Women in the Workforce in the United States, 1920-1980

Lisa Schoblasky, Newberry Library

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Women have always worked both in and out of the home, including after modernization changed the concept of women’s roles. For hundreds of years, women performed hard labor alongside men as part of the family unit, working together to survive. The idea of the man as the sole provider who works for a wage, while the woman cooks, cleans, and raises children inside the home is a modern notion, brought on by advances in technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Women work for all sorts of reasons, but social and economic factors have the greatest effect on the opportunities available to women in the workforce. While every woman’s experience is unique, we can look at general trends that help us track the movement of women in the workforce in the twentieth century. Doing so proves that conditions and attitudes have changed. Although women have endured all kinds of discrimination, the number of women in the workplace has continued, and continues still, to rise.

The idea of the man as the sole provider who works for a wage, while the woman cooks, cleans, and raises children inside the home is a modern notion, brought on by advances in technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The United States, along with the rest of the Western world, saw a rise in female employment in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution brought about advancements in technology that reduced the need for heavy labor in factory and farm work and produced job opportunities for unskilled laborers, particularly white women and white immigrants. Daughters could leave the housework to their mothers and find jobs outside of the home. The majority of these women workers were young, unmarried, and planned to work until they found a husband. The rise of laborers, especially immigrant women and children, working long hours for low wages in sometimes dangerous conditions led to labor legislation that shortened workdays, improved conditions, and even prohibited women and children from taking certain types of employment. Workers formed labor unions and clubs to monitor working conditions and support workers’ rights.

In the first half of the twentieth century, internal migration impacted the workforce as well, especially in Northern urban areas like Chicago. African Americans moved North looking for better work and increased economic opportunity. This mass movement is now called the Great Migration. Because of enslavement, African American women have had a very different experience of ‘professional’ work than white women. All enslaved Black women were forced to work on jobs that did not benefit themselves or their families, including as laborers, domestic workers, and skilled craftsmen. In the twentieth century, more African American women began to work in factories, offices, and schools. Because of racist attitudes, however, their pay, authority, and job security were—and still are—less than white women’s.

Below you’ll see images, examples, and information collected on women workers from 1920 to 1980. As you view the documents, think about what has and hasn’t changed for women in the workforce.

Please keep the following questions in mind as you review the documents:

  • Why do women work?

  • What factors determine the type of job a woman might have at different times in the twentieth century?

  • What differences have you seen between men and women’s roles in the workplace? What differences to you see in these documents about their roles?

  • What issues still exist today for women in the workforce? What can we do to solve them?

Women’s Work

Employers have often confined women to tasks and jobs associated with stereotypical female gender roles. Because women bear children, many societies associate them with unpaid labor in the home and domestic sphere like cooking, cleaning, sewing, and child-rearing. Professional occupations open to women – such as nanny, nurse, and maid – tended to mirror those jobs performed in the home, especially for women of color. Office work, such as typing and bookkeeping, started as a profession for men, but as more women entered the workforce during the World Wars, these jobs became the domain of women. Employers felt that women have dainty hands and fingers, as well as polite, patient, and pleasing dispositions that suited them to support and service positions.

In the 20th century, work available to women theoretically didn’t require much strength or intensive labor. However, that wasn’t always the case. Any physical work that requires standing and moving around can be backbreaking if you do it long enough. Women also worked in places where heavy labor was required, like laundries, kitchens, and factories. If a position required any skill, women typically learned it at home, such as sewing, or attended special training, such as stenography classes. In most cases, they could not participate in the trade schools or colleges that prepared men for all kinds of work. This separation between women’s and men’s training helped enforce the idea that women’s jobs where less important and respectable than men’s jobs. However, this segregation of job types was also an indirect acknowledgement that women were part of the workforce.

Over time, U.S. society accepted that women held certain jobs but began to define these jobs as ‘feminine’ and unfit for men. Though jobs like teacher, secretary, and nurse all started out as male-only fields, men left these positions as more women joined them. African American women were marginalized even further and were usually forced into domestic service. They experienced increased job mobility during World War II but were among the first groups pushed out of jobs when the war ended. Later in the twentieth century, women’s work became associated with glamour as well. Image became everything, and the working girl needed the right look to be hired or even keep her job; she needed to be good looking, fashionable, and the right race.

Questions to Consider:

  • How would your perception of the images in the postcards change if the men and women reversed their roles?

  • Look at Table 88. What information does it give you about the number of African American women in the workforce? How did their work changed from 1870-1920?

