Essay, Research Paper
The Changing Role of the American Working Woman
Some believe life was simpler when women were kept pregnant in the winter and barefoot in the summer. But if you think about it, American women have always worked whether in the kitchen, on the farm, or later in the factory and in the office. However, women today feel bombarded with alternatives, with choices that must be made. The role of the American working woman has changed drastically since the beginning of the century because of certain factors causing an increase in the number of women in the workforce, because of the rising cost of living, and because of the education now offered to women.
During the early 1900’s, very few women worked in any particular industry. Most were running households and raising children while unmarried women were relegated to the secretarial pool or the local department store. In August of 1917, the United States declared war against the Central Powers in Europe. Many people believed women would not be needed in the workforce during this time. Charles E. Knoeppel, the well-known industrial engineer, stated in late 1917, “Industry is not yet ready for women. There is a great deal of unemployment among men, more than necessary.” Even the government echoed these sentiments. Several months after the U.S. declared war against the Central Powers, the Department of Labor maintained that no additional women workers were needed, since there were sufficient men available. However, war has always increased the number of positions available for women. As the war went on, women were needed to fill positions because of the draft. According to Philip S. Foner, author of Women and the American Labor Movement, in the fall of 1917 the U.S. Employment Service launched a campaign to replace men with women in every position that a woman was capable of filling. Female labor, which had previously been valuable as an industrial and commercial resource, now became a national necessity. However, many believe the war merely accelerated former trends in women’s work, in the composition of the female labor force, and in attitudes towards women as workers.
Currently, many women work because they are the sole supporters of their families. Other women work to help their husbands meet the rising costs of raising a family. Money is not the only reason for working, but it is the most compelling one. Some women have no financial need to work, but they find it personally satisfying. Many women go to work to maintain a standard of living that has suffered because of inflation or because of the loss of family income. Others enter the job force to improve the family’s lifestyle. The two-income family has brought a phenomenally high standard of living to record numbers of working-class families. In a recent survey conducted by Redbook, more than half the women who responded to the poll said their families “would find it impossible to get along without their earnings.” But four out of ten said, “the money they earn is less important than the ‘pleasure’ or ‘fulfillment’ or ‘recognition’ they get from working.”
In the early 1900’s, women’s roles and their educational needs were unsettled; should they be taking care of the household or should they be employed in the workforce? As Kay Mills wrote in From Pocahontas to Power Suits, policy makers shaped the school curriculum in the early twentieth century. Politics and the relative strength of various women’s lobbying groups dictated the outcome. The earliest women’s colleges were designed to offer classes and accommodations under one roof, partly to build a community among faculty and students, partly to protect the female students from the outside world. However, today women attend college in order to receive a good education, in order to meet new acquaintances, and in order to learn to live on their own. Because more and more women are attending college, there has been an increase in the number of working women who hold high-paying positions and there are an amazing number of women who not only work in corporate offices, but also own corporate businesses.
It is hard to believe that in the early 1900’s the only women working outside of the home were usually unmarried. They worked for the sole purpose of supporting themselves. However, the United States Department of Labor estimates that by the late 1990’s two thirds of all people who enter the workforce in the U.S. will be women, a majority of whom will be in their childbearing years. Luckily, we have finally realized that women have a right to work and women need to
work – financially, psychologically, and spiritually. By our undeniable presence, women have changed the way work works. Unlike earlier in the century, we are coming to work and bringing our needs and values with us.