Changing Attitudes about Women Workers

During the early 1900’s women experienced expanded political opportunities which contributed to the image of a “New Woman” who was sexually liberated and financially independent.[1] This independence was achieved because of the growing employment opportunities for white women, in factories, and the feminization of clerical work.[2] For black and immigrant women, the doors of opportunity remained closed. They remained regulated to domestic or agricultural labor. Whatever positive advances that were experienced were short-lived. The period between the Great Depression of the 1930’s to the World War II era saw attitudes towards women workers changing drastically.

Due to the Great Depression, unemployment rates rose to 25 percent. There was fierce competition for jobs and working class and farm families suffered the most.[3] Not only were they fired first from industrial positions, they also had no reserves to call upon to see them through. Women were increasingly called upon to stay home. DuBois cited a sociological study which “emphasized the familial disruption that resulted when men lost jobs and often sacrificed their dominant position in the household.”[4] Women’s role as homemaker and mother was re-enforced.

Legislation was enacted in 1932 called the National Economy Act which led to the firing of thousands of women. Public opinion polls showed that the majority of respondents believed that married women should not work outside of the home.[5] Once the New Deal was enacted, there were gains realized by white women, especially in clerical positions of federal agencies. However, black and immigrant women continued to be left behind in these advances.

This all changed during World War II. As war was declared and men were called into service, it became clear that a new labor force would need to be developed to keep up with the war-time economy. Women were offered new opportunities for independence and responsibility in this economy.[6] “Rosie the Riveter” was born and factory jobs were opened to women in the shipyards of the West coast. Despite wide-spread racial discrimination, black women were relegated to the foundries, while white women served as riveters, women were still able to achieve a level of independence not achieved before.[7]

Following the war, women were expected to return to their homes and kitchens and leave the factory jobs to the men. Those who had become accustomed to work, wanted or needed to continue, but were forced into fall back positions at restaurants, domestic work, in department stores or clerical work. Women were no longer needed to drive the wartime economy, so their value was again consigned to their home and hearth.

DuBois, Ellen Carol and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.

“Rosie the Riveter” film.

[1] Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil, Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016) 478.

[2] DuBois, Through Women’s Eyes, 479.

[3] Ibid, 485.

[4] Ibid, 486.

[5] Ibid, 487

[6] Ibid, 493

[7] “Rosie the Riveter” film.