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The energy industry and beyond: Women’s contributions to the workforce throughout history

March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements and contributions of women throughout history. One area where women have made significant strides is in the labor force. Let’s look at how women have shaped the labor movement and the work environment we know today. 

Women have always been an essential part of the workforce, though historically much of that work was unpaid or underpaid and exploitative. In the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, paying jobs that were acceptable for women were limited to things like creating and selling woven fabrics and handicrafts. In the same period, enslaved women’s labor, including the forced reproduction of the enslaved workforce, was the very foundation of the U.S. economy.  

In the 20th century, women continued to face many barriers in the labor force including unequal pay and inaccessible leadership opportunities. Discriminatory practices and laws, as well as social stigmas, prevented women from accessing certain jobs and entire industries.  

During World War I and II, millions of women entered the workforce in ammunition factories, power plants and other essential wartime industries. Many women wished to stay in their industrial jobs but were pushed out by men as they returned from war, forcing them to move to other sectors.  

The labor movement played a crucial role in advancing the rights of women in the workforce throughout history. Early 20th century labor activists, like Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, stood alongside coal miners and mill girls in their fight for safer workplaces and higher pay.  

Activists fought for and expanded opportunities for working women throughout the 1900s. Initially, most women anticipated short careers, often seen as secondary earners to their spouses. Attitudes shifted as more women pursued higher education, expecting to work regardless of marital or family plans.  

By the 1970s, workplace protections, often fought for by labor unions, helped grow the women’s labor force. More women entered what were then considered nontraditional fields, narrowing representation and gender pay gaps significantly by the early 1990s.  

Today, trade unions are in a unique position in the fight to remove gender and racial pay gaps in several industries including renewable energy. Through collaborative efforts between unions and employers, equitable pay rates are established for all labor employees, regardless of their race or gender.  

Along with unions, there are many other organizations that advocate for tradeswomen. The Iowa Women in Trades network connects women to construction apprenticeship opportunities across Iowa and promotes workplace equity and respect. Also in the construction industry, empowHER Wisconsin seeks to normalize and support the role of women in the industry.  

In addition to advocating for their own rights, women in the labor movement have fought and continue to fight for all workers’ rights and broader social and economic justice issues such as healthcare, childcare and paid leave. Their activism has led to significant improvements in workplace policies and benefits, making today’s workplaces better for all – but the work is never done.  

Jones, Flynn and countless other women across the workforce shattered boundaries during their time, were influenced by the women before them and continue to inspire new generations of women and girls. “Their resilience, skill and passion redefine the present and lay the foundation that inspires generations to come,” said Emily Pritzkow, Wisconsin Building Trades executive director. “Together, we construct a more equitable and empowered industry, where every craft worker’s story is integral to our shared history.” 
Grant Barton is a Communications Partner with a passion for sustainability and eco-friendly city planning. He has a diverse background in engineering, politics and international communications and hopes to apply this experience when writing and breaking down complex topics related to Alliant Energy's Clean Energy Future plans.

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