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Industrialization, immigration, and urbanization were continuously growing in a time during 1900s America known as the Progressive Era. Women were becoming more visible in this era in politics as they were transitioning from more than just a sphere of motherhood. Working women from different backgrounds faced challenges in various areas such as domestic, farm, and factory work. The thing that all the women had in common was that their work went greatly undervalued by society solely based on their gender.
In Emma Goldman’s 1911 essay The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation, she discusses some of the challenges of women from her time such as educated women having to exhaust themselves to prove themselves worthy and how independence for working class women was not all that it was perceived to be. Goldman’s essay sums up the views of society on women and shows that class did not change the undervaluing of them.
Factory work was a field where many women worked made up of mostly young and unmarried. Many of the unions of this time such as American Federation of Labor, were male dominated and saw the women workers as threats to the jobs of men, so women had to form their own unions in order to fight for higher wages and better conditions. Rose Schneiderman, an immigrant from Poland that worked as a factory worker and later became a member of the Women’s Trade Union League. She describes in A Cap Maker’s Story: Rose Schneiderman, the menial pay and the difficulties of organizing women to unionize as many women were afraid to speak up about their conditions when it was not just amongst themselves.
In 1824, a textile factory strike which was both the first factory strike in the United States and the first to involve women took place in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. There were already tensions from preexisting issues in the community, but the proposal of a longer workday with a 25% wage decrease for women was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Those that ran the mills in Pawtucket greatly undervalued the work of women just as the rest of society at the time, but were ultimately successful in their fight.
The case of the factory strike in Pawtucket and Rose Schneiderman’s account were decades apart, but have similarities between them. Women’s work was seen as menial and highly undervalued, but were expected to work exhaustingly long days for little pay. The strike in Pawtucket set the pace for future strikes and eventual unionization for the factory workers.
Women that worked in domestic jobs faced obstacles just as other working women of their time. Domestic work was dominated by immigrant and African American women. Unionization for domestic workers was challenging due to the fact that this work was seen as unskilled and not viewed as real work. Laws were passed over the decades in regards to labor, but domestic work was over excluded. The exclusions were not always blatant such as in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which bars employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The act was applicable only to employers that had 15 or more employees, thus basically excluding all of the domestic workers.
African Americans faced challenges in the labor force as racial discrimination played an integral part. Both men and women in African American communities were required to work due to low wages and the concept of a male breadwinner seen in White families was not applicable for them. Many African American women worked in domestic roles that made them that they were not truly freed from slavery. In More Slavery at the South: A Negro Nurse, details of the life of African American women domestic workers show the challenges they faced. Negative racial stereotypes, sexual advances from their employers, an extremely low wages were common challenges for these women. In the passage, a sense of hopelessness is evoked in the writer as unions were not an option for these women. Part of this was due to the fact that many unions were not open to accepting African American members and also due to Jim Crow laws in the South.
Women have always played an integral role in farming in America. Women that live on farms are often much more than just a farmer’s wife, they are also farmers themselves. In Breaking the ‘grass ceiling’: More women are farming, modern day women discussed some of the challenges that they face as farmers. Fighting against stereotypes in a male dominated field where women are viewed as the support system and not getting their hands dirty. Taking a look we see that both the women in 1900 and the contemporary women challenged the notion of the traditional farm wife by not only doing work out in the fields as farmer themselves, but also handled household duties and were played a part in decisions for the farm.