Labor force

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. More

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