Women in the Workplace (Issue)

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Over a 120-year period the identity of the woman worker has changed dramatically. From the 1820s, with the onset of industrialization in the United States, until 1940, the average female employee was young and single. If married, a woman working outside the home was likely poor and African American. From the 1940s to the 1970s, however, married women became the largest component of the female labor force. The number of gainfully employed, white middle-class women also rose rapidly.

In 1920 women composed 23.6 percent of the labor force and 8.3 million women older than the age of 15 worked outside the home. By 1930 the percentage of women in the work force rose to 27 and their numbers increased to 11 million. World War I (19141918) had expanded women's employment in new sectors of the economy and by 1920, 25.6 percent of employed women worked in white-collar office-staff jobs, 23.8 percent in manufacturing, 18.2 percent in domestic service, and 12.9 percent in agriculture. While the first generation of college-educated women entered professions in the 1920s, they found opportunities only in nurturing "women's professions" such as teaching and social work, and within medicine, nursing, and pediatrics. In factories, while male factory workers on federal contracts in 1920 started at 40 cents an hour, women started at 25 cents.

The Women's Bureau, a new federal agency approved by Congress in June 1920, was charged with reporting the conditions of women in industry and promoting the welfare of working women. The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) also fought to improve women's labor conditions in the 1920s. The WTUL argued that protective legislation based on women's special position as child bearers should not be used against women workers by restricting their access to certain jobs.

Women laborers worked long hours and both the Women's Bureau and WTUL fought for shorter workdays. By the early 1920s all but five states upheld the 10-hour day/50-hour week work schedule; those five embraced the 54-hour workweek. Efforts to improve working conditions for women were consistently undermined by society's ambivalence about combining the roles of wife and mother with those of worker and professional.

The Great Depression (19291939) did little to alter the role of women in the U.S. workplace. According to the 1930 census almost eleven million women, or 24.3 percent of all women in the country, were gainfully employed. Three out of every ten of these working women were in domestic or personal service. Of professional women three-quarters were schoolteachers or nurses. The greatest numbers of women continued to work in domestic service with clerical workers just behind. Out of every ten women workers in 1940 three were in clerical or sales work, two were in factories, two in domestic service, one was a professionala teacher or a nurseand one was a service worker. During the Depression women entered the workforce at a rate twice that of menprimarily because employers were willing to hire them at reduced wages. In unionized industries, however, women fared better. Women constituted seven percent of all workers in the automobile industry and 25 percent of all workers in the electrical industry. The integrated International Ladies Garment Workers Union had 200,000 members and it secured for pressers in Harlem high wages of $45 to $50 per week. But such pay was the exception, not the rule.

Married women who worked faced particular hostility. They heard that they were taking jobs away from men, that the woman's place was in the home, and that children needed a mother at home full time. Both private companies and the government dismissed large numbers of married women and made it difficult for married women to get high-paying professional or clerical jobs. Section 213 of the 1932 Federal Economy Act prohibited more than one family member from working for the government, barring many married women from federal employment. Even positions that were traditionally held by women, such as teacher and librarian, were affected.

New Deal legislation provided relief to both male and female workers in need although women often did not receive their full share of benefits. The 1933 National Recovery Administration (NRA) designed codes that improved women's wages, shortened their hours, and increased the number of women employed, but the codes did little for the two million women who lost their jobs and sought relief. Although the Works Progress Administration (WPA) launched successful projects for women's employment, women had difficulty getting such jobs. Only one member of a household was eligible to qualify for a relief job and women had to prove themselves economic heads of households. Women with physically able husbands could not qualify because men were considered heads of households, even if they were unable to find jobs.

Things quickly changed with World War II (19391945). Government posters featured women rolling up their sleeves and affirming "We Can Do It." Radio stations sponsored contests for "Working Women Win Wars Week." The number of workingwomen rose from 11.9 millions in 1940 to 18.6 millions in 1945. By the end of the war women comprised 36.1 percent of the civilian workforce and they were enjoying increases in income created by the wartime economy. Once women's employment became vital to the war effort it was applauded as patriotic. Between 1940 and 1945 women's presence in the labor force grew by more than 50 percent.

