Following the end of World War Two, shifts in the work experience of both sexes led to fundamental changes within Canadian society. The most startling and socially contentious of these concerned the female experience. Women’s integral involvement in the war time workforce had led to increasing acceptance of the idea that women could, and may even have the right to, spend at least a portion of their lives in the workforce.
Even middle class married women, those not driven to seek employment by economic necessity, now faced a labour choice – to maintain a traditional role in the home, or to combine the roles of wife and mother with the role of female wage-earner. Those who chose to maintain the status quo were often forced to accept the reality of an appreciably lower standard of living. Those who sought to contribute to the family income, took on the burden of a ‘double-day’. Overt public concerns focused on the changing role of women, particularly married women, in the workforce.
Post-war prosperity resulted in a burgeoning middle class, and debate over whether the new concept of a ‘wage-earning wife’ could be reconciled with the post-war notion of a good life for all. World War Two had seen women take an integral role in the great patriotic effort, spurred by “some combination of financial need, unprecedented job opportunities, government encouragement, patriotism and individual ambition”. First young girls, then married, childless women and, finally, women with children were recruited and incorporated into all aspects of Canada’s industrial war effort.
The federal government had spearheaded a policy of female involvement, but made it consistently clear that the initiative was to be only temporary, to meet the needs created by a wartime emergency. Government-sponsored programs endowed women with new labour skills, albeit sex-linked, to satisfy the immediate demands of industry. The temporary nature of female employment was made clear upon the end of the war, at which point all programs arranged to foster female labour participation ceased.
Child care, tax concessions, and training programs ended as quickly as they had begun. It was glaringly clear that married women were intended to return to their homes, single women to marry and have children. Many women, newly endowed with labour skills and experience, resisted the return of the status quo, but the war had failed to inspire a new age of labour equality. In order to understand the labour force participation of married women during the post-war period, it is necessary to examine relevant statistics.
Gallup polls and trade union surveys suggest that women were not willing to fulfill the common prophecy that, after the war, women would enthusiastically return to their homes. Contemporary women now enjoyed a higher school-leaving age, more permissive attitudes towards female labour, and a booming white collar sector and as such, entered and remained in the labour market in rising numbers. Of particular concern was the rate at which wives and mothers entered the workforce, to the point where they made up nearly half of the female work force.
In 1941, married women had accounted for a mere thirteen percent of the female workforce, a percentage that steadily rose to thirty percent by 1951, and a remarkable fourty-nine and a half percent in 1961. These statistics did not include those women who had undertaken paid work at some point during the previous year, but were unemployed at the time of census enumeration. Prior to 1961, these women numbered over two hundred and fifty thousand. The expanding tertiary sector was mirrored in the employment patterns of women, as noted by Canadian sociologist Veronica Strong-Boag.
Almost 57. 4 percent of married female workers in 1951 and 58. 9 percent in 1961 were employed in three occupational groups: clerical sales and service. Like their single sisters, most of the remainder found work as factory workers, managers, nurses and teachers. The relative disadvantage of wives in the labour market is suggested in the greater percentage – 49. 3 percent in 1951 and 41. 3 percent in 1961 – when compared to unmarried women – 40. 9 percent in 1951 and 32. 3 percent in 1961 – who found employment in sales, service, processing, machining and fabricating.
Despite this discrepancy, more married women were likely to hold managerial occupations, in all probability due to their greater age and experience. Married women’s marginality in the workforce was again underscored by the fact that most of those who did work generally only did so part-time. The combination of part-time work and more menial tertiary-sector jobs entrenched the position of married women in an occupational ‘pink’ ghetto, where wages were limited and opportunities restricted and few.
A new development of the nineteen fifties was the female “zig-zag” track, an employment course on which women could enter the labour force on multiple occasions, developing a two-phase work history. Before marriage, most women had gained at least limited work experience, with some choosing to remain in their jobs even after marriage. Once child birth became imminent, most women would then leave the workforce, and bear, on average, two to four children, usually in fairly rapid succession.
