A marriage bar is the custom and practice of restricting the employment of married women in general or in particular professions or occupations; sometimes the practice called for the termination of employment of a woman on her marriage, especially in teaching, clerical and other occupations, and sometimes widowed women with children were still considered to be married preventing them from being hired.
The practice never had an economic justification, and its rigid application could be disruptive to workplaces. It was justified during depression years as a social policy to find jobs for more family units, but the policy persisted beyond such economic times. The practice was common in some Western countries from the late 19th century to the 1970s. Marriage bars created a disincentive for women to marry, at least until they were ready to give up work, and some women, including Ruby Payne-Scott, kept their marriage secret to keep their jobs. Marriage bars did not affect employment in lower paid jobs, and therefore lowered incentives for women to acquire education. Marriage bars were widely relaxed in wartime.
Since the 1960s, the practice has widely been regarded as employment inequality and sexual discrimination, and has widely been either discontinued or outlawed by anti-discrimination laws which may also deal with discrimination based on marital status. In the Netherlands, the marriage bar was removed in 1957, and in Ireland it was instituted in 1932 and removed in 1973. Since 1975, female officers of the British Geological Survey no longer have to resign upon getting married.
Generally, marriage bars can be classified as the “hire bar” preventing the hiring of married women, and the “retain bar” preventing the retention of married workers.
Marriage bars also meant that often female employees were classified as supplementary staff, rather than permanent. This was the case, for example, at Lloyds Bank until 1949, when the bank abolished its marriage bar.
Reasons given for marriage bars
A 1946 article in The Spectator, a British conservative magazine, gave (and dismissed) a few reasons for the implementation of the marriage bars. Arguments included: women who were married were supported by their husbands, therefore they did not need jobs. Marriage bars provided more opportunity for those whom proponents viewed as "actually" needing employment, such as single women. Another argument The Spectator makes states unmarried women are more reliable and mobile than married women. As single women did not have a family or other pressing responsibilities, they were more reliable and flexible than married women. The last point made by this magazine involves the turnover rate. The turnover rate for women in these jobs was high because lots of young single women eventually got married. Since they did not hold their positions very long, it gave them less of an opportunity for advancement and promotions.
Marriage bars were connected to social and economic fluctuations, for example, after the end of World War I, returning servicemen who wanted jobs, and afterwards the depression in the 1930s, led to the implementation of marriage bars in many professions during the interbellum period. However, marriage bars were often justified on moral grounds, especially in places where there was a very strong tradition of married women staying at home and being housewives, something more common in rich countries, such as, for instance, the Netherlands.
Exceptions to marriage bars
Women's History Matters states that marriage bars had some exceptions. Contrary to urban areas, rural areas needed teachers so they were willing to hire married women. Schools were also willing to hire women if they could prove that their husbands were “invalid, insane, or unable to provide for the family". Marriage bars were less strict during World War II, because the women were needed again for these jobs. For example, in Montana, 1500 women were welcomed back into the school systems for the duration of World War II only. Around the time of WW ll 87% of school boards would not hire married women and 70% would not retain a single woman who married. But later on in 1951 18% of the school boards had the "hire bar" and 10% had the "retain bar". Marriage bars only applied to educated, middle-class married women, particularly native born white women. Their occupations were that of teaching, and clerical work. These occupations were most needed and required in secondary school education. Meanwhile, lower class women of colour who took jobs in manufacturing, waitressing, and domestic servants were unaffected by marriage bans. Discrimination against married female teachers in the US was not terminated until 1964 with the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
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