Women have always worked. But the nature of that work and where it took place has changed over time. In the United States, before the late 19th century, the majority of women’s work was domestic, but as economic and social changes took place, women began working outside of the home and in more varied roles.
I wrote about women’s work for a chapter of my master’s thesis. Below is a short excerpt from that chapter that explains the changes over time and gives details about women’s work including women-owned businesses. Since my thesis focused on the Wilmington area, it includes statistics and information from the Cape Fear region.
Many changes in women’s work took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One such change was in the demographic makeup of women entering the workforce. In 1890 more than 90 percent of women over the age of 35 were married. Before 1890, the “vast majority” of married women did not engage in paid labor, instead “contributing to the family economy in other ways.” After 1890 married women began to more frequently take jobs outside of the home. Women were having fewer children, resulting in fewer years spent in raising children. Technological advancements reduced and eased housework and made many goods previously produced in the home readily available for purchase. The reduction in family size and the new technology freed up time for many married women. Alice Kessler-Harris argued that these women, no longer spending much of their lifetimes birthing and raising children, “would need to find meaningful survival activity” and some, especially those who outlived their partners, “would need to support themselves by finding paid work outside the household.”
Kessler-Harris’s arguments points to two main reasons for women engaging in work outside of the home, for economic survival and for mental or emotional fulfillment. Since colonial times, single women, widows, and poor women were more likely to work for wages, needing to support themselves in absence of a husband or father or contribute to the earnings of a husband. However, with the changes in the home pointed out by Kessler-Harris, as well as changes in the 1920s resulting from women’s wartime work, the flapper movement of the 1920s, and women’s newly earned suffrage, the early twentieth century saw more women, married or otherwise, pursuing work for other reasons, including boredom, ambition, rebellion, and independence, as well as need. These motives, of course, differed by race and class.
By the mid-twentieth century, women held a larger variety of jobs, but still remained less represented in the workforce than men. These changes over the first decades of the twentieth century are also reflected in the census records. In 1940 there were still six times as many employed males as females in Brunswick County, but only about two times as many in New Hanover County. This is likely due to the city of Wilmington’s increased population and urban employment opportunities. In terms of women as business owners and employers, in 1940 there were nearly ten times as many male as female employers and own-account workers in Brunswick County and 11.5 times as many male employers as female in the state of North Carolina. However, there were only 2.7 times as many in New Hanover County, making New Hanover County unique in the state for its higher proportion of women employers at that time.
Women’s employment generally increased over the course of the twentieth century; however, their occupations were concentrated in certain fields, such as domestic service and professional occupations. Women’s dominance in domestic service and professional occupations in the Cape Fear Region mirrors larger trends in women’s work in the twentieth century. Domestic service was an especially predominant occupation for African American women. Tera Hunter found in her study of black women’s work from the Civil War through the early twentieth century that “more than 90 percent of black female wage-earners were still confined to domestic work at the turn of the century.” In the Cape Fear region, domestic workers were also majority African American, with domestic work being one of the few options for black women in the early twentieth century. As late as 1995 African American women still made up 63% of housekeepers, child care workers, and cleaners. In terms of professional occupations, Kessler-Harris found that “by 1920 a cadre of trained and eager women had carved out a series of professional areas, many of which were loosely construed as nurturing,” such as nursing and teaching. Cape Fear women’s large numbers in professional fields and domestic service fields represent larger trends in women’s growing presence in the paid labor force.
Beyond census records, another rich resource for contextualizing women’s work and roles in business is the city directories for Wilmington. These sources list local businesses as well as individuals and organizations. The city directories for the years 1900, 1905, 1909-10, 1915-16, 1919-20, 1930, 1934, 1940, 1944-45, and 1950, published by Hill Directory Company, revealed several trends in women’s work and were exceptionally helpful in gathering information about women-owned businesses. By focusing on the business listings rather than the personal listings, some trends in women’s businesses can be determined.
The most numerous occupations or businesses held by women from 1900 to 1950 were boarding houses, clothing retailers, bakers and confectioners, dressmakers, florists, grocers, music teachers, and nurses. Not only did these professions include large numbers of women, but they also largely excluded men, demonstrating the gender segregation of the workforce. Boarding houses were overwhelmingly one of the biggest businesses operated by women in Wilmington. The city directories revealed that in 1900 at least 21 women were listed as the proprietors of boarding houses. Of those 21, 19 were listed as “Mrs.” and only two were listed as “Miss,” indicating that boarding houses were predominantly operated by married or widowed women. In 1905 even more women were listed as boarding house owners with the number reaching 45. More than 40 women operated boarding houses in 1910. The number continued to remain relatively high at 11 in 1930 and 19 in 1940. However, in 1950 there were only two women listed as boarding house proprietors. This shift did not indicate an exodus from the profession though. Instead, 32 women were listed as the proprietors of “furnished rooms,” many of them the same women once listed as boarding house owners. Furnished rooms provided less amenities to lodgers, offering a room with either a hot plate or access to a shared kitchen where boarding houses had provided communal meals to their guests. Furnished rooms were thus less labor-intensive for landladies. The shift may have been caused by changes in women’s access to other occupations as well as changes in ideas of family privacy.
