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Professions and Professionalization

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History

Lori Kenschaft

Professions and Professionalization. 

Before the nineteenth century the world contained very few professionals. Professionals earn their living by using an expertise that is at least somewhat specialized and somewhat rare, but through most of human history societies valued people who were broadly competent and widely skilled. Large governments always needed scribes to record and disseminate information, and many cultures produced professional artists, healers, and religious leaders, but such people formed only a very small fraction of any society.

The Ideology of Professionalism.

The ideology of professionalism emerged in North America and western Europe in the early nineteenth century. As cities grew, as economies diversified, and as intellectuals sought to build upon the new learning of the Enlightenment, people tried to impose order on chaos and improve productivity by encouraging specialization. For the first time, talented young men were encouraged to choose one line of work and pursue it as far as they could.

The ideology of professionalism had many consequences for women. Previously, Euro-American men competed for status not just through lucrative work but also—or even more—through voluntary service to the community. Successful men participated in an abundance of local committees and associations. As nineteenth-century men focused more on their work, they had less time and interest for the organizations founded by previous generations. This redirection created space for women to engage in civic life, a terrain previously dominated by men.

By the 1820s women were creating their own associations to meet what they considered the needs of their communities. These activities were generally unpaid, but they enabled women to organize themselves, develop leadership skills, and gain confidence in their own abilities and observations. Many women appreciated the sense of self-worth, competence, and service to others that they found in volunteer activities.

Eighteenth-century men were also expected to be active fathers: they were primarily responsible for supervising the intellectual and moral development of their children, especially sons. As men spent more time physically and mentally away from home, women became more responsible for parenting.

A successful eighteenth-century mother gave birth to many children and kept them alive to adulthood. In the nineteenth century, the standards of successful mothering expanded greatly. Women were now expected to nurture their children emotionally, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. Mothering required much more time and attention, but the new ideals of motherhood also brought women a new type of cultural respect.

For women who wanted or needed to earn money, the new professionalism could be very constricting. Many people applied professional ideals to women's gender roles. A good woman, they felt, should be a professional woman: she should spend her lifetime developing the knowledge and skills appropriate to women. The rising standards of mothering, hospitality, interior decoration, and fashion gave women plenty to learn.

Individuals with professional aspirations generally had to gain the approval of existing members of that profession. Only other professionals could judge whether a young person had attained the necessary level of skill and expertise. By the end of the nineteenth century, many professions had created official associations and credentialing boards, but in the early years membership was much more informal. Someone was a physician or a minister if enough other people said they were.

Whether formalized or not, these membership requirements made it difficult for women to enter professions that had been defined by men. Some professional associations explicitly required applicants to be male. Even without a written code, men typically excluded women from the types of training, apprenticeships, referral networks, and peer relationships that conferred professional status.

Many men feared the disruptive effects of allowing women into their networks. Professional men frequently gathered to drink and talk, and productive relationships were often forged over beer and bawdy jokes. Men were required to act much more refined in the presence of a lady, so admitting even one woman to a gathering transformed its tone. Men did not want to lose the masculine camaraderie that created useful connections and kept intra-professional relations from becoming too adversarial.

Professional men also felt that their status depended on virtues that society considered distinctively masculine— such virtues as rationality, authority, self-control, courage, ambition, intellectual mastery, and the ability to generalize from details. Admitting women to professional ranks would call into question the belief that professionals had these qualities. At a time when many people still doubted the professionals' claims that their expertise was uniquely valuable, and therefore deserving of high compensation, professional men did not want to risk their tenuous cultural legitimacy by affiliating themselves with women.

Last but not least, women's aspirations to professional status directly threatened men's incomes. Women had always been paid less than men. Men in every occupation— professional and nonprofessional—feared that if women entered their line of work they would drag down wages and fees for everyone. One of the purposes of professional networks and accreditation was to decrease competition, and gender was an easy and socially approved way to exclude potential competitors.

