The Great Back-to-Work Movement (Fortune, 1956)

September 16, 2012: 9:30 AM ET

Editor's note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. As we at Fortune gear up for the launch of our 15th Most Powerful Women in Business list on September 20, we turn to an essay from July 1956 by the preeminent Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell on the rapid rise of women entering -- and returning to -- the workforce. While almost 60 years have passed since Fortune published this piece, and women have since made enormous strides both in and outside of the working world, it's worth noting that women must still grapple with many of the same challenges Bell highlights: receiving equal pay for equal work, countering invidious gender biases, and balancing the goals of motherhood and career advancement, to name just a few. What will the next several decades bring? Will women inch forward on some matters (more female Fortune 500 CEOs, an increasingly narrow pay gap, perhaps) and take a few side- and back-steps on others?

One additional note: The writing below is a product of its time. It does not reflect the cultural sensitivity that Fortune observes today. 

A new life pattern is emerging for the American woman: she works when young, married or not, and returns to a job in prodigious numbers in middle age. It adds up to a revolution in the character of the U.S. labor force.

By Daniel Bell

FORTUNE -- The fabulous American female is capable of many wondrous feats, logical and illogical, but few of her achievements are more puzzling than her role in the recent growth of the U.S. labor force. As witness:

  • More girls than ever before are going to school, and they are staying there longer.
  • Girls are marrying at a younger age.
  • They are having children at a tenderer age.
  • Household help has declined.

Yet 50 per cent more women are at work than the number employed only fifteen years ago. The current total is 21 million women workers, or one-third of all persons employed.

The answer to this paradox reveals a social revolution that has taken place in American society in recent years, pivoting on the role of the married woman -- and the older woman whose children have grown up.

Only yesterday, historically speaking, when a girl married she left work, amid envious farewells of her office or shop mates. Today, a girl who announces that she is being married is asked by her supervisor, "Are you taking a trip, or will you be back on Monday?" Whichever the answer, it is becoming increasingly rare that she does not return at all. The figures bearing this out are emphatic. In 1890 a niggling 4 per cent of the country's married women were in the work force; in 1940 there were only 15 per cent; but by April, 1956, 30 per cent of married women held jobs. This development has been recent and swift. During War World II the number of married women at work had barely surpassed the number of single girls who held jobs. By 1955, working wives outnumbered the bachelor girls more than two to one.

The striking increase in the number of married women at work resolves one part of the paradox, but there remains the puzzle that the rise occurred during the unexpected boom in babies. Here, too, the American female seems to be showing a new capacity, for more women with small children are at work than ever before. True, the number is still small, but the rate of increase is astonishing. In 1940 only 7 per cent of mothers with children under five held jobs; by 1955 the number had jumped to 18.2 per cent. From any point of view, this development is striking. In 1955 there were 2,500,000 mothers with small children at work; since 1948, a "normal" point because it falls between World War II and Korea, the number had risen 66 per cent.

While such a growth rate is itself a social change of enormous magnitude, it still fails to round out the rise of seven million women in the labor force. Where did the additional millions come from? The answer is: from the ranks of older married women. The middle-aged matron no longer wants to stay at home and be a housewife; she too has joined the 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. parade. The change is shown most graphically in the chart (left), which illustrates the trends of the last decades.

The most dramatic shift, as the chart shows, is in the forty-five to fifty-four-year group. Whereas in 1920 fewer than 20 per cent of those women held jobs, today almost 45 per cent are at work, and the proportion is rising. Equally striking is the virtual doubling of the percentage of women between thirty-five and forty-four at work in the last thirty-five years.

This re-entry of the older woman into the labor force creates a new pattern in the life cycle of American women. In the late teens and early twenties, a large number go to work; the number declines during the child-bearing period, then picks up as the children grow older, go to school, and leave home. Re-entry has posed some new problems for the American woman. She has to plan for a "second working life" and for a longer period of employment, and these considerations become increasingly important in her job training and education.

Who works, and why

What has brought the married woman out of the home and into the labor market in such multitudes? In the past, women worked because of need, but left their jobs when the husband's income permitted it. Since it is the American custom for the husband to support the family, it was hardly surprising to find, statistically, that the more money the husband fetched home, the less likely was his wife to take a job. This is the pattern of middle-class respectability. In fact, statistical studies by Professor (now Senator) Paul Douglas some twenty years ago, expanded recently by Clarence Long of Johns Hopkins, lent support to this theory. Douglas found that at any given time one could rank thirty-eight cities inversely on the relationship of labor-force participation to earnings; that is, each city showing a 1 per cent higher per capita income than one below would tend to show a smaller labor force. Long demonstrated that within cities the same consistencies held for income classes.

