Working Women

Iowa women have always worked, but in the early nineteenth century women's work was largely confined to the home and farm. The traditional role for a woman was that of a wife and mother. From dawn to dusk she cooked, cleaned, sewed and took care of children. To earn extra money she sold eggs, butter, baked goods and chickens. Yet, before 1860 census records did not list homemakers as "gainfully employed." Because these women did not earn wages, their efforts were not considered "work." 

Women As Cooks

Women made most of their meals from '' scratch." Preparing food took a long time. In the mid-1800s meals were cooked in an iron kettle over a log fire and baked in an outside oven made of bricks. Afterward the coals were removed and the heat that remained in the oven was used for baking pies, bread and cakes. Women roasted chickens, broiled squirrels and baked corn cakes over hot ashes.

Clothing Chores

Women also spent a great deal of time making clothing for their families. Ready-made clothing was scarce and expensive to buy. It took a great deal of material to make a dress in those days since the skirts were long and very full. Men's shirts had to be made also. Not all women had a sewing machine, so some sewed clothing by hand. 

Washing clothes was no easy task either. Without running water many women carried buckets of water from outdoor wells to their homes where they filled large tubs. Clothes were often boiled on the stove, rinsed in cold water, wrung out by hand or machine, and hung to dry. Women used heavy irons that were heated on stove tops. Soap was usually made every spring by the women. 

In between household chores it wasn't unusual for women to take care of the sick. There were few doctors in rural areas. Using herbs, home remedies and new patent medicines, women cared for their families the best they could. 

On the Farm

Farm women had additional chores. They planted and tended the garden, took care of chickens, picked and preserved fresh berries, canned grapes, made cheese, husked corn and cooked extra meals for threshers. To earn money some farm women churned and sold butter, trimmed hats and raised and sold poultry. Women used their extra income to buy schoolbooks for their children and machinery for the farm. They contributed to the purchase of additional land or a new farm.

Women worked in the fields and milked. They husked corn and dug potatoes. Some women managed farms themselves when their husbands died or were away from the farm for a long time. 

Civil War Brings Change

Ideas about women began to change after the Civil War. Once denied the same opportunities to attend schools as men, more and more Iowa women began attending schools and universities. 

New types of jobs opened up for women. Women who worked outside the home entered into domestic service, teaching and millinery work. By 1900 many women had left their farms and moved to the city to work in shops, offices and factories. Other women were entering professional fields where only men were employed. More Iowa women practiced law and medicine, served as county school superintendents and as bank presidents. 

The Bradley Bros. Cigar Factory in Dubuque employed women in 1906 to roll cigars. Workers were on the job more than 50 hours a week. The pay was about $3 for a week's work. Women were considered good employees by many factory owners because they were less likely than men to join unions. Women were paid less than men for factory work too. 

Women's Work

Because women took care of children in their role as mother, many people believed teaching seemed to fit into "womanly duties." As men left teaching for higher paying work in factories or farming, jobs opened up for women. And, as with most professions, women teachers were paid less than men teachers. By 1880 two-thirds of public school teachers were women. However, women teachers were required to quit their jobs if they got married. 

Women Wear Different Hats

Owning a millinery shop was one of the few socially accepted ways women could own businesses. Hats were an important accessory for a nineteenth-century woman's wardrobe. Women wore a hat or bonnet whenever they left the house. Some bought a new hat every season or for special occasions. While hats were available from general stores and mail-order catalogs, most women preferred buying individually designed hats at local millinery shops. 

A milliner had a wide variety of duties. She was a buyer, designer, stocker, salesclerk, advertising manager and accountant. Some milliners traveled to eastern cities to buy new hats. Besides hats, millinery shops sold ladies cuffs, collars, gloves, sewing supplies, fashion magazines, and the current dress patterns. The shops provided rural Iowa women with the current fashion styles of eastern cities. An 1873 newspaper advertisement for Pratt and Strub, an Iowa City millinery, read: "Nowhere else are the equals of our millinery offers to be found. We believe we are the only house where original New York Pattern Hats are to be found."

Today most women in Iowa don't make soap, bake over a log fire or quit their jobs when they get married. Women own businesses—not millinery shops anymore, but clothing stores, restaurants, book stores, law firms and trucking companies. They have more opportunities in a variety of professions. 


  • Deborah Gore, Ed., "Working Women,” The Goldfinch 8, no. 2 (November 1986): 4.
  • Deborah Gore, Ed., “Labor in Iowa,” The Goldfinch 10, no. 3 (February 1989): 3-5.