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Women in the Yishuv Workforce

by Hanna Bar-Yishay

Men and women packing oranges in the Kalmania packing house on Moshav Tzofit, ca. 1946. In agriculture, women were most often employed in "female" activities such as packing and sorting produce. 

Source: Moshav Tzofit Archive, from PikiWiki.

In Brief

Despite espousing ideals of equality and liberation, the Zionist-socialist leadership of the Yishuv were less than progressive when it came to gender roles. As a result, women who emigrated to Palestine, whether single or married, desiring to work only found opportunities in a limited section of the labor market, those jobs or fields traditionally considered “feminine.” These included textiles, education, healthcare, and domestic services. The exact proportions of women in each field changed over time, of course, especially in the 1940s during World War II when a significant proportion of men left the workforce, but to the extent women could find employment in the first place, they were usually paid less than their male counterparts. This article includes statistics and analysis of women’s contribution to the workforce and the Yishuv economy as a whole.

Introduction: Women’s Work and the Economy

Some of the most important changes in the labor market in pre-state Israel occurred in the volume and structure of female work. Nevertheless, studies on women and employment during the pre-state era are few in number and rely little, if at all, on economic and quantitative sources. In fact, as Deborah Bernstein, the author of the most extensive socio-historical account of women in the Jewish community in Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. "Old Yishuv" refers to the Jewish community prior to 1882; "New Yishuv" to that following 1882.Yishuv, has remarked, women have been conspicuously absent from economic studies of the Jewish community in pre-state Israel. Studies focusing on the labor market during the period, such as works by Nachum Gross, Jacob Metzer and Oded Kaplan, Anita Shapira, Robert Szereszewski, Gur Ofer, and Zvi Sussman, completely disregard the issue of female labor. Studies on the status of women in the Yishuv center primarily on the early period, 1890–1920, focusing on a small group of women, the socio-political elite. These were women who mainly came from Europe with the early waves of migration and were strongly committed to Socialist-Zionist ideologies. They were active in the labor movements and established the women’s section within the Histadrut. Educated, energetic, and highly articulate, they left behind a wealth of written documentation as well as personal writings. As a result the story of women in pre-statehood Israel came to be associated with the story of the early pioneer women.

Little attention was paid to the experiences of the majority of women, who were not connected with the Socialist-Zionist endeavors. Not only were the stories of religious Orthodox women and Lit. "Eastern." Jew from Arab or Muslim country.Mizrahi women excluded from the narrative, but so were the majority of women employed in the urban sector, who immigrated to Palestine between the wars. So entrenched did the story of the agricultural pioneer women become that modern scholars have accused contemporary Israeli women of a “gradual retreat” or of “forfeiting the equality their mothers and grandmothers so diligently won.”

Recent studies on the socio-economic status of women in pre-statehood Israel have challenged the legend, suggesting that the true story was much more complex and far less positive. The works of Deborah Bernstein, Margalit Shilo, Avishay Ehrlich, Billie Melman, Yossi Ben Artzi, and Yaffah Berlovitz have successfully documented the experience of women in the Yishuv. However, except for Bernstein’s work, the story of women and work tends to focus on the early period, is detached from the economic development of the Yishuv, and relies only minimally on economic data.

The economic development of the Jewish sector in the pre-state period was one of rapid growth. Jacob Metzer, an economist studying the growth of the Jewish as well as the Arab sector during the Mandate, has shown that Net Domestic Product increased between the world wars by 13.2 percent per year and National Product Per Capita by an average of 4.9 percent per year, suggesting a concomitant impressive increase in the standard of living. In the short run, however, the period was characterized by sharp fluctuations of rates of growth and rapid swings in business cycles. The story of women and work can be understood only within the economic context of rapid growth accompanied by profound swings in business cycles.

The experience of the majority of women in the labor force related to the economic development of the Yishuv is the main focus of this study, which is based on re-gendered demographic and economic data relating to the labor force during the Mandate period (1920–1948). These data were obtained from a wealth of censuses, surveys and inquiries undertaken by the three governing organs in pre-statehood Israel: The Mandate for Palestine given to Great Britain by the League of Nations in April 1920 to administer Palestine and establish a national home for the Jewish people. It was terminated with the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.British Mandate government; The Jewish Agency for Palestine, the executive branch of the World Zionist Organization in Palestine; and the General Federation of Hebrew Workers, known as the Histadrut. All three sources lack uniformity and continuity in data collection and differ widely in definitions and classification. In order to estimate the number of women in the labor force and their occupational distribution it was necessary to accommodate for the differences between the three sources and carry out many adjustments, relying on direct and indirect methods of computation. The tables are based mainly on the revised 1931 Mandate census and on the estimates of total labor force in pre-statehood Israel carried out by Gur, Szereszewski, and Metzer. In addition to a wealth of fragmented censuses, surveys, studies, and estimates carried out by the British Government, the Jewish Agency and the Histadrut were used.  The estimates of female activity rates and female labor force participation rates are presented in Table 1.

This entry covers mainly the years 1922 to 1946 simply because no reliable statistical data exist for previous years. It is acceptable among scholars to begin the account of the actual economic growth of the Jewish sector in the post-World War I period when British civil administration was established in Palestine and a new period of massive immigration and economic change began and to ignore the tumultuous years of 1947–1948 that preceded independence.

Trends in Female Labor Force Participation 1920–1947

The rate of female participation increased steadily throughout the period despite the rapid, erratic nature of the economic development of the Yishuv. Not only did female participation rates increase during the period, but so did female activity rates, the latter almost doubling by the end of the Mandate. Male activity rates, by comparison, increased from 1922 to 1945 by only 76 percent.

