Women in the United States labor force from 1945 to 1950

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World War II per se did not cause a major change in women’s labor force participation after it ended and returning male soldiers reclaimed their jobs. Trends in women’s labor force participation post World War II are correlated with mobilization rates in their respective states. This outward shift in the labor supply by location was maintained through the 1950s and 1960s. Most impacted by mobilization were the more educated women who were married with children during World War II.[1] Supporting their participation was the rise of the tertiary sector, increases in part-time jobs, adoption of labor saving household technologies, and education.[2]

Prior to WWII[edit]

Before World War II, there existed persistent and systematic discrimination against women workers. This included legal bars to married women working in many professions. During the high unemployment of the Great Depression many thought men should have hiring preference, because that way there can be at least one provider for every family. The U.S. culture encouraged women to gain employment before marriage, but upon marriage to dedicate themselves to their main duty: maintaining the family home. The important anti-discrimination legislation Equal Pay Act of 1963 would not be passed until 1963. In 1940, 28% of women over 14 participated in the labor force while men over the age of 10 had a 96% workforce participation rate.[3]

During WWII[edit]

The war caused the mobilization of 16 million American men. But the states’ contribution to America’s mobilization varied between 40% (Georgia) and 53.6% (Maine) of eligible men, hence the impact on subgroups varied.[1] In 1945, 37% of women were employed, encouraged by factors such as war time propaganda[4] or the positive income effect of husbands in the military earning less.[3] While women's wages rose more relative to men's during this period, real wages did not increase due to higher wartime income taxes.[1] Although jobs that had been previously closed to women opened up, demographics such as African American women who had already been participating more fully experienced less change. Their husbands' income effect was historically even more positive than white women’s. During the war African American women engagement as domestic servants decreased from 59.9% to 44.6%, but Karen Anderson in 1982 characterized their experience as “last hired, first fired.”[5]

After WWII[edit]

There has been controversy about the significance of World War II to the increase of women in the workplace. William Chafe in 1972[6] called the war a "watershed event" forcing a change in attitudes about women in the workforce. However women were also employed during World War I, and no such change in attitude occurred after that.[citation needed] By 1950 the portion of all women in the labor force was down to 32%,[3] but married women had joined in extraordinary numbers over the previous decade, with most age groups increasing their labor participation by an unprecedented 10 percentage points.[7] Claudia Goldin used Gladys Palmer’s retrospective surveys of women and men’s work history from 1940 to 1951 to track changes in weeks worked and labor force participation rate and correlated that with states’ mobilization rates.[8] World War II mobilization had little impact on the long term labor force participation of women without a high school diploma, however it appears to have had some positive effect on the long term participation of more highly educated white women, especially those who were married during the war.[1]

Nevertheless, the bulk of evidence suggests that the influx of women into the workforce during and after the war was primarily due to other, longer-term trends.[7][1] Other important factors at the time that led to general increases in women’s participation in the workforce include: rise of the tertiary sector (see table), increases in part-time jobs, adoption of labor saving household technologies, increased education, and the elimination of "marriage bar" laws and policies.[2] "Marriage bars" forbidding the employment of married women in various government and white collar positions were especially common during the Depression, but in the early 1940s they were largely eliminated. Part-time jobs gave added flexibility with raising children. Labor saving devices lowered the time cost of homemaking. Expanding high school and college education better prepared women for employment. There was also a decline in the stigma that a husband’s worth was less if the wife worked.[2] The divorce rate was still low in the 1940s and 50s and less important as a factor. Labor force participation was no longer only a transitory phase of a woman’s life, as women transitioned to a role of both mothers and workers. Middle-class mothers as well as the poor were burdened by the double shift of working a job and in the home.

In the table below is a breakdown by sector of jobs held by women in 1940 and 1950. Women overwhelmingly worked in jobs segmented by sex. Women were still highly employed as textile workers and domestic servants, but the clerical and service field greatly expanded. This tertiary sector was more socially acceptable and many more educated women entered. Wages were low, averaging roughly 60% of men’s and there was little room for advancement.[9]

Occupation 1940 1950 Increase Percentage of Total Increase
Professional, technical 1,608 2,007 399 6.84%
Managers, officials, proprietors 414 700 286 4.90
Clerical 2,700 4,502 1,802 30.88
Sales 925 1,418 493 8.45
Manual 2,720 3,685 965 16.54
Craftswomen, forewomen 135 253 118 2.02
Operatives 2,452 3,287 835 14.31
Laborers 133 145 12 0.21
Service Workers 2,699 3,532 833 14.27
Farm Workers 508 601 93 1.59


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Goldin, Claudia; Claudia Olivetti (2013). "Shocking labor supply: A reassessment of the role of World War II on US women's labor supply". National Bureau of Economic Research. w18676.
  2. ^ a b c Goldin, Claudia (2006). "The quiet revolution that transformed women's employment, education, and family". National Bureau of Economic Research. w11953.
  3. ^ a b c Moody, Kim (1988). An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism. London: Verso. p. 22. ISBN 0860919293.
  4. ^ Rupp, Leila (1978). Mobilizing women for war: German and American propaganda, 1939-1945. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691046492.
  5. ^ Anderson, Karen Tucker (1982). "Last hired, first fired: Black women workers during World War II". The Journal of American History. 69 (1): 82–97. doi:10.2307/1887753.
  6. ^ Chafe, William H. (1972). The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles. 1920-1970. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195015789.
  7. ^ a b Goldin, Claudia (1991). "The role of World War II in the rise of women's work". National Bureau of Economic Research. w3203.
  8. ^ Palmer, Gladys Louise; Carol Brainerd (1954). "Labor mobility in six cities: a report on the survey of patterns and factors in labor mobility, 1940-1950". Social Science Research Council.
  9. ^ Stansell, Christine (2011). The feminist promise : 1792 to the present (Modern Library paperback ed.). New York: Modern Library. p. 184. ISBN 978-0812972023.
  10. ^ Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Census. 1975. p. 132. ISBN 0160004608.