Beyond Domesticity: U.S. Women Writers, 1770-1915


Introduction l True Womanhood l New Women l Growing Up Female l Political Women l Suffrage l Abolition l Women and War l Work Outside the Home l Cookery and Fancy-Work l Work Inside the Home l Mothering l Marriage l Marriage and Divorce l Regionalism l Travel l Bestsellers l Highlights l English 437: Students Research Rare Books

Work Outside the Home

The Employment of Women: A Cyclopedia of Woman's Work


This section further complicates the notion that the home was really woman’s sphere. Whether the books exhibited here argue for a woman’s right to a professional career, narrate unconventional careers for women (silver mining, for instance), or reveal that the so-called “cult of domesticity” limited its membership to white, middle-class women, together they suggest that the story of women’s everyday lives prior to World War I very often unfolded “beyond domesticity.”

“I ask for woman, then, free, untrammeled access to all fields of labor.”

Caroline Wells Healey Dall, 1822-1912.

Woman’s Right to Labor, or Low Wages and Hard Work.
Boston: Walker, Wise and Co., 1860.

Caroline Dall, a disciple of Margaret Fuller, delivered a series of lectures on women’s right to meaningful and gainful employment before a Boston audience in November, 1859 and then turned those lectures into this book. Dall identifies underemployment as a leading cause of frustration in middle-class women. She maintains that women and men should be entitled to equal vocational opportunities and that women should receive equal pay for equivalent work.

Virginia Penny, b. 1826.

The Employment of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Woman’s Work.
Boston: Walker, Wise, 1863.
Author’s presentation copy. “Presented to the Library of Y.M.C.A. [Louisville] by the author, May 1868.”

On these opposing pages Penny (who also published a series of articles “pertaining to men and women, work and wages” as well as a book entitled How Women Can Make Money) provides data not only on the occupations in the 1860s that did not employ women but also on the kinds of remunerative work that women in the South were likely to pursue outside the home.

“breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body”

Rebecca Harding Davis, 1831-1910.

“Life in the Iron Mills.”
 Atlantic Monthly, April 1861, pp. 430-451.

Davis, the self-educated daughter of a mill owner, published this, her first and most famous story, anonymously in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. Nathaniel Hawthorne numbered among the admirers of Davis’s anguished depiction of the grim and limited lives of a family of mill workers.

 “a curious feeling, that all her life before had been a silly dream, and this dust, these desks and ledgers, were real,—all that was real”

Rebecca Harding Davis, 1831-1910.

Margret Howth: A Story of Today.
Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862.
Initially serialized in 1861 in six installments in the Atlantic Monthly, Margret Howth is Davis’s second published work and first novel. Like “Life in the Iron Mills,” Margret Howth is also set in a mill town, this one in Indiana. The novel depicts the hardships of the working poor and in particular of Margret herself, who handles the ledgers for a woolen mill. At her editor’s request, Davis rewrote the ending to make it happier.

“I want something to do.”

Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888.

Hospital Sketches: and Camp and Fireside Stories.
Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869.
Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth Century American Literature.

First published in The Commonwealth, then as a book in 1863, Hospital Sketches provided Alcott with her first brush with fame. The book originated from Alcott’s experience as a Civil War volunteer nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington, D.C. Her nursing career was cut short when she contracted typhoid fever and was treated (as was common at the time) with mercury, which ruined Alcott’s formerly robust health and ultimately hastened her early death.

Helen Hunt Jackson, 1830-1885.

Nelly’s Silver Mine: A Story of Colorado Life.
Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1889.

Jackson is perhaps best remembered as an author of works for adults including Ramona, her 1884 novel about the plight of California Mission Indians, featured in the Bestsellers section of this exhibit. She is less remembered for her several children’s books, including this story, which originally appeared in 1878 and features a strong female protagonist doing unconventional work. The novel might also be considered an early contribution to the genre of the Western.

“Only as we live, think, feel, and work outside the home, do we become humanly developed, civilized, socialized.”

Charlotte Perkins Stetson [Gilman], 1860-1935.

Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Education.
Boston: Small, Maynard, & Company, 1898.

Gilman’s first published treatise, composed in five separate houses and completed over the course of thirty-nine days (only seventeen of these devoted to writing), made her internationally famous. The book pronounces economic independence to be the answer to the “woman question.” So persuasive did her readers find her calls for progressive changes in gender roles that Gilman was hailed as the brains of the woman’s movement and Women and Economics as “the outstanding book on Feminism” and as “the book of the age.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1860-1935.

“Human Work.”
The Forerunner, Volume II, November, 1911.
This poem, which Gilman published in her own one-woman magazine, succinctly summarizes her work philosophy and conveys the sharp distinction she drew between the world work or “human work” she praises and the narrowly defined and confining “woman’s work” she deplored.

“I believe that woman is the equal of man—if she is.
That woman is no better than man—unless she is.”

Alice Hubbard, 1861-1915.

Woman’s Work; Being an Inquiry and an Assumption.
East Aurora, NY: The Roycrofters, 1908.
This beautifully composed manifesto on woman’s right to work was produced by Hubbard and her husband Elbert in their print shop at the Roycroft Community that Elbert founded in 1895. In 1910, a journalist described Alice as a mother and “a woman of varied occupation. She supervises the work in a manufacturing establishment employing five hundred people. She has charge of two unique hotels run as home, where visitors come from all over the globe. She is a writer on various subjects and assistant editor of two monthly magazines. She is the author of several books. She pays almost daily visits to her farm of three hundred acres, which provides all the food consumed in her extensive household.” The Hubbards drowned when the Lusitania sank in 1915.

“First Hoeing of Cotton” postcard, ca. 1915-1930
Collectionof McKissick Museum.

Nineteenth century children were not exempt from difficult labor. The African American children featured in this postcard work barefoot in cotton fields, bearing large tools. Poverty and time-consuming work schedules frequently limited children’s opportunities for education and personal advancement. 



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