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History of Women in the Workforce

In the last 50 years, millions of people who were once dependent on men have been able to earn their independence.

We may take it for granted that women are allowed in workplaces around the world today. But it wasn’t long ago that women had to fight for their right to earn a living. Today, the battle is far from over –women have come a long ways in a short period of time, but there’s still work left to do.

Today, we’re going to teach you about the history of women in the workforce – including where the movement may be going next.

Early History of Women in the Workforce

Women have been in the workforce for thousands of years. However, they were rarely able to access the same jobs as men.

One of the most popular jobs for women throughout history (and even to this day), was a “hawker”. Women have traditionally worked outside the home as vendors since ancient times in South Asia, Africa, Central America, and other parts of the world. To this day, hawker continues to be one of the most common jobs for women all over the world.

In many parts of the world, though, the role of women was extremely limited.

Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, for example, women could not attend, speak in, or vote at political assemblies and were prohibited from holding any position of political responsibility.

Nevertheless, some history textbooks mention the influence women had over political proceedings at the time. However, even in these situations, women were observed to “manipulate” their husbands using negative emotions:

“Whilst it is true that some women with powerful partners might influence public affairs through their husbands, these were the exceptions. It is also interesting to note that those females who have political power in Roman literature are very often represented as motivated by such negative emotions as spite and jealousy.”

With the exception of a few religious organizations and positions (the Priestesses of Isis and the Vestals, for example), women played a limited role in Roman religion. Even in religious organizations where women played some sort of role – like Judaism and Christianity, for example – their positions were still largely governed by men.

The only real female-dominated profession in ancient Rome (and many other ancient cultures) aside from hawking was in prostitution.

As Ancient.eu explains, ancient Rome idolized women but rarely allowed them to hold positions of power:

“Roman law and social norms were, then, heavily weighted in favour of males but the full practical application of these laws and attitudes in specific cases is often difficult to determine, especially as almost all source material is from a male perspective, and an elite one at that. That women were regarded as inferior in legal terms seems clear but there are also countless texts, inscriptions, and even idealised portrait sculpture which point to the Roman male’s appreciation, admiration and even awe of women and their role in everyday life.”

Most ancient cultures echoed the ideals of ancient Rome.

Age of Enlightenment Signals the Start of Change for Women

The history of women in the workforce remained largely the same throughout the Middle Ages and Medieval Times.

It wasn’t until around the Age of Enlightenment (ca 1650 in Europe) that the seeds began to be planted for the idea that women are as competent in men. Some members of society started to believe that women are only lacking in education – not intelligence.

One hallmark of this period came from British writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. That book was well-received and nudged societal views into gradually becoming more accepting of women in the workplace.

Around the end of the 18th century, women started to participate in salons and academic debates. Nevertheless, widespread education for women was still years away.

Women in the Workforce During the Industrial Revolution

Women started to gradually enter the workforce during the Industrial Revolution – although it was rarely for purposes of equality or social justice.

Instead, it was to help factory owners earn more profit.

It all started when Alexander Hamilton wrote his Report on Manufacturers in 1791. In that report, Hamilton described new ways to develop industry in the United States. One of the biggest areas of opportunity, he wrote, was cheap labor in the form of women and children.

Soon afterwards, factories in the United States began to follow Hamilton’s suggestions. In the 1820s, textile mills in New England started hiring young women from the surrounding farms as workers, paying them as little as $3 per week.

These women were also viewed as more tractable than men and more willing to earn less. Presumably, these women would stop working in the mill once they married.

Male factory workers almost immediately started viewing female workers as a threat to their status. This threat was exacerbated further when advanced machinery technology reduced the need for skilled labor.

In other words, anyone (“even women and children”) could be taught to work in a factory.

Women in the Workforce and Unionization in the 1820s

Men viewed the increased role of women in the workforce (and the increased role of machinery) as a threat to their status. As a result, men started to unionize to combat their declining pay and status in the workforce. Women were rarely included in male unionization efforts.

Nevertheless, women remained influential figures in early unionization efforts. According to TheLaborSite.com, this movement was particularly prominent in early 19th century New England. Millworkers from Lowell, Massachusetts were engaging in work stoppages and turnouts as early as the 1820s whenever employers sought to cut their paychecks.

By 1844, women in Lowell had created their own union, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA). The group’s leader, Sarah Bagley “testified fearlessly” before the Massachusetts legislature “at a time when females seldom smoke in public.”

The LFLRA stood up for labor issues like higher wages and shorter working days. Women also protested new legislature which forced them to tend more machines at accelerated rates, endangering their physical wellbeing.

Eventually, the LFLRA would forge an alliance with another union called the New England Workingmen’s Association, which published a newsletter called The Voice of Industry. Together, the two organizations released a joint statement that said the following:

“In view of our condition–the evils already come upon us, by toiling from 13 to 14 hours per day, confined in unhealthy apartments, exposed to the poisonous contagion of air, vegetable, animal and mineral properties, debarred from proper Physical Exercise, Mental Discipline and Mastication cruelly limited, and thereby hastening us on through pain, disease and privation, to a premature grave, pray the legislature to institute a ten hour working day in all of the factories of the state.”

Women continued to gradually enter the workforce across America (and most other industrialized nations) over the course of the 19th century. By the time the Civil War occurred, the role of women in the workforce would change considerably.

Women in the Workforce After the U.S. Civil War

After the U.S. Civil War, the role of women in the workforce changed considerably.

600,000 American men died and hundreds of thousands more were injured during the Civil War. Women were forced to enter the labor force in increasing numbers simply to fill factories and work other jobs.

