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50 most common jobs held by women 100 years ago

  • #20. Boarding and lodging housekeepers

    - Total female employment: 114,740

    Demand for boarding and lodging grew as workers, especially women, would move away from home to find jobs. In 1923, 1 in 5 employed young women lived away from their family home. Some estimates say as many as a half to a third of American families in cities took in boarders and lodgers in the early 20th century.

  • #19. Waitresses

    - Total female employment: 116,921

    In the 1920s, low- and moderate-priced restaurants like cafeterias and luncheonettes grew popular, and it became more common for families to go out for meals, especially on Sundays. In these less formal eateries, women instead of men were hired as servers and became the majority of food-service staff. Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 negated concerns over women serving alcohol, and waitresses were considered friendlier and more attractive to customers.

  • #18. Other clothing factories operatives

    - Total female employment: 124,350

    Women working in clothing factories held most of the jobs on the shop floor, but rarely moved to higher paying positions. Public awareness and concern over their working conditions improved in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 in New York City that came to symbolize abusive working conditions. The fire broke on the eighth floor of the Triangle garment factory, and 146 workers died, most of them young female immigrants, trapped by locked doors and a lack of fire exits.

     

  • #17. Midwives and nurses (not trained)

    - Total female employment: 137,431

    Jobs as midwives were waning as the medical profession adopted the attitude that births required trained professional doctors in hospital settings. But while a growing number of middle-class women began choosing doctors over midwives and home births, midwifery did expand in isolated regions and among poor and immigrant communities.

  • #16. Trained nurses

    - Total female employment: 143,664

    At the turn of the century, most nurses went into private duty, working for individual patients in their homes, but that changed with World War I, when 23,000 American nurses served in the military. When they returned home, they could use their training at hospitals that were providing increasingly sophisticated care.

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  • #15. Cotton mills operatives

    - Total female employment: 149,185

    Women living in the South could find work in textile mills. Women tended to hold mill jobs that involved guiding the fibers into machines that cleaned and smoothed the cotton before spinning. Women were often preferred as employees because they could be paid less than men. Mills in the South did not hire Black women, however, due to segregation policies.

  • #14. In-store clerks

    - Total female employment: 170,397

    The growth of large-scale retailing at the start of the 20th century provided unprecedented job opportunities to women as in-store clerks. Before the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, they worked long hours, standing all day on their feet in poor conditions for low pay. Yet sales clerk jobs were considered respectable and sought after, compared with options such as domestic or factory work.

     

  • #13. Telephone operators

    - Total female employment: 178,379

    Originally, operators at early telephone companies who manually connected calls on a switchboard were teenage boys. But they proved to be unruly employees, and the idea of hiring women for their more soothing voices was introduced. These “hello girls” often took diction and elocution classes to improve their voices, and immigrants with discernible accents weren’t hired. This avenue of employment for women grew as more homes acquired telephones.

  • #12. Housekeepers and stewards

    - Total female employment: 204,530

    More women worked in domestic service than in any other occupation according to every 10-year census from 1870 to 1940. Housekeepers were the heads of female staff, managing employees that might include cooks, nannies, housemaids, kitchen maids, laundry maids, and scullery maids.

  • #11. Dressmakers and seamstresses (not in factory)

    - Total female employment: 235,519

    Seamstress and dressmaking jobs were open to women, although they were low-paying, seasonal, and demanding, but they were under pressure in the early 1900s with the expansion of department stores and ready-to-wear fashion. Mary Brooks Picken, who would write nearly 100 books on sewing and dressmaking, opened the Women’s Domestic Institute correspondence school in Scranton, Pennsylvania, that taught women to sew and set up businesses as seamstresses.

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