National Archives News

Women Pave Way to Federal Employment

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By Kerri Lawrence  |  National Archives News

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2018 — During the Civil War era, the Federal Government needed to expand its workforce, but the jobs paid too little for most qualified men to even consider the vacancies. So the Government tried a new approach to filling its personnel shortage: It opened its payrolls to women for the first time.

Jessica Ziparo, author of This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil-War Era Washington, DC, recently told an audience at the National Archives that women from around the nation flooded Washington with applications, seeking the opportunity for better wages and intellectually challenging work. They also found career paths fraught with discrimination, prejudice, and harassment. The women persisted, however, and ultimately succeeded in making their presence in the federal workforce permanent.  

Ziparo, a historian and attorney who earned her doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University and her law degree from Harvard University, shared the story of these pioneering women who blazed a trail in the federal sector—recalling their struggle for equal rights, equal opportunities, and fair wages.  The women were glad for the work, though their salaries were often just a fraction of that earned by their male counterparts doing the same job.

"It was ironic that the government hired women because they could pay them so little, because the women wanted these jobs in the government because they paid so much—so much more than women could earn in other lines of work” in the private sector, Ziparo said.

She explained how this would eventually be a point of great contention for the women, who in future decades would seek equal pay for equal work.

Ziparo said the new female federal employees challenged societal gender norms and carved out a place for independent women in Washington. As the number of women grew in the federal workforce, the landscape of the city changed as well to reflect the changing population. New shops emerged. New housing options surfaced. Women became a recognizable market in DC. It was a time of evolution within the nation’s capital. 

Even with all these new opportunities for women, Ziparo said they were still caught between traditional cultural ideas of female dependence and an evolving movement of female autonomy in a new economic reality. She told how women “still needed to frame themselves as helpless and needy in order to obtain a position.” Application files “often contained pleas from women to help her put food on her table,” she said.

Ziparo told how a scandal within the Treasury Department cast female federal employees in a questionable light.  And clashes with the suffrage movement nearly derailed the women’s place within the federal workforce. Yet through the struggles and triumphs, Ziparo noted federally employed women demonstrated persistence in their drive to earn equal opportunities, to receive fair wages, and to secure a permanent place within the federal workforce.

She said documents at the National Archives helped her to tell this story in her new book.  

Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero said, “The women and men of the National Archives are proud to be entrusted with our Nation’s documentary heritage.” 

“And we are especially pleased to see stories held within the records coming to light in books, such as This Grand Experiment,” Ferriero said during opening remarks for Ziparo’s presentation.

This book talk was part of a series of programs celebrating Women’s History Month at the National Archives, and is one of several events hosted by the National Archives that focus on the contributions women have made to our nation’s history. Throughout this month, the agency will present panel discussions, additional author book talks, and exhibits in various locations across the country. Upcoming programs related to women’s history are listed on the calendar of events at

Follow The National Archives on Twitter and search for the hashtag #ArchivesAwesomeWomen to see the collections shared by the agency and other archives, museums, libraries, and cultural organizations. 

You can even test your knowledge of inspiring women with a quiz created by the National Archives Foundation.