The Old Feminism

I’ve just realized that my ideas of feminism may be colored by the fact that my mom, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers all worked outside the home. Is that unusual? I don’t honestly know.

13 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Yes for my family, mostly farmers. No for my wife’s family. If you exclude WWII, probably puts you in a fairly small group.


  • PD Shaw Link

    You may need to insert the phrase “after marriage or childbirth.” It probably was unusual, and sometimes illegal for women to work outside the home at that point.

  • PD Shaw Link

    of course steve’s right to point out it would have been even more unusual in farming, but for women living in the city, it seems like many involved themself in social care functions and social movements (at least the one’s I read about) that would have been paid work today. (I’m thinking the period from the Great Awakening through the Progressive Era).

  • My mom worked before she and my dad were married, took a few years off to have kids and while we were small, and then went back to work. My dad was rather unusual among his peers. He believed that anybody who had the ability to hold down a paying job had a moral obligation to do so—gender made no difference to him. My maternal grandmother worked both before she met my grandfather and after my mom was born—my mom was quite literally born in a trunk, while they were on the road touring.

    My paternal grandmother worked before she married my grandfather, at least nominally while he was alive, and in various different jobs after he died.

    My maternal grandfather’s mother ran a confectionery after her husband died. My maternal grandmother’s mother cooked for a wealthy family after she and my great-grandfather were divorced (unusual for the early 1900s and even more unusual for a Catholic as devout as she was).

    I’m all but certain that my paternal great-grandmothers worked before they were married but I don’t honestly know if they did after they were married. If I know my great-grandfather Schuler, I’d suspect that my great-grandmother Mary Fischer worked like crazy outside the home. He was a real Switzer. For him work was a sacrament.

    You have to go back four or more generations in my family to find any farmers, itself unusual for 19th century America.

  • It probably was unusual, and sometimes illegal for women to work outside the home at that point.

    That’s an interesting point. I suspect that living in Missouri helped. Missouri law tended towards women’s rights from a rather early period.

  • I don’t think it was ever illegal for women to work outside the home across the board. Women were prohibited from certain occupations–mostly high status, professional work–but women have always worked outside the home. This is particularly true for working class women and women of color. The feminist struggle for the right to work was very specifically a struggle to open up high status, professional careers to women, as well as a still on-going battle for equal wages.

  • steve Link

    You should realize, you probably do, that being a farm wife was more than cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids. For both sets of my grandparents (each had about 13 kids), my grandmother also was in charge of the family garden, which provided most of the vegetables the family ate year round. They managed the chickens also, and since both sold eggs as an income supplement, they contributed to the family income. It was a lot of work.


  • PD Shaw Link

    @Celeste, I was mainly thinking of teaching and clerical work, which often had a strict marriage bars. My main point was that I don’t think it was uncommon for women to work outside the home at any given time in the U.S., it has been uncommon for married women at times.

    @Dave, even where states passed laws guaranteeing women’s rights, school boards could still legally require women to sign a contract obligating them to resign when they married. I think formal marriage bars were more common in “Yankeeland” (Ohio, Massachusetts, etc.), and I would guess St. Louis was too Southern/ liaises faire to enact legal prohibitions like that.

  • When my mom started teaching, it was in the St. Louis City schools in 1942. At the time the city required its women teachers to be unmarried. When she married my dad, she went to work for a suburban school that had no such requirement.

    When she returned to teaching, a decade or so later, there were no such requirements.

  • BTW, PD, I think the differences in Missouri law WRT have more to do with the Code Napoleon influences than with Southern ones per se. The differences were reflected in issues like inheritance, children, divorce, and so on. It’s been nearly 50 years since I’ve actively looked into Missouri law so I have no idea what things are like now.

  • PD Shaw Link

    My paternal grandmother (b. 1917; W. Ill.), has long complained that her father sent her two brothers to college, but wouldn’t let her attend a normal school in Quincy she’d heard about. I’ve always wondered what that would have meant, what the rules or customs for women were. Would she have only taught for a few years, would she not have married or married later?

    While married, she had a part-time business as a cutlery saleswoman; she only sold outside her community, so nobody would know about it. And when my grandfather died, she took over management of his feed and farm supply store for 10-15 yrs.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Doing some personal genealogical research today, I happened across this study, which includes this data:

    In 1900, 96.3% of married women were not in the labor force. For white married women, it was 98.2%. The table is on page 82 of the pdf. (The author believes the census unfairly did not count taking boarders as gainful employment, but since Dave asked about work outside the home, I undid the author’s modifications)

  • My mom was an at-home wife until her divorce from my Dad. Her Mom worked and raised her kids alone since her father was convicted of murder when my Mom was a toddler. He died in prison in the early 1940’s IIRC. Those were driven by circumstance – for the most part I think women did work at home. I think this was especially true for large families – indeed there probably wasn’t much choice. Even in today’s world, once you get to three-four kids it makes economic sense for one parent to stay home, at least until the kids are in school.

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