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World War One and Women in the Workforce

By Lauren Webb


Because so many men left jobs to fight in World War I, women were given new opportunities for work. Many Utah women went to work in positions that had never been open to them before.

Louise Thompson operates the elevator at the Keith-O’Brien Company.

Louise Thompson operates the elevator at the Keith-O’Brien Company, 1917. Salt Lake Telegram.

On September 24, 1919, seventeen-year-old Alta Hester clocked-in to her job as an elevator operator at the Hotel Utah. She was particularly diligent that day, giving her elevator car “extra polishing and rubbings” all morning. She had been told that her car had been selected as the one that would carry President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson to their hotel room. With “sparkling eyes, flushed cheeks, and catchy breath,” Alta described the experience later that day, saying: “When I saw the President coming toward my car my heart just gave one big leap and started off like a runaway engine down the track. I’m afraid I acted awfully ‘fussed,’ but I couldn’t help it. . . .I wanted to make a curtsey, but my feet got all tangled up and I grabbed the elevator ‘crank’ instead of my skirts.”[1]

Many women like Alta had opportunities for new kinds of work experiences because of the First World War. As men left jobs to serve in the war, employers started to recruit women to fill the vacancies. Alta’s job as elevator operator was a particularly controversial position. In the early 20th century, elevators were operated manually using a lever to control the acceleration. Operators were responsible for slowing the elevator to be level with each floor, manually opening and closing the doors, and announcing which floor they had reached. Because this demanded some degree of physical strength, many people were initially afraid that women couldn’t safely run the lever. Others expressed concern at young women being alone in the presence of large groups of men. Despite the controversy, managers at hotels and department stores enthusiastically hired women operators, issued them uniforms, and paid them the same wages as men. Some employers even observed that female operators were more capable and more courteous than the young men had been.

A Chinese-American woman standing outside.

Ruth King, c. 1934. Kim Childs via FamilySearch.

It is important to remember that many women had jobs long before World War I. The industrial revolution and nineteenth-century immigration waves had steadily increased women’s higher education and employment rates for decades. It was especially common for immigrants, like Ruth May Young King, to work with their husbands to run businesses or boarding houses. Ruth was born in California to Chinese parents in 1871. She and her husband moved to Salt Lake City shortly after getting married in 1890 and opened a “Chinese Merchandise” store together, where they specialized in repairing dolls. Ruth assisted her husband in running the store for over thirty years, and then continued to run the store on her own with the assistance of one of her daughters for another eight years after his death. In addition to working at the store, Ruth spent time serving in her community. She taught herself several Chinese dialects and volunteered as a court interpreter. She was actively involved in Phillips Congregational Church. She raised five children, all of whom earned university degrees.

Building on the nineteenth century’s growing employment trends, World War I dramatically accelerated the rates at which women were becoming factory workers, munitions manufacturers, bookkeepers, cashiers, bank tellers, postal workers, and even forepersons at machine shops.

Ada Soper, 1918. Salt Lake Herald-Republican.

Recruitment in Utah often happened through the Salt Lake branch of the United States Labor Bureau, where Addie Soper led the Bureau’s women’s division. After her two sons enlisted in the navy, Addie was determined to do her own part to contribute to the war effort. She began working at the Bureau in June 1918 and successfully connected job-seeking women with employers and vacated positions. In one report, Addie encouraged businesses to continue reporting vacancies because all of the positions had been filled and she had an excess of applications. The war necessitated employment of women in larger numbers and in a wider range of industries, and these experiences helped shift cultural perceptions about the economic abilities and potential of women.

Women holding tires outside an auto supply co. in 1918.

Female employees standing outside the Automobile Supply Company store on SLC Main Street, 1918. Courtesy of the Utah Historical Society.

Challenges concerning women in the workplace were revisited after the war. As men returned home, it raised questions and debates about women’s role in the workforce moving forward. The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) did a national survey of 15,000 workplaces to determine if women had been efficient in their roles and if they should continue working. The report included statements from several employers, who expressed that the work of women had not only allowed industries to continue production, but was, in many cases, done more efficiently than when men had held the same positions.The prediction of the YWCA was that, “since they met the requirements so satisfactorily, women will continue in a large and varied list of industries, instead of being restricted to one or two, as they were in pre-war days.”[2] This proved only partially true. As the nation struggled to re-employ male veterans returning home after the war, many women left the workforce while others remained employed outside the home.

Whether at home, on elevators, or in doll-repair shops, Utah women have always worked hard to provide opportunities for themselves and their families and improve their communities. The women who filled open positions during World War I helped change public perceptions about women’s capabilities and roles in the public workforce.

[1] “Chief Greets Elevator Lass at Hotel Utah,” Salt Lake Herald-Republican, September 24, 1919, p. 14.

[2] “Women in Industry,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 22, 1919, p. 6.

Sources

“Women to Supplant Men in Industries,” Salt Lake Tribune, September 29, 1918, p. 24. 

“Elevator Trips Now Joyrides Pretty Maids Act as Drivers Change Releases Men for War,” Salt Lake Telegram, August 28, 1917, p. 2.

Bellhop Work for Utah Girls is Condemned,” Salt Lake Herald-Republican, September 18, 1918, p. 10.

Young Girls are Best Elevator Operators,” Salt Lake Telegram, September 26, 1918, p. 14.

 “Many Women Apply for War-Time Work,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 4, 1918, p. 17. 

“Women to Work; Men to War,” Salt Lake Herald-Republican, October 19, 1918, p. 7.

“Lessons Which the War Taught Industry,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 10, 1919, p. 65.

“The Woman and her Job,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 8, 1918, p. 6.Helen Z. Papanikolas, “4: Ethnic Women,” Women in Utah History: Paradigm or Paradox?, 2005, pp. 129-153.