Mrs. M.L. Rayne’s 1887 book, What Can A Woman Do? provides a fascinating look at how Victorian women could make money in the 1880s. It’s rich with information and vignettes that show what was possible for working women some 120 years ago. The opportunities for enterprising women were greater than most of us imagine.
The book is subtitled “Her Position in the Business and Literary World”. A sizable section is dedicated to women poets but it is the business opportunities for women that are most intriguing. Rayne looks at careers for women as well as a variety of ways women could make money on their own.
A chapter is devoted to women in the legal profession. The author notes that there were some ninety women practicing law in the United States in the 1880s, most of whom had graduated from the University of Michigan, the first U.S. university to admit women to its law school. In an early version of networking the author suggests that readers contact one of the female attorneys she mentions and ask them for advice on pursuing a legal career.
There is also a chapter about women in medicine. The author writes that Europe was far ahead of the United States in opening its medical schools to women. In the US, a medical school for women was opened in Boston in 1848. In the 1880s close to half of Boston University’s medical school students were female and Rayne lists four other US medical schools that admitted women.
Other occupations that are discussed in the book include stenography and typing; wood engraving; nursing; telegraphy; and government work. There is much discussion of wages and earning potential in the book. In the chapter on telegraphy, a profession for which there were actually specific educational programs, Rayne writes about the income disparities between men and women operators. Women were paid on average $500 per year while men earned an average annual salary of $840.
Rayne’s feminist bent extends beyond wage disparities. She writes of how a woman’s work is never done. A man goes home to rest and read while a woman returns home to work and weariness. Clearly Rayne was a woman ahead of her time. Chapters are devoted to women as inventors and women of enterprise. She writes of women who received patents for their inventions and women who started their own businesses.
A number of the ways to make money discussed in the book are still popular today. Raising chickens, even in the city and suburbs, is becoming more popular. The book includes a chapter on raising poultry that will be of interest to backyard poultry enthusiasts. There’s also a chapter on making money with bee keeping, another increasingly popular hobby nowadays. Other perennial favorite money making opportunities discussed in the book include dressmaking, housekeeping, cooking (today we call ourselves caterers), and taking in boarders (nowadays we call it getting a roommate).
For those who thought that women first entered the workforce in the 1970s or no earlier than the days of Rosie the Riveter, Rayne provides an eye opening account of women’s first forays into the working world. Whether it’s a century old perspective on making money with your own enterprise or an eye-opening look at the early days of feminism, What Can A Woman Do sheds much light on the early days of women in the work force.