Women at Work in the 1950s (2022)

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.

Aviation

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

Education

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Finance

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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.

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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.

Healthcare

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Industry

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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.

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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.

Office Work

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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