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Celebrating Working Women's Lives

by Betty Soldz

In honor of Women's History month it seems apropos to look back at just how far working women have come over the last 100 years and to consider how far we still have to go.

     At the beginning of the 20th century,  according to the 1900 census,  approximately 18% of women worked outside their home and only one-fifth of these women were married.  75% of the clerical workers were women; in fact, clerical work was the largest job category of women's employment.  By this time, a large number of women were working as sales clerks, domestics, hair dressers, and nurses.  In other words, they were employed in  "women's work."  However, a few women were in the professions such as doctors, clergy, journalists, lawyers and teachers.

     Over the next couple of decades more women became independent and there was a greater desire to have careers and earn their own money.  World War I brought new opportunities.  Women began to branch out more and  learn to do jobs then considered to be "men's" work. 

     By the 1920's women had obtained the vote.  They began to feel that they had more control over their lives.  With the possibility of new work options,  more women began to complete high school and attend college.  Society began to look more favorably on working women: 23% of women were now gainfully employed but it was still expected that married women would remain at home and pursue the career of "housewife."  Teachers who married automatically lost their jobs and a telephone operator had to obtain her husband's permission to work for the telephone company.  Prior to the Depression, six million women were supporting themselves

     During the Great Depression those who went to work were more likely to be married and have a better education.  Due to the Depression, salaries were now much lower and women often shared the role of breadwinner with their husbands.  By 1935 the federal government was funding state programs designed to take care of the children of working women. 

    The 1940 census shows that most women still were employed in "women's jobs."   The advent of the Second World War changed all this.  Women were needed when their husbands left to serve in the military and  their wives found employment in factories, the military service and even in professional positions (Francis Perkins became the first woman cabinet member when appointed Secretary of Labor by President Franklin Roosevelt.)  Women now had more choices open to them.  However, they still were not hired for high level positions.

     Although it was assumed women would want to give up their jobs and return to their role as  a housewife when World War II ended,  this was inconsistent with the desire of some working women.  Many did surrender their jobs to the men who returned from the war but, even so, by 1950 women made up 28% of the workforce.

     Today approximately 60% of women are in the workforce and many have professional careers. Women are members of congress, astronauts, computer programmers and analysts, as well as doctors,  scientists and college professors. They  are  mayors and governors, Supreme Court Justices, U.S Attorney General and Secretary of State.  Women have become confident that they can do any job, apply any talent and receive an education in any field they aspire to.

     Women have come a long way in the world of employment but there are many issues still left unresolved.   There is still a huge gender gap in salaries (women earn an average of 76 cents to men's $1.00 for the same work) and good child care is expensive and hard to find.  Many jobs do not provide health coverage and the women working in these positions may be the ones least able to purchase it.  Women take years off to be caregivers for their families and therefore have lower pensions (if any) and receive less in Social Security payments when they retire. 

     There is a bright side to this, however.  Women have become their own advocates and are actively lobbying for solutions to working women's issues.  With more women legislators there is a greater chance that these problems will be resolved. Only when we have equality in the workforce and recognition of both the need for superior child care and assistance with caregiving will women be able to reach their full potential.  In this election year we should be cognizant of these issues as we prepare to vote and ask those running for office if  and how  they will address these problems.

     We owe a great deal to the women of the past who led the way.  They are too numerous to name.  Let's honor them and celebrate Women's History Month by continuing to work toward gender equity in the workplace and throughout society.



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