Areeba bint Khalid
Friday, June 26, 2009
From the 1800s to the present day, family life in the West has
remarkably changed. While the West calls this change part of the
women freedom movement, a look at history may show otherwise.
America before the 1800s was a farming country and ninety percent of
the population lived and worked on private farms. Households were
mainly self-sufficient–nearly everything needed was produced in the
house. The few things that could not be produced at home were bought
from local craftsmen. Some other things, especially imports from
Europe, were bought from stores. Males would take care of the fields
and females would take care of the home. In addition, they would
engage in spinning, knitting, weaving, and taking care of the farm
The Industrial Revolution, which began around the early 1800s,
brought a major change to this way of life. In 1807, in the wake of
the war between Great Britain and France, President Jefferson signed
the Embargo Act, which stopped all trade between Europe and America.
The Act meant that European goods would no longer be available in
the US and Americans would have to produce them. One major European
import to America was cloth, and so merchants used this opportunity
to create a cloth industry in America.
In 1814, Francis Cabot Lowell, a man from Boston opened the first
modern factory. Work here was to be done way faster than before.
Instead of manually making things in houses, things were to be made
at higher speeds in a factory and all stages of the work were to be
completed under the same roof. Now what Lowell needed were workers.
He found out that women, especially unmarried daughters of the
farmers, were more economical to use in labor than men. They were
also more willing to work as hired people in factories.
But Lowell had to make the working outside of home acceptable in a
society which was not used to it. He assured parents that their
daughters would be taken care of and kept under discipline. And he
built a boarding community where the women workers lived and worked
Soon after, more and more factories emerged across America. Factory
owners followed Lowell’s example of hiring unmarried women. By 1850
most of the country’s goods were made in factories. As production of
goods moved from the country to the city, people too moved from the
country to the city.
For money to be earned, people had to leave their homes. When women
worked on the farm, it was always possible to combine work and
family. When work for women moved outside the home, however, the
only women who could follow it were those without family
responsibilities or those who had no husband or no income. Likewise,
the only women who could take care of their families were the ones
that didn’t have work.
This working out of home became a part of life for unmarried women.
They would work until their marriage. But as time passed, women
found family life interfering with their work life and instead of
viewing working out of home as optional, they viewed family life as
such. Many women started delaying marriage even more and some
decided to stay single.
Married women however stayed home and dedicated their time to their
children. Now that there wasn’t any farm work to do, women had even
more time to spend with the children. In 1900 less than about 5.6%
of married women worked outside. If a married woman were to work, it
would be considered that her husband was invalid or that she was
World War I
The first major entry of married women to the workforce came during
World War I in 1914. Men went to fight the war and the country
needed workers to take over the jobs they left behind. Unmarried
women were not sufficient for the labor needs, so employers started
to invite married women too, to work. By 1919, 25% of the women in
the workforce were married. But this was only the beginning.
Another change World War I brought was the entry of women to the
army. About 13,000 women enlisted in the US Navy, mostly doing
clerical work–the first women in US history to be admitted to full
The Great Depression came in the 1930s. The unemployment rate
climbed from 3.2% in 1929 to 23.6% in 1932. Jobs became scarce for
skilled people and men. Fathers went to search for jobs. Some, under
despair, deserted their families. The responsibility of earning fell
on mothers in many families.
Most women and children, however, found jobs more easily than men
because of the segregation of work categories for men and women.
Although 80% of men during the Great Depression opposed their wives
entering the workforce under any circumstances, economic factors
made it necessary for the women to work. Hours were long and pay was
low. Twenty percent of white women were in the workforce.
World War II
World War II came in the early 1940s. Men were drafted to fight, and
America needed workers and supplies. Again, the employers looked
towards the women for labor. Unmarried and married women were
invited to work, as had been done during World War I.
But still, public opinion was generally against the working of
married women. The media and the government started a fierce
propaganda campaign to change this opinion. The federal government
told the women that victory could not be achieved without their
entry into the workforce. Working was considered part of being a
good citizen, a working wife was a patriotic person.
The government founded the Magazine Bureau in 1942. The Bureau
published Magazine War Guide, a guide which told magazines which
themes stories they should cover each month to aid war propaganda.
For September 1943, the theme was “Women at Work”. The slogan for
this was “The More Women at Work the Sooner We Win.” Magazines
developed stories that glorified and promoted the placement of women
into untraditional jobs where workers were needed. The idea was that
if smaller, unexciting jobs were portrayed as attractive and noble
more women would join the work force.
