For 70 years the Women's Bureau has been a strong voice and a helping hand for working women. Although its policy emphasis and program direction have necessarily changed with the changing times of each passing decade, the Bureau's current and future role is born out of its past.
One of the oldest agencies in the U.S. Department of Labor, the Bureau was created by Congress on June 5, 1920, and given a mandate: "to formulate standards and policies which shall promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable, employment." At this time, women worked long hours, often in unsafe and unhealthy environments, and received low wages. These oppressive conditions prompted women's organizations to urge Congress to establish a Federal agency that would investigate and document worklife conditions for women and recommend changes. Thus, in its early life the Bureau documented the need for labor reform. After the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, establishing the first Federal wage and hour law, the Bureau worked to extend coverage to additional workers.
In the 1940's, after World War II began, the Bureau helped the Nation meet its need for industrial workers while men served in the military. Women were encouraged to enter the labor force while the Bureau worked with industry leaders to develop training programs for these newcomers. The Bureau also encouraged the development of child care centers to provide adequate care for the children of those working mothers.
Throughout the 1950's and 1960's, the Bureau addressed a widening array of issues ranging from career-oriented training and education to passage of the Equal Pay Act. The Bureau was instrumental in the creation of the President's Commission on the Status of Women in 1961 and subsequently provided needed information, contacts, and technical assistance to the various task forces that studied and reported on the status of women throughout the United States.
During the 1970's, women joined the work force in increasing numbers. The Bureau worked for women's greater access to employment and training as well as to careers of their choice. Another emphasis was the recruitment of women to nontraditional jobs in the trades, professional specialties, and the upper levels of corporate management, which generally paid higher wages and offered mobility and good fringe benefits.
In the 1980's, the multiple-earner family became the norm. There was also a rapid increase in the number of families maintained by single adults, mainly women, and mothers with preschool children entered the labor force in rapid numbers. New issues emerged around the limited amount of time available for family care needs, and the Bureau advocated policies and practices to help make work and family needs compatible. Also, during this decade, women made tremendous strides in increasing their level of education and in expanding their presence in virtually all occupations.
As the 1990's begin, the Bureau enters its eighth decade of service to women. Special attention continues to be focused on development of policies and procedures that will enable the balancing of work and family responsibilities. The Bureau has already responded by instituting the Work and Family Clearinghouse. This computerized data base suggests options that employers might consider in order to help workers resolve conflicts in balancing their work and family responsibilities. The Bureau also began examining the implications for women workers in the 21st century workplace as data projecting the nature of work and composition of the work force became available.
From its position in the Office of the Secretary of Labor, the Bureau participates in departmental policy making and program planning, and serves as a coordinating body in the Department of Labor for programs affecting women. To establish vital links at local levels, the Bureau has offices implement national programs and policies, develop local initiatives to address local needs, and disseminate information and publications. Both national and regional offices work cooperatively with women's organizations and commissions for women, the private sector, unions, program operators, educational and training personnel, social service agencies, and government at all levels.
To remain in the forefront on issues, the Bureau initiates and supports research and analyses in economic, social, and legislative areas, and makes policy recommendations. It also tests innovative ideas and approaches through demonstration projects that help prepare women to enter or reenter the work force, move into new areas of work, or move up in their careers. The Bureau carries out an information and education program through publications, audiovisuals, media relations, feature articles, and public speaking. On the international level, the Bureau participates actively in high-level policy development for working women.
Now and in the future, the Women's Bureau will remain not only a strong voice that advocates policy but also a helping hand that activates programs to assist working women and potential workers, and thus to carry out its congressional mandate of 1920.
U.S. Department of Labor
1991, updated 1999
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