'Perfect in her place:' exhibit traces women's role in industrial America

A new exhibit on women in industrial America at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History brings on a startling sense of historical deja vu for the present-day viewer.

The exhibit traces the role of women through the 19th century, a period of rapid industrialization in America which exhibit coordinator Deborah Warner calls "a particularly unsettling time. Few knew, with a certainty, what their parents and grandparents had enjoyed, who they were, and where they fit into the natural order."

Expanding civil rights, a flood of immigration with its new ethnic and cultural mix, and a groundswell of evangelical religion accompanied all these changes, increasing Americans' confusion over values and identity -- a confusion many Americans have felt over the last two decades of this century.

The 19th-century result should, perhaps, be a warning to us: "Americans began to sentimentalize the home," says Ms. Warner. "And at the heart of Home Sweet Home was Woman, pure and pious, serving as guardian of those aspects of the old order that men were reluctant to relinquish, but that they could no longer afford to pursue in their headlong rush into the new."

This syrupy view of Woman tended to veil the underlying reality of women's lot in industrial America, as the exhibit's photos, tools, machines, and letters record -- that of cheap labor. With men filling the "manly pursuits" of agriculture and commerce, women (especially spinsters) filled the mushrooming need for inexpensive, unskilled labor.

On went the syrup -- women were repeatedly sought after for "that particular dexterity, patience, and forbearance possessed by the average woman in a degree superior to that of the opposite sex" (said the telephone company), for their "dainty aesthetical sense" (said Procter & Gamble), and for the dexterity and carefulness (said a gun cartridge manufacturer who, during the Civil War, gave women the more dangerous task of loading the powder.)

The attributes of patience and forbearance assigned to women at this time certainly seemed necessary on payday, since, says Ms. Warner, "no matter what job they performed, women were paid women's wages, which were generally less than half as much as men in comparable situations could expect." As one watch company boasted at the Centennial, "one girl at $8 a week could do the work of four men formerly employed at $25 each."

The factory work -- chiefly textiles, but also including such diverse fields as food packing, printing, and manufacturing photographic supplies -- tended toward the tedious and away from anything that promised upward mobility. Even the niches provided for educated women in industrial America -- as clerical workers, teachers, and librarians -- arose out of a need for cheap labor.

Again, the syrup: as the increasing population produced a need for more teachers, and with few educated men willing to take on the low wages offered these instructors, teachers' colleges were established to train women, claiming that females are "by nature better suited to nurture and instruct the young." Similarly, librarians were chosen among the lesser paid gender "for their ability to create a cozy, homelike atmosphere."

Low wages often proved better than no wages. As Ms. Warner points out, women have alwas worked, though not necessarily for money. In Colonial America, marriages were often economic partnerships, with women making soap and candles, raising and preserving fruits and vegetables, churning milk into butter, gathering eggs, weaving cloth, and selling the surplus at market or bartering it for other goods and services.

"But where money becomes the standard measure of worth, as happened in 19 th-century America," Ms. Warner points out, "work done 'for free' is all too often seen as having low value and status." Industrial America nurtured the myth that the homemaker's work was less valuable than her salaried counterparts.

Another myth unveiled by the Smithsonian exhibit is the one that had our foremothers doing all the housework -- something Warner says few women did "if they could get it done another way."

One of the most arduous tasks, and one frequently farmed out, was the laundry -- as an old washing machine at the exhibit gruesomely indicates. This may account for the surprising militancy of laundry laborers: The first collective action of free black workingwomen in American history was taken by the laundresses of Jackson, Miss., in 1866.

The black female experience differed from the white in important ways. As Ms. Warner puts it, "while white Americans fussed over proper feminine behavior, most black women in America worked in the fields, side by side with men, planting, cultivating, and picking tobacco and cotton."

An awakening of equality for all working women -- black and white, salaried and unsalaried -- shows through the Smithsonian's exhibit. Perhaps it is best summed up by Sojourner Truth, a black abolitionist and woman's rights advocate:

"Look at my arm. I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me -- and ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man -- when I could get it -- and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have born 1o children, and seen most of 'em sold into slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me -- and ain't I a woman?"

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