Other notable professions included dressmaking and millinery shops. For example, in 1950 there were twenty-eight dressmakers in Wilmington. Women also appeared increasingly in later years as stenographers, notaries, real estate and insurance agents, and other office-type jobs. There were a few notable instances of women working outside of “feminine” occupations, but alongside husbands. There was one lawyer, one physician (osteopath), and one chiropractor who fell into this category. Other trends in women’s work in the Cape Fear Region included teaching, nursing, and clerical work. By 1920, 80 percent of North Carolina’s teachers were women, the James Walker School of Nursing graduated more than 1,000 nurses between 1902 and 1970, and by 1940 15 percent of employed women worked in retail, clerical work, or service professional jobs. Textile mills were also leading employers of women in the region, including Delgado Cotton Mill.
As can be seen, many of the occupations or businesses that women engaged in used “traditional” domestic skills or catered to women clientele. Boarding house proprietors served as hostesses, managing a home and providing meals. Dressmakers made women’s clothing, reproducing the traditional women’s task of cloth production in the home, and producing goods for female consumers. These were considered acceptable, feminine professions and they attracted a largely female workforce. As Kessler-Harris found, “most women, even professionals, still found themselves in job categories that were heavily female.”
The ways in which businesses and individuals were denoted in the city directories also points to connections between race and gender when examining women’s work and businesses in the twentieth century. The city directories differentiated individuals and proprietors of businesses by race and further differentiated women by marital status. African-American individuals or businesses are denoted with an asterisk or the letter ‘c’ in parenthesis alongside their names. This action denotes the racial segregation at the time, and helps to provide some information about the differences in African-American and white women’s work.
African American women can predominantly be seen as the proprietors of eating houses and lunch rooms, as opposed to the separately named category of restaurants, a symptom of segregated establishments. African American women appeared much less often in other businesses such as boarding houses and as music teachers or nurses. African American women appeared as midwives where white women did not and are also among dressmakers and hairdressers. Personal listings in the city directories also revealed African American women to work often as washerwomen and seamstresses. African American women appeared frequently in separate businesses from white women. Black women were more likely to be listed as hairdressers, eating house proprietors, and midwives. The businesses that African American women engaged in in Wilmington were also popular in other cities across the South. Hunter found that women in Atlanta also operated restaurants, clothing stores, hairdressing shops, and worked as midwives. Midwifery was also one of the few professional occupations African American women were able to break into, following teaching and nursing. The differences in work of black and white women points to different gender expectations across race as well as different limitations in work opportunities.
 Joanne J. Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1991, 73-75. Meyerowitz explores the changes in lodging of urban workers in Chicago around the turn of the twentieth century, offering some explanation of the differences between boarding houses and furnished rooms that can help explain the shift in Wilmington in the twentieth century.
Women’s Work A Century’s Worth: A Cape Fear Scrapbook.
The US National Archives’ #19forthe19th Instagram Challenge is highlighting women’s history for 19 weeks in celebration of the centennial of the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote.
This week’s theme? #PlayLikeAGirl
I decided to take a look at pioneering female musicians who play instruments specifically female drummers, who continue to remain a minority in the music world.
Here are 5 pioneering female drummers:
Karen Carpenter was part of the duo, the Carpenters, with her brother Richard. The sibling duo wrote and performed soft rock/pop from 1969-1983. Karen started drumming in high school and quickly learned more and more complex skills. She played as part of a trio with her brother, the Richard Carpenter trio, for a while, while simultaneously developing her singing voice. It was Karen’s singing that originally caught the ear of a label who signed her and brought Richard along to compose music. The two performed in a number of different band iterations until they finally, formally became the duo, the Carpenters. Karen soon eclipsed her brother and became the face of the band, moving out from behind the drum kit in live performances to sing with another drummer stepping in. She always considered herself a drummer first and singer second though. Sadly, Karen suffered from anorexia nervosa at a time when it was less understood. She passed away at the age of 32 because of complications and strain on her heart from the disease.
Bobbye Hall is a noted and prolific percussionist playing bongos, congas, and other percussion as well as full drum kits. She has recorded and performed with many leading artists and got her start by playing on Motown recordings. She was a session musician at a time when that field was dominated by men. She has recorded and played with a wide variety of artists including The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, the Doobie Brothers, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tracy Chapman. She went on a world tour with Bob Dylan in 1978 which brought her global exposure.
Sandy West was the drummer for the first all-girl teenage hard rock band, the Runaways, with Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, and Micki Steele (original lineup), from 1975-1979. Sandy started playing drums when she was 9 years old and as a teenage was the only girl playing in local bands at parties. Sandy sought out opportunities to play professionally which led her to Joan Jett and the Runaways. After they disbanded though she struggled to find success in the music industry.
Sheila E. (Escovedo) is another prolific and talented percussionist. She got her start drumming and singing in the George Duke Band but went on to have a very successful solo career and to collaborate with some of the biggest names in music, namely Prince. She recorded on several tracks on Purple Rain. She has also performed or collaborated with Beyonce, Pharell, Marc Anthony, and Juan Luis Guerra. She regularly performs with other musicians in her family, including her father who was also a percussionist. Fun fact: the Latin jazz legend Tito Puente was Sheila’s godfather.
