Women in Industry Heading



Progressive Era (1880-1930)

leaders of the women's trade league
Pauline Newman was a member of the
Women's Trade Union League

“A working girl is a human being with a heart, with desires, with aspirations, with ideas and ideals and when we think of food and shelter we merely think of the…necessities…Have we thought of providing her with books, with money for…a good drama?...Have you thought about a girl providing herself with a good room that had plenty of air, proper ventilation in a somewhat decent neighborhood.  Do you think of all these things when you think of a minimum wage?  Let us not think of a piece of bread.  Let us think of a working woman as a human being who has her desires to which she is entitled.”

--Pauline Newman, speaking on behalf of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union at the 1914 minimum wage hearings of the New York Factory Investigating Commission

During the period between 1880 and 1930, the United States experienced dramatic increases in industrialization, immigration, and urbanization.  More and more trades were becoming mechanized, and more and more men and women were working long hours for little pay in factories and mills.  The populations of industrial cities were growing rapidly, both because of migrants from the countryside and because of a new wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy, Greece, Mexico, and Asia, all seeking work in the booming industries. (25)  In 1900, immigrants formed one third to one half of the populations of cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle.  American industrial cities were overcrowded, unsanitary, and crime-ridden due to the rapidly growing populations.  Industrialization, immigration, and urbanization promoted class, ethnic, and race conflicts, as well as extreme economic inequalities between the working class and industry’s managers and business owners. 

Mulberry Street NY 1905
Densley populated immigrant area:
Mulberry Street, NY, c. 1903

Indianapolis cotton mill workers
Indianapolis cotton mill workers

Women workers were profoundly affected by these social and economic conflicts.  Across the nation, anywhere from 25% to 40% of the labor force was female, and by the end of the 19th century, most women workers were non-white. (26)  In the early 20th century, the major occupations for women remained the same as they had been in the 19th century: agriculture, domestic service, manufacturing, clerical and office work, and professional work. Women still earned much less than men (about 60% of men’s average wages), and the highest paid jobs available to women nearly always went to native-born, middle class women. (27) The low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions women workers had faced in the 19th century intensified in the early 20th century, provoking  a much more widespread women’s labor reform movement than ever before—one which involved both working-class women and middle-class women concerned with their social welfare.  This movement toward social and economic reform was so revolutionary that historians named the early 20th century “the Progressive Era.”

In the South and the West, which remained predominantly rural, agriculture remained the central economic activity and the largest employer of women.  Forty-four percent of African-American women were farm workers.  Forty-seven percent of Native-American women, who by this time were mostly living on reservations, were involved in agricultural labor. Almost 60% of Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and the West Coast were farm laborers. (28)   Although agriculture was one of the most exploitative occupations, women farm workers did not organize into labor associations between 1880 and 1930.
African American farmer

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Image 1 from the George Washington University (Eleanor Roosevelt Papers), Image 2 from Pearson Education, Inc , Images 3 from the Library of Congress, 4 from the Kent State University


(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum 2007