A detailed yearly analysis of the participation rates reveals that they were strongly affected by changes in rates of economic development. The leading economist of the Yishuv era, Nachum Gross, suggests dividing the Mandate period into two phases of economic growth. The first, from 1920 to 1931, is regarded as the institution-building period. During this period the institutional and economic foundations of the Jewish sector in Mandate Palestine were established and the socio-economic characteristics of the Yishuv were determined. The second period, from 1932 to 1947, is one of consolidation and rapid expansion of economic activities. The industrial base was expanded, agricultural as well as industrial production steadily increased, employment stabilized and the standard of living as well as real wages rose. Trends and patterns of female labor force participation differed in the two phases of economic development, reflecting the different nature of growth in each phase.

During the first period, 1922–1931, rates of participation remained relatively low, reaching their peak only in the second period, as the population increased and the economy entered a period of accelerated growth. However, employment rates increased during the first period, that of foundation from 1922 to 1931, at a swifter rate than during the second period, from 1932 to 1945.

Period of Foundation, 1920–1931

Most of the women immigrating to Palestine in the first period were not pioneer women, but rather young women who came mainly from petty bourgeois families in Eastern Europe. In general they brought with them labor skills and attitudes typical of urban European women at this period. Work was primarily a necessity, but at the same time also desired. Though they wished to work, these women had no aspirations to enter new fields of employment or change skills. They viewed domestic work as degrading and preferred to work in industry and manufacture. However, the industrial sector had little work to offer.

The earlier years were volatile, typified by short periods of prosperity and prolonged periods of downturns. The major problem faced by both men and women in the labor force was finding work. An unlimited growth in the supply of workers combined with the limited absorptive capacity of the economy to create grave unemployment. For the most part the only work available in the labor market was in public construction, introduced by the government, and later in private construction, stimulated by large waves of immigration. Other jobs available for women were very few in number and were limited to traditional female occupations such as sewing, nursing, and cooking. However, except for a small group of pioneer women who aspired to work in construction as part of their feminist-nationalist outlook, construction work was considered inappropriate for women. Work in factories was rarely given to female workers due to competition from male workers. Domestic work was thus the only viable solution for many, including skilled women. Indeed, the only work offered to women by the labor exchange of the Histadrut during the first period was in domestic work, despite the Histadrut’s ideological objection to this kind of work.

Unemployment reached its peak in 1926 during a crisis viewed by economists as the worst depression of the Mandate period. In recognition of the seriousness of the problem of female employment, the Jewish Agency in that year attached a special secretariat for women to the labor department, allocating a sum of money to establish places of work and training for women. This move was not dictated by ideology but was rather the logical consequence of widespread unemployment among women and fierce competition with the male workers in the labor market. For lack of employment opportunities in towns, many women were transferred to the rural sector, mainly the Lit. "village." The dominant pioneer settlement type of the Jews in Palestine between 1882moshavot.

During the early period a small group of pioneer women tried to break down traditional sex divisions in the labor market and assume work in construction and agriculture. Their heroic, romantic fight was well documented in history and received more than its fair share in the Yishuv’s historiography. The women were mainly young, single, and ideologically committed to Zionism and socialism, and desired to share equally with men in the building of a new country. At the time the only choices available for non-skilled were domestic work and construction, and for the pioneers domestic work was simply not a viable option, not to mention the fact that construction paid more. For a while it seemed as if fundamental changes in employment opportunities for at least a small group of women were indeed taking place. However, as the crisis of 1926 subsided, industrialization advanced and immigration increased, women resumed more traditional labor market roles. By 1929 construction as a source of female employment disappeared altogether, while the number of women in the service sector doubled.

Prosperity came in the second half of the first period, primarily as a result of the development of light industries in the growing Jewish city of Tel Aviv, the increase in the number of hotels and restaurants, and increased immigration. Thus, while in the early twenties Jerusalem employed the largest proportion of female workers, toward the end of the decade Tel Aviv took over as the city with the largest number of female workers. Though the share of females in industry grew steadily during the first period, it was the growth of employment in the service sector, especially personal services, which obscured any other developments during the second half of the first period.

Period of Consolidation and Expansion: 1932–1947

Increased immigration in the 1930s brought about a new period of accelerated growth and development, accompanied by expansion of capital formation and rapid growth of the urban centers. On the supply side the new immigrants arriving in the second period came mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, bringing with them a wealth of capital, skills, and experience. The majority lacked commitment to the ideology of Zionist-socialism and the dominant values were the traditional ones according to which women defined their roles within the framework of the family.

Most of the growth in female activity rates during this period occurred before 1937. Rates of participation remained relatively unchanged from 1937 to 1945, though during this period major changes occurred in the occupational distribution of the female labor force, especially during the war.

The growth of the cities in the early 1930s and the concomitant rise in the number of restaurants and hotels fostered the entrance of many female workers into the domestic service market. The share of women in agriculture also grew during the 1930s compared to the late 1920s, primarily because of increased demand for hired workers in citrus groves.

Following the crisis of 1935 the share of females employed in industry, manufacturing, and building declined. At the same time, the waves of immigrants from Germany and Austria led to an increase in the number of workers in the liberal professions and in the percentage employed in public services. Another important feature of the early 1930s was widespread unemployment, especially among women in the urban sector.

Throughout the 1930s female workers held very few occupations within agriculture and industry. They were employed mainly in the citrus groves, picking and wrapping fruits, and as simple non-professional workers in industry. The majority were employed in traditional occupations, and this was reflected in the training courses offered by the Histadrut’s women’s branch, Mo’ezet ha-Poalot (Council of Women Workers), which included office work, child care, sewing, cooking, ironing, weaving, cleaning, and leather work.

