To make certain claims about the labor experiences of women as a demographic subset in America obscures certain realities about regional differences that led to different experiences of women in different parts of the country at the same time. Although this blog focuses just on women, it should be stated as obvious that the same is true for other demographic subsets such as race, and therefore any attempt by any historian or economist to explain the experiences of these groups of Americans without accounting for regional differences as well confront the possibility of a misapplication of their data.
According to the Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, the number of Americans employed in non-farming occupations increased by about 50% during the first decade of the 1900’s.[i] During the same time period, the number of farm workers in America increased by only 2%, meaning that almost all of the employment growth experienced at the turn of the century was from industrial, not agricultural jobs.[ii] This blog post will specifically look at the demographics of two different states, South Carolina and Connecticut, in order to illustrate the significant differences in the participation rate of women within these regional economies.
The increase of jobs in South Carolina at the turn of the century was about 30%, and the increase in Connecticut at the same time was similar.[iii] and the respective size of each state’s working population was roughly similar numerically as well.[iv] Based on these simple metrics, it can therefore be concluded that the growth of South Carolina and Connecticut were rough approximations of one another and therefore these particular variables can be considered similar. As measured simply by the number of persons engaged in the economic activities of the state, the growth between 1900 and 1910 within South Carolina and Connecticut were also roughly the same. In fact, each state was chosen as a representative of two distinct regions, but they were specifically chosen in this comparative analysis because of how similar they were in the total number of people employed and the changes evidently experienced in both economies over that time period.
What is interesting about these statistics is that they are not as similar as the overall numbers suggest. In Connecticut, the number of employed men outnumbered women 3:1, whereas in South Carolina it was much closer to 2:1.[v] Even more interesting, was the increase in female participation in the labor force during this decade. There was almost a 50% increase in female employment in South Carolina during the decade, while male employment was closer to a 15% increase.[vi] Even more interesting however, is that when evaluated based on sex rather than in aggregate, one finds again that in Connecticut, the female and male labor forces expanded at the same rates as in South Carolina.[vii] When evaluated on a national scale, one finds that the growth in female and male employment in both states was roughly in line with the national averages at the time.[viii] This proves that there was nothing different in how each economy was changing during that time period, but there was a significant regional economic difference that led to a much higher rate of participation among South Carolinian women.
It might be assumed that this was due to the traditional assumptions about the agrarian nature of the South Carolinian economy; perhaps women worked more in South Carolina in agricultural activities? This hypothesis is rendered unlikely given the fact that the total acreage utilized for farmland in South Carolina decreased from 1900 to 1910 by about 2%.[ix] If agrarian activity was the reason for the difference, one would expect to see small reductions in the female workforce, not the massive increases that were realized relative to men during the same time period. The Connecticut reduction in overall farm acreage also decreased by close to the same proportion.[x] Therefore, the discrepancy in employment of women between the two states had more to do with the type of non-agricultural employment that was available in the two states. Furthermore, since both states seem to have developed in generally the same way during the first decade of the 20th century, it can be further concluded that the main discrepancy in female participation in workforce pre-dated the turn of the century.
62.2% of all employees who held manufacturing jobs in South Carolina worked in a Cotton Mill, or in the manufacture of cotton-related products.[xi] This is such a large proportion of the economy that if the demographics of this one industry did not mirror the overall demographics of the state, it would dramatically change them from the national averages. It can therefore be assumed that the proportion of men and women working in the cotton industry was a fair approximation of the state average (or perhaps even slightly more than average), and therefore it can be further concluded that women constituted a significant portion of the labor force within the cotton industry in general, and this explained their greater employment rate within the SC economy. The production of cotton goods within the Connecticut economy constituted a mere 6.8% of the total economic production, whereas metallurgical outputs (Brass, foundry, and machine-shop products), the two largest sectors of the Connecticut economy, accounted for almost 26%.[xii]
It can therefore be surmised that at least one large factor in the differences between the South Carolina and Connecticut economies that led to much greater female participation in South Carolina was the type of manufacturing opportunities that were available to the general workforce. It makes sense that women would be more likely to be employed in the textile manufacturing industries as opposed to machine and metallurgical industries.
Of course, this brief review of these census records does not rule out that there were other factors that may have contributed to the higher rate of female participation in South Carolina. There may have been other economic factors (i.e. the need for a dual-income family to meet general requirements for a standard of living) that led to higher female participation in the workforce. Nor does this evaluation prove causation; it is also possible that female willingness to work was the driving force on the supply side of the labor curve that led to the development of the cotton industry in South Carolina. This seems counterintuitive given geographical considerations, but it remains possible without deeper analysis.
Notwithstanding the potential shortcomings of this brief economic survey, it can be concluded that the rate at which women participated in the workforce relative to men was significantly different in Connecticut and South Carolina, and that it was strongly linked to the type of industrial production in both regions. Potentially even more interesting is the traditional assumption that female participation in the workforce is a strong indicator of the overall condition of women's rights and more equitable social conditions. For this to be true, one would be forced to admit that South Carolinian society was far more progressive than Connecticut at the turn of the 20th century. Since this argument is likely to be refuted by a host of other data, one must admit that while female employment may be connected to gender equality in the 21st century, it is definitely anachronistic to make the same argument about early 20th century America.
[i] US Census, Labor Force, Series D 1-10. Labor Force and its Components: 1900 to 1947. Department of Commerce and Labor, 1975. 126.
[iii]Ibid. Series D 26-28. Gainful Workers, by Sex, by State: 1870 to 1950. 129-130.
[viii] Ibid. Series D 75-84. Gainful Workers, by Age, Sex, and Farm-Nonfarm Occupations 1820:1930. 134.
[ix] Supplement for South Carolina of the 1910 US Census, Department of Commerce and Labor, 1910. 608.
[x] Supplement for Connecticut of the 1910 US Census, Department of Commerce and Labor, 1910. 605.
[xi] South Carolina 1910 Census, 686.
[xii] Connecticut 1910 Census, 623.
Nathan Gilson is a Social Studies Teacher in South Carolina with over 10 years of experience in the public school systems. He has taught US and World History courses, and is currently working toward a Ph.D. in History from Liberty University.