Post-Civil War through 1920

Rosa Stonestreet took a job teaching after the death of her husband. As an educated widow who taught school, she held an awkward place in society. While Rosa was related to the wealthy Standiford family, her position as a school teacher was seen as a detractor from her social status. For example, one evening Rosa's cousin invited her to attend a ball at the Galt House. The party was still in full swing at midnight when Rosa decided she needed to leave. As she made her rounds to say good night, one of the society mavens asked why she was leaving so early. Rosa explained that she needed to be at the school early in the morning to which the older woman replied, "My, My! The working class does creep in!" (Klusmeier 1951)

Rosa Stonestreet's awkward position reflects the fact that around the turn of the century, women's work was largely segregated by class and race. The poor and uneducated, immigrants, and newly freed African American women held the lowest paying, lowest status positions. Women who came from wealthy or formerly wealthy families had the benefit of education, and therefore, access to professional positions as teachers and social workers. This essay looks at how women's occupational opportunities were limited by race and class.

Louisville after the Civil War

Louisville benefited from being a border city during the Civil War. It survived unscathed by the destruction wrought on cities further south; however, Louisville struggled in other ways. Its political and cultural allegiances had been tested and its societal structure shaken. Over 10,000 slaves were freed in Jefferson County.(Kennedy 1864) Thousands of emigrants from the deep south decided to make Louisville their new home (Yater 1979, 95) as immigrants from abroad began to stream into the area. While men found jobs in the expanding metal and wood-working industries, most women who worked found positions in domestic situations as servants, laundresses, seamstresses or hotel workers. Advertisements in the Courier-Journal — like the example below from November 29, 1868 — called for large numbers of women to apply for work:

Wanted — 500 girls — Do you want a girl? Go to the Kentucky Employment Agency, corner Fourth and Jefferson streets, to get a good girl at once. All respectable, capable girls and women are invited to call and obtain situations free of charge. References indispensable. Miller & Co. ("Wanted" 1868, #1651)

The women who held these jobs usually came from immigrant families, African American or poorer white households. African American women made up a disproportionate number of servants in the city: 93.3% of laundresses and 71.3% of female servants.(Interior 1923, p1135)

Besides these traditional jobs, women found work in the newly expanded industries of the city. The growing manufacturing industry in Louisville may have been why the number of women in Louisville's workforce was higher than in comparable cities and much higher than the rest of Kentucky. By 1890, women made up 26.2% of Louisville's workforce. The average for the state of Kentucky was only 14.1%.(Census 1897, p628)

In 1870 about 1,400 Louisville women worked in manufacturing.(1872, p788) By 1920 over 10,000 women worked in that industry. While African Americans made up only 17% of the city's population, African American women constituted 28.7% of the women working in manufacturing. White women who were born in another country or as daughters of immigrants made up another 21.6%.(1923, p1134) So while White people whose parents were born in the United States made up nearly 60% of the population, White women born in the U.S. made up less than 50% of the women in manufacturing.

Tobacco Workers

In 1860, Louisville had ten tobacco factories. At that time, the industry employed only 22 women out of 557 employees.(Manufactures 1865) By the turn of the century, women made up nearly one quarter of the tobacco and cigar factory workers, (Census 1904, p454) and by 1920, women outnumbered men as "semi-skilled operatives" in tobacco factories by nearly three to one.(Census 1923, p175)

African American women accounted for 43% of the total female tobacco workers in Louisville.(Census 1914) Frequently, these women worked as stemmers whose main job was separating tobacco leaves from the stalk. According to a 1911 study, stemmers performed their task an average of 60 hours per week and earned between 2 ¼ to 2 ¾ cents per pound of stems.(Report 1911) On top of the poor wages and repetitive tasks, windows were kept closed so that the tobacco leaves would not dry out too quickly. Tobacco dust permeated the air. Managers reported that new workers would frequently be ill so they hired 15 to 20% more people than they needed to make up for those who would be absent. With its low pay and poor work conditions the tobacco industry attracted the poorest, most unskilled workers. Even among these workers who had limited occupational options, there was a high turnover rate.

