American Women and the Workplace Post-1945
Women’s social roles in America continued to undergo significant transformations after the Seond World War, particularly in regards to the workplace. This article explores how both single and married American women consolidated and increased their participation in the workforce post-1945.
World War Two
Women’s increased workforce participation in the Second World War built on trends already evident in the first half of the twentieth century. The government presented women’s wartime work in patriotic terms through the empowering figure of ‘Rosie the Riveter’. The clenched fist focused on a women’s strength, but the depiction of polished nails, plucked eyebrows and mascaraed lashes essentially emphasised that women did not need to surrender their femininity, even if they carried out dirty work in areas such as munitions.
‘Rosie’ as an icon and the accompanying attitudes around women’s empowerment disappeared in the post-war world, in anticipation for men to return to their jobs following demobilisation. Yet, despite calls for women to return to the home, between 1940 and 1960, women’s labour force participation increased by a substantial 41 per cent. The Second World War proved a ‘watershed’ for entrenching women’s labour force participation.
The largest increase in women’s workforce participation came from those women married to men with a middle-class income. The entrance of these women into the workforce suggests a yearning for something other than the domestic, indicating a wider attitudinal shift away from the ‘motherhood mystique’ of the home, in line with Betty Freidan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’. By 1980, 51.5 per cent of all adult women held jobs outside the home. The expansion of women’s labour force participation was only possible because the service sector grew substantially at the end of the war. Employers legitimated the increasing participation of white middle-class women in the workforce because their husbands could deem the wage indispensable, reducing its ability to undermine the male breadwinner model.
As more women entered the workplace, they became ever more successful in demanding improvements to their working conditions and treatment by employers. Such activism was illustrated by the Women Employed movement in Chicago in February 1977. Female secretaries protested over the firing of Iris Rivera, who employers dismissed because she did not make a cup of coffee. This was a role outside of her job description and evidence of the gendered expectations placed on female employees to carry out domestic duties. The local movement proved successful as employers offered her job back. Yet the impact was far more wide-ranging in its triggering of ‘minor office revolutions’ across the country. Women moved from merely campaigning about wages and hours to challenging concrete examples of sex discrimination in the workplace.
The workplace was of central importance for African- American women in challenging racial subordination through job diversification. Still in 1960, two-thirds of African American women found employment in the worst service positions. However, the 1964 Civil Rights Act proved vital for the workplace advancements it brought to African American women. The act led to a greater expansion in occupational diversity; the number of black women in clerical and sales jobs increased from 17 per cent in 1960 to 33 per cent in 1970. However, the legislation only impacted those sectors which experienced growth. While Betty Friedman presented work as a liberating experience for women, work for many African American women originated from necessity as opposed to choice. The post-war economy and legislation proved more important vis-à-vis black women’s change in social roles than changes specifically to their political rights.
By 1990, not only had women entered the workplace in greater numbers, but were increasingly confident challenging the patriarchal nature of the employment structure, after they had won economic equality. Women used the union movement to demand more than they had ever done before; campaigns went above and beyond economic equality to demand a change in the patriarchal nature of employment structures. While women made substantial gains in the workplace, employers still viewed their participation through a patriarchal lens, as reflected in the glass ceiling which many women felt—and still feel—prevents them from reaching the top of their professions.