You had to be made of some pretty stern stuff to be a New Woman at the turn of the century. The odds were definitely not in your favor. Nobody (other than your fellow New Women) would support you in your decision to get a job or break away from your traditional role in the household. The refrains of “Girl Power!” were nowhere to be heard in the 1890s, that’s for sure. No, traditional gender roles insisted us women had to be meek, passive, timid, nurturing and emotional, while men should be powerful, brave, rational and independent. LOL. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a powerful, brave, rational and independent man. But I also love making my heroines bust free of their oppressive stereotypes!
And when I researched Tiffany Girl, I quickly discovered that getting a job in a male-dominated world was no easy feat. It wasn’t until years later, when men went off to war, leaving a gaping hole in the workforce, that women finally saw significant opportunities to leave their traditional roles in the home to go to work.
Since only about a dozen of the women in NYC were Tiffany Girls, I wondered what would happen to Flossie (the heroine) if she lost her job. What kind of jobs would be be available to her? And this is what I found out:
Those of you who have read It Happened at the Fair will remember Cullen’s mother visited a textile mill. What I didn’t have time to highlight in that book was that the women working there turned cotton into fabric or yarn. They faced 10-12 hour shifts in unsafe, unsanitary conditions with dangerous machinery chugging along all around them. Their roles in the factory ranged from Spoolers, those responsible for running the machines that combined threads together, to Weavers, those who actually turned the threads into fabric. The pay was terrible--so bad that many brought their children to work alongside them for extra income. What a far-cry from the on-site childcare that many forward-thinking companies offer women today, right? It broke my heart to read about the conditions these women and children worked in.
As many of you know, I’m a collector of historical gowns. One of the things that continually amazes me about these complex gowns is that they are done completely by hand--no sewing machines. Can you imagine? I can tell you one thing, if that were the case today, I’d have a very small wardrobe and my husband would get A LOT of space back in the closet.
Back then, women with a talent for needlework were employed as dressmakers for the wealthy upper classes. When I read about one in an old journal, I decided to have Flossie Jayne’s mother be a seamstress in Tiffany Girl. But even then, she handed over all her wages to her husband. Much like the textile workers, she faced pitiful wages and LONG hours. Strict order deadlines meant sewing hunched over dim lighting until all hours of the night. Really gives a new meaning to the phrase “burning the midnight oil,” huh?
Of course, the most widely expected and preferred occupation for women was being the sole caretaker of their home and children. I had to include this job on the list even though choosing it wouldn’t have technically made you a New Woman. but one thing I know for certain--having been one myself--being a SAHM is hard work! At the turn of the century, though, many believed that being a homemaker was the only job a woman should take on. The tides were beginning to turn in the 1890s, and I loved exploring that in Tiffany Girl, but by and large, most women were expected to maintain the household, raise their children and make life easy as possible for their hardworking husbands. Work outside of the home simply wasn’t an option.
Would you be satisfied if these were your only options for a career?
PS: Here’s a fun fact: The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago was the first to honor women's achievements with a separate Woman's Building. My heroine in Fair Play was based on a female doctor who worked in the infirmary of the Woman’s Building. How fun is that?