Suzette Quintanilla is the often overlooked sister of Selena Quintanilla Perez, the young Tejano superstar who died tragically at the age of 23. Suzette played drums in their family’s band, Selena y los Dinos, which Selena fronted. Suzette was originally reluctant to play the drums as she felt as a young girl that it was not an instrument usually played by girls. She was in fact one of very few female drummers, especially in Tejano music, which was dominated by men in most respects. There were some female Tejano singers but few musicians in the bands. Despite her reluctance, she played, and Selena y los Dinos rose to fame before Selena embarked on a solo career. Suzette still performs sometimes with her brother AB Quintanilla.
Fittingly, the US National Archives Instagram Challenge in honor of the centennial of the 19th Amendment has assigned the theme of Women Abolitionists to fall on June 19th, Juneteenth, the day that remaining enslaved people were emancipated in the state of Texas in 1865 after the end of the Civil War. The celebration of freedom on Juneteenth has spread across the United States.
The long road to freedom and the abolition of slavery was paved by many people working towards that goal, including men and women, black and white, Northerners & Southerners.
Today I want to focus on a few women abolitionists and their roles in the movement.
Many African American abolitionists were former slaves, who had either gained freedom through “official” means (were emancipated by those who enslaved them) or had escaped slavery. Free blacks in the north were often part of the abolitionist movement as well.
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. She is most well-known as the author of a series of newspaper articles later turned book entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl which was a memoir of her life in slavery. The book was published in 1861 and is one of the earliest accounts of the struggles women especially faced when enslaved including sexual harassment and abuse and roles as enslaved mothers without legal rights to their own children. Harriet escaped into hiding in 1835 and then in 1842 was able to flee to the North. She became involved in the American Anti-Slavery Society, giving talks to support the cause and raise money. Her later memoir was also used to raise awareness, encourage the Civil War to be rightfully seen as a war against slavery by Union backers, and to especially appeal to white women by focusing on how slavery impacted black women’s ability to remain chaste and to be good mothers. During and after the war, Jacobs worked with fleeing refugees, and former slaves helping to provide food, shelter, etc. in the Washington, D.C. area where she lived the rest of her life.
Whites who were involved in the abolitionist movement were often members of liberal religious groups, such as the Quakers, which saw all souls as equal. White women, especially those of middle and upper classes had more ability to be involved in the movement than black women owing to being allowed more education, more freedom of movement, and access to resources and financing that allowed them to concentrate their time on the effort. Many northern abolitionists are well known such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, and Harriet Beecher Stowe and many went on to also be prominent in the women’s suffrage movement.
Southern white women abolitionists are less often spoken about. One such woman was Abigail Stanley. She and her husband, who were part of a Quaker community in Guilford County, made their home part of the Underground Railroad and owned a wagon with a false bottom that they would use to help enslaved people escape. When many Quakers left the state as the debate over slavery grew increasingly heated, Abigail and her husband Joshua remained in North Carolina. Abigail petitioned the North Carolina legislature in 1838 to abolish slavery and worked to that end through her participation in the Underground Railroad and her writings.
Check out the hashtag #19forthe19th and #rightfullyhers to see more posts about women abolitionists and to follow along with the US National Archives challenge.
In the field of public history, the interpretation of women’s history has become a hot topic with increasing attention and emphasis being placed on including women’s perspectives in museum exhibits and other public history initiatives. This post is a literature review and essay on how women’s history has historically been presented via museums and historic sites. Women’s history should be more fully explored in all of its diversity and possibility at museums and historic sites of all types, especially in view of women’s historic and continued impact on the field of public history, with museums especially often considered a pink collar profession.
Social History’s Influence
Both public and women’s history as disciplines developed around the same time as social history, which began calling for the inclusion of marginalized histories like those of women, as well as racial minorities. Influenced by the social history movement of the 1970s and 80s, as well as the urgings of female staff at museums and sites, public interpretation at historic sites and museums has increasingly incorporated women’s history. Even more recently, the fields of preservation and museums have pushed for progressively critical and analytical interpretations that move beyond simply adding the biographies of ‘great’ women to go alongside those of ‘great men,’ emphasizing the potential of making the history of all women more visible through the use of tangible resources.
Despite continued appeals over three decades, and a general increase in representation, there is still a need for more integration and better interpretation of women’s history at sites and museums. However, museums and preservation professionals have each identified different areas of women’s lives that are most in need of better interpretation. Museum professionals write that too much emphasis has been put on women’s public roles, while preservationists and those involved with historic sites push for more interpretation of women’s lives outside of the home, feeling that the domestic sphere is over-interpreted through the prevalence of house museums.
This interesting dichotomy may be the result of differences in the development of the two fields, the availability of the material culture used at each type of institution or issues of funding and sponsorship.
Women’s History in Museums
Edith Mayo’s 1983 article, “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection,” was written only 5 years after public history, as a newly established self-identified field, published its own journal and is one of the earliest calls for increased representation of women’s history via public history. Mayo provides an overview of the field of public history and its divergence from academic history in order to explain why women’s history had not been heavily incorporated into public history at that time. Arguing that public history and academic history separated due to increased specialization in training for academics and the propensity for academics to then see those who worked in preservation or museums as amateurs or antiquarians, Mayo then points out that women, who originally spearheaded preservation movements, were usually not trained historians. When the field of preservation began to professionalize, this lack of training began to phase out women from public history.
Mayo traces women’s involvement in public history back to the preservation movement of the nineteenth century in which women in their role as “culture bearer and preserver” led movements to save the houses of great men, including, most famously, Mount Vernon. By giving an introduction to women’s historic involvement in the field of public history, Mayo points out the irony that women’s history is “still largely neglected by public historians.” Women’s history’s growing popularity in the academy as well as women’s traditional role as preservers of culture and history point to the need for more interpretation of women’s history in museums and historic sites.
