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From the Shadows to Center Stage

Why Women Appear in 19th Century Historical Records

A talk given by Leslie C. O’Malley, Ph.D., for the Opening of the RAIMS Archives Addition, April 13. 2006

In working with local history sources, it is a challenge to find information on women’s lives prior to 1850.
When we read the standard County histories, it almost sounds as if the founding fathers did it
all by themselves. Women are only mentioned as someone’s daughter, wife or mother.
As a result, our histories are sometimes skewed by discussing the work and achievements
of the male 50% of the population. Although today’s academic historians try to balance
their presentations, the lack of sources can make it difficult.

This picture changes when women start appearing in historical records. The names and ages
of wives and children are listed for each household in the 1850 census. Women also show up
in other types of records as they become active in the anti-slavery and women’s rights
movements. They enter the paid work force in increasing numbers. A few brave souls even
forge a path into the professions.

In preparing for this talk, I looked at what was happening on the national and international
scene that affected New York State women. While it is true that the religious revivals of
the 1830s played a major role in motivating women to become politically and socially
active, I found seven other key factors:

1. Increased educational opportunities for women;
2. The emergence of an urban middle class;
3. An expanding economy requiring a large, cheap labor force both to produce goods
    and to consume them;
4. Advances in the sciences and technology,
5. The westward movement,
6. The Civil War,
7. And, most important, women’s ability to work together
with other women to improve their own lives and the lives of other women.

Before exploring the reasons for these changes, let us look at women’s lives in the early
19th century. Society viewed women’s proper place as being in the home. The feminine role
was defined as a passive one, that of helpmate to the man who controlled the family finances.
His wellbeing as the wage earner depended upon his wife’s skills in keeping an orderly
and attractive home. Women whose husbands spent time and money in saloons were
suspected of causing the problem either by not keeping their homes in order or for treating
their men badly by nagging.

In the first half of the 19th century, women did not often leave the home, except to
go to church or to visit friends and relatives. Restaurants, clubs and theaters were
patronized by men. Men even did the shopping. Today we see this as a form of oppression
but, in fact, women in floor length dresses had good reason to stay in the home.
Unpaved streets contained mud, garbage and animal waste. Livestock often roamed
free, even in towns. Men chewed tobacco and spit everywhere.

There were no municipal services to clean the streets regularly, no sanitation laws in an
era when the relationship of dirt and disease was unknown, and no street lights. Women
venturing out in the evening ran the risk of robbery, assault or simply getting lost in the dark.
In theaters, men acted as if they were in bars—drinking, spitting tobacco and even
throwing food on the stage. To encourage the male audience to come, theater owners
distributed free tickets to prostitutes who sat in the upper balconies.

Strict separation of the sexes was the norm. At dinner parties, men and women sat at
opposite ends of the table. The women retired after the meal so the men could smoke
and drink. Even holidays were male. The Fourth of July featured military maneuvers
and all male parades which women watched from their windows or front porches.

There were legal restrictions affecting women’s economic welfare. Women could not
initiate divorce, even in cases of desertion or abuse. Desertion, “the poor man’s divorce,”
left women to support their children in a society which offered them few opportunities
to work and paid them far less than men earned. Men sometimes returned when they
were ill or aged so their wives would care for them. If a woman applied for charity,
she was regarded as having contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. Social organizations,
which were willing to help widows or women with disabled husbands, feared that they would
encourage desertions if they supported abandoned wives and children.

The earnings of a married woman belonged to her husband and any property a woman
brought into the marriage was kept by her husband if he divorced her. A widowed mother
did not automatically receive custody of her children since her husband’s will could
stipulate guardianship without her consent. Fathers could also apprentice children
without their mother’s consent.

At the same time, as Susan B. Anthony was to point out, women had to pay taxes.
They could also be fined, thrown in jail and even hanged. Since family goods were
legally owned by the male head of the household, they could be seized if he became a
bankrupt. Thus, when Daniel Anthony’s mill failed in the 1837 depression, the clothing
belonging to the female members of his family was taken and sold.

The first change in the status of women occurred after the American Revolution
with the opening of elementary education to girls as well as boys. As the mothers
of the next generation, they were expected to raise their children with good republican values.
To do this, they needed to be educated themselves. Soon, however,
education for women became viewed as a way of attracting and keeping an educated husband.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the level of education was not particularly high.
Public schools taught by beatings and memorization. Books were scarce and
50-60 children from grades 1 through 8 were crammed into a miniscule one room school.
Many schools did not even have outhouses. Teachers boarded with families who might
not provide much in the way of accommodation (in some districts, several teachers
were expected to share a bed). Men were the teachers because it was believed
that only they could control unruly boys. Since the pay was low, respect for teachers
lacking and the working conditions poor, teaching was not a popular occupation for young men.
By 1830, it is estimated that the nation needed 30,000 more public school teachers.

