Changing the Boundaries: Women at Work in the Government

Today’s post comes from Samantha Payne, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives. in Washington, DC. 

On January 29, 1790, Mary Katherine Goddard sent the Senate a singular request: to be reinstated as postmistress of Baltimore. After running the post office for 14 years, and paying post-riders with her own savings during the American Revolution, she was infuriated to lose her position—especially when the stated reason was that “more traveling might be necessary” for the job “than a woman would undertake.” In her petition, Goddard accused the Postmaster General of dismissing her so he could give the lucrative title to his friend.

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Goddard’s rise and fall as one of America’s first female public servants began in a printing shop. In 1774, she helped her brother William establish Baltimore’s first weekly newspaper. Within a year, she became the sole proprietor of the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser. Her excellent reputation prompted Benjamin Franklin to appoint her as postmistress of Baltimore, making her the first woman to run a national government office. In 1777, the Continental Congress requested that she publish the first copy of the Declaration of Independence, complete with its signatories.

Goddard was proud of her work in the Post Office. When she lost her job in 1789, she protested to the newly formed Federal Government. On December 23, 1789, she wrote to President George Washington, explaining that it was a matter “of peculiar distress to her” that the government would reward a man with “all that she had to rely on, for her future dependence and subsistence.” Washington sent only a curt response. Historians speculate that he refused to help Goddard because she associated with his opponents, the Anti-Federalists.

More than 230 Baltimore citizens, including Maryland’s Governor, signed Goddard’s petition to the Senate. Still, she never regained her office. For the remainder of her life,Goddard supported herself by running a bookshop. She passed away in 1816. Her final act was to free her slave, Belinda Starling, and leave the young woman everything she owned.

Nearly 150 years after Goddard sent her petition to Congress and President Washington, President Franklin Roosevelt received an indignant letter about a similarly sensitive subject. On December 28, 1936, Walter Glass began his note, “Pardon me for being presumptuous.” Glass objected—rather strongly—to the President’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. He felt that “a man should head this important department,” and thoughtfully signed off his critique of the executive by counting himself among “many admirers that respect and love you. I mean just that.”

President Franklin Roosevelt's nomination of Frances Perkins to be Secretary of Labor, March 4, 1933. (National Archives Identifier 595434)

President Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination of Frances Perkins to be Secretary of Labor, March 4, 1933. (National Archives Identifier 595434)

Despite the protests of men (and women!) like Walter Glass, Perkins had a long and distinguished career as the first female cabinet member. She served as Secretary of Labor for 12 years and helped create the New Deal. Determined to serve the “millions of forgotten, plain common” working people, she campaigned for national unemployment and old-age insurance. Her efforts culminated in the Social Security Act of 1935.

As postmistress and Labor Secretary, Goddard and Perkins pushed the boundaries of what seemed possible for women of their time. The documents they left behind serve as reminders of the important role women played in the Federal Government, and the challenges they faced along the way.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Mary Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790, page 2. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Mary Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790, page 3. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

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