Women in Industrializing America

Separate Spheres and the Cult of True Womanhood

Women and Charity

African-American Women

Political Activism

The Settlement Movement

Working-class Women


Native-American Women

Women were 48 percent of the population during the Gilded Age. Rather than attempting to describe the condition of women of every class, race, ethnicity, religion, and region (among the many categories possible), this essay focuses on how the origins of modern America affected women. As a near majority of the populace, women could not help being touched in tangible ways by the tensions that arose as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. The determining context of Gilded-Age America was the acceleration of industrialization. This process recast the ideology of woman's "separate sphere" and shaped the urban experience of migrants and immigrants. During this period, women's political campaigns, a above all the push for women's rights begun in 1848, gathered adherents and credibility. In addition, the continuing associational movement, the breakdown of the separate sphere, the increasing numbers of women in the labor force, and the westward movement affected the lives of middle- and working-class women. Many important trends evident during the Gilded Age presaged the emergence of the "new woman" of the Progressive Era.

The "typical" woman of the Gilded Age was white, middle class (broadly defined), Protestant, native born, married, and living in a small town. She was likely to be better educated than her mother and also likely to have fewer children. The received wisdom about her sexuality saw her as "passionless," and the patriarchal society gave her little active control over her medical health or reproductive system. She was assumed-and she assumed herself to be--morally superior to her husband and closer to God. Her husband as likely as not worked away from the home. She rarely stepped into the public sphere, confining her daily actions to the home. If she was among the small but increasing number of women who did move into public life, she did so within the supportive context of church-related or secular women's associations. Her causes ranged from the bold demand for suffrage to the popular temperance crusade, with myriad reforms in between. If she was a member of a woman's club, her children were probably grown or she had servants or she was unmarried or widowed. Her late nineteenth century ideas about women and men were based on the "asexual nature of women and their concomitant moral superiority." This dual ideology, stressing gender differences, fueled growing feminist demands among middle-class women, both white and black.

Industrialization, which had begun in the United States approximately forty years before the Civil War, continued in the postwar decades to change the lives of middle-class women and reconfigure their households. The man's workplace moved out of the home and took the man with it-out of the middle-class woman's day. Instead of participating in his livelihood, she was confined to the domestic sphere, forbidden by social custom to appear in public without her husband or a chaperone (her father's representative if she was unmarried). As industrialization made deeper inroads into American society, middle-class men counted their worth in dollars and affirmed their masculinity by participating in men's rituals such as politics, fraternal associations, and sports-and both their masculine and their economic credentials were validated in the figure of the pious, pure, domestic, submissive, and leisured wife. Historian Barbara Welter termed this conception of women "the cult of true womanhood."

With some exceptions, nineteenth-century Americans, both men and women, believed that a woman should be confined to the home. Her separate sphere-the domestic, female sphere-entailed certain tasks and responsibilities. She was the model wife and mother, and her highest calling was to bear and raise children. On her shoulders devolved the responsibility for rearing not only polite and well mannered children but also children well-schooled in the precepts of Christianity. As the man returned home from the ruthless, amoral, competitive, materialistic world of work and politics-his sphere-she stood by him, gently questioning his morals or his religious habits only when they slipped from the ideal. She was to provide 'a haven in a heartless world" for her besieged husband. On the one hand, the social dictates of the cult of true womanhood put men and women in conflicting roles and defined the normal female life as one lived at home as a wife and mother in the company of women friends leading similar lives. On the other hand, they provided a safe, secure, and empowering space-a "female world of love and ritual"-from which women could set forth to ameliorate society's ills. Nursing the spiritual and physical health of her immediate family had its analogy in serving the needs of strangers. Of course, these accepted notions of women in the nineteenth century applied most forcefully to white, middle-class women. Whether or not the notion trickled down to the working class or gained currency in all ethnic and racial communities is debatable. Even as the Gilded Age dawned, the idea of the "true woman" in her separate sphere was belied by increasing numbers of working women and those white and black middle-class women who were venturing out of the home and into the political realm.

Ironically, industrialization provided the impetus both for the creation of the separate sphere and for the effort by middle-class women to break out of it. Industrialization changed the way women worked within the home, supplying time-saving domestic appliances and often giving them greater leisure. It also created jobs outside the home for more and more women. By the turn of the century, one in seven women was employed. Most were single and fending for themselves. Some married women worked in remunerative jobs to supplement their husbands' insufficient incomes. The industrial work force dwelt in cities, and the squalor, disease, and wretched living conditions among the working poor created many social ills that middle-class women determined they should try to correct.

