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Wage-Earning Women

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Leslie Woodcock TentlerEdit

Wage-Earning Woman: Industrial Work and Family Life in the United States, 1900-1930 [1979]Edit

In this "classic" history of women's industrial labor, Tentler takes up a simple question in regard to the early 20th century: "Did the employment interval--generally six or eight years between school-leaving and marriage--alter in fundamental ways the values, behavior and expectations of young women?" (3). Is it true, as some have suggested, that this period truly began the period of emancipation? To unpack these questions, Tentler first looks at employment as part of a series of life experiences. It was typically done between school and marriage, and may have been done casually during marriage; paid labor was not a woman's priority.

Because industrial labor was almost always sex-segregated, Tentler argues that paid work offered working-class females a more visible lesson regarding "the inevitability of a circumscribed female role" than other social locations--school, home or neighborhood. Paid work served a conservative function, directing "restive young women toward conventional maturity" (4).

Tentler examines the decades between the turn of the century and the Great Depression because they are the beginnings of a mature industrial economy. This period also left many primary documents from those who did research on working women, and the period was also marked by strong assimilation for immigrants--"American" girls were freer in morals than would have been acceptable in their homeland. This period can be identified as "a first and critical chapter in the history of modern female industrial employment", setting precedents such as sex-segregation, lesser wage, and popularized understandings of female employment. While this period saw a rise in clerical labor, and domestic labor remained the primary work site for women, industrial labor typified the majority of work experience for working class women during these decades. The focus remains on several major industrial cities in the East and Midwest, because, as Tentler reminds us, industrial labor was a nation system, and the same labor market existed in all industrial city centers (7).

The overwhelming weight of Tentler's sources suggest that the typical working-class woman was a "nonactivist, even a passive worker" (9). Their paid labor, for the most part, validated their desire to enter conventional lifestyles. Low wages enforced the notion of passivity and dependence: "the social message of the woman's wage reaffirmed her domestic destiny even as she tended complex modern machinery" (9). Similarly, work experience failed to alter their dependence on family, as employment was of lesser security and status than motherhood. Work-class women's experience at work did facilitate social freedom during their years of adolescence, but the impact this had on the domesticity that followed courtship is less clear. This class of women, who have been longest employed, were only beginning to respond to feminism in the 1970s.

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