Yet, over the years, while real income has risen steadily, the participation of females in the labor force has also risen. Long states the facts this way: From 1890 to 1950, real disposable income per adult male nearly tripled, rising from about $1,000 to about $2,700 (in 1929 dollars). According to theory, these income increases should have caused a decline in female labor-force participation. Instead, as Long observes, the number of working women rose. The excess over the expected number employed was about nine million, or more than half the entire female force in 1950.

The answer to this mystery of inconsistent female behavior is, simply, that a new mood has appeared. Women now go to work because they want to go to work. Working, rather than being at home (except during the years when the children are young) has become the "natural" thing to do. A government sample survey in April, 1951, for example, showed that the Douglas-Long "law" of inverse participation held good up to the $10,000 income level of the husband, and then broke sharply. Of wives between the ages of twenty and forty-four whose husbands were earning under $5,000 a year (and who had no children under eighteen), about 55 per cent were at work. At the husband's income level between $5,000 and $7,000, only 30 per cent of the wives went to work. In the $7,000-to-$10,000 bracket only 8.6 per cent of the wives were working. But of the $10,000-and-over group, 21.1 per cent of the wives had taken jobs.

Clearly, more than income changes are now involved. Apparently, the degree of education is becoming a stronger force than income or age in determining whether women enter and then return to the labor force. Within each age group, as Long reports, women who had graduated from college were in the labor force at a rate of about 250 to 300 more per thousand than those who had only a few years of grade school or no education at all.

Actually, the breakup of the old middle-class pattern of ''respectability," in which the wife does not work if the husband can afford to keep her at home, has spread even further through society. A study by Sanford Dornbusch, now at Harvard, argues that the supposed "respectability" pattern observed by Douglas and Long was affected by differences in the proportion of white and colored in each city. Taking 1940 data, Dornbusch showed that the "respectability pattern" held among colored women, both old and young; that is, the colored women, generally in the lower income groups, worked because they had to, and began dropping out of the labor force when their husbands' incomes rose. But among the younger white women in that year, this was no longer true; these women worked because they wanted to; still, the "respectability pattern" held among the older white women. In computations of 1950 census data, made for FORTUNE, Dornbusch found even more striking changes. For white women of all ages, the "respectability pattern" had broken down completely. Furthermore, it had begun to break down for the younger colored females. In effect, the Negro women have been following the same path as the white women, just ten years behind.

The net seems to be that middle-class, and especially upper-middle-class, women no longer regard it as wrong to work when the children are grown, while older working-class wives, especially Negroes, who no longer are hard up for money, seek to retire from work. The classes, in effect, have exchanged ideas of respectability.

There are several elements responsible for this emerging pattern of the behavior of women, especially married women, in the labor force. There is the large number of job opportunities that an expanding economy now offers. There is the free time made available by modern household facilities (e.g., ready-cooked meals). Education, now universal, gives many women a vocational urge that homemaking alone cannot satisfy. A job provides stimulus and companionship that the home in daytime does not. (Typical comment of a working wife: "Now I have something to talk about with my husband when we both come home.") But most significant, perhaps, is the hunger for the appurtenances of a good life that multiple incomes can bring more quickly; the American standard of living has become a built-in automatic "drive" on the part of the American wife. This asserts itself in her reasons for working. It also has affected broad sectors of the U.S. economy.

The social revolution at the turn of the century, which brought the young single woman into the office, created a host of new industries. The young single female with an income of her own for the first time, splurged wholesale for clothes, beauty aids, entertainment. This new spending produced the fashion industry, the mass production of dresses and coats, the beauty shop and the permanent wave, the silk stockings. and the women's magazines. The Twenties was a gaudy reflection of these hungers. It was a revolution in style. Today new impulses are at work. The married woman at work today (interviewed by FORTUNE in thirty-six cities) wants a house, the durable consumer goods that go with it, and savings to send the children through college. These new, sober impulses are heavily responsible for the enormous boom in consumer durables that underlies the prosperity surge of the last decade. This is the economic consequence of the new role of the woman at work.

