Manufacturing is an important sector of the economy, and women have played a vital role in shaping the industry over the years. Today, women continue to lead the way in the manufacturing industry. As the industry continues to modernize, more women are considering a career in manufacturing. Women in manufacturing are setting an example of what is possible and proving that gender does not have to be a barrier to success. 

History of Women in Manufacturing

Women have played an integral role in American manufacturing since its start in the nineteenth century. In the early days of the industrial era, women worked in textile mills and other related factories. These opportunities were some of the first for unmarried women that helped them work towards financial independence — though many remained in poverty. That being said, they were at the forefront of the early labor reform movement in the 1830s-1840s. Because their work was highly dangerous, women came together to lobby for improved working conditions and higher wages.

However, the majority of women entered the manufacturing workforce during the early twentieth century — after World War I began and there were vacanies left by the men who went to war. At this time, the number of women employed in factories increased, as well as the types of roles they filled. From operating cranes to welding, women performed all types of manual labor tasks. Women also became involved in more senior roles, like production design or lab testing.

By 1918, 1 in 5 industrial manufacturing workers were women. Women continued to shape the industry by helping the passage of important legislation throughout the 1900s. This included laws that raised the minimum wage for workers, outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex, and secured jobs for workers seeking parental leave.

Now in the twenty-first century, the number of women in manufacturing jobs has increased steadily, especially between 2010 and 2020. Like previous trends, women are also leaning toward jobs of a different nature — focusing more on technology and automation — but have roles in all levels and areas of manufacturing. Also, about 1 in 4 women that work in manufacturing have leadership roles.

Famous Women and their Contributions to the Manufacturing Industry

Women have made incredible and lasting contributions to the manufacturing industry over the years. Early on, they advocated for better working conditions and equal opportunities for women in the workforce. Many women leaders were also champions of manufacturing success, in running their own businesses or creating new inventions that still use today. Now, women have eagerly taken up roles in engineering, technological advancements, production management, and quality control — just to name a few.

Key Women Who Helped Shape the Manufacturing Industry

1. Ella May Wiggins

Ella May Wiggins was an early advocate for workers’ and women’s rights. She worked as a spinner in the textile mills, like most at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Back then, women comprised 75 percent of the mill workforce. Wiggins herself participated in one of the most famous mill strikes. Women wanted improved working conditions and higher wages. Wiggins also wrote ballads to use at strikes that criticized the industry standards which were unfair to women at the time.

2. Madam CJ Walker

Sarah Breedlove, who later came to be known as Madam C.J. Walker, is cited as the first woman to become a self-made millionaire in America. She was both an entrepreneur and an activist. Walker inspired many women of her time to enter the manufacturing industry. She ran the Walker Manufacturing Company. Her successful venture included a factory that produced her name-brand line of beauty products. 

3. Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter is one the most well-known women in manufacturing. Rosie was designed as part of a campaign to encourage women to join the industrial workforce during World War II. However, she evolved to become a lasting symbol of women’s empowerment — especially in the workplace.

4. Stephanie Kwolek

Stephanie Kwolek was one of the first female chemists at DuPont. During her 40-year tenure, she discovered a number of industrial fibers. Kwolek’s best-known invention, however, was Kevlar. While lightweight, Kevlar is a very strong fiber. Today, Kevlar is one of the most famously used fibers in manufacturing. Its applications range from building materials to airplanes to defense and more. 

With their contributions, these women and others helped to make a difference in the industry. American manufacturing processes became smoother, more efficient, and more cost-effective. These women also helped to usher in the next generation in manufacturing.

The Next Generation

Today, the manufacturing industry depends more heavily on advanced technology. Manufacturers have also increasingly recognized the value of diversity in the workplace. Hiring different people with unique talents and skill-sets allows manufacturers to boost their bottom line. Additionally, a dynamic culture can improve employee morale and retention. In a field rich with innovation, sentiments within the industry and among women have changed in recent years.

This has led to a concerted effort to attract women to the manufacturing industry, starting with younger generations. These include programs inspiring more Girls into Electronics as well as campaigns encouraging grade-school and college students to pursue STEM fields. With new technologies adopted in manufacturing, companies are looking to hire younger employees. This is because they are highly skilled when it comes to using technology and adapting it to their day-to-day.

The women of today’s manufacturing industry represent some of its most innovative talents and play a critical role in inspiring others to join them in this ever-evolving field.

Toolcraft Machining is proud to provide equal employment opportunities and support to women looking to enter the manufacturing industry. Specializing in CNC machining of custom precision parts, we have a passion for Empowering People to Win Together. Our open-door policies and organizational support create an exciting career trajectory for women looking to excel in manufacturing. Learn more about CNC Machinist Careers at Toolcraft.