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gender roles in the workplace pre-exist much of what we think defines what work really is; not only do they pre-exist the modern working world of offices and factories, but they also seems older than more basic things, like writing and currency. From the world of the Tasaday tribe in the Philippines to that of such fields as genetic engineering and astrophysics, men and women are compelled to function within the workforce in different ways. In the United States, women dominate fields such as nursing, teaching, and clerical positions, while fields like engineering, programming and accounting are thought to be the domain of men. Some positions, such as those of flight attendants and nurses, are considered so intrinsically "female" that many men refuse to enter these fields for fear that others will question their sexual preference. Other more coveted positions, such as that of the CEO of a large company, are so male-dominated that any female that climbs her way to such a position is elevated to almost guru-status. Again and again, we see males in the workplace play the dominant role. This is illustrated in such dichotomies as: manager/secretary, doctor/nurse, pilot/flight attendant. Although many women are content to take these positions, others have argued that a general lack of respect for women has hindered their ability to succeed at work.
The purpose of this study is to determine what causes this lack of respect towards women in the workplace. It should be remembered that historically, every group of newcomers to a work situation has met with the reproach of their new peers. This is best illustrated in the assimilation of successive waves of immigrants to the United States. However, there are several key distinctions between the historic integration of women into professions and the integration of immigrants.
At the beginning of the 19th century, 90% of the population of the United States was employed in agriculture; this dropped to 40% in 1900. The male was seen as the head of the household, and states only granted women the right to own land after the Seneca Falls convention in the mid-1850's. The state of New York did not grant women this right until 1860. Western states were more progressive both in allowing women to own land and granting them suffrage. Oregon granted women the right to vote shortly after statehood in 1850.
Women were among the first factory workers: when the American textile industry was created in New England in the early 1800's, young women were recruited to work the looms. These "mill girls" were the country's first female factory workers. These women, who were usually between 15 and 30 years old, held nearly two-thirds of all textile jobs in Lowell, Massachusetts by the late 19th century. Women were preferred to men in this industry because they had smaller, more deft fingers; originally children also worked in the mills but this was curtailed by legislation that restricted child labor. Women were kept in boarding houses and their behavior was strictly monitored, but in this they were not dramatically different from male workers. Women went on strike successfully in the 1840's and were able to reduce the work required of them to 10 hours a day. Advancement and the prospect of working in a management capacity was never an option.
Women were mistreated in factory jobs, but in this they were no different from men. Women were usually kept in women's only dormitories; the social environment in which they operated was completely controlled by the company they worked for. In cities, women were employed as seamstresses in sweatshops and were usually paid by the piece. Immigrants always kept the pay low, and poor working conditions met with tragedy in 1911, when 141 women working at the Triangle Waist Company died in a fire or trying to escape the conflagration by jumping out the window. According to a New York Times article that reported the event at the time,
The victims who are now lying at the Morgue waiting for some one to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls from 16 to 23 years of age. They were employed at making shirtwaist by the Triangle Waist Company, the principal owners of which are Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. Most of them could barely speak English. Many of them came from Brooklyn. Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families.
This event precipitated the establishment of the New York Department of Labor, which regulates places of employment in the State of New York. One of the main reasons why women generally did not seek advancement was because most corporations were very small. In a corporate environment dominated by small businesses, an individual proprietor is usually the boss. Because women didn't traditionally own land, they didn't have any property to borrow against and therefore could not obtain business loans. In addition, corporate lenders were unwilling to loan money to women. To complement these hindrances, women generally could not obtain college educations. Oberlin College was the first ever to accept women, the first three of whom graduated in 1841. The biggest impediment to female advancement was in the workplace was marriage. Until the 1940's, women who had children were expected to return to the home to manage a family after they were married.
The married women of the early 20th century and before were without the modern conveniences that were to give them the free time to pursue careers. This lead employers to assume that the incomes earned by women in these times were only a small part of what was considered the "family wage." Women not living with a husband were assumed to live with their parents, and it was thought that income earned by women in the trades merely supplemented the income of a male wage-earner, usually her father. Low wages earned by women in 19th and early 20th century America lead many urban women that were without families or considered unmarriageable became prostitutes. According to Timothy Gilfoyle, author of City of Eros, one newspaper estimated that in 1879, sixty thousand young females in New York City supported themselves. By 1900, 20% of adult working women in New York City lived in boarding houses. He goes on to say:
The occupational background of Gotham's prostitutes after 1900 reflected the low-paying jobs most women were forced to accept. Of nearly five hundred prostitutes who related personal histories in a 1912 Night Court survey, department- and small-store clerks made up 30%. Servants, house workers, and chambermaids together totaled another 24%. Interestingly, new occupations also appeared in significant numbers. As a single skilled occupational group, office workers, stenographers, telephone operators, and teachers accounted for 15% of New York's prostitutes, as did actresses and factory operatives.
Gilfoyle claims that a life of prostitution afforded such women little in the way of the independence they lacked in traditional places of female employment; the nature of their work often necessitated the protection of a pimp, a parent, a policeman, a proprietor, or a madam.
The teens in New York saw the near-elimination of wide-scale prostitution as it had existed in the 19th century, as it was discovered that the deft fingers of women used to doing needlework were ideal for two of the inventions that revolutionized the workplace at the turn of the 20th century: telephone switchboards and typewriters. The capability of women to handle roles traditionally reserved for men was demonstrated during wartime. In the first and second world wars, women took over the factory positions traditionally held by men. In a way, this gave America an advantage in both wars: Germany insisted that its "German mothers" stay at home and tend to the raising of children that reflected the Reich's patriotic values. Regardless of this contribution, women were seldom paid on the same scale as men, and were restricted in their ability to purchase by rationing via ration stamps. Because the War department and others regulated the consumption of goods, employers knew exactly how little they could pay women while still deeming this wage appropriate.
It was not until the 50's that modern home appliances freed women of many of the inconveniences associated with cooking and cleaning. Wash and wear fabric and the washing machine allowed homes to function smoothly without the pressing need of darning socks. Rather than being modified or mitigated, the role of females in America was institutionalized. After the Second World War, the most popular major for women graduating from College was Home Economics. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan blames this on the American popularization of Freudian thought, and how the media interpreted it.
Sociology, anthropology, education, even the study of history and literature became permeated and transfigured by Freudian thought. The most zealous missionaries of the feminine mystique were the functionalists, who seized hasty gulps of pre-digested Freud to start their new departments of 'Marriage and Family-Life Education '. The functional courses in marriage…[continue]
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