A Q and A with Jessica Ziparo, Author of This Grand Experiment

Photo of Jessica Ziparo by John McHugh

Photo of Jessica Ziparo by John McHugh

After I completed the manuscript of my book A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time, I met Jessica Ziparo via email . Her recently published book This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D.C. (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) focuses on how women--including Julia Wilbur--sought, worked at, and kept their highly coveted but difficult government jobs. Other aspects include how they subsisted on their overtly unequal-to-men wages and organized (or did not) for their collective rights. As she explains below, one of the most surprising finds in her work was the debate about equal pay for women--and its almost-success in 1870.

Among her many sources, Ziparo used Julia Wilbur's diaries, as she also describes below. Wilbur worked in the Patent Office as a "clerk" and "copyist" from 1869 until shortly before her death in 1895. 

The Kentucky Historical Review asked me to review Ziparo's book. With the review turned in for future publication, I decided to ask Jess to describe her book in her own words.


1.     What is the book about?

This Grand Experiment is about women’s entrance into the federal workforce during Civil War-era Washington, D.C. In it, I explore who the women were, how they obtained coveted federal positions, and how the federal government incorporated women into what had been an all-male workforce. I examine the types of jobs women performed and the very early equal pay debate they engendered by demanding equal pay for equal work in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Finally, I examine how these women fit themselves into to the masculine, boarding house culture of Washington D.C., and how in doing so changed the city. 

2.     How did you come to this idea?

I was initially interested in studying sex workers during the Civil War because I am interested in the ways women and marginalized people have carved out autonomous lives for themselves within societies and structures that seek to control them, and the sacrifices they must make to do so.

Early in my research, I discovered female federal employees through the 1864 scandal in the Department of the Treasury. The scandal began as one about fraud and counterfeiting, but morphed into, and is remembered as, a sex scandal [as recounted in the book]. Reporting on the events, newspapers maligned all women who worked for the federal government as sexually immoral. I hadn’t realized so many women had been working for the federal government and became curious as to what they had been doing and how they came to work there. This led me to Cindy Aron’s Ladies and Gentlemen of the Civil Service, which is an excellent book on the men and women who worked for the federal government from the Civil War through 1900 and how they squared their middle class identities with their federal employment.

I was left hungry, however, for more information on those first women who became civil servants. How did they come to work for the government? Where did they come from? What was it like for women to live in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War and Reconstruction? Those were the questions I set out to answer in This Grand Experiment.

3.     You write about setting up 3,000 files of women employees. Can you explain what a “file” consisted of, and then how you used the files to develop the book?

I needed to try to capture all the ephemera I could about women who worked for the federal government during this period because there is so little information about “ordinary” women left in the evidentiary record.

In a messy, organic, iterative process that took years, I created and populated a database in the program FileMaker of, at current count, 3,146 women who worked for the federal government at some point between 1859 and 1871. I started with the entries in the Federal Register—a biennial publication of most (not all) of the men and women who worked for the federal government. This listed basic demographic info—name, job title, where they were from, where they were appointed, and their salaries. 

I cross-referenced these names in the 1870 Census to get more information, for example, race, age, and with whom they lived (difficult because while it’s searchable not all of the names are legible in the original, because when women married they changed their names, and because some female federal employees moved out of D.C. before 1870). I also read through pages of the 1870 Census searching for women who listed their occupation as government employees and created files for them. 

I read years of multiple Washington, D.C. newspapers. Newspaper articles that referenced specific “ordinary” women in Washington, D.C. were relatively rare. Rare enough, in any event, that I could cross-reference those names with names from my database. This allowed me to make small connections that illuminated the lives of women who had only been database entries with the scant information from the Federal Register. For instance, I knew that Sophia Curtis worked for the Treasury Department in 1867 and 1869, but because I saw her name in an 1862 “Local News” article and checked for her in my database, I further learned who her father had been, where she lived, and that she had been badly injured when her dress caught fire that March. While I couldn’t do online searches for all the female federal employees I knew of by name in newspaper databases, I did search for some.

There is little evidence of “ordinary” white women in the evidentiary record, and there is even less for “ordinary” women of color. Of the 3,146 women I identified as being female federal employees in this period, only 21 were African American. I did search for these women by name in newspaper archives, which is how I discovered, for example, the story of Sophia Holmes, who earned a promotion in the Treasurer’s Office because while she was cleaning she discovered currency that had accidentally been left out of the vault and sat on it for hours (despite her four children being home alone) until Treasurer Spinner returned to the office. Finally, I also populated my database with information I found in the archives, including application materials and employee files, federal department records, divorce records, and petitions to Congress. 

