Speaking to the New York Factory Investigating Commission in 1914, Pauline Newman stated that “a working girl is a human being with a heart, with desires, with aspirations, with ideas and ideals and when we think of food and shelter we merely think of the…necessities…Have we thought of providing her with books, with money for…a good drama?…Have you thought about a girl providing herself with a good room that had plenty of air, proper ventilation in a somewhat decent neighborhood. Do you think of all these things when you think of a minimum wage? Let us not think of a piece of bread. Let us think of a working woman as a human being who has her desires to which she is entitled.” With the Fight for $15 still on-going today, it can be easy to see how the struggle for a sustainable minimum wage is something that has been fought over for a century or more. However, more so, the quote highlights the plight of working girls, the wages they were allowed to earn, and, intersected with my data, the jobs that they were even allowed to work.
When one thinks of the jobs that women typically worked before the boom of equality that came in the 1960, very few and very gendered occupations come to mind, from telephone operators, to secretaries, to housemaids. If a woman left the house to work, it was because she was young, and helping her household by earning a wage for her father, or her brother, or her grandfather, or any male relative that she lived with. Women were thought of as existing in the private sphere, within their own homes and perhaps in the homes of their friends and relatives. Never did they venture into the public sphere for their own advantage, nor would they dare to venture out in the hopes of earning an education or a wage for their own advantage. If a woman left the house to earn a wage for her household, we typically think of gendered jobs such as secretarial work, house work, or school work. While the beginning of World War I saw a boom in the occupations that were acceptable for women to work in, this was mostly limited to European women- America didn’t join the fight until 1917, and as we all know, it was pretty pointless for us to join at that point.
However, the early 20th century was still a point of revolution for women in America, and the 1915 census shows the starting point of changes in gendered American society. The 19th Amendment was only a few years away, and the Seneca Falls Convention, over 60 years earlier, had produced numerous succeeding generations of supporters of women’s rights, the same way that today we would think that the hippie movement has led to a more liberal generation, having been parented and grand-parented by previous hippies. The 1915 census sees an increase in occupations employed by both male and female workers, from semi-“genderless” jobs such as song writer and painter, to surprisingly diverse jobs, such as horse dealer and ironworker. These latter occupations might typically be thought of as more male-orientated, being business-driven and more opt to physical labor. While there is an equal amount of male and female ironworkers (i.e., one of each), there are six female horse dealers in the data set, as opposed to only one male worker.
Going off of this surprising difference in expectations and reality, 69 males are listed as having an occupation at this point, while 60 females are listed as occupied- a surprising difference of only 9 out of a total of 129 employed. However, out of the 60 females that were listed as occupied, only 25 of them are listed in an occupation that isn’t listed as “housework.” What exactly does the census mean as housework? While it would be nice to think that these are women who were still occupied in some fashion, such as leaving the house to go clean someone else’s house, it was likely that “housework” within their own home was still considered the woman’s job- i.e., it was her full-time job to stay home, take care of the house, cook meals, and take care of her kids. So while more occupations were beginning to be available to women, we still had a long way to go, if it was considered the job of the woman- most likely the mother- to take care of the kids of the house.
While it’s all too easy to look at the differences in the preconceptions that we might have about this time period and the few dalliances that the data actually shows, women’s work was certainly cut out for them. While the spike in amount of women dealing with “housework” shows the expectations placed upon women in the private sphere, the majority of listed occupations in this dataset further speaks to the expectations placed upon women even in the public sphere, where, having proven that they were at least capable of stepping into sunlight and not bursting into flames, they were still given jobs that mostly would have subjected them to little to no physical labor, or spoke to the expectation that women were homebodies whose main purpose is to nurture and care for others. Jobs like school teacher and nurse played into this, with the expectation that, while a woman couldn’t handle the power of the headmaster of a school or (heaven forbid!) go to university to become a doctor, they could still subject themselves to lesser degrees of this workload.
So while the opportunities available to women were beginning to expand at this time, we still had a long way to go. European women were afforded opportunities that wouldn’t be available to American women until the beginning of World War Two, when American men left for the frontlines and women were left to take their places in factory jobs. The past few decades of women’s rights movements had led to a more open-minded approach for quite a few generations, and this likely led to a small opening in the types of jobs “appropriate” for women.
1 National Women’s History Museum. “Progressive Era (1880-1930).” NWHM Exhibit: A History of Women in Industry. 2007. Accessed April 25, 2016. https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/industry/6.htm.