In the days when it wasn’t considered proper to work or earn money, widowhood or other circumstances in which men weren’t in the picture might have forced women to choose between survival and respectability.
In the years after the Civil War, the large number of widows prompted twenty-one women from five local Presbyterian churches to do something to aid Richmond’s needy women. In March of 1883, they came up with a solution. The Richmond Exchange for Woman’s Work was founded where women could sell handicrafts and baked goods they made at home. Could it have been the first women’s retail cooperative in the United States?
Through this shop, women – many of them mothers – were given the means to support themselves and their families. At first, some members felt compelled to deliver their products either veiled or under cover of night, but in time, attitudes changed. At its height, the shop was a commercial hub for around 600 women. Slowly, society evolved even more, and by 1955, it was no longer unthinkable for a woman to have a more traditional paying job.
Citing this societal shift, the organization dissolved, but its seventy-two years of service proved invaluable to many industrious Richmond women (and their families) caught in impossible circumstances in another era.
Photos: The Valentine