Educational Resources

Women in America: 1890-1920


America has long been a land of immigrants, but between 1890 and 1920, they poured into the U.S. in unprecedented numbers.

• “When I arrived in America, I was surprised to find out that the streets were not paved with gold. As a matter of fact, I found that they were not paved at all, and I was expected to pave them.” Italian American Lament

• “Ellis Island in Russian is called the “Island of Tears,” and in every way it merited the name. We all cried. . . . We cried because of fear and disappointment. We had come a long way: we had sold everything we had and spent every cent, and now we were afraid of being sent back. . . . All the way to America, we were scrubbed, cleaned, and examined by physicians and now dirt and squalor seemed everywhere. . .” Rahel Mittelstein, Jewish immigrant

Between 1900 and 1920, more than 20,000 Japanese women entered the United States as “picture brides.” Having seen only photos of their future husbands, these young women got off boats to marry Japanese men they had never met. These picture brides wanted to fit in.

• “ I was immediately outfitted with Western clothing. … Because I had to wear a tight corset around my chest, I could not bend forward. … I wore a large hat, a high-necked blouse, a long skirt, a buckled belt around my waist, high-laced shoes, and of course, for the first time in my life, a brassiere and hip pads.”

By 1910, one in four women worked for wages. Most worked out of necessity, not because it brought them great fulfillment.

• “I frequently work from fourteen to sixteen hours a day. . . . I am allowed to go home to my own children, the oldest whom is a girl of 18 years, only once in two weeks, every other Sunday afternoon—even then I’m not permitted to stay all night. . . . I see my own children only when they happen to see me on the streets. … Every day in the week I am the slave, body and soul, of this family. “ Domestic worker

• “Intelligent people set no stigma on factory workers who are well-bred and ladylike. These girls are received in good circles anywhere. Many women of wealth and standing are interested in these girls and even invite them to their homes. But no one has ever invited someone’s maid or cook to their home for afternoon tea or any other social affair.” –Factory worker

Until the late 1800s, society severely restricted the leisure activities in which women were allowed to participate. With the dawning of a new century, this began to change. Forward-thinking educators began to introduce sports into women’s schools.

• “I read in a small magazine that an indoor game was invented called Basket Ball. We no sooner tried it than we liked it.” Senda Berenson, Smith College

In the 1890s, bicycles seemed to be everywhere. As women took to the roads, the public debated everything from whether females should be allowed to ride bikes to where and how women should ride.

According to one Minneapolis newspaper:

• “Cycling is fast bringing about this change of feeling regarding woman and her capabilities. A woman awheel is an independent creature, free to go whither she will.”

Have you ever heard of . . . Ann Taylor? The first person ever to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel was a woman. In 1901, Taylor, a childless widow, took the plunge while crowds watched. Although bruised and bleeding, she survived to tell onlookers:

• “Nobody ought ever to do that again.”

The moving picture was another popular new escape. In 1910, working girls who could not afford new outfits to go dancing or to go to amusement parks could usually muster the five cents it cost to attend a show. One Italian immigrant later remembered:

• “We’d go to the movies, the silent pictures, but . . . we didn’t know that these stories weren’t true. So we would cry and cry, if somebody died. We thought they had really died.”

At the turn of the 20th century, women had quite a job keeping up with the day’s fashions.

In 1905, a single page of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue offered seventy-five different styles of ostrich-feather decorations. With feathers adorning just about everything, many species of birds faced extinction. A group of Massachusetts women were dismayed and decided to take action. Forming the Massachusetts Audubon Society, they actively championed the cause of birds by convincing women not to wear clothing made with bird products. Their petition and letter-writing campaigns also led to laws protecting birds. Efforts like these led to the environmental movement of the twentieth century.

Ready-made clothing made fashionable clothes more accessible to the working girl.

