Help Wanted: The History of Women in the Workforce
Imagine you’re a woman who has just arrived from a long, arduous overland journey and are setting up camp and cooking dinner for your family. The first person you meet in your new surroundings is a dirty, unshaven miner who offers you $5 for one of the biscuits you just pulled out of your Dutch oven.
Incredible? No. Opportunity? You bet. This actually happened to Luzena Stanley Wilson when she first arrived in the gold fields. From this chance encounter, she built a thriving business—first as a boarding house supplying home-cooked meals to the miners, then as a hotel operator and storeowner.
A woman’s role during the mid-19th century was well-defined. She didn’t usually work outside the home unless it was to help her husband in his business. Occupational opportunities were incredibly limited and usually included housewife, schoolteacher, and prostitute.
There were exceptions, however. Some women bucked convention and forged ahead into male-dominated fields, but these were few; or there were women, like Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst—a renowned stagecoach driver—who disguised themselves as men to break into male-dominated occupations.
In California, it was often a matter of survival that drove women into business. As their husbands struggled in the mines, died, or divorced them, these hearty women took advantage of the shortage of females available to do what was considered at the time “women’s work”—cooking, baking, washing and mending clothes—and started their own businesses. These hard-working entrepreneurs could often earn more gold than their husbands brought home from mining.
In 1849, Lucy Stoddard Wakefield and her husband arrived in California. Somewhere along the way they agreed to separate, and the newly divorced Lucy made her way to Placerville to make her living. She set up a pie-baking business and was soon baking and selling 20-dozen pies a week at a dollar each. The work was hard and the hours long, but she was independent.
Entrepreneurial women living in California had an advantage. The Constitution of California, written in 1849, protected a woman’s right to retain ownership of property acquired prior to her marriage and also to property she acquired independently after marriage; then, in April of 1852, the state legislature passed the Sole Trader Act, which allowed a married woman to own a business completely independent of her husband. Plus, the profits and real property acquired through her business were exclusively hers and completely separate from her husband’s assets and liabilities; her assets could not be seized to pay her husband’s debts.
As California grew and towns and cities popped up, business opportunities turned from mining to agriculture and commerce. The roles of women in business adjusted with this growth. As evidenced in the ads of intent of women entering into business in the mid to late 1800s, women were tackling more male-dominated businesses. Elizabeth Stevens of El Dorado County opened a “livery business, letting and hiring out saddle and buggy horses, and the buying and selling of stock generally, and the buying and selling of hay and grain.” In 1862, Lucinda Richmond of Clarksville started a business of “hotel keeping, store keeping, ranching, stock raising, mining, trading generally.” Mary Myer of Grizzly Flat went into “gardening, mining, and stock raising, and buying and selling cattle, swine, poultry, and real estate” in 1856. In the same year, Sarah Carpenter of Diamond Springs opened a business of “brewery, mining and trading generally.”
While the Sole Trader Act opened the door for women to become more financially independent, they still had a long road to travel to reach equality in the workforce.
By Jerrie Beard
Mountain Democrat: January 5, 1859; November 8, 1862; December 27, 1856; February 23, 1856
Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation by Malcolm J. Rohrbough
They Saw the Elephant by Joann Levy