Women at Work in the 1950s (2023)

Today’s post is written by Laney Stevenson, Archives Technician at the National Archives at College Park.

In celebration of Women’s History Month and with the rousing collective movement for women’s rights and empowerment which has been reignited over the last year, it seems fitting to look back on past recognition of women for their achievements as both a mark of progress and means of appreciation for those that worked to pave a path toward equality and justice.

The following photographs of professional women demonstrate both the increasing variety as well as the societal limitations of the career paths available to women during the 1950s. The occupations with which women have primarily been associated are prominent, including work as a teacher, nurse, stewardess, librarian, secretary, and factory worker. However, newer fields for women are also represented, such as engineering, pharmacy, real estate, and finance, which evidence the motivation and drive within women to further their career aspirations and assert their right to professional equality.

These photographs are from the series Feature Packets with Recurring Subjects, 1953-1959, (NAID 1105040) in Record Group 306: Records of the U. S. Information Agency, Press and Publications Service. The text is taken from captions accompanying each image.


Women at Work in the 1950s (1)

At the American Airlines training school in Chicago, Illinois, an instructor shows two girls who are learning to become stewardesses how to serve meals in an airplane. Fifty subjects, ranging from flying routes to first aid, are taught the girls who qualify to attend the school.

Women at Work in the 1950s (2)

These United Air Lines stewardesses work as a coordinated team to make the flight comfortable for passengers aboard a DC-7 Mainliner.

Women at Work in the 1950s (3)

As part of stewardess training conducted by the large commercial airline companies in the United States, the hostesses are taught the various parts and operations of an airplane so they will be prepared to answer questions of passengers. Here, a stewardess is receiving cockpit instructions from the captain of the plane.

(Video) 1950s Education “Women In The Workplace”

Women at Work in the 1950s (4)

The first eight women who served as airlines hostesses in the United States in 1930 are shown here wearing the uniforms adopted for “sky girls” during their first year of service. They were hired by Boeing Air Transport, a parent company of United Air Lines. At the top (left) is Miss Ellen Church, the San Francisco nurse who originated the plan of assigning female attendants to commercial airliners.


Women at Work in the 1950s (5)

In a demonstration program for the 30 participants in the workshop on Theory in Action, a teacher is using modern methods to teach a little girl how to read. The chalkboard, illustrated posters, and small reading cards are used as teaching aids. The workshop is an annual program conducted by Jackson College, a State-supported school for teachers in the Southern United States. A short summer course, it is designed to help both student and professional teachers.

Women at Work in the 1950s (6)

Here, in a session on teaching procedures, participants in the summer workshop held at Jackson College in Jackson, Mississippi, evaluate their ideas as a basis for future plans. This policy of talking things over, which the teachers practice in this workshop, is carried back to their classrooms.

Women at Work in the 1950s (7)

Doris MacDougal is ready to lead her class in a singing lesson. Afterward the pupils are allowed to select their favorite songs, which the class sings. Mrs. MacDougal knows that her students enjoy and profit from this period of relaxation. Although she can be stern when necessary, she has a naturally friendly and relaxed manner to which the children respond with affection and respect.

Women at Work in the 1950s (8)

Miss Edna Ritchie and her old truck, converted into a traveling library, are a welcome sight to rural school children in Perry County, Kentucky, a remote, mountainous region of central United States. Here she checks out a book for one young reader while others avidly explore the shelves stocked with lively, well-illustrated volume chosen to suit a wide variety of tastes. This bookmobile is one of two provided to serve three Kentucky counties by Homeplace Organization, a privately endowed community center.

Women at Work in the 1950s (9)

Edna Ritchie, traveling librarian in the U.S. mountains of Kentucky, finds plenty to do between her weekly trips to remote rural schools. Books do wear out despite the best treatment, so she is kept busy rebinding them. Here she hand-stitches a worn volume. Mending torn pages, filing new books, and reading releases and reviews to choose additional volumes for the ever-growing library are some of her regular duties.

(Video) Attitudes toward working women in the 1950s

Women at Work in the 1950s (10)

Teachers in rural schools are glad to get advice from Edna Ritchie on suitable books to read to their smallest pupils who have not yet learned to read for themselves. Small, remote schools in all parts of the State of Kentucky are now served by a network of bookmobiles through a cooperative project sponsored by the State government, citizens, civic groups, and business organizations.


