The women of Hamilton have always worked. While most worked at home doing unpaid domestic tasks, many also worked outside the home. The following photo essay will give you a sense of the nature of women's work and how it was affected by major events such as World War II and the spread of the factory system in Hamilton.


In Hamilton, as in other North American communities, women have traditionally done the majority of home, or domestic labour. It was women who did the cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping and caring for children. Much of this work was hard and conditions only improved marginally as new household appliances such as the washing machine were adopted. Because domestic work was not paid, women either depended on someone else in the household to earn money, or took a second job as a paid worker.


Women took jobs as paid workers for may reasons. Paid work outside the home could be a means of improving a woman's quality of life, providing a network of social contacts and giving her a degree of independence. But for many working class families women worked for a more fundamental reason; the money was needed to reach a minimum standard of living for the household. Young unmarried daughters of working class families often worked to supplement household income. Other women found themselves seeking paid work when the man of the house had been laid off, was unable to work because of an injury, or had abandoned the family. Work outside the home did not mean that women's duties at home were lightened. Most employed women worked what is referred to as the double day, working for a wage in the labour market and then coming home to to do the household chores.


Unlike men, women tended to work in a narrow range of occupations outside the home. They found employment in occupations which were viewed as requiring maternal values, patience and sensitivity. They got the jobs men did not want, task which were viewed as below the dignity of men. Not surprising, these jobs paid low wages, often 40% less than a man with similar kills might earn. Bell telephone was a major employer of women in the late nineteenth century and the location of a celebrated strike by women trying to improve working conditions in 1907. Working switchboard was viewed as the perfect occupation for women who would be patient and sensitive to customer needs. Women also found employment in the clerical field, as domestic servants, and as teachers.


Women also found work in factory settings especially in communities like Hamilton. The food processing firms such as McLaren's were booming in the early 1900's and employed many women. Women assembled radios at Westinghouse, spun yarn at the Canadian Cottons plants, and produced garments at firms such as the Mercury Mills. Many of these jobs required women to tend machines. For many, working conditions were inadequate and degrading. At Westinghouse male supervisor constantly monitored the activities of women at work. In the textile industries the air was full of fibres which led to respiratory diseases and brown lung. Tobacco manufacturing companies such as Tucketts provided poor ventilation and the smell and heat could be overpowering.


In cities such as Hamilton, the majority of women earning a wage outside the home prior to World War I were young and unmarried. Their unmarried status did not mean they escaped the double day or household duties. It was common practice for daughters to begin helping their mothers with chores and looking after younger siblings at an early age. When the girls were old enough to earn a wage they would go to work and then come home and help their mothers in the evening. Much of the money earned was given to their parents. In occupations such as teaching, women were expected to quit working upon marriage. While single women represented 80% of the working women in 1930s, more and more married women entered the workforce so that by the 1970s single women represented barely one-third of all women workers.


World War II marked an important shift in the kinds of paid work open to women. The shortage of labour forced employers to hire women for variety of heavy industrial jobs not available for women before the war. Many were allowed to learn skills which had previously been reserved for men. National Steel Car began training women welders in 1941. STELCO, Westinghouse and Massey all took on more women in trades which had previously been closed to women.


The wartime demand for women workers focussed attention of the existing relationship between work and family and the contradictions of the double day. Many women found it difficult to abandon their responsibilities in the home to work in the factories. To ease the the labour shortage, the government provided subsidized day cares and home assistance. Trained staff supervised the nurseries and the children received quality care. Three such nurseries operated in Hamilton during the war.


For many women, the wartime opportunity to earn a decent wage outside the home was a welcome period of independence and a break from the confines of housework. However, their involvement in the jobs traditionally filled by men was brief. When the war ended, the men came home and reclaimed their jobs. The government shut down the subsidized nurseries an many women went back to the home. This did not spell the end of women working outside the home. New technology and the emergence the consumer society eased some of the burdens of household chores, while the growing demand for labour after World War II created opportunities for women outside the home. This trend accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s as shown in the table below.