Parents who wanted more for their children paid to send them to private schools.
Throughout the eastern seaboard, schools—often called seminaries--were opened
to educate middle and upper class girls. Women taught in these schools and played
a major role in their administration. While the seminaries taught traditional female
subjects such as painting, music and dancing, many of them also included history,
geography, philosophy, grammar and rhetoric. An attempt was made by Emma Willard
as early as 1819 to obtain state funding for the seminaries but the frugal
New York State Legislature did not agree. Two years later, Ms. Willard obtained
support from the inhabitants of the city of Troy for her female seminary.
Among her pupils was young Elizabeth Cady, the future women’s rights advocate.

Since most seminaries charged tuition, the earlier ones usually enrolled the
daughters of the Protestant middle class. As the century went on and waves
of Catholic immigrants arrived, religious women such as Mother McAuley and
Mother Butler established orders of nuns who ran secondary schools to educate Catholic girls.
Education was particularly valued by the Catholic Irish whose children had been
denied an education under the British penal laws. The professed goal of the
seminaries was to educate future wives and mothers, but they also provided a
potential labor force of teachers to fill the national teacher shortage.

At first, there was resistance to the idea of using female teachers. How would they
control teen aged boys? This proved to be a groundless concern as women used
the same combination of firmness and persuasion in the classroom as in the home.
The Victorian view of the chivalrous male may have influenced young males to be
less aggressive toward young women teachers. While the opponents of female
teachers finally agreed that education was a proper role for a nurturing female,
the main reason for the hiring of women teachers was probably economic.
School districts could pay them up to 75% less than a man and so keep costs
down while filling empty positions.

Although the percentage of female teachers was small, many women had the
experience of teaching at some point in their lives. The opportunity to earn an
income as a teacher meant that a young woman did not need to rush into marriage.
Female teachers also provided a positive role model for female students.
Later in life, women whose husbands suffered financial reverses or died young
could support their families by opening a school. Progress did come with a price—water
cures recorded many teachers among their patients.

The Industrial Revolution brought about changes in the lives of both men and women.
New opportunities brought men into cities and towns for jobs in factories or related businesses.
A new urban middle class emerged in which the man worked and the woman remained
in the home to care for the husband and children. No longer did all family members
work side by side as they had on the farm.

While early feminists were to rebel against the restrictions imposed upon women,
we should remember that not all women were unhappy with their lives.
Their mothers’ lives had been an unending series of farm chores,
many involving heavy physical labor. The daughters had four burner stoves
rather than fireplaces for cooking and heating. They purchased rather than
making textiles and other goods for the home. The heavier work like cleaning,
clothes washing, ironing, sewing, cooking and baking could be done by
domestic workers or assisted by a series of labor saving inventions.
Perhaps the most important of these was the sewing machine
which was patented by Elias Howe in 1846. 100,000 of these were
manufactured by 1860. In the home, clothing, bedding and draperies
could now be sewn either by the housewife or a seamstress in hours rather than days.
Factory made items could be purchased in the new department stores.

I see this change as similar to the one which occurred following World War II
when women were expected to leave their wartime jobs for returning soldiers
to fill and stay home to raise their children. While later feminists criticized
this restriction of women, many women of that generation welcomed the
return of their soldier-husbands or the opportunity to get married and start a family.
They exchanged rental apartments for owning their own homes in the suburbs.
Their standard of living—home ownership, labor saving devices and
automobile travel—was far better than that of their Depression Era mothers.

The role of women in the home was also being professionalized by books on
the domestic arts and by women’s magazines. A growing literate female audience
eagerly read advice on how to cook, care for children and manage their homes.
Since the audience for these books and magazines was nationwide,
national standards of middle class behavior were being created.
A clean home was equated with morality and success in life.
By the end of the century, the orderly home was viewed as a microcosm
for the way the world should operate.

Advice was also given on ways to improve the appearance of the home.
Its decoration communicated a family’s status and provided its inhabitants
with repose and moral uplift. For this reason, middle class women diligently
plied their needles and used their skills in a variety of crafts.