White and black women since the colonial era had formed organizations to provide charitable relief, but these associations multiplied during the Gilded Age as the industrializing cities filled with immigrants and rural Americans. Many nineteenth-century women's relief organizations began as study clubs-themselves a continuation of an earlier movement for women's self-improvement-but branched out to render relief to the poor, to provide assistance for immigrants, or to care for orphans and "wayward women." Reform groups used a voluntary work force to raise money, petition local and state governments, visit the objects of their charity, teach lessons in moral uplift, and make the larger community aware of the plight of the less fortunate. As they did so, they pushed against the customary boundary of the woman's sphere.

By far, the most popular women's association of the nineteenth century was the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Founded in 1873 as a single-issue association, it soon became inextricably linked with the ideas and goals of its most prominent member and, by 1879, its president, Frances Willard. Her slogan was "Do Everything," and the women who flocked to join pursued various avenues of reform. The WCTU was managed locally and had chapters in every state. Claiming over 175,000 members by 1900, it was the largest women's organization in existence. The WCTU quickly moved past its early efforts at curtailing men's use of alcohol. From praying in saloons, the WCTU went on to run newspapers, own businesses, pay temperance speakers to preach the evils of alcohol, and care for the children of alcoholics. If nothing else, the WCTU demonstrated to women the effectiveness of their actions when organized-even across class and racial lines. The leading African-American spokeswoman in the temperance fight was Frances Harper. She served as Superintendent of Colored Work in the WCTU, but labored hard, particularly in the South, to prevent white women from blaming the bulk of alcohol abuse on African-American men. While Willard welcomed black women to the WCTU, she did not run an organization free of racism. African American women were not represented among the upper echelons of WCTU management, for example, nor were black delegates treated equally at regional or national meetings. Prominent African Americans such as Ida B. Wells and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin supported the cause of temperance but deplored the overt racism of most of the WCTU women.

In the late 1870s, Willard converted to the cause of suffrage because she believed that the women's vote would bring about restrictions on alcohol that would help in her goal of home protection. As she threw the considerable weight of the WCTU into the suffrage fray, her support did not immediately garner votes for women. It did, however, introduce many other women to the suffrage idea from a friendly source. After Willard's death in 1898, the WCTU backed away from its militant prosuffrage position and focused again on the eradication of alcohol use.

While other groups had fewer members than the WCTU, their benefits and agendas could be just as multifaceted. Historian Anne Firor Scott credits club women with "inventing Progressivism" in the 1880s. In that decade, increasing numbers of women's clubs began "municipal housekeeping," or putting their piety, purity, and domesticity to work in the world around them. Literary and study club members became aware of the unsavory conditions of their towns and cities, usually through some unexpected personal experience. They communicated their shock, horror, and sadness at the conditions of their cities to their colleagues and then set to work. Scott's breakdown of the many types of municipal housekeeping is eye-opening. In the category of education, women engaged in political activity, promoted curricular innovations such as parent education, vacation schools, and special education for disabled children, and created structural innovations such as visiting nurses, vocational guidance, libraries, and school sanitation. Under the category of public health, women called for regulation of the water and milk supplies, pure food and drug legislation, sanitary garbage-disposal legislation, dental clinics, hospitals, well-baby clinics, school lunch programs, and public baths and laundries. Women combatted social evils by lobbying to close brothels, by setting up detention homes for delinquent girls, and by supporting vice commissions and scientific studies of prostitution and venereal disease. The category of recreation included pushing for legislation to regulate motion pictures and dance halls, and the building of playgrounds, gymnasiums, concert halls, and working-girls' clubs. Women's associations sponsored similar reforms in the categories of housing, social service, corrections, public safety, civic improvement, and assimilation of the races. The breadth of women's clubs' activities evinced the grass-roots nature of the work. The General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), founded in 1890, was the umbrella organization for white women's clubs, and it was the job of the GFWC to disseminate information and assistance on these seemingly countless programs.

Separate female institutions boosted women's self-esteem, turned them into expert parliamentarians, introduced them to a wider world, put them at their ease in public places, and provided them with invigorating and supportive circles of friends and coworkers. For many women, club work became their career. Anna J. H. Pennybacker, a white, middle-class southern widow with a normal-school education, supported her three children in part from the profits of some rental houses but primarily from paid lectures to women's organizations all across the United States. They were her network of friends-colleagues upon whom she called for everything from emotional support to financial donations for the Belgian orphans during World War 1. She founded three women's clubs, was a member of at least eight throughout her life (she often belonged to more than one at a time), and held various elected positions in them. She was president of the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs, the GFWC, and the Chautauqua Woman's Club. Her dedication to organized womanhood, as she called it, was lifelong, and she was not atypical.

