What Could A Woman Do in 1900?

What Can A Woman Do? Indeed, this is the question asked by Mrs M.L. Rayne in penning what must be a very early example of an occupational handbook for women.  The copy that I have in my library, although without a date, looks to have been written around 1900 or so.

Mrs Rayne explains her motivation for writing this book by saying;

“Equally blessed is the woman who has found her work.  Life is, indeed a burden to one who, day after day, must plod for a mere existence at some work for this there is no special adaptation, but it is peculiarly trying and discouraging to a woman, who cannot choose for herself the profession or vocation in life which will give her the most pleasure to follow in the toilsome effort of winning her own bread.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I think these words could still be relevant today.  Do we work to live or live to work? Mrs Rayne seems to be advocating that it’s of the utmost importance for women to do something they love – and get paid for it!  Certainly words to live by, even by today’s career standards.

In 1900, women represented around 19 percent of the total American workforce, compared to a figure of around 54 percent in 2009,   and  only 1 percent of the lawyers and 6 percent of the Nation’s physicians were women. (See attached article on American Labor in the 20th Century by Donald Fisk).  Compare these figures to 2009, where employed women held around 40 percent of management, professional and related occupations.

So what could a woman do in 1900?  Aside from encouraging women to consider becoming teachers, journalists, lawyers and doctors which was clearly very progressive, Mrs Rayne highlights the possibility that women could also aspire to be wood engravers, or turn their hands to raising poultry or bee-keeping, amongst other choices.

In discussing why women were particularly well-suited to bee-keeping, Mrs Rayne had this to say;

“Bee-keeping, although a laborious employment, demands no great outlay of strength at one time.  It embraces the performance of many little items, which require skill and gentleness, more than muscle. The hand of woman, from nature, habit and education, has acquired an ease of motion which is agreeable to the sensibilities of bees, and her breath is seldom obnoxious to their olfactories, by reason of tobacco or beer.”

And of wood engraving?

“Women who engrave on wood, says a writer in Harper’s Bazar, will tell you that this exacting occupation tries them less than sewing does: and if, after seeing them bent over the magnifying glass through which they follow the movement of their tools along the surface of the boxwood, you ask if their eyes do not trouble them; they will smile and say that the exercise strengthens the optic nerve.”

Are you surprised at the career choices that were available to women in 1900? Are you aware of any women in your family who held jobs during the 1900’s? What did they do?


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ruthie
    Jan 16, 2011 @ 07:00:23

    It must have been excruciating to be a well to do woman in the early 1900’s who wanted and needed the satisifaction of work. I wonder how many women were prevented from undertaking further education that would have qualified them to engage in the limited career opportunities outside the home. Voluntary work might have offered some fulfillment but could not provide the satisfaction of financial independence. Those women who lived in households without servants would not have had the time or the energy to think about what work theymight do for themselves.

    I don’t believe any of my female relatives from this period worked in paid occupations.


  2. Can-Do Woman
    Jan 17, 2011 @ 15:07:50

    Mrs Rayne certainly seems like a no-nonsense type, but perhaps these options were only available to middle-class women who could afford the training required to qualify, and the help that would then have been needed around the home. It must have been an extremely difficult undertaking to assert oneself in a man’s world and achieve a modicum of financial independence at that time.


  3. nancyspoint
    Jan 21, 2011 @ 10:32:13

    Anna, I’ve been racking my brains trying to think of women from my family’s past that had paying jobs. There were a few teachers and factory workers. That’s it. Then I realized how many of them worked their asses off raising large families, gardening, canning, feeding hired help and much much more and I realized they, too, were indeed “can do women.” If a woman wanted a career back then, it must have been so frustrating to be pigeon holed into doing only what was “expected.”


    • Can-Do Woman
      Jan 21, 2011 @ 10:38:01

      The work involved to run a household back in those days makes me feel exhausted just thinking about it. If you weren’t able to afford any help, and without today’s modern conveniences? And then if you had to go out and work on top of all that? I think I need a lie-down.


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