Today we welcome a guest post from Jessica Ziparo, author of This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War–Era Washington, D.C.
In the volatility of the Civil War, the federal government opened its payrolls to women. Thousands of female applicants from across the country flooded Washington with applications. In This Grand Experiment, Jessica Ziparo traces the struggles and triumphs of early female federal employees, who were caught between traditional, cultural notions of female dependence and an evolving movement of female autonomy in a new economic reality. In doing so, Ziparo demonstrates how these women challenged societal gender norms, carved out a place for independent women in the streets of Washington, and sometimes clashed with the female suffrage movement.
This Grand Experiment is now available in both print and e-book editions.
Advice from the 1860s
“Why do many women tear each other down instead of lift each other up?” CNN asked on its Facebook page in March 2015. It’s a question feminists have long asked themselves. In May 1868, suffragist Julia Archibald chided journalist and former War Department clerk Jane Swisshelm in the pages of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s newspaper The Revolution, and her words still have resonance today as women continue to seek equality in America and the world. Swisshelm had written disparagingly about sculptor, and former Post Office Department employee, Vinnie Ream. In 1866, Congress commissioned eighteen-year-old Ream to sculpt the statue of Abraham Lincoln that stands in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building. She was the first female artist ever commissioned to create a work of art by the United States government.
Swisshelm, a women’s rights advocate and friend of a (male) sculptor who had competed with Ream for the commission, wrote in an open letter to popular newspapers of the day that Ream had only earned the commission because she had “a pretty face” and knew how to flirt. Swisshelm described Ream as “a young girl of about twenty who has been studying her art for a few months” and wrote that in her studio Ream had “some plaster busts on exhibition, including her own, minus clothing to the waist.” (These assertions were untrue: Ream had been interested in art since childhood and began an apprenticeship under sculptor Clark Mills in 1865, and the female sculpture to which Swisshelm referred was not of Ream). The journalist told her readers that Ream saw Congressmen “at their lodgings or the reception room at the Capitol” and described her sitting “in a conspicuous position and her most bewitching dress” as the politicians discussed the sculptors vying for the commission.
Julia Archibald was incensed. “It would seem that [Swisshelm] must consider any appreciation which another woman receives as just so much of honor and fame detracted from [herself],” she wrote. Coming to Ream’s defense, Archibald described the young sculptor as “formerly a clerk in the Post Office Department, working for half pay, like the other women clerks, until the inspiration of genius pointed out to her a new path, rugged and thorny enough at first, but leading, it is to be hoped, to a bright future.” It was not her bewitching dress that earned her the federal commission: “by dint of hard study and the most untiring industry she has succeeded in obtaining and deserving a name, and an acknowledged position as an artist, despite the slanders of Mrs. Swisshelm, and writers of that class, with whom her youth, beauty, and attractiveness are her chief faults.”
Archibald’s message to the ladies of the 1860s still serves as a reminder for today: “Every demonstration of genius by a woman should be hailed by her sisters with joy. Women should rejoice at every evidence that the slaveries of fashion and false education have not entirely extinguished in her sex the fire of genius. No true woman will cast the shadow of an obstacle in the way of a toiling sister, and no woman with any degree of self-respect will pander to that vicious appetite for slander, which, like a hideous ulcer, consumes the vitals of society.” Archibald would likely have agreed with Madeleine Albright’s inversion of this advice during the 2016 election: “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Swisshelm’s slander of Ream was the same slander endured by the female federal employees whom I write of in This Grand Experiment (including Ream and Swisshelm). Especially after a sex scandal in the Treasury Department in 1864, women employed by the government were stereotyped as having earned their places because they were attractive and sexually available. As Archibald noted in her defense of Ream, the first female federal employees earned half of what men earned for doing the same work. The slander of sexual immorality hindered women’s efforts to correct that discrimination in the equal pay debates in Congress in the late 1860s. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever read a “comments” section knows, women continue to harm each other.
To learn more about Vinnie Ream, see “Vinnie Ream” on the Architect of the Capitol website, available at https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/artists/vinnie-ream; “Vinnie Ream and Abraham Lincoln,” by Joan A. Lemp in the Woman’s Art Journal (Fall 1985) available at https://www.vinnieream.com/lemp.pdf; and Vinnie Ream: An American Sculptor by Edward S. Cooper (Chicago, IL, Chicago Review Press: 2009).
To learn more about Swisshelm, see Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884 by Sylvia D. Hoffert (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
To learn more about Julia Archibald Holmes, see “Flashback Photo: Julia Archibald Holmes Climbs Pikes Peak” on the New England Historical Society’s website, available here.
Jessica Ziparo earned her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and her J.D. from Harvard Law School. You can read her earlier UNC Press blog post here.