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Women on their own: residential independence in Massachusetts in 1880

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 January 2009


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1 See, for instance, Peter, Laslett, The world we have lost (London, 1965)Google Scholar; Richard, Wall, Jean, Robin, and Peter, Laslett eds., Family forms in historic Europe (Cambridge, 1983)Google ScholarSmith, Daniel S., ‘Life course, norms and the family system of older Americans in 1900’, Journal of Family History, 4 (1979)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Steven, Ruggles, Prolonged connections: the rise of the extended family in nineteenth-century England and America (Madison, Wisconsin, 1987).Google Scholar

2 Laurence, Glasco, ‘The life cycles and household structure of American ethnic groups: Irish, Germans, and native-born whites in Buffalo, New York, 1855’, in Tamara, Hareven ed., Family and kin in urban communities, 1700–1930 (New York, 1977)Google Scholar; McLaughlin, Virginia Yans, ‘Patterns of work and family organization: Buffalo's Italians’, in Michael, Gordon, ed., The American family in social-historical perspective (New York, 1973)Google Scholar; Myfany, Morgan and Golden, Hilda H., ‘Immigrant families in an industrial city: a study of households in Holyoke, 1980’, Journal of Family History, 1979.Google Scholar

3 For a more extended discussion of this point see Folbre, , ‘Family strategy, feminist strategy,’ Historical Methods 20 (1987).Google Scholar

4 Mason, Karen Oppenheim, Vinovkis, Maris A., and Hareven, Tamara K., ‘Women's work and the life course in Essex County, Massachusetts: 1880’, in Tamara, Hareven ed., Transitions: the family and life course in historical perspective (New York, 1978)Google Scholar. US Commissioner of Labor, 4th Annual Report, Working women in large cities (Washington, 1889)Google Scholar. See also Carroll D. Wright, The working girls of Boston, 15th Annual report of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor (July, 1884). For related figures for Pennsylvania towns see Gary, Cross and Peter, Shergold, ‘The family economy and the market: wages and residence of Pennsylvania women in the 1890s’, Journal of Family History II (1987).Google Scholar

5 One of the first studies of women wage-earners living away from home, Carroll Wright's The working girls of Boston, largely ignored domestic servants, explicitly excluding them from calculations of the number of young women living away from home.

6 Dudden, Faye E., Serving women: household service in nineteenth-century America (Middletown, Connecticut, 1983), 222Google Scholar; David, Katzman, Seven days a week: women and domestic service in industrializing America (New York, 1978), 16.Google Scholar

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9 Meyerowitz, Women adrift, xx.

10 US Department of Labor, Report on condition of woman and child wage-earners in the US, Vol. V, ‘Wage-earning women in stores and factories’ (Washington, 1910), 12.

11 Christine, Stansell, City of women. Sex and class in New York, 1789–1860 (New York, 1986), 85.Google Scholar

12 Meyerowitz, , Women adrift, 17, 72.Google Scholar

13 1889 report of US Commissioner of Labor.

14 Elizabeth, Ewen, Immigrant women in the land of dollars: Life and culture on the lower east side, 1890–1925 (New York, 1985)Google Scholar; Doris Weatherford, Foreign and female.

15 Kathy, Peiss, ‘Charity girls and city pleasures: historical notes on working class sexuality, 1880–1920’, in Ann, Snitow, Christine, Stansell and Sharon, Thompson eds., Powers of desire: the politics of sexuality, (New York, 1983).Google Scholar

16 Meyerowitz, Women adrift, xxiii.

17 Thomas, Dublin, Women at work. The transformation of work and community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860 (New York, 1979).Google Scholar

18 Blewett, Mary H., Men, women and work. Class, gender and protest in the New England shoe industry, 1780–1910 (Urbana, Illinois, 1988), 323.Google Scholar

