In 1792 Sarah Decrow was recorded as the first woman postmaster appointed under the Constitution.1 She was in charge of the Hertford, North Carolina, Post Office. Disappointed with the small compensation she was receiving, Decrow sent letters to the Postmaster General on several accounts, expressing her intent to resign from her post. On behalf of Postmaster General Timothy Pickering, the Assistant Postmaster General responded by asking her to reconsider her decision. In his letter to her, he claimed that Decrow was receiving the “highest rate of commission the Postmaster General is authorized to allow to any of his deputies.”2
The Assistant Postmaster General’s statement proves the ambiguous treatment of women in the postal system. In that one sentence, he defends equal pay between men and women. Although the number of woman postmasters appearing in official records increased after 1792, the legality concerning their involvement in the postal system remained unclear because specific laws, such as an official ban on women from carrying the mail did not exist as they had for African-Americans.3 In Postal Laws and Regulations, issued by the Postmaster General, publications from the first half of the nineteenth century did not mention women. Because “the exclusion of women had no legal standing,” it makes it difficult to assess the representation of women in early postal history.4
In the early 1800s, women were prohibited from holding a clerkship in the general post office. In fact, any postmaster who would “be so daring as to appoint a woman as a clerk” would be “cited as a cause for his dismissal.”5 However, women continued to unofficially assist their postmaster husbands, brothers, or sons with postal clerical work. Although postal records listing their names and posts are difficult to find, there are occasional references to their involvement. In the first volume of the Post Office Journal, several entries refer to the transfer of appointments to the wives of deceased postal contractors or postmasters. On October 30, 1835, the Post Office Department “ordered, that in consequence of the death of John Clark, his widow, Margaret Clark, be allowed to take his contract on the same terms, for route no. 2903 [Arkansas Post to Columbia].”6
The addition of new posts in the American west offered opportunities to women to perform postal duties. As families migrated west, a number set up general stores that also functioned as post offices. Women performing the functions of postmasters or mail carriers in the west were occasionally romanticized in folktales, published in local and national newspapers. Journalists enjoyed popularizing the tales of postal women, transforming their experiences into fictional adventures as part of the very profitable romanticization of the west.
Women looking for appointments in the postal system were at a disadvantage under the Jackson administration. Since they were not legally permitted to participate in politics, women did not benefit from the politicization of the postal system through the development of the spoils system. President Jackson and following administrations used the system as an opportunity for politicians to show their gratitude campaign contributors and to ensure money continued to flow to the party as office holders were tapped for more money in exchange for keeping their jobs. When Jackson added the position of postmaster general to his presidential cabinet, the seat became even more attractive as a patronage position. President Jackson’s first postmaster general, William T. Barry, helped “engineered the president’s victory” in Kentucky.7 Unlike Barry or male postmasters and clerks, women did not typically intermingle within the circles of power, thus falling out of the running for such coveted appointments.