Living Wages, Equal Wages: Gender and Labor Market Policies in the United States

By Deborah M. Figart; Ellen Mutari et al. | Go to book overview
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Waged work in the twentieth century

Many of us take for granted the idea that most people, male or female, will hold down jobs for much of their lives. Waged work is so much a normal part of our lives that we lose sight of the fact that it was once a controversial activity. During the early days of U.S. nationhood, the Jeffersonian ideal was a relatively self-sufficient farmer who owned land, worked his farm with his family, and produced most necessities at home. In pursuit of this ideal, the territory of the U.S. was expanded westward, repeatedly displacing the Native American inhabitants, to carve out farms for European American settlers. Given access to land, who would choose to submit themselves to an employer or risk unemployment due to changed fortunes or mere whim? Wage labor was scarce. In its place, there was slavery or indentured servitude. In the South, those who could afford not to do their own labor often kept slaves. People who could not afford to pay the fare to come to the U.S. - debtors, and some criminals - were sold as indentured servants to work until their monetary or social debts were repaid, a temporary form of bondage. In the urban areas of the North, independent artisans (for example, silversmiths, cobblers, and blacksmiths) took on apprentices and journeymen who lived with the family until they could set up their own business.

Industrialization, beginning around the 1820s, led employers to search out new sources of labor, in particular people who would work for wages. Some of the pioneers in waged work were young, white, single daughters of farm families. Sons were used in the fields or were migrating west, mothers ran the household, and fathers certainly would not submit to the indignity of employment. But time could be allocated in girls' lives between their training in household crafts and their future as farm wives for the earning of money to raise their families' standards of living, pay off farm debts, or build dowries. 1 In some of the first factories, they spun thread, just as they had done at home. Young women were also sent to work as domestic servants in the homes of wealthier families.

However, as the availability of land declined while industrialization expanded over the course of the nineteenth century, the nature and meaning of waged work began to change. “Heavy” industries developed, including railroads, iron and steel, and oil refining. Paid employment became defined


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Living Wages, Equal Wages: Gender and Labor Market Policies in the United States


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