After the war, however, traditional gender assumptions about work retained their hold. The government position was that "now, as in peacetime, a mother's primary duty is to her home and children." Although some 1.5 million mothers with small children worked, childcare remained inadequate. The government financed only 3,102 childcare centers to serve working mothers, providing for only a small fraction of the children in need of care. Most working mothers left their children with family members or left them to fend for themselves. The scarcity of institutional assistance for these women implied that while society approved of working women, it still expected them to take care of their children themselves. Moreover, most people considered women in the workplace a temporary phenomenon. Though women proved themselves the equal of men in many jobs, they were still being paid less. Because most of the working women had been trained primarily to be homemakers, they lacked the education and skills necessary to enter career paths leading to good pay, advancement, and security.

After World War II ended, a woman's average weekly pay fell from $50 to $37, a decline of 26 percent that contrasts sharply to an overall postwar decrease of four percent. Although three-quarters of women employed in war industries were still employed in 1946, 90 percent of them were earning less than they had earned during the war. Faced with a postwar decrease in the already inadequate number of childcare facilities many working mothers withdrew from the workforce. While the actual number of women in paid employment rose, they tended to be older women with no children to care for at home and were employed in an increasingly narrow range of jobs.

By 1960 over one-third of women were employed, while more and more married women went to work to obtain the many accoutrements of middle-class life. In 1963 Betty Friedan's best seller, The Feminine Mystique, argued that women were oppressed by a culture that consistently denied them opportunities outside the domestic sphere. Friedan went on to suggest that women should have the same freedom for self-fulfillment that men possessed. The book reawakened the feminist movement. In 1966 Friedan and others founded the National Organization of Women (NOW). By the late 1960s the government required that all institutions receiving federal funds use non-discriminatory hiring practices and by the early 1970s affirmative action laws were in place. In this atmosphere public opinion about women in the workplace began to change. But few women were able to break into the male-dominated professions and careers and the pay for women who worked full-time was less than 60 percent of the median for men.

The battle to gain rights for women in the workplace equal to the rights of men began before World War II and continued into the early 1990s. The specific legislative fight at the federal level to gain equal wages for equal work took about 17 years. Not until 1963, with the support of President John F. Kennedy (19611963), did such an act finally pass. The Equal Pay Act was intended to ensure that women would get paid the same wages as men for equal work. It was carefully written to raise women's wages, not to lower men's. Women filing suit under the Equal Pay Act could win up to two years of the wages they would have earned had they been paid equally with men. Discriminating employers could also be required to pay that same amount again as punishment, in addition to reimbursing successful claimants for the costs of hiring an attorney and court charges. Unfortunately, the act contained loopholes. The Equal Pay Act stipulated that the jobs of men and women must require equal skill, equal effort, and equal responsibility, each factor to be examined separately, for the jobs to be covered by the act. There was no provision that women must have access to the same jobs as men.

In subsequent years several other actions bolstered the rights of female workers. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed and its broader language helped close some of the loopholes of the Equal Pay Act and further advance the rights of female workers. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act did not allow employers to deny jobs to women because of their sex. Thus it became illegal to manipulate jobs so that women would be excluded from those with higher pay. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created to enforce this new employment right.

Topic overview

After World War II ended, a woman's average weekly pay fell from $50 to $37, a decline of 26 percent that contrasts sharply to an overall postwar decrease of four percent. Although three-quarters of women employed in war industries were still employed in 1946, 90 percent of them were earning less than they had earned during the war.

See also: Home Front, National Recovery Administration, Rosie the Riveter, Women's Movement, Works Progress Administration


Banner, Lois. Women in Modern America: A Brief History. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Chafe, William. The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 19201970. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Hartmann, Susan M. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Kanowitz, Leo. Women and the Law: The Unfinished Revolution. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969.

Rosenberg, Rosalind. Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.

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Women in the Workplace (Issue)

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Women in the Workplace (Issue)