Women in the Labor Force

The history of women in the American labor force has been shaped by diverse cultural, legal, demographic, and ethno-racial influences. Like men, women in preindustrial America contributed to their household and community economies through paid and unpaid labor, but the material rewards of their labor were limited by cultural beliefs, social practices, and laws that subordinated women to men. Except by special legal arrangement, married women could not sign labor contracts, own property, or claim their own wages. Some women did work for wages, but those who did, even unmarried women and widows, clustered in lower-paying occupations and earned lower wages than men.

Initially, these conditions were reproduced, and even accentuated, as the industrial economy developed. As families became more dependent on cash for survival, free women (as well as free men) increased their participation in the paid labor force. Especially numerous as seamstresses in the needle trades and in domestic work, women were also essential to the emerging factories. As textile-mill operatives, rural New England daughters became the first regular factory labor force. Other women worked as members of "family" production units (in shoemaking or retail shops, for example) and as homeworkers in textiles, shoes, or other products--patterns of work that still persist.

Law and social convention obscured the extent and importance of women's labor to families and to the developing national economy. Laws granting married women legal rights to their wages and to property became common only in the late nineteenth century. These reforms sought to preserve households in an industrializing society, rather than arising from an impulse toward equal labor rights for women. The growing identification of men as "breadwinners" and the rise of an urban middle class (with its status-conscious emphasis on the "lady of leisure") further reinforced the tendency to view women as secondary wage-earners, regardless of their actual contributions to family survival.

African-American women, most of whom arrived in North America as enslaved laborers, constitute the telling exception to this pattern. Slavery, the labor system that built the South and spurred industrialization in the North, starkly illustrates not only women's employment in hard manual labor, but also the importance of unpaid labor to regional and national economic growth. Enslaved women regularly engaged in heavy field labor, as well as performing most of the domestic labor of cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Since the late nineteenth century, African-American women have participated in the labor force at a rate higher than that of any other group of American women. As late as 1997, 51 percent of black women worked full time, compared to 42 percent of white women and 35 percent of Hispanic women. Not until World War II did African-American women make significant headway in industrial jobs, however, and only in the late twentieth century did they make important progress in professional occupations other than teaching.

The labor force participation of immigrant women (first from Europe and later from Latin America and Asia) was constrained by employer discrimination; immigration policies that made employment status uncertain; and attitudes within their own cultures that restricted some married immigrant women to home-based outwork, family-operated enterprises, or industries that employed family-based groups. Poverty and discrimination combined to concentrate immigrant women in particularly exploitative jobs in domestic work, migrant agricultural labor, and low-wage manufacturing. By the early twentieth century, for example, women from southern and eastern Europe dominated the garment industry, laboring for low pay in factories, sweatshops, or crowded, urban workplaces like the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City, where 146 women died in a 1911 fire. In the twentieth century, a growing Latina workforce, both U.S.-born and immigrant, was concentrated in migrant labor, food processing, industrial sweatshops, and homework.

From the late nineteenth century onward, U.S.-born white women enjoyed steadily expanding access to nonagricultural and nonindustrial occupations. They increasingly found jobs as office clerks and secretaries and in retailing. Benefiting from expanded educational opportunities, white, middle-class women in the late nineteenth century entered the professions in growing numbers, initially as teachers, librarians, social workers, and nurses, and later in a variety of career paths, from firefighting and police work to the law, medicine, the ministry, higher education, and in the corporate world.

Historically, patterns of participation in the paid labor force have varied dramatically by marital status as well as by ethnicity and nativity. Until the 1930s, most wage-earning women were unmarried. As late as 1960, only one-third of married women were gainfully employed--a figure that obscures a common pattern of irregular yet continuing labor-force participation. Only in the late twentieth century did that pattern decisively shift. In 1997, 61.3 percent of married women were in the labor force.

Although only in the late twentieth century did most labor unions show an interest in organizing female workers, women in the paid labor force long constituted an aggressive force for reform. In the 1830s, women were among the first American workers to strike for higher wages. A strike of some twenty thousand New York shirtwaist workers in 1909-1910, the largest women's strike up to that time, helped turn the International Ladies Garment Workers Union into one of the nation's largest unions. Early twentieth-century protective work legislation for women proved the precursor to similar reforms for male workers. In the post-World War II era, married women and African-American women (who had taken advantage of wartime mobilization to gain footholds in higher paying jobs) fought efforts to return them to prewar status. In the late twentieth century, women fought for better jobs and better working conditions through the civil rights movement and second- wave feminism.

With some notable cross-class and multiracial exceptions (for example, the Women's Trade Union League of the early twentieth century), racial, ethnic, and class divisions continued throughout the century to impede efforts at labor equity. Meanwhile, the steady growth of the two-wage-earner family created a form of women's work some analysts called "the second shift": Even as they engaged in paid labor, married women still performed most of the unpaid family labor. This was true even for mothers of young children: Roughly two-thirds of women with children under six years of age held paid jobs in 1997. Despite federal and state efforts to provide women with job protection during pregnancy and the early childhood years, women remained especially vulnerable to low wages and job insecurity. Although women had made occupational gains as the century ended, they continued in many cases to earn less than comparably educated and experienced men. Even economically successful professional and managerial women often found their progress impeded by the nebulous pattern of biases sometimes called "the glass ceiling."

Related Articles in The Oxford Companion to United States History

African American Women; Asian Americans; Domestic Labor; Factory System; Hispanic Americans; Immigrant Labor; Industrialization; Labor Markets; Labor Movements; Legal Profession; Libraries; Marriage and Divorce; Migratory Agricultural Workers; Nursing; Race and Ethnicity; Social Class; Slavery; Social Work; Strikes and Industrial Conflict; Textile Industry; Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire; Women's Rights Movements; Women's Trade Union League; Working-Class Life and Culture.


Philip Sheldon Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement: From the First Trade Unions to the Present, 1982. Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: a History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States, 1982. Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, 1985. Jeanne Boydston, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early American Republic, 1990. Alice Kessler-Harris, A Woman's Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences, 1990. Ava Baron, ed., Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor, 1991. Vicki L. Ruiz, From Out of the Shadow: Mexican American Women in Twentieth- Century America, 1998. Deborah Gray White, Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, rev. ed., 1999.

Jeanne Boydston

Jeanne Boydston. "Women in the Labor Force";
The Oxford Companion to United States History, Paul S. Boyer, ed., New York, 2001.
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