The American Civil War brought a surprising opportunity to American women. As men left to fight in the war, the government hired thousands of women to fill office vacancies in Washington D.C. Even after the war, the floodgates had been opened and it was acceptable for American women to obtain respectable white collar jobs in cities all over the United States. By 1891, there were 70,000 women working in American offices, and by 1920 that number had swelled to half a million.
As a romance novelist, this presents an irresistible temptation for me. Although “dating the boss” is taboo in today’s society, in the late 19th century women who ventured into the workplace were considered fair game. Sometimes they welcomed the attention of their employers and sometimes they didn’t, but there was no law against workplace sexual harassment until a landmark Supreme Court case of 1974 (Barnes v. Train) recognized it is a distinct issue.
I’ve always been fascinated by professional woman of the late 19th century, and most of my novels feature heroines working in professional capacities. In Against the Tide, Lydia was a translator for the Navy when she meets a man who does undercover work for the government. It wasn’t a terribly risqué plot, since Lydia never reported to Bane and could walk away from him whenever she wished.
I got a little more daring in With Every Breath (August 2014). This is a hospital drama, and Kate is a government statistician who is hired by a doctor to help with his research. Kate reports directly to Trevor, and both are well aware of the risks associated with getting romantically involved. “Dating the boss” added a delicious layer of tension and complications to the plot….one which I wouldn’t be free to explore were I writing a contemporary romance. Over the years we have too much instinctive suspicion of relationships that begin with such a disparity of power, but this is a 21st century attitude, and I write 19th century characters. Trevor and Kate are smart enough to be aware of the emotional danger of their relationship, but it hardly stops them from pursuing it.
It took decades to establish commonly accepted expectations for how men and women should interact in the workplace. For the most part, the government and Human Resource departments wanted to avoid the headaches of sexual harassment charges and did everything possible to discourage romantic relationships in the workplace. None of this has been terribly effective. Even today, I think most of us know people who met their spouse at work. When you put men and women in close proximity and give them a shared mission, it’s hard to override the rules of natural attraction.
If you’re curious about professional women in the late 19th century workplace, I hope you’ll take a peek at one of my novels!