A Look at Working Women in the Early 20th Century

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, November 1995

The 20th century produced dramatic changes and opportunities for women. The events leading up to statehood brought to an official end at least the practice of polygamy, and the state constitution restored women’s right to vote and guaranteed other equal rights. Laws passed in 1911 and 1913 set maximum hours and minimum wages for working women. Technology dramatically altered women’s lives, especially in urban areas. Electric service, indoor plumbing, central heating, and the small power motor revolutionized homemaking. The growth of commercial laundries and expanding factory production of clothing, processed foods, and other household items relieved women of many tasks and created hundreds of jobs for them outside the home. Manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade, banking, and services grew rapidly in the early 20th century. The success of many of these ventures depended on women.

During these years Ogden, for example, became a center for the canning industry, and by 1914 Utah ranked fifth among the states in canning. World War I stimulated growth of this industry as 22 Ogden canneries secured government contracts. This industry relied on female workers; many were young and unmarried, but the seasonal nature of canning also attracted married women. The Utah Manufacturers Association (UMA) called canning “light work that could be done as well by women and children as by men.” Tomatoes topped the list of canned items. Jets of hot steam followed by a cold spray loosened the skins, enabling women and girls to peel 14 to 16 bushels a day.

Textile mills and clothing factories are traditional employers of women. Utah-made underwear and work clothes found a large market, especially in mining towns. The ZCMI clothing factory, which shipped overalls and other heavy cotton wear throughout the West and into Canada and Mexico, was managed by Annie Bywater, probably the most important woman in Utah manufacturing. Trained in the industrial center of Manchester, England, she was associated with ZCMI for many years and was described as “a remarkably shrewd woman, with exceptional executive ability.” She supervised a production line of 100 power-driven sewing machines, bought all the material, and personally directed the filling of wholesale orders. Whether Bywater received pay comparable to male manufacturing executives is not known, but most female factory workers did not. The UMA reported in 1915 that Utah’s 13 knitting factories employed nearly 300 workers—mostly women who earned an average of $9 for a six-day week while men earned an average of $17 a week.

By 1920 the variety of products women were making in Utah factories included chemicals, soap, cigars, crackers and other baked goods, and candy. Women also continued to be an important factor in the printing and publishing business in Utah where one in every seven workers was a woman in 1920. Women began working as typesetters as early as the 1880s when the Salt Lake Herald hired Sadie Asper. Asper and a Mrs. Sylvester served along with men as officers in the Salt Lake Typographical Union. Many women found employment in communications, retail stores, offices, and hotels in fast-growing cities and towns throughout the state. From the beginning women had predominated as telephone operators but few advanced beyond the lowest supervisory positions. Women also staffed retail stores all over the state and owned and managed many of them. They dominated the teaching and health care professions as well. Low salaries and the failure of school boards to provide equal pay for female and male teachers, as required by state law, led many women to leave classrooms for the greater financial rewards of office employment. Office workers were usually young, single white women who liked their jobs because they were “cleaner and less strenuous than factory work, and socially much more acceptable.”

Many women fought for better working conditions. In April 1911 some 2,000 people paraded in Salt Lake in support of the laundry workers’ drive to unionize. Many women laundry workers went out on strike. The Crystal Laundry finally signed a closed-shop agreement with the union. Other women had a more difficult time unionizing. When female workers at the McDonald Candy Company petitioned for higher wages, the company denied their request. The women walked off the job and organized the Chocolate Dippers Union of Utah with Sarah Rindfleish as president and asked for a flat $10 a week for eight-hour work days. While they were organizing, however, girls ages 12 to 15 who were helpers at the factory replaced the striking women.

As the new state developed and grew, working women filled important roles in many businesses, industries, and professions, but society would continue to underestimate and undervalue their contributions for many decades to come.

See Miriam B. Murphy, “Women in the Utah Work Force from Statehood to World War II,” Utah Historical Quarterly 50 (1982).