Talking with Jessica Ziparo

Historian and lawyer Jessica Ziparo waded through thousands of pages of Civil War-era federal employee records and newspapers while researching her debut book, This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War–Era Washington, D.C. (UNC Press). Johns Hopkins Magazine caught up with Ziparo, A&S '12 (PhD), to talk about how this generation of women did and didn't open doors to women entering the labor force in the early part of the 20th century.

What drew you to the subject of women entering the federal workforce in Washington, D.C. during and immediately after the Civil War era?

Jessica Ziparo

Image caption: Jessica Ziparo

Image credit: Courtesy of Jessica Ziparo

I was initially interested in studying sex workers during the Civil War because I am interested in the ways women and marginalized people have carved out autonomous lives for themselves within societies and structures that seek to control them, and the sacrifices they must make to do so. In my early research, I discovered female federal employees through an 1864 scandal in the Department of the Treasury. In this scandal, newspapers maligned all women who worked for the federal government as sexually immoral. I hadn't realized so many women had been working for the federal government and became curious as to what they had been doing and how they came to work there.

My curiosity was piqued when I read the Congressional report on the scandal and that congressmen were interviewing female "supervisors." This led me to Cindy Aron's Ladies and Gentlemen of the Civil Service, which is an excellent book on the men and women who worked for the federal government from the Civil War through 1900 and how they squared their middle-class identities with their federal employment. I was left hungry, however, for more information on those first women who became civil servants. How did they come to work for the government? Where did they come from? What was it like for women to live in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War and Reconstruction? Those were the questions I set out to answer in my book.

Prior to some of the openings in federal agencies such as the Department of Treasury, what job prospects were open to middle-class white women who began to enter the federal workforce?

There aren't great statistics on women's paid labor prior to the Civil War era. The 1860 census was the first to systematically record women's occupations, but the information gathered, which may have suffered in accuracy from the stigma attached to wage-earning women and all-male census data collectors, wasn't tabulated separately for women. Historian Ellen Carol DuBois found that in 1870, 1.3 million women worked for wages in non-agricultural jobs. Of these, 70 percent were domestic workers and 24 percent worked in factories making textiles, clothing, or shoes. The remaining 6 percent worked in a variety of jobs including printing, teaching, medicine, writing, and clerical work. Options for women in 1860 would not have been much different, save for fewer women employed as clerks.

book cover of 'The Grand Experiment'

Image credit: University of North Carolina Press

Although most women in the 1860s were limited to domestic work, factory jobs, or teaching positions, Virginia Penny in her 1863 book, The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Woman's Work, presents fascinating information, albeit largely anecdotal and filtered through Penny's ideas about race and class, on what work women were, or she thought could be, doing in the Civil War era. Between October 1859 and February 1861, Penny visited stores, factories, workshops, and offices and talked with women she met about the kinds of work they performed, often without telling the women the purpose behind her questions. Her book presents the fruits of this labor, in the form of 533 different possible occupations for women during the Civil War era. The number is misleadingly high, however. Some occupations were very niche (Entry 52: "Equestrians and Gymnasts," Entry 458: "Billiard-Table Finishers") and others were not sustainable as occupations (Entry 302: "Growers [of human hair to sell]"). A number of the occupations were only theoretical. In her entry for "Lawyers" (Entry 14), for instance, she only cites one example of a woman lawyer in Italy in 15th century and says it should be a woman's right to be a lawyer, but she "doubt[s] whether it would be for her good." Entry 516, "Water Carriers," only notes that poor women carry water up from the Nile on their heads and shoulders and there are between 100 and 150 water carriers in London, but they seemed to all be men.

You show that while women doing clerical labor in the federal workforce opened the door to women performing clerical labor in private industry, but that what was attractive about that labor pool was that they were paid less—that there was an economic incentive to employing women.

There was absolutely an economic incentive to hire women. At the end of 1864, Treasurer F. E. Spinner informed Congress, "But for the employment of females whose compensation is low, and in most cases too low, it would have been impossible to have carried on the business of the office with the compensation allowed." People who have written about women's entrance into the federal workforce during the Civil War have suggested that the government hired women because it had lost so many of its male employees to the war. It is clear from reading the departmental reports to Congress that this was not the case—there were plenty of qualified men, but departments couldn't afford them.

Book review
'This Grand Experiment' by Jessica Ziparo

This deep dive is a necessary chapter of U.S. labor history

The cost savings of hiring women to do all the work for half the pay also came up at the end of the decade during the debates in Congress over whether men and women should receive equal pay for equal work. It didn't make economic sense to pay women more than they would accept, argued some Congressmen. In 1869, Senator Roscoe Conkling, Republican from New York, argued that it was "not true as a business proposition that more money need be appropriated in order to command [women's] services" and so he could not "vote that the funds which we administer as trustees here shall be paid in greater sums than are necessary to obtain, and abundantly and certainly obtain, the service required." Republican South Carolina Senator Frederick A. Sawyer concurred, arguing in 1870 that when the government was acting as an employer, it should try to obtain "the best labor at the lowest compensation which it is practicable to get it for."

The federal government certainly wasn't the first place where women were underpaid for their labor in America. In bringing women into work in the civil service, where they performed identical or equivalent work as did men for half the pay, however, the federal government provided private industry with a clear model of how to cut clerical labor costs: hire women who, due to a lack of other viable employment options, will work for far less than would men.

In the book you mention that you went through eight years of Washington, D.C., daily newspapers to gain an appreciation of what working women's lives may have been like in the capital during this era. Could you talk briefly about the role of newspaper archives in your research?