Ultimately, museums should be a vehicle that brings women’s history from the academy to the public and should continue to respond to the increase in women’s history scholarship by incorporating interpretation of women into their exhibits and programs.
However, mere incorporation and inclusion is not enough as it needs to be balanced in order to present an accurate picture of women’s lived experiences. In the past, women’s history in museums has been focused on presenting “notable” women to go alongside the stories of noteworthy men.
Barbara Melosh’s “Speaking of Women: Museum’s Representations of Women’s History” finds that museums have had more success at interpreting women’s public roles, such as political achievements and labor roles outside the home, rather than their domestic lives. This phenomenon is partially due to the driving principle of “finding” women on the same terms as men. Melosh shows that the exhibits of women’s public roles have been more common and more successful in terms of engaging with the available scholarship.
Those exhibits that do present domestic life of women leave out any reference to subjects related to women’s bodies, sexuality, or domestic conflict. For example, Melosh found only one exhibit at the time to actually address domestic conflict in examining the household as a place of labor. The exhibit “Impact: Technology in the Kitchen” described the changes over time in kitchen tools and appliances, but rather than indicating a narrative of progress the exhibit explained how improvements in technology have not changed the amount of time that women spend on housework. This lone example is in contrast to the proliferation of scholarship on women’s domestic conflicts, sexuality, and relationships.
While social history has greatly added to the interpretation of women’s history in museums, museums have not fully incorporated scholarship to the detriment of representations of women’s domestic lives. This issue stems from a continued discomfort with discussing matters of women’s sexuality and family conflict and violence. Part of the lack of critical analysis of women’s domestic lives is a collections issue because matters like divorce or domestic violence do not produce very many tangible objects, especially any which are saved over time. However, Melosh argues the major barrier to a completely scholarship-infused interpretation is the museum’s “code of civility” that tries to evade subject matter that would be upsetting to its constituencies. This issue is largely tied to the need for funding and sponsorship, either from the public or corporations. Melosh encourages museums to resist letting outside sponsors dictate how the exhibits are interpreted and instead pushes upon museums their “social responsibility to close the gap between scholarly and popular conceptions of the past, to convey a more complex sense of history.”
Laura Brandon’s 2010 essay, entitled “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress,” discusses the lack of artifacts related to certain experiences of women and the propensity of museums to interpret women in relationship to men or in roles that offer a parallel to men’s rather than looking at women’s experiences in their own right. Brandon reasons that since women make up the majority of the population, their experience of war is important for a complete understanding of wartime; however, war has traditionally been interpreted as a masculine event.
The museum her case study is focused on, which has been traditionally focused on military history rather than social or cultural circumstances of war, had recently made attempts to incorporate women’s experiences. However, the inclusion of women was still in the context of the fighting or in relationship to men. Brandon calls for more interpretation of the actual wartime experiences of the majority of women on the home front such as knitting circles, rationing and making do, working, and receiving letters from male family members. Instead of offering interpretation of the home front, representations of women have been limited to certain types such as nurses and female service personnel, two roles very much in the context of fighting. Brandon outlines the various challenges faced by the Canadian War Museum in new attempts to build a picture of the total woman including adjusting collections policies, finding creative solutions to fill gaps made by past collection policies, and improving cataloging methods in order to better locate the few items that do relate to women’s experiences.
The available artifacts were collected by men and are limited to those objects most closely associated with the fighting, such as guns and uniforms. The lack of both art and artifacts related to women’s experiences is caused largely by past collection policies which sought the tangible remains fit for interpreting traditional military history. Therefore, current curators and museum historians are faced with the challenge of finding representations of women’s experiences. Brandon makes several suggestions to aid this process. She calls upon making use of archival records and changing the system of cataloging to help find objects based on their context and significance rather than simply their function. This method of cataloging would allow staff to pull up objects that relate to women’s experiences because of the personal story attached rather than its formal use. However, even with these methods, the main issue is that wartime material culture that reflects the changes women had to make in their lives on the home front is missing from the Canadian War Museum’s collections. Brandon finds that this issue is largely related to the underestimating of women’s experiences both in history and today. Women do not identify their own material culture relating to war as important or relevant to war museum collections. Furthermore, Brandon finds that women’s history in the academy has had less effect on masculine-oriented, war museums.
The root issue is a lack of interpreting the whole woman, or in other words, the neglect to convey a comprehensive view of women’s pasts, both in and out of the home.
Museums have followed scholars’ lead in increasing the interpretation of women’s lives and experiences; however, that scholarship has not been applied uniformly. As time progressed, the mere inclusion was not enough and interpretation continues to present issues, concerns, and questions about the best approaches and methods for interpreting all aspects of women’s history.
Women’s History in Historic Preservation & Historic Sites
Like museums, historic sites have experienced great changes in terms of the interpretation of women’s lives, experiences, and perceptions because of the influence of social history and women’s history scholarship. However, unlike museums, historic sites have emphasized moving away from interpreting historic houses solely as domestic spaces or as the sole spaces of women, leading to a push for the interpretation of women’s spaces outside of the home.
