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50 most common jobs held by women 100 years ago

  • #10. Farmers

    - Total female employment: 265,577

    Farming was a family business, and women did every job from menial tasks to the finances, and they often supplemented the family income by selling eggs and produce for cash. They also handled seasonal jobs like slaughtering, canning, and pickling. The 1920s were a time of agricultural depression, and farmers faced falling prices, a need to buy costly machinery for large-scale harvests, debt, and the threat of foreclosure.

  • #9. Cooks

    - Total female employment: 268,618

    Not only was cooking a traditional role for women, but they started learning domestic science, or home economics, at schools that included culinary training. In the early 20th century, domestic science education at colleges and universities trained women in nutrition, quantity cooking, and large-scale dining management, and those degrees helped them find work in the restaurant and hospitality industries.

  • #8. Saleswomen (stores)

    - Total female employment: 356,321

    The rise of department stores, which offered customers a wide selection of goods and the chance to aspire and browse, provided jobs for urban working-class women. Saleswomen were paid half as much as men, considered a stable workforce because they had fewer other job options, and were familiar with household products for sale. But while the jobs entailed shorter hours than factory work, saleswomen faced huge fines for job infractions like sitting down as well as uncompensated overtime and sexual harassment.

  • #7. Bookkeepers, cashiers, and accountants

    - Total female employment: 359,124

    Economic growth created demand for clerical workers such as bookkeepers, cashiers, and accountains. Such jobs were seen as an improvement over factory work, and by the 1920s, public schools were teaching classes for girls in office skills. The jobs tended to be filled by young women who were expected to leave when they got married.

  • #6. Launderers and laundresses (not in laundry)

    - Total female employment: 385,874

    Launderers and laundresses took in other people’s washing or worked in other people’s homes. The job would involve sorting, washing, starching, ironing, and folding. As of 1920, about a quarter of laundry workers in Chicago were Black, working jobs that provided a step out of agricultural work. The jobs fell into decline with the Great Depression, when people could no longer hire outside help, and with the growing use of electric washing machines.

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  • #5. Non-store clerks

    - Total female employment: 472,163

    These days, a non-store clerk would likely work in an enterprise that is not brick and mortar, like Amazon or other e-business. A hundred years ago, it might have meant clerks working in back offices. By the 1920s, such jobs were so acceptable and plentiful for women that clerical skills were taught in Chicago’s public schools.

  • #4. Stenographers and typists

    - Total female employment: 564,744

    Stenographers used shorthand to take down dictation, and typists wrote it up, typically in groups or pools, and speed was critical. The jobs were considered stepping stones to becoming office secretaries.

  • #3. Teachers

    - Total female employment: 639,241

    Teaching was considered an acceptable job for women, but the wages were terrible and conditions difficult. Teachers could lose their jobs for their teaching methods, criticizing an administrator, wearing the wrong clothing or hairstyle, being over 40, or getting married.

  • #2. Servants

    - Total female employment: 743,515

    Fitting traditional roles, women had options to be domestic servants, such as housekeepers, housemaids who had lower status, governesses, nannies, and nursery maids. As fans of television’s period piece “Downton Abbey” know, lady’s maids helped the women of the house with dressing, fixing their hair, applying their makeup, and running their baths.

  • #1. Farm laborers

    - Total female employment: 890,230

    Nearly a third of all Americans worked on farms a century ago, when the farm population numbered almost 32 million, according to U.S. Census data. Everyone in the family had responsibilities, including women and children, who gathered eggs, tended to gardens, preserved vegetables, and milked cows.

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