The majority of American women did not work outside the home in the early 20th century, and those who did were mainly young and single. Only 5% of married women were classified as “gainful workers” at that time, which accounted for just 20% of all women who participated in the labour force outside the home. These statistics undoubtedly understate the economic contributions made by married women outside of raising children and taking care of the home, as they frequently work in family businesses and produce goods for sale at home. Additionally, the total statistics mask the differences in experiences between women of different races. About two times as many African American women participated.
The fact that many women quit their jobs after getting married was a reflection of social expectations, the type of work that was available to them, and legal limitations. The career options available to young women who did work were severely constrained. The majority of women had little to no education, and those who did worked in filthy, frequently dangerous jobs such as domestic work or as piece workers in factories. There were not many educated women. Only one-third of people between the ages of 18 and 24 who were enrolled in higher education—less than 2% of the total—were women. Even though these women were exempt from manual labour, their options were still limited.
Despite the widespread prejudice against married women working outside the home and the few opportunities available to them, women did join the labour force in greater numbers during this time, with participation rates for single women reaching nearly 50% by 1930 and for married women reaching nearly 12%. This increase suggests that while there was still an incentive—and frequently an imperative—for women to leave the workforce after marriage so they could rely on their husband’s income, social mores were shifting. These years did, in fact, coincide with the so-called first wave of the women’s movement, during which time women banded together to demand reform on a number of social issues, such as suffrage and temperance.
Women’s economic participation increased between the 1930s and the middle of the 1970s, with the gains primarily attributable to an increase in work among married women. In the labour force by 1970, 40% of married women and 50% of single women respectively. This increase was caused by a number of things. First, graduation rates significantly increased as high school enrollment increased. The need for clerical workers increased concurrently as a result of new technologies, and women were more frequently employed in these positions. Moreover, the stigma associated with work for a married woman faded because these jobs typically tended to be cleaner and safer. And while there were still laws against marriage that prevented women from working,