The home was viewed as a place for the male wage earner to relax from
his labors, a refuge from the outside world with its physical and economic stresses.
If the man was to work hard to support his family, the woman must create
an atmosphere of peace and serenity for him when he came home.
Again, I see great parallels with the post-World War II period when t
he wife was expected to look pretty and have a drink and dinner ready
for her husband when he came home from work.

What did happen to bring women out of the home again? Some women found
that they needed more fulfillment in their lives. Others wanted to right wrongs
experienced by themselves or other women. The usual cause is attributed to
the religious revival movement of the 1830s which exhorted women to do
good works, help the less fortunate and work together with other women
in prayer and Bible study groups.

Society certainly presented many areas which needed reforming. When economic times
were hard and men lost their jobs, their wives and children could literally
end up starving and homeless. It was easier to ship grain as liquor so all
communities had an abundance of saloons to take a man’s wages.
Again, their families suffered. Court and poor house records describe
the tragedies of the times—crime, vagrancy, prostitution, deaths from bar brawls,
and orphaned children left homeless. As religious revivals swept upstate New York,
their largely female participants resolved to bring God and improvement to their communities.

As women came together with their neighbors to pray and read the Bible,
they also discussed what steps to take to change society. Some used their skills
to make items for sale to raise funds for building orphanages, refuges for
prostitutes and boarding houses for working girls. Others visited the poor with food,
clothing and religious tracts. And some believed in direct action—marching on saloons
and smashing their supplies or opening their homes to serve as stations on
the Underground Railroad. The abolitionist movement, the temperance movement
and the women’s rights movement were intertwined in many, although not all, women’s minds.

Slavery became a major reform issue in the North. For women, its greatest evil was
that it broke up families. Abolitionist literature abounded with stories of children
being wrenched from their mothers’ arms and sold. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s account
of Eliza’s escape in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based on an actual slave who escaped
across the ice floes on the Ohio River with her infant daughter in her arms.
In her address to the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth
gave a moving description of her anguish, “known only to Jesus,” in having each
of her thirteen children taken from her. Another concern to women was the fact
that slavery subjected young women to sexual molestation.

At first, women met informally with their friends and neighbors to discuss ways of
ending this great injustice. Some organized sales of items to both raise money and
raise awareness of the evils of slavery. They stitched pen wipers, for example, with
the motto “Wipe out the blot of slavery,” and embroidered linens saying
“May the points of our needles prick the slaveholders’ consciences.”
A flyer advertising an “Anti-Slavery Fair” held in Victor in 1849, lists
such items as collars, gloves, purses and handkerchiefs. It can be seen on the RAIMS website.

Another popular tactic was for women to boycott so-called slave goods:
sugar, tea, coffee and spices. They distributed abolitionist literature,
usually written by men, and organized lectures given by men.
Soon, however, they realized that political action was essential to
bring about any real changes. Women began by going door to door
to collect signatures to petition Congress to end slavery. Since male voters
had to be convinced, women learned how to speak persuasively to them.

Informal discussions soon gave way to creating more formal organizations.
A half step was the creation of female auxiliaries. The earliest ones were to
promote the temperance movement but others were later formed for trade unions
and political parties. While men members may have been motivated to allow
female auxiliaries in the hopes that good food would accompany their meetings,
these organizations gave women experience in political activity, informed them
about men’s lives and work, and involved women who were not yet ready for a more active role.

Women also organized their own organizations, first for philanthropic works and then for
the abolition of slavery. The 1837 all female Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women
was the first public political meeting of women in the U.S.

Whether it was in the temperance movement, the abolitionist movement or in forming
charitable organizations, women gained experience in drafting constitutions and by laws,
electing officers, organizing meetings, writing and publishing reports, creating budgets
and managing funds. In all of these organizations, women found their greatest strength
was their ability to learn from other women and to cooperate for a common goal.

As early as the 1820s, some women were equating the plight of African-Americans
with their own lack of freedoms. This comparison continued until the Civil War.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, entitled her talk to the New York State Legislature
to support the Married Women’s Property Act as “A Slave’s Appeal.”

Another influence on women’s thinking was their association with the Quakers in
the abolitionist movement. The Society of Friends held that men and women possessed
the same “inner light”, a conscience enabling them to grasp moral truths and live by them.
Women were also allowed to speak at Quaker meetings.

Finally, the abolitionist movement brought women into contact with the writings of
William Lloyd Garrison who held that the black and white races were equal and entitled
to the same rights and privileges. The logical next step for some women was to argue
that men and women were created equal and deserved equal rights.

