One of my favorite parts of writing Tiffany Girl was researching the changing role of women in the late 1800s. It certainly was an interesting time to be a lady! My research had me tearing through books and historical documents, visiting historical sites and traveling through New York see the city through the eyes of a “New Woman.” It was quite the adventure! Throughout the process, I couldn’t help but compare my modern life to the life of a woman at the turn of the century.
While I pride myself on being a working woman today, the hurdles I’ve had to jump to build a career while still maintaining my role as a wife and mother don’t even come close to what “New Women” experienced at the turn of the century.
Just consider some of the hurdles New Women faced when entering the workforce:
Inadequate wages. Most New Women left their family homes to join the workforce with very little financial support. With wages as low as $3.00 per week, most women struggled to pay rent and feed themselves. Low wages were a problem for men too, but for women, who had few opportunities for upward mobility, things were even worse.
Long Hours. Many women held jobs in factories and worked painstakingly long hours. If they were paid by the hour, supervisors would breathe down their necks to make sure they were working at a very rapid pace. Women could work up to 13 hours each day, or even longer during the holidays. Some of the accounts I read and pictures I saw were heart wrenching.
No time off. Many women worked six or sometimes even seven days a week. I like to think that I’m a hard worker, but I can’t imagine the working conditions they endured! They might occasionally request a half holiday, but wouldn’t dare do it often. In one article I read, a woman working as a ticket agent at the Elevated railways in Chicago would regularly work a 12 hour day, 365 a year. Not ONE SINGLE day off!! That’s just messed up.
Terrible working conditions. The factories many women worked in were not clean, nor were they safe. They would make my office look neat and tidy even on its most cluttered days! To make matters worse, the work that women performed within these factories was difficult physically and would leave them with swollen feet, throbbing ankles, and a host of injuries, from carpal tunnel to arthritis.
Still, despite all this, many women chose to buck the status quo and enter the workforce. I am in total awe of them and tip my hat to say THANK YOU for paving the way for women like us to do work we enjoy.
What about you? Do you think you would have chosen to work as a woman at the turn of the century?