Women in Pennsylvania … The First Two Hundred Years

The Bicentennial Edition is a special issue of 14 features commemorating the American Revolution Bicentennial in Pennsylvania, published June 1976.

In the past two hundred years thousands of women have contributed significantly to the social, economic, political and cultural richness of Pennsylvania. An encyclopedia could barely sketch their contributions. Since this article cannot possibly present a complete picture of women’s history in our state, it will survey the changes in women’s roles with brief accounts of a few famous women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a few unrecognized women whose lives illustrate the changes of the twentieth century.

From Independence to our Bicentennial year the roles women play have expanded to include almost every phase of activity that was once reserved “for men only.” Even at the time of the Revolution, however, there was variation in women’s lives. Philadelphia. for example, was an elegant city, the most sophisticated in the United States. Many women there lived comfortable urban lives, while in the countryside, and especially west of the Alleghenies, life was a bitter struggle for survival. Here, pioneer families formed an economic unit in which husband, wife and child each had to work to assure life itself. Families were large, and in spite of high infant mortality rates, the average family included five to six children.

Undoubtedly the housewife and mother was the hardest working member of the frontier family. While her husband’s chores demanded the greatest physical strength, “in unre­mitting toil and daily hours of labor his wife surpassed him.” It was her duty not only to produce food, clothing and bedding, to clean the house and care for the sick, but also to tend the garden and the poultry, to milk the cows, and often to help in the fields. When Dr. Increase Matthews visited western Pennsylvania in 1798, he spent the night with a family near Washington, and wrote afterwards, “I en­deavored to persuade them that they put too much hardship upon their women … The two daughters had both been employed all day in spreading flax which is very hard work.” The daughter was expected to marry at an early age, and from childhood, her work at home was preparation for running her own household. By the time of her wedding, the young woman’s dowry included, along with feather beds, linens, and clothing she and her mother had manufactured, the valuable skills of spinning, weaving, and making hominy.

The responsibilities of women increased with the out­break of the War for Independence. Many husbands went off to war, some never to return, and their wives and widows became sole supporters of their families. One of these women was Catherine Smith who lived in Union County. Left a widow with ten children in 1773, she borrowed money and installed a grist mill and a saw mill on her prop­erty. She then added a boring mill and turned out musket barrels for the Continental Army.

Some women took an even more active role in the war. While Mary Kirk of Northumberland County ran bullets for soldiers, and Lydia Darragh of Philadelphia dared to act as a spy for General Washington, a few women actually joined the fighting. Mary Ludwig Hays, better known as Molly Pitcher, and Margaret Cochran Corbin both assumed their husbands’ places at the cannons when the men fell in battle, and were later granted pensions by the state in rec­ognition of their military service.

A major contribution to the war effort was made by a group of women who formed a widely based organization to supply clothing for the revolutionary soldiers. Esther De Berdt Reed, the wife of Washington’s Adjutant General and Sarah Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter, headed the organization. At first made up of Philadelphia women, the society expanded to include women from other Penn­sylvania communities, and from Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. They raised more than $300,000 to pay for supplies. Records show that they received donations from a broad spectrum of women ranging from a gift of “seven shillings and sixpence donated by Phyllis, a colored laund­ress,” to six thousand dollars “from the Countess of Luzerne.” This is the first recorded formal organization of women working together in the service of our country.

In the early days of independence the subordinate legal position of a woman was rarely questioned. English common law determined her position. A married woman had no property rights. All income from her property or her work during her marriage belonged to her husband. A woman had no right to sue or to make contracts or even to custody of her children in case of divorce or separation. And, of course, women did not have the right to vote.

Courageous Pennsylvania women led the long hard struggle to change the legal position of women. Interestingly, the fight for women’s rights was closely tied with the crusade against slavery. Dedicated to the principle of human justice, the same women frequently became active in both movements.

