Throughout much of the 19th century, the majority of women stayed at home, but there were significant exceptions.
The reason most women stayed home was first and foremost that the U.S. was still very much a rural nation with almost 70% of the population in 1870 living on farms or in a small town with less than 2500 citizens. Without easy access to mass produced goods that were coming out of industrialized America such as canned food, ready-made clothes, and factory produced furniture, someone had to do the cooking, cleaning, sewing, and crafting required to survive. And then there was a living to be made to pay taxes, buy agricultural equipment, and maintain the dwelling and land. The only way to do that was to divide up the chores between a husband and wife. Since making a living often required difficult physical labor and women were often pregnant and/or caring for children, the “lighter chores” fell to women. But anyone who has ever done laundry with a washboard, canned their own vegetables, sown their own clothes, and cleaned a rug by hand knows this work was not easy by any means.
Still, 13% of women age 10 years or older were employed in a paid occupation outside the home, according to the 1870 census, many in the fields that you would expect, some in areas you would never suspect. The 1870 census was the first census to capture women in occupations. It lists, for example, 84,047 women as teachers versus 42,775 men. Even more popular was the occupation of dressmaking where 90,480 women did so out of a total of 92,084. Seamstress, grouped with tailor, was another occupation that attracted lots of women, 97,207 of them, accounting for 60% of that category. By far the most popular occupation for women was being a domestic servant with 867, 354 declaring this their occupation or 47% of all women who were in paid occupations! Milliners were also largely women with 97,207 identified with that jpb. In 1870, 10,170 women were nurses which was 93% of all nurses. 55,609 were laundresses which was 91% of all laundresses.
Clearly women found it easier to gain paid work in domestic type chores they would have done in their homes. However, as the industrial age was starting to take hold, many women went into manufacturing. For instance, there were 64,308 cotton mill operators out of a total of 111,606 according to the census.
But there were some trailblazers that might prove good fodder for a story or two.
Out of 62,383 people who declared themselves physicians, 525 were female. Elizabeth Blackwell, pictured, was one of the first women to graduate from a medical college in the United States, doing so in 1849. By 1890, female physicians were 5% of the total physicians practicing. All of the 1186 midwives listed, however, were women. As an aside, by 1980, only 17 percent of the physicians were female—progress takes awhile, I guess. Only five women were lawyers in the United States at that time but oh what women they must have been. 33% of all actors were women though the category was small at just 2,053 total. Two women declared themselves hunters and trappers out of 940 total. Only 35 women were journalists out of 5280 and, based on upon how often this occupation appears in the stories I’ve read, every one of them must have had a romance written about them. There were 11 female livery stable keepers out of 8504. Almost 7% of the 17,362 hucksters (door-to-door salespersons) were listed as women.
What women were not, according to the 1870 census, were butchers, bridge builders, blacksmiths’s, bookbinders, carpenters, chemists, chimneysweeps, dentists, engineers and firemen, Indian scouts, land surveyors, lamplighters, officers in any company with the exception of the 9 women listed as officers in trading and transport companies, mulepackers, store porters, plantation overseers, sailors, stock drovers, translators, and veterinary surgeons.
Still, that leaves a lot of occupations to explore. If you care to comb through the census data, you can find it here https://www.censusrecords.com/content/1870_Census as well as census data for other years. The data collected changed over the years as the technology for counting and the nation as a whole changed, but perusing it can give you a good snapshot of the country at that time. The data is also broken down by state in many cases as well as tables that compare the United States occupations with those of other countries. So whether your interest is in the United States or other countries, there might be something here for you.
What occupations have you used for your heroine? What are some of the more unusual occupations of women you have found in historical fiction or real life?
Anne Carrole writes about men who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Falling for a Cowboy, and western historical romance, Saving Cole Turner, at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or Kobobook.com. Check out www.annecarrole.com for more information. You can friend, follow, find, or like Anne on Facebook, Twitter, www.annecarrole.com , and at the western historical facebook fan site, Love Western Romances.
Remember how you reacted when you found out that poet George Sand was a woman? You were probably in high school and astounded by the revelation. How about Harper Lee? Come on, show of hands. How many of you were misguided into believing the author of To Kill A Mockingbird was a man? Or, more recently, do you remember when J.K. Rowling morphed into Robert Galbraith?
