Women in Industry Service

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Women in Industry Service

United States 1918


During spring 1917 the United States began shipping thousands of men overseas to fight in World War I. This immediate strain on the U.S. labor force created problems for industry, which became overburdened by wartime production requirements. The War Labor Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, worked to resolve these problems in part by replacing male workers with female ones. Realizing that women's labor issues needed to be addressed specifically, as well as to prevent them from disrupting wartime production, the Department of Labor created the Women in Industry Service (WIS) in 1918.

This cooperative-based bureau was run by women for women. Most of its policy suggestions for addressing women's labor issues were later implemented. Although the end of the war in November 1918 meant the return of men to industry, the WIS succeeded in bringing governmental attention to the rights of women laborers. The WIS operated until 1920, when Congress granted the bureau permanent status through public law; the organization then became known as the U.S. Women's Bureau. As the only federal organization devoted to the welfare of working women, the Women's Bureau became a powerful advocate for their rights, conducting industry research and helping to shape public policy regarding their welfare.


  • 1898: United States defeats Spain in the three-month Spanish American War. As a result, Cuba gains it independence, and the United States purchases Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.
  • 1903: Russia's Social Democratic Party splits into two factions: the moderate Mensheviks and the hard-line Bolsheviks. Despite their names, which in Russian mean "minority" and "majority," respectively, Mensheviks actually outnumber Bolsheviks.
  • 1910: Revolution breaks out in Mexico and will continue for the next seven years.
  • 1914: On 28 June in the town of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and wife Sophie. In the weeks that follow, Austria declares war on Serbia, and Germany on Russia and France, while Great Britain responds by declaring war on Germany. By the beginning of August, the lines are drawn, with the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey).
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
  • 1918: The Bolsheviks execute Czar Nicholas II and his family. Soon civil war breaks out between the communists and their allies, known as the Reds, and their enemies, a collection of anticommunists ranging from democrats to czarists, who are known collectively as the Whites. In March, troops from the United States, Great Britain, and France intervene on the White side.
  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August is the last major conflict on the Western Front. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to the war.
  • 1918: Upheaval sweeps Germany, which for a few weeks in late 1918 and early 1919 seems poised on the verge of communist revolution—or at least a Russian-style communist coup d'etat. But reactionary forces have regained their strength, and the newly organized Freikorps (composed of unemployed soldiers) suppresses the revolts. Even stronger than reaction or revolution, however, is republican sentiment, which opens the way for the creation of a democratic government based at Weimar.
  • 1918: Influenza, carried to the furthest corners by returning soldiers, spreads throughout the globe. Over the next two years, it will kill nearly 20 million people—more than the war itself.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.

Event and Its Context

Regulating Labor During Wartime

On 4 March 1913 the bill establishing the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) was signed by President William Howard Taft.

In part, the creation of the DOL resulted from the Progressive movement at the turn of the century, which called for better working conditions and environmental conservation through private and government actions. More directly, its creation can be traced to the social reform advocates who called for a federal department that would give organized labor a presence in the president's cabinet. In 1915 numerous employment offices were set up by the DOL throughout the United States; by 1917 they had placed more than 250,000 people in jobs.

The United States entered World War I in April 1917, necessitating the government's prompt attention to any labor problems that might affect wartime production levels. Labor disputes were common, as worker shortages and higher production demands increased union power. The DOL was charged with implementing the nation's war labor programs and policies. Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson convinced President Woodrow Wilson to appoint a commission to investigate labor problems, and a national war labor policy was developed based on the commission's findings. To ensure that the policy was implemented properly, the War Labor Administration (WLA) was created with Secretary Wilson at its helm. In 1918 the War Labor Board was established as part of the WLA; comprising leaders from industry and organized labor, the board made recommendations to Secretary Wilson regarding labor disputes and promoted their peaceful resolution. The WLA also encompassed the War Labor Policies Board, which was designed to maintain consistent labor policies among government contract agencies and thereby eliminate any disruptions to the war effort.

As government agencies expanded and industries feverishly tried to replace their male workers who had been sent to war, a shift occurred in female employment. Although some women entered the workforce for the first time during the war effort, the number of female laborers did not increase dramatically. Instead, according to the historian Ross Paulson, for the most part "women came from other industries into the war industries, not from the ranks of the unemployed." Most of the women who took positions associated with the war effort had factory experience; another large group came from the restaurant and domestic service industries. There were additional employment opportunities for African American women, as white women fled domestic service or low-paying industrial jobs for higher paying ones in the war industry. However, hiring discrimination against African American women continued. This was also true for immigrant women—some employers felt it was their patriotic duty to hire U.S. workers over those from other countries.