The employment situation of females changed during World War II, just as it did in other industrialized countries, though the changes became notable only in 1942–1943. When the war broke out all import ceased and demand for locally produced goods increased. The increasing demand of the British army, whose presence in the area grew considerably, boosted production. Production of industrial goods and agricultural produce expanded and demand for workers increased. As many workers, mainly males, enlisted, a shortage in the workforce began to be felt. The result was an increased demand for female workers in all sectors. Work was offered to women in industry and the army camps in increasing numbers. Employment opportunities changed, and women assumed new positions as drivers, diamond polishers, welders, electricians and carpenters, entering new sectors such as British army camps and government employment, war industry, storage and garages. The increased demand for workers led many women to leave the domestic service sector in favor of better jobs in industry. Initially the British government prohibited women’s work in army camps. However, their attitude changed in May 1942, and by 1943 the number of women employed in army camps reached 1,800. In 1941 only 25 percent of all women registered for work were sent to work in domestic services and only 12 percent of the demand for domestic servants was met by the Labor Exchange. This suggests a strong preference among women to work in industry rather than domestic services. The Women’s Council, which for twenty years was constantly occupied with expanding employment opportunities for women, was now totally absorbed in issues of wage and conditions of employment.

Despite the increased demand for female workers, both their proportion in the labor force and their activity rate increased by only 3.8 percent and 3.4 percent respectively. Wartime changes were reflected in the industrial distribution of women, rather than total numbers employed, as women shifted primarily from the services to industry. G. E. Wood, the government’s statistician, refers to the expansion in employment during the war period as “stretching” the labor force.

Industrial and Occupational Distribution of Female Labor

The analysis of female employment trends suggests that some industries relied more heavily on female workers and employed them more readily. It clearly demonstrates that Jewish women in the labor market in the Yishuv tended to concentrate in a narrow range of jobs traditionally considered as “female.”

Table 2 demonstrates concentration in traditional female-employing industries such as textile, clothing, domestic services, nursing and education—a phenomenon common to many countries in the early stages of industrialization. Table 2 also re-affirms that the degree of sexual segregation remained relatively unaffected by the changes in the economy.

In personal services, domestic services, tobacco, health, and education, the proportion of female workers remained stable over time, despite changes in the product share of these industries in the economy. Other industries such as clothing, food, and chemicals became increasingly feminized during the second period, especially the latter two which during the first period were considered mixed industries. However, within each sector patterns of female employment varied extensively in response to economic changes and seasonal fluctuations.

Women in Agriculture

The importance of the agricultural sector in the economic development of the Yishuv was highly overrated for ideological as well as political reasons, though its importance as a source of temporary employment primarily in periods of economic downturns cannot be denied.

Contrary to widely held opinions, agriculture was from the onset not an important employer of female labor, and its importance further declined as the country developed. Nonetheless, agriculture was valuable for women’s employment because it was a source of temporary employment primarily in periods of economic downturns. Within the agricultural sector, women increased their share during the war period and became more involved in productive work.

In 1922 the agricultural sector accounted for 28.2 percent of all female workers; by 1939 this figure had fallen to 17.2 percent, reaching 12.7 percent by the end of World War II. Total employment in the agricultural sector fell respectively from 23.4 percent in 1922 to 20.8 percent in 1939 and 13.4 percent by the end of the war.

However, the proportion of women employed in agriculture remained steady at around 19 percent until 1943, when it increased, reaching its peak of 23.9 percent in 1945. This suggests that women increased their proportion in the agricultural sector primarily because of the withdrawal of many male workers from the sector during the war.

The majority of women in agriculture were hired seasonal labor employed mainly in citrus groves. This type of work was considered largely a transitional occupation, especially for women. Thus the decline in employment share of agriculture caused by the collapse of citriculture in Palestine in 1939 had a greater impact on female employment.

In the early 1920s the Jewish agricultural sector was mainly in the hands of old colonists, who preferred to employ cheap, experienced Arab labor. Most of the new immigrants ended up in towns, despite constant attempts in the early period to enter the agricultural sector. About half the immigrants arriving in the early period came with workers’ certificates, belonged to the pioneer movement abroad and had undergone agricultural training in Europe. Nevertheless, about 72 percent of all “working immigrants” enrolled with the Immigration Center of the Histadrut were settled in towns. Female workers found it even more difficult to enter the agricultural sector, despite the fact that the Zionist movement recognized the importance of women to the colonization effort. In their effort to enter the sector, female workers, with the help of the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot, established special training farms for women (Mishkei Po’alot), where they were trained in agricultural work. Most of these were located in urban and semi-urban centers and provided training as well as temporary employment for women in times of grave unemployment. Interestingly enough, women were trained primarily for cultivation of vegetables and tending livestock, which were considered “work fit for women.” Most farms proved to be unprofitable in the long run and were dissolved as soon as prosperity returned.

The Jewish Agency, recognizing the importance of agricultural development to the Zionist idea, increased its support to the sector, establishing a record number of new settlements during this period, many of them cooperative or communal in nature. The role assigned to women by the Jewish Agency was the traditional role assigned to females in most developed countries, namely the task of assisting in farm work. In 1927, 70.3 percent of all adult women in the agricultural sector were homemakers. Of these, only 29.9 percent indicated that they assisted on farms.

The number of women gainfully employed in the agricultural sector increased slightly in 1926–1927 with the development of the citriculture sector. Many immigrants were sent to the moshavot despite the fact that the proportion of pioneers among migrants was declining. In the moshavot women were employed in citrus groves as a secondary labor force during picking and sorting seasons. At other times they were confined to domestic non-economic activities or the informal sector of domestic service. As demand for women workers increased in citrus groves during the period, women became more reluctant to join the agricultural labor force. In 1926, a period of great unemployment, attempts to transfer women to work in the moshavot failed miserably. Women who refused to move to the moshavot forfeited the financial support the Women’s Council gave to unemployed women. This proves that despite the harsh conditions in the cities, women were reluctant to perform seasonal agricultural work. The situation in A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.kibbutzim was not much better: there a third of all women were employed in the kitchen and other services, a third in outside work, and a third were not employed at all. Those employed outside the kibbutz were employed primarily as domestic workers, especially in the Haifa area.

