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Women At Work: Professional Labor
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Many occupations became increasingly professionalized during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, requiring degrees and admittance to professional organizations. For instance, women who had previously worked as healers and midwives now had to compete with male doctors, who disparaged traditional home medicine practices. As it became more difficult for women to receive training in the professions, their reputations suffered. In time, the numbers of women in professional fields grew, but gaining acceptance remained difficult until well into the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, certain professions were not only open to women, but also encouraged female participation. Teaching was a field that seemed to suit ideas about women’s character and temperament. Based on notions of women’s maternal and nurturing nature, primary school teaching became a very common profession. However, throughout the nineteenth century, women began to follow other vocations, such as reform work, missionary work, and literary pursuits.

At the end of the nineteenth century, retail and office professions became feminized. The women who entered these professions, many of whom came from immigrant families and would have worked in factories hitherto, saw themselves as professionals, "business women."


These collections contain town records and personal records documenting the employment of teachers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


During the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century, women began taking on greater managerial roles in companies. These collections document women’s roles as managers, presidents, and other executive positions.

Office Workers

These collections document women's work as office clerks, typists, and secretaries.

Other Professions

These collections document women working in retail, in the literary and public relations fields, as Christian missionaries, and in other professional fields.

The Emergence of Women's Professionalism

Click for larger image
Virginia Harned's 1909 contract with Brighton Beach Music Hall.

Virginia Harned (b. Virginia Hicks, 1872), a famous leading lady of the 1890s and 1910s, heeded the admonition in bold, black lettering to "Read Carefully Before Signing" at the top of her contract to perform at Brighton Beach Music Hall for one week starting August 2nd, 1909. Harned, clearly a seasoned professional, crossed out the provisions which would have allowed her to be fired without cause and required her to give additional performances as requested. In her own handwriting she added, "Virginia Harned to be sole star feature. Her name alone on [sic] all electric lights and at the top of all billing matter."

A Brighton Beach payroll notebook, part of the Ward and Gow Collection at Baker Library, refers to the artists, many of whom were women, as “Professionals.” Professional women performers had been touring the United States for many decades and a few, but only a very few, like “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, had risen to great heights of both popularity and respectability during the nineteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, professionalism was becoming both more common and more respectable for women. Educated women were instrumental in the development of the social sciences as well as social services. Countless other women flocked to offices and department stores to exchange domestic labor and factory work for a white collar profession.

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