In the Gilded Age, sometimes called the nadir for African Americans, middle-class black women labored in a racist society that denied them access to politics, the legal system, and governmental support. Because they were accustomed to depending upon their own initiative, it is possible that a larger percentage of black women engaged in associational work more frequently than did white women." Like their white counterparts, black women had been organizing benevolent societies, often church-related, since the colonial era, and the acceleration of industrialization with its accompanying social ills generated more associations. Middle-class African-American women combined the bourgeois ideologies of the separate sphere and the cult of true womanhood with other qualities prized by the African-American community: intelligence, racial consciousness, an emphasis on education, self-confidence, and outspokenness." These qualities stood women in good stead as racial slurs and attacks on their femininity from whites grew more shrill and were published in "respectable" journals. For Gilded Age black women, race and gender could not be divided. In part, the too-often invisible charitable work that women pursued was a rebuke to racist critics."

African-American women moved from study clubs to municipal housekeeping, just as white club women did. The Art and Study Club of Moline, Illinois, visited the sick and clothed the poor. The Adelphi Club of St. Paul, Minnesota, distributed food, called on the ill in the hospital, and supported a South Carolina kindergarten and a local orphanage. African-American women elsewhere organized or managed homes for the elderly, juvenile delinquents, working women, unwed mothers, and orphans. They started hospitals and public health clinics. They created employment services and programs to train kindergarten teachers and librarians, thus, as historian Stephanie Shaw points out, turning club work into community developments Black women's clubs engaged in municipal housekeeping to provide the sort of social services that the white power structure denied to African Americans, particularly in the South.

Many women's clubs took advantage of networking possibilities by joining an umbrella association. The Colored Women's League was the first to organize in 1892. Three years later, the National Federation of Afro-American Women formed. In 1896 both groups combined their resources to create the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which provided assistance on the state and local level for various women's clubs' projects. Mary Church Terrell became its first president. "Lifting as We Climb" was the motto of the NACW. It made reference to "racial uplift," always a major goal of black club women.

Another important result of women's participation in voluntary associations was their heightened political acumen. Women learned to voice their demands in front of hostile audiences and to articulate critical rebuttals. Women in associations governed themselves, kept minutes, elected officers, presided over meetings, wrote out platforms, managed finances, and lobbied male politicians. Speaking about the seven years her club spent in preparation and study before tackling the prevailing social problems, the president of the Chicago Women's Club believed that "no one acquainted with the difficulty of managing large interests by means of a body of untrained women, without business habits or parliamentary experience, can feel that these years of preparation and education were wasted. It is my firm conviction that without this preliminary training we should never have attained that steadiness of purpose and that broad habit of looking at all sides of a question which has made us a power in the community." They gained a sense of pride and increased self-esteem, even as they pushed against the behavioral codes that mainstream society prescribed for them.

All of the clubs taught women about the male political system. The increasing membership and rapidly multiplying types of women's associations were two hallmarks of the era. In the Gilded Age, the older, natural-rights justification for suffrage gave way to an ideology that embraced differences between women and men. Women redefined their sphere by emphasizing the transcendent piety and purity of "true womanhood." Most late nineteenth-century women who ventured out of their sphere did so under the banner of moral superiority. Society could hardly chastise women who were simply taking care of widows and orphans. From there it was a short step to the late Gilded Age notion of women becoming more overtly political. The Texas Federation of Women's Clubs noted in January 1901 that "while it is not the desire of Texas club women to 'get into politics,' there are matters to the furtherance of which the Federation stands pledged, that can only be consummated by legislation."