Women’s efforts to end slavery, however, exacerbated their frustrations. Often they
were assigned separate seating areas and not allowed to speak publicly at abolitionist meetings.

In 1848, a year of revolution against oppression and injustice throughout Europe,
the women’s rights movement formally began in Seneca Falls. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s
“Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” reflected the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal….

At this and subsequent women’s rights meetings, women sought to have legal standing
in the courts, to own property and initiate divorce, to have access to higher education
and the professions, to earn a decent wage and finally, to vote and be represented in government.

Among the rights sought by some19th century women was a measure of control over
their own bodies. The Victorian view of the delicate female, spending her days lying
on a sofa, was very common. Improvements in 19th century medicine were to help women.
Chloroform was used in labor by the 1850s. Operations to remove ovarian cysts and
repair the damage incurred during childbirth were also developed.

Some of the leaders in the women’s rights movement campaigned for a healthier lifestyle
and a better understanding of the female body. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example,
urged that girls be allowed to participate in sports to develop their bodies.
Dress reform popularized by Amelia Bloomer was another attempt to free women’s bodies.
In 1846, Paulina Wright Davis toured the East coast, lecturing women on anatomy.
Reactions varied—some women came to learn while others fainted from shock.
Davis even claimed that a woman should determine how many children she wanted.

Women seem to have done more than simply talk about family planning. Colonial families
had averaged seven children per family. This number dropped to five by
the mid-19th century and to 3.5 by 1900. It is interesting to note that although
many feminists were happily married, their families were often small or non-existent.

One way of delaying pregnancy was to nurse a child as long as possible although
this is not foolproof. By 1830, a body of literature on preventing pregnancy was circulating.
The rhythm method was known although there was some misinformation about exactly
when a woman was most fertile. The development of an effective mail system by the
following decade allowed Americans to send away for birth control pamphlets and
medical devices like diaphragms and spermicides. Urban newspapers carried ads for condoms
(“French letters”) made from sheep guts.

Abortion was also used since the fetus was not considered to be a person until it
quickened or could be felt moving in the womb. Doctors and midwives performed
abortions but women also tried violent exercise, falls, herbal potions, abdominal
tourniquets, inserting wires or knitting needles into the cervix and using purgatives
such as turpentine, lye or castor oil. Countless women died from abortions.

Ironically, Victorian prudery resulted in opening up of the medical profession to women.
The news of Elizabeth Blackwell’s medical degree from Geneva Medical College
emboldened other women to apply to medical schools. It was considered more
respectable for women to treat women’s ailments. The establishment of female
medical colleges was one way to get around male opposition.

Sometimes external circumstances helped women to emerge from the home and
become economic participants in society. The need for labor in the textile industries
was growing while, at the same time, factory owners feared the labor unrest that
plagued England’s industries. The solution was to hire young women since they were
cheaper than men. Mill owners and managers contacted farm girls and their parents,
painting a rosy picture of newly built boarding houses, recreational opportunities, and
time off for church attendance. Parents were convinced that their daughters would be
well cared for and agreed to allow them to go to work.

The reality was not so attractive—girls slept six to a room and three to a bed.
Boarding fees were high and could be raised at the mill owner’s whim. The mills
themselves were cramped and filled with foul air from lack of ventilation,
unwashed bodies, lamp and stove smoke. Twelve hour work days were
exhausting and monotonous. Wages were low. Employees could be fired for not
following orders or for missing church on Sunday. When business was slipping,
there were unexpected wage cuts and work speed ups.
Just like today, fewer workers had to do more work.

Here, as in other situations, women found their voice in uniting with other women.
They learned to form labor associations to organize strikes for better hours and wages.
In Massachusetts, they appealed to the State Legislature for an investigation
into working conditions in the mills in 1845. The workers wanted their hours reduced
to ten per day but the legislature saw no reason to interfere with mill operations.

Once factory jobs opened, the supply of domestic labor was greatly reduced since
the hours were shorter and the working conditions were viewed as better.
It is interesting to note that at the Rochester women’s rights meeting in August 1848,
Elizabeth Cady Stanton moved for a resolution urging better pay for working women
including her audience’s household servants.

The domestic servant need was filled by young Irish girls who were coming to America
even before the Great Hunger of the 1840s. Their letters home show that they wished
for a better life than their mothers had on overcrowded farms. They realized that their
only chance to do this lay in emigration, either to Britain or the United States, and
postponing marriage or staying single for life. For this reason, they chose positions
which paid the highest wages, not necessarily those where they could meet young men.
Since they lived with their employer’s family, they could send money home.

