Now Hiring: The Feminization of Work in the United States, 1900-1995

By Julia Kirk Blackwelder | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE

Class, Mobility, and Women's Work
THE 1920s

In the years after 1900, the world's most productive industrial economy diversified to meet the service needs of the United States's ever growing, increasingly complex, urbanized population. Consumer goods such as automobiles, electric washing machines, and radios proliferated and markets swelled as merchandisers invested in glitzy advertising and discovered selling on credit. Retailers such as Macy's and Marshall Field's and manufacturers such as General Electric and Ford devoted increasing employer hours to management and record keeping. Corporate office buildings rose to top skylines long dominated by factory smokestacks. More and bigger schools and hospitals opened to serve a population increasingly aware of the importance of education and health care.

Changing patterns of women's employment in the first three decades of the twentieth century attended the emergence and expansion of the service sector and the professions, a process that enticed increasing numbers of middle-class women into the workforce and provided upward mobility for many women of both the middle and working classes. Demographic trends also intensified labor's call to women as the total U.S. population grew more slowly than the demand for new workers, a result of declining fertility and the decrease of European immigration after the outbreak of World War I. Overall, the percentage of women working rose from one in five in 1900 to one in four by 1930.

Within this growing population of women workers, a major restructuring reflected the country's broad economic trends. White-collar employment expanded, while the number of blue-collar jobs stagnated or declined. Between 1910 and 1920, for example, the number of women holding clerical jobs tripled, while the female labor force grew by only 16 percent overall--a trend that World War I accelerated and that continued into the 1920s (see table 3.1). Women's white-collar employ-

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