Next month, ArtsEmerson welcomes back Manual Cinema with The End of TV, as we witness a friendship unfold between two women. Flo, an elderly woman suffering from the onset of dementia, and Louise, a younger African-American woman recovering from economic hardship, have seemingly different life experiences. Despite their differences, both women worked at the same local factory; Flo, during World War II, and Louise, just recently laid off. This connection prompted us to look into the history of women in the workforce, specifically during and after industrialization, and how these events changed America’s economic and societal framework.
Opportunities for work outside of the home for women have been historically limited, due to societal norms, such as marriage and raising children, as well as legal barriers. However, the role of women in the American workforce saw its first wave of change in the 1860’s following the Civil War. 60,000 men were killed in the war and thousands more were wounded, creating a large hole in the labor force needed to operate factories. For the first time, women became active members of labor unions and forces across the country.
A similar phenomenon happened during World War II. After the war ended, men returned home expecting the jobs they had left behind to given back to them. Many women were forced to relinquish their jobs that had been previously been held by men, women like Flo in The End of TV. However, women had a taste of working outside of the home and were not going to give it up so easily. During the 1940’s record numbers of women began entering fields like nursing, teaching, retail sales and office work.
Arguably the most important moment for the protection of women in the workplace was the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, or national origin. This was the first time women had been legally protected against discrimination in the workplace, which was followed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which continued to open doors for women in fields previously dominated by men. Then, in 1978 the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed preventing discrimination of pregnant women in the workplace.
Today, there are approximately 72 million women in the American workforce making up 46.9% of the labor force, and 30 million more than there were 30 years ago. While there has been immense progress regarding women’s rights and access to the work, there are still monumental obstacles to overcome, such as equal pay for equal work or even societal changes regarding behavior. However, we are at this current juncture because of the sacrifices and dedication of women from all backgrounds fighting for gender equality.