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Women’s Bureau

The Women’s Bureau: An Overview 1920 – 2012


Women's Bureau, Police Department. One woman sits at a desk. Six others stand near her. All wear large hats.
Women’s Bureau, Police Dept.
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID npcc 29493

The Women’s Bureau was established in the Department of Labor by Public Law No. 259 of June 5, 1920. The law gave the Bureau the duty 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.” It also gave the Bureau the authority to investigate and report to the U.S. Department of Labor upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of women in industry. It is the only federal agency mandated to represent the needs of wage-earning women in the public policy process.

Prior to World War I, of all women employed in the manufacturing industries, three-fourths were making wearing apparel or its materials, food, or tobacco products. During the World War the number of women in industry increased greatly and the range of occupations open to them was extended, even though they remained concentrated in certain occupations such as domestic and personal service, clerical occupations, and factory work. In 1920, women were 21 percent of all gainfully occupied persons. In 2010, they were 47% of employed persons.

For 91 years, the Bureau has been meeting its mandate – by identifying the topics working women care about most, aggressively researching the issues, and pioneering innovative policies and programs to address them — amidst the ever-changing compass of our nation.

The Women’s Bureau has been groundbreaking in many ways. The Woman in Industry Service, the Women’s Bureau’s predecessor agency, tried to find out through field investigations what was happening to women in the readjustment period after World War I and it also started several investigations of women’s employment in various states, which became a major part of the Women’s Bureau’s program. The first of these investigations was made at the request of Governor James P. Goodrich of Indiana. This was the first time that the federal government had made a survey at the request of a state in order to clarify the facts on women’s employment. Later, the Bureau conducted the same type of survey in 31 other states. The facts collected were used as the basis for legislation, and in many states laws were passed because of the Bureau’s findings.

The Woman in Industry Service first published “Standards for the Employment of Women in Industry” in 1918. They were republished several times, the last time being in 1965. The standards, drawn up with the advice of both employers and workers, were eventually incorporated into labor laws at the State, and finally, Federal level.

In her autobiography, Mary Anderson, the first Director of the Women’s Bureau, stated, “I think our most important job was issuing the standards for the employment of women. It was the first time the federal government had taken a practical stand on conditions of employment for women, and although the standards were only recommendations and had no legal force, they were a very important statement of policy and were widely used in all parts of the country.” Ms. Anderson was the longest-serving Women’s Bureau Director, having been appointed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1920 and serving until 1944.

Women’s Bureau studies in the 1920s and 1930s focused on working conditions for women in such industries and occupations as the candy industry (1923); private household employment (1924); canning industries (1926, 1927, and 1930); cotton mills (1926, 1929, and 1933); spin rooms (1929); laundries (1930 and 1936); bookkeepers, stenographers, and office clerks (1932, 1934, and 1935); sewing trades (1932 and 1935); cigar and cigarette industries and tobacco stemmeries (1932 and 1934); vitreous enameling (1932); the leather glove industry (1934); the shoe industry (1935); department stores (1936); the silk dress industry (1936); and the millinery industry (1939).

Among the Bureau’s early studies were studies on the working conditions of “Negro” women workers (1922) and the extent to which women were permitted to take examinations for positions in the Federal government (1920). The latter led the Civil Service Commission to issue a ruling opening all examinations to both men and women.

Ms. Anderson also felt that she had a good deal to do with getting into the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) the statement in connection with fixing wage orders that “No classification shall be made under this section on the basis of age or sex.” The FLSA, enacted in 1938, for the first time set minimum wages and maximum working hours. The Bureau had long studied women’s work hours, starting with an examination of the eight-hour day in 1921.

In the 1940s, the Women’s Bureau turned its attention to women’s employment in war industries, e.g. aircraft production, the manufacture of small-arms and artillery ammunition, shipyards, foundries, and army supply depots, and wartime modifications of state labor laws for women.

In the latter half of the 1940s and the 1950s, the Bureau began to examine the employment of women in the early postwar period and the outlook and employment opportunities for women workers in medical and other health services, science, social work, mathematics and statistics, legal work, and even police work (1949). In 1954, it examined changes in women’s occupations between 1940 and 1950.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, the Bureau turned its attention to women college graduates. Women’s Bureau Director Esther Peterson served as the Executive Vice-chair and later Chair of the first President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Peterson wanted “to get consideration of women into the warp and woof of everything.” The Commission’s 1963 report, American Women, became the blueprint for developing policies and programs to increase women’s participation in all sectors of American life. Having promoted equal pay since its early days, the Bureau’s major legislative achievement in the 1960s was the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963.  The 1960s also saw enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and issuance of Executive Order 11246. The Bureau, in cooperation with the Solicitor’s Office of the Department of Labor, helped formulate Department policy in advising the Equal Employment 0pportunity Commission about implementation of the Civil Rights Act.

With the new legislation, the issue of protection versus discrimination came to a head, as it had in the early days of the women’s labor movement and would again in the future. Now, much of the women’s protective legislation, so hard-won in previous decades, had to be reassessed in light of women’s efforts to gain entry to a much broader range of jobs and occupations on an equal footing with men. Ever responsive to the changing demands and needs of its constituency, the Bureau led efforts to study the impact of the new legislation on women workers, reassess standing laws, and push for training opportunities which would allow women to follow their interests and fulfill their needs.

