Women in Printing

Historical Essay

By Libby Ingalls, March 2013

Womenprinting grayscale.jpg

Image in The Sixth Star from West Coast Journal, May 18, 1870 sourced at Bancroft Library

Despite the great demand for printers and the efforts of early luminaries such as Hermione Day and Lisle Lester, women were largely kept out of desirable typesetting positions in the 1850s and 1860s by lower wages, fewer opportunities, and an all-male union. When experienced female typesetters from Eastern states began to move to the city in search of work, the Women’s Co-operative Printing Union (founded by Agnes B. Peterson) was established, creating the “first permanent foothold for woman printers in San Francisco.” The WPCU grew stronger as the women’s rights movement picked up steam and encouraged women, including Amanda Slocum and Marietta Lois Stowe, to start their own journals and printing companies. Finally, after decades of protest, the Typographical Union opened to female printers, offering the same pay and protection as male printers in one of the few skilled professions available to women at the time. 

In the 1860s, typesetting was the most prestigious job for women in San Francisco. The job required skill in spelling and grammar, along with manual dexterity, so typesetters tended to be better-educated and fast learners. But opportunities were extremely limited. The strong prejudice against women in the workplace locked them out of higher paid jobs. Men did not want to work side by side with women, unions banned them, their salaries were lower, and they were not permitted apprenticeships or technical training. Though the women’s movement had come west with the migration, the male stranglehold on jobs remained until the 1870s.

Printers were in great demand from the early days of the gold rush for newspapers, magazines, books, billheads, announcements, legal briefs, and ephemera of all sorts. The Typographical Union, however, established their dominance in 1850, controlling printing jobs and excluding women. So though the West was less tradition-bound than the East, women’s jobs in the 1850s were mainly limited to needle trades, domestic service, waitressing, and nursing. The first record of a woman working in typesetting was 1857.

Women’s rights advocates existed, but had few means of spreading the word on job inequality besides letters to the editor. In 1858 they got their voice in San Francisco with a new woman’s literary magazine, The Hesperian. The editor Mrs. A.M. Schultz resigned after three issues, but her assistant, Mrs. Hermione Day, continued publishing a paper twice a month, taking on labor, addressing inequality, lack of opportunity and lower wages for women. In 1860 she expanded her business to include job, book, and fancy printing, and hiring more women.

New opportunities for women continued to open throughout the 1860s but printing jobs remained limited to typesetting in male-run businesses due to opposition of male workers and the Union. The number of female typesetters accelerated from 1860, then more rapidly from 1870. By 1882, 11% of the typesetters in the City were female (200 of 1,816).

The feisty, colorful Lisle Lester took over editorship of The Hesperian in 1863, changing the name to the Pacific Monthly. What she lacked in organizational skills she made up for in her fiery rhetoric and strong opinions. She attempted to form a woman’s typographical union in 1865 but lacked the solid foundation beneath her lofty ideals. When Lester closed the bankrupt Pacific Monthly in 1868 the number of female typesetters declined to early 1860s numbers. A turning point came with an influx of female typesetters from the east coast, skilled, in search of work, and outraged that the Typographical Union prohibited any business from hiring them even if that business needed more workers.

Mrs. Agnes B Peterson was one such woman who arrived in 1868. Upon being rebuffed by the Union, she raised the capital to open her own printing office and establish the Women’s Co-operative Printing Union (WCPU), the first permanent foothold for woman printers in San Francisco. The times had already started changing with women becoming a significant part of San Francisco life. Other organizations helping women had been established that same year: the confusingly similar sounding Women’s Co-operative Union to provide employment for women in various fields, and the California Labor Exchange to help both men and women find work.

Other businesses came and went, but the WCPU became ever stronger, successfully producing large quantities of ephemera, billheads, legal briefs and books over the next 18 years. The success was due at first to the leadership of Mrs. Emily A. Pitts, editor of the Sunday Evening Mercury (later, The Pioneer). Emily Pitts lived at 420 Montgomery Street, where she published her newspaper and guided the WCPU. The Sunday Evening Mercury had started out as a “journal of Romance and Literature,” but upon purchasing it in 1869, Emily Pitts soon changed its name and turned it into a journal for woman suffrage, the first one in the West. Putting ever more of her energies into the suffrage cause and The Pioneer, she turned leadership of the WCPU over to Lizzie G. Richmond, who arrived in San Francisco from Rhode Island in 1869. Lizzie Richmond built a thriving organization and is responsible for its great success.

Over the years, the WCPU printed every variety of book, including fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, and cookbooks, along with Spiritualist and feminist journals. In the long run, though, it was the legal briefs, annual reports, constitutions and bylaws, billheads, flyers and other utility printing that made the shop profitable. Its significance in advancing women in printing cannot be overemphasized.

