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Women’s History Month: Working Women

March 12, 2010
by James Sullivan
The 20th century saw more and more women taking up professional roles in Western society. FindingDulcinea looks at some of the events and key figures paving the way for women in the modern workforce. The 21st-century woman can choose a professional or domestic path—or both.

Women in World War II

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While earning the right to vote was a gradual process, some unexpected events rapidly and significantly altered the social and professional roles of women in America. One such moment occured during World War II. With thousands of men embroiled in battle, women were suddenly needed to fill professional positions previously unavailable to them, including working as engineers and manufacturers to further the war effort. Others joined the nurse corps and armed forces so that more men could be sent to the front.

Brown University hosts a series of interviews with Rhode Island women whose lives changed as a result of the war. These women assumed roles they would otherwise not have had during the war, including playing professional baseball, working as a journalist and deciphering secret military communications.

Josephine Baker, a renowned dancer and Julia Child, one of the first celebrity chefs, were both spies during World War II. Linda McCarthy, curator of an exhibition on female spies, told NPR, “One thing about espionage, at its peak it's an equal opportunity employer,” McCarthy says. “And there are times, quite frankly, where women can get into situations where men can't”

Professional, Political and Cultural Firsts

When Elizabeth Blackwell was born in 1821, there were no professionally trained female physicians in the Western world. But Blackwell graduated first in her class, established a hospital and medical school, and practiced medicine until she was almost 90 years old. By the time she died, there were 7,000 female doctors in the United States alone.

For a look at other influential women in medicine through the modern era, visit the National Library of Medicine.

Women who have made notable achievements in science, politics and the arts have been honored with Nobel Prize over the past century or so, beginning with Marie Curie, who won the Prize in Physics in 1903. Other honorees include Pearl Buck (Literature, 1938), Barbara McClintock (Medicine, 1983) and Aung San Suu Kyi (Peace, 1991).

Industrial Ladies

The History Channel outlines the role of women in the modern workforce, with statistics about income, profession, military service, businesses and more, illustrating that more women are realizing their professional potential. One inspiring tidbit: "The number of women-owned businesses climbed to nearly 6.5 million in 2002, up 20 percent from 1997."

An even more detailed look at the specific statistics of women in the American workforce is available through the U.S. Department of Labor, which covers a wide-range of professional issues affecting women, including an article entitled “’Second Chance’ Strategies for Women Who Drop Out of School,” as well as reports and references in education and employment trends.

Despite growing professional opportunities, women still face the age-old dilemma of choosing between staying at home with their children and being part of the working world. Fortunately, the Internet makes it more possible than ever for women to effectively work from home. With so many online opportunities for remote access, mothers can keep their job skills fresh and still spend quality time with their children.
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