History of Women in the Workforce

History of Women in the Workplace

From the suffragette movement to the ground-breaking moments when women entered male-dominated professions, women have fought against discrimination, challenged stereotypes, and demanded equal rights for centuries.

And while the full history of women in the workplace is as intricate as it is expansive, this article offers a glimpse at some of the monumental milestones (and a few setbacks) that helped shape the landscape of opportunities for women today.

19th Century

The 19th century marked a transformative period for women in the workplace, characterized by shifting social, economic, and cultural dynamics.

  • 1847: Women join the STEM field
    Maria Mitchell discovered a new comet in the night sky over Nantucket on October 1, 1847, making her the country’s first female astronomer and first American scientist to discover a comet. At the time, Mitchell was working as a librarian but had learned a great deal from her father, who was a teacher and astronomist.1
  • 1848: The first convention of women’s rights
    The Seneca Falls Convention is regarded as the birthplace of American feminism. Heralded as the first women’s rights convention in the United States, it was held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19 and 20, 1848.2
  • 1849: Women join the medical field
    Elizabeth Blackwell was rejected from every medical school she applied to until she received an acceptance letter from Geneva College in rural New York. While her acceptance letter was intended as a practical joke, Blackwell eventually earned the respect of professors and classmates, graduating first in her class in 1849 and becoming the first female in the United States to receive a medical degree.3
  • 1869: Women join the legal field
    Arabella Mansfield is granted admission to practice law in Iowa, making her the first woman lawyer. Ada H. Kepley became the first woman in the United States to graduate from law school.4
  • 1872: Congress guarantees equal pay for women federal employees
    Congress passed a law granting female federal employees equal pay to their male counterparts. However, this same right was not extended to the majority of female employees who worked for private companies or state and local governments – until the adoption of the Equal Pay Act nearly 100 years later.5
  • 1872: Susan B. Anthony is arrested for voting
    Susan B. Anthony cast a vote to test whether the 14th Amendment would be interpreted broadly to guarantee women the right to vote. She was convicted of “unlawful voting.” 6
  • 1873: The Illinois Supreme Court rules to exclude married women from practicing law
    One Justice on the case reasoned that it was natural and proper for women to be excluded from the legal profession. He cited the importance of maintaining the “respective spheres of man and woman,” with women performing the duties of motherhood and wife.7
  • 1889: America’s first female CEO
    When Anna Bissell’s husband died, she took over the Bissell sweeper company and became America’s first female CEO. She helped promote workers’ compensation policies and employee pension plans.8
  • 1899: Women join the accounting field
    In June of 1898, Christine Ross took the CPA exam in New York and finished in the top three of those in her test group. While the men who also passed the exam were immediately awarded their certificates, the New York Board of Regents had to debate whether a woman should be allowed to hold the CPA title. Nearly eighteen months after she had taken the exam, Ross was issued certificate No. 143—making her the first female CPA in the United States.9

Start of the 20th Century

By the time the 20th century rolled around, women’s organizations were entrenched in the fight for broad-based economic and political equality. The number of women in the workplace had also reached an all-time high, going from 2.6 million in 1880 to 7.8 million in 1910.10

  • 1900: Women gain property rights in all states
    By 1900, every state had passed legislation modeled after New York’s Married Women’s Property Act (1848), granting married women the right to keep their wages and to own property.11
  • 1911: Women join the aviation industry
    In August 1911, Harriet Quimby became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license.12
  • 1912: Massachusetts sets first minimum wage for women
    Massachusetts adopted a minimum wage in 1912—the first state in the country to do so. The law only applied to women and children.13
  • 1917: First woman serves in Congress
    In 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress as a Representative from Montana. Her start date was delayed while Congress debated whether a woman should be allowed to serve in Congress, but she would eventually be sworn in April 1917.14
  • 1918: Women take on new roles during World War I
    Approximately one million women filled vacancies left by men who either volunteered or were drafted to fight in World War I. Women labored on the home front and overseas. They took jobs on farms, in factories and shipyards, and even helped in the military.15
  • 1920: Some women get the right to vote
    While the passage of the 19th Amendment gave most white women the right to vote, that wasn’t the case for many women of color.16
  • 1920: Department of Labor adds Women’s Bureau
    The Department of Labor established a Women’s Bureau in 1920. The bureau was responsible for creating standards and policies focused on the welfare of women workers, improving their working conditions, and fostering more career opportunities for women.17
  • 1928: First woman crosses the Atlantic by Airplane
    In June 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, though she was merely a passenger. Although she was promised time at the controls, Earhart never flew the plane during the nearly 21-hour flight from Newfoundland, Canada to Wales. She felt like just “a sack of potatoes.”18

Women in the Great Depression

The Great Depression was the worst economic crisis in modern history, lasting from the stock market crash of 1929 until the beginning of World War II in 1939. As companies faced widespread layoffs and salary reductions, traditional gender norms resurfaced. New legislation and employment practices made it especially hard for married women to find work outside of the home.

