Sunday, February 12, 2023

This Grand Experiment, by Jessica Ziparo

The subtitle of this history is "When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D.C." I learned about it from references in Walter Stahr's biography of Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury in Abraham Lincoln's Civil War cabinet. I had some vague knowledge that women first came to work for the U.S. government during the Civil War, Clara Barton being perhaps the best-known example, but I didn't know much. I was curious to learn more, and the description of this book made me add it to my reading stacks:

"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 women from such channels of labor. Thousands of female applicants from across the country flooded Washing 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."
Ziparo makes it clear from the first pages that this is not a story of triumphal achievement for women. They were paid significantly less than men, they had to put a lot of time and effort into getting a position, they faced hostility and sexual harassment from their male coworkers, and there was no job security. Women were also crowded into corners and attics, as supervisors struggled with adapting work spaces for women (hoop skirts took up a lot of room), and working out how men and women could share offices. In addition, Ziparo acknowledges that most of the sources for her history privilege white middle-class women's experiences. Working-class women, both Black and white, have left fewer archival sources and are often left out of contemporary accounts.

Despite the challenges they faced, however, once women got a foothold in government employment, they never lost it. They were not pushed out of jobs after the Civil War in the same way they would be in the 20th century, to make way for the returning soldiers. In part, as Ziparo explains, this is because of the way the women's work was framed. Many of the jobs, like cutting out currency bills or binding government publications, were seen as "women's work." Men didn't compete for those jobs. Hiring women was also presented as a means of assisting the widows and orphans of the brave Union soldiers, making it more acceptable for them to work outside the home, and they still needed that assistance after the war ended. In reality, they were often supporting a home, with parents or children dependent on them.

It was sobering to read the letters of female applicants, who desperately needed work, but also needed male patrons with influence in the government offices or in Congress. The traditional work open to women outside the home was teaching or domestic work. As noted above, the jobs in the government offices, though paying women half what the male employees received, was still some of the best-paid work available. And while some of the work was repetitive and boring, like counting currency, it still got women into the nation's capital and into the proverbial halls of power. As Ziparo notes, it also normalized women's presence in government buildings and in public life.

One of the women whose career Ziparo follows through her history is Julia Wilbur, who kept a diary during her years in Washington. I was disappointed to find that the diary has not been published, though it has been digitized and transcribed. I did find however a biography, A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time, and I decided it was worth a spot on my 52 books for the year.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!