Women in the Industrial Workforce

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Women workers making sparkplugs at the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, 1930s.

Prior to the American Civil War, the vast majority of Ohioans earned their living by farming. Men worked in the fields, while women cared for the home. During planting and harvesting seasons, women routinely assisted their husbands in the fields, greatly contributing to the family's success. Some women also provided sewing, knitting, and other services to supplement their families' income. A handful of women also assisted their husbands in stores and other businesses. If her husband died, the wife routinely took over the business to provide for her family. Although women played a vital role in providing for their families, economic opportunities remained limited.

During the early 1800s, an additional job opportunity arose for women -- factory work. Most Ohio men had no desire to work in factories under the direction of another man. They preferred to be their own bosses, whether as farmers, storekeepers, blacksmiths, or as some other type of businessmen. Because of men's dislike for factory work, many of the first workers in Ohio's factories were women.

In factories, women routinely faced discrimination. Employers commonly paid women one-half to two-thirds of what a man doing the same job received. The wages were pitiful. In 1850, a woman garment worker in a Cleveland factory earned 104 dollars per year. A woman working in a shoe factory in Cincinnati did slightly better at three dollars per week, but her employer routinely deducted the cost of supplies from her wages. During this period, factories were not heated or air-conditioned. Most of the factories also lacked sufficient light and ventilation. Women routinely worked in these conditions for twelve to fourteen hours per day, six days per week. If a woman was injured on the job, her employer provided her with no workers' compensation or health care benefits. Most employers simply fired the injured worker.

Despite the awful pay and working conditions, most women welcomed the opportunity to work outside of the home. While society frowned on working women, factory work provided women a means to support themselves if they went against societal expectations and chose not to marry. If a woman did marry and her husband died, factories allowed her a means to provide for her family. Factory work also empowered women. Many of these workers realized that they could do the same jobs as men and did not need a man to take care of them. Factory work inspired women to seek more opportunities and helped foster the women's rights movement.

Numerous organizations formed during the early 1800s to assist women working in the factories. Established in 1850 in Cleveland, the Female Protective Union sought to improve the conditions faced by women who worked in the garment industry. These women worked approximately ninety-six hours a week, which translated into six, sixteen-hour days. They only earned two dollars each week. The Female Protective Union hoped to improve the amount of pay and reduce the number of hours that the women worked each week. In Cincinnati and Cleveland, local Women's Christian Associations established boarding houses that provided women workers with low-priced housing. In 1852 the Ohio legislature also assisted women under the age of eighteen by limiting their workday to ten hours per day, although women could volunteer to work longer hours. These various groups did help women factory workers live more comfortable lives. Despite the harsh working conditions and low wages, factory work, no matter how dismal and unfair, provided women with additional opportunities and motivated them to seek even great political, economic, and social gains.

During the twentieth century, more women began to find employment in the industrial sector. This was especially true during World War I and World War II, when many men left factory positions to serve in the United States military. To support the war effort, women, including middle-class and wealthy ones, worked producing weapons, bandages, and other supplies that the soldiers needed. For the first several decades of the twentieth century, women continued to face much discrimination. Women routinely did not receive promotion to management positions. Women continued to recieve one-half to two-thirds the wages that a man received in the same position. Still, women's contributions were vital in this time. Women factory workers sometimes made the difference in their families' lives, providing the necessary income to house and feed their loved ones. Also, women's contributions during World War I helped lead to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which granted adult women the right to vote.

Unhappy with the discriminatory practices of some employers, women sought protection from these actions by forming unions. Most early national unions initially prohibited women from joining these organizations. Seeking relief from discrimination at work, women formed their unions, hoping that, together, the women could attain more opportunity. Organizations, such as the Domestic Workers of America, succeeded in providing women with enhanced benefits. Despite these successes, studies in the early twenty-first century suggested that women typically received twenty-one percent lower wages than men working in the same positions.

See Also


  1. Tentler, Leslie Woodcock. Wage-Earning Women: Industrial Work and Family Life in the United States, 1900-1930. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.