History of Women in the Workforce

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We Have Come So Far Yet Still Have So Far to Go on Gender Equality in the Workplace

Mark the year 2059 on your calendar. That is when women will finally achieve equal pay to their maile counterparts, according to the data

That is nearly a century after the passing of the Equal Pay Act. However, that date is even further out for women of color. 

Researchers blame the gender wage gap on a variety of reasons, including discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, as well as societal disadvantages (such as only gaining the right to vote in the mid-20th century) and even sexual harassment. 

But despite all the hurdles, women are hard workers. A handful of women have managed to achieve plenty of success, but there is still a lot of progress to be made. 

To understand just how far we have yet to go, let’s take a look back at the history of women in the workforce.

Female Firsts

The late 1700s and early 1800s saw a few firsts. Abigail Adams brought the issues of gender equality to the White House in 1797, emphasizing the importance of educating girls and appealing for equal rights for men and women. In 1809, the first woman earned a patent for an innovative straw and silk braiding technique that advanced hat making. 

Advancement and Expansion

In 1847, Maria Mitchel opened the doors for women in STEM as the country’s first professional female astronomer. (She was also the first American to discover a comet!) But that wasn’t the only profession that women began to pursue in the late 1800s. Belva Lockwood graduated among the first female class of lawyers and later became the first women to practice before the United States Supreme Court, winning her first case before them on behalf of the Cherokee Nation over the Trail of Tears. Her legal career wasn’t without hurdles though. In 1873, the Supreme Court ruled that women could be excluded from practicing law and Lockwood was only admitted to the Supreme Court Bar on her second application. Lockwood also became one of the first women to run for President, before women even had the right to vote. 

In 1872, Congress passed a law granting female federal employees equal pay. Unfortunately, it did not extend to the state or local sector, nor the private sector. Over 60 years after the first woman received a patent, The U.S. Patent Office hired their first woman patent examiner. 

The Power of Minority Women

In 1905, Madam C.J. Walker created a hair care product company focused on the needs of African American women. She became the first self-made female millionaire. And in 1909, around 20,000 shirtwaist industry workers, most of whom were Yiddish-speaking women who immigrated to the U.S., went on strike, becoming the largest demonstration by women up to that point in history. This strike forced the largely male leaders in the industry to “revise their entrenched prejudices against organizing women,” according to Tony Michels of the Jewish Women’s Archive. 

The Ups and Downs of the 1900s

1917 brought us the first woman to serve in Congress, Jeanette Rankin. Despite this accomplishment and the fact that women make up over 50% of the population, in August of 2020 only 23% of members in the House were women. 

1920 was a big year for white women, who finally received the right to vote. This gave them a stake in politics and they could now vote for leaders who could help them achieve equality in the workplace. And in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced with support from the National Women’s Party, Amelia Earhart and professional women’s workers. The amendment aimed to grant men and women equal rights, including in the workplace. 

The 1930s saw losses for women thanks in large part to the Great Depression as well as some discriminatory laws (pay discrepancies were codified into law, establishing minimum wages for women that were 25% lower than those for men). But despite those hits, Frances Perkins became the first female Secretary of Labor and she was instrumental in the creation of Social Security as well as the New Deal. 

World War II saw a return of women to the workforce, with many women taking on jobs that were traditionally seen as masculine to aid in the war effort. Rosie the Riveter became the symbol of women in the workforce at the time. During the 40s, women continued to work, however the Equal Pay Act was only signed into law by President Kennedy in 1963. 

Civil Rights in the 60s brought contraception for married women and the ability for them to control when they got pregnant. However single women were only granted the right to use contraception during the 70s. During this time, the government also banned other sexist practices in the workplace, such as gender-based job classification systems. 

1972 saw the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, with Katharine Graham taking the helm of the Washington Post. Under her leadership, the newspaper broke stories on the Watergate scandal. The 70s also saw laws banning descrimination against women related to pregnancy and childbirth. 

The 80s and 90s saw a lot of advancements including the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, as well as the first American woman astronaut in space. 1982 marked the first time in the country’s history that women received a higher number of bachelor’s degrees than men. Rulings from the Supreme Court prohibited sexual harassment from a supervisor and in 1993 Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act that made it easier for women to balance work and family needs. 1966 is also when Equal Pay Day was added to the calendar. 

Turn of the Century

In 2000, the share of women in the workforce hit a historical peak in participation, making up just over 60% of labor. And in 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helped make it easier for women to fight unfair compensation practices. 

2010 saw several improvements. Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to include provisions for nursing mothers and the Affordable Care Act increased access to birth control. 

The glass ceiling got some big cracks in it when Hillary Rodham Clinton became the Democratic nominee for President in 2016. A year later the #MeToo Movement hit Twitter, raising awareness of sexual assult and harassment in the workplace. 

Then in 2021, Kamala Harris became the first woman Vice President. And in 2022, the first African American woman was nominated to the Supreme Court, with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson becoming Biden’s pick to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer. 

Final Thoughts

But after all that progress, we still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the workplace. Equal pay is a long way off with our current rate of advancement and we still have yet for a woman to break that final glass ceiling and become President of the United States.