Women in the Post Office
Angela Serratore’s 2012 article on 19th Century women and the rise of modern postal service sheds light on a world foreign to people who use modern electronic communications with ease and from the privacy of their own smartphone.
As she notes in Post Secrets, in the mid-1800s New York City established its first post office, causing public concern over the implications for women. For the first time, women who had formerly relied on parents, husbands, or even servants to retrieve their personal mail could now retrieve it themselves.
Suddenly, wide swaths of women had access to two dangerous things—the mail and the post office. Anthony Trollope’s 1852 invention of the pillar-box had given British girls a chance to subvert the authority of their scandalized parents by mailing letters in secret, but their New York counterparts who visited the post office could both send and receive mail almost entirely unmonitored by those who might want to regulate their epistolary lives.”
Ladies’ Windows were common, with some offices even having separate entrances for women where they would not rub shoulders with men at all. A number of contemporary writers warned of the dire consequences of women mailing and receiving letters free of the watchful eye of their husband or parents. One moralist even claimed to have evidence that the practice led to women taking up prostitution because of the danger inherent in “clandestine correspondence with unprincipled men.” (George Ellington, The Women of New York, p. 477, cited in Serratore’s article.)
Serratore notes that eventually public concerns about women visiting the post office without supervision “were mitigated upon the construction of a new, more spatially regulated post office near City Hall, and upon the widespread introduction of home delivery by the Postal Service”. The original post office was located in a rough part of town that was no place for a lady, and personal servants or private couriers often delivered mail to individual households.
I don’t think the initiation of post office counters just for women was born of altruistic intent. I think it had to do with the economics of letter writing. Women wrote letters and that meant women needed to buy postage. The more letters women could send and receive, the more stamps they bought. The more stamps they bought, the more revenue that came in to the post office.
The effect, though, was a promotion of equal access to communication and speech. Women could now write to friends, put ideas down on paper and send them to magazine editors, coordinate social and political causes with like-minded people far away. No law stopped them. Of course, the law didn’t stop them before these postal services became available. But the prior practices showed how a neutrally written law could be applied so as to keep women from engaging in free speech.
- Before: incoming letters passed through the hands of parents or husbands before reaching a woman’s hand, and outgoing mail the same.
- After: women had access to the post without scrutiny, enriching communication for everyone.
Which brings me to the connection between 19th Century postal services and the gospel.
Women in the Church
The Bible says that women have the same standing with God that men do.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28.)
Everyone being clothed in Christ means whatever differences existed before no longer matter in your spiritual standing with God. That standing is defined as Jesus – not as being from one place or another, one social status or another, one sex or another – but as Jesus.
It’s like the post office today. The person at the counter no longer considers whether you are a woman or man. All they consider is whether you have a letter to send and the money to buy a stamp.
In God’s kingdom, too, it’s not a matter of whether you are a woman or a man. It’s a matter of whether or not you belong to Jesus. If you do, your place in that kingdom is defined by who Jesus is, not who or what you are.
This is the gospel truth. You can put a stamp on it. It’s ready for delivery.
[This is slightly updated from a guest post I wrote for The Junia Project in 2016.]