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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

Volume 49 Women in the Industrial Work Force in West Virginia, 1880-1945

By Frances S. Hensley

Volume 49 (1990), pp. 115-24

When West Virginia became a state in 1863, 90 percent of its inhabitants were engaged in agriculture.1 Although agriculture remained a dominant economic enterprise well into the twentieth century, the late nineteenth century witnessed the development of an important industrial base in the state, which became part of the industrial revolution that swept the nation and demanded the state's abundant natural resources. Improvements in transportation, especially the growth of railroads, opened West Virginia to national markets and led to new industries and employment opportunities in the state.2

As thousands of male workers benefited from the initial industrial expansion, women's employment opportunities increased very little. Early industrial development in West Virginia provided jobs in coal mines, coke plants, steel mills, machine shops, construction, and lumber mills, industries which did not, as a rule, employ women. The concentration of employment in these extractive and mechanical industries became a dominant feature of West Virginia's industrial structure and imposed long-term restrictions on employment opportunities for women.

In 1880 the total state female population over the age of ten was 210,937, of which only 11,508 or 5.4 percent were gainfully employed. The largest source of employment for women was domestic and personal service. Only 1,448 women were employed in the manufacturing, mechanical and mining industries which employed 24,840 men. However a mere 346 females over the age of fifteen were employed in the state's 2,375 manufacturing establishments, compared to 12,900 men. The employment possibilities for women in manufacturing were actually even more limited because 196 of the 346 women were located in Ohio County and, coincidentally, the same number were confined to two industries, woolen goods and glassware.3

By 1890 the number of women workers doubled, increasing to 21,707 or 8.1 percent of the female population over the age of ten; manufacturing and mechanical jobs now accounted for 3,455, nearly half of whom were found in the state's 2,376 manufacturing establishments. The vast majority of these industrial workers were white, single, and between the ages of ten and twenty-four.4 West Virginia, with almost 16 percent, lagged far behind the national average of 26 percent in the total number of women workers engaged in manufacturing and mechanical industries. However, the percentage of women employed in these areas was higher than the percentage of total male employment within the mechanical and manufacturing industries (13.56 percent). Industrial work clearly did not occupy large numbers of West Virginia working women, but these types of jobs were second to domestic and personal service (55.27 percent) as a source of employment for West Virginia women.5

West Virginia Department of Labor reports in the 1890s reveal that women were clustered in certain industries, generally representing a transfer of traditional "women's work," such as sewing, weaving and canning from the home to the factory. Women employees outnumbered men in many of these factories. The following table demonstrates this conclusion.

In addition, significant numbers of women were employed in the growing glass and dinnerware industries located in Wheeling and Moundsville.

Essentially, the typical woman industrial worker in West Virginia by the end of the nineteenth century was single, young, and white and worked in the glass, pottery, tobacco, food, apparel or textile industries concentrated in the northern part of the state. This description did not change dramatically in the early decades of the twentieth century, although the actual numbers of employed women, and the numbers in manufacturing and mechanical pursuits, continued to increase. In 1900, 31,161 women over the age of ten were in the labor force with over five thousand engaged in manufacturing and mechanical industries and fifty-one in mining and quarrying.6 Of the 5,068 industrial workers, single women accounted for 3,806. The largest numbers were between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four (2,236) with the second largest group between sixteen and twenty-four (1,983). All but 99 were white.7 Traditional "women's work" was reflected in the various types of industrial manufacturers employing women by 1900. The majority of these were dressmakers, seamstresses, milliners, hosiery and knitting mill operatives, tobacco and cigar factory operatives, pottery workers and glassworkers. The occupations of black women paralleled those of white women, with almost half engaged as seamstresses, one-third as dressmakers, and the remainder scattered over other occupations.8

The actual numbers of women employed in mining, manufacturing and mechanical industries were far less than men, as were the average annual earnings. Only two of the state's ten leading industries in 1900 had appreciable numbers of female employees: the seventh-ranked glass industry and the tenth-ranked pottery industry. Iron and steel, lumber and timber; coke, railroad shops and car construction, and foundry and machine shops continued as male enclaves.9 In all, these state industries employed 41,218 men, 14 percent of total male employment. In addition, mining and quarrying, which by 1900 employed 21,427 men, or accounted for 7.3 percent of all male workers, was an industry practically off-limits to women. In fact, an 1887 state law prohibited the employment of women in coal mines.10

