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American Women in the Workforce - Why Are We Less Valuable?

Updated on July 20, 2017
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Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.

WWII Poster - Rosie the Riveter
WWII Poster - Rosie the Riveter

Most people think that women in America were little more than mothers and homemakers until 1920 when they were granted the right to vote – the birth of American feminism, or was it? We seem to have lost a far more complicated and beautiful history detailing the lives of many courageous women since the founding of the original colonies. Did you know for example that the first demand for woman’s suffrage came not in 1920 but in 1647 by Margaret Brent who was asking for suffrage from the Maryland assembly? She wasn’t a frail woman, in fact she is currently believed to be the first American woman to own her own land. Previous to this all land belonged to a woman’s father, husband, or sons. If a woman had no male relatives then the property was generally taken by the local government.

Women in those days made up for a very small part of the workforce. Most of those were indentured servants and slaves, either owned by someone, paying penance for a crime, or just trying desperately to get by. However our first professional woman comes from this era. Anne Bradstreet caries this honor as her book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, made her the first published female author in America. Henrietta Johnston followed soon after in 1707 becoming the first professional artist, painting portraits of the prominent people of the time. After this there was a quiet period of time until 1777 when Mary Katherine Goddard became the first American woman business owner when she opened up a bookshop.

A new bar of success was raised when Susanna Haswell Rowson’s novel Charlotte: A Tale of Truth became the first bestselling book published by an American woman. It later became known by the title Charlotte Temple and enjoyed a lengthy stay in the spotlight surviving through 150 printings. There was a large progressive leap forward in 1824 when Worcester Massachusetts set up the first public school for girls. Not long after in 1837 Oberlin College in Ohio became the first college to accept female students. During the same year the Mount Holyoak Seminary opened its doors to a completely female student body. This came not long before the Industrial Revolution when thousands of girls and women moved off their farms and into all-female boarding houses where they worked in textile mills and factories, earning their own money and achieving a sense of independence denied to most women who preceeded them. In the beginning this was a glorious thing, factories often made their buildings full of windows and had gardens and various other attractive things to lure female workers. The treatment of this newly found workforce very quickly devolved into 16 hour workdays, child labor, boarded up windows, no safety controls, and very low wages.

Women didn’t take these changing conditions sitting down. In 1844 the first women’s worker union formed. At the time it wasn’t even called a union as they didn’t exist yet. It was led by Sarah Bagley who was trying to achieve better working conditions and wages for the girls working in the Lowell textile mills of Massachusetts. They continued to create more unions, host strikes, and demand their fair share. This was an enormous force in helping to change the industry of the times. Soon there were child labor laws, safety regulations, better pay, and shorter hours. In 1848 the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York.

In 1849 the US saw its first lady doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell, who applied to no less than twenty-nine medical schools before the thirtieth finally accepted her application. She graduated at the top of her class, respectfully taking her diploma only after all her male peers accepted theirs during the ceremony.

In 1870 Wyoming became the first state to allow women to serve jury duty. Not surprisingly Ada H. Kepley became the first woman lawyer during the same year having graduated from the Union College of Law in Chicago. In an even more surprising move in 1872 the National Radical Reformers voted in Victoria Claflin Woodhull to be the first woman to run for the presidency. In 1881 the first college for black women opened in Atlanta Georgia. It was called Spellman College. In 1887 Susanna Medora Salter became the first female mayor of a town, proudly watching over Argonia, Kansas.

The 1900’s brought many changes for women. In 1917 Jeannette Rankin was the first elected female politician in the United States. She served in the US House of Representatives representing the state of Montana three years before women were allowed to vote! Of course the entire US were forced to allow women to vote after the Ninteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt appointed the first female cabinet member Frances Perkins to be the Secretary of Labor. Bussiness was treating women well too as in 1934 Lettie Pate Whitehead became the first female director of a major American cooperation, Coca-Cola.