Woolen Mill Workers

The woolen mill industry provides one example of an industry that accepted women's participation in its early days. During the 1880s, the woolen mill industry in Louisville grew from four establishments employing 360 people (Census 1883, p408) to six establishments with over 1400 employees by 1890. (Census 1895) Women and children made up nearly 75% of the mill workers. These women were overwhelmingly native-born white women.(Census 1923, p1135)

Female mill workers earned an average of $224.88 annually in 1880. This was well below the amount a labor report of the time had determined as a sustaining wage and also lower than the average earned by women in the city's other industries. (Labor 1889, p98) Many girls started working in the factories when they were only thirteen years old. (Labor 1889, p139) The young women worked an average of 60 hours per week. (Dye 1984, p141) With its low wages and long hours, working at the mill meant that girls did not have an opportunity to get an education or other skills that would prepare them for better paying positions. In its favor, though, mill work offered steady, year-round wages and was considered a step up from working as a domestic servant.


In 1888 the United States Commissioner of Labor created a report on women doing manual labor in large cities, including Louisville. The Labor report described job titles and wages for industries with a range of incomes. A forewoman for a carpet store made $441 annually while a packer at a cracker factory made only $159. The authors figured that average basic living expenses in Louisville came to about $258 per year. (Labor 1889, p578) Many of Louisville's working women did not earn enough money to be self-supporting.

With the prospect of working 60 hours per week for less than a living wage, some women supplemented their income working as prostitutes. Prostitutes were rarely listed in the census under that occupation, but other evidence of their presence exists. In 1915, a Vice Commission conducted a "survey of existing conditions" with recommendations to the mayor. (Vice 1915) The report acknowledged that "A so-called red-light or vice district had existed in Louisville for years. It was as old as the community." (Vice 1915, p24) Without statistical evidence, it is difficult to determine the number and ethnicity of the women, but the social stigma of the profession guaranteed that most of its participants would have been from the lower rungs of the social ladder.

All of the 183 known houses of prostitution at the time were owned by women. The employees, according to the Vice Commission report, entered the houses voluntarily after registering with the police. (Vice 1915, p54) In many cases, the sex workers did not live at the house of prostitution but worked there to supplement their incomes. Women could work at other jobs during the day and then get extra money as prostitutes at night. This may be where the phrase "working woman" took on the connotation of prostitution. The report's authors even admonished employers of women to "refuse further employment to these quasi-prostitutes, as a means of protection to honest and virtuous workers, and for the further purpose of silencing the impression that there is a connection between wages paid women and immorality." (Vice 1915, p58)

In 1907 Alexander Scott Bullitt, the new sheriff, made it his mission to clean up the morals of the city by shutting down bars on Sundays and raiding the notorious "red light" district on Green Street. (Yater 1979, p150) The G. A. R Souvenir Sporting Guide, an 1895 brochure for visiting businessmen, listed a couple dozen pages describing houses of prostitution including ten located on Green Street. (G.A.R. 1895)

The establishment run by Blanche Griswold of 611 Green Street indicated:

This popular and pleasing little lady having recently retired from business, and being urgently requested by an army of admiring friends to reopen an establishment, did so upon the 14th of August, and having surrounded herself with an even dozen of beautiful ladies to entertain her callers, combined with the furnishings, which are all new and expensive from cellar to garret, should make her place one of the most popular to visitors to the city during the Encampment. Finest Brands of Wine and Beer. (G.A.R. 1895, p24)

The Vice Commission recommended that no new workers and no new houses of prostitution be allowed. Additionally, it recommended a ban on liquor sales, musical instruments, and outdoor lights at the existing houses.(Vice 1915, p14) The lights advertised which houses were open to visitors in the night and the quality of the alcohol and musical entertainment distinguished the houses as ones frequented by gentlemen. The commission also determined that the houses should all close at midnight. While the methods eventually succeeded in eliminating the red-light district and known houses of prostitution, sex workers took up other methods of making a living, including walking the streets to meet customers.

