Over the next six weeks, Tuesday Tidbits, will highlight Female Firsts: A Brief History of Women in the Workforce. This is Part 1: Colonial America and the Industrial Revolution.
Female First: Margaret Corbin fights in the American Revolution and becomes the first woman to receive a pension for her service.
Would You Believe: Many colonies forbid women from acquiring land or owning a business.
The adage “a woman’s place was in the home” has a long history in America. During Colonial times, women maintained a peripheral role in business, contributing to the economic status of their household by assisting family with harvests or doing domestic chores. There were a few exceptions to this rule. Occasionally, a widow ran their husband’s business following his death, especially if she hadn’t borne a male heir. Women, usually single or from a lower socioeconomic class, worked outside the home as seamstresses or ran boarding houses. And the teaching profession had been predominantly female since the 1650s.
Female First: Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell is the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school in 1849
Would You Believe: The 15th Amendment grants black men the right to vote in 1870, but makes no mention of women.
The Industrial Revolution provided unprecedented opportunities for women to work outside the home. It’s estimated that 20% of women were employed in the workforce between 1800 and 1900. This increase is attributed to technologic innovations in the manufacturing sector, which led to a labor shortage in factories. Working conditions were poor, however. Women often toiled in crowded rooms in poorly ventilated mills. They hailed mainly from low-income farm families, and worked to send money home to their families. They rarely gained financial independence for their efforts. This fact was likely due to the pay inequality of the time. In 1850s New England, women earned $0.46 of their male counterparts. Women in bigger cities were more likely to find a wage that provided financial independence, where they worked in sewing, clerical, domestic service or retail-oriented fields.