The WPA: A Flawed Model for Women, but an Inspiration for Progress

Apr 9, 2013Andrea Flynn

The New Deal left women behind, but it proved government can be a champion for the economically downtrodden.

The participation of women in the American work force has expanded dramatically in the 78 years since the Roosevelt administration launched the WPA to provide jobs to Americans out of work and on relief. Today women comprise nearly half the work force and typically work through the life cycle, not episodically, before and after childrearing, which for so long was considered their principal occupation.

Today married, as well as single, women play a critical role in the U.S. economy. In nearly half the country’s dual income families, women earn as much or more than men. And as a percentage of the total, there are many more single women heading households today. For these reasons, today’s employment policies must be sensitive to gender in ways they never have been before.

Women were an afterthought of policymakers back in the Roosevelt years. Prevailing cultural mores still viewed work among married women as a threat to the sanctity and moral fabric of the family. New Dealers actually passed legislation (over the objection of Eleanor Roosevelt and others with feminist leanings) that prevented two workers in any one family from claiming a government salary, which meant that women during the Depression often were fired or forced to quit their jobs.

Women actually claimed only 13.5 percent of the 8.5 million total jobs created by the WPA, the majority of them in traditionally female occupations such as sewing, childcare and eldercare, teaching and education, etc. No surprise, these jobs paid less than other positions occupied by men, with WPA salaries ranging from only $20 to nearly $100 dollars per month. And most of those jobs, in fact, went to women who were divorced, widowed or unmarried.

With the advent of World War II, record numbers of women entered the work force to fill jobs left by men conscripted to fight the war. Despite postwar conventions that again celebrated domesticity and pushed women out of positions reclaimed by returning veterans, the war actually ignited a behavioral shift that forever reshaped the U.S. labor force.

In 1948, women comprised 29 percent of the labor force overall, and 17 percent of married mothers worked outside the home. Most of them were part of families living at the edge of poverty and needing two salaries, but some were in the professions and in business and simply rejected prevailing values. Those numbers have steadily increased over the last 60 years. Today, women make up nearly 47 percent of the labor force, with more than 79 percent of mothers now working.

But old ways die hard. Women may make up nearly half the American work force, but they still face an ever-increasing number of obstacles to balancing work and family and to achieving economic security. A report recently released by the Ms. Foundation for Women illustrates the myriad challenges facing women workers:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists more than 440 occupations. Four out of five women are concentrated in only 20 of these jobs, most of them traditionally female roles such as secretaries, home health care and childcare workers, teachers, waitresses, etc. that barely afford women a living wage.
  • Approximately 63 percent of minimum- and sub-minimum-wage workers are women.
  • The recent recession has had a particularly negative impact on women. By 2011, women had regained only 11 percent of jobs lost (compared to men’s 24 percent), and by the end of 2012, the women had regained 46 percent (compared to men’s 50 percent).
  • Of families headed by single mothers, 28.7 percent — 4 million of them — live in poverty compared with 13 percent (or 670,000) of those headed by men.
  • Underemployment is a serious issue facing women workers. Approximately 26 percent of working women are in part-time jobs, which do not provide essential benefits and job security.

Though not sufficiently attentive to the needs of women at the time, Roosevelt’s New Deal and WPA exemplified the role government can and should play in guaranteeing a basic floor of well being for all Americans. We would be wise to revisit those ideals today as we think about how to protect and advance women workers across the United States.

President Obama has suggested many such initiatives: universal pre-school; better job training to equip students to pursue trades; a historic expansion of Medicaid and private health insurance that will guarantee all women basic preventative services (including reproductive health care and family planning); and pay equity and a raise in the minimum wage.

Indeed, the first piece of legislation President Obama signed upon entering office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which overturned the 180-day statute of limitations for women to contest pay discrimination. Today, in commemoration of National Pay Equity Day, President Obama said:

Wage inequality undermines the promise of fairness and opportunity upon which our country was founded… Our country has come a long way toward ensuring everyone gets a fair shot at opportunity, no matter who you are or where you come from. But our journey will not be complete until our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and our daughters are treated equally in the workplace and always see an honest day's work rewarded with honest wages. 

There are other significant steps we can take:

  • Congress should pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation that has been introduced a number of times since 2009 but has failed to secure support from both chambers of Congress. The legislation – an update to the 1963 Equal Pay Act – would prohibit employers from paying a man more than a woman for the same job and would prevent employers from punishing women who call attention to pay disparities.
  • We should ensure that women who work as nannies, home health care workers, housekeepers, etc. – positions that are a major backbone to our economy – receive a fair wage and benefits necessary to lead healthy, financially secure lives.
  • We should ensure that all workers are guaranteed sick days and parental leave so their families don’t play second fiddle to a job.
  • We should task our best and brightest with creating innovative job training programs (and job creation initiatives) that will enable women to move beyond the 20 or so occupations the majority currently occupy. And we should think critically about how the federal government can provide better job security for women in part-time and seasonal jobs.
  • We should create affordable childcare programs that would allow women to know their children are being well-cared for while they earn a living to support their families. This would also give women greater flexibility to occupy full-time, more stable positions.

FDR may not have offered women their rightful place in the New Deal’s employment programs. But today we know better. Only by lifting the barriers that prevent women from achieving real economic equity, can we regain real security for American families and re-establish our country’s stronghold as a global economic leader. 

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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