At age 26, in October 1896, Maud Stalnaker decided to take the civil service exam for a clerkship in the War Department in Washington, D.C. She chose a challenging job with a test to match. As the position announcement explained, applicants for this job in the Office of the Adjutant General
should be able to translate into English technical military works in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, to do typewriting in all of these languages; to do proofreading and prepare manuscripts for the press; and he should be familiar with modern library methods . . . He will also be tested in the use of the English language and literary composition.
Despite the use of “he” in the text, the exam was open to women and men and, in the absence of a statement to the contrary, the job was open to women.
Two months later, Maud Stalnaker made headlines across the U.S. In pursuit of work and quite by accident, she threw into sharp relief a serpent lurking in the ideal of a civil service system: could the system, designed to replace political patronage with demonstrated merit, trump such powerful, traditional standards as the sex of the applicant?
Maud’s name was also on the tongues of clubwomen and suffragists for whom she represented the quintessential self-supporting woman navigating an unequal job market. In the long, historic search for equal rights in work, Maud’s brush with fame offers a glimpse of a social movement in action.
Federal civil service was a relatively new way to do business. The Pendleton Act of 1883 created the Civil Service Commission and a process to classify jobs in federal employment. If it worked, hiring by merit had the potential to open well-paying jobs to women.
For that to happen, women needed to compete with men. This didn’t always go well. The New York Mail and Express described a civil service exam in Albany that twenty women failed “because of sheer nervousness, which incapacitated them for doing their best.” (Reprint in Woman’s Journal, 14 Aug 1897)
Further, men needed to agree to work with women. According to the Topeka Daily Capital, the Civil Service Commission created the job title “male stenographer” because that was what departments wanted, “owing to the restraints the presence of a woman in an office places on the men.” Most important, the writer added, there would be no more smoking. (Reprint in Woman’s Journal, 30 Oct 1897)
Young Maud Stalnaker seemed immune to nerves. Nothing about her own experience of test-taking and its aftermath has turned up. We’re obliged to stand and view her from a considerable distance. After her mother died in the year of Maud’s birth, she and an older sister were raised by grandparents in Virginia, while their father, John William Stalnaker, moved to Texas. He had a college education, a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and service as a surgeon in the Confederate Army. Evidence on his daughter’s education is slim and unverified: by one account, Maud learned her languages in Germany and France as a young woman; according to her application for a passport in 1918, she spent 1892 and 1893 in Paris.
Maud Stalnaker not only passed the exam, she was the only person to pass it. After the Civil Service Commission reported results to the War Department, the proceedings got a little unorthodox. Job seekers customarily learned their test scores by letter. In this case, the adjutant general’s staff sent a messenger to the house where Maud lived with relatives, requesting that she report to the War Department. When she arrived at the appointed place, she was informed that no woman could have that job under any circumstances. As a reporter at the Washington Post opined,
It is certainly not good form . . . to summon a man or woman to appear in person for no other purpose than to be told that he is not wanted. (22 Jan 1897)
It did not take long for writers to speculate that the adjutant general meant to leave no paper trail, or in the words of the Milwaukee Journal, she was summoned “so that no record will be made of the matter.” (25 Jan 1897)
Maud’s rejection occurred at a time when the public could and did react, when the notion of equal treatment resounded in popular concepts of justice and righteousness. Surely her case drew attention in part because of the scale of her achievement, the marvel that anyone passed that test. What hope could there be for the average woman seeking a salary in Washington if this accomplished young woman could be denied work?
But that doesn’t explain how her story came to the fore. One gap in our understanding of events comes of not knowing what happened on the ground between Maud’s exam in late October and the news on January 22. Someone brought this story to the attention of the press, and someone decided to publish it on a day that the Civil Service Commission was to meet. Reporters tossed around phrases like “the friends of Miss Stalnaker” as if, by January, she had identifiable allies. Were these family members? Other women employed in executive departments? Washington’s many women’s clubs? Or did Maud serve as emblem for a protest that she did not actively join?
No official explanation for Maud’s rejection reached the press, though no one doubted that the adjutant general acted only on account of sex. But refusing to hire a woman could be colored in all kinds of ways. At the Civil Service Commission meeting on January 22, the excuse went like this, according to the Washington Post:
in actual duties of the position it would be found that military knowledge of a certain character would be necessary.
“Hence,” the reporter added, a successful candidate must pass the test and be a man. (23 Jan 1897)
The winning excuse involved ladders: could a woman climb a ladder many times a day? The earliest reference comes not from Maud’s case but from a letter in response to it, sent to the Post by another victim of War Department bias. F. Wilson (possibly Frederica, a clerk at Treasury) described her search for work as a translator. Forewarned about bias, Wilson tried a personal approach, called at the Office of the Adjutant General, and was referred to Lieutenant John R. Williams of the Military Information Division.
