"What Women are Doing in America" (typescript draft)
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This undated typescript draft of an article about women working in male-dominated professions was likely written in the first decade of the twentieth century by journalist Margaret B. Upham Wright (1839-1919). With examples of exceptional women succeeding in business, law, medicine, and ministry, this article champions ambitious women who "go and take" their rights, "not satisfied with only the humbler places railway signal-women, railway ticketsellers, book-keepers, type-writers and restaurant cashiers." Wright's narrative of professional female achievement dismisses the labor of non-elite white women, and most women of color, for whom waged work was overwhelmingly a necessity for survival, rather than a journey of personal fulfillment or political statement.
Who Was Margaret B. Wright?
Born in Castine, Maine in 1839 to Sylvanus Kidder Upham and Marianne Brooks Upham, Margaret Barker "Bertha" Upham Wright was a twice-widowed mother of two and no stranger to wage work herself when she drafted this article at the dawn of the twentieth century. As a younger woman, she had married twice—both times to men who died early in the marriage—and had one child with each husband. After the death of her second husband she did not remarry, working as a journalist to support the family and contributing to many publications including Art Amateur, The Atlantic, Century Magazine, The Chautauquan, Lippincott's, The Outland Monthly, Scribner's, and Temple Bar. She was also a member of the editorial staff for the Cambridge Tribune (Cambridge, Massachusetts). She traveled extensively in Europe with her adult children and the sole book she published was a travel memoir, Hired Furnished: Being Certain Economical Housekeeping Adventures in England (Robert Brothers, 1897), dedicated to her "beloved companion of these hirings"—her son Charles. A supporter of women's right to vote, Wright died of a heart condition in 1919, aged eighty, before she herself was able to exercise her newly-won right to cast a ballot.
Who Were Wright's Women?
Wright's examples of women working draw from a jumble of occupations but overall share middle or upper-middle-class status. Of the twelve women named in the piece, four are ministers, two architects, one a lawyer, one a publisher, and one a pharmacist—all careers requiring specialized training. Of the remaining four, two are business owners, one is a riverboat pilot, and one works in city government. This collective portrait of women "doing" in America, then, is one of exceptional women in what at the time were considered male occupations. The examples are most likely exclusively white, and none of them work in factories, in domestic service, as shop girls or secretaries. Eleven of the twelve were subjects of contemporary news coverage, suggesting that Wright compiled most of her examples from existing print sources rather than boots-on-the-ground research. In the order named in Wright's draft, the women profiled are:
Sophia Brauenlich (1854-1898). Brauenlich's obituary in The Engineering and Mining Journal (20 August 1898) describes her as a "phenomenal mind" in a "frail physical home." In her forty-four years of life, Brauenlich was educated in Germany, married and widowed, attended Packard's Business College, and was hired by the Scientific Publishing Company in a clerical position. At the company she worked her way up to Business Manager and was, as Wright notes, the first American woman elected a Fellow of the Imperial Institute of London.
Lydia Sexton (1799-1894). Sexton served as both an unlicensed and formally licensed minister with the United Brethren Church in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas. At the age of seventy she became the first woman to serve as a prison chaplain at Kansas State Prison.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921). Blackwell was a graduate of Oberlin College and ordained in 1853 when she was called to serve as minister of a Congregational church in South Butler, New York; she later became a Unitarian. She was active in the abolition, temperance, and women's rights movements, and wrote for the suffrage periodical The Woman's Journal published by her brother-in-law Henry Blackwell and his wife Lucy Stone.
Augusta J. Chapin (1836-1905). Chapin taught school in her adolescence and attended Olivet College for two years. She earned her A.M. degree at the University of Michigan and her D.D. at Lombard University; she was ordained as a Universalist minister. She was one of the directors of the World's Congress of Religions at the 1868 World's Fair in Chicago as well as a writer and lecturer. Her obituary in The Universalist Register (1906) remembered her as a "champion of woman suffrage," a traveler and tour guide, and "active and prominent member of Sorosis," a club for professional women.
Alice Kinney Wright (1870-1949). Another Universalist minister, Wright was a graduate of Canton Theological School at St. Lawrence University and was ordained alongside her first husband, Alfred Ellsworth Wright, in 1891. They served as co-pastors of the Church of the Reconciliation and Fifth Universalist Church, both in Brooklyn, New York. They divorced in 1903 and Alice retired from ministry. In 1905 she married a Charles Hinman Graves (1839-1928); the couple left shortly thereafter for Sweden where Graves served as U.S. Ambassador from 1905 to 1913.