Where the women go

Time was, though few are left to recall, when man could still find a world untrammeled by females at some place of employment. Today, "no job is an island." Females are now to be found in such unlikely jobs as railroad trainmen, baggage handlers, furnace tenders, glaziers, auctioneers, plumbers, and jumper men (i.e., connecting cable terminals) in the telephone field. In 1950, for the first time in U.S. history, there was not one category in the published census of occupations that did not have at least a few females.

But while versatile women have poked into every job nook and cranny, the overwhelming number have gone into the traditional female employments. As the bar chart shows (right), the largest number went into clerical, service, and factory. Of the seven million new women in the labor force since 1940, over 40 per cent took clerical jobs. In the factories, great increases were registered in electronics and electrical manufacturing.

The expansion of women in clerical and sales has changed the male-female employment ratios in those fields. In 1940, women held 53 per cent of all clerical jobs; today they hold 68 per cent. Women in 1940 held 28 per cent of selling jobs, today hold 38 per cent. Among professional and technical women, however, the proportion declined from 45 to 35 per cent. This presumably reflects the rapid increase of engineers, among whom there are few women. Although the number of female semiskilled workers rose sharply, so did the men in equal number. A rise in the number of female proprietors is also matched by the number of males.

One surprising change is the doubling in the ratio of women to men among farmers and farm workers: whereas women in 1940 constituted only 10 per cent of the agricultural work force, in 1955 the proportion had risen to 18 per cent. What this indicates, however, is the relative decline of men owning and working farms.

While women as women find fewer barriers to jobs today, age sharply affects the kind of employment available. One tendency is quite marked: the older women, particularly those re-entering the labor market, find jobs that younger girls shun as saleswomen and semiskilled factory workers. For one thing, these jobs require little training. For another, employers in these fields (e.g., department stores) are pinched by labor shortages and are more willing to hire older women. Moreover, in stores the work shifts scheduled to meet peak customer loads usually match the available hours of a married woman with children still in school. At Macy's (M), for example, the peak rush is from 11:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M., and many married women work those hours.

In clerical employment, though some companies have been hiring older women, there are still many barriers on grounds of age or marital status. Metropolitan Life Insurance will not hire a married woman, nor will many insurance companies hire a girl over nineteen years of age. The Communication Workers Union complains that the Bell System rejects older women. Privately, many personnel managers in large white-collar companies will admit to the charge. They assert that young girls are more adaptable as office workers, can be trained more easily, have fewer family problems, and, for "temperamental reasons," are more acceptable to the male supervisors than are older women. The young girl herself prefers the office to the factory. The New York Employment Service reports that young girls today will not go into the needle trades as their grandmothers did. They dislike the mixed age and nationality groups, the small shops, the seasonal cycles alternating between slack periods and rush periods with overtime.

A "woman's job"

The torrential flow of women into employment inevitably has caused some erosion of "men's jobs" -- sometimes, however, to the men's own advantage. In the insurance field women have taken over underwriting, claims and auditing assignments, with the result that men are less frequently required to work their way up every rung of the ladder; they can go ahead faster, and in bigger jumps. In underwriting, women are likely to be put to handling the smaller applications, which, as one executive put it disparagingly, "don't require as much judgment," while the men are put onto the larger ones.

The full employment of the past decade has reduced male hostility toward women moving into new job areas. Yet in a downturn such tolerance might reverse itself quickly. The management-consultant firm of Douglas Williams Associates tells of men in an aircraft-accessory plant who referred derogatorily to one soldering task as a "woman's job." With layoffs threatening, the same men hotly protested against women holding the job, and argued that seniority rules ought to be set aside so that married women would be laid off ahead of men.

Some managements have purposely rotated individuals in a job, fearing that once it was tagged as a woman's job, men would be reluctant to perform it when necessary. But there seems to be considerable disagreement as to what a "woman's job" is. In the canning industry, operating a cornhusker is a woman's job in Eureka, Illinois, but a man's job in Jackson, Wisconsin. In Chattanooga, textile spinning is done by women, in North Carolina by men.