The FileMaker databases I created, including others for primary and secondary sources, are customizable, so I was also able to make them taggable and searchable. For example, I could choose to look only at women (in my database) who worked for the Treasury Department in 1863. These features allowed me to do things like track the number of female employees over time and among departments. I was also able to see how women moved in and out of departments and among them and to find connections between and among women. 

4.     What surprised you the most about women government employees at that time?

I found a lot of my research to be surprising and exciting. Initially, I was very surprised at the number of female applicants and the pressure with which they pressed their cases. The federal government started hiring women in large numbers in the early 1860s. There was not much fanfare about this decision. Yet women from around the country very quickly started sending in applications and recruiting influential men to support and recommend them. The number of female applicants and how desperate they were for federal positions highlights how few options women had for well-paid, intellectually interesting work in Civil War-era America. 

I was also surprised to find the equal pay debates in the late 1860s, early 1870s and was shocked at how close they came to succeeding. Both the House and the Senate passed bills regulating equal pay by large margins. Ultimately, the movement failed when those bills died in committee. Opponents of equal pay relied in large part on the huge numbers of women applying. These men argued that women didn’t have to be paid more because women across America were clamoring for them at the current rate of pay, demonstrating how complicated and difficult fights for justice can be. 

5.     Of course, I was interested in your inclusion of Julia Wilbur. How did her diary help you? How was she typical or atypical compared to others? 

I found Wilbur’s diary somewhat late in my research and writing. I was elated to find it, but somewhat scared to read it. I had formulated ideas through the painstaking research and database creation of what federal employment was like for women in the Civil War era. Wilbur’s diary could have suggested I was far off base. To my relief, it actually validated a lot of what I had surmised—obtaining a federal job was incredibly difficult. Keeping that job was not assured, and women had to be on guard to safeguard their positions. Boardinghouse life was challenging, but also provided women opportunities to form important peer groups. Wilbur not only experienced much of federal employment the way I had come to imagine it, she gave color and vitality to my arguments and provided a nice narrative voice for much of my book. 

But as I’m sure you know, Wilbur was far from typical! One way in which Wilbur surprised me was the absence of anything related to the equal pay debates in the 1860s. She complained about money often. She was devoted to women’s rights and suffrage. She followed Congressional proceedings closely, even going to the Congressional Globeoffice to get transcripts when she couldn’t attend in person. Yet she never once mentioned the petitions for greater pay that women were circulating or the four debates in Congress about pay parity for federal employees. Her silence helped me to formulate my arguments about the intersection of the equal pay movement and the suffrage movement—namely that the suffrage movement thought equal pay a laudable, but ancillary, goal. 

I also appreciated her commitment to the sisterhood of the woman’s rights movement. I loved reading her entries describing how proud she was of the women who spoke out for the rights of women, and was moved by how sad she was at the in-fighting (although she wasn’t always as generous with her female colleagues in the Patent Office). 

6.     Why did you delineate the time period (1859-1871) that you did?

The date range is due to both sources and content. The Federal Registeris published only every other year and I wanted to capture the entire Civil War, so I began in 1859 (there were 18 female names in the Registerthat year, all in the Government Hospital for the Insane). Then I discovered the late 1860s early 1870s fight for equal pay. This battle of the in many ways still-ongoing equal pay war essentially ended in 1870, and to capture it and the immediate fallout, I included 1871. By 1871 that publication included the names of over 900 women in seven different departments. Congress’s decision in 1871 to not pay women equally to men closed the door on the possibility of a more egalitarian federal workforce for decades to come. 

7.     What, to you, is the legacy of the “grand experiment”?

I think that the legacy of the “grand experiment” is mixed. On the one hand, women entered the federal workforce in huge numbers and never left. Largely due to the example set by the federal government, private businesses opened their payrolls to women, creating more opportunities for female employment. Unfortunately, the government continued to underpay women and private businesses emulated that practice. Especially after the period covered in my book, salaried work became artificially gendered—work increasingly became either “male” or “female” and “women’s work” paid far less. The problem with the “grand experiment” was that it seemed to be testing whether women could be capable and valuable employees. But what it actually tested was whether the federal government could incorporate women into its workforce in a way that did not upset existing gender norms and roles. Because it was flawed from the outset, the “grand experiment” of female employment leaves a problematic legacy. 

Thanks to Jessica Ziparo for sharing her insights and research process. For more information about This Grand Experiment, go to the UNC website or tweet @jessa_z.