In the 1930s, most women in agriculture found employment as hired work in the thriving citrus groves. Fluctuations in the employment share of women in agriculture corresponded remarkably to changes in the local as well as global political atmosphere because citriculture was mainly an export product and employed a large number of Arab workers. For example, during the Arab Riots in 1929 and 1936 female employment in agriculture reached an all-time peak, implying that Arab workers and women workers competed regularly in this branch. Within this branch, women were mainly confined to “female” occupations such as sorting and wrapping. In 1937, 85 percent of all sorters and 68 percent of wrappers were females, as compared to 42 percent of pickers, 2.5 percent of crate-lifters and 2 percent of inspectors. Despite the efforts of the Histadrut and Jewish Agency to transfer women, especially single women, from the urban sectors to the moshavot and citrus groves, most women employed in the groves did not come from the cities. In 1937 the Women’s Council complained about difficulties in transferring women from the cities to work in the moshavot despite the economic conditions in the city. According to the 1939 census of workers in citrus groves taken at peak season, 87.4 percent of all female workers came from the rural sector.

In mixed agriculture there was a slow but constant increase in the number of workers. It is the growth of mixed agriculture in the 1930s that primarily explains the increase in the role of women in agriculture. However, this increase was characterized by a clear differentiation between male and female occupations in agriculture. In 1937 women were represented in high percentages in the following branches, which were usually considered “female”: in greenhouses 70 percent of workers were women; 71 percent in poultry rearing; and 42.2 percent in vegetable growing. However, they comprised only 11.6 percent in wheat growing and only 2 percent of overseers.

Not all women in the agricultural sector were actually employed as agricultural workers throughout the period. In the moshavot a large percentage of women were not employed outside their homes. In 1938, 52.8 percent of all females, enumerated at peak season in the moshavot, were not employed outside their homes. Similarly, not all women in communal settlements were directly employed in agriculture. Throughout the period, about 29 percent of female members of communes were engaged in homemaking and child care and not in remunerative work.

During World War II, male workers transferred in large numbers from agriculture to other occupations, including the armed forces. At the same time there was a considerable expansion of certain branches of farming considered “female,” such as vegetable growing, due to increased demand by the army. The result is a significant increase in the share of women in the agricultural sector though the rate of women employed in agriculture continued to decline. At the 26th session of the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot in 1943, it was reported that women’s farms, intended to prepare women for agricultural work, were suffering severely from lack of enrollment and were trying to adapt themselves to the changing circumstances by transforming into middle schools.

The decline in production share of agriculture and the lack of “appropriate” agricultural work for women in the sector, combined with the reluctance of the majority of women to work in agriculture, primarily as salaried workers in citrus groves, explain the general decline in female activity rate in agriculture. Short-term changes reflect changes in male employment and Arab employment, suggesting that women were attracted into male occupations only after men left for other occupations.

Women in Construction

The majority of jobs available for non-skilled labor in the productive sector during the early 1920s were in public works and private construction. The efforts of a small number of female pioneers to enter these occupations was met by strong opposition from the Jewish organizations as well as from workers themselves. Male workers, who usually organized in collectives, complained that women were causing “deficits” in the collectives’ budget and were reluctant to accept women into their collectives. According to the Histadrut, in 1922 there were only about 400 women engaged in public work, comprising 14.8 percent of all worker members of collectives. However, more than half of them worked in the kitchens of the workers’ camps, and only about 100 women were employed in actual road construction, all of them as gravel workers. This work could be done more efficiently by machines, but since it was considered suitable for women, especially by the pioneers, it was given to a few groups of women whose wages were largely supplemented by the Jewish Agency. As road construction came to an end in 1923, many women moved back to the urban center, where the only work available was in private construction, stimulated by the large waves of immigrants in 1924 and 1925. In an attempt to open this sector to women, pioneer women were trained in construction-related jobs such as tiling, painting, and bricklaying. However, they encountered stiff opposition from their male comrades. In order to strengthen their bargaining power, and as a response to their exclusion from collective groups, a few of them established all-female collective groups in the cities (havurot). In 1924 Hellwig Gellner, appointed by the Zionist Executive to study the conditions of women in the labor market, wrote: “I am of the opinion that at the present moment there is not really a great number of girls whose ideal is to do this kind of work.” Nevertheless, she agrees that “As a matter of equity and justice, the girls should be given the opportunity to be admitted to such work as they are capable of doing.”

Despite the Women’s Council’s success in persuading labor organizations to accept women into their ranks and to secure a certain percentage of jobs for women, by 1926 only about 100 women were employed in this sector. It is these few pioneer women that came to symbolize women and work in the Yishuv. There is no doubt that the women who sought work in construction did so primarily for ideological reasons. Construction was regarded as very prestigious work, second only to agriculture, and central to Zionist ideology. The fact remains, however, that very few women were willing to go into construction and public works, and none remained there for a lengthy period of time. By 1930 construction and public works disappeared altogether as a source of employment for women. In 1936–1937, years of crisis, construction again surfaced as a marginal source of employment for women, just as it did in the slump years of 1922 and 1926. The Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot announced that with the surge in public works, it saw the need to introduce women workers into these jobs, which for years had not been held by women. However, a great deal of explanation was needed to persuade female Histadrut members to join the ranks of construction workers. According to the 1937 labor census, two to four percent of construction workers were females, most of them employed as painters and tile layers.

The economic reality is that women entered the construction sector during periods of economic downturn as they did in 1923, 1926, and 1937, only to leave the sector as prosperity resumed. This raises the question whether they were really driven by ideological considerations or whether ideology was developed simply to justify a harsh reality. Regardless of the answer the fact remains that the majority of women in urban centers shied away from construction and preferred to assume work in the other two available sectors, industry and services.

