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Opportunities for Women in 1950s

Introduction

For many Americans, the 1950s evokes images of tree-lined streets, kids riding their bikes through pristine neighborhoods and women in heels and skirts making dinner, vacuuming the house and doing the wash; televisions shows of the era like the "Donna Reed Show", "Leave it to Beaver", and "Father Knows Best", reinforce these stereotypes. As a result, many believe that women seldom worked outside the home during that decade.

In some ways this belief is not completely inaccurate because there were strong cultural forces that advocated for women to remain in the home. However, because of labor shortages during World War II many women had entered the workforce. and in the post-war era they continued to work for various reasons although many were forced to move into more traditional fields.

Why did women work?

External forces and internal needs shaped women’s participation in the workforce during the 1950s. During the first half of the decade shortages in professions traditionally populated by women (like nursing, teaching, social work, stenography, and typing) drove employment agencies to recruit single and married women to help fill vacant posts. Additionally, as married couples moved to the suburbs and filled their homes with the latest appliances women often pursued work to allow their family to live in the manner they felt they deserved. Women who had the opportunity to pursue a post-secondary education were also more likely to enter the workforce; these women were the most fortunate as they could demand higher salaries than their less educated counterparts. Lastly, many women worked simply because they derived personal satisfaction from it..

Who were the women in the work place and where did they work?

In 1950 women comprised 29% of the work force and as the decade went on that number only increased. Given the cultural messages women were receiving, one would have expected participation would have been limited to women without children or women whose children had grown. While women over 35 comprised half of the women in the workplace, 40% of married women with small children were also employed.

Unlike the women of World War II, who enjoyed greater freedom of choice when looking for employment most women had no other option than to apply for positions that were considered traditionally female. In the second half of the decade 70% of all employed women were working in clerical positions, on factory assembly lines or in the service industry. Less than 15% of women were employed in a professional capacity and the number of women in management was even far less, topping out at 6%. Industries were also segregated based on race with white women dominating the clerical, service, and sales positions. African-American women were mostly relegated to working as domestic servants and often performed physically demanding work for very low wages. However, the widespread availability of appliances in the home left many domestic service workers found unemployed and forced to seek work in the commercial sector.

What was the government’s response?

The Department of Labor responded to the labor shortages of the early 1950s by creating programs to train and educate women to fill professional positions. It even went so far as to suggest training women for non-traditional jobs. At the same time, research by the Women’s Bureau, a section of the Department of Labor, suggested that women were increasingly dependent upon their wages as a means to support themselves and their families. Women’s organizations began calling for equal pay in order to ensure that women could survive on their wages. Legislation regarding equal pay for women was brought before Congress several times in the 1950s and even with the support of such organizations such as The National Women’s Trade Union League, the League of Women Voters, The Consumer’s League, and several unions. Unfortunately it failed to reach the floor.

Conclusion

In the 1950s women made some gains in the workplace, but they were not necessarily felt across the board. While it became more acceptable for women to work outside the home most women were still relegated to industries that were considered traditionally female. Minority women had even fewer choices because they were only permitted to work in low paying and physically taxing domestic service jobs. The Federal Government, unions and women’s organizations all tried to ameliorate the situation for women, with mixed results. It would take the social upheaval of the next decade to bring about substantial changes for women in the workplace.

Sources:

Baughman, Judith S., et al, eds. American Decades. 10 vols. Detroit: Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Electronic.

Foner, Philip. Women and the American Labor Movement. New York: The Free Press, 1980. Print.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: a History of Wage-earning Women in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

Weiner, Lynn Y. From Working Girl to Working Mother. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1985. Print.