By the early 20th century, women increasingly were entering into a variety of professions, including law, medicine and journalism although teaching and nursing still provided the most common options available to them. Although they had entered medicine in the 19th century, two hundred years later they still faced discriminatory practices both in medical school and in their professional organizations; and if they became journalists, they were less likely to follow in the footsteps of Nellie Bly and more likely be assigned to the columns specifically designed for the woman reader. On the other hand, they had more latitude in the new helping profession of social work, both because it was dominated by women and was seen largely as a legitimate extension of their social housekeeping role.
Regardless of the profession that the educated white middle class woman chose, she rarely was able to combine this with marriage and family life. The rare exception was usually found in a profession or a setting that was relegated to women, for instance as a gynecologist, a social worker, or as a professor and/or administrator at a women's college. The contradiction between marriage and career generally was not as problematic for African American women, although frequently they balanced these by starting their own businesses and/or working in family enterprises.
The women included in this series represent these varying patterns and experiences. Most, like Mildred Baer, Rosalind Cassidy, Elizabeth Cuddeback, Bertha Foler, Rosemary Hays, Edith Holton, Ruth Mills, Wanda Phillips, Lillian Sherman, Olive Stone, and Zuma Palmer are examples of the extent to which the professions were dominated by women who were single, including divorced mothers. On the other hand, the interview with Anita Robbins, who left the practice of law, dramatically illustrates the stigma that married women felt if they pursued a career. Others, like Amalia Conray and Barbara Sargent married late and had more checkered careers after marriage, or like Mildred Lightfoot, returned to a professional career later in life.
By contrast, some married women succeeded in combining and balancing business and family life. Crystal Marshall started a catering business, while Victoria Cook first opened a store and later went into various business ventures with her husbands. Ventriloquist Minnie Tenebaum went on the road with her husband and son, while photographer Imogen Cunningham had an independent career that enabled her to maintain an active family life even as she pursued her art.
One of the unsurprising, yet disturbing, patterns revealed in several of these oral histories is how women were blocked from pursuing the medical education they sought. Except for Bertha Foler, who did become a doctor, Elizabeth Cuddeback, Mildred Lightfoot and Lillian Sherman all ended up in alternative medical careers, usually in nursing. Similarly, the women involved in media like Ruth Mills, Zuma Palmer and Wanda Phillips, were usually relegated to special women's pages or programs.
Despite the limited career options faced by women in the early part of the 20th century, these women forged ahead. Elizabeth Cuddeback and Amalia Conray were real pioneers in public health education, while someone like Ruth Mills paved the way for women's radio programming. Almost all had satisfying, active careers until they retired late in life. Their oral histories, many of which were conducted by students in women's oral history classes at UCLA and CSULB, offer valuable insight into women's exexperiences in the professions, business and entertainment although their quality varies.
(Note: the distinction between women social workers as reformers or as professionals is not always clear. YWCA professional, Louise Emery, who is included in the Reformers series, might well have been placed here. On the other hand, Barbara Sargent's work in the YWCA was more the result of fortuitous events than a decision to pursue reform work. And although Olive Stone engaged in significant civil rights work in the south in the 1930s, her career was the focus of her life.)