Women in Industry

During the 1920s there were scarcely any factories to speak of in the country. The few existing enterprises were sweet factories, cardboard, and cigarettes. Handicraft and home industry were the major areas of female employment. Many independent craftswomen were to be found among dressmakers, weavers, potters, jewelers, embroiderers, doll makers, leather and cardboard makers, in laundry, ironing, and baking services.

The aspiration of women to work in the industrial sector was not viewed positively by the national institutions and the Zionist leadership, who were afraid that the increased supply of female workers would drive wages down, “defeat the purposes and important functions of the woman pioneer in our national revival” and cause “cultural deterioration” in women.

In an attempt to find work for women in towns and at the same time protect them from the evils of industry, the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot tried to group young female workers together in cooperatives known as havurot (cooperative groups), for dressmaking, embroidery, and laundry work. However, this did not prove a success, and in 1926, the worst year in terms of unemployment, only 70 women belonged to havurot. According to Gellner, the reason was that “They have neither the thorough knowledge of their trade nor the feeling of responsibility needed for cooperative work.”

The so-called Polish wave of migration in the mid-1920s, composed of immigrants from Eastern Europe, primarily Poland, stimulated the development of light manufacture, especially the textile and clothing branch. As industry developed, young, single, and non-skilled women entered the trade in increasing numbers and were mainly employed in the ready-made clothing branches, textiles, cigarette manufacture, sweet factories, and manufacture of citrus products. By 1927–1928, many were absorbed in industry. The result was an impressive increase both in female activity rate and female participation rate in the first period, despite the negative attitude displayed by the national institutions towards this sector.

However, no corresponding change occurred in the industrial distribution of female workers and in 1930 women were still employed mainly in the same four industries at the following proportions: 36.6 percent of all workers in textiles were women, constituting 15.6 percent of all female workers. In clothing 37.5 percent of total workers were female, constituting 36.2 percent of female workers. In printing, 25.4 percent were women, who were 17.7 percent of all female workers, while in food 17.3 percent were women, who constituted 18.2 percent of all female workers. In the metal, electrical, leather, and wood industries there were no women workers. Tel Aviv, which emerged as the largest industrial center in pre-state Palestine, experienced the highest degree of industrial segregation of women. In 1930, 37.6 percent of all female workers were employed in the cardboard industry, where 94.2 percent of all workers were females, 25.2 percent were employed in textile where 65.6 percent of workers were females. The food industry employed 20.4 percent of all female workers, and 76.9 percent of all workers in this branch were female.

The rapid growth of light industries or “female industries” such as textile and clothing may explain the slow but steady increase in women’s participation in the labor force in the 1930s.

The rapid increase in the female employment share in industry in the early 1940s was the result of an exogenous factor, namely World War II. An increase in the employment share of women during the war was indeed observed in all industrialized countries involved in the war, as women replaced enlisted men in the labor market. However, in the Yishuv it was the unprecedented expansion of industrial production rather than a process of temporary replacement that explained the growth of female employment in the industrial sector. Stimulated by the growing demand of the British army on one hand, and the increasing demand of the local market on the other for locally produced goods, production expanded and demand for workers increased. The growth was primarily in apparel, chemical industry, electrical supplies, and, to a lesser extent, in food, metal, and printing. In textiles and building materials the number employed actually declined during the war. As demand increased for female workers they entered into new branches of industry and manufacture. The widening range of employment opportunities for women attracted many women previously employed as domestic servants, low-paid factory workers, or agricultural laborer to the industrial sector. Thus, the unprecedented move of women into industry was a result of the availability of large numbers of women previously employed in the service sector which decreased during the war.

Despite the increase in employment opportunities for females in industry, they still tended to concentrate in the traditional labor-intensive industries, where the value product share was high, but share in capital investment was very low.

High levels of internal occupational segregation within each industry also persisted during the second period. All censuses render a similar picture of “crowding” in the industrial sector though actual figures differ. In 1937, 47.3 percent of all female workers in the food industry were concentrated in the sweet industry, comprising 77.3 percent of all workers in this industry. In the press and paper industry 45 percent of female workers were cardboard workers, comprising 86.6 percent of all workers in cardboard. In the textile industry 71.5 percent of females were seamstresses, comprising 94.5 percent of workers in this profession.

Despite the sharp decline in army demand following the war, industry shifted smoothly to peace time production. Industries hurt by the diminished demand of the army were primarily those employing male workers, such as metal, wood, and electrical supplies. Light industries managed to adjust themselves to the change, resulting in only a slow decline in female employment in industry.

Women in Services

The key sector in terms of female employment and total employment was the service sector. The share of services in total employment in the Yishuv increased from 38.1 percent in 1922 to 50.0 percent in 1939, remaining constant throughout the war years. Female activity rate in services increased from 40.5 percent to 60.7 percent in 1939, declining to 49.9 percent by 1945. Female employment share in the sector increased from 19.3 percent in 1922 to 28.2 percent in 1939, declining during wartime to 24.7 percent.

In the first period, the lack of industry and the inability of the agricultural sector to absorb more workers compelled women to seek alternative occupations in the service sector. In the second period mass migration, the growth of the cities in the early 1930s, the rise in the number of restaurants and hotels, and the rise in the number of affluent immigrants mainly from Central Europe, created increased demand for female workers in services. The flow of capital, mainly private, increased, and the financial field expanded considerably. The employment share of public services and government services also increased as a result of mass immigration and the threat of war. The decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states required the Jewish sector to increase its participation in local government, police, and community services, further increasing demand for service workers.

