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
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
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
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
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
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.