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Industrial Gains of Women
During the Last Half-Century


March 25, 1888 — International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Albaugh’s Opera House, Washington DC


Our social structure has been based on the theory that “all men support all women,” a theory which has never been true, and which is farther from being true to-day than ever before. Consequently, boys have been educated to have some clear-cut, well-defined purpose in life. The whole world of culture, work, and business has been open to them. It is regarded as a misfortune when a boy grows to manhood content to live on the labor of others. With girls it has been otherwise. It has been assumed that they would marry and be “supported” by competent husbands. The only training necessary for them with this inevitable future before them should be such as would fit them to be wives, mothers, and housekeepers – “sweet dependents,” held perpetually in “soft subjection.” The practical working of this theory has weighted women with heavy disabilities, for many men make neither good nor competent husbands. Many are incompetent, others are invalids, some are dissolute and idle, and not a few are profligate and entirely desert both wives and children. Many women who have husbands find themselves compelled to aid in earning the means of living; many wives earn the entire livelihood of the whole family, the husband included. Many women are widows, while and increasingly large number in the Eastern and Middle States do not marry at all.

By the United States census of 1880, in the States of Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia – sixteen in al – women outnumber men. This list includes the two largest States of the Union and it comprises all of the original thirteen, except Delaware. In Massachusetts women outnumber men by 70,000. If our present type of civilization remains unchanged, the newer States will exhibit the same excess of women in their population in the near or remote future. There are born into the world on the average, taking one year with another, 106 boys to every 100 girls, as if nature designed to maintain the equilibrium of the sexes, and so guard society from demoralization. But the desolating wars of the world, drunkenness, and other ruinous excesses peculiar to men, and, at the present day, the waste of lives consequent on the reckless and absorbing rush of men into dangerous businesses in pursuit of wealth, are responsible for the fact that in old and long-established communities women outnumber and outlive men. It is evident, therefore, that a large number of women, millions, the world over, have not married, because there are not men enough to marry them, and that they must do their share of the world’s work and in some way achieve their own bread-winning. If untaught in any remunerative industry, lacking in practical knowledge, and untrained in the forms of business, they must suffer great hardships. If property comes to their possession, their ignorance of affairs will make them an easy prey to the dishonest and designing.

The old-time theory that “all men support all women” led to the enactment of laws which gave all the earnings of the married woman to her husband; in most instances gave him control of her property, always legal possession of her person, and legal ownership of her minor children; the righto decide the location of their joint domicile; the power, in short, the become the arbiter of her fate; while the husband, in return for the service rendered him by the wife, was to give her shelter, food, and clothing as was compatible with his means, or inclination. While the woman remained unmarried and a minor, all her earnings belonged to her father, who did not hesitate to demand and retain them. Usually, if she remained unmarried through life, she continued to share the labors of her father’s household without other compensation than shelter, food, and clothing , as in the days of her minority, sometimes receiving a meager stipend from her father’s estate when he died. Generally, however, the property of the father was left to the sons, with the exception of the mother’s right of dower, and the mothers and sisters became then the dependents of sons and brothers, as they had formerly been of the father and husband. In some sections of the country this unjust and iniquitous condition of things remains still unchanged.

When the early Woman Suffragists took their stand for a redress of the wrongs of women, they used no vague or ambiguous language. As early as 1838 Angelina Grimke and Abby Kelly, who were the first women orators I ever heard, uttered their protest against the wrongs of woman, from an anti-slavery platform. They severely denounced the custom of society which closed the doors of remunerative industries against women, and thereby condemned large numbers to abject dependence and compulsory poverty. Ten years later, when the first Convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York, and occasion commemorated by this weeks’ International Conference, women reiterated the protest and the denunciation, and demanded political equality as a remedy for these wrongs. Two years later another Woman’s Convention was held in Worcester, Mass., and again there rang out the demand for equal political rights for men and women, equal educational opportunities, and “partnership in the labors and gains, risks and remunerations, of productive industry.” It is impossible to-day to describe the fierce outburst of ridicule with which the public received these demands. Press and pulpit, legislatures and courts, public men and private citizens, society and fashion, all hastened to wash their hands of these innovators, and to label them with the opprobrious epithets so lavishly affixed to those who inaugurate a reform. A dozen years were spent in this severe pioneer work, and then came the four years civil war. All reformatory work was temporarily suspended, for the nation then passed through a crucial experience, and the issue of the fratricidal conflict was national life or death.

