The impact and ramifications of the U.S. Civil War proved tremendous. Some scholars date the birth of the modern administrative state in the U.S. to this conflict. In addition, the war destroyed slavery and ushered in new conceptions of citizenship and suffrage. The war also presented women with new opportunities. Some women assumed leading roles in charitable and benevolent work, others served as nurses and doctors, and a few disguised themselves and fought in the ranks. Furthermore, women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, or other male relatives went into the army often had to find employment. Federal government clerkships proved to be highly-prized because, as Jessica Ziparo notes, they were “the best paying position open to Civil War era-American women” (p. 2). Although women fought to obtain these coveted jobs, their paths into the federal workforce proved rocky. Attitudes among federal supervisors differed about women applicants and most supervisors did not anticipate the sheer number of women who applied for government jobs. To secure these jobs, women often had to feign dependence and, once employed, be content with less pay than men for doing the same work. This Grand Experiment “explains and explores the experiences of these women who were added to the federal payroll during the upheaval and turmoil of the Civil War era, the opportunities that federal employment created for women, and the dashed possibilities for labour equality in nineteenth-century America” (p. 2).
Ziparo begins by describing the entry of women into the federal workforce. Just like other groups of people, women desperately wanted to receive government jobs. Before 1861, the government did employ women, but only as manual labourers and to complete copy work. The turmoil of the U.S. Civil War, however, produced a demand for women workers and federal supervisors began to employ women because they could be paid less for the same work as men and would save the government money. News of the decision to admit women into federal clerkships traveled quickly and a veritable “horde of office-seekers in skirts” (p. 24) descended on Washington to find jobs. Although they received less money than their male counterparts, federal government work still paid more than other jobs women received and, in addition, tended to be less physically taxing work. Likely because of the sheer number of women applicants, obtaining a job often proved difficult. Federal supervisors tended to reward seemingly dependent and helpless applicants over independent candidates. However, Ziparo highlights an important paradox: “while many women presented themselves as helpless and dependent, their actions during the application process—including self-advocacy, working other jobs to stay fiscally solvent, and keeping abreast of developments in the departments—betrayed significant independence and ambition” (p. 40). In other words, women quickly learned what to say in order to game the system. Ziparo includes countless examples of women and their recommenders constructing narratives of neediness. In addition, fitness for the position usually became the least important qualification for government work.
The same tenacity that women used to win their jobs, helped them thrive in wartime Washington D.C. Life in this city was not for the faint of heart; the population swelled and made city life unpleasant. Women often had difficulty procuring lodging and their travel to and from work could be dangerous. That said, “female federal employees challenged the character of the city, and carved paths through it, expanding the number and variety of places in which it was acceptable for women to be, and, importantly, did so under the gaze of men retaining and creating laws and regulations which affected women’s positions in society” (p. 115). Furthermore, in these jobs, women gained independence. However, with these new opportunities and independence came skepticism and derision from people who saw women clerks as prostitutes. Politicians, Ziparo contends, “reduced federal female employees to whores or war widows” (p. 139) and, all too frequently, “women had to safeguard their reputations against allegations of sexual promiscuity” (p. 140).
Once women gained a job with the federal government, there was no guarantee that they would be able to keep their job. Ziparo includes an intriguing chapter on women’s attempts to retain and regain positions in the federal government. Women, she notes, “fell back to tactics that had helped them to obtain their jobs—narratives of female dependency and stories of men lost or wounded on the fields of battle. They wielded these constructs more forcefully, however, in their attempts to regain their jobs” (p. 171). In other words, women fought hard to gain, keep, and, in some instances, regain their jobs. Finally, Ziparo investigates changes in women workers, noting that the “seemingly meek and supplicant women” became “strong, capable, and intelligent workers who would force Congress into the first federal debate over equal pay for women” (p. 192). Indeed, Congress debated the issue on multiple occasions. Some of the debates came remarkably close to achieving pay parity for women, although this did not occur. Ziparo contends that the U.S. government missed an opportunity. The grand experiment of employing women workers “purported to ascertain whether women could be successful federal civil service employees” but, in reality, actually tested “whether men could find a way to incorporate white middle-class women into the federal civil service in a way that allowed them to remain ladies, not become workers” (p. 226).
Ziparo is not the first scholar to analyze women in the civil service. However, as she contends, her research illuminates “women who were more heterogeneous, ambitious, and numerous than existing histories of early civil service employment have described” (p. 10). This Grand Experiment offers sound analysis of how women fought for their jobs, adapted to life in wartime Washington D.C., and played a pivotal role in prompting Congress to consider equal pay legislation. Ziparo is aware of biases in the sources, which tend to focus on white middle-class workers. Whenever possible, she considers other groups of women workers who have been neglected by scholars. In sum, this is a book that will appeal to anyone interested in gender and labour in the nineteenth century United States of America.