- Women have been unsung heroes of the worldwide workforce for centuries.
- More recently, they were vital in World War I and II, taking jobs on both sides of the Atlantic the world previously thought only men could hold such as in arms factories, steel mills, and on farms.
- Throughout the ensuing decades, they tackled many other occupations in the West like bookkeeping, switchboard operating, and eventually, stockbroking.
Around the world and throughout human history, women have always played some part in the workforce.
But women like the first female telephone operator, Emma Nutt, who took over the male-dominated job in 1878 and was immediately successful at it, paved the way for women to participate more in the western workforce, specifically.
During World War I, women in the West farmed for soldiers’ food. In World War II, they were instrumental in assembling aeroplane parts. And in the ’60s and ’70s, hidden figures like Mary Jackson emblazoned the trail for other women in the fields of science, mathematics, and technology.
Here are 20 vintage photos of women in the western workforce as they built their presence and fought for equality there.
Throughout the Progressive Era in America (the early 20th century), women began to call for equality in the workforce.
America’s Progressive Era, which took place in the early 20th century, marked a rise in industrialisation and production. As a result, women trickled into the workforce, and their numbers spiked during World War I.
During World War I, employment opportunities for women in the West expanded to clerical positions and factories.
Many women in the West went to work in new fields, expanding their skillsets beyond more traditional occupations like teaching and homemaking to war-related factory production, transportation, and construction.
Over in England, the Women’s Land Army (WLA), aka “Land Girls,” was crucial in producing food for soldiers.
According to the BBC, “Britain’s food imports made up around 50% of the country’s requirements, so when Germany successfully mounted naval blockades in 1915, the country faced a problem.”
After a failed harvest in 1917, Britain was left with only a few weeks worth of food, so the Board of Agriculture created the Women’s Land Army (WLA). Over 250,000 women flocked to join the cause, harvesting crops that were “vital in the Allies’ victory.”
Just a few decades later, during World War II, the number of women in the workforce skyrocketed.
With men away at war again, women were beckoned once more to the production line during World War II but to a larger degree. According to the National Archives, the number (and thus impact) of the women that came to work at this time was unparalleled.
Per the Archives, “The War Manpower Commission, a Federal Agency established to increase the manufacture of war materials, had the task of recruiting women into employment vital to the war effort.”
Women tackled “male” jobs, like welding, seamlessly and successfully.
Over in Britain during WWII, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was set up in 1939. According to the Royal Air Force Museum: “Over a quarter of a million women served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. No fewer than 183,317 were volunteers with a further 33,932 women called up from December 1941. The majority were aged between 18 and 40.”
Rosie the Riveter was war propaganda used to entice women to work, but the image eventually became an iconic symbol for working women.
In 1942, American artist J. Howard Miller created the image now known as Rosie the Riveter as war propaganda, encouraging women to join the cause. Rosie’s signature blue jumpsuit was actually worn by riveters (people who operated riveting guns used in manufacturing, shown above) and gradually, Rosie became synonymous with female empowerment in the workforce.
Here’s another example of a World War II riveter.
She’s working on a bomber at Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas.
Jobs in aviation were also hugely popular (and necessary).
Here, a woman is pictured fixing an aeroplane motor.
Women nurses worked tirelessly in aiding injured soldiers during World War II as well.
Many nurses were at the front lines, receiving casualties and the seriously injured. In this photo, Kathleen Kennedy, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, is on her way to serve the American Red Cross in London.
Following World War II, the auto industry boomed — and women were a part of it.
Women continued to work in automotive factories after the war, and some were even employed as designers throughout the ’50s. In this photo, women are polishing car parts at the Ford Factory in 1947.
Telephone operators became a popular occupation for women throughout the 1950s.
Originally, telephone operators were all men – and they were “notoriously rude,” according to Time. But Alexander Graham Bell shifted the paradigm by hiring Emma Nutt in 1878, and her “cultured and soothing” voice was an instant hit.
After that, telephone or switchboard operators became a female-dominated trade until 1973, when the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (later called AT&T) agreed to hire both sexes.
Throughout the ’60s, women began to fight for workplace equality and equal pay, paving the way for more of them to enter the workforce.
Protests have been a part of women’s history for more than 100 years. But the rise of the women’s liberation movement of the ’60s also ignited a spike in female-led protests, with many women requesting more work opportunities and equal pay.
As women fought to take more jobs in the office, they still continued to roll up their sleeves.
Here, women are working on the prototype of the Concorde 002 airliner in Bristol, England, 1967.
In the ’70s, women started to enter the workforce in droves due both to an economic need and to the women’s lib movement.
Along with calls for women to participate more fully in the workforce, due to the changing economy of the ’70s, single-income households could no longer sustain a middle class way of life. And women headed out to work. Popular jobs at the time included bookkeepers (shown above), administrative assistants, and teachers.
Some unions and organisations supported women, advocating for workplace equality throughout the decade.
“The goals and timetables demanded by affirmative action became in the seventies a major lever for opening long-dosed jobs to women,” according to “Gender and Employment in the Service Sector,” as cited by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Women didn’t shy away from computers, either.
IBM pioneered the usage of computers in the office, unveiling the 470V/6 model in 1970, which was “smaller and faster” than previous computers.
Many women, like NASA’s Mary Jackson, were pioneers in STEM fields.
As women began to permeate the workforce, they worked a wide variety of jobs. From customer service …
The beginning of cherry pies, keeping it clean, and tastier burgers – people who worked at McDonald’s in the ’70s have seen a lot of change.
… to working in the fashion industry.
Here, women are pictured working at a modelling agency, Elite Model Management, in 1980.
In the ’80s and ’90s, women began to take on even more powerful business roles.
Though the ’80s and ’90s saw a rise of women in the workforce, the fight for equal pay continues: women are still paid 80 cents to a man’s dollar.
- Read more:
- How the way we dress for work has changed over the last 100 years
- The top 5 things every boss must do to make their employees happy
- The most powerful woman from every state
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