50 most common jobs held by women 100 years ago
The past century has been a remarkable one for women in the workplace. Today their presence is generally unquestioned and, at least before the pandemic, women outnumbered men. As of December 2020, women held 50.04% of the jobs in the United States, not counting farm workers and the self-employed, according to the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the 1920s, more than 8 million women, or 1 in 5, were earning salaries, typically as clerks, waitresses, teachers, and telephone operators, laboring amid attitudes that women should not work outside the home if their husbands were employed and that working women were taking jobs away from men who needed them more. Plenty of high-paying, powerful jobs were kept out of women’s reach, and women often were expected to quit their paying jobs if they got married.
Women only got the right to vote in 1920, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law by President Frankin D. Roosevelt, established a minimum wage, standardized work week, a requirement to pay overtime, and child labor bans in 1938. Not until 1963 did the Equal Pay Act formally forbid paying men and women different wages for the same work.
Of course, problems persist. Women make about 81 cents for every dollar earned by men, and the explosive #MeToo movement illustrated how untold numbers of women have struggled with sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.
Stacker has compiled a list of the most common jobs held by women a century ago by looking at comparison tables from 1920 in the 1940 U.S. Census. The Census occupation classifications have been lightly edited, and some classifications have been removed from the dataset due to a lack of specitivity.
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#50. Artists, sculptors, and teachers of art
- Total female employment: 14,617
Creative occupations were open to women in the arts, and teaching was considered a natural extension of motherhood. In the 19th century, teaching had been a male profession, but industrialization brought more lucrative jobs, leaving education to women. Waves of immigration also fueled a need for teachers, especially in cities. By the 20th century, some three-quarters of teachers were women.
#49. Building, general and not specified laborers
- Total female employment: 15,235
Most women had minimal education in the early 20th century, which limited their opportunities to jobs like unskilled laborers. A 1929 report by the Women’s Bureau, a government advocacy agency established in 1920, said while women’s wages were critical to their family finances, the earnings of unskilled laborers were less than what was needed for a “a decent standard of living.”
#48. Restaurant, cafe and lunchroom keepers
- Total female employment: 15,644
Women were educated in home economics, learning nutrition, cooking, and food management, and got food service jobs in factories, institutions, and schools. Statistics from early in the 20th century show there was one female restaurant keeper for every five male keepers. Women also dominated such jobs in cafeterias and tea rooms, both considered eating places suited for women.
#47. Cotton mill laborers
- Total female employment: 16,669
In cotton mills, women mostly worked in the spinning room, where they tended to the machines that spun the cotton into weavable thread, while men did the heavier lifting, fed the fiber into carding machines, or worked as weavers. Mill workers put in 10- to 12-hour shifts six days a week, laboring in loud, hot conditions in air filled with lint and dust. Women often brought babies and children to their mill jobs, where they would help or start learning skills for their own future employment.
#46. Glove factory operatives
- Total female employment: 16,773
As of 1920, women comprised about a fifth of the U.S. labor force, and many worked in apparel manufacturing. Gloves were still a popular fashion accessory, although on the decline as standards of modesty loosened, and tanned rather than pale skin became popular.
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#45. Telegraph/radio operators
- Total female employment: 16,860
The expansion of the nation’s telegraph system helped modernize business and finance when stock and commodities prices could be transmitted rapidly across the country. These early telecommunications created a demand for skilled operators, and women were hired in part because smaller hands were deemed to be suitable for the quick, detailed work and because they could be paid less than men.
#44. Rubber factory operatives
- Total female employment: 18,834
The rubber industry, and jobs in it, expanded rapidly with the demand for automobile tires, but took a hit from overproduction and tightening credit ahead of the Great Depression. Typically in factories in 1920, men would be paid 40 cents an hour, and women were paid 25 cents an hour.
#43. Charwomen and cleaners
- Total female employment: 24,955
In the 1920s, charwomen cleaned office buildings, scrubbing staircases and scouring floors. A Massachusetts state survey in 1919 of some 200 buildings found nearly all the charwomen were being paid less than $9 a week, well below the $11.65 that was considered minimal pay. The state legislature mandated a nine-hour workday for women, on grounds that they were frail and in need of protection, and many buildings responded by firing the charwomen and replacing them with men who were not covered by such restrictions.
#42. Religious and social workers
- Total female employment: 26,927
Social work jobs took off in the early 1900s with a rise in public awareness and efforts on behalf of people in need. Jane Addams, a pioneer in social work, was one of the first women to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Addams built settlement houses for immigrants in Chicago. Social worker Frances Perkins was appointed secretary of labor in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, becoming the first woman to serve in the U.S. cabinet.
#41. Electrical machinery and supply factory operatives
- Total female employment: 27,389
In 1920, nearly a quarter of employed women were working in manufacturing. The U.S. Congress established the Women’s Bureau, a federal agency, to oversee the working conditions of women in industry and advocate for the welfare of working women.
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