Women Entering the Professions.

Women often found it easier to obtain paid work in areas that were not professionalized. Journalists, for example, were relatively late in setting up standards and credentials and schools of journalism. When, therefore, Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880) wanted to report on slavery and the abolitionist movement or Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) wanted to report on the Italian revolution, all they needed was one editor who wanted to publish their writing, not the approval of their (male) peers. Even in the early twenty-first century many people without formal credentials publish such reports.

School teaching was another field that women could enter because it was unorganized. When in the early nineteenth century towns started to experiment with hiring female teachers, they often paid women a quarter of what they paid men. That incentive encouraged them to continue hiring women. Many people came to believe that women were especially suitable for teaching young children. Towns preferred to hire men for secondary schools and supervisory positions, but women came to dominate primary school teaching because it was not considered a profession.

The number of college-educated women began to grow after 1870, but graduates often discovered that it was easier to get a college degree—despite all its challenges—than to find work that used their education.

Some female graduates entered the established professions by finding a subdomain that they could define as especially appropriate for women. Female doctors, for example, argued that it was more modest for women to be examined and treated by other women. Providing medical care for children, they added, was a natural outgrowth of women's general responsibility for children. Female doctors thus obtained a measure of cultural respectability—so long as they restricted themselves to treating women and children.

Similar trends appeared in academia. The first generation of female professors taught only in women's colleges, where they and their employers could argue that propriety suggested female instructors. Women began to obtain positions in coeducational institutions by creating female specialties. Alice Freeman Palmer (1855–1902) and Marion Talbot (1858–1948), for example, made the brand-new University of Chicago much more hospitable to female students by serving as deans of women. Palmer was involved in almost every aspect of the young university, but her title implied that her influence was limited to women.

Women also created the field known as domestic science or home economics, which applied the knowledge and techniques of the emerging scientific disciplines, especially biology and chemistry, to such “female” concerns as nutrition, sanitation, food and drug purity, water quality, and housing conditions. Ellen Swallow Richards (1842–1911) used her training as a chemist to lead one of the earliest studies of drinking-water safety, help establish the first water-quality standards, document widespread food contamination, and identify pathways of infection in homes. In 1884 she became an instructor in the country's first sanitary chemistry laboratory, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Domestic science cut both ways. For some women the new field allowed them to apply their scientific talents to problems that truly affected people's lives. For many students, however, a major in home economics became a path back home. Coeducational institutions admitted more women once they could be assigned to all-female courses, where they would not affect men's education, and prepared them for their future roles as wives and mothers—as professional women who possessed the expertise appropriate to women.

Other women created new professions. In 1889, Jane Addams (1860–1935) and Ellen Starr (1859–1940) opened Hull-House in one of Chicago's immigrant wards. This settlement house, and others that followed it, provided a foundation for many women and some men who were interested in issues of workplace safety, child labor, unemployment and old-age insurance, tenement conditions, public sanitation, water quality, infant and maternal mortality, public education, and the lack of opportunities for urban children to enjoy art, music, and wholesome play. Addams and Starr lived on family money, but the settlement houses and their networks soon provided many opportunities for women who needed to earn a living but who also wanted to use their skills to help improve the world.

The twin fields of sociology and social work emerged from these efforts to develop what Addams called a “scientific study of social life.” Many women contributed to the pioneering Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895), which used sociological techniques to document the conditions of life in Chicago and the needs of city residents. One of Hull-House's affiliates, Sophonisba Breckinridge, helped establish the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, where she and other professors defined the new profession of social work.

By the 1920s social work and sociology were diverging. In the early years the study of human problems was not sharply distinguished from the attempt to identify and implement effective solutions to those problems. As sociology gained more academic legitimacy, it became more a domain of men and more focused on pure research. Social work, meanwhile, became more a domain of women and more focused on helping individuals. Both fields retreated from their previous efforts to change laws and institutions.

