Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Myth Debunked: Women Have Actually Worked in the Early 20th Century

There is this popular belief that the emergence of women in the American workplace started in the 1970s. Actually, it is a myth. In fact, the Second World War has been witness to women making contributions not in the battlefield, but in the home front. Remember Rosie the Riveter? The iconic image of American women performing work in factories during wartime shows that women, too, can make valuable contributions in employment just as men do. But then, even before the Great Depression left America’s economy in shambles, women have long since been working in several industries.

In fact, a recent article from Slate showcased census data of single and married women and their respective professions back in 1920. Illustrated in horizontal bar charts, they detail the occupations of 8,346,796 “gainfully employed” women. The census, which took place from January 1920 onwards, was then published eight years later, in 1928, by the Women’s Bureau of the US Department of Labor. By the time the census occurred, the total resident population of the United States was 106,021,537.

Census highlights

Of the total number of “gainfully employed” women in 1920, about 23 percent of them were married. Of all the occupational categories, most of them did domestic work—they were cooks, waitresses, and laundresses, and they account for 26 percent of all gainfully employed women. Almost 23 percent were under manufacturing, where they mostly worked in textile factories. Bookkeepers, cashiers, accountants, clerks, stenographers and typists, and other professions under the clerical category accounted for 17 percent. About 12 percent were women professionals who taught in schools, taught music, and worked in hospitals as trained nurses.

The remaining occupational categories included in the charts were agriculture, trade, and transportation. It is worth noting that women under the transportation category were mostly telephone operators. This is due to the fact that during those times, telegraphy grew in popularity thanks to the railroad system.

What the data means

The data just goes to show that women in the workplace were already contributing in employment, especially married ones. In fact, “gainfully employed” married women increased by 9 percent that year from around 4 to 5 percent in 1890.

The data also provided some perspective as to how families earn. Indeed, the wages of women workers were not just improvements to what working males earn; they were deemed vital to the family finances. This is one of the many reasons why during those times, the Women’s Bureau has already been fighting to stop wage discrimination. Decades later, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) was enacted to provide equal pay for both male and female employees for their equal work.