Lucretia Mott, a Quaker preacher and a teacher, was one of four women who participated at the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833. The same year she became president of the Female Anti­Slavery Society. At meetings of the women’s group, rioters surrounded the hall and insults bombarded the courageous women who joined her. Undaunted she traveled throughout the country speaking against slavery and her home became a busy station of the Underground Railway. In 1840 she was elected a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London when she was refused a seat because she was a woman. Sitting in the gallery she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the two talked of the anomaly of the discrim­ination shown against women anti-slavery workers. Their meeting led to the official launching of the campaign for women’s rights at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Lucretia Mott lived to see the end of slavery but the struggle for women’s suffrage was to be a longer one, and Lucretia Mott, pioneer feminist died in 1880. Mary Grew, another ostra­cized delegate to the 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention, turned her attention to women’s rights after the anti-slavery battle was won. In 1869 she helped organize the Pennsylvania Women’s Suffrage Association. Elected president, she worked diligently to organize the eastern part of the state while Matilda Hindman, a retired school teacher led the organiza­tion in western Pennsylvania. The outstanding name in the anti-slavery movement in western Pennsylvania is that of Jane Gray Swisshelm. This individualist dared to speak out in signed newspaper articles in the days when a respectable woman’s name appeared in print only to announce her marriage and her death. Jane Swisshelm wrote tirelessly for the anti-slavery cause and launched her own abolitionist paper, the Pittsburgh Visiter, in 1848. A rebel in her personal life, when her husband demanded the money she received from selling her late mother’s property, she challenged state law which stated that all a wife acquires during her marriage belongs to her husband. Her forceful letters and burning articles influenced the state legislature to pass a law in 1848 granting to married women the right to own property.

More famous as a reporter is Elizabeth Cochran Seaman of Pittsburgh, originally from Armstrong County, better known by her pseudonym, Nellie Bly. Her flamboyant ex­poses of corruption were published in the New York World.

Rebecca Gratz, daughter of a prominent Jewish family in Philadelphia. helped organize “The Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circum­stances,” the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, the Fuel Society, and The Sewing Society as well as the first Jewish Sunday School in America. Her name was immortalized as the char­acter of Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. During the same period Mira Sharpless Townsend of Philadelphia organ­ized the Rosina Home. the first society in the country dedi­cated to rehabilitating women prisoners.

In Catholic charity and education women made outstand­ing contributions. Frances Warde, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, left Ireland with six other nuns and in 1843 opened the Convent of Mercy in Pittsburgh. A tireless worker, Mother Warde opened Mount Mercy Academy in 1884, St. Xavier’s Academy in 1845, St. Paul’s Orphanage in 1846 and Pittsburgh’s first real hospital, Mercy Hospital in 1847. In Philadelphia, Mother Cornelia Augusta Peacock Connelly founded her own convent and opened schools and colleges in Philadelphia. Pioneer education for the deaf is also the work of Pennsylvania women. Two sisters, Mary and Emma Garrett, opened and operated schools in Scranton and Phila­delphia and were instrumental in Pennsylvania’s establishment of a Juvenile Court system in 1903.

Wars Bring Changes

The Civil War brought women into new areas of American life. Many volunteered as nurses during the war. heralding the change from nursing as an act of charity to a profession. With working men off at war, for the first time in American history women were hired to fill office jobs. The woman secretary, stenographer and clerk date to Civil War days. By 1890 the telephone was a reality, and Bell hired women operators. Two of the first were Negro women, Parthenia Tanner and Mary Tanner Miller.

The mass immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe between 1880 and 1914 brought hundreds of thousands of women to Pennsylvania. While most of the immigrants from the Slavic countries and from Italy were men, some young women did come alone. They settled either in the anthracite towns of eastern Pennsylvania or the mill towns along the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh, paying most of their low pay to the poor woman with whom they boarded. Married immigrant women supplemented the salaries of their mining or mill worker husbands by lodging and feeding immigrant workers. In addition to a hearty breakfast and supper, “Board” meant packing the three-quart dinner bucket which each man carried with him to work. Single women often did cleaning work, or found jobs mak­ing cigars or packing pickles at the Heinz factory. Some found jobs in the city’s department stores. Sara Perella, a nineteen-year-old girl who had learned to sew in Italy, worked as a seamstress at Rosenbaum’s department store in Pittsburgh. Believing she could earn more money, she went to every store in the city and offered her services to the highest bidder. She managed to build a clientele that sup­ported her own tailoring business after she married and had children. Esther Shapiro, a twenty-year-old Jewish immi­grant, studied English for three months at night school before finding a job as a department store interpreter, helping shoppers who could not speak English.

