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  • This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War–Era Washington, D.C by Jessica Ziparo
  • Sarah J. Purcell (bio)
This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War–Era Washington, D.C. By Jessica Ziparo. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. 352. Cloth, $39.95.)

Recent historiography is expanding our view of how deeply northern women participated in the home-front activities that made the Civil War possible, granting us a better understanding of women arsenal and factory workers, sex workers, teachers, and journalists who join the list of important women reformers, writers, sanitary commission workers, and domestic laborers who have long seemed essential to understanding the war. Jessica Ziparo's This Grand Experiment provides an excellent, detailed look at another group of women who need to be added to the list of essential war workers: the thousands who sought and gained employment in the federal government from 1861 until the early 1870s.

Ziparo builds on insights in Cindy Aron's Ladies and Gentlemen of the Civil Service: Middle-Class Workers in Victorian America (1987), which shows that women were an important part of the growth of the civil service between 1860 and 1900. Ziparo notes, however, that Aron's evidence is [End Page 326] heavily weighted toward the 1880s and 1890s and that deeper focus on the 1860s allows us to assess federal female employment in relation to the war effort more clearly. Ziparo offers a lot of fresh insight here.

The Civil War coincided with a significant growth in federal employment for women: Ziparo notes that the Federal Register shows "an increase of over 5,000 percent" in female federal employment during the 1860s (1). She uses employment records, census records, correspondence, and newspaper evidence to insightfully chart the experiences of these women (white and African American), and she does a nice job of balancing institutional power and women's individual and collective agency in their own employment. Ziparo writes engagingly, using colorful letters and diaries by women such as Julia Wilbur and Anna Dudley to illuminate the experiences of scores more who left little testimony about their feelings.

Ziparo argues that "the government employment of women was a system forged in the exigencies of the Civil War and hardened by the ambitions and persistence of the women of America" (14). She structures the book's seven brisk chapters to "follow the life cycle of a woman's federal employment," recognizing that almost all women who sought federal employment were driven to some extent by financial need (12). The first chapter explores how federal department supervisors came to adopt the idea of hiring women, who "yearned for intellectually demanding and high-paying jobs in a land of limited options for female employment" (12). Chapter 2 explains the hiring process and stresses that the most successful female applicants framed themselves as dependent, needy supplicants to male patronage. Chapter 3 shows how women performed clerical tasks (and even some manual labor) equal to men's work but still had trouble gaining advancement and recognition. Chapter 4 places female workers' lives in the context of Civil War Washington, D.C., stressing challenges in housing and health while showing female independence. Chapter 5 centers on an 1864 sex scandal in the Treasury Department and explores how women endured difficult sexualized workplaces. Chapter 6 takes a look at how women (especially white women) largely successfully fought to retain their employment after the Civil War, while chapter 7 reveals how women were systematically paid much less than men for the same work, despite an effort to get Congress to address pay inequity. Ziparo explains well how many of the book's themes—female supplication, besmirched sexual reputations, unequal pay, women's organizing—would all have consequences for subsequent generations of federal employees.

The information on the growth of and challenges inherent in female employment that Ziparo presents is clear and will be of interest to anyone teaching the history of the period to undergraduates. As she herself [End Page 327] has noted in an op-ed for the History News Network entitled "What the Women of Today Can Learn from the Women...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2159-9807
Print ISSN
2154-4727
Pages
pp. 326-328
Launched on MUSE
2019-06-01
Open Access
No
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