A women’s main priority would then become her children, and her energies and talents devoted to raising them to elementary school age. The main distinguishing feature of the ‘zig-zag track’ was a woman’s return to the work force after spending sufficient time at home. This second stage of marital paid employment was a significant development of the nineteen fifties, signaling even greater female participation in the work force. Despite this, the tendency of wives to enter and then leave the labour force to meet the demands of child rearing led to the common misconception that women had weaker attachments to paid work.
Despite limited opportunities for married female workers in the labour force, the limited wages earned by Canadian wives did substantially add to the family income, lending new found economic stability. Working women shored up the earnings of the average middle-class family, making a taste of the good life possible for a broad range of Canadians. Unprecedented numbers of wage earning wives meant that more families than ever before could aspire to some of the more visible manifestations of the middle class, notably better housing, cars, appliances and decent clothing.
Substantial gains were made by middle class families, those whose wives and mothers most often re-entered the labour market, while upper-middle and high income families, those whose wives and mothers worked least often, experienced hardly any gain. For those families whose mean income exceeded ten thousand dollars annually, only nine percent had working wives. For those whose income fell within the five to ten thousand dollar range, an average of twenty-seven percent had wives in the labour market. Thus, the common perception of an expanding middle class was due, in part, to the contributions of the wage-earning wife.
Despite this gain, sociologist John Porter estimates that few of the ‘new middle class’ were able to enjoy the benefits of the ‘real middle class’, a group in which only those families with mean incomes exceeding eight thousand dollars a year could be legitimately included. The benefits of this elite group included “education, high standards of health services, family privacy and leisure activities”. While this lifestyle was achieved by only a few, the average Canadian family earned a combined income of $5,192, and was considerably better off than during prior decades.
This improved standard of living involved crucial choices for wives and mothers. Staying at home to raise children full-time involved sacrificing an appreciably higher family income, while working involved the assumption of a ‘double day’ and an ongoing struggle between work and family responsibilities. As such, the rise in female workforce participation was met by mixed opinions within Canadian society. It was clear that fundamental changes were taking place and that entrenched traditions needed to be reconsidered and adapted for a changing society.
The fact that working women contributed considerably to the mean family income was too often ignored, just as little attention was paid to those women, often working-class, immigrants, or of a visible minority, who were forced to work by circumstance. The opponents of women’s participation in the workforce seemed to operate on the assumption that those women who did work did so without any external pressures to do so. Thus, debate particularly surrounded middle class women who enjoyed the feasible option of remaining at home.
Powerful, and deeply entrenched, social values justified the division of male and female labour. Many felt women could maximize their contributions by remaining at home and assuming the role of household managers, stretching the wages of husbands, sons, and unwed daughters to the maximum and supplementing them, if need be, by taking in boarders or accepting charity. This allowed a woman to contribute to the economic welfare of the household without compromising her traditional female role. The notion of upholding traditional gender roles was bolstered by the popular ideology of the ‘family-wage’.
According to this principle, rather than encouraging women into the workforce to supplement family incomes, wages for men were to be kept high enough to adequately support a wife and children, an idea that inherently suggested the subordination of women. A move away from gender norms was also discouraged by those who rejected the two-cheque life style as “working for the frills”, supplementing an already sufficient income with expendable cash to put towards non-essential items while undermining the stability of the home and family.
The traditional Canadian woman had valued frugality and resourcefulness and imbued such values into her offspring. The ‘new woman’ working “for a car, for a home, for a television set, for a new chesterfield, for a fur coat, false teeth, or a holiday in Florida” posed a threat to her family and, perhaps more importantly, to the societal status quo. It is important to note that those who most aggressively challenged women’s involvement in the work place were most often those who had experienced the difficulties of the Second World War, the Depression or both.
A booming economy with the ability to sustain the employment of both men and women seemed to “court economic and moral failure and to encourage an artificially high standard of living” doomed to collapse and diametrically opposed the time-honoured standards of modesty and thrift that had ensured survival during past challenges. The economic benefits that did result from women’s paid work was rejected as insufficient recompense for the work, calculable and otherwise, that was lost at home. Some critics went so far as to attach a financial value to a woman’s work at home.
