To write her book The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Women’s Work (1863) Viginia Penny interviewed hundreds of women across the country. In the book she listed five hundred possible occupations for women, railed against the artificial barriers that prevented women from entering certain fields of works, and critiqued the wage differential between men and women. When lawyers scrabbled away her inheritance, she founded the People’s Protection Society Against Lawyers in Louisville, Kentucky. For many years she ran an employment agency in New York City. The last years of her life were spent destitute, living in a Brooklyn tenement.

“Of those who speak so bitterly of women engaging in some pursuits now conducted by men, we would inquire, What would you have destitute single women and widows do, by which to ear their bread! You surely would not have women steal, that cannot obtain employment. What then can they do? Why may they not have free access to callings that would insure them a support? Those that oppose them, generally do so from selfish motives. Many men would banish women from the editor’s and author’s table, from the store, the manufactory, the workshop, the telegraph office, the printing case, and every other place, except the school room, sewing table, and kitchen. The false opinion that exists in regard to the occupations suitable for women must change ere women have free access to all those in which they may engage. Yet I would love to see thrown open to women the door of every trade and profession in which they are capable of  working. (The Employments of Women, pp. vi-vii)

Virginia Penny (1826-1913) was an author, social reformer, and a pioneer in the study of women’ labor markets.

Make a comment: What do you think Viginia Penny would think of women’s opportunities today?

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