Nursing was another profession invented by women. Traditionally, nursing was done by female relatives— mothers, sisters, daughters. If a person was unlucky enough to be injured or fall ill away from home, and no local woman was willing to step into the role, the person might try to hire a servant woman. Such work was considered very disagreeable, and few women who had other options would accept it. Especially in an age without antibiotics, the consequences of negligent or nonexistent nursing could be fatal.

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), the daughter of a wealthy British family, became interested in nursing around 1840. Like many ladies of the time, she made benevolent visits to the homes of poor and sick villagers. Unlike many ladies, she asked why the poor and sick were so desperate and decided to devote her life to nursing and to improving the standards of nursing. She became famous during the Crimean War (1853–1856) when she and several nurses she had trained traveled to Turkey to care for wounded soldiers.

Nightingale concluded that most military deaths were caused not by war itself but by soldiers' living conditions—by poor nutrition, the appalling lack of sanitation and clean water, and the infections that ran rampant in military hospitals. Her testimony led other respectable women to volunteer to nurse the war wounded, and some of those women continued their work in peacetime. Women thus transformed nursing from one of the least desirable forms of personal service into a profession that by the end of the twentieth century was widely acknowledged to play a key role in translating modern medical technologies into actual healing.

Another of the classic women's professions—clerical work—was somewhat vestigial. When literacy was a rare skill, clerking was a prestigious occupation. By the early nineteenth century it was no longer prestigious, but it had become the first step on an occupational ladder that could lead incalculably high. Many a wealthy youth started in business as a clerk.

As educational expectations rose, elite youths attended college instead of taking clerkships. Modernizing corporations had large quantities of written information to manage, so they began to hire women as clerks. At the same time, however, they separated the clerical and the executive ladders. Clerical skills were now considered so commonplace that even a woman might possess them. Clerical work thus became deprofessionalized: it was no longer believed to require skills that were somewhat specialized and somewhat rare, and therefore deserving of solid remuneration.

Institutions that offered professional training to women were chronically underfunded, so when professional associations raised standards, it was often women who were defined out of the profession. Women's medical schools, for example, had small endowments and marginal facilities compared to men's medical schools. The early-twentieth-century campaign to improve doctors' scientific credentials led to the closing of several women's medical schools that could no longer meet accreditation standards. By the 1950s doctors had more income and cultural prestige, but a smaller percentage of doctors were women.

The Modern Era.

In the twentieth century some governments realized that women offered a largely underutilized pool of labor and talent. Encouraging women to enter the professions would therefore promote the economic development of their country.

After the Russian Revolution, for example, the Soviet Union encouraged women to pursue advanced education and professional careers. Many women entered the healing professions, and in the formerly Soviet countries today women are a large percentage of the doctors, dentists, and pharmacists as well as nurses and midwives. Women are a large percentage of school teachers in these countries, as in all countries, but they are also well represented in fields that many cultures consider masculine, such as engineering.

Several of the countries that became independent after World War II created state-sponsored programs to accelerate the training of local professionals to help with nation-building projects. These programs resulted in a significant expansion in female access to professional training and employment in the government sector. By the late twentieth century women were the majority of students in public health and 20 percent of the engineering students at the Lebanese University, for example, and they were the majority in pharmacy and 30 percent of engineering students in Syria. In Egypt women made up more than 40 percent of the faculty in the fields of pharmacy and dentistry, 30 percent of the faculty in medicine, and 10 percent in engineering, percentages that generally exceed those in the United States. Most professional women were headed for jobs in the public sector, however, so recent trends of privatization may be eroding some of the dramatic gains women made in the professions.

In Europe and North America, the feminist movement led to a significant increase in women's professional access and accomplishment. Women in many professions created women's associations, both formal and informal, that gave women peer support and insisted that professional standards be applied equally to both sexes.

