The place of women in the workplace has changed drastically since the 1880s. While women are said to be equal in today's society, this was not the case in previous centuries. Back then, women couldn't even vote in political elections. Reform movements of the 1800s, led by strong activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, sought to increase options and opportunities for women. Expanded career roles ultimately improved the status and influence of women in society.
Homemaking and Child Rearing
Women's roles in the Western world during the 1800s were highly restricted and centered around husband and family. A woman was expected to find a man to marry and then raise a family. Single women were labled, "old maids." Managing a household was a particularly challenging job before modern appliances. Chores like cooking, cleaning and housekeeping were more physically demanding and time consuming without the aid of vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dishwashers and food processors. Farm women had to keep house, care for her children and also tend to gardens and livestock, which left them exhausted.
Women and girls had few avenues for supporting themselves financially if they weren't married or their husband died or ran off. Without education or job skills, some relied on a handful of charitable organizations, such as the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, for bare bones necessities. When this was not enough and nobody was hiring temporary domestic help, some resorted to prostitution to earn a living, as there were no other jobs available. Their best hope of a better life was finding a decent man to support them or receiving a family inheritance.
Many women were members of the working class. They had no inheritance in most cases, and some started working as early as 8 years old. These women's jobs included domestic servant, farm worker, tailor and washerwoman. Working class women not only had to work their low paying jobs, but they were also expected to be mothers and housekeepers. Menial labor jobs did not include benefits like vacation or health insurance. If a woman got sick or injured on the job, she couldn't work, and her family struggled to make ends meet.
Companions for the Well-to-Do
The 19th century's most prestigious female class had the good fortune of being born into an affluent family. These women usually had an inheritance passed down, and wealthy men often courted them. They generally did not work, and while women weren't usually allowed to receive a formal education, they were schooled in reading, writing, arithmetic and etiquette. A young woman with an education could take a position as a governess or lady's companion, if she chose to do so.