Regardless of their race or ethnicity, most working women did not face a rosy employment situation. Men were usually chosen for the best jobs at the highest pay. After working a 10-hour day, women then faced numerous domestic chores at home. The women who were able to join unions often found that they were not equally represented and their specific needs were not understood. Many tragic events, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911 that took the lives of 146 women and girls in New York City, brought the deplorable work conditions of factory women into the public eye, making work safety a primary concern for many social reformers.

Establishing the Women in Industry Service

The Women in Industry Service (WIS) was established as part of the DOL in July 1918 to address the labor issues of women separately from those of men, specifically as they related to the war effort. The bureau's main purpose, as instructed by Secretary Wilson, was to "develop standards and policies to insure the effective employment of women while conserving their health and welfare." Two experts on women's employment, Mary Abby van Kleeck and Mary Anderson, were appointed as the WIS's first director and assistant director, respectively. Van Kleeck and Anderson kept in close contact with other DOL divisions that worked on issues relating to women in industry.

To develop a consistent program that best addressed the needs of women in industry, the new bureau cooperated with all state departments of labor that dealt on any level with the problems faced by working women. The Council on Women in Industry, comprised of female representatives from every division of the DOL, was founded to help coordinate these efforts. Subjects discussed by the council included safeguards for establishing new occupations for women, regulation of night work under war conditions, enforcement of state labor laws, and equal pay for equal work.

Although the WIS ultimately compiled a formal policy outlining several key issues regarding women's employment during the war, many of the program's elements were not implemented, as World War I ended only four months after the bureau's creation. However, some action was taken with regard to each of the recommendations. In the meantime, the War Labor Policies Board added clauses to government contracts requiring compliance with state labor laws and worked with the WIS to develop a cooperative effort between national and state agencies regarding the enforcement of the clauses.

In addition, the WIS conducted a survey in Niagara Falls, New York, that focused on the occupational health hazards faced by women employed in chemical industries. A committee made up of representatives from the Surgeon General's Office of the U.S. Army, U.S. Public Health Service, and New York Industrial Commission discussed the survey results and together with the WIS made recommendations for improved labor conditions including sanitary safety. The WIS also discussed with several labor organizations the need to control night work for women's safety and health.

In October 1918 the WIS presented to the secretary of labor and the War Labor Policies Board a tentative draft of standards to be used to govern the employment of women in industry; the standards were met with approval and were only somewhat modified on 25 October. This was a huge accomplishment not only for the WIS as a whole, but also specifically for its director, van Kleeck, who was instrumental in developing the draft.

The standards, which addressed issues such as equal pay for equal work and reasonable work hours, were used as the basis for a reconstruction program after the end of the war. Copies of the program were broadly distributed to the state departments of labor as well as to numerous organizations that took an active interest in the welfare of working women, making the program an official part of the public discourse in December 1918. On 11 November 1918 the WIS had submitted a memorandum to the chairman of the War Labor Policies Board addressing some of the employment challenges women faced during the readjustment period and suggesting that all attempts be made to lessen unemployment and "reinstate the largest number of women in normal occupations for which they are adapted." The memo included a direct call for the permanent status of working women to be recognized and for protective legislation to be implemented, addressing their welfare as wage earners. More subtly, the memo promoted the idea that women should be part of the decision-making process affecting their professional lives.

WIS Becomes the Women's Bureau

By 1919 Anderson had assumed the WIS director's role. The decision was made to continue the organization's temporary status with funding until 30 June 1920, and joint committee hearings were held to discuss making the organization's status permanent. In keeping with the maternalist environment of the day, Congressman P. P. Campbell argued, "There are physical differences that the women understand, which make it important that provision be made in all industries of the country for the methods under which women work and for accommodation while employed, which make it not only wise but humane that women shall have charge of this sort of thing."

From dealing with women who were out in the trenches, Anderson knew there was a need for a permanent federal agency to champion the interests of working women. For example, in 1919 Anderson received a frantic telegram detailing the struggle women faced at a Joliet, Illinois, steel plant. According to the historian Alice Kessler-Harris, the women workers had supported their male colleagues in a recent strike, only to have the union try to force them to give up their jobs, claiming the work was too physically demanding for women. With stories like this becoming more and more frequent, it seemed evident to Anderson and other social reformers that women workers needed ongoing representation at the federal level.

On 5 June 1920 Congress passed a bill that gave the WIS permanent status through public law and renamed the organization as the U.S. Women's Bureau. As outlined by statute (41 Stat. L., 987), the bureau's functions are "to formulate standards and policies which shall promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment." The Women's Bureau also was given authorization to investigate and report to the DOL on "all matters pertaining to the welfare of women in industry" and to bring the special needs of women to the nation's attention.