"Knock-elbowed"

Few companies have tried systematically to learn which jobs a woman can perform better than a man. Mechanical power has removed differences. The extensive use of fork trucks allows women to do much of the heavy lift work once performed solely by men. Many companies put girls into jobs because of need and find later that special characteristics of women make them better suited to the tasks than men. During the war the Carrier Corp. put women to work operating big twenty-ton cranes. Now crane operation is virtually a "woman's job" because, as the company found, women have better depth perception and are quicker to differentiate color. (Depth perception is vital since the crane picks up loads from a height of thirty feet, and color acuity is necessary because safety instructions are color coded.)

In electronics, where women have entered the factory in large numbers, a few companies have designed operations that take advantage of physiological and temperamental differences between men and women. Raytheon (RTN), for example, found that women are more "knock-elbowed" than men, have shorter legs but longer trunks, longer fingers and shorter thumbs. Being knock-elbowed allows a woman to make circular hand motions more freely, while short legs and long bodies make bending jobs easier. Shorter thumbs enhance finger dexterity.

"Headaches" on the job

While women have swarmed to work, their first concern remains the home, and this "dual loyalty" manifests itself in high absenteeism and high turnover. A study of sickness rates in a group of representative industries by the U.S. Public Health Service a few years ago showed that women were absent three times as often as men. But since women outlive men, are less subject to physical strain, and have less heart disease, the extraordinary number of common ailments that women report as excuses for staying home would seem to signify a lesser attachment to the job.

"A woman," says Dr. Norman Plummer, medical officer of New York Telephone Co., "can excuse herself by reporting that she is 'just not feeling well,' or 'has a headache.' However, excuses for nervous symptoms and minor ailments, accepted from women, are not acceptable from men. This is part of present-day American culture."

Overtime work often leads to absenteeism. The married women want to go home to make supper, the unmarried ones run off to dates. Raytheon has come up with an ingenious solution. Instead of paying overtime to the regular daytime female office staff, it established an evening shift that runs from five to eleven. While Raytheon has to advertise for plant workers and office staff for the day shift, it is swamped with applicants for night work, most of whom are married women with small children. The mother cares for the children by day, but when father comes home from work she turns the brood over to him and sets off for her own job.

Women create a problem of high turnover rates for many companies. One electric company estimates that its female quit rate is three times its male rate. At New York Telephone, 55 per cent of the work force has been with the company less than five years.

The high turnover rate, however, sometimes has its compensations for employers. Most jobs for women require short training periods, at low costs. When these are weighed against the salary increases and benefits that a worker receives over a long period, it may well prove advantageous for a company to have an old crew leave and a new one come in. Moreover, efficiency may diminish after a few years. One electronics company found that a woman worker reached maximum efficiency after six months on the job, but that after the third year productivity began to fall off. Consequently, the company began encouraging turnover by offering accrued pension benefits as lump-sum termination pay for women five years on the job.

Unequal wages

Another offset to the high turnover rate is the fact that women are often paid lower wages than men. This is nothing new, of course: in the 1850's, Captain Rowland H. Macy, the New York storekeeper, was hiring saleswomen for less than half what he paid to men. Only recently an official of a large electronics company admitted that the price structure of his industry would be revolutionized if women got equal wages.

Wage discrimination takes two forms. There is the kind that denies women equal wages for doing the identical work men do (at Armour women get 3.5 cents an hour less than men doing the same work); and there is the kind that downgrades those occupations in which females predominate -- e.g., tobacco stemmers, or waitresses. Both practices are vexing to women.

At General Electric's (GE) lamp plants in Cleveland, for example, women are paid $1.53 an hour for such jobs as bulb washing or carton packing, although the lowest men's rate, that of janitor, pays $1.73 an hour. GE insists that such differences reflect differences in job content, as well as going community practices. But the International Union of Electrical Workers (I.U.E.) argues that these differentials are discriminatory and wants the company's job-evaluation plan revised.

Sex problems, in the old-fashioned sense of the term, which personnel men once feared would occur with high frequency, have not amounted to much. Only in Dallas aircraft plants has "wildcatting" been a problem. But the aircraft plants are new, and once the work routine exercises its wear and tear, as it has in the Detroit auto plants, it is likely that the sex problem will abate too. As one Chrysler union steward laconically reported: "The chief complaint, in fact, is that everybody is too tired out for sex."

The accumulated experience of personnel supervisors on the "women-as-headaches" proposition was summed up recently by a personnel supervisor at du Pont's (DD) nylon plant in Seaford, Delaware: "A good female worker, there's nothing better. A bad one, there's nothing worse."

