|The Library of Virginia >> Exhibitions >> Working Out Her Destiny|
Where are the Women:
I can ride home in the evening
Long invisible to census-takers,
economists, and historians, Virginia women have been vital
participants in the commonwealth’s economy. They labored on farms
and in mills, tobacco factories, and stores. They took in laundry
and sewing to support their families. Or they became leechers and
cuppers to provide rudimentary medical care where qualified doctors
were scarce. They entered domestic service to clean other people’s
homes and cook their meals, frequently leaving their own homes
before sunrise and returning long after sundown. The life histories
collected by workers for the Works Progress Administration in the
1930s tell the stories of women toiling on plantations and farms and
working in textile mills, beauty parlors, garment factories, and
newspaper offices. “I’m so dog-goned tired and sleepy,” confessed
Margaret Wolfe, who worked in a silk mill in Covington with her
older sisters, “I can hardly hold my eyes open.” Work, whether at
home or outside it, was an unrelenting fact of life for women,
whether they were paid or not.
In the twentieth century, after they won the right to vote, women organized to agitate for shorter workweeks for women and children. In 1938, the General Assembly passed pioneering legislation requiring a forty-eight-hour workweek for some Virginia women. Before the law, women could be required to work ten hours a day and seventy hours a week; the new legislation—pushed through by Naomi Cohn and others—limited women’s work to no more than nine hours a day and forty-eight hours a week. Women in domestic service and involved in agricultural work were exempt from the new legislation.
Wartime brought different kinds of work for women. During the Civil War, women entered offices as clerical workers for the first time; and during World War I, two thousand women sewed silk bags and filled them with smokeless gunpowder at the DuPont war plant at Seven Pines. With the country’s entry into World War II, women took their place on assembly lines, labored as machinists, assembled shells and airplane motors, and applied camouflage paint. After the war, many women lost their paychecks, but with their newfound independence, the world had been forever changed.