A Brief History of Working Women
March 8 is International Women’s Day. It’s the day the whole world comes together to celebrate the cultural, political, social, artistic, economic, familial, and scientific feats women have achieved throughout history.
As a team made mostly of women, we’re particularly appreciative of the women who have opened up the possibilities for women’s careers—whether that’s working a full-time job, working just a little, or being a stay-at-home mother.
We’ve put together a brief history of women in the U.S. workforce so we can give credit where credit’s due—to the women who fought for our rights.
Technically, women have been working for thousands of years, just not in the same jobs as men.
In the beginning, women were designated home-making roles only. Think making clothes, cooking, and tending children. The only job outside the home women were allowed is a career as a “hawker.” (Hawkers are sellers that go around shouting things—i.e. the popcorn sellers at baseball games. )
In South Asia, Africa, Central America, and other parts of the world, women were also traditionally allowed to work as vendors, selling jewelry, clothes, and other homemade goods. To this day, vending and hawk-ing are the most common jobs for women around the world.
As powerful and progressive as Ancient Rome was, it wasn’t ideal for women’s career rights—or any civil right. At this time, women can’t attend, speak in, or vote at political assemblies and are strictly prohibited from taking on any position with political responsibility.
In religion, women hold extremely limited roles. Some religions, like Judaism and Christianity, allow women to play a small role, but their positions are still largely governed by men.
AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT
Career progress for women is basically stagnant through the Middle Ages and Medieval Times. But, when the Age of Enlightenment comes around, people start playing with the idea that women might be as competent as men—a huge step forward for women. By 1650, the general understanding is that women don’t lack in intelligence, just in education.
In 1792, Mary Wollenstonecraft publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, she argues that educated women are essential to a nation’s prosperity. The book is received quite well by society, and by the 18th century, women start participating in salons and academic debates, regularly proving their intelligence to men.
The good news is that the industrial revolution leads to women entering the workforce. The bad news is that this progress isn’t made in the spirit of equality. Alexander Hamilton writes a report in 1791 that says the biggest opportunity to develop industry in the United States is to use cheap labor in the form of women and children.
So, they start hiring women—young girls, actually. Specifically, textile mills hire women, paying them as little as $3 a week. And of course, once women got married, they were expected to stop working immediately.
Because women are taking less money for the same job, male factory workers begin to feel threatened. So, in 1820, when new technology reduces the need for skilled labor, men unionize to combat their declining status in the workforce.
Generally, women are excluded from the unionization efforts at this point. Regardless, they still find ways to be influential. In 1844, women in Lowell, Massachusetts create their own union: the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA). Sarah Badly, the group’s leader, testifies before the Massachusetts legislature on behalf of the women laborers.
The LFLRA speaks up for higher wages and shorter working days. Eventually, they join forces with the New England Workingmen’s Association, and together the unions publish a newsletter called the Voice of Industry. Thanks to unions like these, women can continue to enter the workforce without damage to themselves.
After the war, everything changes.
60,000 American men died and hundreds of thousands more are injured during the Civil War. For the first time ever, women are forced to enter the workforce—simply to fill factories. In the wake of tragedy, women have real leverage for the first time in history.
Female labor leaders and activists use this leverage to call for the creation of a women’s bureau to legislate conditions of female labor. It took some time (35 years), but the bureau is eventually created.
KNIGHTS OF LABOR
In 1869, the Knights of Labor (KOL) is created. It’s the first large-scale national labor federation in the United States. Most importantly, the union demands equal pay across all genders, sexes, and races.
In 1881, the KOL votes to admit women into the organization, becoming the first integrated union. Because of this, it grows massively, eventually encompassing more than 100,000 members across a wide range of professions. “Mother Jones” plays a huge role in this movement by giving speeches across America. Authorities opposed to the KOL consider her to be one of the most dangerous women in America.
AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR
As happens with progressive movements, things turn downhill for a bit the end of the 20th century. The KOL loses popularity and is replaced by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which carries significant weight between 1890 and 1910.
The AFL is led by Samuel Gompers, who believes that women belong in the home and the home alone. AFL’s official stance on working women is that no females should be allowed to work. Instead, we should provide men with a fair wage in order to prevent their female relatives from working.
Gompers also thinks that allowing women to work will diminish male respect for women. Without women in the home at all times, Gomper assumes that the new generation of children will be weak and become irresponsible citizens.
WOMEN’S TRADE UNION LEAGUE
As we tend to do, women stand their ground in the face of oppression. They create the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) to counter the AFL. This union is particularly unique and powerful because it contains both working women and upper-class women. And this combination gives their cause real legitimacy. The WTUL’s main goal is to force America’s other male-dominated unions to take working women more seriously.
In 1909, a group of women participates in a massive labor strike called the Uprising of the 20,000. It’s the largest labor strike up until this point and it lasts for over 2 months.
As the Great Depression begins, unemployment rises to 25%. Because of desperation, male-dominated unions revive the argument that only men are entitled to work. During this time, women are forced to only take “female-oriented” jobs that men generally scorn.
However, because every family needs money, the percentage of married women in the workforce rises by more than 25% and results in more most dual-income families than ever before.
WORLD WAR II
Again, good American men go off to war. As they serve, six million new women do their part to help. They enter the labor force, taking jobs in heavy industry and other previously male-dominated industries.
AFTER WORLD WAR II
As the war ends, many women are forced to relinquish their jobs to veterans, but women are tenacious. They continue to enter the workforce in record numbers. The most popular positions include office work, retail sales, nursing, teaching and other “feminine positions.”
CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964
1964 brings the Civil Rights Act, which ends discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It has an enormous influence on women’s experience in the workforce, eventually leading to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—a set of legislation governing the workforce. By 1970, the EEOC has opened doors to jobs women had previously been prohibited from.
Today, there are 72 million women in the American workforce—which is 30 million more than there were in 1984. Together, we make up 46.9% of the workforce.
Unfortunately, women still lag behind male earnings in most sectors. On average, women earn about 81.2% of what men earn. Additionally, women make up only about 14% of executive positions among Fortune 500 Companies. So, today we’re working on breaking down the glass ceiling and ensuring woman of all races and backgrounds have equal opportunity in the workplace.
We’ve come a long way over the years. With International Women’s Day coming up, we’re taking a special moment to appreciate our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers—the women who came before us—and our daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters—the women who are yet to come.
Happy International Women’s Day!