Virginia Penny was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to a farming family. Her father William Penny also was a local politician and bank owner. She graduated in 1845 from the Female Seminary in Steubenville, Ohio, and taught in public and private schools there, in Illinois and Kentucky. An inheritance from her father gave her the freedom to leave teaching and pursue her interests in social reform, especially in employment opportunities for women. By the late 1850s, she had traveled to businesses in several big cities to study women's jobs, including Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, where she interviewed workers and employers. She also mailed out thousands of detailed questionnaires to employers, synthesized the data in the responses, and researched in libraries. She lived in New York City from 1859 to 1861 to finalize her research and to self-publish The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Woman’s Work (1863), subsequently re-titled How Women Can Make Money, Married or Single (1870), the first book about the jobs open to women and what wages they could earn. The book included her analysis of the effects of the job on the health of workers, the length of the working day, as well as qualifications and length of training needed for a particular type of job. After the book was picked up by a commercial publisher, it received favorable reviews in major news outlets such as The New York Times and Scientific American, and was republished numerous times. Her second book, Think and Act: A Series of Articles Pertaining to Men and Women, Work and Wages (1869), was a compilation of her speeches and essays, many of which had originally appeared in Louisville newspapers. Virginia Penny was elected as the Kentucky representative to the second convention of the American Equal Rights Association, and joined a global network of activists working for women's suffrage as well as equal rights for all. She participated in union activities, including the Workingwoman's Association in New York, and led protests for better wages and living conditions for women. After a series of health problems and financial reverses, she became destitute by the 1880s. For unknown reasons, in the last few months of her life, she was committed to the Manhattan State Hospital on Ward's Island, where she died.