This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D.C

This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D.C

This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D.C

This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D.C

Synopsis

In the volatility of the Civil War, the federal government opened its payrolls to women. Although the press and government officials considered the federal employment of women to be an innocuous wartime aberration, women immediately saw the new development for what it was: a rare chance to obtain well-paid, intellectually challenging work in a country and time that typically excluded females from such channels of labor. Thousands of female applicants from across the country flooded Washington with applications. Here, Jessica Ziparo traces the struggles and triumphs of early female federal employees, who were caught between traditional, cultural notions of female dependence and an evolving movement of female autonomy in a new economic reality. In doing so, Ziparo demonstrates how these women challenged societal gender norms, carved out a place for independent women in the streets of Washington, and sometimes clashed with the female suffrage movement.

Examining the advent of female federal employment, Ziparo finds a lost opportunity for wage equality in the federal government and shows how despite discrimination, prejudice, and harassment, women persisted, succeeding in making their presence in the federal workforce permanent.

Excerpt

We do not want to be petted. We want simply justice.
We ask no advantage. We ask for Equal Rights. Can we ever have them?
We are not playthings. We are not dolls. We are human beings.

—Gertrude, clerk in the Department of the Treasury, quoted in
The Revolution, Dec. 16, 1869

During the Civil War era, thousands of bright, spirited women like Gertrude came to Washington, D.C., to pursue a new opportunity: working for the United States of America. the supply of women seeking the well-paid, intellectually challenging civil service work far exceeded the number of jobs available. Federal supervisors did not anticipate this groundswell of ambitious and independent women. Nor were they entirely receptive to it. Female applicants in the 1860s were caught in a struggle between traditional, cultural notions of female dependence and an evolving movement of female autonomy in a new economic reality that was beginning to require that middleclass women enter the labor force. This burgeoning female autonomy was complicated, and made more complex by the manner in which the government incorporated women into the federal workforce. Supervisors hired independent women who feigned dependence. the government assigned women the same work as men, but did not pay them the same salaries. the nation alternatively believed them to be noble war widows or the “playthings” of politicians. Female federal employees, discouraged from advocating for political equality, sought greater labor equality without the help of the women’s rights movement. the Civil War era female federal workforce was an important, though often overlooked, cadre of labor feminists in the struggle for women’s rights in America.

The federal government did not generally employ women prior to the Civil War. in 1859, there were eighteen female names listed in the biennial Register of All Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States, all in the Government Hospital for the Insane. By 1871 that publication included the names of over 900 women in seven different departments, an increase of over 5,000 percent. Not listed in the Federal Register were at least an additional three hundred women in the Government Printing . . .

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