The Library of Virginia >> Exhibitions >> Working Out Her Destiny
  Working Out Her Destiny


Shaping Public Opinion

Women's Organizations



Service to Country

Votes for Women


Where are the Women:
Examples from the LVA Collections



Related Resources

Government Employment | Women in Business | Architecture 
Women at Work: Selected Photographs from the Library of Virginia Collections

Book cover of Free Women of Petersburg
Suzanne Lebsock,
Free Women of Petersburg


I can ride home in the evening
Staring at my hands
Swearing by my sorrow that a young girl
Ought to stand a better chance.


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.