The media created Rosie the Riveter, a mythical character to
encourage women into the workforce. Rosie was portrayed as a
patriotic woman, a hero for all American women. “All the day long,
Whether rain or shine, She’s a part of the assembly line. She’s
making history, Working for victory, Rosie the Riveter… There’s
something true about, Red, white, and blue about, Rosie the
The propaganda efforts worked. More than six million women joined
the workforce during the war, the majority of them married women. In
1940, before the war, only 36% of women workers were married. By
1945, after the war, 50% of women workers were married. The middle
class taboo against a working wife had been repealed.
Post World War II
The 1950s marked an era of prosperity in the lives of American
families. Men returned from war and needed jobs. Once again, the
government and media got together to steer the opinion of the
public. This time, however, they encouraged women to return home,
which shows that the women were brought out not for their free
but because workers were needed.
But this effort was not as successful and was abandoned quickly.
First, women from lower economic ranks had to remain in the
workforce because of economic necessity. And second, there came the
rise of consumer culture.
The baby boom took place during the 1950s as well. Women who
returned home dedicated their lives once again to their children.
But around the same time an important change had come in the
American life. This was the spread of the television. By 1960, 90%
of the population owned at least one set. Families would gather
around the screen for entertainment. In the early days, everything
including commercials was watched with great interest.
Most middle-class families could not afford the goods the television
declared necessary to maintain or enhance quality of life with one
paycheck alone. Many women returned to work in order to live
according to “the American standard of living,” whatever that meant
The number of American women in the workforce from 1940 to 1950
increased by nine percent. From 1930 to 1940 there had only been a
three percent increase.
As mothers returned to work, the television became the most
important caretaker of a child. Children in the 1950s spent most of
their non-sleeping hours in front of the television screen.
In 1940, less than 8.6% of mothers with children under eighteen
worked. By 1987, 60.2% of women with children under eighteen were
As wives assumed larger roles in their family’s financial support,
they felt justified in demanding that husbands perform more
childcare and housework. Across the years, divorce rates doubled
reaching a level where at least 1 out of 2 marriages was expected to
end in divorce. Marriage rates and birthrates declined. The number
of single parent families rapidly increased. People grew unhappy
with their lives, when compared to the lives of people on
Women working affected the society in many different ways. The first
and most important of these was that children with working mothers
were left alone without the care of a mother. As the number of
working women increased, the number of children growing up
unsupervised increased, and with this increased crime among teens.
Since most women placed their career ahead of family life, family
life was greatly affected since unmarried women were generally able
to make more money than married ones. For example, according to a
study by a Harvard economist, women physicians who were unmarried
and had no children earned thirteen percent more per year than those
who were married and fifteen percent more than those with children.
The majority of women still work at the lower levels of the economic
pyramid. Most are employed in clerical positions, factory work,
retail sales, or service jobs. Around 50% of the workforce is
female. While about 78% of all cashiers and 99% of all secretaries
today are female, only 31% of managers and administrators are
female. Equality in the workplace has been a mirage but it has
conned millions of women into leaving their homes and destroying the
It was only when economic or political factors made it necessary to
get more workers that women were called to work. The Industrial
Revolution, the Great Depression, and the World Wars, all the major
events which increased the proportion of women workers, were times
when the capitalists required more workers in order to be successful
in their plans and so they used women.
The move of women from home to the public workforce has been
gradual. First poor women went. Then unmarried women. Then married
women without children. Then married women without young children.
And then, all women. The same thing can be seen to be happening in
developing countries around the world, as the West spreads its
propaganda of freedom for women to work. The results of this move
will probably be the same too.
-Hawes, Joseph M., ed. American Families: A Research Guide and
Historical Handbook. New York: Greenwood Press,- 1990.
-Mintz, Steven. Domestic Revolutions. New York: the Free Press,
-Gary B. Nash, American Odyssey. New York: Glencoe McGraw-Hill,
-Wilson, Margaret Gibbons. The American Woman in Transition.
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1979.
-Goldstein, Joshua S. War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War
System and Vice Versa. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
-U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau. Women in the Force,
-The Library of Congress Rosie the Riveter: Real Women Workers in
World War II. http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/journey/rosie-transcript.html