Saleswomen and Office Workers

After the Civil War, opportunities for women began to open up in businesses, but not for all women. As early as 1870, nearly 50 women worked as clerks or salespeople in stores. (Census 1914, p788) By 1920, over 2300 women worked as store clerks or saleswomen; however, less than one percent of these women were African American. (Census 1923) Similarly, less than one percent of the female stenographers, typists, bookkeepers and cashiers were African American.

For ambitious young white women, however, work as office assistants provided a stepping-stone to business careers. Nora Kirch and Willie Taylor were two successful businesswomen of the pre-1900 era. Nora Kirch initially was hired by the Louisville Trust Company on a trial basis as a stenographer. ("56 year" 1946) In 1888, she was the bank's first female employee. She worked for the bank for over fifty years moving up the corporate ladder to become the first woman bank officer in the state of Kentucky. Similarly, Willie Taylor began working in the insurance business in 1897. She later became a partner with the Booker & Kinnaird firm. ("Miss Willie" 1963)

By 1900, women accounted for a quarter of the city's bookkeepers, nearly a third of its sales force, and over three-quarters of its stenographers and typists. (Census 1914, p452) Women had arrived in business, or at least white women with some education had. Granted they were generally in the lowest status and lowest paying business positions, but the wages and working conditions in an office were usually much better than being a servant or factory worker. The hours were regular, the conditions clean, and the women were allowed to sit down to do their work. Office work also gave women transferable skills which made it possible to move to other companies for better situations. Henrietta Liebknecht exemplifies this:

In 1916 I was employed at Ballard & Ballard [Flour Company]... All of the men in the office were on the first floor and the girls on the second floor... The company served a hot lunch in the middle of the day which was one reason why I was glad to be at Ballard & Ballard and one of the things that I considered before leaving them and going to the [Louisville & Nashville Railroad]. However, my salary at Ballard & Ballard had been nine dollars a week and the L & N job paid fifty dollars a month. (Bobo 1980)

Education played a key role in getting a position in an office. Many women took classes to learn office skills like stenography, typing, and bookkeeping. Like Nora Kirch, Lillian Madden started working as a secretary for the Falls City Brewing Company in 1915 and took progressively better positions with the company as she gained experience and skills. ("Brewing" 1950)

When I had completed a commercial course at old St. Helena's [Commercial College] I went to see Mr. Schrader [at the Falls City Brewing Company], and he turned me down. He said I was still too green. He told me to get some other job for a while, and then see him.

So I finally took an offer from Julius Wille, then a merchandise broker, and remained there about two years. I was anxious, however, to work for Mr. Schrader, and when I went to see him again, he told me to come to his office. That was in 1915, and I became Mr. Schrader's secretary — he was then Falls City's secretary-treasurer. I liked my work, and I applied myself as best I could. I was later made bookkeeper, and then chief bookkeeper... — Lillian Madden (Hughes 1950)

By 1920, fifty percent more women than men held positions as bookkeepers and cashiers. Nearly 2,400 women in Louisville worked as stenographers or typists, and another 2,300 clerked in businesses or stores. (Census 1923, p185)


Teaching was one of the first acceptable professional occupations for women. The number of women employed as teachers indicates one of the ways that Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky, differed from the rest of the state. In 1880, women made up only 56% of the teachers across Kentucky,(Census 1883, p742) but in Louisville nearly 75% of teachers were women. (Census 1883, p883) Within the ranks of Louisville's teachers, a hierarchy existed based on race and sex. While three quarters of the teachers were women, three quarters of the public-school principals and the entire school board were men. The two white male principals of the city's Male High School and Female High School each made $2250 per year. White male principals of the city's other public schools all made $1350. "Colored" men earned between $900 and $1080 with one outlier making $450 per year. White women, with the exception of Miss A. E. Salomon, made $650. Miss Salomon, principal of the Overhill Street School, made $1350 per year. The one "colored" woman principal, Mrs. J. Arthur of the Fulton Colored School, made only $450. (Caron's 1880, p32)

In addition to the women working as principals, women were able to become leaders in the field of education in other ways. Patty Smith Hill, for example, changed the way teachers instructed young children. She came from a moderately well-off family that valued educating its daughters. Education would be the key for women to join in the professions, but at this time, girls from poorer families left school as early as thirteen years old to work in factories. More advanced education was a privilege of the financially stable.

