05 July 2017

Not a Butterfly Collection

by Robert Lopresti

Let's start with this fact: In 1940 the U.S. Census-takers recorded about 1,500 women working for the railroads as engineers, mechanics, etc.  In the published records they were listed as "Tailors and Tailoresses."  Because they couldn't have really been doing those jobs, right?

For the past two years I have been working on a nonfiction book.  Not related to mystery, alas.  It is more about my day job as a government information librarian. 

WHEN WOMEN DIDN'T COUNT (published by Praeger last week) is a book about how women have appeared and disappeared in federal statistics over the past 200 years.

 The feds collect statistics on a lot of different subjects, so my book covers a lot of topics as well.  But I'll just give you some examples from the four chapters related to our favorite topic, crime.

  • The government's first survey on stalking and harassment had to be redone when it was discovered that it had accidentally included data about spam email and calls from bill collectors.
  • Congress passed the Mann Act in 1910 to forbid transporting females across state lines for immoral purposes.  It was intended to combat "white slavery," i.e. forcing women into prostitution, but it was often used against adulterers instead.  The Supreme Court quickly ruled that women who traveled willingly could be convicted of "conspiring" to transport themselves.
  •  The 1880 Census lists all the crimes for which women were in prison.  There are plenty of predictable offenses, plus a few that might get you writers out there pondering.  For example: 

  • The National Institute of Mental Health started collecting data on domestic violence in 1968 and concluded that it was a problem of "epidemic proportion," but they didn't mention this news to anyone until a decade later when Representative Barbara Mikulski started holding hearings on the subject.  Exasperated, the Congresswoman declared: "Well, this isn't a butterfly collection, ladies and gentlemen, that people gather for their own private enjoyment.  This is public dollars to get public information to help the American people."
  • The 1970 report Crimes of Violence explained the concept of "victim precipitation," meaning that the victim sometimes "contributes to the commission of the offense."  Examples included when "a wife has masochistic needs that are satisfied by her assaultive husband," or when "a female engages in heavy petting and, at the last moment, begins to resist the man's advances."  The report concluded that 4% of rapes fell into that category.
I examined well over  a thousand sources in putting this book together but now I get to tell you about my favorite.  In 1907 Congress authorized a study of how working outside the home affected women and children.  There was debate over whether the Constitution permitted such a thing, and the Southern states were worried that the result would be a hit job against them, since most child workers were in that part of the country.  Nevertheless, a 19-volume report was eventually issued, and you can read it all online.
But what I want to recommend is Volume 15, Relation Between Occupation and Criminality of Women.  Author Mary Conyngton was assigned to investigate the popular assumption that jobs in newfangled places like department stores and factories were leading women to a life of crime.  Her whole book is still readable, and fascinating.

The passage below, in which she quotes from an unnamed "worker specially qualified to speak on the subject" is worth quoting in full: 

The belief you mention in the general immorality of saleswomen is certainly widespread, but I have found nothing to prove it well grounded.  In the course of some investigations into the methods by which department stores seek to secure and retain the trade of the professionally immoral women, a trade which, as you probably know, is considered exceptionally valuable, I came on something which may throw some light on the existence of the belief.  Mr. _____, who was first a department store manager in several large stores, and then himself established a millinery business, said he had found the best way of gaining and holding this trade was by having a forewomen who was "in" with such women, which of course meant that she herself led an immoral life, thus being able to meet them in the way of friendship, and to gain their trust in a natural manner.

"Didn't you find such a forewoman had a bad effect on your other employees?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied, "she certainly did get some of the others into her habits.  But as soon as I found out they were going that way, I discharged them."

 Ah, the good old days.  May they never return.


O'Neil De Noux said...

Fascinating. Watching movies with my daughter as she grew up, I explained about women's rights (lack of primarily) as best I could. She saw how bad it was "back then" as we watched a movie about suffragettes. My wife and I pointed out the continuing problems with women's rights, starting with equal pay and ... well they are too many to list. We see them every day.

janice law said...

Congratulations on your book-it sounds terrific and I love the cover!

Steve Liskow said...

Fascinating and amazing, Rob. The most amazing take-away may be how the current administration seems to embrace some of the same misconceptions. It sounds like you had an eye-opening two years, and I applaud your research.

I still remember from an early age watching women in films (especially westerns) come across as weak and submissive and thinking even then, "that can't be right." Mostly because most of the girls in my neighborhood had athletic older brothers and could kick serious butt if they had to.

The blind logic of the interview with the forewoman is both hilarious and disconcerting...

Like Janice, I love the cover. I like the other picture too, especially with the title.

B.K. Stevens said...

It sounds like a fascinating book, Rob, and also like an extremely challenging project. Congratulations.

Eve Fisher said...

Wonderful research, and I'm definitely going to get the book.
Re health care, did you know that, until like 10-20 years ago, ALL research of ALL medication was done on men? (Makes you wonder how good Midol really is, doesn't it?) And that the very first research study on breast cancer was done on men, not women? And that the standard used for medication doses is the 70 kg (155 pound) man?
Indeed, may the good old days NEVER return.

Elizabeth said...

This makes me think of Dolly Parton's song "In the Good Old Days When Times Were Bad".

I used to work in pathology & I can tell you men get breast cancer too.

Eve Fisher said...

Elizabeth, I know men get breast cancer, too - but at nowhere near the levels that women do. And so for the first study of breast cancer to be done exclusively on men was... ridiculous.

Joe DAgnese said...

Congratulations, Rob! Great to see it out in the world. I have shared on social media using the hashtags #womensstudies, #statistics, #uscensus and #census. I hope it finds an enthusiastic audience.

Robert Lopresti said...

Thanks for the warm wishes and kind words, all. Yes, they did me proud with the cover (my editor's idea). Eve, you just summarized my Chapter 18.

Velma DiVine said...

Congratulations, Bobby. I'm so glad you turned down the alternate title, When Women Couldn't Count. Well done, I look forward to it!

John Floyd said...

Rob, I'm late to the party--sincere congratulations on the book!!!