"We should not expect the onus of effecting social change to be shouldered only by those who are in the most insecure and vulnerable positions. To do so is to continue to benefit from an exploitation of their labor."
Jessica Ziparo

This process was simultaneously tedious and fun. I read entire Washington, D.C. newspapers on microfilm (instead of relying on online keyword searches) for two main reasons. First, I needed to try to capture all the ephemera I could about women who worked for the federal government during this period because there is so little information about women in the evidentiary record. For this book I created and populated a database of, at current count, 3,146 women who worked for the federal government at some point between 1859 and 1871. Newspaper articles that referenced specific "ordinary" women in Washington, D.C. were relatively rare. Rare enough, in any event, that I could cross-reference their names with the names of women in my database. This allowed me to make small connections that illuminated the lives of women who had only been entries with scant information in the Federal Register. For instance, I knew that Sophia Curtis worked for the Treasury Department in 1867 and 1869, but because I saw her name in an 1862 "Local News" article and checked for her in my database, I further learned who her father had been, where she lived, and that she had been badly injured when her dress caught fire that March. With only the information in the Federal Register, I wouldn't have known that Department of Agriculture employee (from 1869 to at least 1871) Teresa Drexler came to that work after a brutally abusive marriage and acrimonious divorce; but after I read about it in the Evening Star from January 1867, I was able to make the connection. It would have been too tedious (and too subject to error) to try to search for all three thousand women by name in all of those Washington, D.C. newspapers.

Secondly, I read entire papers because I wanted to gain an understanding of day-to-day life for women in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War era. As time consuming as it was to put my eyes on every page of these papers, it allowed me to track trends and stories that gave me a better understanding of life in the nation's capital. I could start to see boardinghouses open to women, specifically women in the federal departments. I could see stores and shops starting to cater to female federal employees. I was able to see social events like boating excursions start to reference ladies of the departments. This would have been impossible to do in a keyword search because the searches ("ladies," "departments") would have been prohibitively broad.

I was both shocked at the intensity of 19th-century media scrutiny of women's private lives and completely unsurprised that an employer, in this case the government, used work as a form of control. Were you already aware of some of the specific cases you cited in the book about working women being considered "sexually promiscuous," or did the extent of this attitude emerge during your research?

As I mentioned above, I came to this topic through the Treasury Department scandal of 1864, so I was primed for female federal employees being perceived of as sexually promiscuous. (Moreover, women working outside of the home for wages had been considered morally suspect prior to this period). I am going to hijack this question a little and give some quick examples of things that surprised me with dismay and others that surprised me with delight during my research.

Surprised with dismay:

  • A white woman "just for fun" dropping green ink into the teapot of an African-American coworker as a "practical joke" and almost killing her because the ink was poisonous
  • Spencer M. Clark, the man implicated in the Treasury scandal of 1864 who was almost definitely sleeping with teenage girls in his employment, being so uncowed by the Congressional investigation, over which the young women lost their jobs and were smeared in the press, that he put his own face on currency in 1866. This resulted in Congress passing the Thayer amendment that year, which stated that only deceased individuals may appear on U.S. money
  • Lafayette Baker, the investigator who sparked the Treasury scandal, ripping the body of a young woman, formerly a Treasury Department employee, off of her funeral train and autopsying her in her father's home despite her hysterical sister trying to guard her body and the family physician's repeated assertions she had long suffered from lung issues. Only after the doctors examined her reproductive organs in great detail did they concede that she died from pulmonary consumption
  • Women's supposed "champion" F. E. Spinner telling a newspaper that women couldn't "reason a damn bit" and not advocating for equal pay for women to Congress

Surprised with delight:

  • Hundreds of women spanning race and class coming together to petition for greater pay during the Civil War era
  • Sarah Wainwright, who when asked to supervise her female colleagues for the same salary she had been receiving prior to the promotion, saying, No, but I will if you pay me—and winning!
  • Indian Bureau employee Annie Dudley's Civil War diary entries about dancing in her parlor, going to birthday hops, and partying "till day-light"—twice.

What can a better understanding this time period tell us about the politics and economics of women's contemporary work environments?

Again, I want to stress that this wasn't the first time and place in which employers underpaid and exploited female labor. I do think, however, there are some lessons to be reminded of, if not learned, from the first women to work for the federal government. To me, the most significant of those lessons is the need for solidarity—among women and with allies. Women were able to effect the greatest change when they worked together—as evidenced by at least 740 women spanning departments, class, and race forcing Congress into years-long debates over equal pay through petitioning. While they did not receive equal pay as hoped, they did cause female clerks' salaries to be raised from $600 per year to $900 by 1869. The federal government of the 1860s, and in many instances jobs and organizations of today, tend to try to divide employees. Employees should remember their collective power.

People in power, statistically most of whom are men, also need to be consistent and vocal allies, and should think of what is good for society in a broader sense than strictly an immediate financial bottom line. While it is important for women to advocate for change, this was difficult to do in practice in the 1860s. Women only held on to their jobs precariously. Turnover was high because thousands of women from across the United States were attempting to secure federal jobs. Women needed their jobs to support themselves and often families. For them, advocating for justice and equality meant jeopardizing those jobs. The government was able to profit from female labor at women's expense because women had so few other options for work and thus were willing to accept jobs at lower salaries than men commanded. We should not expect the onus of effecting social change to be shouldered only by those who are in the most insecure and vulnerable positions. To do so is to continue to benefit from an exploitation of their labor.

The struggle of early female federal employees also raises the importance of advocating for feminism generally, since employment conditions are reflective of the larger society and culture. I am baffled by people who reject the label "feminist." I think some people who don't identify as feminist are operating under a misunderstanding of what feminism means, thinking perhaps that it is synonymous with misandry. It's not. Defined by Merriam-Webster, feminism is "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes." Women's rights are human rights. Until women enjoy political and social equality they will be unable to achieve economic equality.