Alice Kessler-Harris is a Professor of History at Columbia University.
She is the author of Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. She is a co-editor of Past Imperfect: Alternative Essays in American History.
New River Media Interview with Alice Kessler-Harris
QUESTION: What did the Great Depression mean for women and work?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: What the Great Depression meant for women was that they were pressured not to work in many instances, and sometimes discovered that there were alternative pressures coming from the family to increase their income earnings, while at the same time society said to them they should stay at home. This meant that, on the one hand, single women and women without support struggled to find jobs and became unemployed at about the same rate that men did. Married women who had just begun to participate in the workforce in increasing numbers before the Depression found themselves really pushed out of jobs, sometimes by laws and regulations which denied jobs to married women, and at other times by public opinion and public pressure.
At the same time, they responded, because many of them needed to work, by trying to keep their jobs. And so there are instances, for example, of women divorcing their husbands or separating from their husbands in order to keep their jobs, pretending that they weren't married, postponing marriages, and so on. In the end, the data are quite mixed. The proportion of married women who worked at the beginning of the Depression is about the same as the proportion of married women who worked at the end of the Depression.
QUESTION: What were society's attitudes towards women working during the Depression, and particularly married women?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: There was a general sense during the Depression that married women who had husbands to support them ought not to be in the labor force. And that was, of course, true of single women who had fathers to support them. In other words, most people felt that jobs should be reserved for providers, for people who provided for families. And, by and large, in the 1930s that was mostly conceived of as men, and sometimes of women who supported families and children alone.
QUESTION: What point had women's workforce participation reached by 1940, on the eve of the war?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: Since 1900, there had been a slow but gradual increase in the numbers of women working, so that in 1900, for example, about 20 percent of women of working age were in the labor force. By 1940, about 30 percent of women of wage-earning age were in the labor force. So there had been a slow and steady increase. That increase was largely an increase among single women; that is, it was single women, a few married women, and a few mothers with children. But, by and large, it was single women and mostly older women who entered the labor force in account for that increase. In 1940, of course, everything changed.
QUESTION: What was the position of African American women prior to the war?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: African American women worked in about double the proportions of white wage-earning women; they tended to work at limited numbers of jobs. There were some points, for example, at which 85 percent of wage-earning African American women worked as domestic servants of one kind or another. So they worked at the poorest and most menial jobs. And they worked almost constantly throughout their lives. There was no sort of life-cycle change as there was with white wage-earning women, where white women might drop out of the labor force for sometimes 10, 15, 20 years while they were having children, and then re-emerge later. African American women tended to stay in the labor force, whether they wished to or not, for most of their working lives.
QUESTION: What did the advent of World War II mean for women's participation in the workforce?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: The most immediate effect of World War II, of course, was that there was an enormous demand for labor, and that demand for labor pulled on women, and particularly on married women, to enter the wage labor force. So the numbers of women working doubled between 1940 and 1945. The most interesting part of that sort of rapid increase in labor force participation of women as that the ideology with which women went to work did not shift during the war. That is, women who had believed themselves to be wedded to their homes before the war and working only out of economic need to support their families, now transferred that ideology to their work in World War II. They weren't working for ambition or career or satisfaction. They were working because the nation needed them or the extended family of the nation needed them to work. And the result was that when the war ended, most women gave up their jobs, not without a fight, because they had enjoyed the jobs, but because they understood that the jobs belonged to the veterans, to the men who had fought to, theoretically, at least, save the country during the war.
If you look at the long-term trend of women's work, World War II constitutes what you might want to call a blip in the long-term trend line; that is, there's a steady increase in the proportion of women workers from 1900 through the 1930s until 1940, then a dramatic rise between 1940 and 1946, and then an equally dramatic drop-off. So the trend line, to some extent, continues after the war is over at about the same rate that it had moved that before the war. Then, in 1950, just before the Korean War, it takes off again.
QUESTION: When the war began, there was a huge demand for labor. What kind of a reception did women get?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: Women got a mixed reception when they entered the war-time labor force. To some extent, of course, they were welcome and they were needed to fill jobs. But what's interesting is that women participated in the war in a kind of domino effect; that is, the men who are taken off to war and who've been working in heavy manufacturing and production industries are, by and large, replaced by women who had already been working in the wage labor force at other kinds of jobs. And the women who enter the workforce tend to enter the workforce not in the steel mills and the shipyards and so on, but in jobs in beauty parlors and so on from which other women have moved on to better kinds of jobs. So there's a kind of domino effect that happens.
