- During the early 20th century, women’s employment was affected by war and advancements in tech.
- In the 1960s and 1970s, women were able to expand their horizons and career opportunities.
- Vintage photos from the past 100 years show how their roles have changed.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Working women have come a long way in the last 100 years.
In the 1920s, women entered the workforce in astonishing numbers as a result of the industrial revolution.
Then, as men were sent off to war, more women got involved in the wartime effort in factories and other professions previously dominated by men.
Women’s equality movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s gave even more opportunities to working women, and in recent years, more women were in the US workforce than men. However, the coronavirus pandemic has caused the women’s labor force participation rate to hit a 33-year low.
Here are 28 vintage photos that show how the role of women in the workforce has evolved in the last 100 years.
Women held jobs as postal clerks, sorting letters and packages. While it wasn’t uncommon for women to work in post offices, very few women actually delivered mail. According to USPS, in 1920, only 5% of the nation’s 943 village carriers were women.
As village delivery was gradually phased out in favor of city delivery, a majority of the remaining women village carriers either resigned from their positions or were transferred to clerk positions.
Many women also began working in factories.
In 1920, women made up about 20% of the labor force, and many of them were involved in the manufacturing of apparel, food, and tobacco products.
Women of color, on the other hand, were largely employed in agriculture and domestic service work for much of the early 20th century.
During World War I, women held occupations in domestic and personal service, clerical occupations, and factory work.
Many women learned to type in order to secure higher-paying jobs in an office as a secretary or a typist in a clerical office, rather than having to work in a factory. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, working conditions, wages, and hours in clerical work were seen as the best at the time.
Clerical work attracted young, literate, mostly white women who would work as typists until they were married, only to be replaced by another young unmarried woman.
After the Women’s Bureau was established in the US Department of Labor on June 5, 1920, women had even more opportunities in the labor force.
As the popularity of silent films began to rise, women also found work creating movies for the silver screen.
In 1923, “Business Woman” published a list of 29 different jobs that women held in the film industry, apart from actresses. Job positions included that of a typist, secretary to the stars and executive secretary, costume designer, seamstress, telephone operator, hairdresser, script girl, film retoucher, title writer, publicity writer, musician, film editor, director, and producer, among others.
Women also held jobs as blacksmiths and worked on vehicles.
However, most occupations were seen solely as a precursor to marriage. Among married white women of both native and immigrant backgrounds, only around 10% held jobs. It was more common for married women of color to hold jobs, however, out of pure financial necessity.
Unemployed women during the Great Depression could join “SheSheShe” camps.
Inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which only allowed men to join in exchange for free room and board, Eleanor Roosevelt started “SheSheShe” camps as a way for women to gain employment in environmental conservation as well.
Many families during the Great Depression were able to achieve middle-class status by adding another working member to the household – in many cases, a woman.
Many women during the Great Depression found work as secretaries, teachers, telephone operators, and nurses. Women also made an income by sewing clothes in Works Progress Administration (WPA) sewing rooms, which manufactured men’s trousers, boys’ coveralls, baby clothes, dresses, and diapers.
During World War II, women assisted in manufacturing wartime necessities like gas masks. By 1945, one in every four married women worked in jobs outside the home.
According to Forbes, between 1940 and 1945, female participation in the US workforce increased from 27% to nearly 37%.
Before the war, women were in traditionally “female” fields such as nursing and teaching. By 1943, women made up 65% of the US aircraft industry’s workforce.
After Pearl Harbor, many women entered the armed forces at astonishing rates. In 1943, more than 310,000 women worked in the US aircraft industry, making up 65% of the industry’s total workforce. Before the war began, women made up just 1% of the industry.
In 1935, women made 25% less than men for government jobs. In 1942, even though the War Labor Board required these women to be paid the same as men, the war ended before they could receive equal pay.
In 1935, a law titled the National Recovery Act required women who held jobs within the government to receive 25% less pay than men in the same jobs, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity. During wartime in 1942, the War Labor Board ruled that women would be paid the same as male workers who were now away at war.
However, the war ended before the rule could be implemented. With no laws to protect female workers from pay inequality, female workers in the 1940s earned around 60% of what their male counterparts made.
Women were largely seen as “supplemental” workers in the 1950s, meaning their income was secondary to their husband’s.
Even though there were technically more women in the workforce in 1952 than during the war, women were not taken seriously in regards to their careers.
Women returned to stereotypically “feminine” jobs – in some cases, jobs were advertised as for women only.
Many women were forced to give up the jobs they had worked in during wartime to male soldiers returning home. The most popular jobs for women during the 1950s were secretaries, bank tellers or clerical workers, sales clerks, private household workers, and teachers, according to The Week.
Female secretaries in the 1950s gained a reputation for being young and attractive. In fact, a 1959 quiz from a secretarial training program in Waco, Texas, asking women if they have what it takes to be a secretary includes “smiling readily and naturally” and being “usually cheerful” among its requirements.
The 1950s marked the beginning of the “jet age,” and many young women found work as flight attendants, then called “stewardesses.”
Flight attendants during the 195os became symbols of the golden age of flying — when traveling by air was seen as the height of sophistication and glamour. However, with this “glamorous” career also came a host of sexist protocols.
According to Conde Nast Traveler, women were not allowed to work as flight attendants after they reached the ages of 32 to 35, while male flight attendants could work well into their 60s. In 1957, Trans World Airlines dropped its no-marriage rule for female flight attendants. However, many airlines continued to only hire non-married female flight attendants.
While many women joined the workforce, they were nevertheless expected to fulfill their duties at home, in what would be coined “the second shift.”
