American Women in the 1890s

American Women in the 1890s

As the 19th century was coming to a close, a new image of the American woman began to emerge. Women increasingly ventured into public activities once thought only appropriate for men. Although women still filled conventional roles as wives and mothers, the 1890s saw their increased presence in the workplace and their efforts to be recognized as equals in the political arena. Women also showed themselves to be physically capable of athletic accomplishments that extended beyond riding a bicycle.

1 Tending the Home Fires

In the 1890s, women who stayed at home and focused their lives on caring for their husband, children and household still were considered the ideal by American society. Ladies' advice magazines of the period reinforced the idea that motherhood was the highest calling to which women could aspire. Second in importance to motherhood was a woman's responsibility to properly maintain her appearance and the state of the home for the sake of her husband's comfort. Period art and illustrations typically depicted women responding to the needs of their children and spouse. Women who wanted to pursue, or at least be recognized for, their own needs and desires were considered selfish.

2 Pulling Their Own Weight

In 1890, three-quarters of American women in the workforce were single. Married women in the workforce were typically poor immigrants and the wives of unskilled laborers whose income alone could not sustain the family. Both married and single women with minimal skills took jobs in factories and as domestics. Women with some level of education or training found work as nurses, teachers and salespeople in stores. Office jobs were available to women who conveyed proper manners and refinement and also possessed basic clerical skills.

3 Getting Out the Vote

The American woman of the 1890s began to participate in society rather than just observe it. The Women's Christian Temperance Union, which was founded in the mid-1870s, was the largest association for women and claimed 150,000 members in 1890. The organization fought chiefly for the prohibition of liquor but also addressed issues related to suffrage, labor unions and social hygiene. In 1890, various women's clubs united to form the General Federation of Women's Clubs. The National Association of Colored Women organized in 1896 for the benefit of African American women. Also in 1890, the two largest women's suffrage organizations united to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

4 Passing the Ball

The bicycle craze of the 1890s attracted many women enthusiasts and several achieved notoriety in the sport. In 1894, Annie "Londonderry" Kopchovsky, a 23-year-old married mother of three, bicycled around the world in 15 months. Hundreds of "Bloomer Girl" baseball teams were formed during the 1890s and were paid by sponsors to challenge local and semi-pro teams as they traveled around the country. In 1895, the first Women's Amateur Golf championship was held at Meadow Brook Club in Hempstead, New York and, in 1896, the first women's intercollegiate basketball game took place between Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. In 1899, two all-women ice hockey teams faced off at the Ice Palace in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.