Although the United States has been around since the 1700s, International Women’s Day wasn’t in fact established until 1909. Although it may not be important to some that women have a special day designated to them, and many others may think that in turn men should have their own day as well, they don’t stop to consider is that men don’t actually need their own day since they weren’t the ones who had to continuously fight to gain simple rights such as voting and fair employment. A topic that I don’t feel is touched on enough in the history books is the role women were placed in and the struggles they faced throughout the decades.
In the early 1900s women were often found working in what were considered “men’s job.”
Since World War I began in 1914 and the Selective Service Act was passed, 2.8 million men were drafted which left many open jobs that needed to be filled. These jobs were definitely out of the norm and included anything in the heavy industry, from mining, chemical manufacturing, automobile and railway plants, to running street cars, conducting trains, directing traffic, and delivering mail. Although some women greatly enjoyed the opportunity to be something other than a homemaker, it was almost a false sense of belonging and power because once the men returned home the jobs were taken from them and returned to the men that once had them. In this era, women’s role in the workforce as well as important advancements for gender equality were a large focus. This was a period of time where many doors were opened.
As the 1920s approached, many women became liberated and more comfortable with their new found freedoms. Not only were appearances changing and women doing things such as smoking in public and dancing or dressing a little more provocatively. Times were changing and women became more outspoken and came to the realization that there wasn’t anything forcing them to be treated as inferior by their spouse. Most women of this time were still housewives, but an important mark was made for women all around. The 1920s were most promoted with an emphasis on having fun and spending money. This was a time of purchasing new and exciting things – cars, radios, refrigerators. Many were enthralled by the new jazz genre that was becoming more and more popular. Women were finally entering of time of beauty, independence, and self-worth after being placed in a homemaker role for so long.
As we travel forward into the 1930s, the increase of women working was still prevalent and it has been said that “out of every ten women workers in 1940, three were in clerical or sales work, two were in factories, two in domestic service, one was a professional—a teacher or a nurse—and one was a service worker.”
This could be seen as a triumph, but it should be seen for what it really is – a step forward. Although women were hired quite often, it can’t be denied that employers greatly enjoyed the opportunity to hire workers for reduced wages. This made it possible for the women to work extremely long hours while still only costing the company the same as a man who worked half of that time. According to the Social Security Administration, women’s average annual pay in 1937 was $525, compared with $1,027 for men. Although women being gainfully employed was a wonderful advancement, the level women were placed on at this time was unacceptable.
During the 1940’s women’s roles and expectations in society were changing rapidly. Previously women had very little say in society and were expected to stay home, make babies, and be a good home maker and wife. The 1940’s were different, life for women was expanding, the men were at war and someone had to step up and take their place, but not only men were being deployed. The war increasing in size so much that by 1942 The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES) were established.
The image of Rosie the Riveter proclaiming “We can do it!” symbolized women recruited to fill critical jobs in the defense industry. Women working in civilian jobs experienced learning new skills, but they also experienced discrimination as factory owners reclassified these jobs as lower-paying “female” jobs. When the war ended and the men returned to reclaim “their” jobs, some women were less than enthusiastic about returning to the kitchen.
In the 1950s, sending information about birth control through the mail was no longer a federal crime. However, women lacked unobstructed access to safe and effective forms of birth control. This decade saw many actions from small groups of women. It was a hot topic of discussion as to whether or not women should be allowed to regulate their own productive abilities – a topic that isn’t much unlike what is in the news today. After the war ended in 1945, women experienced great social and political pressure to leave their jobs and return to being homemakers. While some women did go back to being housewives, many continued to work outside the home. The social and cultural impact of women’s wartime labor participation and the refusal of many women to leave their jobs greatly influenced later efforts to secure equal pay for women and fight sex-segregation in labor markets.
In the 1960s the struggle for women to gain acceptance into careers was still present. Only around 38% of women even worked at this time and those were mainly in teaching, nursing, and secretarial jobs. Women were often denied opportunities for advancement because of the stigma that they would most likely become pregnant and quit their jobs anyways. Women were given suffrage in 1920, but the movement that was taking place in the 60s was much more than that. It moved beyond the voting polls and into the household where women still felt inferior to the men they lived with. In the summer of 1966, National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed, which lobbied Congress for pro-equality laws and assist women seeking legal aid as they battled workplace discrimination in the courts. Women were beginning to stand up for what they believe in and wanted to change the “traditional” role of women and change the image of gender roles.
The 70’s didn’t really have a role to follow for women but, they were beginning to stand up for what they believe is right and to form what that role should be. By the mid 1970’s, women were given the right to work in politics, businesses, law, science, and most commonly the home. Women had finally lifted a newspaper and read in the advertisement section that there were jobs for both women and males, but categorized by the task they had to achieve. With the gain of these job opportunities, women were still losing in the field of wage. There was still a huge gap in the wage of men to women, but has made minimal progress. Women were getting paid about 50% less than men for the exact same position in any field. A major success though is that progress was still being made and women were moving closer and cloaser to being treated equally.
Educational opportunities for young women continued to expand. By 1984, 49% of undergraduate college degrees were being awarded to women. Also, by the mid-1980s women were earning 49% of all master’s degrees and about 33% of all doctoral degrees. However, as in the past, only a few women were working in the fields of physical sciences, engineering, agriculture and law. This was due largely in part to the still present wage gap. More of the major films of the 1980s had women playing the leading roles, including “Terms of Endearment” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” However, most major motion pictures continued to have male heroes. On television, we also began to see a few more women playing the lead, including on the shows, “Murder, She Wrote” and “The Golden Girls.” Marking another milestone, women were still moving forward even while facing harsh criticisms and setbacks.
More women began to be elected to higher office in the United States, and 1992 was labeled the Year of the Woman, as a result. By the end of the decade, attitudes had even changed towards former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was elected to the Senate, which was the first time any First Lady had continued to be so active in politics after her husband’s term of office had ended. Young girls were even introduced to the workplace as the Ms. Foundation for Women launches its first annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day. It was becoming more clear that the efforts put forth by those before us have really shaped what opportunities women have today.
As we move into the 2000s and beyond, the roles of men and women are seen as forever shifting. During the recession most jobs that were lost belong to men and that was a major effect as to why women held a majority of jobs in the United States. Since employment for women generally includes anything from teaching to healthcare, areas that are always needed, their careers were slightly more stable than a man who may be working in construction or finance. Though change is still in the air, there’s no doubt that men and women’s roles have become less strictly defined, and many families have made the male and female roles more egalitarian when it comes to jobs, housework and childcare.