An economic slowdown in 1869 put 150 typesetters out of work. Despite this, the male Typographical Union went on strike for higher wages the following year. The publishers of the major newspaper of the time, The Call, refused to accede to the Union, so the newspaper opened up the lucrative typesetting jobs to women for the first time. The strike was the beginning of the end of the Typographical Union dominance at the better paying newspapers and the prohibition against hiring women. Little changed over the next two decades, though, and only the woman controlled, non-Union offices consistently had a higher percentage of woman workers.

Emily Pitts played a major role advancing woman printers. After giving up leadership of the WCPU, she became an outspoken advocate for women’s suffrage, speaking publicly and starting another printing company, The Woman’s Pacific Coast Publishing Company. In addition to publishing books, magazine, and newspapers, and offering other printing services, she started the company to provide training and employment to women. As such, she epitomized the intertwining of woman printers and the women’s movement.

The women’s movement was largely identified with suffrage and equality in the workplace, but was linked to many other causes in the West, including Spiritualism, dress reform, mind healing, cremation, and law reform. Spiritualism deserves being singled out for its significance in individual rights and the woman’s vote. Spiritualism was a new religious movement that believed in immortality of the soul, proven by establishing communication with the spirits of the dead. At the time, it was the only religious sect that recognized equality of women. It was unstructured, the séance’s being intensely individual, and used a language of common sense. Accordingly Spiritualism became a major vehicle for the spread of woman’s rights, gave self-confidence to women, and thus benefited the suffrage movement. The spiritual emancipation led also to dress reform, getting women out of confining clothes that “kept them in their place” and restricted movement.

The number of women in printing grew steadily throughout the last decades of the 19th century, not only brought in as strike breakers, but they were also skilled, and could do the same work as men but for lower wages. More women established their own journals and printing companies, and hired women printers. Two outstanding such women were Amanda M. Slocum and Marietta Lois Stowe.

Amanda Slocum was a Spiritualist, suffragist, editor and master printer. She and her husband William Slocum published Common Sense in 1874, a journal of Spiritualism, suffrage, temperance and other women’s issues. Hiring women and paying them equal wages as men was her plan, but Common Sense failed financially after just one year. The revolutionary William Slocum blamed its demise on the liberal groups they were addressing, saying the Spiritualists, atheists, suffragists, and social reformers were so intolerant of each other they would not support the same newspaper. In the meantime, the Slocums had acquired the Woman’s Publishing Company (started by Emily Pitts Stevens), a large steam-printing establishment that expanded their printing empire and proved extremely profitable. The Slocums soon divorced, however, and Amanda went on to become a successful master printer with her own imprint.

Marietta Lois Stowe was another exceptional woman arriving in San Francisco ready to change society and advance the rights of women. Outspoken on humanitarian issues and women’s rights, she organized political rallies, was the second president of the California Woman’s Suffrage Association, ran for Governor of California in1882, and helped form the Equal Rights Party in 1884, becoming its vice presidential candidate. She started a newspaper in 1881, Woman’s Herald of Industry and Social Science Coöperator. Disgusted with her incompetent male printer, she started her own printing company, and then a school for typesetters. Hiring mostly women, she soon boasted that hers was the only newspaper in the country entirely edited and printed by women, except for the presswork.

As much as women were advancing in the workplace in the 19th century, the Typographical Union was still slow to accept them. In 1876, the International Typographical Union revised its rules giving the local organizations full discretion in the admission of women. San Francisco Local #21 still refused. The optional plan led to too many inconsistencies, and finally, after seven years, the ITU opened membership to women in all Locals in 1883. Once admitted, women received the same pay and protection as the men. Their numbers remained pitifully low, however, in the newspapers and other highly desirable jobs, perhaps due to the low turnover in such places. That same year, the Union called a strike against the two big newspapers, The Call and The Bulletin. The newspapers enlisted women to break it, and ironically, in so doing, pitted women against women, freelance against Union, a situation that would have been unthinkable just a year earlier.

Women were steadily becoming more empowered, and by 1888 they were working in over 300 different occupations. This was due in no small measure to the woman printers who gave voice to women locked out of a male world, publicizing the inequality and speaking out for greater opportunities for women along with equal pay. Printing also gave women an opportunity to work in a skilled job when little else was available. It is noteworthy that in 1888 the state conducted a survey of prostitutes to discover their previous occupations. The range was enormous, including teachers, translators and telegraphers, but none had been typesetters.

Source: Women in Printing: Northern California, 1857-1890, by Roger Levenson (Capra Press, 1994)

Find out where many of these women did their printing in downtown San Francisco.