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Some Considerations
Affecting the Replacement of Men by Women Workers

October 18, 1917 — Section on Industrial Hygiene, American Public Health Association ,Washington DC


Among the many new and urgent problems of industry in war time, none challenges our best thought more sharply than the replacement of men by women workers. This movement, which has gone far abroad, is still in its infancy in this country; yet it is not too soon, it is indeed high time, to gauge the tendencies and consequences of so radical a change. The replacement of men by women, proceeding in many industries and occupations in every State of the Union, must of necessity react for good or for ill not only upon the girls and women so employed, but upon far wider circles, upon their families, their children, and upon the whole standard of living of their communities. In this country it is too soon as yet to hazard an estimate of the numbers of women who are entering upon new occupations and taking men’s places. The number of the women so employed is not yet numerically great : their employment is in many cases still experimental, but we are undoubtedly on the threshold of great innovations. Girls and women as messengers and elevator operators, as section hands and towermen on railroads, running drills and presses, working in powdermills and sawmills, cleaning the outside of railroad coaches; and wiping engines in the machine shop, in the munitions plant, in the airplane factory — these are some of the new figures in industry.


Among the benefits from the new widening of women’s employment one of the most important is the breakdown of prejudices. Women have in the past been hampered in advancing industrially by the prejudices of both employers and their fellow workmen, organ zed and unorganized. Women’s sex and inexperience have been made the excuse not only for all manner of exploitation, but for the refusal of employers to advance them to positions of responsibility and trust. One of the triumphs of women’s war-time employment in England has been their response to opportunity — the intelligence and the speed with which they have reacted to instruction in intricate new work, such as the manufacture of aero engines and guns, as well as in the simpler operations of making shells, fuses, hand grenades, etc. This is the universal testimony — to the unbounded surprise of all, women have proved their ability to enter upon and succeed in work hitherto closed to them on the sole ground of their sex.

And this success has been a triumph not only for women workers but for the new methods of instruction in industry. Instead of the old rule of thumb and mere copying of fellow workmen by apprentices and new workers, there has been intelligent direction of the working women newly introduced into the workshops of England. Mr. Granville Baillie, of the British Ministry of Munitions, at a conference on women in industry in London last May, told how the new training had enabled working women to surprise the world by their achievements in industry by the speed, the accuracy, and the responsibility with which they have mastered their new trades. The training has been most successful when carried on in the plant where the women are to work. Under the British Ministry of Munitions, training schools were established with a view to giving untrained women some general technical instruction for the simpler processes in the engineering and chemical trades. This has been best carried out in the individual shop rather than in technical schools “which,” says the Health of Munition Workers Committee, ” however excel lent, can no more replace factory instruction than can drilling in the park, training in the field.

Throughout the world women are entering these new – fields. Between July, 1914, and January, 1917, the number of women gain fully employed in Great Britain had increased by almost one-third. According to the British Labor Gazette of August, 1917. 256,000 women are directly replacing men. In Germany the number of women employed in metal trades alone in July, 1916, is reported to have been over 3,000.000. In France the Minister of Munitions stated just a year ago that 300,000 women had gone into munition works; from Italy it is officially reported that the number of women employed in munition works in Lombardy has risen from over 4 to about 10 per cent of the total number of employees.

Undoubtedly in this country many promising fields are opening for women from which they have been debarred and for which they are well fitted. Such are the new positions in many branches of the railroad service; for instance, as freight checkers, as ticket agents and information clerks, in weeding and clearing the tracks; in banks and financial houses: in cost and production departments; as floor walkers in stores; as clerks in shoe stores, etc. In machine shops women are found to excel men in inspecting and testing and in other operations requiring dexterity. In many instances, too, women are now receiving far higher wages than ever before for work no harder than women’s traditional exhausting labor of scrubbing floors during long hours in dampness and wet. Yet. granting all that promises from such gains, no one can view without alarm the indiscriminate employment of women which is in process or impending in such heavy work as glassmaking. in some of the processes of steel mills exposed to extreme heat, as ballast tampers or freight handlers on railroads, as pilers of lumber and loaders of scrap iron, or in the bleachery pits of cotton mills, to mention some of the occupations most needing scrutiny and care.


If the achievements of women workers challenge the world’s admiration, we can not neglect the obverse side of the picture. We have not yet learned the cost, the wastage of woman power. There is no doubt that both abroad and in this country unmistakable dangers are inherent in many of the new occupations. Some, indeed, are totally unfit for women : some may be rendered fit by changes in method of management ; in all of them the indispensable prerequisite is a new scrutiny of the workers and the effect of the work, a kind of intelligent supervision known hitherto in only a very small number of the most enlightened establishments but needed now wherever women are employed in new lines of activity if we are to preserve our national energies.


