Each year, Women's History Month recognizes the accomplishments of women throughout the years. From science to politics, it's a chance to reflect on the many contributions of women who have led and continue leading the way for workforce changes. To honor this important month, we’ve compiled a 14-part series, Women in the Workforce: We Can Do It!, which explores topics related to the history, challenges, and accomplishments of working women in America.
American women can do it! Throughout history, American women always have. And I am so proud we do! Through this 14-part series, I explore how topics about women in the workforce from the early 1900s until the present. The journey starts here.
Things began to change once our country was at war. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson enacted the draft for all men between 21 and 30. Millions were drafted into service, which left gaping holes in the workforce. Women were ready to jump in to help their country and quickly entered the job market.
By 1929, more than a quarter of all women, and more than half of all single women, were working outside of the home. Not only were job opportunities limited, but the pay disparity was great. In factories, male workers in 1920 started at 40 cents per hour, while women started at 25 cents. The average weekly wage for a man was $29.35, and for a woman, it was $17.34. Society liked to think that young women only worked for the short term before marriage, so the wage disparity was not a cause for much concern.
During the Great Depression, millions of Americans lost their jobs, and the average family income dropped by 40%. Interestingly, the employment rates of women increased. The jobs that were traditionally viewed as “women’s work” were far less impacted by the stock market. Although women were still paid less than men, the jobs more readily available to women were more stable. Between 1929 and 1939, there was also a 22 percent decline in marriage rates, meaning more women had to support themselves.
After Pearl Harbor, the defense industry continued to expand while American men were mobilized for service. Workers were needed, and once again, American women were there to support their country. Rosie the Riveter was the star of the wartime campaign aimed at recruiting women to the workforce. Rosie the Riveter was used in songs, movies, posters, and articles. The most famous “Rosie” was Norman Rockwell’s portrait which was featured on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1942.
In 1947, the Department of Labor unsuccessfully attempted to pass an equal pay amendment. Secretary of Labor Lewis Schwellenbach argued that “There is no sex difference in the food she buys or the rent she pays, there should be none in her pay envelope.” However, cultural norms persisted, and as men returned from the home front, women were expected to stay home or be paid less.
Consumerism was at an all-time high after the war due to rising income, easy credit, and aggressive advertisements through TV and print. Women did not necessarily have the income, but advertisements appealed to their power in buying decisions.
The ideal woman was portrayed as a perfect mother, beautiful wife, and coveted neighbor, and through the products sold, the ideal could be achieved. New inventions were promoted to make housework easier, and Americans spent a disproportionate amount of their income on appliances. These ads seem funny today, yet the 1950s began the golden age in advertising, and by appealing to women’s domestic insecurities and using sexist messaging, many brands prospered.
The 1960s began just as the 1950s ended. Women were still considered the weaker sex, and society reinforced this ideal. Help wanted ads had specific female sections advertising “pink collar” jobs, such as clerical, nursing, teaching, and housekeeping. The few women who became professionals were defined by their gender, such as a “female physician” or a “lady lawyer.” Employers had different salaries for women as a policy. The assumption was that women who worked were either single, living with parents, or married and just wanted some “pin” money. The reality was that by 1960, there were as many women working as at the peak of World War II, and the majority were married.
In the early 1960s, prosperity was high and the American dream appeared to be fulfilled. Housework was easier than in years past, and women had more time on their hands. And then, one woman asked in a book that sparked a movement, “Is this all?”
Another important factor in the evolving role of women was reproductive control. Although the contraceptive Pill first went to market in 1960, it was not widely available until the early 1970s. In 1999, The Economist magazine named The Pill the invention that defined the twentieth century. And it is no coincidence that the number of young women applying to post-secondary schools dramatically increased when the birth control pill became widely available. It allowed young women to decide when to have children and gave them the confidence to begin careers.
The economic downturn of the 1970s pushed more women into the workforce, which impacted labor laws, education, and the family structure. By the end of the 1970s, for the first time ever, more than half of women had jobs outside of the home. They were paid approximately 60% less than men, but they were able to find employment quickly. Jobs in health care and service industries were growing, while factory and unionized jobs were moving overseas.
The 1980s was the decade when women tried to have it all – career, husband, and children - and they continued to fight for things they thought they had already won. Women demonstrated they could competently perform the work but now had to fight individual battles in male-dominated worlds. It was not as easy as women had hoped it would be.
The women who came to age in the 1990s were the first generation of American women who had not been told their only place was in the home. This generation had been entitled to the educational and career opportunities their mothers had fought for, and they took them for granted. Even though young women agreed that the work of the women’s movement had helped their lives, they were hesitant to call themselves feminists. During this decade, women struggled with the work/family divide and continued to fight for equal opportunities and equal pay.
The pandemic created additional issues for working women. Women, especially women of color, were more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic because many of the industries that were hardest hit heavily employ women, such as the hospitality and service industries.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the unemployment rate of women was much greater than that of men, which is why the term “Shecession” was created. The economic downturn was not a simple recession - it led to more job losses among women than men. Here are a few ways it impacted the progress of working women.
Women In The Workforce Series
Whether married or single, with children or not, working part-time, full-time, or even two jobs, as a stay-at-home mom or a community volunteer, American women can do it! Throughout history, American women always have. And I am so proud we do! With this series, I explore how topics about women in the workforce from the early 1900s until the present. Also, I want to note the changing trends of women in the workforce that this series contemplates focus on white, middle-class women. Women of color have had very different experiences, and their work lives have been defined by racism, sexism, and financial necessity. I have pointed this out when possible, but please keep in mind that this series is not a complete picture of all women.
Propel HR President Lee Yarborough
“My father, Braxton Cutchin, and I founded the company in 1996. After being in the PEO and HR world for 25 years, I have experienced firsthand the value we can provide to both clients and employees. It is truly a win for all parties. I’m proud to have helped establish Propel HR as an industry forerunner in the Southeast. There is nothing I love more than receiving phone calls from clients who seek my advice as a trusted advisor. This is a business where I feel that I can help others, and that is important to my own value.”
-- Lee Yarborough, President, Propel HR
Active in many professional and community organizations, Lee recently served as Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (NAPEO). As NAPEO Chair, Lee focused on diversity and initiatives to deepen member relations. Under her leadership, she formed Women in NAPEO (WIN), a networking group designed to engage, empower, and encourage women working in the PEO industry. On the local level, Lee also served as the Chair of NAPEO’s Carolinas Leadership Council for more than a decade. In 2015, she was named a Fellow of the eleventh class of the Liberty Fellowship Program and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.
An advocate for public education, Lee has served on the executive board as Chair of Public Education Partners and is the founder and director of Read Up Greenville, a young adult and middle grades book festival in downtown Greenville, SC.
When she breaks from board meetings, client visits, and networking, most likely, you will find Lee reading, camping, or spending time with her family. She also enjoys volunteering at her church and staying involved with her children's schools.
About Propel HR. Propel HR is an IRS-certified PEO that has been a leading provider of human resources and payroll solutions for more than 25 years. Propel partners with small to midsized businesses to manage payroll, employee benefits, compliance and risks, and other HR functions in a way that maximizes efficiency and reduces costs. Visit our new website, www.propelhr.com.