Within the service sector women were concentrated mainly in trade or commerce, public services, and personal services. According to the 1931 census, women in commerce comprised 11.7 percent of all workers or 8.2 percent of all female workers; in the public services they were 28.4 percent of workers and 19.5 percent of all female workers; and in personal services 59.8 percent of all workers or 25.1 percent of female workers. In domestic services alone they amounted to 83 percent of workers or 21.7 percent of total women workers.

Trade and Commerce

The majority of the immigrants who arrived during the first period possessed neither enough capital for investment in industry nor an ideological commitment to pioneering work. They therefore naturally turned to commerce and trade, occupations to which they had been accustomed abroad. Indeed, there was a steady increase in employment rate in this sector from 13.3 percent in 1931 to 14.1 percent in 1939, reaching 15.1 percent by the end of the war. Since trade and finances were occupations typical of Jews abroad and not accommodating to Zionist and socialist aspirations, they were largely ignored by Jewish institutions, and as a result little if any information is available on this sector.

From what we do know, it is clear that from the onset women played an important role in the commercial life in the Yishuv. In the first period retail trade was exclusively in the hands of small shopkeepers, assisted by their wives and often also their children. Since most women were employed alongside their husbands, they were not paid and thus not always enumerated in the censuses. Hired work was not very common and most of the hired salespersons were male. In 1924 Gellner reported that the number of females in shops was very small. In 1919 the census of Jews in Safed and Tiberias, two traditional towns, enumerated 14.9 percent and 21.1 percent of total female workers in commerce and finance. Only from the middle of the 1930s did modern specialist shops and small general stores appear, employing growing numbers of women as salespersons. However, the share of females remained relatively unchanged. According to the 1926 labor census 14.4 percent of total female workers were in commerce. Mass immigration and an influx of capital during the 1930s, culminating in 1937, explain the continued increase in the number of women employed in commerce.

In 1932, a census of commercial clerks in the three largest cities—Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem—showed that 20.7 percent of workers were females, the majority, 70 percent, employed as saleswomen. A similar picture is depicted by the labor censuses. According to the 1937 census of labor in trade, women comprised 37 percent of all workers in retail trade, as compared to 17 percent in 1926 and 20 percent in 1930. Of all persons employed under the category of “relatives assisting,” 77.6 percent were females and 47 percent of all salespeople were women. The majority of females were in the food and textile stores, 34.5 percent and 38.2 percent respectively of total women in the trade. Clerical work was not abundant during the Mandate period. Most clerks in trade and banking were male, as were clerks in government and Jewish institutions.

Public Services and the Liberal Professions

In general government and public services, the proportion of women was relatively low. Clerical work was regarded as a male field, especially in the national institutions where clerical work was perceived as a political rather than a technical job. It meant representing the organization or institution at the decision-making level, and as such was entrusted mainly to male workers. Only two occupations in the public sector were regarded as “feminine”—typists and stenographers. However, most of the women arriving in the first period were not appropriately trained and did not know the languages required. Only in 1930 did the employment share of women clerks increase impressively to 29.6 percent as a result of the increase in numbers of female clerks employed in private firms. According to the 1937 workers census, 15.1 percent of all female workers or 27 percent of all workers in this category were in the clerical professions. Among managers, however, only 8.2 percent were females, while 29.7 percent of secretaries were females.

Among professionals the employment share of females was constant and relatively high. It was high abroad, high in the Old Yishuv (the Jewish community before 1882), and high in the new Yishuv (1882–1948). In 1919 15.3 percent of all professionals in Safed and Tiberias were women, comprising 17.9 percent of all women workers. In 1922 the labor census lists the following occupations in the female gender: teachers, nurses, paramedics, doctors, and pharmacists, suggesting that the share of women in these professions was high. In 1926 an impressive 34.8 percent of all workers in liberal professions were women, comprising 19 percent of all female workers, the majority of them in health services. In 1930 in Tel Aviv 47.4 percent of total workers in the liberal professions were women, comprising 21.2 percent of all female workers. In the 1937 labor census women already comprised 46.7 percent of all professional workers. Education came to be considered a female profession only in the 1940s, as the percentage share of women among teacher reached 40 percent, most of them kindergarten teachers and elementary school teachers. In secondary education no more than 20 percent of teachers were females. The heaviest concentration of female workers within the service sector was in personal services.

Personal Services

From the outset, personal services were the most important source of employment for women in the Yishuv. Women concentrated heavily in this occupation in the Old Yishuv, as the 1905 census of Jaffa Jews and the 1919 census of Safed and Tiberias demonstrate. It was prevalent among the early pioneer women and even more so among the immigrants arriving in the country during the 1920s. Though there are no accurate data on the number of pioneer women employed in this sector before World War I, we gather from their writings that they were driven into it in alarming proportions by lack of other employment opportunities.

There are very few statistical data available on the employment share in personal services. The majority of women in this branch were employed as domestic servants in private homes and virtually all workers in this category were females. The rest were employed as cooks and waitresses in restaurants and hotels. A large percentage of female workers in domestic services were young Mizrahi women or Arab women who were not organized in the Histadrut and not enumerated in their censuses.

Economists suggest that high rates of population growth, a limited absorptive capacity of the productive sectors and high unemployment combined to drive many females, regardless of their skills, into personal services, leading to the creation of female “bulging” in this sector.

In the early stages the Histadrut strongly opposed women going into domestic services and as a result only a few of them were organized, the trade was never regulated and work was seldom arranged through the Labor Bureau. The question of domestic services was raised as early as the first convention of female workers in June 1914, at which a decision was reached to view this type of employment as a “source of work that the worker may choose when there is no other suitable work.” However, attitudes changed as women entered the sector in increasing numbers. By 1926 the situation reached immense proportions, and according to the workers censuses the employment share of females in domestic services doubled from 1926 to 1929. In 1931 a survey found 6,000 domestic workers in Tel Aviv alone; if correct this constitutes 40 percent of all female workers in the city.

