What Can Women Do?

“The Old Sewing Machine”

“The New Sewing Machine”

Godey’s Lady’s Book—images from January and March, 1863.

LCP 7397.O

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.

Making Soap — Men: 10+ ; Women: 2.

Printing on Cylinder Press
Men: 10; Women: 0.

Printing on Rotary Presses
Men: 7; Women: 3.

Preparing Printed Sheets for Binding
Men: 0; Women: 10+

Making Shoes
Men: 10+; Women: 6

The Great Industries of the United States (Hartford: J.B. Burr & Hyde, 1872).

LCP 72609.O

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, “Woman’s Right to Labor,” or, Low Wages and Hard Work (Boston: Walker, Wise, and Company, 1860).

LCP 70094.D

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.

Rhode Island, The Charter Granted by His Majesty King Charles II. to the Governor and Company of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence-Plantations, in New-England in America (Newport: Printed by the Widow Franklin, M,DCC,XLIV [i.e., 1745]). The Michael Zinman Collection of Early American Imprints, at the Library Company.

LCP 10245.F

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, Five Hundred Employments Adapted to Women (Philadelphia: John E. Potter and Company, 1868).

LCP 18043.D

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, What Can a Woman Do, or, Her Position in the Business and Literary World (Detroit: F.B. Dickerson & Co., 1884).

LCP 74363.O

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.

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Free Classes for Women in Telegraphy, Phonography and Type-writing (New York, not before 1883).

LCP 106930.O

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.