19 For instance, Laslett's pioneering studies of household structure in England emphasize the ways servants dampened demographic influences on household size. See his ‘England: the household over three centuries’, in Peter, Laslett and Richard, Wall eds., Household and family in past time (Cambridge, 1972)Google Scholar. Similarly Modell and Hareven's classic article on boarding and lodging in the US emphasized the ways income from boarders stabilized income over the family life cycle, thereby strengthening the family. Indeed, Modell and Hareven discount early apprehensions about the social impact of boarding and lodging, emphasizing the intermediate character of so-called ‘surrogate families’. See their ‘Urbanization and the malleable household: an examination of boarding and lodging in American families’, in Tamara, Hareven ed., Family and kin in urban communities, 1700–1930 (New York, 1977), 182Google Scholar. Michael Katz goes even further, arguing that among Canadian families there ‘was no very clear distinction between relatives and boarders’. See his The people of Hamilton, Canada west: family and class in a mid-nineteenth-century city (Cambridge, Mass, 1975), 232.Google Scholar

20 Important exceptions to this general lack of attention to women as individuals include Richard, Wall, ‘Women alone in English society’, Annales de démographic historique (1981)Google Scholar: Michael, Anderson, ‘The social position of spinsters in mid-Victorian Britain’, Journal of Family History (1984)Google Scholar; Tamara, Hareven and Louise, Tilly, ‘Solitary women and family mediation in American and French textile cities’, Annales de démographie historique (1981)Google Scholar: and Mason, Vinovskis and Hareven, ‘Women's work and the life course’.

21 For a more detailed account of the evolution of the concept of ‘headship’ in the US Census, see Nancy, Folbre and Marjorie, Abel, ‘Women's work and women's households: gender bias in the US CensusSocial Research, 56, 3 (Autumn, 1989), 545–69.Google Scholar

22 Arnold, Rose, ‘Living arrangements of unattached persons’, American Sociological Review, 22 (1947), 429–35.Google Scholar

23 See Pryor, Edward T. Jr., ‘Rhode Island family structure: 1875 and 1960’, in Peter, Laslett and Richard, Wall eds., Household and family in past time (Cambridge, 1972)Google Scholar. Richard Wall makes a similar point regarding British practices in ‘Regional and temporal variations in the structure of the British household since 1851’ in Theo, Barker and Michael, Drake, eds., Population and society in Britain, 1850–1980 (London, 1982), 88Google Scholar. He writes, ‘the full significance of the fact that many people lived alone in nineteenth-century Britain (in the sense that they were lodgers) has not therefore been fully appreciated. Viewed from this perspective, some of the rise after 1951 in one-person households merely reflects the fact that people now have more living space at their disposal’.

24 See for instance, the report by the Statistical Society of London on a survey of working class households in the parish of St George in the East, in Richard, Wall ed., Slum conditions in London and Dublin (Farnborough, Hampshire, 1974)Google Scholar. Claudia Goldin's research on Philadelphia shows that the percentage of households headed by women ranged up and down between about 9 and 20 per cent over the 1790–1860 period, increasing slightly during periods of economic downswing, and diminishing slightly on the upswing. See her The economic status of women in the early republic: quantitative evidence’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XVI (1986), 375404Google Scholar. Furstenberg et al. contrast the incidence of female headship among households with children in Philadelphia in 1880, about 10 per cent, with much higher incidence of 25 per cent among households with lower than average wealth. See Furstenberg, Frank F. Jr., Theodore, Hershberg and John, Modell in Theodore, Hershberg ed., ‘The origins of the female-headed black family: the impact of the urban experience’, in Philadelphia: work, space, family and group experience in the 19th century (New York, 1981).Google Scholar

25 Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, The negro family: the case for national action (Washington, 1965).Google Scholar

26 See %Elizabeth, Pleck, ‘The two-parent household: black family structure in late nineteenth-century Boston’, in Michael, Gordon ed., The American family in social historical perspective (New York, 1973)Google Scholar: Herbert, Gutman, The black family in slavery and freedom, 1750–1925 (New York, 1976)Google Scholar: Smith, Daniel S., Michel, Dahlin and Mark, Friedberger, ‘The family structure of the older black population in the American south in 1880 and 1900’, Sociology and Social Research 63 (1979), 544–65Google Scholar; Furstenberg et al., ‘The origins of the female-headed black family’.