During World War I British women flocked to the factories to make weapons in the absence of their male counterparts. 1,600,000 of them filled jobs that otherwise would have been run by men. America was behind in this matter and we didn’t see a boom in the female workforce until World War II when we hired more than six million to fill the industrial jobs left by the men. Two million of these found their way into clerical work. An additional three million worked as volunteers for the Red Cross. 100,000 served in the Women’s Army Corps, an additional 83,000 served in Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service. Highly educated women found a prime opportunity to be readily hired as engineers, chemists, and scientists for the first time in their country’s history. For the first time the boom in female workers also included a large number of black women. Sadly in a disturbing and unrelenting pattern these were also the same workers who were the first to be fired after the war. And soon after they left so did the white women who worked at their side. Women for the most part went back to the kitchen.

The 1960’s brought a new era of hope and change. Jerrie Cobb became the first woman trained to be an astronaut. Unfortunately the women’s program at NASA was shut down in 1963 before she got a chance to get into space. Many laws started to greatly benefit women in this era. The Equal Pay Act made it illegal for companies to pay women less than their male counterparts solely based on their gender. It also prevented companies for coming up with new titles to old jobs to give women as a loophole to pay them less than the men with the old titles. This was followed by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made it illegal to deny applicants work not only for their race but also their sex as well. In 1967 Muriel "Mickey" Siebert used this to her advantage when she got the first seat reserved for a woman at the New York Stock Exchange.

Up until this point almost everything has been moving forward but maybe not as much as some of us would like. Women now account for 46% of the entire workforce in the United States , that’s nearly 75% of all women citizens, but we don’t make as much as our male counterparts. In fact on average we earn 77 cents for every dollar that men in the same job position make and the statistics get worse when ethnicity is involved. Black women earn 64 cents out of every dollar but that is still better than Hispanic women who still get on average only 52 cents. The news gets worse. These pay rates were only half a penny less a decade ago. The really sad part of this is that the more educated a woman is the bigger the gap between pay becomes. A woman who has a 9th grade education or less will earn 76% of what a man with the same experience would make. By the time a women gets to the top tier of education with a professional degree she’s only making 60% of what a man of the same specifications is making. In fact in 99% of all professions women are expected to make less than the men. That means over a lifetime of work male high school graduates make $700,000 more. Male college graduates make $1.2 million more and the highest educated make 2 million dollars more over a 47 year career. This could be in part due to the fact women’s pay rises slower in their thirties and usually peak altogether by 39, meaning at 39 they are making the same wages they will make when they retire. On contrast men peak at 48 years of age. By this time the average woman is making $60,000 while the man is usually making $95,000 a year.

So what are the problems here? Why are women routinely getting paid less? For one a new study seems to show that women may take as much as three years longer, on average, to achieve the same promotions as their male coworkers. Also women make up for 59% of entry level job workers, those getting paid less than $8 an hour. These jobs were once intended for teenagers but women are dominating these fields which were never supposed to pay meaningful wages that people could live solely off of. Could this mean that women are being kept down by male run companies? Probably not as women now own more than 40% of small businesses in the US today. One of the most common complaints however is all about maternity leave. In the US companies are legally required to allow a woman three months of maternity leave but there is no law mandating that this has to be paid maternity leave and indeed only 53% of large companies bother with this one. To make matters worse companies often feel mothers make unreliable workers with all their family duties and maternity leaves and often “work out” these women – finding sleazy underhanded and fully legal ways to fire them that don’t say the truth in the paperwork. It seems our society as a whole does not value motherhood or family life, or least they value it far less than working out of the home. You might be surprised to learn other Western countries have a completely opposite view of this. In fact Sweden is one of the most progressive countries in the world, allowing paid maternity leave to be split between both parents for up to 180 days. This time can be taken off directly after birth or at any time before the child reaches eight years of age. Not only do mothers take full advantage of this so do 85% of Swedish fathers! They both get paid 80% of their regular salaries. Is this what we can hope for in the future? Maybe but we’ve got a long way to go…

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