After women returned home from their secretarial or office jobs, they had another job to do — caring for the children, doing the housekeeping, and, of course, putting a hot dinner in front of their husband.
This became known as the “second shift.” If women didn’t hold office or other jobs during the day, they were relegated to being “housewives.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, women found creative ways to make their own incomes from their homes.
Many suburban women began selling Tupperware out of their own homes in what became known as “Tupperware parties.”
“Tupperware … took those moms out of the kitchen where they were ‘supposed to be’ and let them enter the workforce, and let them have something outside the home,” Lorna Boyd, whose mother Sylvia was an at-home Tupperware seller in the 1960s, told the Smithsonian Institution.
Women were also making history in their careers.
In the 1960s, Barbara Walters was a broadcast journalist working in New York City. In 1976, she would become the first woman to anchor a nightly newscast. Many other women were also joining the journalism field as coverage of the Vietnam War became increasingly widespread.
While technology-based and other computer programming jobs may now be dominated by men, the same jobs were considered “women’s work” in the 1960s.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, “computer girls” became a term for “savvy young women” pursuing careers in computer programming. Computer programming was seen as “easy work” similar to typing or filing, so many women ended up building the field that would come to be known as software development.
Women soon made up a majority of the trained workforce in the computing industry.
However, the work was seen as “unskilled.”
“Women were seen as an easy, tractable labor force for jobs that were critical and yet simultaneously devalued,” technology historian Marie Hicks said in her book “Programmed Inequality,” according to The Guardian.
In the 1960s, multiple pieces of legislation were passed to protect women in the workplace from discrimination.
Title VII was added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protecting workers from employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
In 1963, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was passed in order to protect men and women who perform “substantially equal work in the same establishment” from sex-based wage discrimination.
These measures were especially beneficial to women of color. Up until the 1970s, women of color could be openly discriminated against in the hiring process and were often relegated to providing domestic service work to white families.
During the 1970s, computing work gained more prestige as the industry realized how valuable computers would become.
It meant women were no longer welcome in many computer programming offices.
“They weren’t going to put women workers – seen as low-level drones – in charge of computers,” Hicks explains.
According to The Guardian, female computer workers, or “computer girls,” were gradually phased out and replaced with men, who received higher salaries and more prestigious job titles.
By the 1970s, many women were still fighting for better workplace conditions, equal pay, and more job opportunities.
From 1972 to 1985, the number of women working “professional” jobs increased from 44% to 49%. The number of women working “management” jobs nearly doubled, rising from 20% to 36%.
However, in 1970, women still did not earn “equal” wages to men. According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, women earned 59.4% of what men earned.
In the 1970s, education became more important than ever for securing a well-paying job.
After measures were passed that prevented universities and institutions from discriminating against students on the basis of sex, more women were admitted into medical school than in past generations.
Other strides were made for women in the late 1970s. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This meant that women could start building families without fearing how it would affect their careers.
Women in the workforce in the 1980s continued to make strides, but there was still a ways to go.
According to The Atlantic, in 1985, half of all college graduates were women. However, only 41% of women between the ages of 25 and 44 held full-time year-round jobs.
Even in the mid-1980s, women themselves saw their own careers as inferior to their husbands’. According to The Atlantic, which cited a 1985 Roper survey, only 10% of women said that a husband should turn down a “very good job” in another city “so the wife can continue her job.”
However, women of the 1980s made history in their fields. Dr. Mae Jemison was among 15 new astronauts named by NASA and became the first black female shuttle flyer.
In 1984, at the Democratic National Convention held in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated as vice president by a major political party.
Women were encouraged to “do it all” — meaning, hold a successful job as well as maintain a happy and healthy marriage and raise children.
The New York Times has referred to the 1990s as the “best era for working women.”
Computers became more and more prevalent, reducing the need for secretaries, bank tellers, and retail workers. Women overwhelmingly began to be employed in offices and earned higher salaries.
According to Time, women were also postponing marriage and children until later in life.
For most earlier decades, women would be married between the ages of 20 and 22. In 1990, the age jumped to 24, and by 1997, the average age for women to get married was 25.
In 1995, nearly half of all women surveyed reported earning half or more of their total family income.
In recent years, women held more jobs than men in the US workforce.
At the start of 2020, there are now 109,000 more women working than men, and women in the US made up 50.4% of the labor force.
Sectors that traditionally hire women, like healthcare and education, were growing, and other industries previously dominated by men were also hiring more women than ever before.
According to Forbes, 13.8% of mining and logging jobs were currently held by women, and more women were employed in manufacturing and transportation than in years past as well.
The coronavirus pandemic caused the women’s labor force participation rate to hit a 33-year low in January 2021.
According to CNBC, more than 2.3 million women in the US have left the labor force since February 2020, compared to about 1.8 million men who have registered as unemployed. This places the women’s labor force participation rate at 57%, the lowest rate since 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
However, the actual number of women who are currently unemployed may be much higher due to those who may have left the labor force but are not actively looking for work. Instead, many women may be staying home due to mass closures of schools and daycare facilities.
The data is undeniably dire, despite more jobs being added to the workforce in recent months. In January 2021, 275,000 women left the labor force, accounting for 80% of all unemployed workers over the age of 20 that month.
The situation is even worse for women of color, Insider’s Juliana Kaplan previously reported. According to the NWLC, 8.5% of Black women age 20 and over were unemployed in January 2021, compared to 8.4% in December 2020 and 4.9% in February 2020.
Adversely, the unemployment rate for white men age 20 and over was 5.5% in January 2021, compared to 5.8% in December 2020 and 2.7% in February 2020.