Elise Mercur (1868-1947). Mercur was an architect based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Educated in France and Germany as well as at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts she designed and supervised construction of a number of buildings including the Woman's Building at the Cotton States & International Exposition (Atlanta, Georgia) in 1895, the Y.W.C.A. building in Syracuse, New York, the Children's Building at City Home and Hospital in Marshalsea, Pennsylvania and St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. At age thirty-four she married Karl Rudolph Wagner (1872–1949) and the couple had three children.
Juliet Harger. Harger lived with her husband, Captain George Harger, on the banks of the Ohio River in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. In 1898 she made the news when she applied for her own pilot's license. While the inspector at first "found a great many things to criticise," including that she was "too young ... too petite, gentle, refined and ladylike, ... too much lacking on the whole of what one expects to see in the appearance of a boat's pilot," he reluctantly admitted that she had the requisite skill and granted her the license. According to a story in the New York Journal and Advertiser (9 August 1898), "Mrs. Harger's chief interest was not the passengers, not the scenery, but in the pilot and engine rooms...she is desirous of advancing herself in the knowledge of civil engineering."
A.E. Paul (1843? - 1912). A. Emogene Paul seems to have been an Illinois native, married from 1863 to 1890 when she was either widowed or divorced. She had two children. A member of the Municipal Order League, a citizen's group seeking to improve the sanitary conditions of Chicago's public spaces, Paul moved into a formal position with the Chicago Health Department overseeing street cleaning and garbage collection. A contemporary report in The American Kitchen (February 1898) suggests she was motivated in her work by the death of one of her children from diptheria.
Laura C. Bush. Registered as a pharmacist in 1892, Bush eventually took "charge of the pharmacy formerly conducted by her father, Martin L. Bush" (Merck's Report vol. 6, 1898). The Druggist's Circular and Chemical Gazette (December 1898) noted that "Miss Laura C. Bush of Rogers Park, Chicago reports an improvement in business during the past month. Miss Bush has been in business since 1892 and was formerly connected with the city dispensary. Her store is a modern one and she keeps up with the times."
Marian Cecilia Tirrell. In 1880, Tirrell became the first female graduate of the Chicago College of Pharmacy and also served as treasurer of the Women Pharmaceutical Association of Illinois. The Pharmaceutical Era (February 1912) reported that "Mr. and Mrs. Tirrell were in the drug business for many years, illustrating well the success that may come through combined effort and united interest." Celia and her husband Charles Tirrell are listed side-by-side in the Cook County list of registered pharmacists for the year 1913.
Annie Kline Rickert (1840-1906). Born into a cotton plantation-owning family in Mississippi, Rickert served as a spy for the Confederacy during the Civil War and was briefly arrested by the Union Army. Following the war she settled in California where she worked mining silver and then eventually incorporated the Stockton and Tuolumne County Railroad Company.
A.J. Atwood. According to a story published in Every Week (15 May 1916), Mrs. A. J. Atwood was widowed in 1894 with a daughter to support and was encouraged to open an employment agency for itinerant laborers. The business eventually expanded to a chain of offices and Atwood's daughter eventually joined her in the family business. "It would appear," the Every Week journalist observed, "that this business of fitting a man in the right niche is one of the most important in the modern system of efficiency."
Rosalie Loew Whitney (1873-1939). Whitney was born in New York to immigrant parents, attended Hunter College and New York University, and after admittance to the bar joined her father's law firm as a partner. She joined the New York Legal Aid Society in 1897 and in 1901 became the Society's acting attorney in chief—the first woman to hold the position. She met her husband, Travis Whitney, when he volunteered for the organization. After their marriage in 1903 the couple continued to practice law and both enjoyed long careers in public office.
Can She Do It? Massachusetts Debates a Woman's Right to Vote
Commemorating 100 years since Massachusetts ratified the 19th Amendment, a new exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society explores the activism and debate around women's suffrage in Massachusetts. Featuring dynamic imagery from the collection of the MHS, "Can She Do It?" Massachusetts Debates a Woman's Right to Vote illustrates the passion on each side of the suffrage question. The exhibition is open at the MHS April 26 through September 21, 2019, Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Admission is free. Please check the MHS calendar for more information on the exhibit and related programs.
For further reading
Deutsch, Sarah. Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Edlin-Wright, Rowena. "Introduction" to Windy How by Margaret B. Wright. Smallprint, 2018.
Wright Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
The Margaret B. Wright papers, 1868-1920, are contained within the Wright Family Papers and consist of personal correspondence, diaries, legal and financial papers, published and unpublished writings, and some reviews of and responses to her published work.
Wright, Margaret B. Hired Furnished: Being Certain Economical Housekeeping Adventures in England (Roberts Brothers, 1897).