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A historical view of the American workplace

Feb 25 2014

Over the last fifty years the composition of the workforce has changed significantly due to an influx of women into the workplace, the delayed retirement of many workers, and the rise in dual-earning households. Yet companies have failed to keep pace, remaining tied to ideals of work rooted in the past. In order to move into the twenty-first century, we need to first understand why organizations hold on to outdated ways for working.

In this Q&A, Alice Kessler-Harris, professor of American History at Columbia University, provides insights into the history of gender and the workplace. Known for her prolific research on labor, women, and gender, Kessler-Harris explains the history of work and the historical basis of gendered assumptions about workers and the workplace. Kessler-Harris spoke at the Clayman Institute's Redesigning Redefining Work Summit.

What was the role of men and women workers in the past?

Kessler-Harris: For most of historical time, the workplace was imagined as part of the household. One could not separate them. The jobs were divided, but men pitched in with the weaving and spinning, and women pitched in with the agricultural work whenever they needed to. There was a kind of integrity to the household and the workplace. They were indivisible, and I would say that that indivisibility continued through most of the nineteenth century.

In the space of a single century, we have gone through nothing less than a revolution in terms of the workplace. We’ve gone from a workplace that most people (whether they were artisans or craftspeople in small family workshops or agricultural workers) imagined as part of an extended household to a workplace that is so far removed from the household that commitment to it conflicts with household functions. Paid work is not only not an extension of the household for most people, it’s the opposite. It’s alienated from the household.

If you think about the transformation that way, you can imagine yourselves in a kind of revolutionary moment. It is completely astonishing that women and men have come to reimagine the household in ways that people never would have thought of, was beyond imagination fifty, sixty, seventy years ago

What happened in between? Tell us about women's work experiences in the twentieth century and how these were affected by gender dynamics.

Kessler-Harris: [M]en and women [have generally shared] a sense of how the world works (including who should raise the children and who provides for the household).

At the turn of the twentieth century, the female workforce constituted about a quarter of the industrial workforce and close to half of the agrarian workforce. But the expectation that men supported households was sustained because a majority of women worked in domestic jobs, and most white women who earned wages were unmarried or widowed or separated. That was less true for women of color, a large proportion of whom earned wages even after they married because their men had a much harder time making a living.

The conditions of those who worked were so bad that middle-class women began to worry that the family couldn’t survive under such circumstances. They might have tried to support the family by providing needy women with income. Instead they chose another strategy: they tried to regulate women’s participation in the labor force by supporting the idea of a family wage that would enable men to sustain family life.

At the same time they advocated protective labor legislation that applied to women only. There was irony there. To protect the woman worker, new labor laws promoted an already outdated conception of the family—one in which women engaged mostly in household maintenance without resort to the labor force. As these laws took shape in the early part of the twentieth century, both men and women agreed that justice would be served if men with a family wage encouraged women to leave the labor force.

When the depression of the 1930s hit, most men and many married women continued to argue this position: if women would just get out of the labor force, they thought, the unemployment rate would drop for men as they took over women’s jobs. And yet employment for women continued to climb, and even married women did not give up their jobs. For them, wage-work was an absolute necessity. Far from demonstrating that married women belonged at home, the economic depression revealed that wage-earning women had earned a permanent place in the labor force.

During World War II, employers desperately needed women to replace the men who were drafted and to staff the industries making war products. To induce them to enter the labor force, businesses began to provide the resources that enabled women to keep their households going even while they put in many hours on the job. Childcare centers, laundries, cooked meals that could be brought home all sprang up. These incentives disappeared as soon as the war ended, and women were forced from their jobs. But women had learned that they could do two jobs. By the early part of the 1950s, when the Korean War broke out and new jobs opened up, women were ready. Many of them had experienced war-time work and wanted to contribute to household support. By 1953, the proportion of women in the wage labor force equaled the proportion of women working at the height of World War II.  

Still, most women worked at poorly paid jobs and were expected to drop out of the labor force when they had babies. In 1961, President Kennedy created a presidential commission on the status of women to address these and other problems. The commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, turned out to be enormously influential. Under its aegis Congress passed the first Equal Pay Act in 1963. The 1964 Civil Rights Act that followed included a provision (Title VII) that forbade discrimination on the grounds of race, skin color, religion, and, for the first time ever, sex. Title VII put on the agenda the question of what constituted discrimination—the issue that propelled the second-wave women’s movement.

How has history informed our current understanding of flexible work arrangements?

Kessler-Harris: I think flexibility is not the wrong strategy, but that it has a context that dooms it to failure in the present. In the 1930s, the same Social Security Act that defined who was a worker [by providing them with benefits like Social Security Insurance] also defined who was not a worker (primarily women, who were already or might be expected to become mothers, and the largely African-American population of men and women who worked in agriculture as well as children). Children, legislators thought, were entitled to mothers who would remain in the home to raise them. Their mothers were not imagined as workers. The conception that mothers (especially those with young children) constituted a category of people from whom wage work was not expected has now disappeared. Flexible time arrangements make the opposite assumption. Inherent in the new arrangements is the conception that every individual (even those with small children) is responsible for both wage work and child and home care. Flex time in its many forms, rarely addresses this problem. It merely shifts the burden of time and place around, Work time may become flexible, but it does not become less. Employers who promote it aren’t giving workers a break. And they’re not sharing the responsibility. All that remains loaded on the worker, mainly on women workers. 

When I hear those flexible time arguments, I want us all to think of ways of reducing working time for parents responsible for children; I want to imagine shared and social ways to accommodate children so that the workplace and childcare each receive their due.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.