The Growth of the Female American Workforce

By Faith Gonia

When examining the state of gender equality in terms of economics, we look at the gap. You know, the eighteen cent, you’re-a-woman, average pay gap. 

The thought is absurd. Women run for president. Women serve in Congress. Women make up nearly 50% of the American workforce. And yet, women earn 82% of men’s salary.

C’mon! It’s not the 19th century anymore! 

Perhaps that is the notion we should be focusing on.

The gap was not always eighteen cents. Long ago in 1820, the wage disparity between women and men was valued at a mammoth seventy pennies subtracted from a man’s dollar. With the passage of time—World Wars, Equal Rights Laws, the changing role of women—that disparity shrunk to fifty, then forty, then thirty cents, persisting through to the modern day. 

World War I marked a significant shift in the United States wage-earning population. Faced with a major labor shortage, America granted economic opportunities to women as well as African and Mexican Americans. During the wartime, one million women joined the paid labor force, leading to the establishment of the National Women’s Party and eventually the 19th Amendment. 

Two decades later, another surge of female workers arose with the presence of World War II. In this period of female empowerment, the esteemed symbol of “Rosie the Riveter” emerged. Her hair tied back and sleeves rolled up, Rosie represented the new image of a working American woman. Though encouraged to enlist and work, women continued to face sexual harassment and lower wages, all while balancing a lack of child care. 

In spite of their advances, women throughout history constantly faced centuries old notions of the “Cult of Domesticity”—a system of ideas which argued that a woman belonged in the home. In postwar America, women found themselves only having access to “feminine” jobs—teaching, nursing—rather than professional fields. Those who entered the workforce faced condemnation for inadequately taking care of their children. 

This Women’s History Month, I thank the women who joined the workforce despite facing hardship—those who labored for not only a wage, but also for gender equality. As the pay gap dwindles even more from today’s eighteen cents, I thank them for laying the pivotal groundwork.