Yet another gender imbalance that makes me want to go back in time and knock some heads together

I find that I am bizarrely fascinated with early twentieth-century librarianship. Like: crazy fascinated, particularly in terms of the gender divide that pervaded the profession.

Kay Vandergrift suggests that librarianship, like its feminized sister fields, teaching and nursing, was open to women because it relied on seemingly female traits like “hospitality, altruism, idealism, and reverence for culture,” as well as “industriousness, attention to detail, ability to sustain effort on even the most boring tasks” (684). From an institutional standpoint, female librarians were cheap workers who rarely questioned those (overwhelmingly men) in positions of authority. Female librarians, embodying the contradictory roles of cultural repositories and submissive, non-intellectual hostesses, were assumed to accept a salary that matched those contradictory roles. In 1913, for example, the average earnings of a trained female librarian was $1081, compared to $600 to $1020 for a trained public health nurse, and only $547 for a public school teacher. The minimum subsistence wage (1908-1914) for women living apart from their families was $416 to $520 per year (Passet 210-211). Female librarians, then, seemed to be in a good economic position, at least as compared with other female professions.

Examining these salaries in the context of gender, however, provides a far different reading. Jacalyn Eddy recounts that in 1907, the Boston Public Library (BPL) employed 219 people (excluding department heads), of which 134 were women. While the average salary was $585.34, a gender breakdown reveals that the male salary was $610.12, while the female salary—-for performing similar tasks—-was $575.22.

City pay increases in 1908 allowed women’s salaries to rise by about one-tenth (roughly $55), while men’s salaries increased by one-third (Whaaaaat?). The kicker, then, is that while the “average salary of a librarian” at the BPL in 1908 was $719.43, that amount obfuscated the growing chasm between male librarians (earning a salary of $903.66) and female librarians (earning $630.45 for, once again, similar work) (Eddy 45).



Eddy, Jacalyn. Bookwomen: Creating an Empire in Children’s Book Publishing 1919-1939. Madison, Wisconsin: The U. of Wisconsin P., 2006. Print.
Passet, Joanne. “‘You Do Not Have to Pay Librarians:’ Women, Salaries, and Status in the Early 20th Century.” Reclaiming the American Library Past: Writing the Women In. Ed. Suzanne Hildebrand. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Company, 1996. Print.
Vandergrift, Kay E. “Female Advocacy and Harmonious Voices: A History of Public Library Services and Publishing for Children in the United States.” Library Trends 44.4 (Spring 1996): 683-718. Print.]

[photo: Anne Carroll Moore, Superintendent of Work with Children at the New York Public Library, 1906].


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