It seems women in the publishing world have been attempting to level the playing field for hundreds of years by creating pen names that are ambiguous. When dime novels—the first form of mass marketed books—came into existence in the 1800s, the playing field was no different. If possible, the odds were stacked even higher, as the topics in these books normally contained tales of swashbuckling heroes, gunslingers, gold miners or explorers, and generally harsh surroundings. Things that refined ladies would never know of, much less be able to write about.
The Dime Novel, or the Penny Dreadful, as these books were referred to in England, were the precursor to today’s paperbacks and e-books. Although these dime novels didn’t have as their primary focus the world of romance, they did set the stage for the romance industry, as they were responsible for introducing reading for pleasure to the masses.
Dime novels in America were rough-and-tumble books, mostly about the Wild West. The plots were sensational and melodramatic, making for great reading among the streets of relatively tame east coast cities.
These books were printed in a four by six inch format, and were about a hundred pages in length, with a die-cut cover image that usually contained a spot of color. And thanks to the advancement of the printing industry at the same time the growth of education in America was happening, the dime novel was able to take advantage of both and become a major force in publishing. They filled a void in American literature for several decades, as the education of the working class created a need for reading material. They were published as frequently as every two weeks, and the characters developed in them often went from one tale to the next. The first known dime novel was written by a woman—Mrs. Ann Stephens—and was entitled “Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter.” Risque, tantalizing reading in 1839, to be sure.
With millions of dime novels being printed each year, the search for quality authors and stories grew. The fertile imaginations of woman molded from the same cloth as Mrs. Stephens led to the formation of many memorable characters, such as Harry Hawk, the hero in the dime novel I created for my book, The Duplicitous Debutante.The author of the Harry Hawk series is a well-bred young lady, Rosemary Fitzpatrick, who invents the name, F.P. Elliott, to disguise her true identity.
The Duplicitous Debutante is the sixth book in the Amazon best-selling Cotillion Ball series, and will be available from Crimson Romance and through Amazon and other e-book outlets, in the fall of 2014.
Becky Lower has traveled the country looking for great settings for her novels. She loves to write about two people finding each other and falling in love, amid the backdrop of a great setting, be it present day middle America or on a covered wagon headed west in the 1850s. Contemporary and historical romances are her specialty. Becky is a PAN member of RWA and is a member of the Contemporary and Historic RWA chapters. She has a degree in English and Journalism from Bowling Green State University, and lives in an eclectic college town in Ohio with her puppy-mill rescue dog, Mary. She loves to hear from her readers at email@example.com. Visit her website at www.beckylowerauthor.com
Rest assured, dear friend, that many noteworthy and great sciences and arts have been discovered through the understanding and subtlety of women… The Book of the City of Ladies by Christina de Pizan
Christine de Pizan and Son
Born in the late 1364 Christina de Pizan is the first woman known female author who made a living by writing. Truly a feminist, she penned love ballads, books supporting and extolling the powers and virtues of women, and a work about Joan of Arc. She was a widow who supported her three children and her mother all by writing about women.
Christine de Pizan was born in Venice in 1364 and moved to Paris in 1368 where she lived with her father, the astrologer to Charles V. She grew up in the French court and in 1379 married Charles V notary and secretary, Etienne du Castel. The death of Charles V in 1380 her father lost his appointment and soon died. Christine and her husband took on the responsibility of her mother as was customary at that time. In 1389 Etienne passed away leaving her with three children, her mother and no protector.
She turned to her writing as a means of support. Her first writings were ballads written in memory of her husband. Love poems were in fashion at the time so she continued to write them.
In 1396, the earl of Salisbury took Christine’s fifteen year old son, Jean, into his house. While her son was with the earl, Christine started to study the Latin poets and composed roughly fifteen important works, mainly prose between 1399 and 1405.
When the earl passed away in 1400, Jean moved to Philip of Burgundy. Christine wrote about Charles V and his court. Her work included historical and philosophical threads. Jean introduced her to his benefactor and she continued her writing.
