"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." - Yogi Berra

Working and Voting — Women in the 1920s

Women working in an insurance office, 1920s

Female participation in the workforce increased in the 1920s.

The right to vote and the rise of new occupations seemed to augur a new independence for women… an independence with limits. Their position in the workplace throughout the 1920s was an indicator of this.

Women voters and the Sheppard-Towner Act

Many people had either feared or anticipated the emergence of a “woman’s” voting block, but that did not seem to be the case in 1920.

In the year of a landslide victory for Warren Harding, most votes were still divided on ethnic lines. Women tended to vote for Harding, because most of them who made it to the polls were of upper-class, Republican vintage. Those who were of a lower-class or immigrant background were more likely to vote Democrat, but gender was not the defining issue in either case.

In 1921, the effects of women’s suffrage could be clearly seen in the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act. This act provided federal funding for prenatal care and education, including the creation of women and children’s health clinics. Spurred on by an intense lobbying effort, including threats of mass defection from the newly franchised women voters, the bill passed Congress by a margin of 279-39. It was the first federally funded social welfare program.

Funding was modest, but there were positive effects on infant and maternal health. In the 1920s, infant mortality dropped from 75 to 64 per 1,000 births, by one estimate, though this could also be attributed to seven years of continuous economic growth.

Women cast ballots for one of the first times in the 1920s

Three women cast ballots in the 1920s.

However, as the 1920s continued and it became apparent that women were not voting much differently than men were, the strength of women’s lobbying groups to advocate for such programs dissipated. In 1929, funding for the Sheppard-Towner Act itself was allowed to lapse.

Clerical occupations and the twenties woman

Married women still did not hold jobs in any great numbers, the exception being married black women who were often forced to out of destitution. Among married white women of both native and immigrant backgrounds, only around 10% worked outside of the home.

Among single women, there was a huge increase in employment during this era. Certain occupations had always been weighted towards women — teachers, social workers, nurses, and librarians. And for those who were working-class, textile mills had been the one type of factory where jobs could be found. And on the farm, women helped out in myriad ways, as they traditionally had.

But now with the rise of the corporate office, a number of other types of jobs opened up. Typists, filing clerks, stenographers, and even some secretarial roles all became possibilities for the ambitious young woman. In an era with absolutely nothing in the way of mass data storage, entire floors of office buildings were filled with the sound of typewriters and filing drawers.

In most offices, desks were lined across a central room in rows, with no cubicle walls and often not even a window. Tasks consisted of things like listening to dictations and typing their contents, of creating and updating ledgers, or of creating bills and sending out requests for payment.

These jobs supported a great number of young women who had fled the poverty of the countryside. In comparison to mills or farming it was an improvement. However, there was little opportunity for advancement and it was monotonous to the extreme.

Creative occupations and the twenties woman

The creative occupations offered the best hope for advancement. The department stores hired women in large numbers, and with skill and intelligence they could work their way up to being designers or buyers. The latter group was entrusted with securing apparel and supply for the major stores, which could include traveling to London or Paris to build connections and fashion knowledge. It was a very lucrative position, if one had the right eye for buying things that sold well.

There were also chances in writing, dancing, acting, and in singing — those brutally competitive fields of the creative mind. This was the age of Martha Graham, of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker, and Clara Bow. On a smaller scale, it was increasingly common to find women creating and producing artistic and literary journals.

As the means for a select few to find autonomy and material success, these fields served admirably. But as in any era, few possessed the talent and connections to capitalize.

Work as a precursor to marriage

“I pay our women well so they can dress attractively and get married.” – Henry Ford

There were more professional opportunities for women in the 1920s than there had been before. At the same time, there was a very clear limit to this advancement that was predicated on the idea that women would eventually marry. If anything, there was even more pressure on women to get married than there had been twenty years previously.

For one, the ideal of a virtuous, celibate social worker had been undermined by the advances of Freudian theory. It was now clear that normal adults could not function in a healthy way without enjoying the benefits of sex.

Additionally, as public knowledge of sexuality grew, so too did its knowledge of lesbianism. The Captive was a groundbreaking, successful play that touched on the subject of a lesbian relationship. It was getting harder for single women of a certain age continue to live together, without raising suspicions and eyebrows that might have been absent in the nineteenth century.

While the increase in female employment was important in expanding opportunity and autonomy, there were very clear limits to how far this extended itself. Though outward behavior changed greatly in the 1920s, the dominant path of marriage and homemaking was hardly scathed at all.

Recommended Reading
Eileen McDonagh – “The Motherless State: Women’s Political Leadership and American Democracy”

Gail Collins – “400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines”

Dorothy Brown – “Setting a Course: American Women in the 1920s”
Frederick Lewis Allen – “Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s”
“The Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921″
“The Captive”
“Female Office Workers in Chicago”

About the Author

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy. Contact him at dbryan@americanhistoryusa.com

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