Despite the new obstacles women had to overcome during the Great Depression, the number of women in the workforce increased by 24% – from 10.5 million in 1930 to 13 million in 1940. While the jobs available to women paid less, they were more stable during the economic crisis compared to the traditionally male roles.19

  • 1932: Women lose government jobs
    The Economy Act of 1932, signed by President Hoover to help balance the federal budget during the Great Depression, included a section requiring the government to fire one member of each married couple working in government. Since women’s jobs inevitably paid less than men’s, they largely paid the price.20
  • 1933: First woman appointed to a presidential cabinet
    President Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins to serve as his Secretary of Labor in 1933, making her the first woman to hold a cabinet-level position.21
  • 1935: National Council for Negro Women is established
    Founded in 1935 by Mary McLeod Bethune, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) was the first national coalition of African American women’s organizations.22
  • 1938: Fair Labor Standards Act sets minimum wage
    |Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a minimum hourly wage of 25 cents for all workers regardless of gender.23
  • 1940: More states ban married women
    Before the Great Depression, only nine states had passed legislation banning married women from state employment. By 1940, that number had grown to twenty-six states.24

Women in World War II

The outbreak of World War II drastically transformed the role of women in the workforce. As men went off to war by the millions, women once again stepped into the civilian and military jobs they left behind.

The motto of the time was “free a man up to fight,” and women more than delivered. It’s estimated that up to six million women joined the civilian workforce during World War II in both white and blue-collar jobs, and approximately 350,000 women served in the military.25

  • 1942: Military creates new branches for women to serve
    In May of 1942, the Army became the first military branch to open a women’s auxiliary organization – the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Shortly after, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Air Force also created new branches for women.26
  • 1942: Rosie the Riveter inspires women workers
    The government initiated a massive publicity campaign to entice women to serve their country as part of the home-front labor force. The famous “We Can Do It!” poster featuring Rosie the Riveter, a female factory worker flexing her muscles, became an iconic image of working women during this time.27
  • 1942: Congress creates the first (and only) universal childcare program
    While the Lanham Act of 1940 was not specifically meant for childcare, in 1942, the government used it to fund temporary daycare centers for the children of mothers working wartime jobs. An estimated 550,000 to 600,000 children received care through these facilities, which cost parents around 50 to 75 cents per child.28
  • 1945: Female labor force grows by 35%
    During World War II, the female labor force expanded by 35%—increasing from 14 million women in 1940 to over 19 million by 1945.29

Women in Post-World War II

As World War II came to an end in 1945, the United States began its transition from wartime to peacetime economy. While there was initial resistance to women continuing to work as men returned from war, the momentum for change persisted.

In the following decades, the feminist movement exploded, and societal attitudes continued to evolve, leading to a broader acceptance of women in diverse career paths.

