[Originally posted on YourIslandRoutes.com. Reposted for Fearless Females–Women’s History Month, March 12th: Working Girl]
After piling over my research notes for the last 10 or more years, I’ve come to the conclusion that women worked much earlier than movies, television, and books lead us to believe. While many joined the work force during the depression and WWII, many were working centuries before! There may have been certain classes of women in society who never worked. But, many had to work. It was a necessity long before women’s liberation hit the center stage.
It may be difficult to prove that your female ancestors worked. Documentation may not be available to support the claim. The census records prior to 1920 rarely list an occupation for females. Women barely got listed in city directories (unless they were single or widowed) prior to 1910. Why is this? The problem may lie in the terms profession or occupation. Women may not have seen themselves as having a profession. It may also be that their husbands refused to give this information out. After all, as man of the house, he was supposed to be supporting his wife and children, not the other way around. Whatever the reason, this is one more bit of data about female ancestors often omitted from the official records.
If women had occupations listed by their name, it may have only said “house wife” or “keeping house”. Women were grossly under recorded in the occupation column! Take women who lived on farms. They may not have worked outside the home, but their work was equal to those of their male counterparts. Yet, you will rarely see a woman listed as “farmer”. Same goes for women whose family owned a business. The women worked along side their husbands yet they were not given credit for the work they did. One of my great aunts was the family doctor and midwife, yet the occupation field in every census was left blank or said “none”. I bet if you looked deeper you’d find that your female ancestors did a heck of lot more than the woman depicted in 1950s tv shows!
In many households, women had to work. Those in the peasant and lower classes had no choice. Without their extra income, their families would not have survived. Sometimes women were the only wage earners. They might have been widowed, divorced, or abandoned. Their husband may have gone off to war, gone to find work , or became incapacitated in some way. They didn’t let their family starve, they went to work.
What type of work did women do? Alot depends on where they lived and the time period. A woman could be found working in factories, domestic work, offices, and so forth. When telephones hit the scene, the first telephone operators were male. These first operators were brusk and rude to callers. By 1900, the job of telephone operator or “Hello Girls” as they were titled at the time was dominated by females.
Women with children tried to stay close to home or at least find a situation where they could watch their children as well as work. They took in laundry, cooked for bachelors, ran boarding houses, were servants, or cleaned houses.
In 1870, 40,000 women were employed in New York City alone. In 1900, 1/3 of clerical workers were women. In 1920, that number rose to 1/2. From 1915 to 1945, a little over 1/4 of married women worked outside the home. This doesn’t even cover the women working on farms or taking in work “on the side”.
In my family tree, I’ve found many female ancestors who were working long before 1930 when the depression brought many females into the work force. My grandmother married two years before the depression. She first worked as a house keeper and then a beautician’s assistant for 33 1/2 cents an hour. At the time, she was making more money than her husband who worked as a laborer on a sugar beet farm. My Grandparents were divorced in the 1940s. Since my Grandfather never paid the child support, my Grandmother was a working woman her entire adult life.
Many of my ancestors were peasants and worked long before the 20th century. Those who emigrated to Hawaii were contract laborers and worked until that contract was fulfilled. Some of my female ancestors worked in family businesses along side parents and husband. For others, circumstances dictated that they must work if they wanted to keep their children fed.
Here is a list of some of the women in my family tree and the work that they did:
* Maria da Conceicao (de Mello) de Braga, my great great grandmother, signed a sugar plantation contract in 1882. When she arrived on Kauai that same year, she worked in the sugar cane fields the same as her husband.
* Maria (Nunes de Souza) Pacheco, my great great aunt, found herself a widow in 1916. She was 38 years old with eight children to feed and clothe. She went to work in the Kilauea Sugar Plantation sewing the bags that held sugar cane.
* Brigitte (Breilh) Mazeres, my great grandmother, worked with her husband, Charles, in the two laundries they owned in Oakland, CA. When Charles died in 1926 at only 58 years old, Brigitte took over the ownership and day to day business of the laundries.
* Margaret (Jones) Jackson, my great grandmother, was considered an old maid by 1900 at the ripe old age of 20. She took care of her widowed father and worked as a “daliswoman” (haven’t found out what that was) and a japaner (someone who varnishes objects in a Japanese style).
* Marie (Pacheco) Cosma, my great great aunt, was a terrible house keeper and never saw the importance in it. She was a self taught doctor and midwife–learning both Portuguese and Hawaiian healing methods in use ca 1890. She kept a black bag of remedies and administered to family at all hours of the night. On top of this, she was a gifted seamstress and often sewed for her kin.
* Mary (Kelly) Dolan, my great great great great aunt, married a day laborer. In their early years of marriage in the 1860s, she worked as a laundress in San Francisco.
* Catherine (Dolan) Kelly, my great great great grandmother, helped her husband run boardinghouses in San Francico as early 1862. She was in charge of the household–keeping the boardinghouse tidy–as well as the cooking.
So, the next time someone tells you “my great grandmother never worked a day in her life!”, tell them to think again. Whether she worked at home (remember most housewives started the day at 4 am!) or outside the house, she was helping provide for the family. It may be impossible to find a record of your ancestor’s employment. Listen closely to family tales of strife or hard times. These are the places where you will learn more about your female ancestors and their occupations.
1. Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s. By Marc McCutcheon. Writer’s Digest Books : 1993.
2. Victorian American: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915. By Thomas J. Sclereth. Harper : 1991.
3. The Uncertainty of Everyday Life, 1915-1945. By Harven Green. Harper Collins : 1992.
4. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1930. By Ronald Takaki. University of Hawaii Press : 1984.
Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website, yourislandroutes.com