Needlework—the most common way women sought to support themselves—was a notoriously low-paying and physically demanding way to earn money. Reformers often suggested that seamstresses were forced into prostitution. Starting in the 1840s, the use of home sewing machines only intensified the economic challenges seamstresses faced.
The compilers of this 1872 volume celebrated the “giant steps” the United States had made in various areas of
work, especially through mechanization. Note the greater presence of women in industries that involved sewing
(bookbinding and shoemaking). According to the text, the workers in the stitching room in the shoe manufactory
of B.F. Spinney & Co., in Lynn, Massachusetts, were all women—using one hundred power sewing machines.
Around this time, Caroline Dall, Virginia Penny, and others were making the argument that women were capable of doing work in areas that did not conform to gender stereotypes and—importantly—would be more lucrative for them.
Caroline Healey Dall (1822-1912) became active in the women’s rights movement after her husband suffered a
breakdown and left her to support herself and raise their two small children on her own. Mrs. Dall’s writings
(and lectures) explicitly address the theme of women supporting themselves financially.
Shown here is a passage from one of Dall’s lectures, in which she cites various women, and especially women printers, who carried on their businesses successfully as proof that women have the capacity to do so.
One successful 18th-century woman whom Caroline Dall cites in her 1860 text on working women was Benjamin Franklin’s sister-in-law Ann Franklin (1695?-1763). While James Franklin was alive, Ann Franklin probably worked as her husband’s unnamed partner. After he died in 1735, she soon became the official printer for the Rhode Island General Assembly. This folio volume was her largest—and most impressive—project.
Virginia Penny (1826-1913) produced this 1868 report outlining areas of work in which women could have equal
opportunities with men. Like many others, she especially notes the difficulty seamstresses had supporting
themselves and cites this as the inspiration for her project. Her extraordinary book was based on the many
interviews she conducted and the questionnaires she distributed and collected.
Shown here is a passage in which Penny expresses annoyance: “It is surprising how many objections, as regards health and physical strength required, can be presented by selfish men, who do not wish women to engage in their occupation.”
Martha Louise Rayne (1836-1911) encourages her readers to consider women’s expanding opportunities for
employment. She provides hints on getting started in writing (how to get a manuscript published), journalism
(a “lady journalist” needs “sympathetic perception”), law (the University of Michigan and Boston University
are good schools for “ladies”), and so forth. She is much less keen on women telegraphers, noting that of the
fifty women who graduated from the Cooper Union program the previous year, “only about twelve have ...
obtained situations.” Rayne also notes that telegraphers’ earnings have been dropping and the work itself
makes operators prone to the “disease known as telegraph cramp,” which incapacitates them.
Shown here is a passage from Rayne’s chapter on government service, in which she describes one woman’s determination in seeking employment.
In 1869, Western Union and Cooper Union jointly started a free telegraphy course for women, teaching them how to convert text into Morse code for long-distance communication. In the telegraph industry, as in many other industries, women were paid less than men, so, by hiring women, telegraph companies could increase their profit margins. By 1883, when Cooper Union first offered this course in phonography and type-writing as well as telegraphy, the falling wages and the danger of what is now known as carpal tunnel syndrome made the Cooper Union’s “philanthropic” program a dubious opportunity for women.