This is the first of two parts about women in the workforce.
Women have long worked for their families at home and on the farm. However, the choices of work with an employer, aside from prostitution, remained quite limited for centuries. It really only has been in the past 200 years that women have been allowed into what was considered a man’s domain.
It was shocking for women to work for an employer: It was considered beneath their dignity and went against societal conventions. Many thought it would make women want to abandon marriage entirely.
Mines and Factories
Women found job opportunities open with the start of the Industrial Revolution.
With mechanization and factories, women were employed in the production of goods.
No matter the type of factory, it was a sweatshop. Workers toiled for long hours with little pay. Often, there were no windows in the factory and employees were not permitted breaks.
These conditions sometimes led to tragedies, the worst of which was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
Women also worked in mines, hauling coal carts.
Teaching was a profession open to women of all classes beginning in the 19th century. For most of the century, teachers needed very little, if any, formal education.
By the close of the century, most teachers were women and they were beginning to be educated in formal teaching colleges.
Positions like administrators and principals were largely still held by men, however.
Industrialization created more clerical positions. Many of these positions came with job security and even though they did not pay more than factory positions, in most cases, they were safer.
These positions included
- Telephone exchange operators
Clerical jobs were aimed at young women and were thought to be temporary positions that prepared women to be better wives. These jobs were repetitive and thought to be beneath male clerical positions.
Domestic service was a common profession prior to the outbreak of World War One in 1914.
Maids, cooks and other domestic servants lived in their employers’ homes and worked long hours. There was a strict hierarchy of servants and one could move up after several years of service.
After the war, changes in attitudes, technology and society made service a less desirable position.
Women also found other jobs that paid. They might take in sewing, often piece work where they were paid per piece not for their time. Those who were more skilled could become milliners and dressmakers. Others did laundry.
Social work was a new profession that attracted women from the upper classes.
The advent of the department store created a new position – the shop girl.
Unfortunately, no matter what job a woman performed, she was paid sometimes more than 50 percent less than a man. Women worked because their families needed the income and the majority left the workforce when they married.
Did any of your ancestors work as a laborer, teacher or office worker? How about as a shop girl, social worker or servant? Leave your comment below.
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