If politics is defined as "any action, formal or informal, taken to affect the course or behavior of government or the community," then women of the nineteenth century-black and white, native-born and immigrant-engaged in a full spectrum of political activities. " In traditional politics, women supported men's activities. They made the food for the party gatherings. They sewed the political banners. In some cases, they participated in political parades dressed as the Goddess of Liberty or Columbia. Nevertheless, they could not vote. Legal and ideological constraints kept women from exercising their full franchise, and the push for women's suffrage claimed only a few proponents in the Gilded Age." Giving women the vote and allowing them to occupy elected positions was the proposed reform that most directly challenged the era's gendered notion of politics. Women who appropriated the privileges of the man's sphere would not only cause social disaster-because they would not be at home to care for their families-but they would lose their position of moral superiority as they stepped down into the morass of chicanery that was politics. Furthermore, voting was a man's privilege. Ever since the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which gave the ballot to black men, all women understood that what kept them from the polls was only their sex. The vast majority of Americans quite happily maintained a masculine body politic. Nevertheless, some intrepid women carried on the fight begun at the first women's rights conference at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

The Declaration of Sentiments, adopted by the two hundred and fifty women and forty men at Seneca Falls, became the platform of the nineteenth-century women's rights movement. Suffrage was the most radical reform in a host of demands concerning education, religion, property rights, and marriage and divorce laws. While all of these reforms would find advocates, suffrage became linked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. These two friends had begun to push against the woman's sphere before the Civil War when they joined the ranks of the abolitionists. In 1869, however, Stanton, Anthony, and others criticized the Fifteenth Amendment and the Republican party, which sponsored it, because it excluded women. That year, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). NWSA members felt passionately about suffrage-even to the point of adopting the racist argument that many white women were more fit to vote than many black men enfranchised by the Fifteenth Amendment. The NWSA worked throughout the Gilded Age to convince Americans of the need for a federal constitutional amendment for women's suffrage. Even though agitating for the vote was controversial and demanded of its crusaders the bravery to stand untroubled in the storm of public criticism, Stanton and Anthony faced competition from a rival organization. Created the year before the NWSA, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) believed it best not to fight passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, agreeing with Frederick Douglass that it was "the Negro's hour." The AWSA's strategy was to do battle state by state, by convincing legislators to insert the word "women" into or remove the word "men" from their suffrage laws. Throughout the Gilded Age these two associations fought each other for scarce members, financial backers, and support from male politicians.

While the AWSA generally limited its concern to getting the vote, the NWSA called for several reforms. In 1892, Stanton attempted to explain the interconnectedness of the reforms to members of the House Judiciary Committee, stating that "the strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives; in the religion she is asked to believe; equality in social life, where she is the chief factor; a place in the trades and professions, where she may earn her bread, is because of her birthright to self-sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself. No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone, and for safety in an emergency they must know something of the laws of navigation. Even though the AWSA and the NWSA did not share the same strategy, they did pursue the same main goal. In 1890 the two organizations merged, becoming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Stanton and Anthony were the first two presidents. The impetus for the merger came from the repeated failures of either organization to gain real progress toward the vote; from the (by then) enlarged sphere of middle-class women who had been participating in many social reforms; and from the grudging acknowledgment among a few more men and women that the vote for women would not destroy the family but might instead purify the immoral political realm. Caught up in the fervor of professionalism sweeping the country, and to accommodate fairly former members of the old organizations, the NAWSA formalized its procedures. It adopted the AWSA strategy of a state-by-state ballot referendum. Although the reformed NAWSA garnered additional members in the last decade of the nineteenth century, it failed to convince the majority of Americans to eschew their firm antisuffrage sentiments.

Neither the AWSA, the NWSA, nor the NAWSA could boast any real success in the Gilded Age. Eight states held referenda on women's suffrage, but none passed. The two states that did allow women to vote, Utah and Wyoming, did so for reasons having little to do with the suffragists. Utah gave women the vote to conserve its Mormon hegemony as more "gentiles" moved in, and Wyoming hoped to encourage families to settle in its desolate and sparsely populated territory. While wary of the ballot, state legislators were more receptive to the other demands in the women's-rights pantheon. By the close of the century, several states had passed laws to end women's "civil death" upon marriage. Thanks to suffragists and other reformers, many states allowed married women to own and dispose of property, to initiate lawsuits, to enter into legal contracts, and to keep their own earnings and distribute them as they wanted. In some states women were given guardianship over their children in the wake of a divorce. Although the long struggle for the vote would not be won nationwide until 1920, these by-products of the suffrage battle were great victories in their own right.

