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This Grand Experiment

When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War–Era Washington, D.C.

By Jessica Ziparo

352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 6 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3597-2
    Published: December 2017
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3598-9
    Published: December 2017

Civil War America

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Awards & distinctions

Named one of 35 over 35, Thirty-Five Debut Authors over Thirty-Five

In the volatility of the Civil War, the federal government opened its payrolls to women. Although the press and government officials considered the federal employment of women to be an innocuous wartime aberration, women immediately saw the new development for what it was: a rare chance to obtain well-paid, intellectually challenging work in a country and time that typically excluded females from such channels of labor. Thousands of female applicants from across the country flooded Washington with applications. Here, Jessica Ziparo traces the struggles and triumphs of early female federal employees, who were caught between traditional, cultural notions of female dependence and an evolving movement of female autonomy in a new economic reality. In doing so, Ziparo demonstrates how these women challenged societal gender norms, carved out a place for independent women in the streets of Washington, and sometimes clashed with the female suffrage movement.

Examining the advent of female federal employment, Ziparo finds a lost opportunity for wage equality in the federal government and shows how despite discrimination, prejudice, and harassment, women persisted, succeeding in making their presence in the federal workforce permanent.

About the Author

Jessica Ziparo earned her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and her J.D. from Harvard Law School.
For more information about Jessica Ziparo, visit the Author Page.


This Grand Experiment is well researched, with Ziparo having traced about three thousand women who worked for the government in the 1860s.”--Journal of Southern History

"This Grand Experiment offers a fresh look at Civil War Washington by examining the experience of the thousands of women who flocked to federal agencies to help administer the war. Although female federal employees endured salacious rumors and generally were ‘underpaid, underutilized, and underappreciated,’ Jessica Ziparo shows how their struggles both challenged and reinforced contemporary notions of female inferiority. With careful research and thoughtful analysis, Ziparo tells a compelling story of a remarkable group of women who helped America fight the Civil War and rebuild the nation afterward."--Chris Myers Asch, coauthor of Chocolate City

This Grand Experiment makes a welcome and valuable contribution to our understanding of women’s struggles for opportunities, employment, recognition, and equal rights during the Civil War and the decades thereafter. This highly readable account is based on exhaustive research on more than three thousand women who sought federal employment during this period. Ziparo reminds us that these women were more than just workers; they were complex pioneers who fought for equal pay while having a fascinating and complicated relationship with the suffrage movement. This is essential reading for those who are interested in women’s history, political history, and the Civil War era.”--Brad Austin, Salem State University