Now, those women who actually participate in the war production industry find themselves with a very mixed reception. On the one hand, they are replacing men who have gone off to war, leaving behind a relatively few men and a population which is not too happy about having its men out there fighting. And, on the other hand, they're taking over men's jobs at better wages than they'd ever anticipated earning before and they got opportunities that they never imagined that they would have.
QUESTION: Was there some kind of segregation in the workforce?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: There were many more jobs open to women during the war than had been open to them before the war, but certainly all jobs were not open to women. And when women managed to enter jobs that seemed still to be the prerogatives of men, they were sometimes mistreated and harassed is the word we would use nowadays. The point was that occupational segregation continues during the war, not at the same level that it had existed before the war, but still at a level which ensures that women will know their places when the war ends.
The jobs that women took were separate and unequal. Now, I say that with a little hesitation, because they were certainly more equal than they had been before the war, and one doesn't want to dismiss the opportunities that were given to women. But they still didn't get quite the same kinds of opportunities as they might have had had read equality been available to them. African American women suffered particularly. They were given the most dangerous jobs, the jobs which are the messiest and the dirtiest and so on.
That was particularly disappointing for women because they were induced into the labor force with a rhetoric which played on their housewifely role. For example, they were told that operating a drill press, for example, was just like operating a can opener; that wielding a welding torch, for example, was just like operating a mixmaster might have been; that a drill press was like an iron. Those kinds of analogies were freely made to women. And some women used to enter the labor force on the assumption that they could, in fact, have access to the most difficult of jobs.
Now, there are women who discovered that they had, in some sense, been sold a bill of goods, that they could be trained to become welders in three weeks or in six weeks, not in a six-year apprenticeship, which they been told before. And so there were lots of women who got a lot of satisfaction from the kinds of jobs they did. But I think you have to say that for many women, there was a kind of lingering sense that these are things of which they had been deprived before the war and which they would be deprived of again once the war was over.
QUESTION: We've heard quite a bit about Rosie the Riveter. How typical was she of women on the home front in the war?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: Relatively large numbers of women went to work, reaching about 40 percent of all women, but relatively few of them actually worked in the defense industries. The numbers of women who actually did go to work in defense industries was wildly romanticized by the media, by the public, by the press, by short stories and so on. And there are, of course, some areas of the country - Seattle, Norfolk, Virginia, and the Brooklyn Navy Yards - where the proportions of women working multiplied by a factor of ten, so that it looked as though huge numbers of women were working in defense industries. And in those areas, there were indeed dramatic differences in what women could do for a living. So the Rosie the Riveter image was typical of a few women and it was perhaps how most women imagined themselves, even as they were doing dreary work. But, in fact, it was an exaggerated image.
QUESTION: What was the most significant change in the kinds of women who entered the workforce, and how did that contrast with working women previously?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: During the war, married women entered the labor force in large numbers. Before the war, relatively small proportions, something around 15 percent of married women with husbands, had been in the labor force. After the war, that number escalated. Now, a lot of those husbands, of course, were in the armed forces during the war, so they were gone. But still, the fact that married women not only could work but were encouraged to work really made an enormous difference. That is quite different from the situation of women with children, who, though they sometimes did work, and again, in much larger proportions than they had before the war, tended to be discouraged from working. So, for example, day care was very hard to find even during the war, and women made catch-as-catch-can arrangements for their children until towards the end of the war, when some federal funding became available. But, by and large, the big shift, the big demographic shift in the kind of women who worked was among unmarried women, and those are the women who drop out of the labor force after the war is over and then who seek, in the 1950s, to go back into the labor force as soon as they can.
QUESTION: How did women handle their jobs, their housework and their children at the same time?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: Society wasn't set up to deal with the problems of working women during the war; women with children had a particularly hard time. Most women with children still did not work, and the War Manpower Commission tended not to encourage them to work precisely because there was very little formal or organized day care available.
Some defense plants and so on had day care facilities, but mostly women operated on a kind of catch-as-catch-can basis. They used other members of their families. They developed neighborhood child care centers. When federal funds became available by the middle of 1942 to build centers, some women sent their children there. But it was enormously difficult to find day care for small children, and so those women, by and large, tended to stay out of the labor force or at least out of the full-time labor force.