Along with club work and suffrage, middle-class women turned to another area of reform during the Gilded Age. To share in the misfortunes of the inner-city work force and to put their Christian beliefs into action, a number of women-often college educated and unmarried-lived among the poor in settlement houses. American cities were notorious for crime, disease, unhygienic living conditions, unsafe workplaces, and unscrupulous employers who would take advantage of the newly arrived. Amidst the noise and filth, women created a safe environment that was for them an alternative to standard family life. For the people they served, settlement houses were partly training schools and partly recreation centers. Settlement workers tried in multiple ways to make life better: they set up libraries; health clinics; kindergartens; night schools; classes in English, nutrition, politics, art, music, and vocational training; boys and girls' clubs; and penny savings banks.

The most famous settlement house was Hull House, founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and her partner, Ellen Gates Starr. Patterned on Toynbee Hall in London, England, this Chicago institution became itself the model for others to follow. Originally intending to uplift local working-class immigrants, the women associated with Hull House worked with the city and state government to lobby for antisweatshop legislation, an eight-hour work day, and a minimum wage. Hull House had its own women's club and men's club, gymnasium, public bath and kitchen, and labor museum. Trade unions held meetings at Hull House. Addams and the women who lived and worked with her-Mary Rozet Smith, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, Alice Hamilton, Grace Abbott-simultaneously sought to meet the needs of their neighbors and to weaken the power of the corrupt political bosses. With different levels of success, hundreds of settlement houses opened across the United States. Janie Porter Barrett, a graduate of Hampton Institute, founded the Locust Street Settlement House in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1890s. This home for African Americans grew from her own charitable and informal instruction of young women at her residence. Barrett taught household management and job training skills for preparation both as wives and workers. Lillian Wald, a public-health nurse, began living among poor immigrants in New York in 1893. Her Henry Street Settlement House was established in 1895 to care for the medical, vocational, and social needs of her neighbors. Like Hull House, Henry Street became a bastion of civic reform. It offered safe playgrounds for children, campaigned to eradicate tuberculosis, and sponsored scholarships for needy boys and girls. Women such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart worked for short periods in settlement houses and considered their time there formative and enlightening.

The effect of industrialization on working-class women had little to do with voluntary action and reformulating the boundaries of the separate sphere. Females provided labor to fuel industrialization. Women comprised 14 percent of the total work force in 1870 and 16 percent in 1890. At the same time, the percentage of all women who worked outside the home steadily increased throughout the Gilded Age: 15 percent in 1870, 16 percent in 1880, 19 percent in 1890, and 21 percent in 1900. The typical female worker was young, urban, single, and either an immigrant or the daughter of immigrants, who lived at home with her family. Her work was temporary-just until she married. The job she was most likely to hold was that of domestic servant . Her labor in the homes of middle-class women allowed the latter more leisure to do their voluntary work. By definition, female wage workers contradicted the dominant social ideology of the cult of true womanhood. Middleclass reformers, physicians, ministers, and editors warned women that they would "unfit themselves" for marriage and motherhood if they continued in the work force. Yet, most women worked not because they wanted to but because family economics demanded it.

The only consistent exceptions seem to be women who were self-employed and some farmers' daughters. The former found their precarious independence usually better than being a wife, or better than being only a wife. Farmers' daughters craved the independence and excitement of a city job, but the extent to which their salary was necessary for the family's survival is unclear. Wages for women were consistently lower than those for men and, in fact, provided barely enough for an individual to live on. The average cost of living for a self-supporting female worker was estimated to be $5.51 per week, but the average wage was $5.68 per week. Employers viewed women as temporary workers who labored for "pin money," not a wage necessary to support a family. Therefore, not only public sentiment but also the inequitable wage system placed laboring women in a difficult position .

Prostitutes constituted a category unto themselves. While women's reform associations certainly censured this job choice, prostitutes frequently made a better wage than other working women, and, depending upon their situation, often enjoyed preferable working conditions. Female brothel owners could made great sums of money, but few prostitutes could acquire the necessary capital to open and run their own establishment. Married women sometimes engaged in prostitution, with or without the knowledge of their husbands, to add to the family's income. A few women were forced into it by bosses or family members. By far, the largest number of women who became prostitutes lived alone or suffered from chronically low wages, or both. Most did not stay in the field long and professed the same desire to be married and have children as other women.

