Prohibition of the manufacture, sale and transporting of alcoholic beverages I the Unites States from 1919 to 1933 was largely due to pressure from women’s social networks. Yet, after World War I flappers, young women living lives of excess, patronizing speakeasies and consuming alcohol, formed a counterculture that subverted tradition women’s networks. Flappers virtually removed corsets from women’s fashions, and visually and behaviorally freed up all women by wearing shorter skirts and short haircuts, and excessive make-up. Flappers redefined the roles of women in society and mocked the traditional female networks that had lobbied for Prohibition.

Television had a tremendous impact on how women gathered socially during the 1950. Nationally and locally produced women’s programs soon followed throughout the United States often premiering within hours of a station signing-on, first to sell televisions as an essential home product, and then to build loyal female audiences. Local broadcasters produced cooking shows to entertain and instruct housewives on the latest trends in cooking, nutrition, and kitchenware that carried the message that women should purchase the latest products that would enable them to get out of the house. Women’s programs usually lasted thirty minutes and featured food topics, along with other educational content related to home economics including, “textiles and clothing, home furnishings, time management and work simplification, gardening, kitchen planning, childcare, grooming and family relations.” Ironically, television also served to alienate women from traditional face-to-face networking.

The impact of the birth-control pill, simply known as “the Pill” approved for use in the United States in 1960, gave women unprecedented control over their bodies, and therefore provided them with the option to differ marriage. The availability of the Pill opened avenues for social networking that had previously been considered taboo as different social movements and counterculture groups emerged. Betty Friedan (1921-2006), a journalist writing for popular women’s magazines, in The Feminine Mystique (1963) called on women to seek satisfying and intellectually stimulating careers in public life without renouncing their roles within the home. Friedan and other feminists established the National Organization for Women (NOW) focused on the fight for full equality for women in 1966.

Female social networking within counterculture movements still mirrored traditional models of women assisting male leadership. For instance, the Diggers, a psychedelic political movement of the late-1960s was credited with coining the phrase, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” This subgroup of San Francisco hippies, utilized traditional female social networks as they worked towards a society where all food and possessions were shared freely. The Diggers provided free clothing in the Free Store and distributed free food in the San Francisco Panhandle during the Summer of Love. The group introduced principals of serving organic foods distributed broadsides and leaflets along Haight Street advertising free food, supplies, and performances to thousands of transient youth. Dedicated volunteers, consisting of mostly young women, ferreted cheap food from produce markets, slaughterhouses, fish markets and bakeries.

The proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution stating, Congress passed “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” in 1972. This amendment would have responded to many issues raised by generations of women’s social networks, but its controversy undermined the demographic female majority, because it was ratified by only 35 of the necessary 38 states by its 1982 deadline.

Women operated boardinghouses from the seventeenth to early-twentieth centuries. Typical boardinghouses, establishments privately operated by families to bring in extra income became popular during the mid-nineteenth century. Some families chose to co-inhabit with other families as boarders, creating two-family households. Thomas Butler Gunn’s satire The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses (1857), chronicled the variety of female dominated networks found in boardinghouses. Filled with anecdotes about scheming landladies, carousing bachelors, slovenly housemaids, and an odd cast of fellow boarders, boardinghouse life emerged as an aspect of cosmopolitan American culture. Indeed, individuals who chose to live solitary lives during the nineteenth century were considered to be odd loners or hermits.

Taking in boarders, was a crucial economic factor in the financial success of both urban and rural families during the early nineteenth century. Operating a boardinghouse was a rigorous weekly cycle of washing laundry, baking, and mending, and daily cycles of cooking, cleaning and serving. While husbands could leave the boardinghouse to work and run errands, wives and children kept the operation going even when they got sick, injured, or pregnant. Women recognized the economic value of their labor produced by taking in boarders was a means for women to bring cash into the household. Compared to taking in sewing, running a grocery, catering from their kitchens, or working as unpaid labor in their husband’s trades, operating a boardinghouse brought good income that could be reinvested into businesses or supply family needs.

Boardinghouse living could supply a surrogate family along with room and board. Immigrants clustered in boardinghouse communities or “quarters.” These groups generally included young men or women of similar professions, who assimilated to the new climate together. Mealtime became an opportunity to socialize and network for boarders who enjoyed similar foods and spoke the same language. Accustomed to living in urban areas, immigrants set up their own grocery and dry goods stores, liquor stores, boardinghouses, and restaurants. Boardinghouse culture was ephemeral and transient in nature. Boardinghouse living waned during the early twentieth century as urban planners focused on creating apartment communities to accommodate the American sensibility that the single lifestyle was acceptable.

Detail of twentieth century stitching from Happy Hands Studio (Pendelton, Oregon) from unique artist book by Roberta Lavadour called "Happy Hands"

Detail of twentieth century stitching from Happy Hands Studio (Pendelton, Oregon) from unique artist book by Roberta Lavadour called “Happy Hands”

During the Era of Enlightenment men pressed women to place their whole affections upon family, relegating mothers to rule the “gentle empire” of the home. The sensibilities of common law versus civil law dictated how marriage became a woman’s primary social network. Under Anglo-American common law a wife had no rights in regards to making contracts or holding real property. The status as feme covert (married) or feme sole (single) often determined a woman’s ability to network with other women and with men. Under coverture, wives and children were both treated dependents. Female subordination within the family, men argued, reflected their subordination under common law and divine government that asserted, “Influence by reason when you can, by authority when you must.”

Cloth and clothing production became another area supported by female social networking. Adam Smith described the social networks needed to produce a common woolen coat for a laborer in his The Wealth of Nations: “The shepherd, the sorter of wool, the wool-comber or corder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production.” Feme sole, a never-married woman, has remained an anomaly within women’s networking. The woman who remained unmarried was referred to with the derisive term of “spinster.” When it was first used, to define a woman with the occupation of spinning it was a term of respect. However, a woman without a male protector were obliged to live modest and discrete lives of service to family, church, or a respectable occupation like a teacher, or risk being the target of brutal rumors and speculation. Single women were sometimes stigmatized if they resided in boardinghouses located outside of respectable residential neighborhoods, since “boardinghouse” also euphemistically referred to “bordello.” Widows, also considered to be feme sole, sometimes financed other female enterprises utilizing their “dower” income.

In the United States, many single women moved to the frontiers to pursue careers as schoolteachers or missionaries. During the California Gold Rush, the state legislature enacted laws to enable married women to establish businesses as sole traders, rather than to expose single women to the dangers of dealing with volatile males. An important but subtle shift of power occurred when married women and widows kept controlled their real property – women could establish benevolent relief societies in the formal business or public sector for women who found themselves in bad situations. During the 1870s women doctors in San Francisco established the Pacific Dispensary Hospital for Women and Children where only female physicians cared for patients, but as the organization moved to affiliate with medical colleges they were forced to allow male physicians to administer this teaching hospital.

Little girls were socialized as they learned domestic arts throughout. Girls would assist adult women in their households with spinning thread, weaving cloth, making candles, and needlework including sewing, knitting, dressmaking, quilting, embroidery – decorative sewing done with colored thread. They learned how to sew when they were very young, often stitching their first quilt square by the age of four years, and demonstrated skills learned in samplers.