Worse than Reconstruction?

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Rural postmistress and her post office

“We have become so used to [the post office] that it presses little in our thoughts—until it is missed. For the same reason we do not always appreciate the value of the postmistress. And yet while there are no monuments to her and while she has not been eulogized in Congress, she is very close to popular affections. The writers of romance weave their spells around her, and she figures in many American novels that have to do with real life.”1

This is some of the language used by Postmaster General George Cortelyou in 1906 to praise the large force of “postmistresses2” serving the United States Post Office Department. He was not alone in believing that the “clean and honorable”3 postmaster position suited women by introducing them to the workings of the government while keeping them involved with their communities. Furthermore, “no part of the Government’s work comes more in contact with the home and family than the postal service.”4

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Female rural free delivery carrier with her wagon

Since the 1800s, the Post Office Department successfully employed postmasters and women entered the twentieth century with nearly ten percent of existing postmaster positions. Cortelyou claimed that the Post Office was the largest and fairest employer of women, “with the exception of the public-school system.” He boasted (inaccurately) that the Department paid the same salaries to both men and women.

The Post Office Department was not as hospitable to women as Cortelyou presented it to be. Just four years earlier in 1902, The New York Times reported that many civil service employers (including the Post Office) requested only names from the male register. Even though more women took and passed the exam, this system kept many women from being hired. An official defended this policy as being beneficial for everyone involved:

“Every time a woman is appointed to a clerkship in one of the departments she lessens the chances of marriage for herself and deprives some worthy man of the chance to take unto himself and raise a family. And in addition to that the men make far better clerks, They complain less, do more work, and work overtime if need be without grumbling.”5

Marriage could be an issue for female postal employees. In the early 1900s, Postmaster General Henry Payne did not approve of married women working because he believed that they should be supported by their husbands. In 1902, Payne ordered that, “a classified woman employee in the postal service who shall change her name by marriage will not be reappointed.” In certain post offices, female clerks already employed in the Post Office were required to “send in a written statement setting forth whether she is married or single, the name of her husband, if she has one, and his occupation.”6 These orders discouraged married women from finding employment in the post office and single female employees from marrying if they wanted to keep their jobs. Rather than finding a job in the post office that would keep women “in contact with the home and family,”3 Payne advocated that married woman “stay at home and attend to their household duties.”7 Payne also cited financial influences behind his decision. Since it was possible that a woman could marry another government employee, the government could potentially pay a single family two salaries. He believed it was “enough for the government to pay a salary to one member of a family.”8

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Men surrounding a rural post office

The early twentieth century provided ambitious women with opportunities to begin carrying the mail. By 1899, only three years after the experiments with rural free delivery began, the Official Register of the United States recorded eleven women working as substitutes for male family members. This method of finding employment is similar to how many female postmasters found their jobs in the early 1800s. In 1900, Miss Ethel Hill reversed this trend, when she became the first woman listed as a full time rural free delivery carrier with her father recorded as her substitute.9

Unlike postmaster positions, rural free delivery was not seen as a normative extension of the feminine domain. The job was “not supposed to be attractive to women,” as, “the Post Office [did] not encourage their employment as such.”10 However, the “hardships that accompany the work” did not prevent “an increasing number of women from invading the rural delivery field.”11 Many citizens, including those of Alexandria, Virginia vigorously opposed to the prospect of female letter carriers and at least one man voiced the opinion was that it was ‘worse than reconstruction.’12

In 1904, Alice Fowler attempted to deliver mail through “swollen creeks [and] severe weather,”13 while wearing a skirt and carrying a gun. Neither of these were part of the standard rural free delivery uniform. Frances Cowan sacrificed her modesty when she started delivering the mail in 1918 by entering “roaring saloons.”14 A week after she began carrying the mail, Frances “found that the saloon keepers, impressed with her innocent dignity, had joined together to put mailboxes out on the sidewalk to spare her the gauntlet inside.”15 Postmaster General Payne was opposed to female rural free delivery clerks. He organized an investigation in 1902 to see “whether they [were] performing their duties in a satisfactory manner” when he saw that twenty five female clerks were already employed.16 The women performed satisfactorily, as 104 women served as rural free delivery carriers by 1904.

While women today openly socialize with men and can chose between pants, shorts, culottes, and skirts as uniform pieces, this was not always the case. A female carrier in the Postal Office compromised her modesty and dignity when she entered environments surrounded by men or had her right and need to wear skirts challenged. As late as in the 1960s, female postal workers found themselves fighting for separate and equal bathrooms and standard uniforms.


1 Cortelyou, George. “The Postmistress,” The Delineator. January 1906. p. 71.

2 The term “postmistress” has long been rejected by most female postmasters, including one woman who firmly stated that she was not to be known as “any man’s mistress!”

3 Ibid. p. 70.

4 Ibid. p. 69.

5 “Women Nor Wanted,” New York Times, November 9, 1902. p. 3.

6 “Marriage and Federal Jobs,” New York Times. November 28, 1902. p. 8.

7 “Women Clerks Who Wed,” The Washington Post, November 25, 1902. p. 2.

8 Ibid.

9 “Girl Letter Carrier,” New York Times, August 16, 1900, p. 12.

10 “Women Now Rural Carriers.” New York Times, August 23, 1908. p. 12.

11 Ibid.

12 “Women as Mail Carriers: ‘Never!’ Cry Indignant Alexandrians at Proposed Innovation,” Washington Post, September 21, 1908.

13 Bolden, Dan, “Alice Fowler Was a Pioneer in the Mail Service.” Burlington Times-News, September 1, 1994.

14 Campbell, Patty, “‘Sunshine Girl’ Was First Female Mail Carrier.” Enterprise, January 28, 1993.

15 Campbell, Patty, “‘Sunshine Girl’ Was First Female Mail Carrier.” Enterprise, January 28, 1993.

16 “Women Mail Carriers,” New York Times, December 6, 1902, p. 1