A Widow’s Mite: Virginia Penny and the Struggle for Equal Employment and Pay for Women in the USA in the Late 19th Century

Well-known social reformers of many a stripe are interred in Green-Wood Cemetery.  Single Taxer Henry George, anti-slavery leader Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, (known in his time as The Great Divine for his oratory and inspirational skills), and Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA and The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are all revered permanent residents with prominent grave sites. Somehow, though, lost among the tombstones of memory, is that of Virginia Penny, a modest but fiercely energetic woman who dedicated her life to researching, writing and advocating equal opportunity and pay for women in all fields of employment during the last half of the 19th century and into the 20th.




























Penny was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1826, the daughter of a farming couple, Rachel Ruble (or perhaps Ross, depending on which records one examines) and William Penny. Virginia was the only daughter among five offspring. Mr. Penny was also a prominent politician, bank owner and slave owner.

After a Presbyterian upbringing and education at the Female Seminary of Steubenville, Ohio, Ms. Penny began a teaching career in private and public schools that last only nine years, when illness cut it short. An inheritance from her father gave Penny the freedom to pursue her passionate career as a reformer, sparked by her frustration, after her recuperation, in seeking employment at a living wage as a single woman in a field other than teaching.

The career choices available to Penny were little different from those chronicled in William Harris’ 1851 work Life in New York – Indoors and Out of Doors. “Professions” such as chair painting, cap making, domestic service, umbrella making, and type-rubbing paid wages to women perhaps 50% of those available to men of similar education (or the lack thereof) and skills. Doors to better jobs were simply closed to women in total regardless of their intellectual or other qualifications.





















































































In an article published in Honolulu’s Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser on February 15, 1893, Penny recounted her trials and tribulations:































An article in American National Biography Online http://www.anb.org/articles/14/14-01170.html is one of the few available sources of information about Penny, a long-neglected but modest activist. Excerpts from the concise summary of Penny’s life and work herewith:
“Penny used her inheritance from her father to research and publish her unique book, The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Woman’s Work (1863), subsequently retitled as How Women Can Make Money, Married or Single (1870). This intensive investigation of women’s labor markets consumed years of Penny’s life; she mailed out thousands of detailed questionnaires to employers, synthesized the quantitative and qualitative responses, and researched in libraries. She visited many businesses, mainly in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and personally interviewed workers and employers.

“The volume listed more than 500 possible occupations for women, with many of the jobs’ characteristics: female versus male wages, education and training necessary for the job, paid or unpaid apprenticeship, seasonality of employment, and availability of positions for women. Penny delineated possibilities for women ranging from being a physician to collecting rags. She noted employers’ explanations, as well as her own, for female-male wage differentials. Artificial barriers against women’s entrance into jobs accounted for part of the differential. Reacting to an employer’s claim that women lacked the strength to bleach and squeeze curtains, Penny scoffed, ‘It is surprising how many objections, as regards health and physical strength required, can be presented by selfish men, who do not wish women to engage in their occupations’ (p. 457). Wage discrimination also contributed to the differential. Informed at a rag dealer’s that men were paid twice as much as women because men could sort rags twice as fast, Penny sarcastically remarked that the reader could discern ‘the truth [of that explanation] . . . as well as I’ (p. 466).

“Penny targeted the book, which was dedicated to ‘Worthy and Industrious Women in the United States Striving to Earn a Livelihood,’ toward women themselves and the public at large. She provoked women’s thought and action toward exploring and realizing their employment opportunities by giving detailed depictions of just exactly what a worker must do in a particular job. For example, Penny suggested a short-term course in stenography for an aspiring reporter, a lucrative new occupation for women. A reporter would closely observe events such as political meetings and lectures for a few hours and then transcribe her notes for publication. To emphasize that these were tangible possibilities for women, she often cited particular women who had succeeded in such jobs; she even included illustrations of women engaged in remunerative employment. Penny encouraged the public to reconsider the lack of both labor markets and opportunities for women and families to support their daughters’ and sisters’ entrance into paid employment.

“The book was widely reviewed, generally positively, in outlets such as the New York Times and Scientific American. A reviewer for The English Woman’s Journal appreciated the book’s portrayal of her ‘American sisters,’ about whom English women had little information. Penny’s book was not widely sold at first; however, in its second printing by a publisher to whom Penny sold the plates and rights for one hundred dollars, it was retitled and sold well. In fact, the book has been reprinted a number of times, including recently, and a German elaboration/adaptation appeared in 1867.

“Penny’s second book, Think and Act: A Series of Articles Pertaining to Men and Women, Work and Wages (1869), was composed of more than a hundred essays, many of which had appeared in Louisville newspapers. This book contained more economic analysis of women’s labor market problems, such as discrimination, than did the first book. Penny offered policy prescriptions for the problems, such as imposing equal pay for equal work and rewarding government contracts only to firms that employed women. She more generally addressed women’s lack of access to financial resources when outside of the labor market and suggested a law that would force husbands to support their wives.

