In 1886, a highly-skilled San Francisco stenographer, earning a hefty salary of $75 a month, offered her opinion about the low wages for most women workers.
We work cheaper than the men; that’s the reason why we are working ourselves into the men’s places. … When a girl goes out to the theater or anywhere else she usually has an escort who foots the bill. She is not expected to go into a saloon and treat to drinks or two-bit cigars. … She just gives a hug and a kiss which … doesn’t cost a cent.
She further explained that most women didn’t need as much money as men because women could reduce expenses by making their own undergarments and mending their clothes. “No salaried young man … does anything of this sort,” she pointed out. She concluded her fascinating logic by asserting that “a girl makes really as much on a salary of $50 a month as a man does on $75.”
The stenographer was right about one thing: women worked cheaper than men. Across the country in Boston, women factory workers earned far less than the San Francisco stenographer. In the factories, making everything from buttons to cane chairs, the women on average earned $5 a week. Grueling physical labor and long hours added to the drudgery. If your ancestors were wage-earning, working-class women, there probably wasn’t much whistling going on while they worked.
Women have always had plenty of work to occupy their time. Working for wages, though, is a more recent development.
In Colonial America most opportunities to earn money were extensions of what women normally did at home — cooking, cleaning, and raising children. An advertisement in a 1765 Boston newspaper offered a service position with a family to a woman who was “willing to do any sort of work.” Another, more promising, notice requested a woman “of good character to take care of a family, where there are children … and where there are servants to do the work.”
While there were a few exceptions, most of our ancestral mothers didn’t start bringing home the bacon until clever inventions, such as an improved steam engine, jumpstarted the Industrial Revolution. But near the end of the 18th century, as factories popped up on the American landscape, women dashed through the open doors.
Alexander Hamilton observed the rise of factories and the subsequent employment of women and children. He liked what he saw. In 1791 he wrote that factory-employed “women and children are rendered more useful … than they would be otherwise.” Some female factory workers may have reveled in their newfound “usefulness,” but most were motivated by more mundane considerations, like putting food on the table.
Many congratulations are exchanged among those who have done something toward taking woman from the home and pulling her into factories, stores, offices and pretty much every field where men formerly had a monopoly. There is no doubt whatever that the women have met and in many cases have conquered man on his own grounds. They have done more. They have not only competed with him successfully; they have absolutely driven him out of certain occupations.
Rocky Mountain News, February 1891
Women may have conquered some previously male-dominated professions, but the spoils resulted in a dubious victory. Ida Van Etten, president of the Working Women’s Society, noted that “women came into these occupations, took any compensation that was offered them, and the employers … fixed wages at the lowest possible point.” Despite notable efforts to organize women workers and induce them to demand better pay, our working-women ancestors earned low salaries and endured dismal working conditions for decades.
Whatever is dirty, it is women’s job to clean up,
or drive some man to clean up,
and that goes for everything from cellar to senate.
So, where did our time-clock-punching ancestral sisters work and what was it like? Take a look at these typical occupations.
Although women manufactured a wide assortment of goods, most found themselves hunched over sewing machines piecing together clothing for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. One woman who sewed corsets at a Chicago factory said, “I ran a machine by foot power for eighteen months and then I found my health shattered.” Lunch was limited to 30 minutes or less and bathroom breaks were discouraged. The machines were noisy; the air was filled with cotton dust; the conditions were unsanitary; and the pay was paltry. Even though corsets sold for $1 each in 1887, women only earned 20 to 25 cents per dozen; their weekly wages rarely exceeded $5 or $6.
Home-based Textiles and Crafts
Many women worked in the garment and craft industries at home. Actually, entire families, young and old, often spent every waking moment piecing together clothing and shoes or making artificial flowers. The long hours netted a pitiful return, with women in the 1860s and 1870s making only about 20 cents a day. One home-based seamstress lamented that “I have worked from dawn to sundown, not stopping to get one mouthful of food, for twenty-five cents.”
Women dominated the field of household servants. Even though live-in servants had some perks, such as room and board, and more sanitary and comfortable surroundings, some women still preferred factory work. Domestics worked longer hours and might have only one afternoon off a week. In 1888, a woman described her job: “I had to get up at a quarter to five in the morning and work hard all day until half past eight at night. I got $15 per month.”
Some women worked in department stores and hat shops. Being surrounded by a thousand decorative hats might make a pleasant backdrop for a sales clerk, but the work required stamina. The women often stood for 10 or 12 hours a day, and some employers fined them if they sat down to rest during idle moments. The alarming routine of saleswomen collapsing from exhaustion led to more than 30 states passing laws requiring seats for saleswomen. When men dominated sales positions, they made $12 to $15 per week. By the 1880s when women eclipsed men in sales jobs, the salary had dropped to $5 to $8 per week. Employees typically worked around 55 hours per week, and they occasionally worked extra hours, such as the week before Christmas, with no extra pay.
By 1910 more than 600,000 women worked in offices. They were bookkeepers, typists, stenographers, receptionists, and general secretaries. Office work carried a “white-collar” status that offered a clean environment with reasonable working hours. In order to land an office job, the women needed a high school education or special training in business courses. In 1913, Philadelphia stenographers typically earned from $6 to $12 per week, less than men who held the same positions, but more than most other jobs available to women.
Progress makes the woman of today
a different woman from her grandmother.
— Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony uttered those words over 100 years ago, but each generation of working women still has a different story to tell than their mothers and
grandmothers. You can uncover the stories of your working-class female ancestors by using these resources:
1. Census records and city directories — Search for your ancestor and find her
occupation in these two collections on Ancestry.com. City directories may also provide you with an employer.
2. Books, websites, and films — Read and watch nonfiction accounts describing women in your ancestor’s specific line of work. Know your grandmother worked in a munitions plant in her hometown? Search for both together.
3. Manuscript collections — Hunt down women’s business club and labor union records at university libraries, state archives, historical societies, and at the organization itself. Start with repositories near your working female ancestor’s hometown and branch out. Search the Internet for unions.
4. Historical newspapers — Discover what the press said about women in the workplace — it was a hot topic. Begin this search in the Newspapers and Periodicals collection on Ancestry.
5. Online exhibits — Search for museums with more details. For example, the Library of Congress has a page devoted to Rosie the Riveter, and numerous sites offer information on Lowell mill girls. Also, check Harvard Business School’s Women, Enterprise & Society site for links to a variety of collections pertaining to the history of women in all sorts of jobs.
This article was originally published in Ancestry Magazine, Jan-Feb 2010.