Women at Work in the 1950s (11)

Quotation clerks at the New York Stock Exchange watch the overhead boards for up-to-the-minute prices and asked for stocks, to enable them to handle the constant flow of telephone inquiries from member-firms of the Exchange. A woman is manager of this busy telephone service, so vital to the financing center of the American free enterprise economic system.

Women at Work in the 1950s (12)

Mrs. Emily Valverde is one of the 859 women employed as security sales women by member firms of the New York Stock Exchange. Seated before the quotation board in her office, she can quickly check the prices bid and asked on listed stocks as she advises a client on his investment program. Ten years ago, only 178 women were selling securities.


Women at Work in the 1950s (13)

More and more, business enterprises are realizing that the well-being of employees is an important element in the success of any operation. Many companies employ occupational health nurses to look after the health of workers. Here Nurse Helen Sheehy takes the blood pressure of a new employee, Corinne Kronen. One of the important elements of the occupational health or industrial nurse is the prevention of accidents and illness.

Women at Work in the 1950s (14)

Helen Hogan, shown here with a group of prospective blood donors, is head nurse for her company in Midwestern United States. She is taking temperatures and pulse rates as the men await their turns to contribute to the Red Cross blood bank. Approximately four percent of professional nurses in that nation work for business or industry.

Women at Work in the 1950s (15)

Blood for use in emergency is being drawn from the arm of a man. Helen Hogan, head nurse at the company where he works, supervises the operation and will assist Red Cross personnel in getting the blood to the city’s blood bank. Assisting in such work is part of the responsibility of occupational health nurses in the United States. Primarily, however, they are concerned with caring for the health of employees and their families and with caring for individuals who are injured or become sick while on the job.

(Video) Office Etiquette (1950)

Women at Work in the 1950s (16)

Nurses of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York leave the main office of the organization to start on their daily rounds of bringing part-time skilled care to invalids in their homes and giving health instruction and guidance to families, schools, child care centers and small industrial plants. The Service, founded in 1893, now has 14 district offices and a staff of graduate registered nurses – many with special training in child and maternal care – physical therapists and practical nurses. Last year they made 323, 217 visits to 44,944 persons.

Women at Work in the 1950s (17)

Giving help and instruction to mothers of new babies is an important function of the Visiting Home Service of New York. Here, using an ordinary table padded to make a spot for comfortable and convenient handling, a nurse shows how to care for a very young infant while the mother watches intently. Nurses also teach mothers how they can have safe pregnancies and how to care for themselves afterwards. They give advice on diets and health habits for the whole family.

Women at Work in the 1950s (18)

Laboratory work is an important part of the curriculum in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Connecticut, as it is in the 75 institutions that train pharmacists in the United States. After graduation, a year’s internship and successful completion of a qualifying examination, these young women will be licensed by the State to practice in any of the many phases of the profession.


Women at Work in the 1950s (19)

In this modern plant, one of four operated by Pepperidge Farm, Inc., women knead bread by hand in the old-fashioned way, shape the loaves, and pack them in baking tins. A 100-year-old recipe and this hand-treatment distinguish this rough-textured, distinctively flavored bread.

Women at Work in the 1950s (20)

Many women serve the aviation industry in the United States by working in aircraft plants. Here one of Pratt and Whitney Aircraft Company’s 2,400 craftswomen grinds to precision dimensions a cylinder barrel for a Wasp Major engine. The machine guard keep the milky machining coolant from spraying on the operator.

(Video) Cultural Shift: Women's Roles in the 1950s

Office Work

Women at Work in the 1950s (21)

Prospective employees must pass a rigid test of capability before they are employed by the Kelly Girl Service, a business organization that supplies women office workers to meet temporary needs. The service, with headquarters in Detroit, has branch offices in 81 cities of the United States.

Women at Work in the 1950s (22)

Last year more than 50,000 Kelly Girls worked in the offices of some 23,000 customers. Employed and paid by the Kelly Girl Service, they were assigned as temporary replacement of regular employees who were ill or on vacation or to meet special needs for extra help. Here, two Kelly Girls (left and foreground) are helping out in an insurance office.