In 1405 she wrote her own biography and attracted the attention of Henry IV who asked her to make his court her home. Galeazzo Visconti of Milan also sent her an invitation for residence. She France was her home. She preferred to stay those who favored her, Charles VI, the dukes of Berry and Burgundy, the duchess of Bourbon and others.
La Cite des dames
A champion of women, her 1405 work, Dit de la rose, describes members of the order of the rose who vow to defend the honor of women. Epitre au dieu d’amour, written in 1399, was a defense of women against satirist Jean de Meun. It was the precursor to a long dispute between Jean de Monteuil and Gonthier Col. Christine two books in 1407, La Cite des dames and Le Livre des trois vertus. During the French civil wars she wrote a Lamentation and Livre de la paix but after the fall of Agincourt she retired to a convent. In 1429 she came out of retirement and wrote a song in honor of Joan of Arc. She died quietly as the age of 66.
Her Cite des dames has many interesting portraits of contemporary life. Her Livre des trois vertus provides details of domestic life in 15th century France that doesn’t appear in any other historical works.
As I was researching King Arthur, I read a very interesting book about Morgan le Fey and the changing interpretations her through out the Arthurian tales. Carolyne Larrington in King Arthur’s Enchantress contends the differing images of Morgan le Fey represent changing views of gender in society from her first appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (1138) to modern day movies and dramas.
According to Ms. Larrington, Morgan le Fey is used by the various authors of the Arthurian texts as a commentary on a host of social issues embedded in and surrounding the chivalric code. Although Morgan is introduced as a benevolent healer who takes Arthur to her magical island after the last battle in Geoffrey’s work, the question of magic and its role in society quickly becomes the vehicle with which the authors of the Arthurian texts can expose and interpret the changes in their society. As the centuries progressed the underlying tension between gender roles and power are seen in the changing perceptions of Morgan.
From the benevolent healer who to took Arthur away from the earthly burdens of ruling and court politics, she evolves into an evil, self-serving half-sister and enchantress-the antithesis of the ideal woman. In courtly society women were expected to sacrificed their own desires for their husbands’ honor. Morgan comes to represent the embodiment of women who want more from life. These women challenge the traditional courtly values. They are feared for their hold over men, their devious sexual desires, and their underhanded bid for power. The assumption by the Arthurian literature is that woman’s bid for power in her own right undermines the fabric of society. The transformation of Morgan’s image from benevolent to evil allows authors throughout different centuries to delve into underlying social issues threatening their world. Among the most important issues addressed are the idea of romance, the meaning of the marriage bond, the place of the lover, the role of family loyalty, the issue of sibling rivalry, and the lure of home versus the requirement of fighting for the king on a distant battlefield.
Over the years Morgan and her enchantress sisters have become compelling and interesting incarnations of the first Arthurian enchantress reshaped in every century to reflect the social pressures of that age. These women access power independent of men, use power in ways that challenge societal ideals, and pay a price for their ambitions and efforts. They represent a dynamic ever-changing view of society and women’s roles within it. Their presence in the Arthurian legend requires the audience of any age to critically examine chivalry, gender issues, and the way the society uses the past.
The Courtship, Charles Green – 1878
You know me. I’m a History Apologist. Any time someone says “And that’s the way things were”, I have to ask “Was it really?” That’s especially true when it comes to the assumptions that are made about what people’s attitudes were, how they deported themselves, and what society’s rules were in the historical time periods in which we write.
So a couple of months ago when I was having a discussion with a fellow historical romance writer about why we write in the time periods that we do, hers being Regency and mine being Late Victorian, I was somewhat taken aback when her answer was “I prefer to write in the Regency because social rules were so restrictive and rigid in the Victorian era and men and women hardly had anything to do with each other”.
I bumped up against this assumption again recently when someone made the observation about my novel Fool for Love—set in 1896, mind you—that the heroine NEVER would have slept with the hero without being married to him (in spite of the fact that this particular heroine was already pregnant from a horrible previous relationship, was ridiculously grateful to the hero for saving her life, and was pretending she was married to him). But I suspect that person’s biggest problem was that the heroine really liked sex. How historically inaccurate!
Whoa. Hold on there, Nellie. You know what they say about ‘assume’: it makes an ass of u and me.
So naturally I dove into my treasure trove of historical books—bunches of which are social histories of the 19th century—and went to work. (more…)