The Age-Old Problem

From the beginning women have worked. It would be strange indeed if human beings had maintained life upon this planet with half their number living in idleness. Women have worked in caves, in cottages, and in castles. Women have often shared in the work of men on farms. Instead of deftly plying needles women now guide huge machines which cut and shape steel like so much cheese. Instead of frying eggs they cut heavy metal sheets with hissing blue flames of acetylene torches. There is always work to be done, metal to be shaped, and food to be cooked. Who in a country feverishly producing tanks and planes doubts that women should work? The question is not should women work, but where, what kind, how much; and, above all, “ how can work away from home be adjusted to the care of home and children?

“Do you want your wife to work after the war?” is the kind of question which always arises when woman’s problems are made acute by any drastic social change. A century and a half ago when power-driven textile machinery called for feminine fingers, many husbands no doubt found it hard to understand why varied and efficient work for women could no longer be provided in the home. Spinning and weaving, sewing, and the preparation of food were drawn away from the home by lower production costs, and women followed. Confusion was inevitable. Men found their authority menaced. Jobs and wage levels were threatened by feminine competition. As men became unemployed their wives had to seek work in the factories, sometimes taking their children with them, in order to provide an adequate family income, and the previous pattern of the home fell apart. Some women having numerous children could not go to the factory. Other women went to the factory to the neglect of children. The burden of perpetuating the race was borne unequally by one family as compared with another. On one side of the street lived the Smiths who had no children. Lacking children Mrs. Smith could work in a factory. The Smiths, therefore, enjoyed two incomes and had only themselves to support. The Jones family had many children and Mrs. Jones was tied down by household duties. Heavy expenses had to be met from Mr. Jones’s wages. No wonder he complained bitterly about competition from Mrs. Smith.

He complained too, no doubt, that young unmarried girls, partially supported by their fathers, worked at low wages for pin money. He did not realize, perhaps, that his own daughters could find factory employment and thus ease his own financial burdens.

The first World War brought another crisis and new manifestations of the “woman problem.” Many women were loaded with the double burden of wage earning and homemaking. Women were drawn by the labor shortage in 1917-18 into numerous occupations formerly restricted to men. They did hard work and heavy work; they discarded aprons for overalls and blasted many a myth concerning women’s incapacity for certain kinds of work. No doubt this demonstration of economic competence contributed to the winning in 1920 by American women of the right to vote. In the peaceful decade of the 1920’s women dropped out of heavy war industries but swarmed into clerical and professional occupations. In general women received from 25 per cent to 50 per cent lower pay than men for corresponding work.

With the crisis of the depression many feuds and controversies were fanned anew. If women would work for lower wages why not hire them and cut production costs? The vicious circle began again to operate. Men lost their jobs, making it necessary for their wives and daughters to find employment. Their competition did, perhaps, cause some men to lose positions. Ignoring more fundamental causes men clamored against the employment of married women and were backed by protests of their homekeeping wives, used to relying upon their husbands’ pay checks. Under such pressure, restrictions were placed upon the employment of married women.

With the coming of the second World War the great reserve of woman power was again tapped. First, with economic recovery women were drawn in larger numbers into their usual occupations. Then came a demand for women to operate light machinery such as the intricate devices which turn out machine-gun cartridges by the million. As the labor shortage became more acute, as in England following Dunkirk, women took over heavy man-sized jobs. At the moment restrictions are being waived; employers are clamoring for woman power; more and more jobs are being classified as suitable for women. Recently the Bureau of Employment Security analyzed 623 occupations essential to national defense. Only 57 were regarded as totally unsuitable for women. At Sperry Gyroscope, where 30,000 men and women are employed making precision instruments, women are doing every type of work that men are doing.