The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped by prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex as well as of race. Professional associations were forced to stop overt discrimination against women, though informal exclusion and limitation remained. As access to professions became more firmly linked to what people knew and what credentials they possessed, rather than family connections or gender, women for the first time pursued professional careers in large numbers.

Female-dominated professions still paid less than male-dominated professions, however, and women were often paid less than male colleagues. Many women discovered that professional relationships were still forged through masculine camaraderie and bawdy jokes.

Professional ideology expects professionals to devote most of their waking time to work. It therefore deems people not professional or not serious if they have other commitments and want part-time or intermittent employment—an expectation that often meshes poorly with the biological demands of childbearing and women's desires to be active mothers.

As the idea of professionalism spread to parts of the world that were not yet industrialized, it intersected with traditional ways of thinking about knowledge and expertise. Professional ideals were not universally compelling. The Chinese and Cambodian cultural revolutions can be seen as rejections of the ideas that knowledge is valuable and that some people are and should be more skilled than others. In many places professionals—engineers, accountants, and other technocrats—still compete for influence with people who consider family and connections more valuable than specialized knowledge.

In many of the emerging economies, men have been more successful than women at entering the new professional roles. Both employers and women's own families often assume that modern-style professions are incompatible with women's traditional responsibilities, while men are more easily uprooted from their traditional responsibilities. Women are a large part of the work force in China, for example, but the vast majority do manual labor either on farms or in factories.

In most cases, women's access to the professions requires a combination of women's activism and governmental efforts to increase female education and participation in highly skilled work.


Bender, Thomas. Intellect and Public Life: Essays on the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Describes the transition from “civic professionalism” to “disciplinary professionalism.”Find this resource:

    Bledstein, Burton J. The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. New York: Norton, 1976. Little attention to gender issues, but key for understanding the history of professionalism.Find this resource:

      Hine, Darlene Clark. Hine Sight: Black Women and the Re-Construction of American History. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1994. A collection of essays that includes chapters on black female physicians and nurses.Find this resource:

        Hoffman, Nancy, ed. Woman's “True” Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press, 2003. Primary sources documenting the history of women's experiences of and hopes for teaching.Find this resource:

          Kenschaft, Lori. Reinventing Marriage: The Love and Work of Alice Freeman Palmer and George Herbert Palmer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Discusses the history and ideology of professionalism in the context of one couple's attempt to create a dual-career marriage starting in 1887.Find this resource:

            Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. 20th anniversary edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Excellent history of women and work that focuses mostly on nonprofessional women.Find this resource:

              Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. A classic history of female doctors and healers from the colonial era to the twentieth century.Find this resource:

                More, Ellen S. Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850–1995. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Focuses on female physicians' goals and challenges in the twentieth century.Find this resource:

                  Mortimer, Barbara, and Susan McGann, eds. New Directions in the History of Nursing: International Perspectives. London: Routledge, 2005. Collection of essays on the history of nurses and midwives in Europe, North America, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa.Find this resource:

                    Mossman, Mary Jane. The First Women Lawyers: A Comparative Study of Gender, Law, and the Legal Professions. Oxford: Hart, 2006. Compares women's entry into the legal professions, and their hopes for improving law and society, in the United States, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Australia, India, and western Europe.Find this resource:

                      Rossiter, Margaret. Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940–1972. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

                        Rossiter, Margaret. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

                          Sokoloff, Natalie. Black Women and White Women in the Professions: Occupational Segregation by Race and Gender, 1960–1980. New York: Routledge, 1992. Uses census data to trace both change and persistence in patterns of segregation by race and gender.Find this resource:

                            Stage, Sarah, and Virginia B. Vincenti, eds. Rethinking Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997. Collection of essays that challenges the previous interpretation of home economics as a women's ghetto.Find this resource:

                              Vicinus, Martha. Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Explores how unmarried English women found both work and community in church communities, nursing, women's colleges, boarding schools, settlement houses, and the suffrage movement.Find this resource:

                                Lori Kenschaft