• “We’re human, all of us girls, and we’re young. We like new hats as well as any other young women. Why shouldn’t we? … Sometimes a girl has a new hat. It is never much to look at because it never costs more than fifty cents, but it’s pretty sure spoiled after it’s been to the shop.” Clara Lemlich, garment worker

The close of the 19th century saw the beginning of the club movement. Educated middle class women first gathered to discuss ideas but soon began looking for ways to improve their communities.

Mrs. Himmelberger stood:

• “What I want most of all is for the Club to do something for this town. It’s time we were. Why, this body of women can do anything they make up their minds to—anything at all!”

She sat down flushed. . . .Mrs. Bell squared her shoulders.

• “I agree perfectly. It is time this Club was doing something about this town. . . . Up to now we’ve been just a study club. It is time we add something else.”

• “One felt the atmosphere of transition from culture to crusading, lady-like, a shade militant.” Diary of Elizabeth Dierssen

In 1870, a doctor addressing a group of medical experts stated that it appeared…

• “as if the Almighty, in creating the female sex, had taken the uterus and built up a woman around it.”

The Household Physician, a widely read book of medical advice, insisted that the health of adolescent girls was particularly vulnerable. One doctor advised young women in 1899:

• “Women beware. You are on the brink of destruction. You have hitherto been engaged in crushing your waists; now you are attempting to cultivate your mind. Beware!! Science pronounces that the woman who studies is lost.”

The 1910s saw the invention of a number of new appliances. Some well-to-do families also enjoyed indoor running water and gas lamps for the first time. Few of these technological advances eased the burdens of rural and urban poor women.

• “There was no telephone on the farm for years. . . . There was no plumbing. Water was carried in from the well in a bucket for the family needs. . . . There was no washing machine. The wash boiler, washtub, washboard and homemade soap were every Monday morning necessities. … There was no refrigeration, no ice maker, no ice.” Ella May Stumpe

• “My mom could . . . make a washboard sing, just sing. She had a knack. . . . She had a rhythm, just like someone a-strummin’ his guitar for a rhythm.” Edna Winter, Indiana farmwife

New domestic scientists pressured parents to raise children more “scientifically.” They tried to convince mothers that they were too sentimental and that their parenting instincts could be damaging. Parents of babies born in 1900 were warned against such foolishness as kissing and playing too much with their infants:

• “Babies under six months old should never be played with, and the less of it at any time the better.!!!!!”

Toilet training was to begin by three months and thumb sucking was to be discouraged by using aluminum mittens or pinning sleeves shut over the “offending hand.”

During World War I, physician Josephine Baker pointed out:

• “It’s six times safer to be a soldier in the trenches in France than to be a baby born in the United States.”

In 1900, one in ten white children—and one in five black children—died before the age of one.

• “It is woman, the dainty, the beautiful, the beloved wife and revered mother, who has by common consent been expected to do the chamber-work and scullery work of the world,” “All that is basest and foulest she in the last instance must handle and remove. Grease, ashes, dust, foul linen, and sooty ironware—among these her days must pass.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Women officially won the vote on August 6, 1920. It had taken seventy-two years of unrelenting labor to achieve the vote for women nationally. Why did it take so long? One might think that the greatest battle would be convincing men that women should vote. That was often the case; surprisingly, however, much of the time women themselves had to be convinced.

Annie Block, an antisuffrage activist warned:

• “Women voting interferes with the great plan of God.”

• “Woman is impulsive; she does not inform herself; she does not study; she does not consider the consequences of a vote. The ballot in her hands is a dangerous thing.”

• “Hark! The suffrage parade advances. . . . Men, awake! Rouse from your lethargy. Do you not already see the streets flowing with blood? I pray to God you will not help to bring a curse upon us.”

Reactions like these irritated suffragists.

• “Women in the laundries stand for thirteen and fourteen hours in the terrible steam and heat with their hand in hot starch. Surely these women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in the ballot box.” Rose Schneiderman, working woman and union leader

Did you know? The word feminist first appeared in print in 1895 describing a woman who “has in her the capacity of fighting her way back to independence.”

