Women at Work

One of the most significant sociological changes in the nation’s history began in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the ramifications are still being felt today. This change consisted of the large numbers of women who entered the work force. This dramatic change in American society was accompanied by a great deal of controversy and prejudice directed towards women. It was predicted that female employment would bring about the downfall of society and the change of the American family.
While a large portion of the public was appalled by the thought of independent young working women, they were also fascinated. Therefore, the attitudes of the public toward these women can be seen in the literature that was produced at that time. The works of Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser immediately come to mind as dramatizations of the life of women of this period.
Slowly, attitudes began to change. The employment opportunities for women enlarged and women began to slowly gain their rights as full citizens, finally receiving the right to vote in 1920. The attitudes of the women in the work force also changed as time progressed. At first, they struggled for even the opportunity to work. As the century progressed, they became more active in union activities and, as newspapers from the period demonstrate, they fought to achieve better working conditions and better wages.
By 1900, many poor and working-class young women, mostly of Northern white extraction, were leaving the confines and moral structures of their families and elders and venturing forth to the large industrial cities such as New York (Lunbeck 781). There they became enthusiastic participants of the new pleasures that were offered to consumers in the brand-new century. Essentially, these young women added a stage to the female life cycle that had not previously existed nadolescence (Lunbeck 781).
In the 1890s, female factory workers were seen as a serious economic and social threat. Because women generally worked at the bottom of the pay scale, the theory was that they depressed the overall pay scale for all workers (Kessler-Harris 98). Many solutions were suggested at this time that all revolved around the idea of these women getting marriedothe idea being that a married woman would not work for wages. Although this idea seems ludicrous from a modern perspective, it should be noted that the idea persisted well into the twentieth century (Kessler-Harris 99). Even at the time, however, there were female voices that argued against the prevailing prejudices, thus showing that the attitudes of the women, themselves, were changing.
Nevertheless, the prejudice against female workers essentially allowed their employers at the various factories to blame the women themselves for their low wages. The standard argument was that these women did not “need” to work. Part of this concept was that these women were supported by fathers, brothers, etc. and only wanted the jobs so they would have money for nice clothes and “extras”. Despite numerous government statistics that demonstrated financial need by many female workers, the prevailing attitude was that women brought their low earnings on themselves (Kessler-Harris 100).
This, of course, totally ignored the government statistics that pertained to immigrant families and minorities, where family finances were the prime motivating factor towards women joining the work force (Kessler-Harris 123). Additionally, the census figures that showed immigrant wives as not working failed to take into consideration that these women were usually employed as their husband’s assistants (Anonymous 25; Kessler-Harris 124).
Those knowledgeable about working conditions within New York’s factories found the facts to be far different from this scenario. While some women lived at home, many did not. At a weekly wage of eight to ten dollars per week, these women generally paid five to six of that for their rooms (Barnum 7). Women who made less then eight dollars per week had to find a place that rented for less and she generally made up the difference by working for her board. This meant that many women rose at 5 a.m. and did domestic chores for their board, then put in their workday, and then returned for home for more domestic work (Barnum 7). A male, who generally made anywhere from 15% to


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