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This pandemic isn’t the first time women have left the workforce in droves

As long as women have been working outside the home, they’ve held a precarious place in the labor force.

This pandemic isn’t the first time women have left the workforce in droves
[Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-fsac-1a35371]/Wikimedia Commons]
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Over the last year, countless headlines have framed the economic fallout from the pandemic as the first female recession. While overall job losses between men and women now seem relatively comparable, the pandemic has uniquely affected many working women, and especially working mothers.

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In December 2019, before COVID-19 gained a foothold in the U.S., the share of women on payrolls had actually outpaced the share of men. But since the start of the pandemic, millions of women have lost their jobs or been pushed out of the labor force. Industries that employ more women were hit particularly hard during the pandemic, from hospitality to food service. Women are more likely to hold low-wage jobs, with Black and Latinx women represented in higher numbers, which left many of them vulnerable to the virus and at the mercy of a flailing economy.

In the absence of in-person schooling or affordable childcare, some working mothers stopped working to care for their children, while those juggling remote work and caregiving responsibilities reportedly cut back on their working hours by four to five times more than their male counterparts have.

But this isn’t the first instance of women being knocked out of the workforce. In this week’s bonus episode of The New Way We Work, we look back at the precarious place women have long occupied in the labor force.

The Great Depression

At the turn of the century, the majority of women didn’t work outside of the home. Only about 20% of women in 1900 had “gainful occupations,” according to the Census. Those who worked outside of the home were typically Black women—more than 40% of whom were employed at the time—or unmarried.

But in the decades leading up to the Great Depression, against the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement, more and more women entered the workforce; by 1930, nearly half of single women and almost 12% of married women were reportedly working. When millions of men lost their jobs after the stock market crash of 1929, many women started working to help support their families. In fact, the number of working women jumped from about 10.5 million in 1930 to 13 million in 1940.

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That’s in large part because the jobs that were available were perceived as women’s work—jobs like teaching—weren’t nearly as affected by the stock market. Those jobs also paid less as a result. Black women, who had been working for more than 50 years, found it especially difficult to find work that paid a reasonable wage.

Men and women simply weren’t seeking out the same jobs. But it wasn’t long before women—and even people of color—were scapegoated for taking work away from them. “Men grew angry, scared, and desperate as the idea took hold that women workers were, if not the primary cause of the Great Depression, at least exacerbating the problem,” author Ijeoma Oluo wrote in her book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. This sentiment was mostly held by white men, Oluo says, since it was far more common for Black women to work, even under normal circumstances.

Married women, in particular, were vilified for being employed during the Great Depression, since the assumption at the time was that they were already provided for by a spouse. In fact, many businesses outright banned married women from working, and in 1932, even the federal government intervened, decreeing that only one spouse could work a government job at any given time; by 1940, twenty-six states also limited the employment of married women in government jobs. The federal bill was repealed just five years later—but by then, countless women had already given up their jobs.

World War II

When more than 16 million men left to serve in World War II, companies had no choice but to recruit women and people of color to fill vacancies in factories and across other jobs. That included courting married white women, who employers thought could be easily dismissed from their positions once the war was over. “Married women, demonized for working during the Great Depression because they obviously didn’t have to work,” writes Oluo, “became the ideal candidates for wartime employment for the very same reason—they didn’t have to work!”

During the war, six and a half million women joined the workforce, which meant almost 25% of married women were working outside of their homes. They were finally doing the same work as men—and some were even paid equally for it, though that was largely a ploy to ensure men would be paid at the same rates when they returned from war. Working conditions for women also improved because so many of them had to balance childcare responsibilities with their jobs. This led to the introduction of the Lanham Act, which put federal and state funds toward childcare centers that served women who were aiding in the war efforts.

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As the war came to an end, the government focused on how to transition men back into the workforce and ensure there were enough jobs for them. Though many women wanted to keep working, millions of them were laid off, while others were shifted into pink-collar or low-skilled jobs that were deemed more appropriate for their station. By 1946, the childcare funding provided through the Lanham Act was also terminated, despite the protests of working women and organized demonstrations in New York City. The men who didn’t get plum jobs were taken care of with the G.I. Bill, which promised loans, unemployment insurance, tuition assistance, and more and helped expand the white middle class. Though Black veterans were entitled to the same benefits, they had far more trouble accessing them due to discrimination, and only a small fraction of women reaped the benefits of the G.I. Bill.

Many people believe World War II laid the groundwork for the women’s liberation movement that followed in decades to come, between the symbolism of Rosie the Riveter and the economic freedoms afforded to working women. It’s true that women’s participation in the labor force steadily increased starting in the 1950s, hitting a peak of 60% in 1999. In the past year, that figure has slipped to 57%, but women’s labor force participation was already slowing prior to the pandemic. After all, the very challenges that women faced during and after the war—a lack of childcare support and low-wage jobs with poor working conditions and endemic sexual harassment—still threaten their standing in the workforce more than 70 years later.


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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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