It was a man's world, women's role in society

Sandy Vasko

    Since the summer, an avalanche of women have been speaking up about women's role in the workplace and what it takes to rise to the top. Of course, in the 19th century it wasn't an issue. Women were simply not in the workplace.
    Today we research the view of women as printed in the local books and newspapers.
    First, I went to the History of Will County, 1873. It contains hundreds of biographies of Will County citizens, but, only a handful of them are about women, and even those tell more about their husbands than about the ladies.
    We know that women must have played an important role, at least for reproduction, but they are never mentioned in the newspaper except if they were very foolish, or left their husbands, or died, in which case the obituaries were all the same, they were all saints.
    Women were not treated like animals, but many thought of them in a similar way. In an 1875 Editor Ed Conley of the Wilmington Advocate had this to say, “When a woman would impress her beholders, let her carry herself with her chin high, as if drawn on by a bridle. It gives her an air of decorum and stateliness becoming her womanhood.”  It is perhaps no wonder that he stayed a bachelor until later in life.
    Even though a woman's place was in the home, many were not contented to make housework their lifetime calling. But fortunately, there was always a man there to tell her how to make it more bearable. Of course, they usually said they were quoting another woman, such as, “The best housekeeper I ever knew said to me while pointing out her flower garden, it is one of the best helps in my housekeeping. When I am weary of household cares, they renew me.”  
    “Like the oaks around my home, I run out under them when the sunlight glimmers through the leaves and they are ever an inspiration to right living, and I go on with my labors refreshed and strengthened.”
    Okay ladies, try running outside and looking at trees next time you are up to your elbows in housework, let me know how it works for you.
    Women who did not keep themselves busy at housework were always fair game for the local newspaper. “There are plenty of girls who are too feeble to drive a broom over a dusty carpet, but they can swing a croquet mallet with the force of a pile driver, for hours at a time.”
    But to be fair, Wilmington papers didn't mention the ladies as often as the Braidwood papers did.  Perhaps because there was a shortage of women in the mining towns.  Even the sight of women was enough to put them off their feed. We read in the Braidwood Briefs, “Two pretty country girls from Wilmington were standing opposite the office on Friday afternoon with their arms around each others waist. The newspaper men knocked off work for 20 minutes.”
    Braidwood must of had some very bold ladies as we read, “The two young ladies who came down Main Street in Braidwood, to Page's ice cream rooms last Saturday night, dressed in male attire, had better not do so any more. It's nice, but it's naughty, and besides they are watched.”
    In fact, ladies' fashion was a constant subject for the newspaper. We read several in an October 1875 issue of the Wilmington Advocate.
    “Striped kid gloves, which make a woman's hand look as hideous as a snake's skin are in fashion for fall and winter wear.”
    And further we read, “Many a woman who is too feeble to peel a dozen of potatoes for dinner, will walk four miles past a rival's house to display a new dress.”
    In the same year, the “pin-back dress” came into style. The skirt of the dress was narrow in front, but 3 or 4 extra panels were put in back, and then pinned or sewn together to make a rather large hump over a lady's posterior.  
    Local comments about the style were many, “My stylish young lady, with the close pin-back dress on, do you know that every time you pass a man turns around to look at you, and laughs and snickers?”
    This fashion soon gave way to the bustle, a wire cage with fabric covering which was also worn over the posterior. This caused all sorts of confusion among the men who came across it.
    We read of an incident in Joliet in 1877, “A curious looking arrangement was found on the canal bridge this morning, and while two men were holding it and hotly disputing as to what it was, a woman came along and explained it in a hurry.
    “I'm looking for that; I lost it last night; it's the cover to my bustle - if you want to know very bad.”
    And those two men wished the canal bridge would give away and let them through. They know more about the mysteries of female raiment now than they ever wanted to in their lives.”