Luckily for Patty, she grew up in a very progressive household. Her father, Dr. William Wallace Hill, ran a school for young women called Bellewood Female Seminary and later became president of a woman's college in Missouri. (Jammer 1960, p61) Patty grew up with a broad education, including topics that were considered unsuitable for girls at the time, such as mathematics, logic, geology and philosophy.

Louisville's society ladies formed the Louisville Free Kindergarten Association and hired Anna Bryan to create the first kindergarten in Louisville. Patty Smith Hill was in Bryan's first class of the training school for kindergarten teachers.(Gwinn 1954, p84) Patty graduated from the kindergarten training program in February 1889 and took the position of principal at the German free kindergarten at Saint John's Church on Clay and Market streets. (Gwinn 1954, p89) In September, the kindergarten program expanded to include four more kindergartens and Patty took over as principal of the original demonstration kindergarten. Patty began introducing new exercises and approaches. Instead of using a "one size fits all" approach, Patty would construct exercises based on the children's interests then set them a task to solve on their own. (Gwinn 1954, p93) Educators from all over the country began to visit Louisville to investigate why the program was so successful. In the 1892-1893 school year alone, the school received over three thousand visitors. (Gwinn 1954, p119) By 1903, there were nine kindergartens established and supported by Louisville Public Schools. (Gwinn 1954, p147) Patty's teaching methods changed the way young children were taught, not just in Louisville, but across the country. In 1908 she was hired by Columbia University as Professor of Education where she taught new teachers from all over the country for thirty years. (Childhood 1964)

Social Workers

In 1895, Louisville received a visit from Dr. Graham Taylor and Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago. The two presented a talk on social work efforts and one of the new methods of the day, the settlement house, which encouraged educated, well-off people to live and work in poor districts. This movement gave women from the wealthiest sections of Louisville an opportunity to contribute to their city and developed another of the highly feminized professions — social work.

Lucy Belknap acted as benefactor to launch a settlement house in Louisville, and in 1896, Archibald Hill, brother of Patty Smith Hill, became its first chief resident. Archibald started Neighborhood House in the same neighborhood where his sister worked. His wife and one of his sisters worked at the house as teachers for girls and young children.

In 1905, Frances MacGregor Ingram became Neighborhood House's Director and Head Resident. (McVickar 2001) Through her position, she advocated for social and legal changes to improve the situation of working women, children, and the poor. Miss Ingram brought attention to the working conditions of women in a 1921 report:

For years the belief has been popular that women are in industry only for a short time. The [belief] has also been current that their earnings were of little social significance because "The Family," was dependent upon women, not as wage earner but as a homekeeper. Recent industrial studies however, show that women are contributing a large part of the income. In many instances they not only support a large sized family but also fulfill their other age old function of homekeeper... Living at home, in many cases means a deep family obligation. It means helping support others by turning in money and by working additional hours; sewing, washing dishes, etc. (Frances)

Ingram lobbied the legislature for a minimum wage law. During her thirty year career she also established tuberculosis clinics, helped to improve sanitation, and increased access to venereal treatment. Towards the end of her career, she created a curriculum on social settlement work that was incorporated into the University of Louisville's social work program.

The settlement house movement in Louisville also produced the Cabbage Patch Settlement. The "cabbage patch" area of Louisville developed west of Seventh and Hill Streets. The people who lived there were poor workers from the Louisville and Nashville Railroad shops and truck gardeners who raised cabbages. In 1910, Louise Marshall founded a settlement house in this area and a number of society ladies volunteered there. (Hersh 2001) Alice Hegan Rice, who worked with the organization, described the area and what the settlement house achieved:

It was a sort of suburban slum in the factory district of Louisville, with here and there a lot of cabbages, relics of old farming days. There were no pavements, no sewers, no street lights, but there were many saloons, sometimes three to a block. Boys and girls ran wild through the muddy streets and dark alleys, and arrests were frequent.

