Few fights have been fought longer and harder than the battle for equality among men and women in America, and it can be argued that the fight still is not over. Nevertheless, from 1890 to 1925, economic developments and assumptions about the nature of women tended to bolster the position of women, yet political developments, although necessary in the long run, provided for a major setback during the 1920’s.
Prior to the 1890’s, many male Americans assumed that women had half or brain power as men, and that with their frail bodies, they needed to be provided for, even controlled, by their husbands. The role of women was to be the homemaker, not the breadwinner. Therefore, not many women received an education, and very few women were in the workforce.
In the second half of the 19th century, beginning at Seneca Falls, a rift was set in motion – the women’s rights movement. By the late 1890’s, much ground had been won. As Susan B. Anthony described it, women could find jobs in any trade, any woman who worked could be commended by men, and education developed far more capable housewives and mothers. As a pro-women’s rights activist, she was a little optimistic in this 1897 article. Employment was not as equal as she stated, although giant strides had already been made. Women were beginning to be seen as equals, more so than blacks and other minorities overall.
The reality was that, by the turn of the century, women could find employment more readily than in decades past, but much of this work was in the newly-expanding service industry. A photograph taken in 1900 at the H. J. Heinz Company portrayed the expanding female labor force, even though it was still service work. Women often found it difficult to work in other fields especially, such as mining and manufacturing, since the toll the jobs took on their bodies was immense. The year 1908’s landmark decision in Muller v. Oregon finally mandated special protection for women on the job, so that they could not be unfairly overworked and underpaid. While this case was based on the fact that women were politically unequal to men, it did allow for more women to work and prove their abilities, without being forced to harm their bodies so much that they could only handle a few short years of employment.
By 1910, women were working more, and were protected from grossly negligent abuse by their employers, but they still had very little say politically. Women such as Jane Addams pushed relentlessly for suffrage, on the basis that women were just as capable as men, and even argued that women needed to vote in order to preserve the home. The National American Woman Suffrage Association worked to agitate political action, as shown by a cartoon titled “The Church Vote Disfranchised.” It pointed out that the lawmaking men felt superior to the churchgoing women, underlining the unequal relationship between men and women.
In 1914, the Great War began in Europe, and it would not be long before America got involved. When American men trained as soldiers and left their jobs, women started to fill in – and in many cases women were able to prove their worth by taking on laborious occupations such as shipbuilding, as shown in the 1918 photograph of the workers at the Puget Sound. The end of the war, however, brought a return of men to the workforce, and also a return of women to the home.
1920 brought major gain for women – the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. The long-fought battle finally paid off. Women could now say they were technically politically equal, however men still tended to see women as physically less-able than men. Nevertheless, in 1923 the Supreme Court ruled against special treatment of women, in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital. This ruling argued that, since women were politically and otherwise technically equal to men, they could not rightly by afforded special protections in the workplace.