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The Hidden History Of Women’s Careers

Andie Kramer


Women have always worked and not just in the home or doing traditional women’s work like teaching and caring for children, cleaning, serving, and tending the sick and infirm. However, because women began participating in traditionally male career fields in significant numbers only during the second half of the 20th century, it is easy to assume that before then, few, if any, women pursued socially significant economic activities. This would be a serious misreading of history. 

Women’s Extraordinarily Diverse Careers

Among the Vikings in approximately 750 A.D., we know of at least one high-status female warrior; she was buried with a large collection of weapons and two horses, one bridled for riding. And because of the Lisa Unger Baskin collection at Duke University, we know that since the Renaissance, women have been pursuing a wide variety of productive, creative, and socially important careers. This collection contains thousands of cards, labels, broadsides, photographs, and clippings that make clear that although women’s career activities have often been obscured, forgotten, and overlooked, these activities have been an integral and important part of life in the Western world for centuries. In the collection, for example, is an enormous number of printed materials used by women to advertise their varied economic activities including as publishers and book sellers (1720s), instrument makers (1730s), hoop and petticoat makers (1767), mantua (gown) makers (1790), artificial flower arrangers (1800s), sextons (1820), printers (1823), bricklayers (1831), actors (1860s), merchants (1870s), resort owners (1870s), firefighters (1870), “layers out of the dead” (1880), photographers (1870), shoemakers (1880s), inventors (1880), corset makers (1890), typesetters (1900s), and candy makers (1922). 

Women have always been productive and working people and this history has essentially been hidden. 

Lisa Unger Baskin 

What all of these women have in common is that, without fame or fanfare, they pursued socially valuable activities outside the home and supported themselves and their families by doing so. As Lisa Unger Baskin herself has said, “Women have always been productive and working people and this history has essentially been hidden.”

Three Women of Note

We don’t know a great deal about many of the women whose advertisements we have, but about others we know a fair amount. A Mrs. Phillips, for example, who lived in London, sent out a flyer in about 1785 touting her “machine warehouse,” where she had a “great choice of skins and bladders.” In other words, she was manufacturing and selling condoms. Although the word was in general use by that time, Mrs. Phillips never used it. Rather, she described her products as “implements of safety” designed to secure the health of her customers. We know she was not the only woman engaged in this occupation because she dismissed as inferior the products sold by a competitor, one Mrs. Perkins. Indeed, she proudly defied anyone “to equal her goods in England or any other country whatsoever.” She tells us she has been manufacturing condoms for 35 years and fills orders from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and “other foreign places.” She even uses a short but pointed poem to promote her products:

Self-preservation’s Nature’s Law.

Among the many women scientists highlighted in the Baskin collection, Martha Maxwell stands out. After moving west during the gold rush, she became a professional naturalist. She hunted, skinned, and stuffed her own specimens. Maxwell then displayed the animals in her own museum in lifelike tableaus, the first naturalist, male or female, to do so. A souvenir stereograph from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, where she represented Colorado, shows her standing in the middle of a diorama behind a deer, with the caption “Mrs. Maxwell and Her Pets.” When she was asked how her work as a naturalist related to the then-popular tracts proclaiming women’s equality, she responded, “The world demands proof of woman’s capabilities. Without it, words are useless.” Although Maxwell was only 4 feet 11 inches tall, as a naturalist she was a giant.

Madame Nora billed herself as “the only lady glass artist in the profession.” She was the headliner and “sole proprietor” of “Madame Nora and her Original Troupe of Glassblowers.” The troupe consisted of Nora and four men, and it toured for decades across New York State. The composition of the group changed over the years, but Madame Nora always led and owned the troupe. She and her supporting artists would demonstrate their glass-working skills and then give every paying guest a glass souvenir. A broadside from 1876 shows Madame Nora behind a table displaying a glass dome containing animals and plants, and a cross, fountain, and ship. An 1894 newspaper article reported that Madame Nora was then on her 19th annual tour.

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    Gender Equity/Diversity

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