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.
 City directories, 1900-1950.
 Hunter, 112.
 Wilmington City Directories, Hill Directory Company, 1900-1950, North Carolina Room, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, North Carolina.
 City of Wilmington Directory, Hill Directory Company, 1900, New Hanover County Public Library North Carolina Room, Wilmington, NC.
 City of Wilmington Directory, 1905.
 City of Wilmington Directory, 1909-1910.
 City of Wilmington Directory, 1930, 1940.
 City of Wilmington Directory, 1950.
 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.
 Kessler-Harris, 116.
 Kessler-Harris, 109.
 Ibid, 110.
 See Cynthia Kierner, Beyond the Household: Women’s Place in the Early South, 1700-1835, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 1998.
 Kessler-Harris, 224-229.
 Tera W. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1997, 111.
 Women’s Work A Century’s Worth: A Cape Fear Scrapbook, (Wilmington, NC: Women’s History Project Committee), 2001, Accessed May 14, 2015, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/womensworkcentur00cape.
 Kessler-Harris, 116-117.