In 1929 female employment in this sector reached an all-time peak. In Haifa half of the women employed worked in restaurants, hotels, or private homes. In Jerusalem more than half were employed as domestic servants, and in towns like Safed and Tiberias, which belonged to the Old Yishuv, the percentage share of services in employment increased to almost 70 percent. Even kibbutz women were employed as domestic servants. Only when it reached, in the eyes of the leaders, catastrophic proportions did the Jewish Agency and the Histadrut start looking for ways of improving working conditions as well as wages in this sector. However, by then domestic service was well established, out of the reach and control of the Histadrut. Reports by the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot during the 1930s as well as reports from Jerusalem in 1937, Tel Aviv in 1936, and Haifa in 1939 affirm that domestic service was still the major source of employment for women well up to the war.

The increase in employment opportunities for women in industry during World War II brought about a sharp decline in female employment rate in the service sector. The Labor Exchange Bureau complained that demand for domestic workers could not be met. However, in places like Jerusalem or in the moshavot, where industry did not develop, domestic services continued to be a major source of employment for female workers.

Thus by the end of the war, the employment share of services in female employment contracted from 60.7 percent in 1939 to 49.9 percent in 1945, primarily due to decline in personal services.

Wage Differentials

Wages of women workers in the Yishuv were consistently lower than the wages of their male counterparts; throughout the period, women’s average wage comprised about 50 to 70 percent of males’ wage.

Lower earnings for women in the Yishuv era can be explained primarily by the occurrence of “overcrowding” or “bulging.” A supply of women workers in excess of demand pushed women into a small number of occupations and drove wages down. The examination of wage gaps by industries as published regularly by the Histadrut in Sicumim reveals that in occupations considered “feminine” or industries where women tended to cluster, the coefficient of discrimination was much higher than in male industries.

Wage disparities in the Yishuv were less distinct in the agricultural sector due primarily to the overall lower wages in agriculture resulting from the competition of Arab labor. In industry women’s wages were considerably lower than men’s wages, women earning on average about 60 percent of what men earned.

During the first period wage differentiation by sex increased sharply. According to Histadrut sources, the percentage share of female urban workers in the two lowest wage categories, 150 mils per day and under, increased from 34 percent in 1922 to 57 percent in 1926 and 76 percent in 1929. At the same time only 13.3 percent of all male workers were in the lowest wage category and 29 percent in the two lowest categories. On the other hand, less than one percent of all women workers were in the four top income brackets as compared to 16 percent of male workers. In the agricultural sector 66 percent of all women were in the lowest income category as compared to 28 percent of men, while 84 percent were in the two lowest categories as compared to 67 percent among male workers. The increased disparity is partially explained by the marked rise in the number of women employed in services, especially personal services, which was the lowest-paid sector.

The wage gap continued to widen during the second period, including the war period, despite the general rise in wages during the war and the improvement in the work status of women.

The degree of wage differentiation, as measured by a coefficient of wage discrimination calculated on the basis of data regularly collected by the Histadrut and the British Government, increased from .50 in 1935 to .57 in 1945. The coefficient of discrimination was the lowest for monthly workers, increasing for daily workers and further increasing for piece rate workers.

According to the Histadrut census of 1937, 65 percent of all female workers enumerated in the census were in the two lowest income categories compared with 25 percent of male workers. At the same time, ten percent of women workers as compared with 50 percent of male workers were to be found in the highest income categories.

It was both common and acceptable for women and men performing the same work to receive different wages. During the 1930s and 1940s the Histadrut regularly published the acceptable wage rates for males and females in various occupations. Different scales of payments for males and females in the same occupations were overtly endorsed by the Histadrut. Thus, for example, in 1937 male box makers in the cardboard industry in Tel Aviv earned between 250 to 400 mils per day (the Palestinian pound, £P, was divided into 1,000 mils) while women earned between 150 and 210 mils per day; male tailors earned between 275 and 400 mils while females tailors earned between 200 to 300 mils; male chocolate makers earned 350 mils compared to women’s 175 to 250 mils per day. In Haifa in 1939, unionized male weavers were earning 330 to 370 mils per day while female weavers were earning only 200 to 240 mils. Agreements signed between the Histadrut and private employers clearly stated two scales of wages for simple workers—one for males and one for females. During the fourth conference of female workers the delegates repeatedly complained in their speeches that the minimum male wage was the maximum female wage.

The wage differentials did not pass unnoticed during the Mandate period. Though the slogan of “equal pay for equal work” was repeatedly raised at every conference of women workers, the Histadrut repeatedly rejected the principle. Despite its proclaimed aim of establishing a socialist egalitarian society in Palestine, the Histadrut had in fact adopted capitalist considerations of profitability and free competition in order to be able to compete for work and markets. The Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot adopted a similar pragmatic approach to the issue of wage differentials, primarily because they were more concerned with extending employment opportunities to women than equalizing pay. The general consensus among the female activists was that if women did not agree to lower wages, they would lose jobs altogether.


Women were not only paid less but were also less employable. More than their male counterparts, they suffered from high levels of chronic unemployment.

Despite the impression that high rates of general unemployment persisted in the Yishuv until 1942, recent research suggests that unemployment rates depended to a great degree on the cyclical fluctuations in the economy, reaching acute proportions at periods of downswings in the economy. Not so for women workers. In effect, evidence suggests that chronic high levels of female unemployment were a common feature throughout the Mandate period, regardless of cyclical fluctuations. Records of the Histadrut’s Labor Exchange reveal that female unemployment remained high and constant throughout the years, though its share in total unemployment fluctuated significantly, especially in the short run, in accordance with changes in male unemployment. For example, in 1935 women’s unemployment rates varied from 7.9 percent to 26.7 percent of total unemployed registered with the Histadrut’s labor exchange, depending on the month of the year. As general unemployment declined, women’s share in total unemployment usually increased. This suggests that men and women tended to operate in two separate labor markets, lending support to the dual markets theories of employment.