“The book, which was on an early reading list of the American Social Science Association, also illustrated her broader interests in social reform and policies. Penny argued in favor of homes for working women and orphans. She supported unionization of workers. Later in her life she registered concern for reform in the legal and judicial areas. She announced the formation of the People’s Protection Society Against Lawyers in Louisville; she elaborated on her personal motivation for organizing this society in To the Voters of Jefferson County (1885), available in An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera, in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. In this tract Penny accused a judge and group of lawyers of misappropriating her brothers’ estates; she advised the public to ‘act [according to] your conscience’ at the polls and vote the judge out of office.

“Penny was active in areas which promoted women’s paid employment and civic engagement. She operated an employment agency and lectured on fields of employment for women in New York City. Penny participated in meetings of Sorosis and the Workingwoman’s Association there. She and her brother, Alex, a physician and Louisville health officer, led protests which resulted in an increase in teachers’ salaries in her hometown of Louisville. She supported suffrage.

“Penny continued to write and research, and she worked for the U.S. Census Bureau. She lived in Louisville, Cincinnati, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and then returned to New York City in the 1890s, where she had lived briefly in the 1860s. By this time, Penny’s brother William, a physician, had moved there, leaving his positions as health officer of Galveston and professor at Texas Medical College and Hospital.

“The last decades of Penny’s life were marked by deprivation. Beginning in the late 1880s in Chicago, pleas for financial aid for Penny began appearing in the news. The Chicago publication the Daily Inter Ocean (9 September 1888), for example, called for a philanthropist to offer Penny monetary assistance. The New York Times (1 August 1902) reported that she was living destitute in a tenement in New York City.  Penny showed great determination and fortitude in investigating and bettering employment opportunities for women. Her first book was a distinguished and pioneering accomplishment. In a letter to Caroline Dall, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of the founders of the American Social Science Association, described the book as ‘contain[ing] a greater volume of information on the subject than any known to me in any language.’ Penny’s second book showed a concern for broader social problems and a refinement of thinking on economic issues, particularly those relevant to women. With both books, which are part of the Library of Cornell University’s Making of America series, and her other activities, she stimulated people to think about how women could financially support themselves. Her writings continue to resonate with people today.”

New York City address directories indicate that Penny moved back to Manhattan in 1892, to a dwelling at 118 East 46th Street, long since demolished, In succeeding years she resided in at 227-229 East 70th Street, 409 West 56th Street, 111 West 60th Street, 134 West 62nd Street, and finally, from 1894 until her death, at 419 East 64th Street. None of the extant structures at those addresses appear to have been those in which Penny likely rented a sparsely furnished room with the exception of the final one. The Tax Lot photos for many of the lots from 1939-40 in the New York Municipal Archives show dilapidated, dingy tenement structures consonant with the reports of her poverty. She apparently died without significant property to her name, as the Surrogate’s Court of New York County has no records of an estate proceeding, be it probate or intestacy, under her name.

Sadly, and for unknown reasons, Penny’s last few months were spent in Manhattan State Hospital on Ward’s Island in New York. The hospital was (and still is) devoted to the care of mentally unstable individuals. Her death certificate (below) sheds little light on the situation, listing “Chronic Endocarditis [and] Arterial Fibrosis” as the causes of death, with a “Paranoic [sic] Condition” listed as contributory. Given the lack of progress in the struggle Penny soldiered on with during her lifetime, to list her as paranoid perhaps should have been replaced with “realistic.” Hers was a sorry end to an admirable struggle for equality and decency for women in the workplace and the society at large.




























Virginia Penny is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, with her brother, William, and his wife, Julia, in Section 128, Lot 31262, Grave 90.  The gravestone is simple, set on the southern edge of the cemetery in one of the Public Lots, among common people of modest means, her resting place there as was her wont





























For a peek at more contemporary journalism by and about Virginia Penny, see: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/search/pages/results/?state=&date1=1850&date2=1922&proxtext=Virginia+Penny&x=0&y=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&rows=20&searchType=basic

Her major books are available on Google Books at https://books.google.com/books?id=Q8dYAAAAcAAJ&pg=PR1&dq=Virginia+Penny&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiL0vPnh4PPAhWIcj4KHSZ5CgIQ6AEIHjAA#v=onepage&q=Virginia%20Penny&f=false  and at https://books.google.com/books?id=hbrylOM-tZgC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Virginia+Penny&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiL0vPnh4PPAhWIcj4KHSZ5CgIQ6AEIJDAB#v=onepage&q=Virginia%20Penny&f=false

The author gratefully acknowledges the advice and assistance for (as well as conception of) this essay by my good friend and colleague, Ms. Nadine Stewart.



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