Much of the reason for a lack of sites related to women’s public roles are the lack of preservation of the evidence. However, there are still numerous ways to find all aspects of women’s lives in the built environment. Beginning with the early calls for increased identification of sites of women’s history, the field then adapted to an increased need for improved interpretation in sites already identified as women’s sites and for the expansion of interpretation into less-obvious sites of women’s experiences.
Like in museums, women’s history in historic sites and preservation began with the call for mere inclusion. Page Putnam Miller presented the following findings in her introduction to the 1992 edited collection, Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. As recently as 1990, only four parks out of the National Park Service’s 356 units focused on women and less than 2 percent of the 1,942 National Historic Landmarks were designated because of their relationship to women’s history. These statistics quantitatively demonstrate Miller’s motivations for the volume. The goal of the work as a whole was to encourage the fields of women’s history and historic preservation to collaborate in identifying and interpreting historic sites for their place in women’s history. Miller and her colleagues focused on properties that might qualify for National Historic Landmark designation, which, as Miller explained, offers sites more protections than nonprofits and individuals are often able to. Thus, this volume argues, designating women’s history sites as National Historic Landmarks would be the best way to ensure their preservation and proper interpretation for the public.
Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History was very successful in demonstrating the lack of interpretive sites of women’s history in the federal system of landmarks. The volume also successfully showed how historic structures can be a valuable resource for interpreting women’s history. Each essay reflects Miller’s assertion that “[b]uildings may be examined from many viewpoints and reflect social function, technological development, aesthetic taste, and economic factors.” Sites also offer a powerful sense of place, which Miller regards as “equally as important as the research potential of these tangible resources.” Place can provide insight otherwise not easily understood.
Other authors have written proposals and guides to applying some of the same approaches to identifying and interpreting women’s history to local initiatives rather than national landmarks designation. A case study in new ways to interpret women’s history through preservation and the built environment, Gail Lee Dubrow’s 1992 article, “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation,” does just what its title implies, proposing that the three approaches be applied in various combinations to interpret women’s history.
Dubrow focuses on issues of public, outdoor space, including structures as well as open areas, in order to emphasize making women’s history visible to the public. She uses the city of Boston, where she undertook a survey of the available resources for interpreting women’s pasts, to show how recent scholarship could be applied to advance an accurate and complete presentation of women’s roles and contributions. This article begins with the need for identification of places of women’s experiences, seeking to begin interpreting women’s history by locating it on the physical landscape. Dubrow argues specifically for using preservation, public art, and public historical interpretation in tandem.
In order to better interpret women’s history, Dubrow calls for less emphasis on notable women and more on “women’s collective accomplishments and activities and to fully encompass the diversity of female historical experience.” However, she still focuses largely on celebrating contributions of women and movements for reform rather than representing ordinary women or a more critical, complicated interpretation of the past. Dubrow does push beyond mere identification of sites though. She argues that the importance of these sites must be made publicly visible. Dubrow cites the quintessential example of a project that combines preservation with art and historical interpretation in order to interpret women’s past. Dolores Hayden’s “Power of Place” project identified sites relevant to women’s history; however, many were no longer standing or were substantially changed. Therefore, public art projects were commissioned on the sites to represent the women’s stories. This successful project serves as an exalted example of what could be achieved through the combined efforts of public history interpretation, preservation, and public art with art’s ability to attract public interest and engagement, “especially where there are few tangible reminders or in situ physical clues about the historical significance of the place.”
This lack of remaining built structures is due to previous lack of identification of women’s history sites, an issue largely tied to the field of preservation’s emphasis on architectural integrity. Many women’s sites are not located in buildings that are otherwise significant for their architectural style.
The field of historic preservation has pushed not only for more interpretation of women’s history but also more comprehensive and critical interpretations that push beyond women’s domestic role which is interpreted over and over again in historic house museums. There has been and remains a need to present women’s history outside of domestic settings and to reinterpret domestic settings for the lives beyond the notable women or wives of famous men that lived there.
Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History, a collection of essays edited by Polly Wells Kaufman and Katharine T. Corbett, aimed to be a guide for local teachers and historical societies that were trying to include women’s stories in their local histories or sites. The volume includes eleven case studies that examine a wide variety of sites, some not generally associated with women’s history, some places of forgotten women’s activities, and some usually assumed to be in women’s domain but reinterpreted to present a more complicated view. This volume highlights the value of tangible resources and their ability to connect the public to the past and argues that local sites can offer Americans the specific connections to their present that they so desire when learning about the past.
The chapters are not organized into sections; instead, each chapter focuses on a different kind of public interpretation of women’s pasts. The topics include the development of walking trails or tours of women’s history, the imbalance between the number of statues and monuments honoring individual women as compared to men, Native American women’s efforts at cultural retention, reinterpreting historic house museums to reflect not only the man who owned the house but the women, free, servant, or slave as well. Several chapters address the need to reinterpret historic houses in order to take these marginalized women into account; however, the volume then devotes the largest number of chapters to address the need to represent women’s lives outside the home in order to avoid the “erroneous belief that women worked only in homes, either their own or someone else’s.” Thus the volume includes essays on interpretation of women in familiar yet public places such as cemeteries, businesses, entire cities, and public commemorative celebrations and events.