The $5187 that resulted from housecleaning, shopping, mending, cleaning, chauffeuring, gardening, and even “such incalculables as your blue eyes, your smiling face, your role as family comforter and psychologist” far surpassed the comparatively paltry $2874 that could be earned from paid work outside the home. Despite vocal critics, there were those modern-minded Canadians who supported female work. Economic independence, skill development, self-respect, and efficiency were all thought to be hallmarks of the modern working woman.
It was usually acknowledged that family and childcare was the paramount concern of wife and mother, but post-war modern conveniences allowed women to complete household duties in much shorter periods of time and, as such, be better able to handle the demands of a ‘double day’. Women, particularly those with older children, now had the option of pursuing work without compromising their domestic integrity and with the ability to make tangible contributions to family welfare by bringing long term benefits in housing, clothing, health care, and education within economic reach.
Rather than stunting the growth of her family, a working mother contributed to its betterment. Not only single women, but also married ‘respectable’ middle-class women, could maintain an important role in the labour market. No longer was part-time and temporary work considered insufficient, but a legitimate compromise for a wife and mother, and a valuable contribution to society. Changing interconnections among households, families and the wage-labour market caused women’s roles to evolve.
More liberal attitudes towards female employment prevailed despite active opposition and the concerted efforts of the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Postwar Problems of Women to elevate the status of housework and family life amongst women in Canada. The increasing participation rates of women in the labour force paralleled changes in housework and advancements in household technology.
Female economic prospects, self-confidence in abilities, new opportunities and less stringent time constraints allowed and even encouraged more women to question and challenge societal expectations. More women, including increasing numbers of married wives and mothers, entered the work force and paved the way for a new wave of feminism in the sixties. It became increasingly clear that financial dependence was not a measure of innate female inferiority but an indication of societal barriers to female mobility.
With the understanding that women had a right to maintain the option of undertaking paid work without feelings of guilt or inadequacy, the participation rate of women rose from twenty percent in 1941 to thirty percent in 1961, increasing the female percentage of the labour force from eighteen to twenty-seven percent in a twenty year period. Despite this remarkable increase, the sex-typing of jobs continued, as women were not only segregated into particular industries but also slot into a limited number of jobs within those categories.
Traditional jobs done by groups of women had been replaced by duties carried out by individual housewives independently. Moving into the workforce had been thought to be the answer to monotonous and isolating work in the home. However, most typically female jobs continued to be, for the most part, isolated and repetitive. From 1941 to 1961, women consistently continued to occupy ten occupational groups: typists, sales clerks, babysitters/maids, school teachers, tailoresses, waitresses, graduate nurses, nursing aides, telephone operators and cleaners.
Indeed, during this twenty year period, women’s participation in these job areas increased by six percent. Canadian culture had generated ideologies differentiating male and female work. These ideas had been internalized through the socialization process of a patriarchal society, channeling men and women into different jobs. Though women had begun to move into the traditionally male realm of the workforce, they remained severely underrepresented in those jobs which did not require distinctively female skills and abilities.
Regardless, the path to equality had been forged, and irrevocable changes made to the traditional, and the ‘acceptable’, female role. These changes are particularly remarkable in light of the massive population growth that occurred simultaneously. During the post-war Baby Boom, the dependence ratio of those under twenty to those of legal age skyrocketed from 67. 9 in 1941 to 82. 7 in 1961, meaning that, theoretically, by the early sixties, eighty-three percent of adults were responsible for another person under the age of twenty.
To think that women were able to maintain, and intensify, their role in the paid work force despite an increasing demand for childcare demonstrates that during the period of 1945-1960 the idea that the majority of women would, at one time or another, be involved in the workforce and that they had a right to do so came to be much more widely accepted. No longer were women obligated to rely solely on a male breadwinner, as paid work for all women became increasingly socially acceptable and, in many ways, desirable.