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two women standing on the right in profile looking away from the camera several women seated around tables looking down at their work
Martini's factory (beading slippers, etc.), Ne York. Lewis Hine, photographer.

“Labor problems under war conditions”: women in the workforce in WWI

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Of late I’ve been digging into our collections on women in business history (which I define to include phrasing such as women in the workforce). Given that it’s the 100-year anniversary since the United States entered the Great War, I was curious about what I might find about women entering the workforce during the United States’ involvement in 1917-18.

For every fighter a woman worker Y.W.C.A. : Back our second line of defense, rnest Hamlin Baker. N.Y. : The United States Printing & Lith. Co., (1918).

Lo and behold, I found a treasure trove of a primary source. In March 1918, the Society of Industrial Engineers and the Western Efficiency Society gathered in Chicago for the National Conference on Labor Problems under War Conditions. The Library of Congress has a copy of the address given by C.E. Knoeppel, “Women in industry, an address based on answers to 1,000 questionnaires on women in industry,” which is also available online through HathiTrust Digital Library. Knoeppel’s talk led me to the full conference proceedings: Labor problems under war conditions; complete report of the proceedings of the National Conference held under the auspices of the Western Efficiency Society and the Society of Industrial Engineers, March 27, 28 and 29, 1918, Chicago.

No less than four sessions covered the topic of women in the workforce. Knoeppel’s address, a round table discussion, and talks given by Mrs. Joseph T. Bowen and and Florence King (who, as the first female patent lawyer in the United States is deserving of her own blog post) address such issues as pay equality, training and education for women, quality and quantity of work, working conditions, accommodations for working mothers such as leave and childcare, and what effect a woman’s marital status may have on her work.

Each of these sessions is fascinating to read. What contributions were women making, and how did the speakers present their information and arguments? How did men conference attendees respond? What did men industry leaders have to say about the presence of women working in their companies and factories?

The round table discussion especially provides insight into contemporary thoughts and some answers to the above questions. A few choice quotes illustrate:

Mrs. M.D. Bradley from Rothschild & Company, Chicago:

“You men are so in the habit of settling things for us women that you have taken this question [women in the workforce] and studied it from your point of view, but it does not seem fair to me that you should be allowed to go on without having at least one woman’s side of the question…
“It is a fact that there are women in industry now and that there are going to be a lot more women in industry, whether you like it or not, and that after the war you will have to consider women in industry.”

Mr. C.R. Beard from Sears, Roebuck & Co., Chicago:

“We have put great numbers of women in our shoe department, inspecting and rejecting. One of the most interesting sights and novel in a way is to see these women at work. Previously we have always had a corps of what we supposed to be necessary expert shoe men to reject shoes. We made a careful study of the situation and replaced those men by women, with splendid results. We discovered, to our embarrassment almost, and it also hurt our pride to think that we did not know before that it did not require a man to reject shoes.”

Miss Bennett from Collegiate Bureau of Occupations, Chicago:

“I would like to say just a few words about what the women themselves are going to try to do to meet this emergency in the way of really earning equal pay. I think that one thing the women are especially interested in is not only in asking for equal pay for equal work, but in assuring the men that they intend to give equal work for equal pay.”

Florence Kings standing in front of a window wearing a coat and hat holding a folded newspaper
Miss Florence King of Chicago, National Photo Company Collection (1921).

Miss Florence King, patent attorney:

“The great trouble is it seems that we have for so long in the past been used to treating women as little children, not realizing that they are individuals, that they have minds of their own, and even ambitions. We have many well educated women, capable women, experts, in fact, in their particular lines of work, who have been striving for a long time to have an opportunity to give the right kind of expression to their work and their ambitions. Now that time is here and if women could be given the same opportunities for advancement that men are given I believe it would be greatest incentive for better work, and that many places could be filled by women that are not filled now.”

Mr. L.S. Robinson (President of Robinson Findex Company, San Francisco):

“You might classify me as being a man who was prejudiced against women in business, but I am introducing a mechanical office outfit which appears to be complicated, and we have found that women have taken to it much more kindly than men…They are willing to try things.”

Even reading only these excerpts can illustrate that conference participants were moving towards greater support of women in the workforce.

As you read the Proceedings, I recommend paying special attention to the address given by Florence King, “Some Things Women Should Do to Help Win the War,” and her contributions to the round table discussion. Her eloquent thoughts and observations are unsurprisingly relevant today.

Further Reading:

  • Labor problems under war conditions; complete report of the proceedings of the National Conference held under the auspices of the Western Efficiency Society and the Society of Industrial Engineers, March 27, 28 and 29, 1918, Chicago.
    Available online at HathiTrust
  • Women in industry, an address based on answers to 1,000 questionnaires on women in industry, delivered before the national conference on “labor problems under war conditions,” under joint auspices of the Society of industrial engineers and the Western efficiency society. New York: C.E. Knoeppel & co., 1918.
    LC Catalog Record
    Available online at HathiTrust
  • More on Florence King:
    “The girl who liked to tinker: now she’s a famous lawyer,” Business Success and the Business Philosopher 15(2), 1918.


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