Domestic workers could be cooks, maids, laundresses, and nannies, in any combination. Married women and single women, immigrants, daughters of immigrants, native-born blacks, and native-born whites all worked as domestics. Numerically, foreign born women held the most domestic positions, even though native born white women were the most sought after by employers. Native-born servants dominated in the countryside, as did immigrants in the cities and African Americans in the South. In urban California, Mexican-American women who worked were usually domestics. Most domestics were "live-in" servants who received room and board for their work, along with a small wage. Employers preferred live-ins for various reasons, not the least of which was the round-the-clock surveillance. Daughters of immigrants and native-born servants more often lived with their employers than did African-American domestics. As the century progressed and more white women moved into factory and office work-two remunerative avenues closed to black women-African Americans led the trend to servants living outside the home. Living away more easily accommodated a married servant, and racism also played a role in black domestics living elsewhere. Many upper- and middleclass white women thought that the model of their own lives would uplift and assimilate poor immigrant servants, but for black women, that was not considered a realistic goal.

The relations between female employers and their domestic servants could be uncomfortable and fraught with tension. Domestics complained of being on call twenty-four hours a day and scrutinized at every task. They hated the tedious labor and the inherent inequality between themselves and the mistress. The job was lonely, as families usually employed just one domestic. She had no close friend nearby, nor even a sympathetic ear. If the employer was much older than the domestic, a maternal relationship might exist. This could be fulfilling for both women, or, especially if the employer was prejudiced, it could result in condescension and domineering treatment. For their part, employers complained about maids who broke and stole household goods, who wanted too much time off or were ill too frequently, and who were ignorant, lazy, forgetful, noisy, or rude. Conflict between Protestant employers and Catholic employees added to the mutual mistrust.

In the urban South, nearly five times as many married black women as white women worked outside the home. Most of these wives were domestics. They were often forced into wage labor because of their husbands' low incomes. The majority of single, black female workers were domestics, too. In rural communities, African-American women in the South labored also in the cotton and rice fields, jobs that had been forced on them since slavery. Because white women would not work in someone else's fields, this backbreaking labor was reserved in the postbellum South for African Americans. Very few black women worked in factories, but their numbers increased as the century wore on. Almost none worked in white-collar jobs such as clerk and saleswoman. One of the major differences between black and white women workers was the support received at home. Black communities-although they might have glorified the domestic ideal of womanhood-conceded that economic necessity forced wives into the work force, and hence were less critical of women who worked after marriage.

Although native-born white women in early textile factories such as those in Lowell, Massachusetts, had constituted the first industrial laborers in America, by the Gilded Age the majority of the female industrial work force was comprised of foreign-born women or their American-born daughters. In immigrant communities wives and mothers took in boarders, but daughters went away from the home to work. Industry was not wide open for women. Instead, jobs were clustered in garment factories (in the manufacture both of cloth and clothing), laundries, carpet factories, tobacco factories, canneries, meat-packing plants, candy factories, and book-binderies. These jobs were extensions of "women's work" in the home. Because most women in industry were young, unskilled, and unmarried, bosses considered them temporary hires and paid them far less than they paid male laborers. The female work force was usually tractable-a result of the expected docile nature of women and also of the general exclusion of women from labor unions whose male members perceived women's labor as a threat to their own employment. Industrial jobs had the benefit of a shorter workday than domestic service (usually ten hours or longer at the beginning of the Gilded Age and eight by the turn of the century). Factory work, however, could be dangerous, unhealthy, difficult, boring, and cyclical. Industries had no safety codes as the Gilded Age dawned and no regulations regarding breaks, vacations, retirement, workers' compensation, injury pay or time off, or sexual harassment. In the 1890s, often because of the efforts of female reformers, factory codes began to improve working conditions.

Working women did express their unhappiness with the system of labor in the United States; when they went on strike, however, their protests were tailored to the local situation. Women's strikes in the Gilded Age were rarely successful. Most trade unions were closed to them, and so they did not have the benefit of male support and sheer numbers. Men did not welcome women into trade unions because they believed that the lower-paid women's work force would displace them or force wages down. Unskilled women worked the machines that had initially put skilled male workers on the unemployment lines, and thus the introduction of women into a field often heralded a new, and unwelcome, era for an industry and for the men who had previously worked it alone. Leonara Barry led the recruitment drive on behalf of the Knights of Labor from her position as the organization's general investigator of women's work, and by the early 1880s union membership was 10 percent female. Before the decade was over, though, the Knights had lost its strength and membership declined drastically. The next major trade union to arise was the American Federation of Labor, which was hostile to women. Some female workers organized their own associations, more mutual-aid societies than unions. Many women participated in work stoppages such as the wave of strikes in the garment industry in the 1880s. In the late Gilded Age the push for protective legislation began and would bear fruit in the Progressive Era, helped along by the many female reformers in the Woman's Trade Union League (founded in 1903).

