The 1850s saw an influx of Irish immigrants to the U.S. South, many of whom came in response to the Great Famine.¹ Both Irish men and women settled in urban areas where they found various occupations. That said, an analysis of U.S. Census data from Alexandria, Virginia from 1860 to 1880 (NOTE: the 1850 U.S. Census contained no information on women’s occupations) shows little variation in the occupations that women held. Census data indicates that single Irish immigrant women in 1860 found work outside of the household, but mostly as domestics living in their employers’ homes.² According to David T. Gleeson in The Irish in the South: 1815-1877, white southern women relied on Irish to run their households as they did slaves and free blacks.3 Southern white women preferred hiring other whites to work in their homes, which affirmed their elite social status. It could also be that these households disliked slavery and preferred to hire people for domestic positions. Nevertheless, even though Irish women were considered “white,” they were still near the bottom of social hierarchy.
In the post-Civil War era, new “occupations” for married, Irish women appeared on the U.S. census: “keep house,” “keeping house,” and “at home.” These phrases indicate that married Irish women were leaving the workforce, possibly upon their marriage, to care for their families. The ability of married women to leave the workforce was arguably tied to the types of jobs that their spouses held. More and more men–Irish and native-born–married to Irish women were of the middling classes and possibly earned enough money to care for their family. Staying home to care for one’s family was a marker of being middle class, and Irish immigrant women–who struggled to be accepted among native-born whites–might have felt compelled to embrace this role in southern society.
Analyses of the U.S. Censuses for Alexandria show little variation in the occupations of Irish women. Very few single, Irish women had jobs outside of domestic work, and married women seemed to leave the workforce entirely. More research will need to be conducted to ascertain whether this is the whole history of Irish immigrant women in the mid-to-late nineteenth-century Alexandria.
1 David. T Gleeson, The Irish in the South: 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 19.
3 Gleeson 46.