Daring to Earn Wages for Work

The title of this exhibit might strike some as odd, but for much of American history women working for wages was considered outside acceptable social, and often legal,  norms. Married women were not entitled to their wages (had to give to husbands) and could not enter into business contracts without their husbands' consent. During the early Industrial Revolution, most states changed their laws to allow women to keep  their earnings and enter into contracts. As the number of women in paid employment jumped from 2.6 million in 1880 to 8.6 million in 1900, women became an increasingly essential part of the labor force. Paid unequally to men, denied the  vote, and with laws that restricted their work, wage-working women faced an uphill battle though. Working women then became an integral part of the labor movement and achieved many notable wins for workers regardless of sex: shorter working days, safety laws, worker compensation statutes, and wage payment legislation. In the 1930s, workers, with support from the federal government, included minimum wages, union protections, and fair labor standards to their wins. Although women were not excluded from federal protections for workers, they were still not being treated on par with men though. Even after they had kept the U.S. economically sound and the military supplied with planes, tanks, artillery, and other goods in WWII, women were still discriminated against (see Mixing It Up). Throughout the 1940s-1990s, female workers waged battles regarding gender equality in the workforce. They fought for better working conditions for all workers. Women argued for equal pay. They encouraged legislation that allowed women to integrate all areas of education and employment. Women forwarded sexual harassment laws. They dared to demand that the 14th amendment's provision for equal protection of the law apply to them. Women led the argument for child care and family medical leave. Wage-working women are a crucial part of U.S. history. Although women still do not have equality in pay or proportionate representation in management and some industries, great strides have been made. The women showcased here are a part of that historical narrative. The history of women is a history of labor (literally and figuratively)!

For a study on women's work, see Alice Kessler-Harris,  Out to Work: a History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2003).

A History of Women in Industry from National Women's History Museum (click for link)


Amy Holtman French