Work, Education, and Reform

Women employed in officeWomen adrift and "working girls" were among the pioneers of women's growing public visibility and changing gender norms. The category "working girls" applied mainly to young women, usually single, engaged in wage labor. Through the 1930s, more women worked as domestic servants than at any other job, showing how tradition was not immediately overturned and that many women continued to engage in conventional "women's work": housework. Domestic and sex work (another, better paying form of work traditionally done by women) left women vulnerable to employees and customers, as did semiskilled and unskilled industrial work in factories and sweatshops. Although the labor movement thrived in the early twentieth century, by 1920 a small fraction of women in the workforce had union jobs, and rarely did the movement take up issues of concern to working women or allow them leadership roles. Such outspoken labor leaders as Emma Goldman and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were exceptions among women, challenging assumptions about gender with their passionate politics and fiery speeches. Wage labor profoundly shaped women's identities during a period of industrialization, urbanization, and commercialization, and although women entered new arenas, they faced obstacles of many sorts.

Lacking power in the workplace, working-class women were nonetheless empowered by earning an income. Wages gave daughters more independence at home, enabling some to live apart from their parents. The urban industrial work system, along with growing secondary school attendance, contributed to the formation of a youth and peer culture that loosened young women's allegiances to their families. Created by capitalist entrepreneurs, commercialized forms of recreation--dance halls, nickelodeons, and amusement parks--attracted working girls after long hours of drudgery and fostered their awareness of social customs and conventions different from those of their parents' generation.

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