QUESTION: In 1945, the war ends. What happened to working women at the end of the war?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: At the end of the war, women get bumped out of their jobs. Probably something like 90 percent of the new entrants leave their jobs at the end of the war. The numbers of women working drops by about half in the immediate aftermath of the war. About 75 percent of the women working say they want to stay in their jobs. But whether they want to or not is not up to them. They lose their jobs. Partly that's a function of war industries being closed down and partly it's a function of veterans returning home to take back their jobs. But, by and large, it's a function, again, of ideology, a sense that women had done their bit for the war and that, now that the war was over, they should go back to the home.
There is a long-term legacy to the war that is sometimes buried as we watch those figures go upwards very strongly again in the early part of the 1950s. And that long-term legacy comes from the fact that women, having been exposed to opportunities, discover in the 1950s that work is not such a bad thing; that wage work and family life can be combined. And they really did think, by the early 1950s, among more and more women, that work can provide not only family support but a certain kind of satisfaction, a certain kind of participation that they would not have anticipated before the war.
That legacy is hugely important, because as family pressures and economic pressures grow in the 1950s, there's not only no reluctance among women to return to the workforce; there's a desire of women, who may have pulled out in 1947, 1948, 1949, you know, to go back into the workforce.
QUESTION: Did society in the 1950s get used to the idea of women, particularly married women, working?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: The 1950s is a bifurcated period. On the one hand, the ideology of the 1950s is a home-based ideology as far as women are concerned. Not only did society not get used to women working during the war, but it was, from an ideological perspective, very happy to have its women back in the home. But on the part of women themselves, both the women who had worked in the war and the younger group of women sort of emerging into a society in which children needed to be educated, in which consumer goods were once again available, in which a slow rate of inflation was beginning to affect how families could live, in which the suburbs were expanding and women wanted to participate in buying houses.
Those enormous pressures pulled women, and especially married women, into the workforce at much higher rates than the ideology would have led one to expect. So between 1940 and 1960, for example, the proportion of married women working tripled in that short or relatively short period. The proportion of mothers with children doubles, but it doesn't triple. It's the proportion of married women that goes up dramatically, and that's despite an ideology that tells women that they belong at home.
QUESTION: Why didn't greater equality follow from this war-time experience?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: Greater equality didn't follow from the war, and that's largely a result of the continuing pattern of occupational segregation that the war did not break, even though it disrupted it partially, but it didn't break the pattern. And when the war ended, women who were called back into the labor force were called back into the labor force and offered training in jobs that we can speak of as women's jobs.
So they're offered training as nurses and in the health care industry, as teachers and in schools, as clerical workers and in offices, and so on. They're, by and large, not offered opportunity in the skilled male jobs that had, at least to some extent, opened up for them during the war. So there isn't greater equality because women remain as occupationally segregated as they had ever been.
QUESTION: Looking at the 1940s and this general trend of women working through the century, does the war mark a turning point for women in the twentieth century or not?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: I think the war marks a turning point for women, largely in terms of their own attitudes, aspirations and expectations. It marks for the first time, a serious set of questions about an ideological framework which imposes home roles on especially middle-class women and confines them to the home even when opportunities exist outside the home, so that during the war women exist sort of on the cusp of the two sets of realities; on the one hand, they're out there working, and working enormously hard; on the other hand, they're said to be working not for themselves but for their country, for their nation, for the soldiers at war.
When the war ends, the question is, what does work mean to them? And I think the war-time experience had an impact on women. It raised expectations of what life could be like. It made it possible for them to imagine dual roles of inside the home and outside the home. It made it possible for them to imagine the kind of economic independence that was less possible before the war.
Now, this applies to large numbers of women. Working-class women, poor women, of course, had always earned wages. But this transformation of feeling and attitude among middle-class women, who would never have expected to earn wages before the war, and yet who, after the war, imagined themselves not only earning wages but participating through earning wages in making their family lives better, is, I think, one of the enduring legacies of the war.
QUESTION: What was the position of women in the 1950s, and how might it have laid the groundwork for the feminist struggles and achievements of the 1960s and 1970s?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: For the first time in the 1950s, large numbers of middle-class and married women, often relatively young women, find themselves faced with opportunities both to continue their education and to be married and to have children. Huge numbers of women who had never imagined themselves making choices now find that they are making choices, but they're torn by those choices.
Higher education is now widely available to women, and that opens the question: Can we go somewhere else from here, or do we simply retreat into households afterwards? The labor force is available to women, not the kind of jobs women want, but still, once women get a job, then the question is, can I be promoted? Can I move into a different kind of job?