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War Changes Everything

Both World Wars opened floodgates of opportunities for women, especially African American women. World War II (WWIII) proved to be a real turning point for women in the workplace. Women found all types of work during World War I, including positions that were considered “men’s work” such as factory jobs and jobs higher up the employment ladder. Women of color also found new jobs, but racist policies and assumptions still affected their options and pay. Most women’s positions were temporary, however, because they either planned or were forced to give positions back to men at the end of the war. According to the 1920 census, 24 percent of all women were wage workers and constituted 20 percent of the workforce. During WWII, women comprised 36 percent of the workforce and worked in a larger variety of areas including the military, factories, farms, and offices. These numbers may seem small, but it is a large increase over the number of women who worked professionally in the nineteenth century.

As women took over men’s jobs, factory employers recognized that women were different than men, with different capabilities. Instead of expecting women to perform like men, employers began to recognize what women performed differently on the job. They saw that women tended to be faster and more efficient, which resulted in an increase in production per hour and reductions of cost per hour. Women were easier to supervise and were responsible for less job turnover and decreased accident rates. Women were, however, also absent from work more often, because they still had their families to tend to. The United States Women’s Bureau reported that for the first time, married women had exceeded single women in gainful employment during WWII. Employers typically hired wives and daughters of current employees, because employers assumed they were less likely to continue working after the war. This plan didn’t work out.

After the war, work became more central to women’s lives, and the female workforce expanded enormously. By the early 1950s, the number of women workers exceeded the highest number of women workers during wartime. A higher number of married women were gainfully employed in 1948 than in 1944. The number of working women of color rose as well after the war, especially in professional and white color jobs. About three times more women of color worked in professional positions by the 1950s than in 1940. Though African American women made more money, they still earned less than white women in similar positions. Women may have left their factory jobs when the men returned, but they flocked to “women’s” jobs, such as clerical, sales, and service positions in the postwar years.

Questions to Consider:

  • Who do you think the audience is for each source below? What does that audience tell you about the source’s purpose?

  • What does the chart tell you about women’s roles in factories over the course of World War II?

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Advice, Encouragement, and Support

As women became a greater part of the workplace, they received more support, advice, and encouragement in the form of laws and legislation, clubs and organizations, studies and surveys, magazine and newspaper articles, books, pamphlets, and films. The Women in Industry Service was established in 1918 to employ women during wartime and later became the United States Women’s Bureau, a governmental agency under the Department of Labor. Together with the National Consumers’ League and Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, the Bureau advocated for women workers and provided studies and surveys to help with this cause. It continues to this day. Legislation such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 affected all employees by mandating the eight-hour workday, forty-hour workweek, minimum wage, and overtime pay. In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practices Committee. This group drafted Executive Order 8802, which outlawed discrimination by factory employers in all war-related workplaces. A more grass-roots effort, the Double V campaign, encouraged industrial employers to hire African Americans, both men and women, in plants and factories. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act. Although they still couldn’t participate in combat, women could now serve full-time in the United States Armed Forces.

The social movement called Second Wave Feminism emerged in the 1960s. Second Wave feminists publicly fought for women’s rights and employment equality for women. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination by an employer based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. In general, women benefited greatly from governmental and social changes like these. Some women were unable to take advantage of them, however, because they did not have the resources, support, or time to do so. For example, many working-class women dismissed Second Wave Feminism as too intellectual and not concerned with the problems they faced.

In addition to, and possibly because of, these more formal decrees against discrimination, U.S. society began to talk more openly about the woman worker. Books outlining career paths in all occupational spheres started appearing in the 1920s. From the 1930s to 1950s, the Public Affairs Committee published three Public Affairs Pamphlets called Why Women Work, Should Married Women Work? and Working Wives and Mothers. These books and pamphlets offered public support for women workers and advice from women working in various fields on things like how to look for the right career, how to dress and behave on the job, and how to balance their careers with their personal lives (especially for wives and mothers). These books didn’t berate, scold, or deter women from working, but rather assisted them in exploring the full and honest picture of what it meant to hold a job. In 1980, most likely in conjunction with the release of the movie 9 to 5, newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune started publishing articles about women in the workforce, presenting the struggles they faced as working women while also highlighting the hard work they performed and the dedication they demonstrated for their jobs.

Questions to Consider:

  • How would you describe the tone of each of these works? What does the tone tell you about the work’s purpose?

  • Do you think these books were useful and inspirational for women looking for work? What about for women already working? Why or why not?