  • 1948: Congress passes the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act
    On June 12, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the bill into law, granting women the right to serve as regular, permanent members of the Armed Services for the first time.30
  • 1948: First woman to become a full-time news correspondent 
    Pauline Frederick was the first woman to become a full-time news correspondent when ABC finally gave her a full-time contract after years of employing her as a freelancer.31
  • 1963: Congress passes the Equal Pay Act
    President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963. It was among the earliest federal laws that aimed to end wage differences between men and women performing the same work in the same place of employment.32
  • 1964: Civil Rights Act strengthens gender equality
    Women gained even more protection when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, gender, color, religion, and national origin.33
  • 1967: First woman (tries) to run the Boston Marathon
    In 1967, 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, even though women were not allowed to compete at the time. As she was running, a race official ran up to her and tried to remove her from the course.34
  • 1969: Court rules that an employer cannot segregate jobs by gender
    In this case, the employer would not allow women to apply for promotions or even take a weight-lifting test to qualify them for a higher-paid position. The Court ruled that any tests or considerations for hiring or promoting must be offered on a sex-neutral basis.35
  • 1971: Working mothers get more protections
    The Supreme Court ruled that an employer may not, in the absence of business necessity, refuse to hire women with pre-school-age children while hiring men with such children.36
  • 1972: Supreme Court extends the right to contraception to unmarried people
    In 1965, the Supreme Court first recognized the right to contraception, but only for married couples. Seven years later, in 1972, the Supreme Court made it clear that unmarried people have the same right to contraception.37
  • 1972: First female CEO of a Fortune 500 company
    Katharine Graham took over The Washington Post in 1972, making her the country’s first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Under her leadership, the newspaper broke stories on the Watergate scandal.38
  • 1977: First woman to qualify and compete in the Indy 500
    Janet Guthrie, a pioneering driver, was the first woman to qualify and compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Guthrie led the way for generations of female racers to follow.39
  • 1978: Congress passes the Pregnancy Discrimination Act
    Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978. The law bans employers from discriminating against workers based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.40
  • 1981: First woman to serve on the Supreme Court
    Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the Supreme Court in 1981 after President Ronald Reagan appointed her.41
  • 1982: Women earn more college degrees than men
    The 1981-82 academic school year was the first time in U.S. history that women received more bachelor’s degrees than men.42
  • 1983: First woman astronaut goes to space
    Sally Ride became the first American woman astronaut to go into space when she flew on the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983.43
  • 1984: Supreme Court rules law firms cannot discriminate based on sex
    The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that law firms may not discriminate based on sex, race, religion, or national origin in deciding which lawyers to promote to the status of partner.44
  • 1986: Supreme Court rules sexual harassment is an illegal form of discrimination
    The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that sexual harassment is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case was the first of its kind to reach the Supreme Court and would redefine sexual harassment in the workplace.45
  • 1988: Congress passes Women’s Business Ownership Act
    Congress passed the Women’s Business Ownership Act in 1988, eliminating the requirement that women have a male co-signer on business loans.46
  • 1989: First woman to own and produce her own talk show
    After years as a news anchor and host of a successful regional talk show, Oprah Winfrey took ownership of her show, expanded it nationally, and became a worldwide success with her own network.47
  • 1993: Congress passes Family and Medical Leave Act
    The Family and Medical Leave Act helped make it easier for women to balance work and family needs. The law grants eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off each year for pregnancy, care of a newborn, adoption or foster care, and other caretaking duties.48
  • 1996: Equal Pay Day gets added to the calendar
    The National Committee on Pay Equity declared the first “Equal Pay Day” in 1996. This date changes every year and symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.49
  • 2007: First woman elected Speaker of the House
    On January 4, 2007, Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic Representative from California, became the first woman to hold the Speaker of the House position.50
  • 2010: Break time for breastfeeding becomes mandatory
    Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act in 2010 to require employers to provide reasonable break times during the workday for nursing mothers to express milk in a private area other than a bathroom.51
  • 2013: Combat roles open to women
    The Pentagon lifted a ban that had prohibited women from serving in front-line combat positions.52
  • 2016: First woman becomes nominee of major US political party
    Hillary Rodham Clinton broke one of the highest glass ceilings in the country when she became the first woman to earn the presidential nomination from a major party in 2016.53
  • 2021: First woman Vice President of the United States
    On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice President – the first woman, the first Black American, and the first South Asian American to be elected to this position.54
  • 2021: First woman officiates a Super Bowl
    Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate in the Super Bowl when she served as a referee of Super Bowl LV between Kansas City and Tampa Bay in 2021.55
  • 2021: Youngest self-made woman billionaire
    Wolfe Herd, who co-founded Bumble, became America’s youngest self-made woman billionaire at the age of 31.56
  • 2023: Record number of women are elected to Congress
    A record 128 women were elected to serve in the House of Representatives, making up 29% of the chamber’s membership. In the Senate, 25 women were elected to serve, making up 25% of the chamber’s membership.57
  • 2023: Female artist breaks record as highest-grossing music tour
    In December 2023, Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour became the highest-grossing music tour ever and the first to surpass $1 billion in revenue. The Eras Tour, set to conclude in December 2024, breaks the record set by Elton John’s five-year farewell tour, which ended in 2023.58

The future of women in the workplace

Although the fight for equality in the workplace (and beyond) is far from over, it’s important to celebrate the achievements of past changemakers to inspire the path of future generations.

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