Women’s Employment, 1865–1920

Part of the American History in Depth book series (AHD)


Between 1865 and 1920 a steady transformation occurred in employment patterns as more women entered the labor market, stayed at work longer, and moved into white-collar occupations. Nevertheless, women’s economic experiences remained distinct from men’s, subject to gendered limitations, and determined by demographic characteristics to a much greater extent than men’s. Class, race, ethnicity, and locality explained the sort of work a man might do, but not whether he worked at all. The Census believed that men worked “as a matter of course” for the greater part of their lives, yet in 1900 economic activity was “far from being customary, and in the well-to-do classes of society is exceptional” for women. In 1840, about 10 percent of free women held jobs, climbing to 15 percent in 1870 (when all African-American women would have been included in the totals for the first time) and to 24 percent by 1920. Marital status was crucial in determining whether a woman worked for pay, although class, race, age, and ethnicity all had an influence. Labor force participation rates were highest for African-American women, but even their employment levels decreased after marriage.


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  1. The US Census is also an excellent source of information about family structure in this period. As with women’s work, it facilitates comparisons of family structure across ethnic and racial groups and over time. There were numerous sociological investigations of family life at the turn of the century, including Margaret Byington, Homestead: The Households of a Milltown (Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974 [orig. 1910]);Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© S. J. Kleinberg 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brunel UniversityUK

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