From the Industrial Revolution to the Quiet Revolution: A Look at the History of Women in the Workforce



September 22 is an important holiday for American workingwomen. It’s American Business Women’s Day, an annual holiday instituted under Ronald Reagan’s administration to commemorate the important legacy and contributions of female workers and business owners. In honor of this important holiday, let’s take a look at the progress women have made in the workplace.


While women make up 47 percent of the labor force today, it wasn’t always such an even distribution. Women had a history of working inside the home, and aiding in agricultural work, but few were actually employed outside the home. When the Industrial Revolution took hold, and textile and garment mills began to appear in the northern states in the early 1800s, more and more women began to find ways to work outside the home. Young women in New England found work as domestic helpers with neighboring families or as teachers, while women industrial cities like Chicago and Philadelphia found work in factories.


According to the 1870 census, 1.8 million women were employed (compared to 10.6 million men), and the census illustrated an emerging trend: Young, unmarried women were beginning to explore work and career options. In fact, the ratio of women aged 16 – 59 pursuing gainful occupations to men pursuing the same was 1:6. While female workers were frequently exploited and treated to unequal pay (typically a third of what their male co-workers earned), with a new century came new opportunities.


The start of the 20th century saw increased opportunities for women. Pay, while still low, improved (60 percent of men’s average wages), and colleges began to open their doors to women, allowing them to study in and join professions that, previously, had been reserved for men. Women began to join medical schools, law schools and journalism schools, in addition to pursuing clerical, office and professional work.


As the Depression and World War II pushed more women into the workforce, working conditions began to improve and unions began to form. While professions like education and library science continued to be popular among women into the mid-20th century, a new movement began to form. The Quiet Revolution, as it was called, embraced the freedom spurred by the feminist movement and helped open up more career doors. More and more women started going to college and grad school to pursue careers in medicine, law and business. This movement continues to this day, and while it has brought more advances for women in the workforce, women still face many struggles, including wage inequality.


Looking for ways to celebrate American Business Women’s Day? Take a moment and learn more about some important, but lesser-known, female business pioneers:

Eliza Lucas – First woman inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame. Began managing three plantations at the age of 16 and helped turn South Carolina into an indigo hotspot during the mid-18th century.


Rebecca Lukens – The first female CEO of an industrial company. She assumed control of the Lukens Steel Company of Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1825. She was inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame in 1994.


Madam C.J. Walker ­– First female self-made millionaire. Founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1904, focused on creating beauty and hair care products for African-American women.





1870 Census

National Women’s History Museum

Time Magazine

Online MBA

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