U.S. Employment Service Orders Women into New Jobs

Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

[Some of the following information or wording was taken directly from the following sources: "Does He Get a Job?," Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I online exhibit, U.S. Library of Congress; and "Employment Services: A Brief History," VCU Libraries Social Welfare History Project website, Virginia Commonwealth University]


In January 1918, a branch of the federal government established in 1907 primarily to coordinate and study the influx of immigrant labor was reassigned to operate under the U.S. Department of Labor as the United States Employment Service. After serving their country, returning soldiers needed to be reintegrated into the workforce. The wartime employment service aimed both to assist returning soldiers and to place workers in new jobs created by the war effort. However, prior to the return of U.S. service individuals from the war, the Employment Service’s first big mission was finding ways to infuse women into industry and business in America.


The Employment Service had the responsibility of filling jobs vacated by men leaving for military service during World War I. Although women were filling thousands of jobs around the country and North Carolina in 1918, there were still men attempting to remain out of fighting in the war, and trying to hold their jobs under the definitions of what types of jobs were deemed “essential” jobs during wartime. The federal government’s view was that as many men as possible were needed for military service, and—as women were already entering the workforce in droves—women could fill jobs that the government would reclassify as “non-essential” for the war effort specifically--or jobs that did not impact production for wartime materials or services, in essence.


The U.S. Employment Service made lists of non-essential positions that were held by men that could equally well filled by women. The Employment Service requested that women volunteer for these jobs, registering for available positions and listing which positions they would like to work in. The following two pages contain the history of the Employment Service’s notification of this effort to the North Carolina Council of Defense, taken by the Council of Defense’s unpublished three-volume history by Council member and WWI soldier Joseph Hyde Pratt.


The Employment Service requested the assistance of the Woman’s Committees of the various state Councils of Defense to help promote the effort, and assist in the registration of these non-essential job volunteers. In a telegram by the National Council of Defense to the state councils, they explained that this effort was being conducted because “The result will be that men failing or refusing to get out of such positions of their own accord and take up essential work will be looked upon as slackers.” The term slacker was one of the terms applied by federal draft registration regulations to those slow to respond to the call to register for military service, enlist in military service, or appear before draft boards when called.


Men were also expected to leave non-essential jobs for essential jobs required for the war effort, if these men were not to go into military service. The phrasing used here in essence contributed to the cultural concept that to not get out of non-essential jobs and serve in the military meant that you as a man were, in effect, being a woman—as women were seen to be capable of replacing the men's work positions. To be a man in wartime America meant military service if you were of age, by and large.


Whatever the period definitions or gender identities applied to jobs during the early 20th century, this proclamation by the U.S. Employment Service opened a new era for the liberation of women in the public sphere. It also opened up new jobs and new educational opportunities for women.


You can read more about the roles of women in North Carolina in WWI in the History of the North Carolina Council of Defense online in the digital WWI Collection of the North Carolina Digital Collections, a joint effort of the State Library of North Carolina and the State Archives of North Carolina.