The transition of the country from peace to the tumult of war was appalling and swift, bu the regeneration of its women kept pace with it. They lopped off superfluities, retrenched in expenditures, became deaf to the calls of pleasure, and heeded not the mandates of fashion. Their work was that of relief and philanthropy, and for the first time in the history of the world the women of America developed a heavenly side to war. They cared for the needy families of soldiers, nursed the sick in camp and the wounded in hospitals, ministered to the dying in the rear of battlefields, and kept full to overflowing the channels of beneficence which extended from Northern homes to the army at the front. For their multiform work they needed immense sums of money, and now the latent business abilities of women began to show themselves. 

They came to Washington and competed with men for government contracts for the manufacture of army clothing and obtained them. When their accounts and their work were rigorously inspected by the War Department, they received commendation and not a word of criticism and were awarded larger contracts. They planned create moneymaking enterprises, whose vastness of conception and good business management yielded millions of dollars to be expended in the interest of sick and wounded soldiers. The last two of the colossal sanitary fairs held in New York and Philadelphia yielded, respectively, one million dollars and one million two hundred thousand dollars. Women were the inspiration, the creators, the great energizing force of these immense fairs, and also from first to last of the sanitary commission. Said Dr. Bellows: “There was nothing wanting in the plans of the women of the commission that business men commonly think peculiar to their own methods.” Men awoke to the consciousness that there were in women possibilities and potencies of which they had never dreamed.

Clara Barton, doing clerical work in a department of the Government and declining to receive compensation therefor, attracted no attention. But Clara Barton in hospitals an don hospital transports, bringing order out of chaos, hope our of despair, and holding death in abeyance; Clara Barton at Andersonville, where 13,000 soldiers had yielded up life under the prolonged horrors of a military prison, and had been  ignominiously buried in long trenches, uncared for, united and unknown, attracted the attention and aroused the gratitude of the nation. For she ordered the trenches opened, the unknown dead exhumed and decently buried, each man in a separate grave, with a headstone recording his name, his rank, and the date of his death.

Anna Dickinson, in the Philadelphia Mint, working for a pittance and making impassioned speeches on various occasions for the enslaved black man, was regarded as a nuisance. But Anna Dickinson on the platform, with impassioned speech and fervid moral earnestness, pleading the cause of the slave and receiving $100 and $200 a night for the service; Anna Dickinson in the Connecticut and New Hampshire Republican campaigns, thrilling both States with her eloquent utterances, the acknowledged power that won the victory in both for the Republican party, became the heroine of the hour, and was hailed as the Joan d’Are of the nineteenth century.

The development of those years and the impetus given to women by the swift logic of events, which has not yet spent itself, has been wonderfully manifested. Since the great quickening in 1861 women have organized missionary, philanthropic, temperance, educational, and political association on a scale of vast magnitude. Without much blowing of trumpets or unseemly boasting they have overcome almost insuperable obstacles, have brought business abilities to the management of their affairs, and have achieved phenomenal success. Their capacity for public affairs receives large recognition at the present time, and they are elected or appointed to such offices as those of county clerk, register of deeds, pension agent, prison commissioner, State librarian, overseer of the poor, school superintendent and supervisor. They serve as executors and administrators of estates, trustees and guardians of property, trusts, and children, engrossing-clerks of State legislatures, superintendents of women’s State prisons, college presidents and professors, members of boards of State charities, lunacy, and correction, police matrons, and post-mistresses. They are accountants, pharmacists, cashiers, telegraphers, stenographers, type-writers, chemists, dentists, book-keeps authors, journalists, painters, architects, and sculptors. And the last statue of Anne Whitney, unveiled a few months ago, the ideal statue of the Norseman Leif, the son of Eric, is regarded by man competent critics as the most exquisite work of art that has come from the studio of any American sculptor. In many of these positions women serve with men, who graciously acknowledge the practical wisdom that they bring to their duties. “And although many women have been appointed to positions in departments of Government, and to important employment and trusts,” said Senator Blair, of New Hampshire, from his seat in Congress, “as far as your committee are aware, no charge of incompetence or malfeasance in office has ever been sustained against a woman.”

