Women in the wartime workplace

Here’s part two of Collections Coordinator Michelle Villarreal’s blog post from last month. Here, she writes about women in the workplace during World War I. 

As several million men across the nation were called to serve in the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, many had to leave behind not only their families and communities, but also their jobs. To fill the need for employees in factories, offices, and other lines of work, women took on some of those tasks. Around three million women entered the workforce during the war years, including in factories and farms, and, for some 25,000 women, as nurses, cooks, and administrative assistants in the military. Other jobs deemed unusual for “women’s work” in the United States involved bank clerks, machine shop workers, locomotive dispatchers, street car conductors, and railroad trackwalkers. According to some studies, key factors that contributed to more women in the work place included higher education levels and fewer number of children being born to families.

As soldiers returned from the battlefields of Europe, women were expected to relinquish most of those jobs and return to their duties as housewives and mothers. However, some held on to their secretarial and clerical positions that went beyond the traditional teaching and domestic service. An estimated 39% of employed women held non-traditional jobs during 1920.

An outgrowth of employment for women during World War I is that it appears to have been a major factor in the passage of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution, which gave women the right to vote. For much of the 1920s, as the American economy boomed, employment opportunities for women increased, though they had to struggle with issues such as inequality in pay compared to the wages of their male counterparts, workplace discrimination, and sexist attitudes–issues that are still debated today. Notably, the Second World War brought another massive change to female employment and a similar postwar struggle to keep the gains earned during wartime.

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