The absence of women from the higher paying, leading industries, explains the wage gap between male and female industrial workers. The average 1900 annual earnings of men in manufacturing was $418.30 and for women $201.82. Both figures were below the national average of $490.90 and $273.03, respectively.11

In West Virginia, the employment percentage of men and women in manufacturing and mechanical pursuits was well below the national average.12 The growth of manufacturing in the state during the first decade of the twentieth century heralded increased opportunities for men but not for women. The West Virginia Bureau of Labor report issued in 1902 proclaimed the creation of 15,450 new jobs for men in the coal and coke, foundry and machinery, glass, iron and steel, lumber oil and gas, and transportation industries. At the same time, only 169 new jobs opened to women, mostly in the glass industry.13 While the percentage was higher the actual number of employed women was far below those of men. Only 489 of the 9,906 new jobs in 1908-09 were filled by women.14

Significantly, the low employment rate for women did not result from a lack of women seeking employment. From 1902 to 1910, the West Virginia Employment Bureau recorded a total of five thousand job inquiries by women.15 The low percentage of West Virginia women in the total work force and, specifically, in manufacturing and mechanical industries, was affected directly by the location of women in relation to industry. In 1910, the overwhelming majority of women, both black and white, lived in rural areas of the state while the majority of industries employing women were in urban areas.16 They were primarily young and single, and it is perhaps not surprising that they did not relocate to the cities or industrial towns when the low wages for females in industrial employment would have made survival difficult.

Women industrial workers in the state were also without the protections of labor legislation enacted in varying degrees nationally during the early twentieth century. Reforms associated with the Progressive Era generally addressed the types of employment in which women could engage, the number of hours per day or per week they could work, their employment at night, and the wages for which they labored.17 Although successive state commissioners of labor advocated the passage of protective labor legislation for women, few acts were passed.18 Exceptions to this trend were three protective measures passed by the 1901 legislature. One prohibited women from cleaning moving machinery. Another required seats for women if their duties did not require them to stand. The third law required suitable and separate washrooms and toilets for women employees.19 The lack of protective legislation for women in West Virginia reflected the low participation rate of women in the work force and the dismal share of industrial jobs held by women.

Women's industrial employment in West Virginia received no momentum from the social and economic changes induced by World War 1. Although the number of female workers continued the prewar trend of a slow, steady increase, the prewar distribution pattern experienced only slight changes. In 1919, 10.1 percent or 8,352 women were employed in manufacturing, an increase from 8.3 percent or 5,879 in 1914. Concentration remained in the clothing, textile, glass and pottery, and tobacco industries. The largest numbers were dressmakers and seamstresses (non-factory) and milliners. The majority (7,402) were single, widowed or divorced; married women in industry continued to be scarce.20

Women achieved slight gains in certain male-dominated industries during the war that influenced trends in the postwar period. For example, no woman was employed in the fledgling chemical and allied products industry in 1914, but five years later women accounted for 1.3 percent of the wage earners. During the same period, the female share of the slaughtering and meat-packing industry rose from 3.3 percent to 7.8 percent; in the glass industry from 8.7 percent to 12.8 percent; and in the iron and steel industry from 0.2 percent to 1.2 percent. In addition, 275 women were employed in the mining industry by 1920, the highest number to date.21

Despite these meager changes during the war, West Virginia women workers did not usually compete with men for jobs in the early twentieth century. By 1920, when the female population over the age of ten years had reached 512,778, the number of employed women rose to 57,439 or 11.2 percent. Manufacturing and mechanical industries employed nine thousand women over the age of ten, representing 15.7 percent of total female employment, but only 7.7 percent of total manufacturing and mechanical employment.22 Most worked in plants employing fewer than fifty women. Several clothing plants and cigar companies employed more women than men, such as the Charleston Manufacturing Company, Blue Jay Manufacturing and Washington Manufacturing in Huntington, Interwoven Mills in Martinsburg, Joseph Klees Sons in Moundsville, National Woolen Mills or United Woolen Mills in Parkersburg, H.G. Barrick in Pennsboro and the Dixie Cigar Company in Huntington. Significant numbers, although by no means a majority, were employed in china and glass factories in Chester, Clarksburg, Grafton, Huntington, Newell and Wheeling.23

The number of women industrial workers increased from 13,911, or 13 percent of the female work force in 1926 to 19,072, or 18 percent in 1929.24 The distribution of these workers indicates that opportunities for employment were no longer confined to the northern part of the state. Berkeley, Cabell, Hancock, Kanawha, Ohio and Wood counties accounted for over two -thirds of these workers. In Berkeley, Cabell and Wood counties women constituted a significant share of the total industrial work force in 1928, representing 43 percent, 30 percent, and 20 percent respectively, all above the state average of 15.5 percent.25