These young girls—some of whom emigrated in their mid-teens—were raised to be
independent and take care of themselves. They had a reputation for independent thinking
or “impertinence”, depending on your perspective. However, I wonder if some of their
employers learned from them that females could make choices and think for themselves.

The Famine brought over thousands more Irish immigrants and exiles. Arriving in very
poor physical condition from starvation and fever (cholera and typhus were rampant),
the male heads of household found jobs which native born Americans were unwilling
to take—heavy manual labor in dangerous working conditions. During the Civil War,
many Irishmen enlisted in the Union Army for a bonus which they then used to bring
over their families. Some had been killed in battle by the time their families arrived.

If a husband deserted or died, his wife and children frequently ended up on public assistance.
Here again women reached out to help other women. The Sisters of Mercy opened homes
where mothers could learn nursing and clerical skills while their children were cared for.
Married women in other immigrant groups frequently did piece work in the home
to support their families. They did embroidery, tatting, sewing sequins and beads
on clothing, knitting caps, mittens and scarves, crocheting doilies, making flowers and
feather trims for hats (very important status symbols for immigrant girls who only
had scarves in the Old Country) and even rolled cigars.

Technology made moving within the United States far easier throughout the 19th century.
Canals such as the Erie Canal made traveling inland easier. Steamboats and railroads
in the 1830s and 1840s reduced the time needed to move a family to new farmlands
opening up in the Midwest.

The steam engine allowed transatlantic crossings in 12-14 days and fostered
internationalism in the women’s rights movement. Letters and publications kept
women informed about the problems and progress of their sisters on both sides
of the Atlantic. It also facilitated travel for the leaders of the movements on both continents.
Women’s rights advocates here were very conscious of their role on a world stage.
Paulina Wright Davis told an audience of 3,000 at the New York City Women’s Rights Convention
of 1853 that “this great movement is intended to meet the wants, not of America only,
but of the whole world.” Among the issues addressed by this international movement
were prostitution, rape, child rearing, divorce, education and jobs for women.

Within the cities, efforts were made throughout the 19th century to improve sanitation,
pave streets and sidewalks, install gas street lighting and create public transportation
with horse cars and later electric trolleys. All of these helped bring women out of the home.

One major area of improvement for women was shopping. Until the 1830s, most American
stores were little more than trading posts with male clerks and male customers.
Men took farm goods to town to exchange for tools and supplies. While their wives
might ask them to pick up sewing needles, tea or spices, the man was the shopper.
Women stayed home with the children.

With the development of mass produced textiles, clothing and shoes, women became shoppers.
After the Civil War, general stores were not large enough to offer the variety of available goods.
The department store became popular, offering not only more merchandise for sale but such
amenities as tea rooms and lunch counters to keep lady shoppers in the store longer.
They were also the first buildings to offer women public restrooms.

Department stores offered their “ladies” (as all shoppers were called, regardless of class)
new electrical appliances, updated furniture and home decorations as well as the latest
clothing fashions. Shopping became a social past time for the more affluent shopper
while store windows showed immigrant girls an “American dream” for their future.
Higher volumes resulted in lower prices so more women could afford to shop.
Women were hired as clerks. Potential customers were reached by extensive advertising
in newspapers and women’s magazines. Catalogues allowed rural women the chance to shop, too.

When the depression of 1837 cut wages and threw thousands of easterners out of work,
families looked to the west as a cure for personal and economic problems. Between 1840
and 1870, 350,000 people traveled by wagon to the California and Oregon territories.
This created more opportunities for middle class women (most pioneers were middle class
because buying and outfitting a wagon cost twice to three times what the average factory
worker earned in a year). The journey itself changed the role of women who had to pull wagons
out of the mud, drive teams of oxen and handle guns as well as gathering wood or buffalo chips
for fires, unpacking and packing wagons.

Once in the West, even the plainest single woman had her choice of husbands because
there were so many unmarried men. Teachers were needed to educate the children of
pioneer families. Married women found they could easily earn money by taking in boarders,
cooking for the many single men or taking in washing. The labor shortage wiped out the
normal rules of what jobs were appropriate for women. Women advertised their skills as
barbers, doctors, lawyers and real estate agents. And, of course, some made a
good living as prostitutes or madams.

The westward movement spurred legal changes to benefit women.
The Federal Homestead Act of 1862 allowed some women to acquire land.
The first 12 states to allow women to vote were also located in the west.

