How did women earn money in 1887?

Mrs. M. L. Rayne’s book of 1887, What can a woman do? offers a fascinating look at how Victorian women could make money in the 1880s. It’s packed with information and vignettes that show what was possible for working women 120 years ago. The opportunities for enterprising women were greater than most of us imagine.

The book is subtitled “His Position in the Business and Literary World”. A sizable section is devoted to women poets, but it’s the business opportunities for women that are most intriguing. Rayne examines women’s careers as well as various ways women could earn money on their own.

A chapter is devoted to women in the legal profession. The author notes that there were some ninety women practicing law in the United States in the 1880s, most of whom were graduates of the University of Michigan, the first American university to admit women into its faculty of Law. In an early version of networking, the author suggests readers contact one of the female lawyers she mentions and ask them for advice on pursuing a legal career.

There is also a chapter on women in medicine. The author writes that Europe was far ahead of the United States in opening up its medical faculties to women. In the United States, a medical school for women was opened in Boston in 1848. By the 1880s, nearly half of medical students at Boston University were women, and Rayne lists four other American medical schools which admitted women.

Other professions that are discussed in the book include shorthand and typing; woodcut; feeding with milk; telegraphy; and government work. There’s a lot of talk about salaries and earning potential in the book. In the chapter on telegraphy, a profession for which there were in fact specific training programs, Rayne writes about the income disparities between male and female operators. Women were paid an average of $500 per year while men earned an average annual salary of $840.

Rayne’s feminist bent goes beyond pay disparity. She writes that a woman’s work is never done. A man returns home to rest and read while a woman returns home to work and weariness. Clearly, Rayne was a woman ahead of her time. Chapters are devoted to women inventors and women in business. She writes of women who have received patents for their inventions and of women who have started their own businesses.

A number of ways to make money discussed in the book are still popular today. Chicken farming, even in cities and suburbs, is becoming increasingly popular. The book includes a chapter on poultry keeping that will be of interest to backyard poultry enthusiasts. There is also a chapter on making money with beekeeping, another increasingly popular hobby these days. Other perennial money-making opportunities discussed in the book include sewing, housekeeping, cooking (today we call ourselves caterers) and hosting boarders (today , we call it finding a roommate).

For those who thought women first entered the workforce in the 1970s or not before the days of Rosie the Riveter, Rayne provides a telling account of women’s earliest forays into the working world. Whether it’s a century-old perspective on how to make money with your own business or an eye-opening look at the beginnings of feminism, What can a woman do sheds a lot of light on the beginnings of women in the labor market.

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