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Women Professionals

Madame C.J. Walker Madame C.J. Walker, c. 1914
Photograph courtesy of A'Lelia Bundles/Walker Family Collection
Since the mid-19th century, American women have inserted themselves into the professions, sometimes using traditional concepts of womanhood to advance their cause, and sometimes finding those traditional concepts used against them. Women have created female-dominated professions and institutions when they perceived new needs or opportunities, or to challenge their exclusion from a professional field. In some cases, however, identification of a profession with women has been used to relegate that field to lower professional status and pay.

Female business owners probably have the longest histories as professional women. Colonial women entrepreneurs ran hotels, taverns, stores, and craft shops. While industrialization tended to limit women to factory jobs, a small number of women such as Madame C. J. Walker created their own mass-marketing empires.

By the 1870s, women had found their earliest, least controversial career opportunity in a profession perceived as an extension of traditional domestic roles--as school teachers. Female schoolteachers provided further justification for collegiate and graduate education for women at institutions such as Mount Holyoke College. Yet acceptance as college faculty and administrators was uncommon. Women in academia tended to cluster in separate institutions as faculty and administrators at women's colleges, or in positions that identified them as women, such as deans of women students in coeducational institutions. Female academics also used traditional gender concepts as springboards to professional status in the gender-specific discipline of home economics.

The 19th century also witnessed the advent of women into medicine. During the Civil War, women's traditional role in nursing family members at home collided with belief that women should be shielded from battlefield horrors and contact with the bodies of male strangers. Despite opposition from the public in general and male doctors in particular, women nurses served on both sides.

By 1890, women could attend 35 nursing schools and nursing was on its way to becoming a female-dominated profession. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman doctor in United States, but well into the 20th century, Blackwell's successors found it difficult to obtain medical education and establish a private practice or obtain a hospital position unless they devoted themselves to maternal and child health care.

Women have created professions as well. A long tradition of female activism in private charitable and benevolent organizations laid the foundation for public action in the late nineteenth and early 20th century. Female social reformers such as Lillian Wald and Jane Addams used their settlement houses and work on women's and children's issues to create the professional social worker. Professional training programs, such as the New York School of Philanthropy and Chicago School of Social Service Administration, soon followed; the short-lived federal Children's Bureau put many of these early social workers' goals into practice.

Women have found that their traditional association with home and children justified career advancement in the "helping" professions such as teaching, nursing, or social work. Traditional connotations also impeded women's recognition as professionals. For example, women were some of the most popular writers of the 19th century, and affluent women flocked into amateur arts organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; yet few female authors and artists received critical respect, while female architects frequently were limited to commissions for small-scale residential projects. Home economists intended to professionalize women's domestic work and to advance women in scientific and academic careers, only to find themselves marginal members of academic institutions that viewed their discipline as female vocational training. At times, women found early acceptance in new professions but little advancement. Women were an integral part of the establishment of research science as a profession in the early 20th century, yet apart from those who held university appointments, women scientists soon found themselves limited to subordinate positions in research laboratories.

In recent years, women have entrenched themselves in the professions as a consequence of this century's massive influx of women into the paid work force and a combination of legal, governmental, and social forces against gender discrimination. Despite "glass ceilings" and lower average salaries, professional women continue to build on the legacy of women pioneers over a century ago.

Dr. Mary Hoffschweilie
Professor of History
Middle Tennessee State University

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Last Modified: Monday, 30-Mar-98 15:42:58EST