Native-born white women rarely worked in factories. Instead, they took the less stressful, but hardly better paying, clerical, teaching, and sales jobs. These three fields had belonged exclusively to men, but as the Gilded Age progressed, public sentiment held that women's morals and futures would not be unduly damaged by jobs in offices and stores. Consequently, working-class and middle-class women moved with alacrity into cleaner and less physically demanding jobs such as bookkeeper, typist, stenographer, and copyist.

The Gilded Age witnessed a significant increase in college educated women. Both coeducational and women's colleges had existed before the Civil War, but more colleges opened their doors to women in the postbellum years, including Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, and Mount Holyoke. Although opponents of women's education, particularly scientists, warned that women's brains were too small to handle the work without compromising their reproductive systems, many women took the risk. Upon graduation, they married at a lower rate than the rest of the female population. This could have resulted from the empowering taste of the homosocial circle or the liberating dose of the life of the mind that women experienced at college, or it could have to do with the shortage of men in the wake of the Civil War. Certainly it was nearly impossible for a woman in the Gilded Age to have children and a husband along with a career. Seventy-five percent of all women who earned doctoral degrees between 1877 and 1924 remained single.

Many college-educated women chose to enter the few professional careers open to women in the Gilded Age. Nursing and teaching were predominantly women's fields by the mid-Gilded Age. Also in this era, some institutions began to graduate women physicians and attorneys. By the turn of the century, several medical schools across the North and Midwest admitted women, and female doctors began to practice in women's hospitals, in clinics, and from their own offices. It was relatively easier to pursue a career in medicine than in law because of the obvious differences in men's and women's bodies. Sentiment existed for women to tend to ailing women, infants, and children, just as they had always done, and the move toward professionalism in the Gilded Age assisted the entrance of women into medicine and law. One decade into the twentieth century, there were nine thousand women physicians but only fifteen hundred female lawyers in the United States. Myra Bradwell was the first woman to seek admittance to the bar. When she initially applied for a license to practice in 1869, the Illinois State Supreme Court turned her down. The U.S. Supreme Court also found against her, but on technical grounds, and the Illinois legislature allowed her to practice. In 1879, Belva Lockwood was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court. Inroads into the legal system continued but at a snail's pace.

Science remained closed to women and the ministry nearly so. No female scientist held a job in industry, and few denominations allowed women to seek ordination. Most women in science were professors in women's colleges. Teaching in college became a viable option after the Civil War as more and more institutions of higher learning opened their doors to female students. The percentage of female college students increased throughout the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, but the number of female college professors did not rise correspondingly. To have a career in the Gilded Age, most women had to forego marriage and children and face an uncertain financial future at the very least. Probably most women also risked the displeasure of their families because of their unusual life choice as well as the loss of a peer group. This latter was one reason that Hull House and other settlements attracted so many like-minded college-educated women. There, their aspirations found a receptive audience.

As industrialization, immigration, and urbanization caused a population increase in the East, the Homestead Acts and the lure of quick riches drew a number of Americans to the West. The experience of women in the West is difficult to characterize. Some single women took advantage of the free or inexpensive land given out by the U.S. government and established their own homesteads. Others went west as prostitutes or dance hall entertainers, and many led a peripatetic life following the mining camps. Some single women sought employment in the wide open West rather than in the crowded Eastern cities. Religion played a role in settling the frontier, as zeal led female missionaries and nuns to Christianize and care for the western families. Most women who made the journey toward the Pacific Ocean did so as wives, sometimes willingly and sometimes unwillingly accompanying their farmer, rancher, miner, or businessman husbands. For most women the journey was arduous, even after the railways crossed the plains and brought the trappings of eastern civilization closer. Women worried about Indian attacks, disease, the lack of doctors, the difficulty of keeping their homes clean, the dearth of formal educational opportunities in the West, and the relatives they left behind.

In the most rural areas, women did not inhabit a separate sphere. As the family began the process of building and planting, women's labor in the fields and the barns was crucial to the family's survival. The doctrine of separate spheres, if it was part of the intellectual construct of western women and men, was at least more flexible as they shared work. A 1901 editorial from the journal The Independent asserted that "there is nothing essentially masculine about outdoor employment. There is in running a reaper nothing more to weaken femininity than in running a sewing machine. To drive a team of horses in a hay field will no more unsex a woman than driving a fast team in a city park. To be compelled to drudge is as demoralizing in the kitchen as it is in the garden-no more, no less."

