Bossy Ladies: Toward a History of Wage-Earning Women in Indiana

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Nancy Gabin


Although largely invisible to and overlooked by contemporaries and historians, women have always done wage work in Indiana. Personal and domestic service employed the largest group of women in the state until about the mid-twentieth century. Right behind was manufacturing. Moving into and over the course of the twentieth century, female clerical workers, sales clerks, food service workers, and women in other white- and pink-collar jobs became an increasingly important part of the state’s workforce. But wage-earning women—like Mrs. Passwater, Mame Jenkins, and Gertrude Harris—are not well integrated into the historical scholarship on Indiana. When I surveyed the historiography on women in Indiana for a review essay published in this journal in 2000, I highlighted the contributions of Anita Ashendel, Ruth Crocker, Darlene Clark Hine, Earline Rae Ferguson, Wendy Gamber, Peggy Brase Seigel, and Emma Lou Thornbrough, among others, to our then-limited understanding of women and work. Research since 2000 has expanded our knowledge, although we know less about women and wage work than we do about women in the professions. Histories of women’s wage work, moreover, are often told from the point of view of employers, policymakers, journalists, activists, or the men in women workers’ lives. Women themselves may be effaced, erased, silenced. To illuminate the ways in which women workers engaged the politics of gender and compelled attention to their perspective on themselves and their labor requires different research strategies as well as different questions: How does the history of wage-earning women change what we know about and how we understand Indiana history and women’s history? Was “bossy” a term of opprobrium or a badge of honor? 


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Gabin, N. (2019). Bossy Ladies: Toward a History of Wage-Earning Women in Indiana. Indiana Magazine of History, 112(4), 289–312. Retrieved from