The role of women has changed dramatically since the 1950s. In the 21st century, more women than ever before are working at full-time jobs, leading companies in the United States, and skipping traditional roles like homemaking or raising children. To understand how women have changed in the last 60 years, it is crucial to look at the types of work they did back in 1950.
The primary role of most women in the 1950s was based in the home. A great majority of women spent their time working as homemakers and mothers, keeping the house clean and the family fed. Different families had different approaches to this system, but for the most part, women were in charge of cooking, cleaning, raising children, and handling home-based tasks like grocery shopping.
During World War II, a massive number of women left their homes to take up jobs in factories that had been left by men fighting overseas. These jobs included tasks such as building bombs, machining bullets, and contributing to the construction of cars and appliances. When the male workforce came back from the war, most women gave up their factory work. Some women, however, enjoyed the confidence and freedom they found in working for a living and fought hard to keep their factory work, though many were laid off by factory owners seeking to bring in an all-male workforce.
One job that commonly went to women in the 1950s and beyond was that of the nurse. While the majority of doctors were men, nursing was an area in which mostly women worked. A nurse had many roles, like prepping patients for surgery, assisting their recovery, following the doctor’s orders for medication and treatment, and keeping detailed records on what happened with the patient. Nursing continues to be an industry dominated primarily by women, even in current times.
Another area in which it was common to find women was the office. While the image of the 1950s secretary is familiar, women also performed a variety of tasks in the office as typists, phone operators and even held management positions at some forward-thinking offices. Though the climate was not as friendly to women as offices are today, hard-working women in the 1950s could still find a variety of work as the women's labor movement gained strength.
Teachers and Aides
As the 1950s wore on, schools were faced with more students than had ever been enrolled before. There was a widespread shortage of qualified teachers, and women were quick to fill these positions. In addition to traditional teaching jobs, the booming student population inspired many districts to experiment with teacher's aides. Women filled many positions in schools, including teachers, aides, and administrators.
African American Women
Though African Americans still faced segregation and racism in the 1950s, some businesses began opening their doors to them as employees. Some hospitals began to add African-American nurses, attendants, and support employees, while some department stores and textile factories began welcoming qualified applicants regardless of race. African American women faced an uphill climb in the 1950s but their options grew slightly wider as the decade drew to an end.
- PBS: The Pill: People & Events: Mrs. America: Women's Role
- The Prism: The Path of the Women's Rights Movement
- University of Colorado: How did World War II Affect Women's Lives in the 1950s?
- National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals: Paraeducator State of the Art: Historical Perspective (1950s-1980s)
- National Park Service: Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II
- The Historical Society of Berks County: African American Occupations in the 1900s