While immigrant women worked, managed households and raised American children, other Pennsylvania women helped the immigrants in their adjustment to America. Florence Kelley of Philadelphia is the best known of Pennsylvania’s social workers. She worked with Jane Ad­dams at Hull House, who lived in the settlement house for seven years, sharing every waking hour with the women and children there. Educated in law and economics, she then spent thirty-two years campaigning for laws against child labor and better working conditions and minimum pay standards for women. In Pittsburgh, Mrs. Philomena Nero remembers how the Irish social workers at Kingsley House sang Italian songs with the immigrants as they celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day together. The Anna Heldman Center in Pittsburgh’s Hill District is named in honor of the tireless Pennsylvania woman who dedicated her adult life to teaching and advising Jewish immigrants.

As the Civil War had earlier opened new fields for women, so too did World War I. Patriotism was high, and immigrant women as well as members of the Daughters of the American Revolution rolled bandages in churches and public libraries and worked as Red Cross volunteers. Women’s contributions to the war effort, both in paid and volunteer capacities, assured the enactment of women’s suffrage. When peace came, Congress passed the nineteenth amend­ment to the United States Constitution, fulfilling the promise of the seventy-two year struggle. The Pennsylvania legis­lature ratified the amendment in 1920; women were at last full citizens. While small groups of women continued to work for legislation to remove all legal distinctions between men and women, the mood of the country and the state repudiated the crusading spirit. The Depression brought the movement to a standstill. World War II, however, did trans­form the economic role of women. After Pearl Harbor the demands of defense attracted thousands of women to the factory and mill. A new group of women entered the labor force. Earlier. al most al I women in the labor force had been young and single, but Josephine. the welder, and Rosie, the riveter, were married women with children; they were thirty or even forty years old. This war-time employment fre­quently meant a change in life style for the entire family, and even though they went home after the war, women were beginning to realize their worth and their economic potential. Some, like Anna Vosic of McKeesport, saved enough money for a down payment on a house for her family from her wartime work. Sarah Evosevic’s job at Oliver Iron and Steel made it possible for her to open the restaurant which is today “Sarah’s,” Pittsburgh’s popular ethnic restaurant. These women and thousands like them strongly favor full equality for their daughters and granddaughters.

Pennsylvania women have been at the forefront of the current feminist movement for legal equality. The Pennsyl­vania legislature amended the state constitution in 1971 with an Equal Rights Amendment, and Pennsylvania became the twenty-first state in the union to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment. Today, Pennsylvania women, the descendants of Quaker preachers, Scotch-Irish philanthropists, Negro slaves, and of immigrants from every part of the globe, are entering every field long considered the private domain of men. Young women are becoming skilled car­penters, plumbers and electricians. They are moving beyond the traditional women’s fields of nursing, teaching and social work to become engineers and mathematicians as well as doctors, dentists, and lawyers. More and more women will enter the political arena, running for and winning elec­tive office. At the same time most women will also continue to live as mothers and wives, the family central in their lives. Perhaps the celebration of our national tercentenary will not include a separate article on Pennsylvania women. It is just possible that by 2076 Pennsylvanians and all Americans will accept the fact that men and women together contribute equally to the variety and richness that constitute the quality of American life.



Bartlett, Virginia. “How Women’s Property Rights Began in Swiss­vale,” Pittsburgh Magazine, November, 1975.

Biddle, Gertrude Bosler and Sara Dickinson Lowrie, eds. Notable Women of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1942.

Buck, Solon J. and Elizabeth Hawthorn Buck. The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 1942.

Butler, Flora Beardsley. Women and the Trades, Pittsburgh, 1907-1908. New York: Charities Publishing Co., 1909.

Byington, Margaret. Homestead: Households of a Mill Town. Pitts­burgh: University Center for International Studies, 1974.

Interviews for “Women, Ethnicity and Mental Health,” a project of the Institute for Pluralism and Group Identity.


Dr. Corinne Krause is Project Director of “Women, Ethnicity and Mental Health,” an oral history study of Italian, Jewish and Slavic Women in Pittsburgh. She is also a Research Associate at the University of Pittsburgh and lecturer at Carlow College.