service in 1968.

The 1970s witnessed the most energetic feminist activism since the suffrage campaign, and women's rights advocates challenged these minimal gains for women in public life, business, and professions. The percentage of women earning college degrees had increased from 22.7 in 1910 to 42.3 in 1970; and this advance, coupled with the great increase in the women's workforce, led to expectations of equivalent advances for women in status, pay, and advanced occupations. In 1966 the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed, headed by author Betty Friedan. A number of other feminist groups followed, and "Women's Liberation" became a catch-all phrase for a new social movement demanding equal pay and equal opportunities for women in all spheres of life. Their efforts led to significant gains for women in some professions and to the institution of affirmative action programs in colleges and government. Both major parties radically increased the number of women representatives to the presidential conventions of 1972 and adopted strong women's rights planks. The elections of that year also increased the number of women in the House of Representatives to fifteen, although the lone woman senator, Margaret Chase Smith of Massachusetts, was defeated. An equal rights amendment was finally passed in the Senate by an overwhelming vote and at the end of 1975 had been ratified by thirty-four states. Women's organizations and sympathetic groups, particularly the Women's National Political Caucus (WNPC), formed in 1971, continued their lobbying efforts to secure passage of the amendment.

The women's movement was committed to a redefinition of social roles for both men and women. A new feminist credo urged that women play a larger public role and men take on more private responsibility for family care. By 1990, 57.5 percent of all women worked outside the home. Employment of married women with children younger than six rose sharply from 14 percent in 1951 to 30.3 percent in 1970 to 59 percent in 1990. Two-thirds of them were working full time. The sharp rise in women working outside the home, however, had more to do with economic pressure than with feminist politics. Under-standing this reality, feminists demanded safe, affordable child care and equal wages for equal work. On average, working women earned only three-fourths of what a man earned for the same job. Until 1991 African American women consistently worked at rates higher than white women. In that year the median earnings for all women who worked full time and year round increased to 70 percent of those for men, up from 60 percent in 1971. Black women's median earnings rose in that period from 52 percent to 62 percent of those for men.

Working women in 1990 continued to concentrate in clerical, service, and sales work, as well as the historically female professions of teaching, nursing, library service, and social work, but feminist activism for enforcement of laws protecting job rights and enactment of legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in education permitted women to pursue more occupations. Between 1975 and 1990 women doubled their ranks in executive and managerial jobs (from 5.2 to 11.1 percent) and more entered the historically male professions and occupations. Between 1970 and 1991 the proportion rose from 4.7 to 19 percent of lawyers; 12.1 to 18.1 percent of physicians; and 2.7 to 14 percent of police officers. Although engineering remained virtually unbreached (women made up 8.2 percent of engineers in 1991), women advanced in most of the sciences, from less than 10 percent in 1973 to more than 25 percent by 1991. In 1988, 47 percent of Fortune 1000 companies reported women on boards of directors, up from 13 percent in 1976. In 1982 women owned 25 percent of U.S. firms (mostly sole proprietorships), and in 1987 receipts from women-owned firms accounted for 14 percent of the U.S. total.

As women claimed a full public role, they sought political positions at every level, drawing support from new national and local feminist political organizations. In 1971 women occupied 4.5 percent of the seats in state legislatures; by 1993 the proportion had grown to 20.4 percent. Seven women held mayoralties in 1971; twenty years later there were 151. From fifteen women in the 92nd Congress (19711973) numbers climbed slowly to thirty-two (three senators and twenty-nine representatives) on the eve of the 1992election. With that election Congress expanded to fifty-four women members, forty-eight in the House and six in the Senate. The latter included the first African American woman senator, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois; in the House there were nine African American women, one Asian/Pacific American woman (Patsy Mink of Hawaii), and three Latinas. Women also obtained a fairer share of places in the judiciary. By 1970 only six women had ever been named to the federal district and circuit courts; by 1992 they composed 13.4 percent of federal judicial officers and by 1993 two of the nine Supreme Court justices (Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg). During the course of the 1990s, conservatives also forwarded female candidates, and increasingly women in elected and appointed offices represent a broad political spectrum. By the 1990s the legitimacy of women in politics and the workforce was beyond question. But women were still underrepresented in many prestigious fields, and they continue to receive less pay for equal work. The assumption by men of a larger responsibility for family life has also been slow to emerge, and women continue to face the burden of managing the frequently conflicting demands of their private and public roles.


Amundsen, Kirsten. A New Look at the Silenced Majority: Women and American Democracy. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977.

Costello, Cynthia B., Shari E. Miles, and Anne J. Stone, eds. The American Woman, 19002000: A Century of ChangeWhat's Next?. New York: Norton, 1998.

Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. Woman's Place: Options and Limits in Professional Careers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

White, Deborah G. Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 18941994. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Kristen Amundsen

Cynthia Harrison / l. t.

See also Discrimination: Sex ; Emily's List ; Indentured Servants ; Legal Profession ; Medical Profession ; Sexual Harassment ; Slavery ; Suffrage: Woman's Suffrage ; Women's Rights Movement and vol. 9: Letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Job Discrimination ; NOW Statement of Purpose ; Women in Industry (Brandeis Brief) ; Women Working in World War II .

About this article

Women in Public Life, Business, and Professions

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Women in Public Life, Business, and Professions