Some time ago I published this item:
Lex Anteinternet: Women in the Workplace: It was Maytag that took R...: A virtual icon of the liberated strong woman, Rosie the Riveter proclaimed "we can do it" to the nation and became a symbol of ...This came up elsewhere, where I also posted on it, and in doing that I looked up some of the statistics. They're pretty revealing. I'll quote, but only in part, the item I was replying to, and then post my reply. That items was:
The post-War labor saving device boom did indeed allow a lot more women into the workforce. There is also the additional problem of all those ‘Rosie the Riveter’ women were being forced out of the workforce by the returning servicemen. They wanted their own jobs.The reply.
It is true that women who worked in industry in World War Two wanted their own jobs, in at least some instances, but I think that story has been pretty heavily oversold and surprisingly the data doesn't really support a large wartime increase like we'd expect, although it does support an increase. Female labor was heavily used in World War One as well and in some areas may have been more critical in WWI than it was in WWII.
You can find published examples of women who were reluctant to give up their jobs after the Great War, or who even attempted to hang on them nearly by force. But by and large they pretty quickly reverted to pre war roles. By the same token, while I've never seen figures on it, I think women who were employed in World War Two in industry had largely returned to pre war roles by some point in 1946. It began to change after that.
Even at that, some of the statistics you can find are surprising and suggest that a lot of the way that this is now remembered is pretty heavily subject to myth. In terms of just women working, the real boom is well after World War Two and the trend towards it started well before.
You an find varying data, but it's all pretty close, what it tends to show by decade is the following, with the categories being year, numbers (thousands) employed, percentage gainfully employed, and percentage of the workforce over age 16.
1900 5,319 18.8 % 18.3 %
1910 7,445 21.5 19.9
1920 8,637 21.4 20.4
1930 10,752 22.0 22.0
1940 12,845 25.4 24.3
1950 18,389 33.9 29.6
1960 23,240 37.7 33.4
1970 31,543 43.3 38.1
1980 45,487 51.5 42.5
This doesn't really take into account the spike in employment during either World War One or World War Two, which may be significant in that it tends to potentially be overemphasized. Taken out, what we see is a slow increase from 1900 onward, which coincides with the rise of domestic implements.
If we figure in the years after 1980, it might be even more revealing.
1980 45,487 51.5 42.5
1990 56,829 57.5 45.2
1993 58,795 57.9 45.5
1994 60,239 58.8 46.0
1995 60,944 58.9 46.1
1996 61,857 59.3 46.2
1997 63,036 59.8 46.2
1998 63,714 59.8 46.3
1999 64,855 60.0 46.5
2000 66,303 60.2 46.6
2001 66,848 60.1 46.5
2002 67,363 59.8 46.5
2003 68,272 59.5 47.0
2004 68,421 59.2 46.0
2005 69,288 59.3 46.4
2006 70,000 59.4 46.0
2007 67,792 56.6 46.4
2008 71,767 59.5 44.0
2010 71,904 58.6 53.6 (which is another watershed year in that the majority of the workforce became female and stayed that way)
2014 73,039 56.9 57.0
If we do all of that, we find that the number of women gainfully employed doesn't reach 50% at any point (including WWI and WWII) until 1980 and that it peaked for several years at 60% starting in 1999, before dropping down slightly.
If we also keep in mind that the 1930, 1940 and 1950 numbers we should keep in mind that the 1930 number and the 1940 number may have been artificially low due to the Great Depression. In other words, we have to wonder if it was higher because of that (women taking jobs because men couldn't find work), or if the opposite was true (female employment artificially low due to lack of employment). The general statistics curve would suggest it was a little lower than it should have been due to the Depression. Having said that, my own mother and a couple of her sisters were employed in that period due to the Great Depression. Their employment probably carried on into World War Two, but it was the Depression, not the war, that brought it about, which is always the way they themselves recalled it.
