History of the American Working Woman

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HIS310: American women’s history|
Sphere of Life|
Jonathan C. Pape|

[This essay details the history of working women in American history. From colonial times through today's business woman. Goes over the challenges and breakthroughs in roughly each era with references.]|

It was not long ago when women were looked upon as slaves to the hard- working man. In today's society women now are more respected and are acceptable for many jobs equivalent to men. Yet, long before our time during the creation of this great nation, women were second class citizens, thought to only hold reign over a household not a workplace. During World War II, women were given an opportunity to prove their worth out of necessity for workers, then expected to return to the household chores and structure, this taste of freedom sparked their own revolution of equality in this ever changing new nation of America. Women then took their stand and many acts were passed in their favor. In this essay I shall be discussing the many different requirements women went through from colonial times, during World War II and through to today.

The ships that brought over the very first settlers of Jamestown and Plymouth also brought a surplus of social ideology. Women’s place was submissive and obedient. “Tradition provided her with secondary status in the family, where she served her husband, cared for her children, and worked in the household.” (Woloch, p. 16)

The seventeenth-century housewife, in her confined living space, was expected to commit to “housewifery” as the only job she was capable of in her daily life. This meant the lifelong production of food, clothing, and household items; the newer the region, the more rugged the job. It was shocking for Mary Rowlandson, while in captivity, to witness Native American women in charge of the business of trading as well as farming and housing demands.

For most of the eighteenth century, women lagged behind, locked in a traditional mold. “Whatever her locale or station in society, the contours of a women’s life were defined by her dependent role in the family.” (Woloch, p. 66) One promising movement for women in the workplace came about when the Ladies Magazine was created in 1828. Edited by woman, this magazine pushed for a new generation of independent women to stand up for their rights in family and public circles. Many upper class women began social clubs to help out those in need. This was one of the first time in history that women could flex their intellectual muscles in the world and a huge stepping stone into the workforce.

When Alexander Hamilton wrote his Report on Manufacturers in 1791, seeking ways to develop industry in the United States, he identified women and children as a source of cheap labor. Later, in the 1820s, the textile mills of New England, most notably those in Lowell, Massachusetts, hired young women from the surrounding farms as workers, viewing them as more tractable than men and more willing to earn less, since presumably they would stop working once they married.

To make matters worse for female laborers, workingmen often saw them as threats to their status, especially as new machines permitted less skilled operatives to perform tasks formerly assigned to craftsmen. Thus, it is not surprising that as men attempted to unionize in order to combat declining pay and status, their leaders often ignored female workers. Women, however, were eager to assume roles in the fledgling labor movement. As early as the 1820s, female workers in Lowell engaged in "turnouts" or work stoppages when employers sought to cut workers' paychecks.

In 1844, women from the mills formed themselves into the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA). At a time when females seldom spoke in public, the women of Lowell, led by the intrepid Sarah Bagley, testified fearlessly before the Massachusetts legislature that...
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