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Susan Green

The Role of Women in U.S. Industry

Despite Recent Drop, Number of Women in Industry
Has Increased 5½ Million Since 1939

(10 February 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 6, 10 February 1947, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

During the war seven million women left their place in the home to join the working force of the country. The all-time peak of woman employment was eighteen and a half million. By the end of 1945, however, the total decreased by about a million, and by the end of 1946 another million women disappeared from the labor force. What happened to these two million working women lopped off the country’s working force when war orders ceased?

Right after V-J Day there was an army of hundreds of thousands of job-hunting women. By the end of 1946 many had given up the hunt.

The reason? Well-paid jobs open to women dwindled. The industries in which women are still wanted are neither the most attractive and most skilled nor best paid; quite the contrary. They are: cereal preparation, woolen, worsted and cotton textiles, garment and apparel, electrical appliances, tobacco, radio, shoes, paper, and so on. Not attracted to these fields and despairing of finding work for which they are suited and adequately paid, many of those two million jobless women simply dropped out of the race for jobs and are no longer even listed as unemployed. Many, of course, didn’t intend to work after the war anyway.

When woman employment was at wartime peak, surveys showed that at least three-fourths of the women in jobs were compelled by economic necessity to earn a living. The present figure of about sixteen and a half million women in jobs, would indicate that – at least by percentages – those women who must work are at work. High employment among women reflects, of course, the over-all rosy employment condition which we now precariously enjoy.

What the present income of women, is, compared to their wartime wages, is another question. The riveters, spray painters, drill press operators in slacks and sweaters have all but disappeared. The well-paid jobs in heavy industry now are, by and large, closed to women workers. Here the lay-offs of women have been greatest. In production of durable goods as a whole, the employment of women fell from 232 per 1,000 workers in June 1945 to 130 in June 1946. The shift has been to the lower paid jobs in consumer goods manufacture and in the service industries.

Considering their lower wages against the constantly rising living costs, the lot of working women is not a happy one. Current statistics tell us that eighty-four per cent of working women support at least themselves and in many cases dependents. We also learn that over half of the working women who live with their families, contribute more than half of their earnings to the family group. Thus the size of the pay envelope is indeed important; and it has shrunk.

The number of women employed and their wages are bound to be affected by worsening economic conditions. However, the war has brought certain permanent changes in the status of women workers. The labor movement must take these changes into account in relating the woman question to the general labor situation.

First of all is the matter of numbers. In 1939 there were some eleven million working women in the country. In 1947 there are over sixteen and a half million women holding jobs, after the post-war lop-off. The working force has been increased by over five million women needing and desiring to be breadwinners.

Women Have Broken Through Some Barriers

In the second place all women workers have by no means been forced back into light manufacturing and service industries. That women have permanently, broken through certain barriers is shown in several ways. For example, in spite of the extensive lay-offs of women in durable goods manufacture, in June 1946 women still formed thirteen per cent of all production workers, while in October 1939 the figure was only 8.6 per cent. Again, while there has been a shift back to traditional women’s work in light industry such as textile, apparel, food and leather, the employment of women in these fields is now something more than one-half of the total, whereas in prewar days women constituted two-thirds of the employed. Again, in April 1946 out of every 100 factory workers 27 were still women, while in April 1941 the proportion of women factory workers was only 23 per 100. Definitely, the horizon of jobs for women has widened.

At the same time flagrant discriminations against the woman worker are all too prevalent. The time-honored injustices of starting women at lower rates than men, of slower upgrading, of preventing them from advancing to the maximum rates paid to men, of lower rates for the same jobs – these all flourish.

The destructive competitive possibilities latent in a force of underprivileged women workers when depression strikes, constitute a threat to labor standards as a whole. Economists now predict possibly five million unemployed by the end of this year. With the jobs available narrowing, with women accustomed to take less than men, employers can well make hay for themselves out of the situation. The injustices to a section of labor becomes a threat to all labor.

Greater than ever is the need for women workers to be drawn into and integrated in the unions. This can be done if the unions undertake an unrelenting struggle for women’s equality as workers. The CIO has accepted the principle of equal pay for equal work. A few union agreements contain an equal pay clause, which, however, does not insure enforcement. Only the surface of the problem has been scratched.

There are other facets to the problems of the working woman. The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, setting a minimum wage and a forty-hour week with time and a half for overtime, applies only to enterprises operating in interstate commerce. Thus there are excluded from the scope of the federal law all local service industries such as laundries, beauty shops, hotels, etc., where women are employed in large numbers. Only twenty-six of the forty-eight states of the union have some kind of protective legislation; the rest have none. A thoroughgoing unionization drive based on the struggle for the economic and personal elevation of these forgotten workers, is overdue. Also long overdue is the same kind of fight for household workers, the full-time maids and the hour and day workers in homes.

Old and unsolved problems like these are once more posed for solution by the organized labor movement. The something new that has been added, as pointed out in this article, is the five million additional women workers in more diversified jobs, including heavy industry, whose economic and human status must be raised for the good of themselves and of all of us.

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