Women as workers in the United States are not a new phenom-
enbn. Going as far back as the colonial period, American women
have been workers. VWomen worked in the textile industry at
home, spinning and weaving cloth for their families.1 Women's
work was always performed in the home during this period.
When manufacturing first began in this country, after 1808
and the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts began to be felt and
we could no longer obtain any imported goods, women's work
moved into the factories.2 The place and conditions of labor
had been changed but women's work remained essentially the
Agriculture was in the hands of men and manufacturing
was in the hands of women. Women who had previously been un-
productive in agriculture could now be productive in the mills
In the mills and factories women appeared to be particu-
larly well-suited for certain jobs and totally unfit for others.
The jobs women most usually performed were the simplest ones
and the ones that required manual dexterity.5 They were often
very repetitive and therefore well-suited to women and their
infinite patience. Jobs that required the lifting of heavy
weights were thought to be unsuited for women. '.omen were
not permitted to operate some of the more complicated machinery
because it was feared that their skirts would get caught in
them. Consequently, women were never able to reach the high-
er paying jobs.
It is clear that from the early days of manufacturing in
the United States, the jobs performed by women were different
from those performed by men. As a consequence of their per-
forming the less skilled tasks women's wages were always less
than those of men. Even in 1968 women were only earning 58%
of mens salaries.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor has made three revealing com-
ments on the causs of differences in men's and women's earn-
ings: "1-to a very large degree there was a difference in the
work done, 2-to a lesser degree there was a difference in the
strength, swiftness or skill when doing the same work, 3-in
so few instances as to be considered negligible there seemed
no reason for the lower wages except that women were willing
to accept them in order to be employed."18
Lower wages notwithstanding, women have continued to enter
the labor force. The participation of women in the labor force
has been almost continually increasing. In 1900 women were 18%
of all workers and in 1940 they were about 25% of all workers.
The proportion reached a high of 56% during World War II and
then dropped sharply to 28% when the male war veterans returned
to civilian jobs. However, the proportion of women in the
labor force after the war was still higher than it was prior
to the war. In 1968 37% of all workers were women.9 Thirty-
eight percent of all workers were women in 1972.10
At the turn of the century there were about five million
women workers. The prewar figure of 1940 was slightly less
than fourteen million. In 1968 the figure was 29.2 million
women in the labor force.11 Four short years later, in 1972,
this figure had risen by about four million to over 33 million
women in the labor force in the United States.12
The Second World War was the turning point of women's en-
trance in to the labor force. During this time of crisis women
workers were called forth to fill an urgent need. The war
helped to legitimize work for women by defining their employ-
ment as a patriotic necessity. It also prompted a boom in
white-collar cccupations which were respectable for women of
middle class status to hold.13
"The type of work women performed had undergone substantial
restructuring in the years after 1910. At the turn of the cen-
tury, almost all gainfully employed women worked as domestics,
farm laborers, unskilled factory operatives, and teachers. By
1940, white-collar work, and especially clerical jobs, had emerged
as an important category of employment for women."14
Since the 1950s women have remained heavily concentrated
in a relatively few occupations and industries. Women are in
the service fields, in clerical and sales positions, operatives
in manufacturing, and within the professions of teaching, nursing
and social work.15 In 1972 355 of the over 33 million women in
the labor force were clerical workers. Tne next highest per-
centage of women workers were in the service fields.16
Several of the most important reasons for the increase in
the labor force participation of women are: 1-originally the
increase in the amount of work to be done could not have been
provided for by the male population of working age, 2-women
were willing to accept lower salaries than men, 3-the changed
ratio of men to women in the population,19 4-technological ad-
vances which lessened the burdens of housework,20 5-the higher
levels of education women are attaining are making them more
suitable for employment,21 6-the desire for a higher standard
of living for ones family can be satisfied by a working wife,22
and 7-the evolution of social values and attitudes has now made
it permissible for a woman to work.23
Changes have'also occurred in the type of woman who is a
participant in the labor force. At the turn of the century,
the young, the single, and the poor dominated the female labor
force. Fifty years later, the majority of women workers were
married and midcle-aged, and a substantial minority came from
the middle class.24 The reason for the substantial increase in
the number of married women in the labor force has been the
decline in the number of single women in the population.25
The demand for female labor has been met in recent years by
married rather than single women.
The average female worker in 1920 was about 28 years old,
single, and either a factory worker or a clerk. In the 1970s
she is older, about 38 years old, married, and can be found in
any number of occupations.27
The median age of women workers has been continuously
rising. In 1900 it was 26 years old and in 1968 it was 40
years old.28 The female labcr force today is not very dif-
ferent from the adult female population as a whole.29
Today a woman is most likely to be working if she is
young (18 to 24) and has finished her schooling or if she
is mature (35 to 54) and has no yourgchildren. A woman who
has children usually waits till her children are of school
age before she returns to work.30
Women as workers in the United States have undergone a
number of significant changes. The place of their work has
changed, the nature of their work has changed, and the payment
they receive for their work has changed. However, there are
still changes to be made. American women, unlike Latin Ameri-
can women who have gone from bad to worse, have only gone from
bad to slightly better.
1. Abbott, p. 19.
2. For a fuller discussion of the entrance of women into the
American factory system see Abbott, particularly Chapters
1-5, pgs. 1-86.
3. Abbott, p. 47.
4. Abbott, p. 55.
5. The relationship between technology and women's work is
detailed further in Baker.
6. Abbott makes this and other points about women's wages in
Chapter XII entitled "The Problem of Women's Wages".
7. Smuts, p. vi.
8. Baker, p. 81.
9. 1969 Handbook On Women Workers, p. 9.
10. Women Workers Today 1973.
11. 1969 Handbook On Women Workers, p. 9.
12. Women Workers Today 1973.
13. Throughout his book Chafe places a great deal of emphasis on
the Second World War as a watershed mark in the history of
women workers in the U.S.
14. Chafe, p. 55.
15. Smuts, p. vi.
16. Women Workers Today 1973.
17. National Indistrial Conference Board Studies #220, p. 15.
18. Baker, p. 425.
19. 1969 Handbook On Women Workers, p. 9.
20. 1969 Handbook on Women WorKers, p. 10.
24. Chafe, p. 195.
25. Oppenhelmer, p. 121.
26. Ibid., p. 139
27. This general description of the female worker in the 1920s and
the 1970s was gathered from the entire bibliography.
28. 1969 Handbook On Women Workers, p, 16.
29. Oppenheimer, p. 19.
30. Women W'orkers Today, 1973.
Abbott, Edith. Women In Industry. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1910).
Baker, Elizabeth Faulkner. Technology And Woman's Work. (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1964).
Chafe, William Henry. The American Woman. (New York: Oxford University
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics. (Boston: Small, Maynard
& Co., 1900).
Kreps, Juanita. Sex in the Marketplace. (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press,
National Industrial Conference Board Studies No. 220. Women Worksrs And
Labor Supply. (New York: National Industrial Conference Board Inc.,
Oppenheimer, Valerie Kincade. The Female Labor Force In the United States.
(Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California,
Smuts, Robert. Women and Work in America. (New York: Schocken Press, 1968).
1969 Handbook On Women Workers
1973 Manpower Report of the President
1973 Women Workers Today