Of the specific dangers to be guarded against one of the most obvious is the lifting of excessive weights. This has long been recognized as a source of injury for women. In no occupation hitherto engaged in have the chances of physical harm from lifting excessive weights been greater than, for instance, in the proposed employment of women in railroad freight yards. One road which has contemplated such a step stated that the weight of goods to be lifted would run up to 100 pounds. No argument is needed to show that such work, continued through the day, is unfit for women and should be totally prohibited. It is true that in laundries, another traditional employment of women, women are expected to lift bundles often weighing more than 100 pounds. This is undoubtedly a source of physical injury: in freight yards such burdens are not an occasional part of the work but constitute its main part. In one railroad yard girls themselves weighing not more than 115 pounds were found wheeling metal castings in wheelbarrows up and down inclined planks and loading them into the cars.

A recent report from Germany shows that among women employed in the metal trades heavy lifting is a main cause of physical injury. The inquiry covered over 2,500 establishments employing more than 266,000 women and girls, an increase of 319 per cent over the number employed before the war. Projectiles weighing from 22 pounds to 82 pounds have to be raised breast high from the floor and clamped down, then undamped and placed again on the floor. According to this report, given in Soziale Praxis of April 19, 1916, there is great complaint of abdominal trouble among the “women who raise these weights. In one establishment which required very hard muscular work it is reported that nearly a third of the 42 women employed ” have been disabled by illness.”

Clearly, in any occupation which requires heavy lifting — as, for instance, in core rooms — a maximum weight should be set. In New York State a maximum of 25 pounds has been fixed by law regulating women’s work in foundries. This maximum was set in the “code” adopted by the American Foundrymen’s Association at their annual convention last summer. A maximum of 25 pounds in lifting weights was adopted also in the valuable standards formulated by the Executives’ Club of Detroit last spring, representing 40 of the largest industrial plants in that city.

The establishment of a maximum weight in lifting is obviously a rough measure of protection. In all occupations safety lies only in the physical examination of all prospective workers, or better in the medical supervision of workers, as Dr. Schereschewsky has well phrased it in a recent address. For some women doubtless even 25 pounds is excessive when lifting constitutes a large part of the day’s work. The relation of the lifted weight to the chest and abdomen circumference, the total physical condition of the worker, should be determined and can be settled only by a medical examination before employment.


Another obvious danger calling for close observation in some of the new occupations is that of industrial poisoning. Thanks to Bul letin No. 219 of t.he Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, by Dr. Alice Hamilton, we have knowledge of the extent and nature of industrial poisoning in the manufacture of high explosives, so far as it could be ascertained by investigation of the first order. In this country women have not yet been employed in large numbers in the manu facture of TNT, in carrying on those nitration processes whose victims show the same symptoms, suffer, and die exactly as do the victims of gases in trench warfare. Yet it is known to the writer that in one of the worst conducted TNT factories, where the sani tary precautions are nil and the TXT is allowed to cover the ground, the workroom, and the workers themselves, women are among the operatives. As the manufacture of explosives grows by leaps and bounds in this country and new gases are developed and manufac tured, as other poisons are increasingly used, such as the various dopes for airplane wings, women will increasingly be employed in these dangerous processes. As a sex they are known to experience more serious injury than men from such an industrial poisoning as lead. This may be true of other industrial poisons not yet studied. Safety here lies only in the enforcement of sanitary precautions, in periodic medical supervision, in the shortening of hours of labor, and in the prohibition of nightwork for women.


In all of the new occupations as in the old, too much emphasis can not be laid upon the factor of fatigue in predisposing to illness and exhaustion. It did not need the well-recorded war-time experi ence of England to teach us that output together with health and vigor fails when hours of work are excessive, when Sunday work is permitted, and rest at night broken. Yet within the last year even the enlightened State of Massachusetts, the pioneer in labor legislation and for 20 years the leader in prohibiting nightwork for women employed in factories, has under the plea of war emergencies re established nightwork and overtime by special permit to specified establishments.

The labor standards for European countries, especially for women and children, were in many respects lower than our own before the war. In the first rush of industry following the outbreak of the war these standards abroad were still further lowered. Yet it soon proved that the relaxing of standards failed to achieve its purpose; in England and France and more recently in Italy definite steps were taken by the Governments (according to a valuable forthcoming report of the Children’s Bureau) to restore the provisions of the labor law in order to maintain output and conserve the workers. In Italy, indeed, the present standards are in some respects higher than before the war.

Besides the recent reestablishment of nightwork in factories, an other new form of work at night for women in this country is in the elevator service. Here is an occupation newly open to women throughout the land. They are operating elevators in department stores, hotels, and apartment houses, in large and small cities, from California and Utah to Texas and Maine. The work itself does not appear ill-adapted or injurious. The hours of duty, however, are often excessive and can not fail to be harmful. In New York City, for instance, girls are working in apartment houses 15 hours at a stretch; day and night work alternates each week, and when the shifts change the girls are on duty without relief from 6 p. m. to 12 o’clock noon, a continuous stretch of 18 hours. The girls are re quired to attend to the switchboard telephone as well as to run the elevator. Sunday work is required. One of the most serious abuses of this employment is the exposure of young girls to insult or danger on the all-night shift. In some instances no provision whatever is made for getting rest at night. In other cases an army cot is pro vided in a hall alcove. In another instance the young elevator attendant sought safety by running the elevator between the first and second landing to obtain sleep between summons.