The greatest opportunities for women continued to be in the clothing, textile, glass and china industries. Unfortunately, the clothing industry had the second lowest average annual wage: $758.26 While the iron and steel industry became the fourth largest source of industrial employment for women by the mid-1920s, women were only a fraction of the total.27

At decade's end, women's industrial employment increasingly was segregated into certain industries while their numbers grew. However, a comparison of the 1920 and 1930 census reveals the emergence of more subtle changes. Total female employment as dressmakers and seamstresses (non-factory), as well as tobacco and millinery work, gradually declined. Simultaneously, the chemical and allied products industry, the stone, clay and glass industries, metal products, and the clothing and textile industries experienced growth, demonstrating that factory production, especially in the latter, increased at the expense of traditional home or shop piecework production.28 Women's employment increased significantly in the chemical and glass industries, representing new or improved opportunities in these male- dominated industries. This was especially true for white women; black women continued to find almost no opportunity in these or any other manufacturing or mechanical concerns.29

With the onset of the Depression, women industrial workers in West Virginia found themselves in a paradoxical position. While many were protected from massive unemployment during this period, their concentration in certain industries kept them in the lowest wage classification.30 A Women's Bureau study in the mid-1930s of menswear factories in twenty-one states supports this conclusion. Five establishments in West Virginia, employing a total of 698 women, were included in this study. The employees of these factories had the lowest weekly and hourly wages of the twenty-one states. In the five West Virginia factories, no woman made over forty-five cents an hour. West Virginia was one of only two states in the study with no laws limiting the number of hours per week that women could work. Fifty-five percent of the women worked forty hours and more per week and twenty-six percent worked forty-eight hours and over.31

A 1937 survey of women's factory employment in West Virginia provides a variation on the hours and wages dilemma. Of the 12,544 women employed in the seventy-nine factories of the study, 70 percent worked forty hours or less a week with median weekly earnings of $12.70. While the average hourly earnings were 34.5 cents, some 20 percent earned between five and ten dollars weekly. Given the fact that one-half of the women employed in manufacturing were single and another 14 percent were widowed or divorced, the low wages in factory employment significantly affected the well-being of women and their dependents.32 One Huntington woman, who supported her mother and brother, went to work for a glass company in 1931 for twenty-five cents an hour. Years later she wrote an epitaph for this period that surely represented the situation of many West Virginia women: "This was during the worst of the depression years and about all of us had to work or starve."33

By the end of the 1930s, the uncertain ties of the Depression years were supplanted by the employment boom of World War II. Nationwide, six and one-half million women were added to the civilian work force to fill a gap created by expanding production and a shrinking male work force due to war recruitment. In West Virginia, the demands of the wartime economy accelerated the trends that had been underway for decades. Many changes could be detected as early as 1940 when 94,689 women or 13.8 percent of the state's female population over the age of fourteen were employed. With an additional 5,683 engaged in public emergency work such as the Works Progress Administration, there was an increase of almost 13,000 over the 1930 female employment figure.34

Manufacturing was still a male-dominated enterprise in 1940, employing 77,479 men, 84.6 percent of the manufacturing total. The women who obtained employment in the industrial sector were almost all white.35 Although many were still employed as dressmakers and seamstresses (non-factory) or in apparel, textile and tobacco plants, larger numbers than ever before were invading male enclaves. For example, the number of women employed by coal mines reached 544. While this number was miniscule compared to the 112,773 men in coal mining, it was nonetheless a record high. The chemical and allied products industry employed 2,063 women in 1940, which was double the number in 1930, and became the second largest manufacturing employer of women. The iron and steel industry, which employed 355 females in 1930, had 1,643 women workers by 1940. For the first time the number of women employed in the iron and steel industry exceeded the number employed in the textile industry. The stone, clay and glass industry, which always offered some opportunities for women, now had a work force that was 20.3 percent female.36

A 1943 Women's Bureau study of women's employment in the steel industry documents that women did not necessarily assume jobs traditionally assigned to men. The study included seven West Virginia steel plants which employed 3,312 women or 15.4 percent of the total steel work force. Approximately 40 percent worked in the rolling mills, but most were assigned to housekeeping and other "helper" duties. The majority were employed on general labor gangs or in auxiliary jobs. The highest paying jobs of charging, tending or tapping the blast furnace remained male occupations. The report concluded that "the more closely a job is associated with the handling of basic raw materials, the less suitable the job is deemed to be for women."37

