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After Rosie the Riveter: Labor, Women’s Movements Seek Fairness, Justice

A turret lathe operator machines parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corp. plant, Fort Worth, Texas, in October 1942.
Library of Congress

Iconic Rosie the Riveter got a lot of attention during, and after, World War II, but women have always worked.

Before the war, women made up approximately 25 percent of the manufacturing workforce, said Alice Kessler-Harris, an American history professor at Columbia University. Except for the poorest, women often left the workforce when they got married or had children. That’s what the war changed.

“The war pulled into the labor force all kinds of women, including married women and including married women with children, who had not understood themselves as working women or wage-earning women before the war,” Kessler-Harris said. She will be in St. Louis this weekend to speak at the Veteran Feminists of America conference.

“After the war, we know that those women were kicked out of the labor force, and yet many of them didn’t stay out. Within a decade or so of the end of World War II, the proportion of women in the labor force was back to what it had been at its highest point during the war. So you’ve got now 30 percent or so women working for wages, and now these women are not single women necessarily, but they are and tend to be women with families.”

Today, 80 percent of women with school-age or younger children are in the workforce, Kessler-Harris said.

But as the labor and women’s movements evolved, they often clashed. Until the 1970s, the labor movement was on the rise and was interested in better standards of living for its members, Kessler-Harris said. The women’s movement also wanted good jobs and equality, but many in the labor movement felt those jobs would come at the expense of male workers. Today, both movements are working toward a social agenda.

“We’re all now concerned, for example, with inequality, with raising the minimum wage, with issues like fairness and justice and anti-discrimination,” Kessler-Harris said. “And those issues are issues around which women who are wage-earning women and non-wage-earning women can unite with leaders of the labor movement.”

The Ledbetter Effect

President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January 2009.

“We’ve always had laws that required equal pay for equal work,” St. Louis employment lawyer Mary Anne Sedey said. “In the Lilly Ledbetter case, Mrs. Ledbetter brought a claim and the Supreme Court said, ‘Well, this has been going on for a long time and you should have brought your lawsuit back when they first set your pay at such a low rate.’”

The Ledbetter law made it possible for women to recover damages all the way back to when they started to be paid unfairly, Sedey said.

“What’s happened now, is a lot of the discrimination is so subtle and so entrenched that we made great progress for a long time, but we seem to be kind of stuck now,” Sedey said. She also will speak at the Veteran Feminists of America conference Saturday.

Today, women earn about 75 cents for every dollar men make, Kessler-Harris said.

“Among younger women, women just entering the workforce, it is the case that wages are more equal, more like 92 cents on the dollar,” she said. “As they continue to work and to have families and to have children, the wage gap widens and widens until we reach that 74 cents on the dollar.”

But even that number isn’t consistent. Black and Hispanic women often earn less than white women, Kessler-Harris said.

Toward the end of the 1980s, black and white women earned about the same, she said. At that time, black women had been in the workforce longer, and when jobs began to open for women, they were ready to step in. But today, with more white women than black or Hispanic women graduating from college, the gap is again widening.

White Versus Blue

Work and the workforce has changed since World War II.

“When we talk about the working-class jobs that women are in these days, they’re not manufacturing jobs,” Sedey said. “They’re restaurants, retail, caregiver kinds of positions, which have traditionally been extraordinarily low paid.”

Most of those jobs are only part-time, and offer no benefits. That’s one reason why white-collar jobs are highly sought.

“Even when they are paid less, women who are working in those professional jobs always have a certain level of economic security — health benefits, other forms of perks like paid vacations and so on that women working in blue-collar jobs don’t have,” Kessler-Harris said.

Today’s Challenges

Today, Sedey said she sees two big problems facing women in the workforce, and neither are new challenges. First: The question of having it all.

“The whole business of trying to find a balance between having satisfying good work that matters to you and helps you help your family reach its financial goals, and being the kind of parent and the kind of caregiver and the kind of active participant in life that so many of us want to be — I don’t think we’ve addressed those issues,” she said.

“The other thing that I think is a huge issue is the problems that face low-wage workers. When I read the stories about these low-wage workers who, for instance, have absolutely no predictability to their schedule, who can be called in to work and sent home two hours later, who have no ability to sort of juggle the family life sort of things … I think those are some of the biggest challenges, and on some level all women face those same challenges.”

Related Event

Veteran Feminists of America conference

  • When: Sept. 27, 2014
  • Where: Renaissance Grand Hotel, St. Louis
  • Program notes: Alice Kessler-Harris will deliver the lunch address, Labor and the Women’s Movement, at 11:45 a.m. Mary Anne Sedey and University of Illinois law professor Emily LaBarbera Twarog will address the future for labor and women’s rights at 4:30 p.m. Tickets are available for lunch or for the conference and lunch.
  • More information; register online

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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