During this period, some female labor leaders and activists called for the creation of a Women’s Bureau to legislate conditions of female labor. Such an organization never actually appeared until 1920, when it was created as part of the federal Department of Labor.

Nevertheless, women did become more active in unions and labor forces across America. They would eventually play a critical role in the Knights of Labor (KOL) and other unions.

Women and the Knighs of Labor

The Knights of Labor was the first large-scale national labor federation in the United States. Founded in 1869, its members included employees from a wide range of professions. The union argued for, among other things, an 8 hour workday and equal pay among all genders and races.

In 1881, KOL voted to admit women into the organization. Over the last half of the 19th century, KOL would grow to over 100,000 members and become one of the most influential unions in the United States.

In addition to an 8 hour workday, the union and its mix of female and male members argued for equal pay regardless of sex or color. Key leaders included “the beloved widow, Mary Harris Jones”, better known as Mother Jones.

Women and the American Federation of Labor

Unfortunately, things took a bad turn for women at the turn of the 20th century. The forward-thinking Knights of Labor fell out of popularity and lost membership. They were replaced by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which began carrying more and more weight in American society between 1890 and 1910.

The AFL was led by a president Samuel Gompers. Gompers believed that a women’s place was in the home. Thus, the union’s official stance on women in the workplace was that “it is wrong to permit any of the female sex of our country to be forced to work, as we believe that men should be provided with a fair wage in order to keep his female relatives from going to work.”

Gompers also believed that allowing women to work would diminish male respect for women and would even give rise to a generation of “weak children who are not educated to become strong and good citizens.”

Women and the Women’s Trade Union League

After the setback that was the AFL, women joined forces to form the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). This union had the unique trait that it consisted of both upper-class and working class women.  The main goal of the WTUL was to force America’s other male-dominated unions to take female workers more seriously.

The combination of upper class and working class women gave the WTUL some much-needed legitimacy. When female shirtwaist factory workers were dismissed in 1909 for their involvement with the union, these females were joined on the picket line by their upper class allies.

Police were forced to haul dozens of working class and upper class women before the city’s courts. This would eventually lead to a city-wide female uprising called the Uprising of the 20,000.

The WTUL and similar movements improved the plight of women across America. Unfortunately, the plight of women was once again set back in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Women in the Workforce During the Great Depression

The Great Depression was considered a setback for women in the workforce. During the Great Depression, unemployment rose to 25% of the workforce. During this time of struggle, some male-dominated unions revived the argument that only men were entitled to jobs.

Complicating matters further was the fact that women were often unable to work to support their unemployed husbands. Here’s what TheLaborSite.com has to say about that period:

“Although many wives sought to help with the family finances by seeking work when their husbands were laid off, some public and private employers refused to hire married women. Because sex segregation in the workplace was so prevalent and unemployment was so much greater in higher-paying heavy industries, these women often had to rely on traditionally female jobs that were scorned by men.”

Nevertheless, women were able to overcome obstacles during this period. During the 1930s, the percentage of married women in the workforce actually rose by more than 25%.

Women in the Workforce During World War II

World War II would permanently change the role of women in the workforce. As American men went off to war, women began to take jobs that were previously only held by men.

During WWII, six million new women workers entered the labor force, taking jobs in heavy industry and other previously male-dominated industries.

Famous images like Rosie the Riveter symbolized this period and heralded a new future for women in the workforce.

Women in the Workforce After World War II

After the war, large numbers of women were forced to relinquish their jobs to returning veterans. Women, however, continued to enter the workforce in record numbers. Some of the most popular positions held by women during the post-war period included:

  • Office work
  • Retail sales
  • Nursing
  • Teaching
  • “and other so-called feminine occupations”

Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Boosts the Power of Women in the Workforce

Perhaps the most important moment for women in the workforce came in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. That Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It also officially ended racial segregation in schools and public facilities.

Understandably, the Civil Rights Act had a massive influence on women in the workplace. It also led to the creation of a more powerful set of legislation called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). By 1970, the EEOC was able to open the doors for many women to jobs that were formerly closed to them.

Further legislation called thee Pregnancy Discrimination Act was introduced in 1978. That act banned discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace.

Women in the Workforce Today – Where Do We Go From Here?

Today, there are approximately 72 million women in the American workforce. That’s 30 million more than there were in 1984. They make up 46.9% of the labor force.

Nevertheless, female earnings still lag behind male earnings in many sectors. Depending on your source, females earn approximately 81.2% of what men earn. It’s important to remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean women are being paid less for the same positions as men: it means that for every dollar earned by an average man in the workforce in the United States, the average woman earns 81 cents.

Women also make up about 14% of the executive positions among Fortune 500 companies.

Some of the other statistics about the modern women in the workforce movement include:

  • At its peak, female participation in the workforce had a growth rate of 4.3% in the 1970s. Today, that growth rate has slowed to 0.4% between 2000 and 2010.
  • Women continue to be “overwhelmingly employed in certain occupations that have been traditionally oriented toward women”. They make up 96.3% of dental assistants, for example, and 96% of secretaries. 91.2% of registered nurses are female.
  • There were 30.3 million women in the workforce in 1970, making up 37.97% of the workforce. In 2010, that number had risen to 72.7 million (47.21% of the workforce).

In 1970, census data showed “very little participation” from women in certain male-dominated professionals, including as accountants, police officers, lawyers, physicians, surgeons, and judges. By 2010, women had grown enormous ground in these professions, including making up 60% of all accountants.

Source: HuffingtonPost.com

Ultimately, women in the workforce have come a long way from being used as cheap labor in 19th century factories or as hawkers in ancient cultures. However, there’s still plenty of room for improvement in both developed countries and the developing world.

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