Despite the greater opportunities women experienced in some of the state's higher-paying industries, the concentration of the majority of women workers in the low-wage "women's work" industries accounted for the continued wage gap between males and females. In 1939, 26 percent earned less than $100 annually, compared to 22 percent of the men. In fact, up to $800 annually, the number of women exceeded the number of men on the salary scale. Above that figure, men outnumbered women, often by considerable margins.38

The low wages of women industrial workers greatly concerned Charles Sattler, West Virginia Commissioner of Labor. In the Department of Labor report for 1941-42, Sattler appealed for a law establishing a minimum wage for women employed in intrastate industry. He wrote of receiving "pitiful letters that complain of long hours and low wages, ranging from $6.00 to $10.00 per week for ten, twelve and sixteen hours per day, seven days a week." The dilemma posed by this situation, according to Sattler's correspondents, was, "'how can a girl be expected to keep straight on these low wages?"' The commissioner was "convinced that the great majority of girls and women leading a life of prostitution have not done so by choice, but are driven into it by dire necessity and to subsist."39

Although one postwar observer claimed that West Virginia women entered the work force during World War II for "patriotic reasons,"40 the increase in women's employment was a response to increased job opportunities, as well as a continuation of a long-term trend of slow but steady growth. The experiences of Gayle Miller of Glen Dale are representative of the many women who went to work outside the home during the war. For the first time, married women outnumbered single women as factory operatives in West Virginia.41 Miller was in her early thirties when she went to work in 1944. Her husband was a coal miner who "didn't work too steady... they just work a day or two a week," she recalled. Miller remembered listening to the radio in 1944 and hearing, "Women, are you doing your share for the war? Are you helping replace the soldier that went overseas?" Because Miller was feeling that she had to go to work or "lose my mind," she went the next morning to a labor recruiting booth in Moundsville. She started work that same evening making shells at a factory in McMechen for twenty-five cents an hour.42 The war provided Miller an opportunity to enter the paid work force and when the war was over she went to work at Marx Toy Factory where she remained for over thirty years.

From 1900 to 1950, women's percentage of the state labor force grew by 360.3 percent, but they represented only 20.9 percent of the West Virginia labor force, well below the national average of 27.9 percent.43 In industrial employment white women increased their numbers and share of total employment by the end of World War II. Still, the state's major industries, as they had for seventy years, continued to be male-dominated. Initially concentrated in a few counties and a few "women's work" industries, women entering the industrial work force were young and single. By the end of World War II, they were just as likely to be married and middle- aged and to work in a wider range of industries and geographic area. However, the changes of the postwar years eroded the relative importance of industrial work for both men and women as white-collar employment grew and basic industries such as coal, iron and steel declined.44 The possibility that women would reach parity with men in industry or that industrial employment would become a leading enterprise for women workers seemed remote indeed.


Frances S. Hensley is Associate Professor of history at Marshall University where she teaches several women's history courses. She earned the Ph.D. degree from Ohio State University.


1. Otis Rice, West Virginia: A History (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1985), 183.

2. West Virginia Bureau of Labor, Report of the Commissioner of Labor, 1897-1898 (Charleston: William E. Forsyth, Public Printer, 1898), 116.

3. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Compendium of the Tenth Census, 1880, Part 2, Manufactures (Washington: GPO, 1883), 1026-27, 1356-57.

4. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Eleventh Census of the United States, 1890, Part II, Population (Washington: GPO, 1895): 622-23; Ibid., Compendium, Part III, Population, 432-39,480-85.

5. Eleventh Census, 1890, Compendium, 379.

6. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Special Reports: Occupations at the Twelfth Census (Washington: GPO, 1904), lxxx, c-ci.

7. Ibid., 414-15.

8. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, vol. VIII, Manufactures, part II, States and Territories (Washington: GPO, 1902), 948-49.

9. Special Reports: Occupations, 1900, 941.

10. Ibid.; Florence P. Smith, "Chronological Development of Labor Legislation for Women in the United States," in United States Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Bulletin 66-11, 1932, 152.

