I've been doing some more work on my paper pertaining to Chicago's working women of the late 19th and early 20th century. What has become more and more apparent is the common bond that women today have with their historical counterparts.
In Women in 1900: Gateway to the Political Economy of the Twentieth Century Christine E. Bose writes:
In 1900 American women could not vote, serve on juries, run for elective office. Women's economic situation fundamentally depended on their marital status. The overwhelming proportion of adult women married. In 1900 85% of women over the age of 25 in the U.S. were married or widowed. Women's legal, economic and social identity was subsumed into their husbands' under the traditional legal theory of marriage known as coverture. If single, women were potential wives and mothers, primarily young women who would come under the economic protection and "cover" of their husbands in the near future. Widows were at the end of their lives, again without the protection of a spouse, but presumably provided for by their dead husbands or grown children. The small number of women outside such family relationships were truly "women adrift" in Joanne Meyerowitz' term, [see Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930] and the subject of much worry about the failure of society to provide for them properly.
A century later, these formal legal dependency relationships for adult women have by and large disappeared, though not the vestiges of coverture and discrimination in labor markets and social institutions. Women still marry, bear children, and confront the life course stages based upon their marital status and biological clocks....
Queen Victoria's age defining evaluation of woman's place in society was: "Let women be what God intended, a helpmate for man, but with totally different duties and vocations." By that she meant obey your husband, keep the house clean and raise the children.
"Very true;" countered Margaret Fuller , "but suppose I choose not to have a husband, or am not chosen for a wife — what then? I am still subject to your laws. Why am I not entitled, as a rational human being, to a voice in shaping them? I have physical needs, and must somehow earn a living. Why should I not be at liberty to earn it in any honest and useful calling?... "Suppose me a wife,and my husband a drunken prodigal — what am I to do then? May I not earn food for my babes without being exposed to have it snatched from their mouths to replenish the rumsellers till, and aggravate my husband's madness? If some sympathizing relative sees fit to leave me a bequest wherewith to keep my little ones together, why may I not be legally enabled to secure this to their use and benefit ? In short, why am I not regarded by the law as a soul, responsible for my acts to God and humanity, and not as a mere body, devoted to the unreasoning service of my husband?"
No where were these issues more relevant than in Chicago at the turn of the century. The Industrial Revolution was quickly followed by rapid urbanization changing America from and agrarian society to an industrial one. Women flocked to the city and many were the single "women adrift" that Fuller mentions.
One of my favorite research sites on this topic is Women Working, 1800-1930, a site of digitized historical, manuscript, and image resources selected from Harvard University's library and museum collections that explore women's roles in the US economy between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the Great Depression. It was here that I found Woman's Work: A Journal Devoted to the Employments of Women, founded in the late nineteenth century about women's employment. Subjects include industrial work, food industry, handicraft workers, textile workers, professional workers, authors, business, medicine, physicians, unpaid household work, education, vocational training, working conditions, and New York City.1885, May (Volume 1, No. 6)
Reading the Journal was enlightening. There were articles on finding work that a woman could do at home, suggestions for writers, how to maintain self esteem, starting a business, obtaining education, suggestions for employment and a lot more. Unfortunately, the issue is a bit difficult to read (Harvard hasn't typed up the text yet. I'm thinking of offering my services)but well worth the effort for those interested in Women's Studies.
But, that was in the late 19th century, you say. Things have changed: women can vote, own property, support themselves, marry or not marry.
Quite true. But, visit any "Work at Home Mom" website and you will find the exact same issues being discussed today as in 1885. I guess it's true. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the nineteenth century:and kindred papers relating to the sphere, condition and duties,of woman. Boston : J. P. Jewett ; Cleveland, Ohio : Jewett Proctor & Worthington ; New York : Sheldon, Lamport, 1855.
Further Reading on Chicago working women from Working Women 1800-1930:
Historical account of the Association for the Advancement of Women, 1873-1893 : twenty-first Women's Congress, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. 1893
Hull-House maps and papers : a presentation of nationalities and wages in a congested district of Chicago : together with comments and essays on problems growing out of the social conditions. c1895.
Tenement conditions in Chicago. Hunter, Robert, 1901.
A study of the higher life of Chicago. Riley, Thomas J. 1905.
The social evil in Chicago : a study of existing conditions w. Chicago (Ill.). 1911.
The clothing workers of Chicago, 1910-1922. 1922.
Finally, I leave you with this poem by Carl Sandburg from Chicago Poems:
Yesterday and today...
The working girls in the morning are going to work--
long lines of them afoot amid the downtown stores
and factories, thousands with little brick-shaped
lunches wrapped in newspapers under their arms.
Each morning as I move through this river of young-
woman life I feel a wonder about where it is all
going, so many with a peach bloom of young years
on them and laughter of red lips and memories in
their eyes of dances the night before and plays and
Green and gray streams run side by side in a river and
so here are always the others, those who have been
over the way, the women who know each one the
end of life's gamble for her, the meaning and the
clew, the how and the why of the dances and the
arms that passed around their waists and the fingers
that played in their hair.
Faces go by written over: "I know it all, I know where
the bloom and the laughter go and I have memories,"
and the feet of these move slower and they
have wisdom where the others have beauty.
So the green and the gray move in the early morning
on the downtown streets.