The Education of the Working Girl
As the nineteenth century passed, industrialization's widening arc cast factories and shops, cities and suburbs across America's vast and fertile spaces. As this process created ever more jobs beyond farm and home, it exerted pressure on U.S. education, public and private, to reconstruct its curricula, for factories and stores, locomotives and banks, telegraphs and tenements demanded skills and disciplines different from those required on the farm. Increasingly mechanized and systematized production required literacy and numeracy even among unskilled workers. In addition, the modern economy compelled submission to industrial time discipline in which management, not the family or self-regulating artisans, decided the hours, pace, and content of work, a willingness, as one ballad laments, to "let this manufacturer use my body as a tool." In the nineteenth century, U.S. education, always sensitive to the needs of business and attuned to dictates of gender convention, had applied itself to these tasks, adding, in the latter half of the era, some measure of vocational education to teach basic mechanical skills to boys and office as well as domestic skills to girls.
As the twentieth century approached, the ramifying complexities of the industrial economy, including the rise of service businesses and the multiplication of management functions, increased the number of jobs available and the skills required to do many of them. Scientific advances had a similar impact on medicine, dentistry, and nursing. Altogether these developments demanded a workforce larger than the male population could furnish, included tasks that few men would do, and created white-collar jobs outside the factory in numbers that the middle class could not (or would not) supply. For some working-class women, these shortages offered opportunities to move up the social and occupational scale, but labor demands rarely created a bridge across traditional gender barriers.