Setting the Scene: Women of the 1890s

To paint a portrait of women during this time, the stage must first be set. An understanding of the economical atmosphere and social standards women experienced in the 1890 is needed.

This was a time of change. The decade prior had been the days of Wyatt Earp and Jesse James, of Sitting Bull and Geronimo. But by 1889, the Wild West is shrinking, 50,000 people participated in the first Oklahoma land rush; the US population grew over 25% in 10 years; and more people than ever live in urban areas. By the 1890's, with the age of industrialization in full swing, people are just as likely to work in a factory as they are on a farm. The concept of social Darwinism was on the rise; a concept that while we all function within a society. We owe that society nothing, survival of the fittest. Though this might sound sever, this belief also meant that anyone could better themselves and their social standings if they had an innovative idea and a strong work ethic. By the turn of the century, we would listen to our news on the radio instead of reading it in the newspaper, homes will be illuminated by light bulbs instead of lamps, largely thanks to the General Electric cofounded by Thomas Edison, and we would order our furniture and even our homes from Sears & Roebucks mail order catalogs.

Despite the success of these well-known companies, the mid 1890's was a time of economic strife. In 1893 the US economy crashed because of two major factors; railroads and silver. The over production of railroads caused the bankruptcy of several railroad companies. These bankruptcies caused the 500 Sherman Silver Purchase Act. A law which increased the amount of silver the government bought. The hope was this would solidify or even strengthen the worth of silver. Instead, people feared that if silver prices fell, their money would be worth less. So many exchanged their silver notes in for gold bars. This was so common that eventually the Federal Gold Reserves were depleted to their minimum allowed holdings. The newspapers referred to the economic downturn as "The Panic of 1893". Within the year, 15,000 businesses closed, and unemployment skyrocketed. Pennsylvania saw 25% unemployment, New York 35%, and in Michigan 43%. The US would remain in this depression until gold was discovered in the Yukon in 1896 and the Klondike Gold Rush revived the American economy.

With the increase in urban populations, the shift in social beliefs, and the turmoil of the economic atmosphere, social roles were ripe for change as well. Marriage and motherhood were still considered the most important job for women according to societal standards, but unlike just a few decades earlier, a woman's standing in her community was not solely hinged on her starting a family. Married women lived a very restricted life; wives were expected to cater to the needs of their house and husband. If a family was wealthy, they would be able to hire someone to care for the home. This, however, did not mean a wife had the opportunity to pursue other interest. It was considered a show of wealth for a wife to have no responsibilities at all.

Many women wanted this role to change. Support for this attitude was seen in the workplace, in fashion, and in recreation. For some, remaining unmarried was the first step towards independence. In 1890, three-quarters of women in the workforce were single. A single or not, woman's options were greatly dictated by their social class. Women from upper and middle class families could typically afford some form of continued education (though it was often difficult for daughters receive their families blessing in perusing such things). With education, women had opportunity to create a career, as opposed to holding a job. An educated woman might be employed as a nurse, teacher, or secretary. These women would make more money and work less than their lower-class counterparts. The lower class of course, had fewer options. With little education, women typically took jobs as laborers. Positions such as textile factory workers, maids, and laundresses were among the most common. With the onset of the panic of '93 women increasingly sought out employment; often a family could not survive on one income. Regardless of class, women of this day were typically only able to find employment at positions considered "suitable for the fairer sex." Even when employed, society expected women to leave the work force if they were married or became pregnant. It was considered unfashionable to be pregnant and employed.

Fashion tells a lot about the expectations of women of this day. The 1890's is sometimes referred to as the "mauve decade" because a new dye, mauve or lavender in color, was popular in women's fashion. At the start of the decade, elegance was most important, comfort was certainly not. Dresses were nearly the only option and seemed to be deliberately impractical. Puffy sleeves and voluminous layered shirts combined with corsets, created the thin waist, large bust look that was considered desirable. The more expensive A dress was, the more difficult it was to move in. signifying she was a lady of leisure. Once again, the logic being, a family was surly rich if the women did not work at all. Yet few women could afford such garments with a depression in full swing. Most women still wore dresses, but attire became simpler and more practical; simpler, because it made the dresses cheaper; and more practical, because women needed to be able to work efficiently. Women's clothes became comfortable out of necessity not out of consideration for the wearer. All the same, by the close of the decade, women's fashion had changed considerably and proved liberating for the women.

Strangely enough, it was not just work that changed women's fashion it was also the bicycle. Bikes were a new craze in the 1890's but the fashions of the day restricted a women's ability to ride. Because of this, bloomers, or loose-fitting pants, became increasingly popular. Many in society frowned upon such attire, but the freedom a bicycle provided had too much allure for most and old fashion standards were discarded. With bicycles, women had an activity that provided both fun and independence. Bicycles became a symbol of the women's movement; they represented mobility, freedom, and, thanks to bloomer, a visible statement of liberty. Recreation activities became a mechanism of women's rights. During this decade, the first Women's Amateur Golf championship was held, the first women's intercollegiate basketball game was played, and two all-women ice hockey teams faced off in Philadelphia, Pa. Women were more active than ever. Sports teams, bike clubs and social groups provided an opportunity to discuss and unite over shared interest. Involvement in these groups often led to other social organizations.

The 1890's saw a huge surge in volunteerism in women's rights groups. Charity groups, suffragettes, alcohol temperance organizations, and the women's movement had existed for decades. Though the 1890's was not the birth of the women's movement, it did see a significant increase in participation and success of these groups. As women organizations grew in popularity, they became a politically influential. In 1890 the two largest women's suffrage organizations merged to create the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The group was led by the famous Susan B. Anthony among others.

When the stampede that was the Klondike gold rush occurred in late 1897, women had already spent the decade striving for independence. Employment, fashion and recreation had been their soundboard to proclaim this ideal. The Klondike provided a chance for individual women to prove they were capable of anything. Some women were gold seekers, other entrepreneurs, there were prostitutes, and day laborers. Whatever their profession, women of the Klondike toiled day in and out to survive in the unforgiving Alaska frontier. Often, these women faced even greater hardships than their male counterpart because of society viewed them as second-class citizens. Yet these women survived, triumphed and even thrived thanks to their tenacious pursuit of individuality and happiness. Women entered the 1890's as house wives and nannies; they left it as gold seekers, as sport enthusiast, as entrepreneurs and political activist. They left as individuals.

This text is adapted from a KHNS History talk written by Ranger Jason Verhaeghe October 2014.

Last updated: March 7, 2024

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