The final engine of change in women’s lives was the Civil War. Women on both sides
organized soldiers’ aid societies. Previous women’s organizations had emphasized
moral values but these groups were more business-oriented. Some obtained contracts
to sew soldiers’ uniforms and employed soldiers’ wives to do the work. Others trained
women to serve as nurses. Soldiers’ morale was raised by an early USO consisting
of groups of women who entertained the troops—with varying degrees of talent
—with music, songs and stories

Although the Sanitary Commission for the Union Army was headed by men, they
were unable to provide necessary care for thousands of casualties.
Women went unofficially to serve as nurses on the battlefields,
later becoming paid as “State Sanitary Agents.” It is interesting to note that
they stressed cleanliness without knowing the germ theory of infection.
Women nurses became accepted when doctors noted that patients with
female nurses survived at higher rates than those with traditional male nurses.
Women set up kitchens, organized medical supply chains from the aid societies,
established hospitals in homes and public facilities, held fund raisers and competed
successfully for government contracts against male bidders. Women expanded
their duties to include notifying the families of killed or injured soldiers and
searching for prisoners of war and missing soldiers.

African-American women raised money and found housing for former slaves.
Sojourner Truth taught many of them basic housekeeping skills (which were not known by field slaves)
 and the habits of industry and economy. White women opened schools to educate former slaves,
many whom had not been allowed to learn to read and write.

Southern women filled cartridges, made ordnance and filled sandbags for fortifications
since the South lacked factories to make these. After the war, they
played a major role in rebuilding.

North and South, women took over men’s work by running farms, working in factories
and replacing male clerks in government offices. Over 400 women also served as soldiers,
keeping their sex a secret until they were wounded or killed. Others worked as spies and scouts.
Because of the Union blockade, smugglers, some of whom were female, provided contraband
goods for Confederate civilians and soldiers.

It was during the Civil War that women learned to coordinate the flow of cash and supplies,
keep records, act as leaders and make decisions about the efficient use of time,
energy and money. They learned to become leaders and policy makers. For this reason,
it is not surprising that the women’s rights movement gained fresh impetus after the war.

During the 19th century, women were successful in gaining many of their goals.
The Married Woman’s Property Act and its later amendments included a woman’s
right to keep her earnings, invest money and transact business without her husband’s permission.
Women could keep inherited property as well as sign contracts and initiate lawsuits. They shared the guardianship of their children with their husbands. This took married women out of the legal
category of “children, idiots and lunatics.”

With the founding of women’s colleges and the opening up of some formerly male schools
to female students, women gained access to higher education.

Women were visible enough in society and the economy to win a place at the 1876
Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The Women’s Pavilion displayed the
new technologies in sewing, laundry and other domestic tasks with a number
of these inventions credited to women. The Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania presented pharmaceutical products prepared by women students. Fiction and non-fiction
works by women authors were displayed.

By the last part of the 19th century, women worked in a wide variety of jobs from the
professions of teaching, nursing, medicine and the clergy to clerical jobs and factory work.
Some worked within the home doing laundry, sewing and operating boarding houses.
They entered such trades as bookbinding and typesetting. Sometimes they created
new areas of work. Jane Addams opened Hull House and created the position of
settlement worker. Women represented 20% of the work force at the start of the 20th century.

Changes in the status of women also improved the lot of the spinster. She no longer had to
remain at home in her father’s or her brother’s house since her work was needed in the
schools, mills, hospitals, stores and offices of the time. The percentage of women who
never married was steadily rising throughout the 19th century. Debates were held to decide
whether it was better to marry or remain single. Magazines stressed that it was better
to remain happily single than to marry unhappily for wealth or position.

By the Gilded Age, women had left their mark on society. They flocked to the theater
which had become respectable after the Civil War. Holidays were family oriented.
Amusement parks attracted city dwellers of both sexes while families flocked to
circuses and went to the seaside or mountains for vacations. And the Victorian
frail wraith was replaced by the popular image of the curvy Gibson Girl.

By 1900, women had gained the right to vote and be represented in government in
some states and by the end of World War I, they gained universal suffrage.
The one area which the 19th century feminists failed to achieve is still sought today—equality in pay.

The “invisible women” of the early 19th century came a long way by the start of the 20th century.
They were helped by their own efforts, by political, social and economic changes, by
improvements in technology and by the support of many men—fathers, husbands,
brothers and even co-workers who came to respect women’s abilities. The finding of a
woman’s name on legal documents such as deeds and wills, in naturalization records,
in newspaper business ads or street directories represents the efforts of thousands
of women to better themselves and to help other women and their families.