To-day, after thirty years, we have a fifty-five thousand dollar plant, and an enrolment of twenty-four hundred. We run a wholesale grocery, an employment agency, a second-hand clothing and furniture department. We teach our people to cook and sew, and we hold health clinics for babies and adults. Over a hundred volunteer workers assist the paid staff.

It is largely to the untiring devotion of one woman that the phenomenal success of the Cabbage Patch Settlement is due. Louise Marshall... dedicated her life when a girl to the service of the poor, acting as a liaison officer between those who had too much and those who had too little, and holding a position of trust and honor in both walks of life. (Rice 1940)

Alice Hegan Rice, like Louise Marshall, came from Louisville's well-to-do families. Louise Marshall was the great-great granddaughter of Chief Justice John Marshall. (Rice 1940) The settlement house movement allowed these women to use their education and wealth to improve the situation of others in the city. From this experience, they gained an appreciation of their own work and a sense of accomplishment.

Women in Medicine

While women likely performed the duties of midwife since the first families settled in Louisville, Julia Ingram is acknowledged as the first female doctor practicing medicine in the city. An educated white woman from the East, Ingram completed her medical training at the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia and interned at Boston's New England Hospital before moving to Louisville in 1882 to practice medicine. ("Ingram" 2001) Seeing the value of education both for improving outcomes in the hospital and improving the work opportunities for women, Dr. Ingram went on to help establish the city's first training school for nurses. Prior to this point, hospital nurses had very little training. Hospitals trained the nurses as they could, but training took time and money and was always secondary to the running of the hospital. The hospital's doctors and administrators did not welcome what they saw as interference in the way they ran the hospital. Mrs. Fannie Casseday Duncan, an advice columnist for the Courier-Journal wrote, "At first nearly all the Louisville physicians and surgeons either opposed it or pooh-poohed it; the authorities at the city hospital openly antagonized it and those men and women — untrained and unskilled — who were doing such nursing as they could, wherever they could pick it up, were loud in their wailings over the prospect of losing their jobs." (Speer 1993, p463)

Jennie Casseday sought out Dr. Ingram's help in establishing the training school. A chronic patient herself, Casseday acted as lead benefactor and fundraiser for the school. With the assistance of Florence Jones, a trained nurse from New York, the school for nurses opened on March 1, 1887. The school's program was so successful and the demand for trained nurses became so high that the school received far more applicants than it could accept. Five years later Dr. John G. Cecil reported to the school's board of managers:

The trained nurse has become an imperative necessity. She has come to stay. If we don't educate these young women in our own city someone else will do so and send them to us... I believe I speak the sentiment of every physician in the city who knows anything of trained nursing, when I say that the advent of trained nurses has put a new face on the practice of medicine and surgery. We could scarcely do without them. (Speer 1993, p466)

By 1920 over 600 women in Louisville were employed as trained nurses, but only 3.5% of them were African American. (Census 1923, p1134)


From 1870 to 1920, the number of working women in Louisville rose from 8,153 to 34,186. While this partly reflects the growth of the city, it also reflects an expansion of women's roles in the workplace. By 1920 women made up 30.5% of the city's workforce, up from 22.8% in 1870. (Census 1872, p788)(Census 1923, p168) During this fifty year span women gained jobs in manufacturing, business, and some professions. Jobs available to a woman depended on her caste. African American women were relegated to some of the hardest, worst paying positions such as laundresses or tobacco stemmers with professional opportunities limited for the most part to teaching or nursing. Poor, uneducated white women took jobs as servants or mill workers. Immigrant women and their daughters tended to work as servants, factory workers or nurses and sometimes ran their own businesses. Native-born white women with some education could take positions in offices or become teachers or nurses. While educated white women were at the top of the social strata for women, society still held the majority of professional and trade positions in reserve for men.


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