Work is the dominant form of human experience. Our work helps determine self-image, our interaction with others, and can provide meaning in our lives. Human labor is essential in determining our economic and cultural survival. The forms work takes have changed drastically through the years with changing technology and the changing organizational patterns at the work place.
Until the American Revolution, at least ninety percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas and farmed. Everyone pitched in to provide for the family needs, but there was a sharp division of labor by gender. This division of labor is as old as human history.
Women’s work was diverse and endless. They looked after the cleanliness of the house, made, mended and washed the clothes, prepared meals on the open fire, preserved foods, made soap, candles, and most medicines well into the 19th century, and also helped the men in the fields at planting and harvesting time. On top of this, they would bear and rear an average of six children. The colonial woman was by no means a dainty or weak creature.
With the rise of industrialization at the beginning of the 19th century, and the flowering of capitalism, labor began to be viewed as a product which could be bought and sold at the marketplace. This change established a new hierarchy for work between paid and unpaid labor because for the first time large numbers of men and some women began to work for wages outside the home. Some of the products women had produced in the home were now produced in factories. Families grew dependent on wages to buy these necessary products. As families grew dependent on wages, the value of housework and child rearing were denigrated in the money economy. But, by the early 1800s, though many working class women worked outside the home, there was a clear acceptance by middle class society that woman’s place was in the home, where work had less value.
In the early 19th century, textile mills in New England provided the first opportunity for large numbers of women to work outside the home in non-domestic labor. Until the 1830s many women between sixteen and twenty-one lived with other families as servants and nursemaids to save money for a dowry before marriage. The opening of the textile mills provided an option for single women which many chose. Though closely supervised at the mills, the women were independent of family; they made more money; and they worked shorter hours. For employers, they provided a cheaper source of labor than men. Until the first immigrant wave of Irish in the late 1830s, it was respectable for native born white single women to work in these factories. However, it was always understood that they would return to domestic pursuits after marriage.
The immigrants changed the nature of the work force, while at the same time new technologies changed the types of jobs they performed. Mills became more structured and time-oriented, machines spun faster determining the pace of production, and employment was no longer seasonal. The Irish women saw factory work as a permanent job and so had a different outlook on their position.
Even though by 1850, white women, including immigrants, worked in 175 different occupations in the U.S., the great majority of non-farm laborers were found in two extensions of traditional women’s work: domestic service, and manufacture of clothing and processing of food. (The great majority of black women in the U.S. were still in slavery.) Of the total one million laborers who worked in factories, twenty-five percent were women. In New England, about one-third were women, with Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island in the forefront.
Middle class women were bound to their culturally defined “proper sphere” at home. They saw respectability only in such jobs as teaching and nursing and felt working class women were involved in activities inherently lacking in virtue and purity. Working class women saw their worth degraded even more when they discovered their wages were one-fourth to one-third those of working men doing the same jobs.
In 1880, the largest number of wage-earning women in the U.S. were employed in manufacturing and domestic work. In the factories they were concentrated in the production of clothing, boots and shoes, and food processing. Wage labor outside the home was sanctioned to a certain degree if it was merely a continuation of work within women’s sphere. The second largest group of women worked as domestics in private homes, a continuation of work they had always done. Working as a servant, however, had little prestige and less attraction. As Charlotte Holloway, Connecticut’s industrial investigator found in 1916:
No matter what euphonious title of “mother’s helper” or what other form we disguise it, the cold fact is that there is a relation of one woman submitting to another and the feeling of independence is chafing at such social distinction.
Even so, there were so few good jobs open to women in 1880 that many had no choice but to enter domestic service. If women did have an alternative, they grabbed it and as the 20th century dawned, new options did open due to economic and technological change.
For black women, employment opportunities were even fewer. Though a black woman was at least twice as likely to work, and worked for more years than a white woman, most were consigned to domestic and agricultural work. In Connecticut, many black women worked in the tobacco fields, but few were allowed in the factories.
Historically, then, women have had limited opportunities in the work force. Although as far back as the farm girls working in the Lowell mills in the 1830s, there are records of job actions for better pay and improved working conditions, there are few examples of sustained labor organization before 1910. There were four factors which made organization for women difficult:
1. their youth and the temporary nature of most women’s careers;
2. the tendency of gender discrimination in job choice creating an overabundance of women in those occupations available;
3. the concentration in the unorganized fields of agriculture, domestic and personal service, trade, and clerical service; and
4. the open hostility of many male dominated craft unions.
Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 2Oth century, women began to use their bargaining power collectively with some degree of effectiveness.
In the late 19th century, most, though not all, middle class women believed that something was wrong if a woman was working outside the home after she was married. With the emerging reform movements, small numbers of educated women entered the professions. Before marriage it was acceptable to become a teacher, but almost any other job was seen as endangering the moral virtue and delicacy of the proper “lady.” In reality, a great number of women worked, made choices open to them, and survived in the work place. Because production had moved out of the home, and more Americans became part of a money economy, women and children were forced to work because laboring men could not support their families on wages. The majority of these women had to work at monotonous, low paid, dead end jobs during the day, go home in the evening and take care of the meals, housekeeping duties, and child rearing, while being condemned by society for losing their virtue by going out to work every day.