Only one union

While women are "here to stay" in the labor force, they play, surprisingly, only a small role in the trade-union movement. Women had been important in the formation of the ladies' garmentworkers, the shirtmakers, the glove workers, the millinery workers, and other unions. In the sit-down strikes of the late Thirties "women's brigades" were in the forefront of activity. Yet of the 140-odd unions in the A.F. of L.-C.I.O., with more than 2,500,000 women members, only two major ones, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the Ladies' Garment Workers, have any female vice presidents -- and these represent only a genuflection to tradition.

President Joe Beirne of the Communications Workers has said, "In any strike let me lead the women and you can have the men." Most union leaders would regard the remark as hyperbole. But there is a core of truth to the assertion. In emotional situations, like strikes, women are often more aggressive, articulate, and even courageous than men. It is in the bureaucratized, day-to-day routine of the "business union" that women show little interest. They have less expectation of staying permanently on the job, and are willing to put up with inferior working conditions more often than men. They see little need to pay dues, are less interested in fringe benefits (a working husband will have obtained medical coverage).

Most union leaders are aware of the possible dangers to unionism in this feminine apathy. But only Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers, which has 175,000 women members (700 of whom hold local office, as against 7,800 men holding local office), has taken steps to deal with it. It set up a Women's Department, headed by forty-five-year-old Caroline Davis, a former drill-press operator at the Excel Corp. in Elkhart, Indiana. Her department, staffed by three women, is concerned largely with discriminatory practices against women in plants (where her crusade sometimes is directed against other union members as well as plant officials).

The future

The question whether women will continue to seek jobs is important not only for the changing social character of the female herself, but for the continued economic growth of the U.S.

The rate of labor-force growth, as Harold Wool, manpower specialist in the Department of Defense, points out, may vary considerably in the next twenty years. In the next few years a relatively smaller average annual increase may be expected because of the "deficit" in births during the depression. By the mid-Sixties, however, there will be a sharp thrust upward resulting from the postwar baby booms. By 1975 the labor force will total about 90 million persons. About half of the growth will have to be made up of women.

The percentage of single women at work is near saturation. The increasing number of women bearing children inevitably means some dip in female participation in the twenty-four-to-thirty-five-year age group. If the female labor force is to expand at a faster rate than population, the greatest increases will have to come from the married women in the thirty-five-to-fifty-four-year-old age group.

But going to work raises doubts -- in her mind as well as in those of some moralists -- as to whether she will be able to combine job and home, and be a good mother. In fact, a whole host of pathologies, from rising delinquency to increasing divorce, is being charged to working women.

Yet there is no evidence that these presumed social disorganizations are really caused by women working. Rising divorce does not necessarily mean the decay of the marriage institution -- after all, roughly 70 per cent of divorced individuals do remarry. The divorce rate is more likely a reflection of the difficulties many young couples are having in adapting to new conceptions of the marriage partnership. In this development there are obvious crossings of traditional roles: the husband helps in the kitchen and the wife washes the car; the working wife supports her husband in school and the husband baby-sits while the wife is off to a women's organization meeting. Sharing has now become the mode.

The need to work

The desire for personal freedom, especially among middle-class women, undoubtedly has been a major element in the decision to take a job. More generally, the return of the older woman to work denotes a new conception of her role. As her life expectancy rises, a woman faces the problem of fruitfully occupying the twenty years or so of life after her children are completely grown. Significantly, perhaps, for the light it casts on the American character, most working women would rather have a job than full leisure. In a national study by the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan, 74 per cent of working women said they would continue to work and usually at the same kinds of jobs -- even if they inherited enough money to live comfortably. Work fills a deep social need for these individuals.

It may be that as incomes rise and a new understanding of leisure time emerges, the married woman will once again decide that only the husband should work. But such a reversal of temper seems unlikely. The labor-saving "technology for the home," expanding job opportunities, shorter hours -- and particularly staggered hours in the case of department stores and offices -- the increasing number of part-time jobs, and the new social values that have emerged in the last decade and a half, all indicate that the married woman, and particularly the older woman, will continue to play a spectacular role in the labor force -- and the new U-shaped work cycle, which has become apparent in recent years, will be the norm in the life of the American female.

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