• “Young people think that all the privileges, all the freedom, all the enjoyments which woman now possess always were hers. They have no idea of how every single inch of ground that she stands upon today has been gained by the hard work of some little handful of women in the past” Susan B. Anthony


Did you know? After 1800, the American birthrate began to decline from an average of seven children per woman. Even so, most women spent at least two decades of their lives pregnant or recovering from pregnancy.

Did you know? Between 1900 and 1920, more than 20,000 Japanese women entered the United States at Angel Island, in the San Francisco Bay, as “picture brides.” Having seen only photos of their future husbands, these young women got off boats to marry Japanese men they had never met.

Have you ever heard of . . . Marion Donovon? Tired of bulky cloth diapers, she devised her own disposable version out of a shower curtain and padding in 1951. She called her new invention “the boater.” Although America was experiencing baby mania, Donovon could not convince anyone to manufacture her product. She paid to produce the first disposable diapers out of her own pocket. By the time she sold her business, it was worth one million dollars.

Have you ever heard of . . . Shirley Chisholm? In 1968, Chisholm was the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. This achievement was tempered by another decline. From 1962 to 1969, the number of women in the House of Representatives dropped from a record high of twenty down to eleven. One female member of the House complained, “There are three times as many whooping cranes as congresswomen. While many things are being done to protect the rare, long-legged bird, nobody seems concerned about our becoming an endangered species.” In response, Chisholm and others founded the National Women’s Political Caucus to help elect women at all levels of government. She went on to present herself as the first black woman candidate for president in 1972. Chisholm’s campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed.”

A tale to tell your kids at bath time: In 1799 a woman named Elizabeth Drinker confided in her journal, “I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett all over att once, for 28 years past.” Today, Drinker would be considered dirty and possibly crazy. But in 1798, she was far from alone in her lack of cleanliness. In fact, she and her husband were on the cutting edge of a new bathing fashion that was emerging in Europe.

It took a while for bathing as we know it to fully catch on in America. In the Drinker household, family members reused each other’s bath water and never even considered using soap (soap was used only for washing clothes and didn’t come into use for bathing until the mid-1800s). Bathing came into vogue in some wealthy households in the 1790s. By 1850, washing became important for the middle classes. Still, in 1851, when someone proposed that the White House could use a bathroom, it was ruled out as costly and unnecessary. It would take more than a century before most Americans considered weekly bathing a necessity.


Did you know? Until 1976, married women were never listed in phone books under their own names?

Did you know? When a woman married in colonial America, she ceased to exist legally. She became a “femme covert,” which meant that her identity would be “covered” by her husband’s and that he would represent her interests (as he saw them) to the world. As head of the household, he owned all property and made all financial decisions. A married woman could not sell or purchase land, make a will, sue or be sued, or even sign contracts. Her children, her earnings, and even her body did not legally belong to her.

Did you know? Native American women did not get the vote along with other American women in 1920 because the government did not consider them citizens. Congress finally offered citizenship to all Native Americans in 1924.

Have you ever heard of . . . Jackie Mitchell? She made the news when she struck out Babe Ruth, Tony Lazzeri, and Lou Gehrig during an exhibition baseball game that she pitched against the New York Yankees in 1936. She was only seventeen years old. When the baseball commissioner revoked her contract, he said, “Life in baseball is too strenuous for women.”

Top ten girl’s names of the 1970s: Jennifer, Lisa, Michelle, Kimberly, Amy, Angela, Melissa, Heather, Maria, and Amanda

Have you ever heard of . . . Iris Rivera? Thanks to Rivera, women no longer have to get coffee for their bosses. In 1977, Rivera, a legal secretary, was fired for refusing to make coffee. Women organized to get her job back. Rivera’s action challenged a deeply ingrained notion that women should be responsible for domestic responsibilities even at work.