With the progress of the modern industrial system there appears to be no limit to the opportunities of women. Only a little over a quarter of a century ago women were allowed to enter very few remunerative occupations. In 1840, when Harriet Martineau visited this country to study its institutions, that she might be able to forecast the type of civilization to be evolved from them, she especially investigated the position of women in the young republic. She was surprised to find the occupying a very subordinate position in a country calling itself free, and to find they had entered only seven paying occupations. They were allowed to teach, to be seamstresses, which included tailoring, dress-making, and millinery; they could keep boarding-houses, enter domestic service, become operatives in factories, compositors in printing offices, and folders and stitchers in book binderies. The last United States census gives the names of nearly three hundred employments in which women are working.The women of the State of Massachusetts are working in 284 occupations, and 251,158 are earning their living in them, receiving for their labor annually from $150 to $3,000. This computation does not include amateurs, nor mothers and daughters in the household, and excludes domestic service.

So important a class are the working women of Boston that Hon. Carroll D. Wright, Chief of the Massachusetts and of the National Bureau of Statistics of Labor, devoted 134 pages of his Fifteenth Annual Massachusetts Report, published in 1884, to a consideration of the 20,000 women of the city employed in occupations other than domestic service. He instituted a most thorough and searching investigation to ascertain their normal, sanitary, physical, and economical condition. Taking an average thousand of these workers as a number amply sufficient for the scientific purposes of the investigation, he learned their personal histories, and from these deduced tabulated statements of great value, which startled the whole community. For he proved to us by figures, which are said not to lie, that “the average yearly income of the working woman of Boston from all sources is $269.07, and that her average yearly expense for positive needs are $261.30, leaving but $7.77 on the average as a margin for occasions of illness, religious purposes, books, amusements, etc.” In his summary of facts Mr. Wright assures us that “the working girls of Boston are, as a class, industrious and virtuous; that they are making a heroic struggle against many obstacles and in the face of peculiar temptations to maintain reputable lives, and are entitled to the aid, sympathy, and respect of all who love good order, honest lives, and industrious habits.” I have no doubt a similar investigation into the lives of the working women of other cities would reveal a similar condition of things. 

It is the popular believe that women have hardly entered the field of invention. In a late magazine article written by one of the ablest and noblest women the statement was made that “only 334 patents had ever been issued to women, and these were mostly for articles of household use.” But Mr. R.C. Gill, who has bene in charge of the model hall in the Patent Office since 1871, has made a record of female inventors who have obtained letters patent from the United States. The record is complete to December 14, 1886, up to which date “women had taken out patents for 1,935 inventions, six times the number usually quoted.” Mr. Gill’s record shows that “there is no branch of industry in which woman has not left proof of her mechanical skill.” The first patent granted by the United States for a submarine telescope was issued to a woman in 1845. Women have received letters patent for fire-escapes, a life-preserver skirt, life-boats, and life-rafts, and for improvements in boot and shoe making. They have patented machines for “driving barrel-hoops, a steam-generator, a baling-press, a steam and fume box, an automatic floor for elevator shafts, a rail for street railways, an electrical illuminating apparatus, a railways-car safety apparatus, packing for piston rods, car coupling, electric battery, improvement in locomotive wheels, materials for packing journals and bearings, machine for drilling gun-stocks, a stock car, an apparatus for destroying vegetation on railways, another for removing snow from the tracks, a non-inductive electric cable, an apparatus for raising sunken vessels, a dredging machine, a method of constructing screw propellers, improvements in locomotive and other chimneys, a railway tie, a covering for the slot of elevated railways, and a device for deadening the sound on elevated railways.” The farmers, of whom there are many, have taken out patents for a grain elevator, several varieties of fences (one of them a flood-fence), a grain and cockle separator, a grain and malt drier, a reaping and moving machine, a mode of protecting fruit trees from curculio, several improvements for harness, wagons, and carriages, a cotton picker, cow-milkers, detachable spouts for milk-pails, butter-tubs, churns, bee-hives, a machines for manufacturing honey-comb foundations, a bee-feeding device, and many more of a similar nature. In 1879 Harriet hoser, the distinguished sculptor, patented a method of making artificial marble.