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Inequality in the Workplace

Although they have increasing support, women continue to experience inequality in the workplace in all forms: sexism, ageism, racism, and scrutiny about their looks, behavior, and personality. As explained above, women’s work was segregated from men’s, but the jobs of women of color were segregated even further. A Woman’s Bureau Study in 1931 reported that no African American women were working alongside white women in white-owned offices in either Chicago or Atlanta. When they were employed in offices, African American female clerical workers were often better educated than their white colleagues but received lower wages. The Second Wave Feminist movement of the 1960s left out many women of color, who continued to fend for themselves and fight for their own equality. African American women had better luck finding jobs with African American-owned businesses, such as the Supreme Liberty Insurance Company in Chicago.

The attitude that women’s work was “less than men’s” was at the heart of workplace discrimination. Factory employers who hired women during WWII expected them to leave their jobs when the men came back. These employers didn’t want to hire women permanently because they would have to make such changes as paying women as much as men, constructing women’s restrooms, creating a space for women to change their clothes, and implementing more safety measures.

After World War II, women’s jobs became more diversified, but they were still separated from men’s work, and women were still paid less. In 1980, the film 9 to 5 brought to light the issues of the plight of working women, what Lily Tomlin’s character calls the “pink collar ghetto.” Men typically held supervisory or higher positions in companies, with women working under them. Women were passed up for promotions because employers believed men needed the money to support their families. In reality, many women were functioning as the sole breadwinner and head of the household. Married women were often not hired simply because they were married. Women had the twofold problem of making themselves available to their bosses, and being there for their families, often trying to juggle these two jobs.

Age was a large factor in discrimination as well. Employers also judged older women as more or less desirable, depending on the work environment. Some employers viewed them as more mature and dependable, while others preferred younger, more vivacious employees, which could lead to sexual harassment in the office. Working women had to be careful of their own appearance and behavior, as well as that of their employers and male colleagues, in order to maintain a pleasant and professional workspace.

Questions to Consider:

  • If a woman faced discrimination in the workplace, why didn’t she just quit?

  • What are the benefits and what are the drawbacks for job segregation by gender?

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The Working Girl

The May 3, 1948 issue of Life Magazine, a popular American weekly periodical, featured Gwyned Filling, a working woman in New York City, in the article “The Private Life of Gwyned Filling.” The article follows Gwyned and portrays her hopes and fears as the quintessential career gal, as explained in the subheading: “The Hopes and Fears of Countless Young Career Girls are Summed Up in Her Struggle to Succeed in New York.” Gwyned was born in 1925 in St. Charles, Missouri, and moved to New York after attending college at the University of Missouri. She borrowed $250 from a bank rather than her father to demonstrate her independence, and moved to New York City in June 1947, to start a career. She had taken an advertising course in college, and after five weeks of searching, she found a position at Newell-Emmett Co., an advertising agency. She worked for $35 a week and shared a $75 per month single room apartment with her roommate, Marilyn. After working at Newell-Emmett for six months, Gwyned earned a raise of $52 per week. All of this information is available on the first page of the twelve-page article. The rest of the article blends text and photographs of Gwyned living her life. Though the majority of the article focuses on Gwyned’s work, the rest of the article discusses things like her past and current relationships, her ability to afford everyday items, especially clothes, and (as the article promised) her hopes and fears. This is a very intimate article that studies every aspect of Gwyned as a person, delving deeper into Gwyned’s life as a woman, and as a woman in the workforce. While she does not represent all working women, , her story illustrates how many many women who work to support themselves, their families, and their independence.

Questions to Consider:

  • Who is this article’s audience?

  • What do you think this article is trying to accomplish?

  • Why do you think Life Magazine picked Gwyned Filling to be the representative of young career girls in 1948?

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Selected Sources

Brock, Julia, Jennifer W. Dickey, Richard Harker, and Catherine Lewis, eds. Beyond Rosie: A Documentary History of Women and World War II. Fayettville, AK: University of Arkansas Press, 2015.

Jones, Jaqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Longworth, R.C. and Bill Neikirk. “Women-Growing Power in the Workforce.” Chicago Tribune. September 18, 1979.

Milkman, Ruth. On Gender and Labor Inequality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Stom, Sharon Hartman. Beyond the Typewriter: Gender, Class, and the Origins of the Modern Office Worker, 1900-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Taylor, Marianne. “Demand Grows, but Pay Marks Time for Skilled ‘Sergants of Office’.” Chicago Tribune. November 30, 1980.

Woloch, Nancy. A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

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