In the early Republic, most American women worked at home making soap, candles, clothes, shoes and other necessities for their families. But with the coming of the industrial revolution early in the 19th century, some worked for pay at home, using the machines and textiles supplied by merchants to produce clothes for the market. The first women to work outside the house in substantial numbers were single farm girls who took jobs in the new textile mills of New England beginning in the 1820s. Thereafter, women expanded into sales, domestic service, teaching and other occupations. Hardly any became doctors, lawyers or college professors, and most gave up their jobs after marriage.
Near the start of the 20th century, the emerging notions about women's roles, the greater availability of white-collar jobs and increasing pay lured married women into the labor market. Perhaps the most interesting explanation for the rise of married women in the workplace comes from the late Winifred D. Wandersee, a historian who taught at Hartwick College. Beginning early in the 20th century and with growing force in the 1920s, Americans had higher expectations of what constituted the good life. Everyone wanted the latest things--electric lighting, indoor bathrooms, telephones, refrigerators, washers, dryers and, above all, automobiles.
This article was originally published with the title Why Women Work.