Real Estate

Women at Work in the 1950s (23)

Ruth Smith, widowed 15 years ago, turned to the real estate business to help support herself and two small sons. She found that homemaking interests make real estate a natural field for a woman. In her office – the library of her self-designed home – Mrs. Smith studies a plan and picture of one of the properties she is handling.

Science and Technology

Women at Work in the 1950s (24)

Mrs. Beulah Loomis is as well able to repair a piece of hydraulic equipment as she is to sell these products that are handled by the firm for which she works. A versatile engineer, she has worked in aeronautical, mechanical, and electrical phases of the profession before taking her present job as a sales engineer.


What role did women have in the workplace in the 1950s? ›

The occupations with which women have primarily been associated are prominent, including work as a teacher, nurse, stewardess, librarian, secretary, and factory worker.

Was it common for women to work in the 1950s? ›

Conformity and the 1950s

Although women were expected to identify primarily as wives and mothers and to eschew work outside of the home, women continued to make up a significant proportion of the postwar labor force.

What were women doing in the 1950s? ›

In 1950s America, society distinctly defined gender roles. Men were to work and financially provide for the family, and women managed the home and purchased groceries, goods, and services for daily life. After the war, many families had disposable income for luxury or desired items which women most often purchased.

What jobs could women do in the 1950s? ›

The fact that teaching, nursing, and secretarial work were all deemed promotable careers by multiple publishing houses both reflected historical trends of female employment and emphasised a continued commitment to the idea of traditionally feminine careers.

What jobs were women not allowed to do back then? ›

9 Jobs Women Weren't Allowed To Be Hired For Back In The Day
  • School Teacher. Classrooms were instructed only by male teachers until a drastic shortage in the mid-1800s made hiring women the only option. ...
  • Politician. ...
  • Lawyer. ...
  • Soldier. ...
  • Train Conductor. ...
  • Chauffeur. ...
  • Blacksmith. ...
  • 8. News Reporter.
21 Oct 2016

When did women get the right to work? ›

In 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment (aka the ERA) was introduced in Congress to give women all the other rights in the Constitution such as property, employment, and education.

What were gender roles like in the 1950s? ›

During the 1950s, gender roles dictated that men were the head of the household and the sole provider, while women were expected to be the homemaker who cared for the children.

What challenges do women face today essay? ›

The patriarchy dictates a woman's life unjustly. Moreover, there is also a lack of female education and the gender pay gap. Women in rural areas are still denied education for being a female. Similarly, women do not get equal pay as men for doing the same work.

What was working like in the 1950s? ›

Men had jobs similar to those of today, without the computer and technology field, which wasn't nearly what it is today. Jobs were mainly industrial or agricultural, with many men working in blue-collar jobs as mechanics, plumbers, bus drivers, warehouse workers and road construction workers.

How were women viewed during the 1950s? ›

Women might have had the vote on the same terms as men since 1929, but for most that was pretty well the limit of their equality: working women were paid much less than men and despite the responsibilities and sheer hard graft many had endured in wartime, were still regarded as submissive and inferior beings.

What percentage of women worked in the 1950s? ›

The share of women in the labor force grew from 30 percent in 1950 to almost 47 percent in 2000, and the number of working women is projected to reach 92 million by 2050—on the basis of an annual growth rate of 0.7 percent.

What was the ideal woman in the 1950s? ›

The image of American women in the 1950s was heavily shaped by popular culture: the ideal suburban housewife who cared for the home and children appeared frequently in women's magazines, in the movies and on television.

What were the gender roles in the 1950's? ›

During the 1950s, gender roles dictated that men were the head of the household and the sole provider, while women were expected to be the homemaker who cared for the children.

How many women worked in the 1950s? ›

The number of women in the labor force rose from 18 million in 1950 to 66 million in 2000, an an- nual growth rate of 2.6 percent.

What was working like in the 1950s? ›

Men had jobs similar to those of today, without the computer and technology field, which wasn't nearly what it is today. Jobs were mainly industrial or agricultural, with many men working in blue-collar jobs as mechanics, plumbers, bus drivers, warehouse workers and road construction workers.

What was the ideal woman in the 1950s? ›

The ideal 1950s woman was a homemaker who cared for the home she shared with her husband and children. She took primary responsibility for raising the children, and she was the primary shopper for most items that the household consumed.


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