From being restricted to housework and peddling as retail vendors, to stepping outside the house to become lawyers, surgeons, and business owners, women have marched long miles and fought their way into the workforce. Here is a brief, but substantial look at how the working woman evolved throughout the centuries.
First, it’s important to know the main job held by women throughout history—across many cultures—is “hawking.” This means women would go out to be public vendors or go door to door selling goods and clothing items. This was likely the only other work they could do outside of the house before it became socially acceptable to work the same jobs as men.
Women were forbidden to hold positions of power (societal leaders) because they were regarded as “inferior to men.” Nor could they speak or vote in political assemblies. Instead, they were expected to keep the house.
Age of Enlightenment
This was when things changed drastically for women. They found out that they were as competent as men! Perhaps because of Mary Wollstonecraft’s book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This groundbreaking literature embraced women’s rights, became a hit and made society gradually accept women into the workforce.
At a time when manufacturing and steam engines became widespread, women joined men in factory work to help owners earn more profit. They also began working in textile mills for only $3 per week. But once the women got married, they would stop working at the mills, perhaps because the husband became the worker and the provider for the household. Eventually, men began to feel threatened by women working beside them in factories, and wanted to fight against their declining pay and status in the workforce. This led them to unionize and stand up for their rights. Women noticed the movement and created their own union, Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA), which made a big impact on society because, at this time in history, women barely spoke in public. LFLRA stood up for higher wages and shorter working days among women and…it worked! Women continued to enter the workforce in the USA and other industrialized countries over the course of the 19th century.
After the American Civil War, hundreds of thousands of men were killed and injured which forced more women to enter the workforce to fill factories and other male-dominated jobs.
The Great Depression
The big economic depression in the 1930s caused a major setback for the working woman. The loss of jobs made unemployment rates crawl up to 25 percent, and male-dominated unions revived the idea that only men should work. Despite this tumultuous era, married women managed to find work. The percentage of working women increased 25 percent!
World War II
When American men left for war, women took on their jobs to keep companies active during the war. Six million American women entered the workforce and took on men’s jobs. After the war, though, women had to leave their jobs to make room for veterans. But women remained in the workforce with jobs in retail, nursing, teaching, and in offices. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 created a huge change for the working woman. The act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, and nationality. This made women seek employment in various fields such as law enforcement, construction, and finance. Very soon, the act led to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (allowing pregnant women to find work), which then created even more working ladies!
Currently, as of 2017, there are over 74 million women in the workforce, and approximately 47 percent of American workers are women! Women also own about 10 million businesses. There are more women in management positions now than ever before, and they are taking on previously male-dominated careers such as engineering, politics, criminal justice, and surgeons. Working mothers have also become a standard with 70 percent of mothers in the labor force; not something you would see much of many years ago.
For centuries, we working women have been on the rise and will continue to exceed expectations and fight for our rights, because we will always have something great worth offering.