In the higher civilization, which is our ideal, and of which we dream, every man who chooses will have a wife, and every woman a husband. The husband will be the bread-winner and the wife the break-maker – the artist in the shaping and rearing of well-born children. Then will human fatherhood and motherhood take on something of the tenderness, fullness, and divineness of Godhead, and then will “statelier Eden come again to man.”

The civilized nations of the world are entering an age of industrial conflict, where the struggle for national supremacy will be as hotly contested as it has been on any of the battle-fields of history. “The epic poem of the future,” says Carlyle, “shall not being like that of Virgil, ‘Arms and the man I sing,’ but ‘Tools and the man (and woman) I sing.'” Soldiers are, to be sure, still drilled in the camps, but children and youth are also being trained in industrial art in schools of design and normal art schools, and in industrial drawing in the public schools. The days of chivalry are over, with its tilts and tournaments, but the working world arranges the tournaments of to-day, and summons the competing peoples to bring together the results of their skilled workmen and women, now to an exposition in London and then in Vienna, now in Philadelphia and then in Paris.

The ancient commercial dimensions of the earth are swept away forever, and competition is now world-wide. This will compel the thorough training of American working people in industrial education, based on art and science. We need technical schools as we find them in the Old World, abundant and open alike to old and young, rich and poor, and as free to women as to men. They should be supplemented by museums of a high order, which will raise the standard of taste and stimulate to higher attainments. “Never will women have social equity till they have legal equity,” said the good and just Canon Kingsley, a truth as fundamental as that which underlies the Golden Rule. Therefore, to working women, as indeed to all women, the ballot is a necessity. It is the only synonym of legal equity that a republican government can know. 

Above all, at the present time, should women cultivate what they grievously lack, a fine esprit de corps. They should stand together in a solidarity that can not be shaken by difference of opinion, nor weakened by jealousy, nor undermined by the cruel gossip and scandal of the world. “Any stone is good enough to throw at a dog,” says Frances Power Cobbe, ” and there is yet a spirit in the world that regards any slur, innuendo, or hint of baseness as legitimate if uttered concerning a woman.” “the woman Thou gavest me, she gave me of the tre and I did eat,” is still the pitiful plea of the shirk and the coward. It should not be echoed by women, nor exalted by them to the dignity of an accusation. I lack language in which to express my sense of reprobation of the course pursued by those women who, from their soft and easy homes, where they are anchored in the love of manly husbands, enter the arena of public life only to beat back their sisters who seek larger opportunities than suffice for themselves; who make their own opinions and wishes the measure of all women’s needs, and cry out to legislatures and courts, parliaments and congresses: “Hold, enough! Concede to women no more of their demands, for we have all the rights we want!”

“Whenever a wrong is done
To the humblest and the weakest ‘neath the all-beholding sun,
That wrong is also done to us, and they are slaves most base,
Whose love of right is for themselves, and not for all the race.”



Source: Livermore, Mary A. “Industrial Gains of Women during the Last Half-Century.” Report of the International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association. Washington, D.C. Rufus H. Darby, 1888, 131-136.