Illinois Women at Work

Funded through an Educate and Automate Grant from the Illinois State Library,
a division of the Office of the Secretary of State

Introduction to Women at Work

By Iris Nelson, Quincy Public Library

The focus of this section on “Women at Work” will feature those women who boldly pioneered new working arenas, most of which had habitually been in the male domain. Women have always worked--but they did not have the opportunity to educate themselves, establish professional identities, and broaden the female experience to work outside the acceptable social norm. Evolving beyond the roles to which women had historically been relegated, those of the nineteenth century distinguished themselves as artisans and merchants in the business arena, as well as in the professions of education, law, and medicine.

Profound change occurred during the 1800's--a new social order was born. Changes in the political, social, and cultural environment in the United States affected the prevailing ideologies. The American Revolution sounded a permanent prominence to the ideals of liberty and equality. Men and women were increasingly unwilling to tolerate the political and social injustices. This spark, combined with the advances of the Industrial Revolution that lessened the burdens of domesticity, slowly affected the cultural landscape.

Before the Civil War women's groups were social in orientation; after the war women's groups took on broader issues including the rights of women. Additionally, educational institutions slowly became co-educational. Land-grant colleges and women’s institutions were established to encourage women to earn college degrees and seek different avocations without threatening the contemporary role. Many women became schoolteachers. In 1870, the U. S. Census Bureau reported over 30,000 female proprietors in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. By 1880 growing numbers of Illinois businesswomen were active artisans working as milliners, dressmakers, bakers, and photographers. As merchants, such as grocers and dry goods shopkeepers, women pursued and successfully operated business establishments. Midwestern women in amazing numbers marketed their acquired domestic skills and were remarkably active in commercial ventures.

By the 1870's, advanced professional degrees were attainable at some institutions of higher education. The 1880 Illinois Census indicates that there were 9 women lawyers and 155 women physicians. Slowly and in small numbers, women began to earn degrees in medicine and law as well as other professions.

In this section, we honor these women of unique distinction who sought worlds beyond the grasp of previous generations. Given opportunity and a choice of careers, women shed their previous societal confines and vigorously contributed to the workplace. The dynamics of the workplace was altered forever.

Murphy, Lucy Eldersveld. “Her Own Boss: Businesswomen and Separate Spheres in the Midwest, 1850-1880.” Illinois Historical Journal. 80 (1987): 155- 176.

  1. Cora Benneson, Lawyer & Writer
  2. Nellie Kedzie from Bradley University
  3. Vivian Harsh and the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature
  4. Annie Turnbo Malone, Entrepreneur, Businesswomen, Millionaire, and Philanthropist
  5. Louisa McCall, Director of First National Bank of Canton, Illinois
  6. Candace McCormick Reed, Photographer & "Artiste"
  7. Mahala Phelps, Macomb Public Library
  8. Josie Westfall, the McDonough County Orphanage and Macomb City Judge


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This page last updated: February 7, 2008