I was informed that a male translator was preferred because a great amount of ‘manual labor’ was involved. To emphasize this point he showed me a very tall series of filing cases, on the top of which were a number of books. These books were reached by means of a step ladder, and he said that it was one of the most important duties of the translator to climb this immense ladder a great many times daily. No attention was given to the suggestion that a messenger might do the climbing. (28 Jan 1897)
Editors seized upon this detail to deride the War Department and spotlight the fact that Maud’s exam omitted this critical skill.
How does Lieut. Williams know that young ladies cannot run up a step-ladder just as well as men can. How does he know they cannot do it better? . . . There ought to be some true relation of the test to the duties the applicant is expected to perform. (28 Jan 1897)
If anyone at the War Department ever linked ladders to Stalnaker’s ineligibility, the fact is lost in reporters’ enthusiasm to make the connection. It was a perfect symbol for the
flawed system that ensnared Maud. And by the fall of 1897, the ladder carried an improbable meaning: the Post could refer to “the ladder objection” when remarking on discrimination against women in federal employment. (3 Oct 1897)
Once the press took Maud’s situation seriously, other women expressed their ideas about sexual bias in federal employment. One of the first to speak up was Frances Forshay Cougle, a widow and clerk in the Pension Office. After praising the Washington Post for its coverage of the “unprecedented injustice” dealt Stalnaker, Cougle was careful to add,
We are not of the woman’s rights association, but we believe in equal justice to man and woman in a case like the present.” (26 Jan. 1897)
In other words, one need not be at the extremes to stand with Maud Stalnaker.
Writer and outspoken activist Alice Lee Moqué, writing to the Post, took exception to Cougle’s term “unprecedented” and narrated her experience back when she had two children to support and sought government work as a topographer. In the final act of a complicated story, she could not take the civil service test because “You’re a woman.” In her opinion, the Civil Service Commission had a consistent record of discouraging women from competing for good jobs.
The ‘merit system’ seems to be, like citizenship, merely a masculine prerogative. (31 Jan. 1897)
The ranks of organized womanhood also protested, and local activists took the issue to national networks. Ellen Powell Thompson, president of the District of Columbia Woman Suffrage Association, asked the annual convention of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association to support Maud’s right to work in the War Department. Meeting in Des Moines the first week of February, delegates passed resolutions ranging from global to local: advocacy of a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage, endorsement of a treaty of arbitration with Britain, and support for Maud Stalnaker.
Whereas, it is stated that Miss Stahlnaker (sic) alone has passed the civil service examination for translator of modern languages in the office of the United States adjutant-general, . . . and whereas, the adjutant-general refuses to appoint her because she is a woman; therefore,
Resolved, That we respectfully petition the national executive to enforce the principle of civil service reform in application to her appointment.
Word traveled quickly among women’s clubs too. According to the Chicago Times-Herald, members of the Chicago Woman’s Club met on January 23 and unanimously endorsed a letter to the adjutant general, resolving that as
the most perfect civil service can only be secured by placing the best qualified persons into public positions, we hereby protest against any unjust discrimination on account of sex of applicants, and request that Miss Maud Stahlnaker, by virtue of having passed the best examination for translator of modern languages, be appointed to the position. (24 Jan 1897)
Neither journalists nor activist women could overturn what happened to Maud, but the speed with which people rallied around her and spoke up for a vision of a just job market signaled progress in making women’s rights sound commonsensical. And maybe the protests did not accomplish nothing.
Maybe two key departures from the Office of the Adjutant General owed something to the protests. Lt. Williams of the ladders left on 29 July. Brig. Gen. George D. Ruggles retired from the Army in September.
Maybe the protests helped Maud. On 27 February newspapers announced that she had secured a job as a translator in the State Department. Jokes about ladders flourished again. In the Washington Evening Star, a headline reminded readers that she “Was Rejected by the Adjutant General Because She Couldn’t Climb a Ladder.”
Maud was hired by Frederic Emory, Chief of the Bureau of Statistics. Until his retirement in 1905, Emory kept Maud on his staff. In 1902, they worked together in the Bureau of Foreign Commerce. A feature story about Maud quoted a source that she was “well-nigh indispensable in the work relating to foreign commerce and translations in general.” She had prepared the bureau’s annual Review of the World’s Commerce. (Washington Times, 9 Mar 1902)
Two years later, on 11 January 1904, in New York City, Maud Stalnaker, age 34, married Frederic Emory, age 51. The marriage was short: Emory died at his rural home in Maryland in September 1908. His widow lived fifty years longer, still a self-supporting woman with remarkable skills.
Katharine Lee researched Maud Stalnaker’s story when editors at the Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony found it mentioned in a letter by Anthony, 12 February 1897. After we dropped that letter from the volume underway, Lee’s excellent research sat idle, just begging for a second go and more digging.
For Maud’s father: “Stalnaker, John William,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fst06)
For Frederic Emory as novelist and local historian,
For Emory at the State Department,
Richard Hume Werking, Master Architects: Building the United States Foreign Service, 1890-1913 (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1977), 67-87.
And if someone wants a project, the records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission at the National Archives might be checked for more pieces of Maud’s story..