And They Called it Women’s Liberation
How Women Were Lured Out of the Home in the USA
By Areeba bint Khalid
From the 1800s to the present day, family life in the West has remarkably changed. While the West calls this change part of the women freedom movement, a look at history may show otherwise.
America before the 1800s was a farming country and ninety percent of the population lived and worked on private farms. Households were mainly self-sufficient–nearly everything needed was produced in the house. The few things that could not be produced at home were bought from local craftsmen. Some other things, especially imports from Europe, were bought from stores. Males would take care of the fields and females would take care of the home. In addition, they would engage in spinning, knitting, weaving, and taking care of the farm animals.
The Industrial Revolution, which began around the early 1800s, brought a major change to this way of life. In 1807, in the wake of the war between Great Britain and France, President Jefferson signed the Embargo Act, which stopped all trade between Europe and America. The Act meant that European goods would no longer be available in the US and Americans would have to produce them. One major European import to America was cloth, and so merchants used this opportunity to create a cloth industry in America.
In 1814, Francis Cabot Lowell, a man from Boston opened the first modern factory. Work here was to be done way faster than before. Instead of manually making things in houses, things were to be made at higher speeds in a factory and all stages of the work were to be completed under the same roof. Now what Lowell needed were workers. He found out that women, especially unmarried daughters of the farmers, were more economical to use in labor than men. They were also more willing to work as hired people in factories.
But Lowell had to make the working outside of home acceptable in a society which was not used to it. He assured parents that their daughters would be taken care of and kept under discipline. And he built a boarding community where the women workers lived and worked together.
Soon after, more and more factories emerged across America. Factory owners followed Lowell’s example of hiring unmarried women. By 1850 most of the country’s goods were made in factories. As production of goods moved from the country to the city, people too moved from the country to the city.
For money to be earned, people had to leave their homes. When women worked on the farm, it was always possible to combine work and family. When work for women moved outside the home, however, the only women who could follow it were those without family responsibilities or those who had no husband or no income. Likewise, the only women who could take care of their families were the ones that didn’t have work.
This working out of home became a part of life for unmarried women. They would work until their marriage. But as time passed, women found family life interfering with their work life and instead of viewing working out of home as optional, they viewed family life as such. Many women started delaying marriage even more and some decided to stay single.
Married women however stayed home and dedicated their time to their children. Now that there wasn’t any farm work to do, women had even more time to spend with the children. In 1900 less than about 5.6% of married women worked outside. If a married woman were to work, it would be considered that her husband was invalid or that she was poor.
World War I
The first major entry of married women to the workforce came during World War I in 1914. Men went to fight the war and the country needed workers to take over the jobs they left behind. Unmarried women were not sufficient for the labor needs, so employers started to invite married women too, to work. By 1919, 25% of the women in the workforce were married. But this was only the beginning.
Another change World War I brought was the entry of women to the army. About 13,000 women enlisted in the US Navy, mostly doing clerical work–the first women in US history to be admitted to full military rank.
The Great Depression came in the 1930s. The unemployment rate climbed from 3.2% in 1929 to 23.6% in 1932. Jobs became scarce for skilled people and men. Fathers went to search for jobs. Some, under despair, deserted their families. The responsibility of earning fell on mothers in many families.
Most women and children, however, found jobs more easily than men because of the segregation of work categories for men and women. Although 80% of men during the Great Depression opposed their wives entering the workforce under any circumstances, economic factors made it necessary for the women to work. Hours were long and pay was low. Twenty percent of white women were in the workforce.
World War II
World War II came in the early 1940s. Men were drafted to fight, and America needed workers and supplies. Again, the employers looked towards the women for labor. Unmarried and married women were invited to work, as had been done during World War I.
But still, public opinion was generally against the working of married women. The media and the government started a fierce propaganda campaign to change this opinion. The federal government told the women that victory could not be achieved without their entry into the workforce. Working was considered part of being a good citizen, a working wife was a patriotic person.
The government founded the Magazine Bureau in 1942. The Bureau published Magazine War Guide, a guide which told magazines which themes stories they should cover each month to aid war propaganda. For September 1943, the theme was “Women at Work”. The slogan for this was “The More Women at Work the Sooner We Win.” Magazines developed stories that glorified and promoted the placement of women into untraditional jobs where workers were needed. The idea was that if smaller, unexciting jobs were portrayed as attractive and noble more women would join the work force.
