95 Years of Working for Women: A Brief History of the Women’s Bureau

"Women Rivet Heaters and Passers on Puget Sound Navy Yard," Washington, May 29, 1919. From the records of the Women's Bureau. "Women Rivet Heaters and Passers on Puget Sound Navy Yard," Washington, May 29, 1919. From the records of the Women's Bureau.

This summer marks the 95th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, where I have worked since 1974. Fifty-four years before I walked through the department’s doors, the bureau was created (with bipartisan support!) in 1920 to craft and promote policies that would improve the welfare of working women. That mission is just as applicable to the work we do today as it was then.

The bureau was preceded by the Woman in Industry Service, organized in July 1918, a year after the United States’ entry into World War I. The service issued standards governing the employment of women in industry, as many were entering new occupations to replace the men who had gone to war. Many of the issues the service addressed are still relevant today, such as occupation-based wages, appropriate working hours, meal and rest periods, and occupational safety and health. They also called for a minimum wage to cover the cost of living for dependents and not merely for the individual − a battle we’re still waging as we work toward raising the wage for everyone.

Art commemorating 75th anniversary of Women's Bureau. Art commemorating 75th anniversary of Women's Bureau.

The first director of the Women’s Bureau was Mary Anderson, a Swedish immigrant (as was my father) who arrived in the United States in 1889 at the age of 16. She spoke no English, but took her first job as a dishwasher in a Michigan lumberjack boarding house earning $1.50 per week. Eventually, she worked her way up as a skilled shoe maker and eventually became president of her union.

In the decades that followed, the Women’s Bureau has had an incredible legacy of leaders, including a number of women of color. The youngest director, Alexis Herman, would go on to become secretary of labor during the Clinton Administration.

In my more than 40 years in the Women’s Bureau, I have seen so many influential women come and go, leaving behind policies and programs that have made a difference in the lives of working women. I’ve seen women become nearly half of the working population, a change from 1920 when we made up a mere 21 percent. I’ve seen women increase their educational attainment, make inroads into previously male-dominated occupations, and narrow the wage gap. We have been at the forefront of so many issues: civil rights, workplace discrimination, employer-sponsored child care, the needs of women veterans and boosting women’s employment in nontraditional occupations, among others.

Nevertheless, considerable challenges remain. Occupational segregation and a sizable earnings gap persist. Not to mention the ongoing challenges posed to working families because we still have an absence of national paid leave, affordable child care and workplace flexibility policies.

Today we celebrate 95 years’ worth of our past achievements, but we also look toward tomorrow and the battles yet to be won.

Jane Walstedt is a social science adviser in the Women’s Bureau's Office of Policy and Programs.

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