Labour Force Participation Rates of Women by Age, for Selected Year, 1921-86 (%)

  *14\15-19 20-24 25-34 35-64 65+
1921 30 40 20 12 7
1961 32 51 29 30 6
1986 50 81 74 59 4



As the number of women in the work force increased in the post-war years new types of employment opened up. Manufacturing became less important as a source of employment while traditional female occupations like teaching and nursing remained important. It was the service sector including commerce, finance, sales, waitressing, and communication that emerged as new sectors employing women. Also important was the public sector which grew rapidly after World War II.

Women as Percentage of All Workers in Major Occupational Groups in Canada, 1901-1971

Occupational Group 1901 1941 1971
Personal Service 71.7 72.8 60.1
Clerical 22.1 50.1 72.1
Professional 42.5 46.1 41.1
Commercial and Financial 10.4 29.4 38.9
Manufacturing and Mechanical 24.8 19.0 23.1
Proprietary and Managerial 3.6 7.2 13.4
Transportation and Communication 1.4 5.3 15.2
All Occupations 13.3 19.9 33.3


Women workers were rarely welcome into the male dominated unions which formed in Hamilton during the last years of the nineteenth century. Their exclusion related to the nature of unions and the jobs women filled. Unions were largely organizations for skilled craftsmen, who based their bargaining powers on the fact that employers could not easily replace them. Women tended to find work in less killed occupations where bargaining leverage was less and where unions had difficulty improving conditions.

Women were also hampered by the dominant social attitudes which led many men and married women to believe that the woman's place was taking care of their family in the home. Middle-class married women found it hard to sympathize with single working women. However, as more married women joined the workforce after World War II, the support for women's demands for better working conditions and pay increased.

While these barriers reduced the number of women involved in unions, it did not stop unionism altogether. Women shoe makers were active in organizations such as the Knights of Labour, and in 1913 1,500 female textile workers joined the United Garment Workers of America. They struck for higher wages and won a small increase but the union dissolved with the year. In 1918, the Hamilton Trades and Labour Council welcomed its first female delegate, Sadie Walker from the Retail Clerks' Union. A number of unions began accepting women into membership after World War I and soon women were organizing their own labour groups. The granting of the vote to women in 1917 led to their forming the Women's Educational Federation of Ontario were groups that championed for better social and educational conditions for women. Unions dominated by men had already made the eight hour day and better wages bargaining issues. These women's groups encouraged the labour movement to add issues such as maternity leave, health care during pregnancy, and improved access to health education.


The women of Hamilton have found work in the city's homes and in its steel mills. Many have worked a double day putting in long unpaid hours at home and long paid hours in workplaces where, even by today's standards, conditions were harsh. Like men, women sought better conditions, but they were hampered by the structure of unions designed to serve the interests of men and by the social attitudes of employers and other male workers which legitimated treating women differently. While most of the early attempts by women to improve conditions had little short run effect, it was through their struggles that conditions gradually improved, creating the foundation for the respect and greater equality women enjoy today.


Dorothy Sue Cobble, Dishing it Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century, (Urabana, University of Illinois Press, 1991).

J. Sangster, "The 1907 Bell Telephone Strike", (Lbour/Le Travail 3, 1978).

Ruth Roach Pierson, "They're Still Women After All: Wartime Jitters over Feminity", Reprinted in Ian McKay, The Challenge of Modernity, (Toronto, 1992), pp.407-20.

H.J. Maroney, "Feminism at Work", in Bryan D. Palmer, (ed.), The Character of Class Struggle, (Toronto, 1986), pp. 160-75

J.Parr, The Gender of Breadwinners: Women, Men and Change in Two Industrial Towns, 1880-1950, (Toronto, 1990).

Pamela Sugiman, Labour's Dilemma: The Gender Politics of Auto Workers in Canada, 1937-1979 (Toronto, Unibersity of Toronto Press, 1994).

Bettina Bradbury, "Pgs, Cows, and Boarders: Non Wage Forms of Survival among Montreal Familes, 1861-91", (Labour/Le Travail, vo. 14, 1984), pp9-46. Reprinted in McKay, Challenge of Modernity, pp. 65-91.

Bettina Bradbury, "Women and Wage Labour in a Periodd of Transition: Montreal, 1861-1881," (Histoire Sociale/Social History, volume XVII, 1984), pp. 115-31.

P. Bourne (ed.), Women's Paid and Unpaid Work: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, (Toronto, New Hogtown, 1985).