During the Civil War, new opportunities opened for women to work outside of the home, in previously male-dominated fields. In DC, many of these women went to work in federal government office. The women working for the US Treasury Department became the poster girls for this movement. Think of them as 19th century Rosie the Riveters.
It’s important to understand that white middle class women going to work at all is a huge departure from the norm. While women of color and lower class women would have been used to and expected to work outside the home, middle class white women were not. However, when the war broke out and many men left to fight, women were seen as a suitable and cheap option to fill their place. This is viewed as the birthplace of the modern middle class office. In 1860, only 601 (white) women worked as clerical workers, by 1870 that number was 6410 women.
“Treasury Girls” became the poster children for women in the workplace. Treasury Secretary Francis Skinner hires Jennie Douglas to work for the Treasury Department in 1862. According to Skinner, hiring women—particularly to trim sheets of money—was something he always wanted to do and the war provided him an opportunity. He rationalized that women were better and more experienced with scissors than men. Douglas did well and soon more and more women were hired. Skinner was particularly proud of his role in bringing more women into the federal workplace. He once stated, “The fact that I was instrumental in introducing women to employment in the government gives me more satisfaction than all the other deeds of my life.”
The Treasury Department wasn’t the only federal department hiring women, just the most famous. The rationale for all these departments was women were cheaper, you could pay them less than men. In general, women made $600 a year, while their male counter parts made $1,200 to $1,800. In 1864, this pay discrimination became law. It was illegal to pay female clerks more than $600. While this ceiling was raised to $720 by the end of the war, it was illegal to pay female government clerks the same as men until 1870.
Not only were women cheaper, they were excellent employees. One federal assessor wrote “Female clerks are more attentive, diligent, and efficient than males and make better clerks. I intend very soon to have none but females in my office.” A Treasury Department production sheet from February 1863 shows that the average output of female employees was as great as their male colleagues, despite being newer at the job.
As you might imagine “the first large, sexually integrated, white-collar bureaucracy in America” wasn’t formed without some scandal.
By 1864, there were allegations of sexual impropriety between male and female employees of the Treasury Department, and a high government official or two. Representative James Brooks declared that “millions and millions of the public money” had been “sacrificed” and that the Treasury Department had been turned into “a house for orgies and bacchanals.” Congress investigated—little to nothing was found and by 1865, the Treasury Girls were in favor again—used as poster children in a campaign to raise government wages.
Scandal struck again in 1869. A piece appeared in the New York Independent written by a Hannah Tyler. Ms. Tyler reported “that she and her female co-workers “ought not to be insulted by having the paramours and mistresses of members of Congress forced upon us.” She claimed the offices were “crowded with females” including teenage girls “with no other recommendation than a pretty face or pretty foot,” who were not only idle, but getting in the way of others.” Once again, investigations yielded nothing. No Hannah Tyler had ever worked for the Treasury Department.
In the Confederacy
Up until now, this article has only addressed Union women. In the Confederacy women had the opportunity to go to work for the government—again namely the Treasury Department. Again, these were upper class women—they needed to be able to read and write. Like their Union counterparts, the women were paid half of their male counterparts, but their salary was still considered high.
- Government work was a popular option for war widows. One widow, a Mrs. Willard A. Leonard went to work for the Treasury Department after her husband was killed. As the blog Boundary Stones reports “Hired in 1864, Leonard started out as a trimmer and later moved to the ‘redemption division.’ In this position, Leonard was responsible for sorting out counterfeit dollars from real ones. The stakes for a clerk in this position were high, should she mark as real a fake bill, the amount of that bill would come out of her own pocket, whether $1 or $1,000. Leonard’s skill was unmatched, however, and she ended her career as the chief counterfeit detector, known as the “female Sherlock Holmes.””
- Grace Bedell, the young girl who wrote Lincoln advising him to grow a beard in 1860, wrote to him again in 1864. Her father had lost most of his property, and she was looking for work. She asked Lincoln: “I have heard that a large number of girls are employed constantly and with good wages at Washington cutting Treasury notes and other things pertaining to that department … Could I not obtain a situation there?” Historians do not believe Bedell ever worked for the Treasury Department. Learn more here: http://theweek.com/articles/470072/girl-who-grew-lincolns-beard
- During the 1864 scandal, one Congressional investigator, Lafayette Baker, stopped a funeral procession to seize the body of the deceased, a young girl who had been a clerk for the Treasury Department. Baker claimed she had died of a botched abortion, whereas the autopsy proved she died with “unsullied virtue”—in other words, a virgin.
- Confederate diarist Mary Chesnut on the possibility of doing government work, “Survive or perish – we will not go into one of the departments. We will not stand up all day and cut notes apart, ordered round by a department clerk. We will live at home with our families and starve in a body. Any homework we will do. Any menial service – under the shadow of our own rooftree. Department – never!”
- The most strong contemporary connection is the continuing struggle for equal pay for equal work, though one needs look no further than any sexually integrated workplace to see the legacy of the Treasury Girls.
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Compiled By: Amelia Grabowski