Women in the Workforce Before World War One

19th century telephone operators

Women in the Workforce Before World War One

For centuries, women worked in the home and on the family farm for no pay. It only has been in the past 200 years that women have been allowed to enter what was considered a man’s domain — the workforce.

The idea of a woman working for an employer was shocking. Most considered the business world beneath women’s dignity and against societal conventions. Many even thought it would make women want to abandon marriage entirely.

“The evolution of American women in the workforce is often overlooked when studying the progression of American society,” blogger Dhara Shah says, although the statement could apply to women worldwide. “Since the beginning of time, American women have gone through a series of struggles, battles, and tests to prove their capability of being an active part of the American labor force.”

Here are some positions your ancestors may have held:

Mines and Factories

19th century women operating factory machinery
19th century women operating factory machinery

At the start of the Industrial Revolution, women found increased job opportunities.

Women were employed in mechanized factories producing goods. These factories are what today we would call sweatshops.

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 worked in mines, hauling coal carts, a position also often filled by child laborers.

Teachers

A teacher in a 19th century classroom
A teacher in a 19th century classroom

Teaching opened 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 educated in formal teaching colleges.

Positions like school administrators and principals, however, were largely still held by men.

Office Workers

19th century telephone operators
19th century telephone operators

Industrialization created several clerical positions.  The positions usually didn’t pay more than factory jobs, but they were safer and came with job security.

Clerical jobs were aimed at young women and were viewed as temporary positions that prepared women to be better wives. These jobs were repetitive and considered beneath male clerical positions.

These positions included stenographer, typewriter and telephone exchange operator.

Servants

A 19th century maid
A 19th century woman in domestic service

Domestic service was a common profession prior to the outbreak of World War I 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.

Other Ways Women Entered the Workforce

Women also found ways to use their domestic skills for pay. They did laundry or took in sewing. Often this was piece work, which meant women were paid per piece not for time worked. Expert seamstresses could become milliners and dressmakers.

Upper class women were attracted to a new profession — social work — while working class women found the advent of the department store created a new position for them – the shop girl.

Unfortunately, no matter what job a woman performed, she often was paid 50 percent or more less than a man.

Women worked because their families needed the income, and the majority left the workforce when they married.

Read part two.

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Updated: 15 October 2020

Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

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