Women in Industry Heading

 

   


Progressive Era (1880-1930)

The vast majority of women who had professional and clerical jobs were white.  African-American women did hold professional positions, but their opportunities were much more limited.  Ida B. Wells, an African-American woman from Mississippi, led anti-lynching and anti-segregation efforts in the South in the 1880s and 1890s and went on to write articles for various leftist newspapers and serve as a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Some black women found work as teachers, nurses, and midwives, and clerks in African-American business.  Still, there were very few professional and white-collar jobs open to black women. (57)   The same was true for immigrant women.  While opportunities in professional and white-collar jobs did exist for non-white and foreign-born women, they were more limited than the occupations open to white, native-born women.   

Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells

Clerks for the National Youth Association in Chicago
Clerks for the National Youth Association in Chicago

Stock Market Crash, 1929
Stock Market Crash, 1929

In the early 20th century, women were, for the most part, working in traditionally-female occupations.  New professional and white collar jobs emerged for women, but they were almost entirely limited to white women.  In response to growing social and economic inequalities, working class and middle class women were highly involved in labor reform campaigns. Women unionists and reformers during the Progressive era adhered to the idea of “bread and roses.” They initiated collective bargaining and legislative efforts for improved working conditions as well as benefits like education and healthcare.  Aside from the short-lived Knights of Labor, the most successful organizational campaigns were among native-born white women—the middle class progressive organizations, and the waitresses, teachers, and telephone operators unions.  Ethnic and racial prejudice created barriers blocking successful reform: immigrants in manufacturing who organized, like those in the ILGWU, faced brutal opposition from law enforcement, and the occupations most important to blacks and immigrants, like agriculture and domestic service, were the most difficult to organize and experienced the least successful reform.   The United States’ entrance into World War I in 1917 created an ultra-patriotic environment that was hostile industrial regulation and government spending on social welfare.  These factors stunted the atmosphere for progressive change and labor reform.  It wasn’t until 1929, the year of the fatal stock market crash that crippled the economy and sent the country into a decade-long Depression, that a new wave of social and economic reform emerged:  the New Deal. 
 

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Image 1 fom PBS, Image 2 from the New York Public Library, Image 3 from Authentic History

 

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