The volume is a valuable guide for reinterpreting both domestic and public places in order to provide a comprehensive view of women. One example of the volume’s contribution to the improvement of historic house interpretation is Pamela K. Sanfilippo’s essay, “Sunlight and Shadow: Free Space/Slave Space at White Haven,” which examines the lives of the women who lived at Ulysses S. Grant’s Missouri farm home. This shift in focus from the male owner of the home to the women, both his wife as well as the female slaves, represents a trend in the interpretation of historic houses to be more inclusive of all members of the household. The essay analyzes not only the written sources about the women’s lives, but also uses the architecture itself to uncover information about the relationships the women had to physical space and each other within the home. This use of the built environment is seen in the description of the differences between the comfortable areas of the home used by the privileged Julia Grant and the dark kitchens and bedrooms used by slaves. Also using archaeology, the study of White Haven revealed details about the enslaved women’s lives, such as having to hide broken dishes under the floorboards for fear of punishment. Like many of the other works in the volume, this essay demonstrates the possible successes of using material culture, and the built environment more specifically, to discover information about women’s pasts.
The volume also provides unique ideas for interpretation of both women’s public roles and the public, visible commemoration of women. One essay describes the need for increased interpretation of women as entrepreneurs. Candace A. Kanes’ essay, “Revisiting Main Street: Uncovering Women Entrepreneurs,” explains why women’s place in business has been overlooked due to history’s focus on big business and women’s predominance in the domestic sphere. However, Kane explains that some women owned and operated small businesses that were important within their communities. She calls for those local businesses to be identified and properly acknowledged through various interpretive approaches including maps, interpretive panels, or plaques.
Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation is a more extensive and comprehensive collection of essays regarding the interpretation of women’s history, specifically in the context of preservation projects. It makes a call for moving toward questions of women’s motivations, specifically in women’s involvement in the preservation movement. By improving understanding of women’s reasons for involvement and their contributions to the movement, those women can better be understood in their context. Explaining the advances in the interpretation of historic houses, the volume still maintains that other kinds of spaces are necessary to prevent spreading “the myth of women’s confinement in the domestic sphere while missing vital opportunities for marking women’s history in the more public arenas of the paid labor force and the community.”
The incorporation of women’s history into public historical interpretation has been an ongoing process that began in both museums and historic sites as mere inclusion. However, with time and the continued efforts of women both in the academy and in public history institutions, the field has begun to push for more critical representations of women’s lives, experiences, contributions, and perspectives. Despite differences in interpretation between museums, which have better interpreted public roles of women, and historic sites, which have traditionally preserved and presented the domestic sphere, many common goals and approaches can be seen. It is clearly widely acknowledged by both preservation and museum professionals that public historians need to apply the best of women’s history scholarship in their representations to the public and present the most comprehensive view of women possible. Public historians need to fulfill the need for the ‘total woman,’ including the public and private spheres, the noteworthy and unusual, as well as the anonymous and the ordinary.
 Barbara Melosh, “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History,” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1989, 183-214.
Brandon, Laura. “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress.” Gender, Sexuality, and Museums: A Routledge Reader. Edited by Amy K. Levin. (London: Routledge). 2010.
Dubrow, Gail Lee. “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. (13:1). 1992. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346948. Accessed November 22, 2013.
Dubrow, Gail Lee, and Jennifer B. Goodman, editors. Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003.
Kaufman, Polly Welts, and Katharine T. Corbett, editors. Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History. (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company). 2003.
Mayo, Edith P. “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection.” The Public Historian. (5:2). 1983. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3377251. Accessed November 20, 2013.
Melosh, Barbara. “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History.” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press). 1989, 183-214.
Miller, Page Putnam, editor. Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). 1992.
During women’s history month, I highlighted not only trailblazing, pioneering, “noteworthy” or famous women, but also controversial, lesser-known, and everyday women. All women have been a part of history and, like men, deserve to be remembered, documented, studied, and presented in all of their complicated, multifaceted glory. Today’s post explores the ultimate woman in many people’s lives: the mother. But not just any mother, the Latin American immigrant mother of the early 20th century, who sacrificed much for the improvement of her children’s lives. This post also explores the differences and similarities between Latina immigrant mothers in the early 1900s and those of the 1990s who were more often not just working mothers but also transnational mothers.
In the early 20th century in the United States, the ideal mother was one who stayed at home as a homemaker. Immigrant mothers (as well as working class women of all races and nationalities) often did not meet the criteria of what Americans saw as the ideal mother because they were working women. Having a job outside of the home or bringing work into the home made these women unable to perform the role of full-time mother, according to the American society at the time.
In early twentieth century America the family was the woman’s sphere; therefore, women were expected to be home-makers and full-time mothers. “Americanizers,” those who worked to assimilate immigrants into American culture during this time, saw women as the key to the assimilation of entire families, but first the women must be made into the traditional mothers of American society. However, most immigrant mothers could not follow these traditional standards because they needed to have a job, take in boarders, do work from home, or send their children to work in order to make ends meet. Being a working mother made these women incapable of living up to America’s standards of the “perfect mother.”
Economically, these women simply could not afford to be “ideal” mothers. In 1920, immigrant women made up just slightly less than half of all the female wage-earners in the United States, despite being in the minority in overall population. Most of these immigrant women worked in either manufacturing factories or in domestic service. Many other women worked at home, producing goods for manufacturers from their own kitchen or living room rather than in a factory. Sometimes, these immigrant mothers also included their children in their work as helpers or occasionally even as extra wage-earners for the family. The advantage of working from home was that mothers could still spend time with their children. Working at night was another option some mothers chose so they could still be at home for their children during the day.
