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Women at Work: A History

Women in the workplace, from 19th century domestic workers to the Rosies of World War II to the labs of Silicon Valley.

ED: So here’s a surprising statistic from 1999. That’s the year that employment figures for American women peaked at 74%. Since then, the percentage of women in the workforce has fallen off, dropping from fourth highest in the world in 1999, to eleventh today. And looking farther backward in time, we learn from people like Betty Soskin that the story of women entering the workforce stretches back many generations, long before World War II and Rosie the Riveter.

PETER: All of which points to the fact that the history of women in the American workforce is hardly a straight line, but rather one that zigzags through time and is very much shaped by class and race. For the rest of the hour today, we’re going to explore some of those zigs and zags. In what ways are things better today for women than they were in the past? And in what ways have we fallen behind?

BRIAN: But before we do that, let’s take a few more minutes to consider the story we just heard. Peter? Ed? You know, maybe I’ve read too many 20th Century history textbooks. But in general, when we think about Rosie the Riveter, we think about that heroic moment when women broke out of the home and served their nation by doing industrial work, often literally on the wings of bombers that they were building. And Betty presents such a different story of the women who worked during World War II. And what really strikes me is she puts that story in the context of a very long history of women working outside the household. So Peter, I wish you would tell me a little bit more about that history of women working inside the household and how they came to work outside the household.

PETER: Well, women have been working for millennia, Brian. That’s the news here. We think of household or the home as a refuge for sentimental family life, for nurturing, and all those good things, but the household is the primary unit of production throughout American history. And its hierarchical. There are apprentices, and servants, and slaves, and family members all working under the leadership of the planter, farmer, patriarch. That’s the basic unit of production, and women are integral to that work in the household.

ED: And Peter, the 19th century is critical in this, as slavery turns into something else.

PETER: Yeah.

ED: This is a direct tie to Betty’s story. You’re exactly right about slave owners imagined portrayed their plantations as a big house with a big family. And they talk about “our people.” and that illusion is shattered, of course, when slavery ends and the African-American people who can leave that household, set out and try to create their own households.

PETER: Right. Right.

ED: But what happens is that system you’re talking about kind of breaks into pieces which lives on for generations, so that after slavery, white Southerners are saying, we’d love black women to come back into the household, a few at a time, to be our domestic servants, to do the washing and cleaning and taking care of children, at the same time that we very much want to segregate all relationships with black people we don’t know. So you have this kind of bifurcated history, I think, Betty’s family herself lives.

In that world, African-American people have to channel their ambition in two directions at once. Somehow, they have to take advantage of whatever employment opportunities they can have at the same time they save something for themselves and for their own families, to build their own households, doing exactly the same kind of work. And escape into California, as Betty’s story shows us, is a chance to maybe reboot, to reconfigure that calculus in some ways, that you can have your own household, but do other work outside your own household that’s not just replicating that work.