19th-Century Utah Women Spun Yarn and Also Dug Ditches

W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, January 1995

In 1870, 13.3 percent of American women over age ten were working outside of the home. By the end of the nineteenth century, largely due to expanding businesses, this figure climbed to nearly 20 percent of American women. Over the same period Utah’s female work force grew from 4 percent to 13.5 percent but remained well below the national average. Regardless, these numbers do not come close to suggesting the significant and integral role Utah women played in taming the harsh western frontier and in building the Beehive State.

Utah’s pioneer women not only oversaw domestic chores but also shared in farm and field work. Missions and church assignments frequently took Mormon husbands and fathers away from home, leaving women to manage the household and farm. In Deseret, Millard County, Christina Oleson Warnick described her dizzying list of tasks that included digging irrigation ditches, plowing, planting and fertilizing the land, shearing the sheep, cutting hay for the cows, and spinning yarn and weaving cloth. Other women’s workloads were similar; some supplemented the family income with sewing, laundering, or other home-based employment. Understandably, in Utah’s urban areas the percentage of women working outside the home was higher than for the territory as a whole. Jobs held by Salt Lake City female workers in 1870 included shoe shop keeper, nurse, and hotel steward, but the large majority worked as domestic servants.

Utah women also engaged in a variety of other activities and organizations, including lecture societies, woman suffrage, the temperance movement, and a plethora of women’s auxiliaries and clubs. In 1875 the Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross opened St. Mary’s Academy of Utah and that same year began a small hospital for sick and injured miners. Similarly, Mormon women opened the Deseret Hospital in 1882; it was almost entirely managed and staffed by female directors and doctors. In addition, LDS Relief Society women energetically became involved in a number of enterprises designed to help care for the state’s poor. They not only donated money, food, and materials but managed business operations such as silk raising and grain storage.

As the nineteenth century wore on, employment opportunities for women expanded. In 1872 two Utah women, Phoebe W. Couzins and Georgie Snow, were admitted to the Utah Bar; others traveled east and earned medical degrees. One Provo woman worked as a miner in 1900, and many women became telegraph operators, school teachers, nurses, and milliners. Still, by the turn of the century most Utah women remained primarily occupied as homemakers. Regardless of their title, however, it seems clear that Utah women were active in charity groups and other avocations that provided opportunities to develop their skills and participate in civic campaigns for change. In general Utah’s women embodied a spirited force that shaped nineteenth-century Utah.

For additional information see Michael Vinson, “From Housework to Office Clerk: Utah’s Working Women, 1870–1900,” Utah Historical Quarterly 53 (fall 1985): 326–35.