In 1920, Old Glory boasted only 48 stars, the country was two years removed from the First World War and it was the year of the 19th Amendment — which allowed women to make their voices heard at the voting booth. In that same year, Congress passed a law establishing the first government institution in the United States dedicated solely to the economic prosperity and well-being of women in the workplace, the Women’s Bureau.
At the time, the public may have considered a Women’s Bureau or even women’s suffrage a radical idea, but decades of brave women entering public life had already permanently altered American culture. In just a decade, from 1910 to 1920, the number of women in the workforce increased from 5 million to 8 million. In an era when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — where 123 women and girls lost their lives — was still fresh in the American psyche, it was evident that women deserved and were entitled to representation.
With Mary Anderson as its first leader, the Women’s Bureau charged forward representing women in industry and labor. In its first decade, the Women’s Bureau performed 87 studies on women in the workforce, including 16 state studies on women working in textile mills. According to Women’s Bureau Bulletin No. 63, published in 1929, women were nearly three times as likely to miss work because of home duties as men were.
A century later, the Women’s Bureau continues to study and address the challenges facing women. Today, those challenges include:
- What is the long-term impact of a pandemic on women workers?
- How does access to child care affect women’s careers?
This Administration has made tremendous strides with paid leave, implementing both the First Step Act in December 2019, which provides up to 12 weeks of paid leave for many federal employees, and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides government-subsidized paid leave for many private- and public-sector workers during the pandemic. The Women’s Bureau is studying the impact of these policies on women in the workforce, as well as employer-designed paid leave programs, to see how they compare.
The Bureau is finalizing a National Database of Childcare Costs (NDCC), examining county-level costs across the United States plus demographic and economic data to assess how childcare prices are associated with county-level employment and earnings. Currently, only 11% of employers offer child care benefits, and many parents have a $3,000 per child tax exemption on child care, which is significantly less than the cost.
Additionally, the Women’s Bureau is overseeing a variety of projects and grant programs complementing top Administration priorities such as expanding apprenticeship and combating the opioid crisis. To support these initiatives, the Bureau administers the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) grants to increase the number of women participating in pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs and the Re-Employment, Support, and Training for the Opioid Related Epidemic (RESTORE) grants that help women affected by the opioid crisis to re-enter the workforce.
Although current public health measures will prevent us from celebrating the Women’s Bureau’s centennial with public ceremonies, we are continuing our work. As state governments reopen their economies, the Women’s Bureau will focus our studies on child care access and regulatory reforms that can help women return to the workforce. This work is just as important as ever.
To face the challenges ahead, we can draw inspiration from the tenacity and creativity of working women over the past century. With renewed determination, the Women’s Bureau is committed to supporting new and expanded opportunities for women, and ensuring they have what they need to succeed in the workplace.
Editor’s Note: The Women’s Bureau encourages you to share your story and celebrate this historic milestone with us.
Laurie Todd-Smith, Ph.D., is the Director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.
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