11. Twelfth Census, 1900, vol. VII, Manufactures, part I, cxv.

12. Special Reports: Occupations, 1900, cii-ciii.

13. West Virginia Bureau of Labor, Seventh Biennial Report, 1901-1902 (Charleston, 1902), 39-62.

14.West Virginia Bureau of Labor, Tenth Biennial Report, 1909-1910 (Charleston, 1910), 15-55 and 65-90; "The Effects of Labor Legislation on the Employment Opportunities of Women," in United States Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Bulletin 65, 1928, 358-60.

15. Bureau of Labor, Tenth Biennial Report, 1909-10, 95.

16. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920, vol. III, Population (Washington: GPO, 1922), 1100.

17. For a general discussion of protective legislation, see Susan Lehrer, Origins of Protective Legislation for Women, 1905-1925 (New York; State Univ. of New York Press, 1987).

18. See the following Bureau of Labor reports: Seventh Biennial Report, l901-02, 141; Fifteenth Biennial Report, 1919-1920 (Charleston, 1920), l3; and Eighteenth Biennial Report, 1925-1926 (Charleston, 1926), 19.

19. Smith, "Chronological Development of Labor Legislation," 152; Acts of the Legislature of West Virginia, 1901, chapter 19, Sections 1,3,4.

20. Census Bureau, Abstract of the Fourteenth Census, 1920, 1588; Fourteenth Census, 1920, vol. IV, Population: Occupations, 110-19, 796.

21. Fourteenth Census, 1920, vol. IX, Manufactures, 1919, 1589;Fourteenth Census, vol. IV, Population: Occupations, 111.

22. Fourteenth Census, 1920, vol. IV, Population: Occupations, 47, 51, 54-55, 110-19.

23. Bureau of Labor, Fifteenth Biennial Report, 1919-20, 16-39.

24. West Virginia Bureau of Labor, Twentieth Biennial Report, 1929-1930 (Charleston, 1930), 8.

25. Bureau of Labor, Eighteenth Biennial Report, 1925-26, 9; West Virginia Bureau of Labor, Directory of West Virginia Industries (Charleston, 1928), 3.

26. Bureau of Labor, Eighteenth Biennial Report, 1925-26, 25.

27. Ibid., 9, 11, 25.

28. Fourteenth Census, 1920, vol. IV, Population: Occupations, 110-19, 796; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, vol. IV, Population: Occupations by States (Washington: GPO, 1933), 1732-33.

29. Fifteenth Census, 1930, vol. IV, Population: Occupations, 1743.

30. Ibid., 1731.

31. Arthur T. Sutherland, "Hours and Earnings in Certain Men's Wear Industries: Work Clothing, Work Shirts, Dress Shirts," in United States Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Bulletin 163-I, 1938, 4, 9-11.

32. Harriet Byrne, "Women's Employment in West Virginia," in United States Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Bulletin 150, 1937, 1-3.

33. Opal Mann, unpub. mss. in author's possession, n.d., n.p.

34. These figures are not directly comparable because the 1930 Census is calculated for females 10 years and over. Fifteenth Census, 1930, vol. IV, Population: Occupations, 1731; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, vol. II, Characteristics of the Population, Part 7, Utah-Wyoming (Washington: GPO, 1942), 462.

35. Sixteenth Census, 1940, vol. II, Population, Part 7,466-67. Of the 14,103 women employed in manufacturing, all but 27 were white.

36. Ibid., 466-68; Sixteenth Census, 1940, vol. III, Population: The Labor Force, 942.

37. Ethel Erickson, "Women's Employment in the Making of Steel," in United States Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Bulletin 195-2, 1944, 4, 7, 11, 19.

38. Sixteenth Census, 1940, vol. III, Population: The Labor Force, 935.

39. West Virginia Department of Labor, Twenty-Sixth Biennial Report, 1941-1942 (Charleston, 1943), 95.

40. Edwin W. Hanczaryk, The Labor Force m West Virginia: A Study of its Growth ami Characteristics, in West Virginia University Business and Economic Studies, vol. 3, no. 4 (Morgantown: West Virginia Univ. Bureau of Business Research, 1954), 31.

41. Sixteenth Census, 1940, vol. III, Population: The Labor Force, 933.

42. Gayle Miller, interview with author and Barbara Matz, 11 July 1984, Oral History Collection, James E. Morrow Library, Marshall University, Huntington, WV.

43. Hanczaryk, The Labor Force in West Virginia, 6, 7, 32.

44. Ibid.; Nancy Matthews, ed., "West Virginia Women in Perspective, 1970-1985" (Charleston: West Virginia Women's Commission, 1985), 14, 44.

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