Rather than being simply "gentle tamers" of the Wild West and its men, women helped to build community structures as they had done in the East. They founded and belonged to women's clubs and to women's auxiliaries of farm and ranch societies, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Populist party, the Grange, and the Farmers Alliance. Western women dedicated themselves to municipal housekeeping in the latter part of the Gilded Age. They established orphanages, Sunday schools, libraries, museums, and other institutions. In western states and territories, many women enjoyed the vote-even as their eastern sisters fought for it. School board elections were first opened to women in the West, and by 1870 in Wyoming and Utah women held the full elective franchise. While the initial impetus for giving women the vote in Utah probably did not come from women, female members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints took advantage of it, publishing their own suffrage newspaper and pushing to extend the vote to women elsewhere in the West.

Native American women did not internalize the cult of true womanhood. Few had heard of it. The ones who had were usually exposed to white Christian missionary women who were trying to convert this people religiously and culturally. Gilded Age Anglo-Americans continued to marginalize Native Americans. The U.S. government's Indian policies consigned them to reservations, where women and men suffered terrible upheaval and ignominy. A facile generalization about the lives of Native American women is bound to be erroneous in its particulars, but, broadly speaking, Indian women did not live within a separate female sphere. More likely, men and women shared work or performed tasks that the writers of the separate sphere prescriptive literature would not have recognized as "women's work." Native American women were agricultural as well as domestic workers. They were not significantly touched by industrialization, immigration, or urbanization, except for the very few women whose home-industry products (baskets, pottery, or cloth) were sold to wealthy white women and the ever fewer women who worked as domestics (usually on the East Coast). Many Native American women were able to escape unhappy or abusive marriages with greater ease than the white majority, and in some tribes, women enjoyed a higher status because of their religious or medical skills or because of their longevity. It is possible that the ongoing pressure to assimilate into white culture robbed these women of their more nearly equal status in their communities, for by the end of the Gilded Age a larger number of white missionaries and others who believed in the cultural hegemony of European Americans sought to make Native Americans conform to the dictates of white society.

Native Americans, however, were but distant figures for most middle- and working-class Americans. Politicians and editors proclaimed the might of industry, while immigrants and native-born Americans moved to the cities to seek a better future. Industry, with its promise of prosperity and progress, irrevocably altered the lives of women. Factories were the main attraction for immigrants to make the long journey to the United States, and, although many more men migrated, the women who did underwent the jarring cultural shock of discovering American social norms. Working-class women took in boarders, laundry, and piecework, while their daughters went off to factories. Labor in industry opened up for women during the Gilded Age, even though unions did not. The difficult jobs women performed belied the contemporary notion that they were fragile and domestic. Still, working-class life was an uphill struggle. Tenements, corrupt politicians, and unsanitary living conditions spurred middle-class women to their sisters' aid, but only infrequently did middle- and working-class women form partnerships in the business of cleaning up the slums and factories. More often, middle-class women pursued municipal housekeeping in voluntary associations drawn from their own social group, while they promoted the assimilation of their white domestic helpers as individuals. Women's associations and suffrage organizations provided the key for middle-class women to unlock the bonds of the cult of true womanhood, as did settlement houses, college education, and entry into professions.

As the Gilded Age ended and the Progressive Era dawned, middle-class club members and suffragists continued to ameliorate the troubles of women and children, the traditional objects of their concern. They began to appeal more and more frequently for direct governmental intervention and secured legislation on topics as broad ranging as the environment, sanitation, juvenile courts, historic preservation, education, pure food and drugs, and crime. Women such as Carrie Chapman Catt, who early in her life began work in the field of suffrage, continued the battle, finally gaining the vote for all women in 1920. The first generation of college-educated women opened the doors for others who followed in their footsteps seeking personal satisfaction in medical, legal, and governmental careers. African-American women persevered in the staggering task of "lifting as they climbed," educating whites and fighting stereotypes. The genteel activism in black women's clubs paved the way for better treatment by local and state politicians, at least in the North. Reform efforts had demonstrated the ability of women not only to survive but also to prosper outside their "proper" sphere. As a nurturing arena for action and a justification for excursions into public space, the separate sphere had buoyed women, but by the end of the Gilded Age its constraints had become obvious, its boundaries a liability. The "new woman" of the Progressive Era--educated, informed, and more free of the separate sphere-was clearly the legacy of Gilded Age activists on all fronts.

Source: Stacy A. Cordery in The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 119-37.