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'Perfect in her place:' exhibit traces women's role in industrial America

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A new exhibit on women in industrial America at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History brings on a startling sense of historical deja vu for the present-day viewer.

The exhibit traces the role of women through the 19th century, a period of rapid industrialization in America which exhibit coordinator Deborah Warner calls "a particularly unsettling time. Few knew, with a certainty, what their parents and grandparents had enjoyed, who they were, and where they fit into the natural order."

Expanding civil rights, a flood of immigration with its new ethnic and cultural mix, and a groundswell of evangelical religion accompanied all these changes, increasing Americans' confusion over values and identity -- a confusion many Americans have felt over the last two decades of this century.

The 19th-century result should, perhaps, be a warning to us: "Americans began to sentimentalize the home," says Ms. Warner. "And at the heart of Home Sweet Home was Woman, pure and pious, serving as guardian of those aspects of the old order that men were reluctant to relinquish, but that they could no longer afford to pursue in their headlong rush into the new."

This syrupy view of Woman tended to veil the underlying reality of women's lot in industrial America, as the exhibit's photos, tools, machines, and letters record -- that of cheap labor. With men filling the "manly pursuits" of agriculture and commerce, women (especially spinsters) filled the mushrooming need for inexpensive, unskilled labor.

On went the syrup -- women were repeatedly sought after for "that particular dexterity, patience, and forbearance possessed by the average woman in a degree superior to that of the opposite sex" (said the telephone company), for their "dainty aesthetical sense" (said Procter & Gamble), and for the dexterity and carefulness (said a gun cartridge manufacturer who, during the Civil War, gave women the more dangerous task of loading the powder.)

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