Another way many immigrant women made money was by taking in boarders. Usually, the boarders were friends or extended relatives and were normally men, who were more likely to immigrate alone. These boarders provided women a way to both help friends or family and make extra money for the household.
Work, be it outside the home or from it, was considered outside of the traditional role of women. Boarders also violated the average American’s idea of the home and women’s roles in it. Many Americans worried that the male boarders would act inappropriately toward young daughters of the household. This fear was not entirely unfounded, but did represent a difference between American and immigrant families. It was less common for American families to have extended family or friends living with them; however, to immigrant families this was necessary to help others make the transition as immigrants, help they had probably received from someone else upon their arrival in the United States.
The reason that women would exert themselves, both at work and at home, was that “they saw their children as the main beneficiaries of their endless, exhausting labors.” Immigrant women’s main goal was to provide for their children. But because of the need to engage in economic activities for the family, immigrant women had to find other ways make sure their children were cared for. Immigrant women made use of family ties to help provide for their children, utilizing their kin and their older daughters to provide child care so that they could continue providing financial support.
Kinship was and remains very important among immigrants for many reasons. Kinship networks were important for the facilitation of immigration and transition to the United States. Already established immigrant families would allow newcomers to live with them while they became oriented to the United States. This arrangement often caused two or more entire families to live in one home. In return for allowing the family to live there, the arriving mother would help the hosting mother. One mother would work outside the home, while the other mother stayed home and took care of the children. Thus the children were still well-cared for even if their mother had to work.
Another example of using family ties to help provide care for young children was that of “little mothers.” This child-care practice involved immigrant mothers having their older daughters tend to their younger siblings so that the mother could return to her other domestic duties or work. The use of “little mothers” prompted Americans to allege neglect of the immigrant children, and demonstrates another way in which immigrant mothers differed from the American ideal mother. Immigrant mothers saw the practice of “little mothers” as beneficial because it fostered sibling bonding and taught young girls an important life skill. Through the help of other family members and kinship ties, immigrant mothers were able to better provide for their children economically and ensure they were well-cared for.
Children of immigrant mothers often saw their mothers as strong and not neglectful, as Americans often insinuated. Children also acknowledged all of the sacrifices that their mothers had made in order to provide for them. A mother’s sacrifices in order to provide for her children’s needs communicated her love to her children. While American society at the time looked down on working immigrant mothers, these women sacrificed their own rest, well-being, and personal time and money in order to provide for their children’s needs. They also made careful arrangements to help ensure that their children received care. They either combined work with their domestic activities by taking on jobs that allowed them to be home with their children, or they used their close family ties to secure the care of their children.
More recently, Latina immigrants have violated the traditional idea of motherhood by being transnational mothers, working in the United States while their children remain in their home country. In early Latin American immigration history the majority of immigrants were men, whose wives and children may have followed later, but in the past few decades there has been a trend of mothers immigrating to the United States without their children. These women who live and work in one country while their children live in another are called transnational mothers. In one study, forty percent of the domestic workers who had children were living in a separate country. The transnational mothers of more recent decades have used financial means, transnational ties, and communication to provide needs, culture, and encouragement to their children.
Economic need is the main reason why women decide to immigrate to the United States. National economic decline, lack of job options for both men and women, or civil war in the country of origin are the most common conditions which cause many transnational mothers to immigrate to the United States. Usually Latina mothers plan to spend only a certain amount of time in the United States so that they can save enough money to achieve a certain goal such as pay off debt, buy a house, pay for their children’s education, or be able to start a new business when they return to their home country. Some women, however, do not want their children to live in the United States because of fears about safety of travel to the U.S., loss of culture, and economic difficulty, among others.
Some women migrated to the United States to join a husband who was unsuccessful at finding lasting work. In the late 1990s there was a high demand for live-in housekeepers in cities such as Los Angeles, making female immigrants more likely to secure a job quickly than male immigrants.
Transnational mothers rely on family ties in their home country for the care of their children while they are away. Even though the children’s basic needs will be provided for by family ties back home, the transnational mother provides financial support, and advice and encouragement. Continued communication is the key to maintaining close emotional bonds between mother and children. Letters, photos, phone calls, and occasional visits, if circumstances allow, facilitate a sustained connection and relationship between transnational mothers and their children.
Many transnational mothers experience feelings of depression and mental anguish while away from their children. In one mental health clinic, it was found that many Latin American patients’ mental illnesses, such as depression, were accentuated by or stemmed from separation from their families.
Many transnational working mothers were traditional homemakers before coming to the United States. They had been accustomed to being home and seeing their children every day, but felt that they had to sacrifice that part of their lives in order to provide for their children. By providing financial support, using family networks, and maintaining communication, transnational immigrants of the recent decades have managed to sustain relationships with their children.
While the working immigrant mothers of the early twentieth century and the transnational mothers of the late twentieth century are thought of as nontraditional for different reasons, they share many similarities. Both sets of mothers stood out to American society as imperfect types of mothers, and faced economic hardship and necessity as the reasons they could not be traditional mothers. Immigrant mothers of the early twentieth century had to work to support the family financially while transnational mothers left their children in order to pursue better economic opportunities in the United States. Both sets of mothers looked to the United States for the answer to economic difficulties. The difference is that early twentieth century immigrant mothers mostly immigrated with their families or followed their husbands to the United States, while more recent decades have seen immigrant women arriving on their own. Because these immigrant women also share similar socioeconomic backgrounds, transnational mothers were essentially working mothers as well; however, they were working mothers during an era where that practice was much more common. These immigrant women of different eras also have another thing in common: the reliance on family and kin networks, which gave mothers the ability to earn money for the family and the reassurance that their children were being cared for.
