Quick, think of a job that’s hard on your health. Librarian Rosalee McReynolds writes that in the late nineteenth century, a common response might have been: librarian.
As the nation urbanized in the second half of the century, McReynolds
writes, upper- and middle-class men increasingly moved to commercial
work. Their wives, meanwhile, remained in households that were becoming
sites of consumption rather than production. Ready-made goods, and
servants, turned female idleness into a status symbol. “Ironically,
while a man was judged positively for hard work, he gained further
status in accordance with the leisure enjoyed by his womenfolk,”
In this context, even physical inability to work—due to nervous
disorders or amorphous female complaints—became glamorous. As McReynolds
puts it: “Nerves became synonymous with the pampered woman and the
popular image of her became that of the exhausted beauty prostrate on
her chaise lounge.”
But even among the privileged classes, not all women had the option
to stay idle. By 1860, demographic shifts had created a serious gender
imbalance in the population of the northeast, particularly in urban
areas. That meant some women didn’t get married, and many among that
group didn’t have family money to last them a lifetime.
For many women in this situation, becoming a librarian seemed like an
obvious choice. Library administrators were enthusiastic about the
cheap, educated workforce they could find among graduates of women’s
colleges, and it was a ladylike form of paid employment involving little
physical strain. Yet, to many Victorians, it still seemed to be too
much for delicate women. As women were increasingly entering the
profession in 1886, Mevil Dewey, of Dewey Decimal System fame, predicted that female librarians would have trouble doing the job because of poor health.
And, in fact, a number of female librarians did experience
breakdowns, requesting long leaves of absence to recover. In 1900, the
Brooklyn Public Library Association proposed “to build a seaside rest
home for those who had broken down in library service,” McReynolds
writes. One speaker at the American Library Association’s 1910
conference claimed he knew fifty librarians who had become incapacitated
by the work, including some who died before their time.
We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that these breakdowns weren’t
“real,” McReynolds writes. Some social historians believe Victorian
women reacted physically to their narrowly defined social roles in ways
that manifested as physical and emotional breakdowns.
McReynolds notes that nervous disorders never struck more than a
small minority of librarians. Nonetheless, the general impression of
women’s capacities affected women’s opportunities at the nation’s
libraries. The belief that long hours or excessive intellectual
stimulation could make women sick presumably led some women to avoid
seeking additional responsibilities. In other cases supervisors—both
male and female—held them back for the sake of their health.
By the 1920s, nervous disorders were waning as psychiatrists
developed more specific diagnoses. Meanwhile, the dangers of library
work disappeared from public discussion as increasing numbers of
middle-class women proved their competence.