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  • This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil by Jessica Ziparo
  • Jennifer L. Weber
This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War–Era Washington. By Jessica Ziparo. Civil War America. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 339. $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-3597-2.)

Women first started to work for the federal government during the Civil War. They did not go to Washington, D.C., to take jobs that were otherwise unfillable; enough men were available to fill the ranks of the civil service. Instead, women went to the capital because they needed a job and because the government, which grew significantly in response to the war, was hiring.

This is the story that Jessica Ziparo lays out in This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D.C. Women, many of whom had families to support, were drawn to government work because it paid better than many of the other jobs to which women were confined, such as teacher or seamstress. Most of the women Ziparo discusses landed these government jobs through the graces of well-connected men who wrote letters of recommendation for them. The more plaintive the letter, the better the chance the applicant would get the post.

Because of the limitations of her sources, Ziparo focuses mostly on literate women who served as clerks. They came from every imaginable background, and their experiences were radically different from those of most female laborers at the time. Women clerks' jobs could be intellectually stimulating, depending on where they worked and who their boss was. They often worked alongside men. And they were usually living on their own in a bustling city.

But there were pronounced downsides for the women who opened the government's doors for their sisters. Outside Washington, D.C., these women suffered reputations as whores—a status that cemented itself in the public mind when a genuine sex scandal in the Treasury Department came to light.

Meanwhile, from the Department of Nothing New Under the Sun, women made half what their male counterparts did for the same job. This practice, in part, is what persuaded managers to hire women in the first place—they were cheaper. Ultimately, the influx of women began to drive down the compensation for all federal clerks. Although Ziparo does not make this connection explicitly, she is tracing the emergence of a pink-collar profession.

In a fascinating twist, Congress came close to requiring that federal employees receive the same pay for the same job, regardless of gender. Several times in the 1860s, Congress took up bills that provided for equal pay. Despite broad support, each bill, one way or another, failed in committee. One wonders whether pay equity would be the nagging problem that it remains had Congress been more successful in the crucial moment when women were entering the ranks of civil service. Instead, Congress signaled that pay disparity was an acceptable approach to business.

Women' s participation in the workforce did not end with the Civil War, unlike it did after World War II. Although the average period of service for these workplace pioneers was between one and three years, many of them stayed longer—some into the twentieth century.

This Grand Experiment is well researched, with Ziparo having traced about three thousand women who worked for the government in the 1860s. The book is [End Page 176] not as tightly written as it might have been and can be repetitive at times, but it is otherwise a solid contribution. One important note, however: although this book is billed as a work on the Civil War and shows up in the University of North Carolina Press series Civil War America, the war is a mere backdrop in the book. This work is more appropriately considered in the ranks of gender or labor history.

Jennifer L. Weber
University of Kansas


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pp. 176-177
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