27 Chambers-Schiller, Lee Virginia, Liberty, A better husband. Single women in America, the generations of 1780–1840 (New Haven, 1984), 7277Google Scholar; Ruth, Freeman and Patricia, Klaus, ‘Blessed or not ? The new spinster in England and the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’, Journal of Family History (1984), 394414.Google Scholar

28 Cited in Chambers-Schiller, Liberty, 213.Google Scholar

29 Beecher, Catherine E., Miss Beecher's housekeeper and healthkeeper New York, 1856), 465.Google Scholar

30 Carole, Shammas, Marylynn, Salmon and Michel, Dahlin, Inheritance in American from colonial times to the present (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1987).Google Scholar

31 See Modell and Hareven, ‘Urbanization and the malleable household’.

32 Two notable exceptions to this lack of attention deserve mention. Richard Wall examines the number of households without females aged 20 and 59 in the ‘Introduction’ to Wall, R., Robin, J. and Laslett, P., eds., Family forms in historic Europe. (Cambridge, 1983)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In her study of Boston households in the late nineteenth century Elizabeth Pleck notes that one-parent households headed by men were disadvantaged by lack of access to women's earnings and women's domestic labour. See her ‘The two-parent household: black family structure in late nineteenth-century Boston’, in Gordon, M. ed., The American family in social historical perspective (New York, 1973).Google Scholar

33 Folbre, , ‘The unproductive housewife. Her evolution in nineteenth-century economic thought’, forthcoming in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.Google Scholar

34 Ruggles, , Prolonged connections, 4247Google Scholar. In fairness to Ruggles, this definition of economic dependency is enshrined in Henry, Shryock's and Jacob, Siegel's authoritative Methods and materials of demography (Washington, 1973).Google Scholar

35 Frances, Kobrin, ‘The fall in household size and the rise of the primary individual in the United States’, Demography 13 (1976), 127–38Google Scholar; Michael, R. T., Fuchs, V. R. and Scott, S. R., ‘Changes in the propensity to live alone: 1950–1976’, Demography 17 (1980), 3956.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

36 Ruggles, , Prolonged connections, 142–9Google Scholar; Smith, Daniel Scott, ‘Averages for units and averages for individuals within units: note’, Journal of Family History 4 (1979), 285–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Susan, Watkins, ‘On measuring transitions and turning points’, Historical Methods 13 (1980), 181–7.Google Scholar

37 The sample was constructed as follows. Every fifth household on the manuscript census was chosen, and all men aged 15 + in that household were included. As a result, men in large households are over-represented. Ideally, men should have been sampled, rather than households. However, this limitation does not vitiate the comparisons between Montague and Easthampton.

38 Mason, Vinovskis and Hareven, ‘Women's work and the life course in Essex County’.

39 For further discussion of revised estimates of female market participation based on these data, see Marjorie Abel and Nancy Folbre, ‘Female market participation in the United States before 1940: methodology for revising estimates’ forthcoming in Historical Methods.

40 Two factors suggest that a high percentage of married women without co-resident spouses should be considered separated. In the first place, enumerators of the 1880 Census were instructed to list all those who were ‘normally resident,’ whether or not they were actually present. Indeed, the instructions went so far as to stipulate that sailors should be listed as residents, even if they had been away for a long period of time (Wright, 1900: 171). In the second place, the labour force participation patterns of these women closely resembled those of single women, and a logit model of labour force participation showed significant differences in the probability that single women and married women would have a listed occupation but no significant differences between single women and married women with no husband resident.

41 The form in which the data were collected makes it impossible to calculate the number of women overall, as opposed to women heads of household, who lived in households without men.

42 By way of comparison, aggregate figures for the US as a whole for 1940 (the first year in which relationship to head of household was tabulated), show that about 17.7 per cent of all women aged 15+ lived on their own: 10.7 per cent headed households, 3.3 per cent were lodgers in private families, 1.4 per cent were servants and 2.3 per cent lived outside private families. It is interesting to note that the percentage of women lodging, living in as servants and living outside private families was lower than in Montague and Easthampton sixty years earlier, but the percentage of households headed by women was higher. This comparison reiterates the point that trends in female headship do not necessarily parallel trends in the broader measure of female independence. Calculations are based on tables 10, 11 and 12 of the 1940 Census of Population, vol. IV, ‘Characteristics by age, marital status, relationship, education and citizenship, Part 1’, US Summary, 27–38.