During the war the number of American women employed outside of the home went from 13.9% to 22.5%, which shows another element to this. Lots of employed women were employed, but not "outside the home". I'm not sure exactly how that was categorized, but even as late as World War Two a large number of women were regarded as not employed outside the home, while still gainfully employed. It makes me wonder if domestic servants were categorized as employed inside the home, as large numbers of women were employed in that capacity. If that's correct, it was still apparently the case during the war. The number of women who were employed (which would include those employed inside of their own homes in some capacity) reached 37%, which is a large number and a big jump, but it also means that a lot of women were employed were in some classification that included being employed inside their own homes. The 10% or so jump in the figures represented millions of women, but it's not the impression that people tend to have today which would suggest that the majority of women were in the workforce. In fact, the majority weren't. This would also have been an increase in the Great Depression level of employment at 24.3%, but only by about 15% or so. Given the wartime emergency, and the end of the Great Depression, that's a much lower jump than we'd generally suppose.
It's also interesting to note that the wartime 37% figure wouldn't be reached again until 1960. 1960 was only fifteen years after World War Two, and therefore quite a few of the women in that workforce had been employed during the war (to include, again, my own mother). But because it was a fifteen year gap, that also likely means that some of the women employed during the war had dropped out and returned to work by 1960. It also, however, would reflect a lot of women entering the workforce who had been children during World War Two.
By 1950 33.9% of women were employed overall in the workforce, which is higher than at any point during the 1940s outside of World War Two. But even that was only a 10% climb from the 30s.
Leaping back to the Great War, 20% of the war industry work force in the U.S. during World War One was female, a pretty big percentage. I don't know what the overall percentage of women working in the U.S. workforce was during WWI, but that figure alone suggests it was pretty big. If we consider that a lot of farm labor was simply left to women during the war it becomes more impressive. 30% of the German workforce during World War One was female, probably a much higher percentage than during WWII. France was so denuded of men that women occupied all kinds of occupations. Nearly anyone who has handled a long arm that was used by an American soldier in France during WWI is handling a weapon rebuilt by female labor in France following the war.
All that's a lot of blathering on my part, and I'm clearly proposing a revisionist history, but all in all, I think the data supports that 1) women were hugely important in the workforce in WWII; but 2) they also had been in WWI; and 3) female employment dropped really rapidly to immediate prewar levels following the wars (partially, no doubt, due to social pressures that were high, but higher in 1919 than in 1946); but 4) those levels of employment were steadily increasing due to something other than workforce acclimation and had been rising since at least the 1890s. So the question then becomes, what caused that?
Probably a lot of things, to be sure, some of which I can suppose but will omit. But one definite factor, and I'd argue a much more significant factor, was the rise of domestic machinery.
So, if it seems like I'm suggesting that Maytag and Hoover may have had more to do with putting women in the workplace rather than the example of Rosie the Riveter, while an unpopular view, that's what the data suggests.
But what else might that data suggest, if we look at it carefully?
Well, as the person posting on the topic noted, quite correctly:
There weren’t a lot of fields open to women to work outside of the home, either. School teacher, nurse or secretarial for the most part, were the majority of the jobs available to women. Now you have women working as guards in men’s prisons.So my further elaboration, or blabbering, follows, in this interesting topic.
I was going to come back and post on that after thinking about it, but I also don't think that the change there was brought about due to World War Two.
One thing the Rosie the Riveter type image sort of predisposes us to think is that women hadn't worked in heavy industry before World War One, and then after World War Two,t they stayed in it. But neither is true.
Whats definitely true is that women's occupational options were much more limited in prior times, but that seems to have started changing in real terms in the 1970s, although even there, there had been a slow change earlier in the 20th Century.
Going into World War One women's occupational opportunities were really limited, which is part of the reason the statistics might reflect a large number of "inside the home" employed women, as they may have been domestics, one of the few fields open to them. Other than that, teaching, like you mention, was an option, but not much beyond that. Secretarial roles, which later became a woman's field, wasn't open to them much at the time. Store clerks, waitresses, and other occupations in that low paying arena were, together with some manufacturing such as clothing manufacturing, but it was pretty limited. Given that, it's interesting that the number of women employed was as high as it was, and it was probably almost in low paying jobs as a rule.
