Women at Work
Women at Work
Limited Options. As various goods, especially textiles, became cheaper to buy than to produce at home, many farm women looked for alternative ways to contribute to their families’ economic well-being. One possibility had been doing outwork, assembling pieces that had been prepared in a shop and sent out to workers’ homes to be completed or sewn together, for a small amount of money oper piece. Mechanization of the textile industry made outwork obsolete but created jobs for young, unmarried, middle-class women who hoped to gain some independence and save some money before marriage. In the 1830s and 1840s these women, America’s first force of factory workers, were gradually replaced by immigrant men and women who were willing to accept lower wages and harsher conditions, and factory work became less and less respectable for middle-class women. For immigrants, free black women, and others with little education or resources, factory work remained the most lucrative option despite the long hours and meager pay. If unable to find factory jobs, such women were generally limited to working as seamstresses, washerwomen, domestic servants, or (at last resort) prostitutes, an option of which some women availed themselves in the fast-growing, impersonal cities.
Separate Spheres. For the most part, educated, middle-class women were not expected to work outside the home. For those who wanted or needed to earn a living, only a few avenues remained open. Teaching became the most common occupation, for which women were paid approximately half of what male teachers made. As the practice of hiring female teachers became more common, men left the profession. Many women who would later become prominent members of the woman’s rights movement, such as Susan B. Anthony, began their careers as teachers. The explosion in publishing also offered opportunities for women writers, who could work at home, thereby maintaining a degree of propriety. Although few women writers could earn enough to live on, some became wealthy and famous, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sara Payson Willis), Sarah Josepha Hale, Catharine Sedgwick, and Lydia Maria Child. Pioneering women such as Elizabeth Blackwell and Harriet K. Hunt in medicine and Antoinette Brown and Phoebe Palmer in religion opened doors into traditionally male fields, but they were rare exceptions.
WHEN THE SPINNING WHEELS FELL SILENT
“Wife and daughters,” Elizabeth Hill’s father announced one day in the 1850s, “store away your loom, wheels, warping bars, spool rack, winding blades, all your utensils for weaving cloth up in the loft.” Farmer Hill had decided that the family’s womenfolk no longer had to spend winters making cloth because “the boys and I can make enough by increasing our herds” to purchase factory-made at the store. The younger women in Elizabeth’s neighborhood were overjoyed as their families too abandoned looms and spinning wheels. “They clapped their had with delight”, Elizabeth remembered, though “the old lies could to give up… as yet, so they continued with spinning.” These older women had great pride in their skills as spinners and weavers, having inherited the secrets of the process from their mothers along with treasured wheels and looms. One wistfully remembered working by the fire place on a cold winter day while “merrily the shuttle sang to an accompaniment of a camp meeting melody” Despite such nostalgia, how-ever, the new association of spinning whit those who were old-fashioned and behind the times confirmed a new name for older unmarried women in American slang: “spinster”.
“She’s the Man.” Despite contemporary cultural stereotypes that labeled women as unfit for the rough-and-tumble word of business, historians have uncovered hundreds of women who ran their own board inghouses, private academies, dress and millinery shops, hairdressing salons, washing services, and even factories. “Women typically entered business”, an R. G. Dun credit reporter noted, “because their spouses could not or would not earn a living.” Many businesswomen were widows who, unlike married women, were allowed to own property in their own names. Credit reporters, more interested in accurately assessing a business’s prospects than in perpetuating paternalistic stereotypes, acknowledged the ability of many businesswomen. “A careful and sharp woman… first rate, entirely safe for anything she will buy,” one reported. Another found Mrs. J. S. Beattie, whose husband worked as a clerk in her store, as a “woman with good business acumen” while “she is the man of the concern” described a woman who ran a business for her inept husband. An editor for the Merchants Magazine went so far as to claim that “we can see no good reason why women should not be as free to labor in any field of industry as her self-styled ‘lord and master.’” still, women were far from putting into action the platform of the 1856 Women’s Rights Association, which called on women o “burst throught the barriers of the old established customs of Society, force [their] way into occupations and offices now wholly monopolized by man, and prepare for the hardships and trials necessarily consequent on business life.”
Anita Ashendel, ‘“She’s the Man of the Concern’: Entrepreneurial Women in the Ohio valley, 1790–1860,” dissertation, purdue University, 1997;
Suzanne Lebsock, The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784–1860 (New York: Norton, 1984).