Life in the Roaring Twenties

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What jobs did men and women have in the 1920s?

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In the 1920s, men worked in burgeoning industries such as automobile manufacturing. During this decade, job opportunities for women expanded, with women working as typists, secretaries, nurses, and teachers. Even so, professional roles such as doctors and lawyers remained almost exclusively reserved for men.

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A look at the American census taken in 1920 reveals an interesting employment landscape that reveals the way the country was changing.

The most common job in America was farming, particularly dairy farming. Over ten million men and women were employed in the dairy farming industry, which is a far greater number than exists today. America was largely an agricultural and rural society in the 1920s.

The next most common jobs were clerks and retail dealers, which accounted for almost three million more people and again gave women a growing presence in the job market. Salesmen and saleswomen contributed to another 1.1 million American jobs, demonstrating the growing presence of shopping malls and smaller, family-owned retail businesses that were emerging across the American landscape.

Nearly a million people were employed as machinists, millwrights, and toolmakers, which demonstrated the growing industrial climate in America. New technologies and inventions led to booming automobile, petroleum, steel, and chemical industries in America during this decade.

The tenth most common profession in 1920 was teaching. This was likely the most common means that women had to gain professional employment, though they often faced contractual stipulations. It was not uncommon, for example, for a female teacher to be forbidden to keep company with men, to face curfew hours which forced her to be home by dark unless with her father or brother, or to be forbidden from wearing brightly colored dresses. Though they could gain professional employment, these types of rules prevented many women from becoming teachers and stifled the employment freedoms which so many women sought during this decade.

Coal mining was the twelfth most common job, employing 733,000 people. This reflects the dependence of society in the 1920s to utilize coal as an energy source; today, we have varied alternate energy sources that are more environmentally conscious and lessen the inherent risks to those employed in the coal mining industry.

The thirteenth and fourteenth most common jobs were iron and steel laborers and operatives. The fifteenth most common job was construction laborers. Together, this indicates the growth of American society. People were producing a great quantity of steel that was needed to construct the quickly-developing cities all over America.

America was rapidly changing in the 1920s. Though it was predominately still an agricultural society with great numbers of people living on and working for farms, a new type of America was emerging, centered in cities and producing needed goods for people who were increasingly moving to those areas.

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The 1920s was a decade of enormous prosperity for most American people. Industrial production and output increased sharply, and the Stock Exchange soared to ever greater heights, driven on by a seemingly insatiable demand for consumer goods.

During the 1920s, ownership of radios and automobiles increased exponentially, as they became much less expensive to produce. In turn, this led to greater job opportunities for men, many of whom found employment in manufacturing.

As business activity grew, so did the number of business managers and administrators. These jobs were filled almost exclusively by men, as prevailing attitudes remain strongly opposed to the very notion of women being in charge. Women did benefit from a far greater variety of available jobs than in previous decades, but they were still held back from certain professional and managerial positions as well as skilled manufacturing work.

To be sure, women did work in manufacturing, but largely in unskilled positions in sweatshop industries such as the garment trade. However, they were also able to achieve professional status as nurses and teachers.

Expanding businesses invariably required secretarial support, and a growing number of women fulfilled the growing need by becoming typists and secretaries. The glass ceiling, however, meant that women were seldom able to use these positions as a springboard to something better.

Even though the 1920s saw more women in work than ever before, there was still a strong, stubborn prejudice against the idea of women going out to work, and this inevitably held them back.

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The 1920s are seen as a time when the “New Woman” was coming into existence.  Historians say that the women of the 1920s were willing and able to do things that they had not previously been allowed (by social values) to do.  One of these things was working outside the home.  The majority of married women still did not work for pay, but the numbers of women working increased during this decade.  The link below provides a really good graphic that shows you the sorts of jobs that women did during this time.  Please have a look at it for more detail.

Women in the 1920s did not have the ability to work in as wide a variety of jobs as they do today.  They were much more segregated into a few types of jobs that were seen as acceptable for women.  Many women worked as teachers.  Many worked as nurses.  They worked as telephone operators and retail clerks.  They worked in some factory jobs, particularly in the textile and clothing industries, and they worked as domestic help (maids and cooks).  They worked as cooks and waitresses in restaurants.  Although we do not think about this much, a large number of them worked on farms.

Men worked in a wide variety of jobs.  Jobs in those days were much more concentrated in the blue collar sector than they are now.  Men worked in factories.  They worked as farmers.  They did manual labor, doing things like digging ditches. They worked in construction.  They also worked in white collar jobs.  There was a growing middle class of managerial workers at this time.  In general, men worked in just about any kind of job that they wanted.  There were few kinds of jobs that were closed to men.

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