In the 1920s the Women's Bureau performed numerous investigations concerning working women through field studies and surveys. The surveys covered topics such, labor legislation, postwar wages, opportunities for women in government service, industrial training for women, the employment of women streetcar conductors, and a comparison of the family responsibilities of men and women. Using census information from 1910 to 1920, the bureau analyzed changes in women's occupational status and completed a report on "a physiological basis for the shorter working day for women." Conducting research and preparing reference materials were fundamental aspects of the Women's Bureau in the 1920s, and continued to be critical elements of the bureau's work throughout the twentieth century.

With a reputation as a Progressive social reformer, Anderson seemed above partisan politics, cooperating with both sides to form key alliances and achieve the bureau's goals. The Women's Bureau was actively engaged in the exchange of information between state and national agencies, and by 1923 was performing numerous problem-solving investigations. In 1922 the bureau's groundbreaking research on the experiences of African American working women led to greater social awareness and recommendations for change. Its investigations on how women felt about protective legislation helped to form public policy and to identify the social mindset. The bureau's research showed that state-based legislative changes held greater appeal to women than ones sanctioned by the unions alone. For example, after the passage of a law in Massachusetts limiting work hours, one Women's Bureau agent noted, "The girls felt that legislation establishing a 48-hour week was more 'dignified' and permanent than one obtained through the union as it was not so likely to be taken away."

As an advocate for fair wages and reasonable work hours, the Women's Bureau played a significant role in ensuring women's work was regulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established minimum wage levels and work hour limits for the first time. During World War II the Women's Bureau fought successfully for broader job opportunities and training as well as for better pay and work conditions for the new female workforce. According to the historian Kathleen Laughlin, the "backstage maneuvering [by the Women's Bureau] around established bureaucratic constraints to promote the women's economic agenda in the postwar years led to center stage feminist advocacy by the 1970s."

Given the social climate of the 1920s and 1930s, Anderson walked a legislative tightrope that paradoxically embraced both equal rights legislation for women workers and maternalist policies that protected women due to perceived gender-based differences. Ironically, the maternalist arguments long used to keep women in their place were effectively spin-doctored to achieve legislation that benefited working women. Nonetheless, some historians who apply gender analysis to policy formation from the Progressive Era to World War II "trace the source of women's inequality to 'maternalists,'" claiming that such viewpoints only served to "stall organized campaigns for women's rights until the 1960s." Interestingly, some modern-day benefits for working women, such as maternity leave, successfully embrace elements of both the maternalist and equal rights theories.

As the only federal organization dedicated to the welfare of working women, the Women's Bureau has been and continues to be an extremely valuable and influential organization, especially with regard to forming public policy and making women aware of their rights in the workplace.

Key Players

Anderson, Mary (1872-1964): The Swedish-born Anderson obtained her first permanent job as a shoe stitcher in Illinois. An active unionist, she was elected as the president of the women's stitchers union and later joined the Women's Trade Union League through which she developed a close friendship with its president, Margaret Dreier Robins. With their keen understanding of union politics, Anderson and Robins were loyal allies during the garment industry strikes. Serving as the director of the Women's Bureau from 1920 to 1944, Anderson earned a reputation for reliable fact-finding and extremely effective advocacy for women workers.

van Kleeck, Mary (1883-1972): The daughter of a minister, van Kleeck received her bachelor's degree from Smith College in 1904. She first worked as a social researcher, investigating New York City's female factory workers. Having served for decades as the director of the Russell Sage Foundation's department of industrial studies, van Kleeck was instrumental in bringing about legislative reform designed to improve working conditions. An authority on women's employment, van Kleeck played a key role in setting the War Labor Policies Board standards for women in industry and served as the first director of the Women in Industry Service.

See also: Department of Labor; National War Labor Board



Kessler-Harris, Alice. "Where Are the Organized Women Workers?" In A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women, edited by Nancy F. Cott and Elizabeth H. Pleck. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Laughlin, Kathleen A. Women's Work and Public Policy: AHistory of the Women's Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, 1945-1970. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000.

Paulson, Ross Evans. Liberty, Equality, and Justice: Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and the Regulation of Business, 1865-1932. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

Weber, Gustavus A. The Women's Bureau: Its History, Activities, and Organization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1923.


"Start-up of the Department and World War I, 1913-1921."U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Secretary [cited 3 February 2003]. <http://www.dol.gov/asp/programs/history/dolchp01.htm>.

U.S. Statutes at Large. 41: 987.

"WB—An Overview, 1920-2002." U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau [cited 3 February 2003]. http:// www.dol.gov/wb/info_about_wb/interwb.htm.

—Lee Ann Paradise


Women in Industry Service