Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Women's History Month 2016: Tip #22 Women's Work

Packing oranges at a co-op orange packing plant, Redlands, Calif. Santa Fe R.R. trip.
Library of Congress via Flickr The Commons
Most researchers are familiar with the one word description usually found in the occupation column for female ancestors in the US Census. Housewife. So many women have this word attached to records that name them. But that word ignores the reality of most women's lives.

Throughout history, many women have worked outside of the home. Middle class, lower income, and immigrant women worked out of necessity. Out-of-work or disabled husbands, widowhood, or  a large family could also dictate the need to work. Women whose families owned their own business may have had to work to ensure the success of the family business.

Women were needed during war time to fill in for men needed on the front lines. Even during the time of the American Civil War, women found themselves working outside of the home in factories or taking over the family business. Most researchers are familiar with World War II's  Rosie the Riveters but previous generations of women also worked during war time. 

So what types of work did women do? Well the short answer is all types but there were some specific occupations we think of as “women’s work.” Occupations that involved running a boarding house, cleaning private homes, taking care of children, and sewing come as no surprise. But there are perhaps more surprising occupations that our nineteenth-century female ancestors were a part of including working in cigar or ammunition factories and even  coal mines.

When thinking about what types of jobs your ancestress may have done, think about where they lived. In the mid-nineteenth century while some women in the UK worked in the coal mines, women in California would have been engaged in work like keeping a boarding house, doing laundry and cooking for miners or teaching children in school. As you research look not only for possible records left behind by a business, often located at an archive, but also search for more information on the type of work she participated in to help you better understand her life.

Consider the era that your ancestor lived in and what occupations were available to women. Also consider the place. If your ancestor lived in a city with a cigar factory that might be a possibility since cigar factories employed a large number of women. 

Where to Find the Records? If your ancestor worked for a company that still exists, inquire whether they have an historical  archive. In some cases a company may have donated their historical records to a regional or academic archive. Search on a state library catalog or ArchiveGrid to find those archived collections. Whenever you are trying to learn more about your ancestor in a certain place, make sure that you learn about any collections that exist in the local public and academic library. Quite possibly these places have manuscript collections that might have information on the place your ancestor worked, photos, or even employee records.

Don’t forget to use Google Books and Google Scholar to find books about the place your ancestor lived and the history of their occupation.  In my research on cigar factories I was able to find history books and even union periodicals for the cigar industry through Google Books.  Google Scholar helped me find scholarly articles and books that provided me with information about the life of women cigar workers. Another source for “scholarly” periodical articles is JSTOR . 

Want to learn more about the working women of yesteryear? Check out books about the subject like America’s Working Women 1600 to the Present Edited by Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon. Also take a look at census reports that help to break down what work women were doing and the occupations they most commonly held. One such report is Women in Gainful Occupations, 1870 to 1920 . One specialized website that provides history and resources is Harvard University Library’s Working Women, 1800-1930. You can learn more about researching occupations from the chapter Business, Institution and Organization Records found in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy available online from the Wiki.

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