In 1969, Elizabeth Duncan Koontz became the first Black woman to head the Bureau and the highest-ranking Black woman in the Administration. Mrs. Koontz was also named U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. In this capacity, she helped the Bureau share research and expertise with women abroad, especially in the developing countries. The Bureau’s primary focus in the decade of the 1970s was addressing and eliminating discrimination against women and minorities in the workforce. It provided staff support for the President’s Fifty States Project, an effort to help States identify sexually discriminatory provisions in their statutes, and supported the fight for passage of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution. Mrs. Koontz was followed by the first Hispanic director of the Women’s Bureau and the highest-ranking Hispanic woman in the Federal government – Carmen Rosa Maymi. In conjunction with the objectives of International Women’s Year (1975), Ms. Maymi led the Bureau in increasing its international activities. The same decade saw the appointment of the youngest Women’s Bureau director – Alexis Herman. Following enactment of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), the Bureau engaged in efforts to make women and their advocates aware of the new law and its possibilities and began developing model programs for CETA funds focusing on women in nontraditional jobs, special counseling and referral services, pre-apprenticeship training, and job development. It mounted new programs to help low-income and young women and focused anew on the special needs of women who work in the home and older women.

During the 1980s, the Bureau mounted initiatives to promote employer-sponsored child care and to introduce child care at occupational training center sites, worked more closely with women serving on corporate boards and in high-level management positions to help others move up in the management structure, and entered into contracts for studies on the employment-related needs of women veterans, immigrant women, dislocated women workers, displaced homemakers and older women, and the career transition problems of women in the professions. It also began exploring the impact of rapid technological change on women’s job opportunities for the rest of the century and beyond. It was part of a jointly-sponsored program to increase the participation of women in the construction of the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway and launched a national initiative on the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), which replaced CETA. The Director of the Women’s Bureau served as elected vice-chair of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Working Party on the Role of Women in the Economy, as a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meeting in Vienna, Austria, and as a member of the U.S. delegation to the World Conference on the U.N. Decade for Women in Nairobi, Kenya. In the latter part of the 1980s – specifically 1987 – the Bureau turned its attention to contingent work, cosponsoring a conference –  “The Contingent Workplace: New Directions for Work in the Year 2000” – to explore the impact on women of the trend toward contingent work.

During the 1990s, the Bureau focused on non-traditional employment for women, publishing a Directory of Non-Traditional Training and Employment Programs Serving Women and jointly administering, with the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Act (WANTO). The Bureau’s Hiring Someone to Work in Your Home was the first Federal publication of its kind to address the legal requirements of hiring household workers. The Bureau created the Working Women Count! National Survey to find out what women liked and didn’t like about their jobs and what they wanted to change and the Working Women Count Honor Roll to recognize organizations that initiated policies and programs to address the concerns and needs of women as reflected in the results of the survey. It also produced a series of “Know Your Rights” leaflets to inform women of their legal rights in such areas as sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and family and medical leave. It opened a Fair Pay Clearinghouse to provide information to help working women and men, employers, and other organizations “improve pay scales;” conducted a five-city Equal Pay Tour, and assisted in a nationwide survey by a major retailer that documented the workplace impact of domestic violence.

Throughout its history the Bureau has been concerned not only with women’s ability to obtain profitable employment, but also their contribution to family income and how they could be assisted to balance work and family, a concern that continues to this day. Balancing work and family is an area with a multi-faceted history within the Women’s Bureau. In the 1960s, the Department of Labor set an example for other employers by establishing a demonstration child care center in a nearby building for children of low-income Department employees. Later, the Department became the first Federal agency to have an on-site day care center. In 1982, the Bureau was proud to announce the launch of a major initiative to encourage employer-sponsored child care, followed by the establishment of a multi-media Work and Family Clearinghouse in 1989 and pressure for the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

During the 2000-2010 decade, Shinae Chun became the Women’s Bureau first Asian-American Director and the highest-ranking Korean American in the Administration. Women’s Bureau initiatives during the first half of the decade included Girls E-Mentoring in Science, Engineering, and Technology (GEM-SET); Group E-Mentoring in Nursing (GEM-Nursing); Women with Disabilities Entrepreneurship; Working Women in Transition; an Employer-Driven Older Women Workers project; Wi$eUp, a web-based electronic mentoring curriculum for Generations X and Y women; financial security conferences for Hispanic women; Flex-Options for Women, bringing together corporate mentors and women business owners interested in developing flexible workplace policies; and a series of women’s leadership forums in each of the Women’s Bureau’s 10 regions. The Bureau also launched E-news, a bimonthly electronic newsletter.

In 2010, Sara Manzano-Díaz became the 16th Director of the Women’s Bureau, and she served in that position until 2012. Under her leadership, the Women’s Bureau’s vision was to empower all working women to achieve economic security by preparing them for higher paying jobs, promoting equal pay, promoting workplace flexibility, helping women veterans reintegrate into the workforce, and helping vulnerable women.  The Bureau issued Why Green Is Your Color: A Woman’s Guide to a Sustainable Career, designed to assist women with job training and career development as they enter into innovative and nontraditional jobs in the emerging green economy; held homeless women veterans listening sessions and issued Trauma-Informed Care for Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: A Guide for Service Providers; held a research summit on equal pay, participated in the work of the National Equal Pay Task Force, and issued two equal pay publications—A Guide to Women’s Equal Pay Rights and An Employer’s Guide to Equal Pay; and organized and hosted a National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility across the country to build on the message and momentum from the March 2010 White House Flexibility Forum.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). Our history: An overview 1920-2012. Department of Labor. Retrieved from

For additional information, see the U. S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau history page

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). The Women’s Bureau: An overview 1920-2012. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from


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