So what happened in the 1950s is the beginning of what I'd like to call a kind of incremental set of changes, that as small opportunities become available, they raise questions about whether larger opportunities can't be available. By the time the 1960s come, women are ready for it. They're really ready to break down the doors that have held back the opportunities that they've been looking for in a kind of more silent way in the 1950s.
QUESTION: What was the influence of Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique, and why did it have such a big impact on women, do you think?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: I think Betty Friedan captured a moment in time and a set of feelings, a kind of latent desire on the part of many women in the 1950s. It's not that women hadn't been happy or content with their home roles. I think they had been, or many of them had been. It's that by the 1950s, many women had been moving into dual roles. The workforce role was a limited role for most women, largely because training opportunity was not available to them. And so, whether they would or not, the home remained their primary commitment.
When Betty Friedan argued that that was not necessarily the only commitment that women should have, she touched a sort of nerve that was already raw among women, many of whom had had workforce experience, many of whom were college-educated and high school-educated, many of whom wanted to find their own personal satisfaction in the workforce, not just a kind of way that fulfilled their family's needs. So I think that book was the right book at the right time.
The issue for the 1950s and 1960s is not whether more women were entering the workforce - they were - but what kinds of women were entering the workforce. Poor women and working-class women, African-American women, had always worked. And their work could be limited and constrained. But in the 1950s, the kinds of women who entered the labor force for the first time tend to be of a more middle-income, more middle-class and better-educated kind. And that exerts pressures on the labor force, on educational institutions, on training institutions, that have not been present in earlier generations. It's those pressures, I think, that mattered, and it's that huge demographic shift which explodes in the 1960s when women who are on the cusp of being able to contribute to society discover that they're told that they cannot or should not participate.
QUESTION: How accurate was Friedan's portrayal of American women held prisoner by the feminine mystique?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: One could certainly say that Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique spoke to the lives of middle-class women far more than it spoke to the lives of other women; that is, ordinary women, working-class women, had always worked, if not full-time, then part-time. If they hadn't gone out to work, they had figured out a way to make money, stretch incomes in their home roles.
Still, I think it's important to note that the kinds of women that Betty Friedan was talking about are not a small number of women in the 1950s. And because the suburban lifestyle is spreading in the 1950s, she spoke to a kind of breakdown of community, of urban community life, as well as to a shift in family values that was occurring in that period. You might want to call it middle class, but I think it was enormously important nonetheless.
QUESTION: Why did the feminist movement of the 1960s occur when it did?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: I think that it emerged as strongly as it did because the proportions of women in the wage labor force had increased so dramatically by the 1960s that the pressure to break down barriers had just grown too large. The effort that women make, beginning most visibly with the creation of the National Organization of Women in 1966, to get access to jobs, to educational institutions, to economic possibilities of all kinds, to credit, to fair taxation and so on - all of that's a result of the increasing possibilities that women see in the labor force and of a kind of emerging economic independence.
I'd argue that the large number of women moving into the workforce in the 1950s, and then increasing incrementally in the 1960s, spearheaded the women's movement, and has particularly spearheaded the search for what's come to be called equal opportunity in the workforce, which becomes, by the end of the 1960s, the slogan of the women's movement.
QUESTION: Was there a backlash against women's rights during the 1980s?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: What you might want to call the backlash of the 1980s is a product of the enormous changes that had been engendered by the women's movement of the previous two decades; that is, that women's search for economic opportunity and the search for economic independence had created all kinds of questions which challenged the nature of the family, and particularly of men's roles within the family, had challenged traditional workplace structures, had raised questions about whether, in fact, gender relations could continue on the same basis.
So it isn't surprising that under those circumstances, there are people in the 1980s who want to go backwards or who want to say, "No, no, too much, too fast." You know, what is the family going to look like? Who will take care of the children? Those questions hadn't been answered yet. So I'm not sure that I would call it a backlash. You might call it a way of just pausing a little bit, to sort of assess where we've come.
At the same time, women in the 1980s are going forward at a rapid pace. The women's movement has entered the pores of American society, has created a circumstance in which people now agree, at least in principle, that gender equality is a good thing, that gender roles, segregated and separate, as not such a good thing for society. But how to get there is a more significant question, and it's a question I think we still haven't answered. We're still working on it.
QUESTION: What about the diminishment of the primacy of marriage?
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: The most dramatic transformation of our generation has been the diminution of the importance of marriage for the distribution of goods, income, policies in our society. That we have now come to rely much more on individual effort within and outside of marriage, and we no longer use marriage in the way that we used to use it in the early part of the century, as a way of distributing goods and resources, public and private.