Nightwork for women has been newly introduced also in connection with automobile cleaning. Women are being employed in New York City garages more than 12 hours each night — from 7 p. m. to 7.30 a. m. They clean from 30 to 35 cars during the night.

Another new occupation which exposes girls to moral dangers is the messenger service. In many cities girls are being increasingly employed to replace boys at this work, which should be closely watched. For the dangers involved in sending young boys to questionable houses or resorts has been so great that within the past few years legislation has been enacted in most of the States, raising the age limit of boys in the messenger service and prohibiting their employment after stated hours in the evening. It would indeed be a mockery if young girls were now employed at work which has been found unsafe for boys up to 21 years. To safeguard these young workers, legislation is needed so as to include the new occupations in the existing laws limiting hours of labor, etc. Other States might well follow the enlightened action of the State of Washington, where the employment of female minors in the messenger service has recently been prohibited by riding of the Industrial Welfare Commission. In some States, too, efforts are on foot to regulate by law the new employment of girls as bootblacks.


In regard to the general replacement of men by women workers, no single consideration is more important than the matter of wages. This is moreover, not a social or economic question alone. It is primarily a question of health and must be of the first importance to all those concerned with public health issue. It was Gen. Gorgas himself who put in a few trenchant words the close connection be tween wages and health. He ascribes to the results of increased wages of the common laborers the world-famous improvement in health at Panama, ” I am satisfied,” he said to a conference of health officers, “that to this improvement in social conditions caused by our high wages we principally owe our extraordinary improvement in general health conditions.”

Another medical opinion on the relation between wages and health has recently been well put in a study entitled, Occupation and Mortality: ‘” We believe,” say Drs. Wynne and Guilfoy, “that wages have a most important bearing upon the morbidity and mortality of any occupation, because, where real wages are high, the standard of living is correspondingly high, housing is better, food is more plentiful and more nourishing, and, in short, conditions are more favor able to physical and mental well-being, which results in greater resistance to disease, more recuperative power, and a healthier enjoyment of life, all of which stimulates the worker to preserve his health and makes him more alert to guard against accidents; whereas when wages are low, home conditions are of necessity unfavorable, and if, in addition, shop conditions are also bad, as they frequently are, the hazards of any occupation are increased manifold.”

The great danger, from the standpoint of health, is that the employment of women should be resorted to merely in order to obtain cheap labor. As a matter of public health we must see to it that women are paid equal wages for equal work. Otherwise their employment can be and is daily being made the excuse for undercutting the standard wage of men and so reducing the standards of living in the community. The reports of the Children’s Bureau and the Public Health Service have shown how infant mortality rises in direct proportion to fall in wage.

It is true that in many of the new occupations women are un skilled and need training. Yet even while they are being trained they should, as a matter of health, be paid an adequate wage. The standards adopted by the Executives’ Club of Detroit, to which reference has been made, recommend that, while learning, women shall be paid the flat day rate paid to men for the same work or operation.

There are many other pressing health problems in women’s new employment needing wise consideration, which can not even be enumerated here. Instances are beginning to multiply of the lack of decencies and sanitary provisions for women employed in railroad yards and roundhouses. The housing of women who must leave home is a pressing problem. The matter of clothing is highly important. Women obviously can not do men’s work in ill-adapted clothes, such as skirts which are usually too full or too tight for safety, and which are dust gathering in the dangerous trades, or in high-heeled shoes, more quickly inducing fatigue. Separate entrances should be pro vided for men and women especially in occupations involving heat and grime. The nutrition of the workers, and the provision of restaurants or lunch counters are matters of immense importance.


In summing up this brief survey of a large topic, emphasis should be laid upon three essential safeguards for girls and women entering upon men’s occupations: Equal wages, additional legislation, and adequate medical supervision. I am aware that in making a plea for this last requisite I am treading upon very difficult ground. The pressure for physicians for military and civilian needs is so great that a plea for new industrial supervision may appear ill-timed; Yet if any one truth has emerged from three years of warfare, it is the indispensable nature of our industrial contribution. To preserve that is a part of the nation’s self-preservation.

The methods to be used in obtaining adequate medical supervision are of primary importance, and in this connection the National Consumer’sLeague has engaged in a campaign for the establishment of industrial clinics.

Local conditions must determine whether these clinics should be under private, State, or Federal auspices. But the early diagnosis and treatment of workers suffering from industrial diseases by physicians who know industrial processes and conditions are the only means of more fully learning and controlling these diseases, hitherto little studied. The growing employment of women should be an added incentive to establishing industrial clinics, especially wherever large numbers of workers are engaged in dangerous processes. Where private means or enterprises are lacking, and where work on Government contracts is being done, it would seem peculiarly fitting for the Public Health Service to establish such clinics, and so lead the way in measures of enlightened prevention as well as care.



Source: Monthly Review of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp. 56-64.