A majority of immigrant women cite their children’s needs as their reason for migration. What is the main similarity between the early twentieth century working mother and the twenty-first century transnational mother? Both have found that the definition of mother does not have to be confined to narrow limitations. A mother is a woman who cares deeply for the well-being of her children. As demonstrated, the ways in which a mother shows her love for her children can vary immensely given differing circumstances.
*This post adapted from an paper I wrote for a class entitled History of Latinos in the United States.*
March was Women’s History Month and I was reminded of how much I love women’s history. From seeing others posting about the women of the past who inspired them, honoring trailblazers, pioneers, and rebels, to doing my own posts, researching, writing about, and revisiting past work I’ve done on women in history, I am feeling so inspired and motivated to continue to research and write about these stories that interest me and are so important to tell.
Like Black History Month, Women’s History Month deserves to go on all year, everyday, for women’s history, black history, and other minority history to be more fully incorporated into the story of American history because these stories are American history. They are all part of what brought us to today.
I still have so many ideas, as well as several partial draft posts already queuing up, about women’s history. Therefore, I will be continuing to celebrate Women’s History Month well into April and likely beyond.
In case you missed any of my Women’s History Month content, I’ve rounded it all up below. Check it out and let me know what you think!
Also, I’ve highlighted a few other interesting women, such as Violeta Chamorro, the first female head of state in the Americas, Myra Pollack Sadker, a researcher on gender inequity in schools, & Selena, the Queen of Tejano music, in shorter posts on my social media profiles. Check me out on Instagram, Twitter, & Facebook for more content and little bites of history on the daily. I’ve also started playing #TuesdayTrivia with women’s history each week in my Instagram Stories.
Many elementary school children have heard of Betsy Ross, one of the few female figures of the Revolutionary War period of early American history that receives attention in classrooms. She is commonly known as the seamstress that created the first American flag. However, historical evidence actually does not exist to support this well-known “fact.”
The claim that Betsy Ross created the first American flag didn’t actually come up until the 1870s, about 100 years after her supposed accomplishment and when the nation was on the brink of celebrating its centennial of independence.
The story goes that George Washington himself, along with signers of the Declaration of Independence Robert Morris and George Ross (a relative of Betsy’s), went to Betsy Ross’s home in Philadelphia in June 1776 to discuss the need for a flag for the soon-to-be-declared independent United States. Ross looked at their design and suggested a change from a 6-pointed star to a 5-pointed star because it would be easier to sew and accepted the job of making the first flag. End of story? Not so much.
However, there are no written records of this meeting, of Betsy’s accepting the job, or of her completing the first American flag. Only oral tradition exists. The first time the public heard tale of Betsy Ross was when her grandson William Canby made a presentation in 1870 to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania claiming that his grandmother “made with her hands the first flag” of the United States. His source was another relative, making it simply family oral tradition without proof.
Myths are often rooted in some truth and Betsy Ross was indeed an upholsterer (not a seamstress, but a related trade) and she did make flags for the burgeoning United States during the Revolutionary War, specifically for the Pennsylvania navy. But her role in the creation of the first American flag is contested.
Those who argue that the story isn’t true point to the lack of archival evidence–no letters, meeting minutes, resolutions, receipts, etc.–and to the fact that the first time it was brought up was 100 years after it supposedly happened. In the 1870s the public was quick to believe the story as patriotism geared up in honor of the nation’s centennial celebration in 1876 and looked for heroes and heroines of the Revolution to honor and revere. Also, there were many upholsterers in Philadelphia that could have made the flag.
However, those that argue its truth have several interesting points as well, as outlined by the Betsy Ross House house museum’s website. Betsy’s relation to George Ross through her marriage could mean that she would have been selected to work on the flag over the many other upholsterers in Philadelphia. Betsy and her husband John had made bed hangings for George Washington in 1774, making him familiar with her work. Also, Betsy made other flags for the United States and had many government contracts over the years, well into the 19th century.
At the end of the day, one must decide for themselves. It remains a historical question that simply cannot be answered. It has not been proven true nor false.
The attention placed on Betsy Ross has meant that much about her life is known and preserved, which regardless of her role in the creation of the first flag, is important historical information about women’s lives during the Revolution and the early years of the new nation. She certainly led an interesting life. A few quick facts about Betsy Ross:
She was born into a Quaker family, but was expelled from the Quaker church (and cut off from her family) when she married John Ross, a son of a revered of the Church of England. The two fell in love when they were both apprenticed to the same upholsterer and they eloped.
They were married just a few short years before John died, possibly in a gunpowder explosion in his role as a member of the local militia.
Her second husband, Jacob Ashburn, also died just a few years after their marriage–he died while imprisoned for treason in a British jail.
She married for a third time – John Claypoole – and had several children, but all the while she continued the upholstery business.
Her business efforts supported the Continental Army for which she made and mended uniforms, tents, blankets, etc. Acts that were technically treason against Britain.