World War One saw a big increase in women employed in heavy industry. Here's one such example:
British factory worker, 1919.
Jobs like that no doubt paid a lot better than traditional women's roles, and lots of other examples can be found from that time frame and a lot of them are really surprising. Lots of nurses, of course, but also lots of women drivers and women working in agriculture and timbering roles (both involving horses, linking back into our focus here). After the war, however, employment in all those roles save for nursing dropped off. Women really came into the Army, Navy and Marines in strength in telephone and secretarial roles as well, although they were mustered back out after the war. In some isolated instances (including in Germany) women saw some use in law enforcement.
Between the wars women pretty much replaced men in the secretarial role. That had started prior to World War One, but as late as that time men occupied most secretarial roles. The first female secretary to be employed by a U.S. Senator was one employed by Wyoming's Francis E. Warren, and that was just before World War One. But by the 1920s women secretaries had not only become common, they dominated the field.
Anyhow, the industry jobs disappeared after the war. During the Second World War we get all the industrial occupations once again, but then again right after the war it dropped off again.
After World War Two women's fields were likely more open than they had been, but even then it was really several decades before women were commonly in most occupational areas. While its only a movie, as sort of an example, the film The Deer Hunter was on the other day and I happened to watch it and it didn't strike me as odd that 100% of the iron workers in the film are men. It was filmed in 1979, depicting 1973, I think, and it was right about that time that it was thought to be interesting to show a woman working in a blue collar job because it remained so unusual. Locally the first women police officers and firemen came in right about 1980 or so and it was unusual enough that it wasn't really well thought of. But that's 35 years after the Second World War.
I think that too all points to something else going on, and what I think it is, is that the rise of domestic machinery made women surplus to domestic labor. All of us here were born after the rise of domestic machinery and so we only have the recollections of our parents, who came up during the tail end of that rise. My mother used to speak of the girls taking rugs out to hang on the line to be beat to clean them, something I've only seen on rare occasion but which seems to have been pretty common in the era she was speaking of. More than one woman her age spoke about hanging out the laundry to dry to be a collective chore, and with big families, I'm sure it was. Cooking took all day at the time as a lot of people didn't have modern stoves and both my father and my mother had some recollections of their mothers or grandmothers being involved in cooking on an average day nearly all day. Indeed, my mother was a terrible cook as she'd learned from her mother who had never adjusted to a gas stove and who simply boiled everything endlessly if that was an option, that being pretty common when people had to cook on wood burning stoves.
All of that isn't very long ago, but if we look back, as late as the 1930s the majority of men didn't graduate from high school but went to work in their teens while still living at home. If they left home, they lived in a boarding house. Domestic labor was too difficult for people to really "live out on their own". Army barracks of the old era (which more than one of us here have lived in) showed that, as collective living of the simple type was about as good as a group of men could manage, the same being reflected in bunkhouses on ranches. Female labor tended to be heavily employed at home, and therefore out of the workforce, by necessity.
But once you don't have to haul rugs out to beat them but run a vacuum cleaner over them, and you don't have to have somebody cooking from around 5:00 a.m. through 5:00 p.m., and you don't have to buy food every other day as the ice box is now a refrigerator, things really change. That probably reflected itself first in young women starting to attend college in large numbers (47% of college students in 1920 were female), showing that they weren't needed at home, followed by young women occupying new occupational fields, and then with the big increase in education following World War Two the opening up of many field to women starting in the 1970s.
Indeed, that probably does have a connection with World War Two, but it'd be oddly with the GI Bill, which benefited mostly men. That opened up fields to men of entire demographics that were previously closed to them, and with the advance of domestic machinery freeing up young women from employment in that role, and in their getting education in other areas, the results came about by the 70s.
So where does all of this leave us?
Well, things have rather obviously changed for women in the work place, but the reasons for that aren't, it seems to me, what they might seem to be. Rather, they're technological and economic.
All of this was addressed in the first post we linked into here, which is one of the better ones on this website. And the social implications of that are enormous and play into a huge amount about how things developed, rather than how we believe they developed. And that really matters. But we've gotten it mostly wrong.