The media created Rosie the Riveter, a mythical character to encourage women into the workforce. Rosie was portrayed as a patriotic woman, a hero for all American women. “All the day long, Whether rain or shine, She’s a part of the assembly line. She’s making history, Working for victory, Rosie the Riveter… There’s something true about, Red, white, and blue about, Rosie the Riveter.”
The propaganda efforts worked. More than six million women joined the workforce during the war, the majority of them married women. In 1940, before the war, only 36% of women workers were married. By 1945, after the war, 50% of women workers were married. The middle class taboo against a working wife had been repealed.
Post World War II
The 1950s marked an era of prosperity in the lives of American families. Men returned from war and needed jobs. Once again, the government and media got together to steer the opinion of the public. This time, however, they encouraged women to return home, which shows that the women were brought out not for their freedom but because workers were needed.
But this effort was not as successful and was abandoned quickly. First, women from lower economic ranks had to remain in the workforce because of economic necessity. And second, there came the rise of consumer culture.
The baby boom took place during the 1950s as well. Women who returned home dedicated their lives once again to their children. But around the same time an important change had come in the American life. This was the spread of the television. By 1960, 90% of the population owned at least one set. Families would gather around the screen for entertainment. In the early days, everything including commercials was watched with great interest.
Most middle-class families could not afford the goods the television declared necessary to maintain or enhance quality of life with one paycheck alone. Many women returned to work in order to live according to “the American standard of living,” whatever that meant to them.
The number of American women in the workforce from 1940 to 1950 increased by nine percent. From 1930 to 1940 there had only been a three percent increase.
As mothers returned to work, the television became the most important caretaker of a child. Children in the 1950s spent most of their non-sleeping hours in front of the television screen.
In 1940, less than 8.6% of mothers with children under eighteen worked. By 1987, 60.2% of women with children under eighteen were working.
As wives assumed larger roles in their family’s financial support, they felt justified in demanding that husbands perform more childcare and housework. Across the years, divorce rates doubled reaching a level where at least 1 out of 2 marriages was expected to end in divorce. Marriage rates and birthrates declined. The number of single parent families rapidly increased. People grew unhappy with their lives, when compared to the lives of people on television.
Women working affected the society in many different ways. The first and most important of these was that children with working mothers were left alone without the care of a mother. As the number of working women increased, the number of children growing up unsupervised increased, and with this increased crime among teens.
Since most women placed their career ahead of family life, family life was greatly affected since unmarried women were generally able to make more money than married ones. For example, according to a study by a Harvard economist, women physicians who were unmarried and had no children earned thirteen percent more per year than those who were married and fifteen percent more than those with children.
The majority of women still work at the lower levels of the economic pyramid. Most are employed in clerical positions, factory work, retail sales, or service jobs. Around 50% of the workforce is female. While about 78% of all cashiers and 99% of all secretaries today are female, only 31% of managers and administrators are female. Equality in the workplace has been a mirage but it has conned millions of women into leaving their homes and destroying the family structure.
It was only when economic or political factors made it necessary to get more workers that women were called to work. The Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, and the World Wars, all the major events which increased the proportion of women workers, were times when the capitalists required more workers in order to be successful in their plans and so they used women.
The move of women from home to the public workforce has been gradual. First poor women went. Then unmarried women. Then married women without children. Then married women without young children And then, all women. The same thing can be seen to be happening in developing countries around the world, as the West spreads its propaganda of freedom for women to work. The results of this move will probably be the same too.
-Hawes, Joseph M., ed. American Families: A Research Guide and Historical Handbook. New York: Greenwood Press,- 1990.
-Mintz, Steven. Domestic Revolutions. New York: the Free Press, 1988.
-Gary B. Nash, American Odyssey. New York: Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 2002.
-Wilson, Margaret Gibbons. The American Woman in Transition. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1979.
-Goldstein, Joshua S. War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
-U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau. Women in the Force, 1900-2002. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/0/1/0/4/6/7/A0104673.html
-The Library of Congress Rosie the Riveter: Real Women Workers in World War II http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/journey/rosie-transcript.html