The general impression one receives reading the files of the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot, as well as personal memoirs, is that female unemployment was the major issue well up to 1942. Even in times of prosperity women activists complained about increased unemployment. In 1925, a period of prosperity and low unemployment rates in the Yishuv, the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot reported that unemployment “suppresses the women unmercifully.” Again in 1935, in the midst of growth and prosperity, the women workers’ magazine reported widespread unemployment, poverty, and despair among women. At the fourth convention of the Histadrut, in 1934, Ada Maimon (Fishman) protested that “There is prosperity in Palestine, but there is unemployment among women workers which nobody pays any attention to.” She was echoed by the new secretary of the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot, Beba Idelson, protesting that “There is an abundance of work in Palestine. (However), the woman worker does not get work even in jobs which are appropriate for her, like fruit picking.”

In general, unemployment rates were higher in the moshavot, where employment opportunities where more limited than in the three major cities. As expected, unemployment rates in the moshavot fluctuated according to seasons. According to reports by the Jewish Agency during the summer months of 1938, at peak unemployment in the moshavot, female unemployment was at its lowest, 28 percent of total unemployed, while at months of very low general unemployment in the winter it reached 51 percent. This suggests the existence of a steady pool of unemployed women in the moshavot, which did not change even in months of high demand for seasonal labor.

National organizations tended to blame women for the high rates of unemployment. As early as 1926 a memorandum of the Labor Department of the Jewish Agency stated that unemployment among female workers was determined less by short-term changes in the economy than by their lack of appropriate skills and professions.

Deborah Bernstein, who has extensively researched the plight of Jewish women in Palestine, stipulates, based on the fact that even in times of prosperity women workers suffered grave unemployment, “For women unemployment was not so much the result of economic factors, but rather derived from prevailing prejudices.” It is more reasonable to postulate a situation whereby males and females operated in two separate markets, affected differently by cyclical changes. This is further supported by the establishments of separate employment offices for females by the Women Workers Committees in 1927 (Women Workers’ Employment Offices), and again in 1936 (Employment Council) by the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot. The failure of the first attempt and the partial success of the second were due to the fact that they focused on finding jobs for women mainly in construction public work and agriculture, jobs that were highly regarded by the Council but not acceptable to most women, nor to the major employers in these sectors.

Unemployment declined only in the years 1943 to 1945, during World War II, and by 1945 the percentage of women looking for jobs as reported by the Jewish Agency was between one and eleven percent of the total number of persons looking for employment.

The Nature of Supply: Demographic Characteristics of the Female Workforce

The general consensus is that the female labor force in the Yishuv was primarily composed of young, single, and non-skilled workers. Another general consensus was that the lower share of females in the labor force in the first period reflects their low share in the population due to the fact that more males than females immigrated to Palestine during the first period. The explanation was found in the immigration policies of both the British government and the Jewish Agency who objected to the entrance of women to the country in equal numbers, though for different reasons. While the government assumed that women would find it harder to acquire jobs in the developing economy, the Zionist Movement considered the male halutz (immigrant) more valuable than the woman halutzah to the development of the Yishuv. Only with the development of industry at the beginning of the 1930s was this policy abandoned. Despite official policies and general belief, data reveal that except for a short period in 1920–1921, the numbers of male and female immigrants were almost at par, especially if one also takes into consideration out-migration as well, which was very high among males. According to Roberto Bachi (1909–1995), a contemporary statistician who studied the demographic behavior of various groups within the Yishuv throughout the period, 48.4 percent of the population was female in the first period as compared to 49.2 percent in the second.

Age Distribution and Marital Status

Contemporary writers suggest that women workers tended to be young and single. Unfortunately, figures on the age and marital status of the labor force were rarely provided during the Mandate period. The only figures available, though obtained primarily from the Histadrut’s censuses of labor and therefore to be treated with a great degree of caution, shed important light on the composition of the female labor force.

Most women workers were indeed young, between twenty to 30 years of age, reflecting similar trends in the age distribution of the general female population. Median age of female workers rose steadily from 21.8 in 1922 to 29.2 in 1945. The share of the very young, fifteen to 29 years of age, declined sharply during the second period, while the share of women 30 to 44 years of age increased at a similar rate.

Figures relating to the marital status of females in the labor force are just as rare, scattered, and at times conflicting. The overall trend observed was a decline in the number of single workers. This again reflects the trend in the general population. Among female workers the percentage of married women declined significantly from 1922 to 1929, suggesting that women in the first period dropped out of the labor force upon marriage. The trend changed during the second period as their rate sharply increased.

Bachi found that the marriage rate among the Jewish population was high, suggesting that though many immigrants arrived single, they married soon after arrival in the country.

The highest rate of married females in the labor force is to be found in the agricultural sector. Thus, in 1935, according to a census of one of the largest moshavot, Haderah, 38 percent were married. In 1941, 97 percent of all female workers in cooperative settlements (moshavim) were married, and 59 percent of female workers in kibbutzim were married as compared to 37 percent in the cities. The largest number of non-married workers was to be found in Tel Aviv. In 1926, only 22 percent of female laborers were married, 32 percent in Jerusalem and 41 percent in the agricultural settlements, indicating that as early as 1926 Tel Aviv attracted many single female workers. Among female workers in the non-agricultural sectors the highest proportion of married women was to be found among the professional women, mainly in education and medical professions.

Fertility rates declined throughout the period from 5.8 children in 1917 to 2.0 in 1942.


No consistent reliable data on educational levels over time are available for the period. However, the 1931 population census and the labor censuses provide some interesting information on the educational attainment of the labor force in Palestine.

The second census of workers (1922) suggests that in terms of knowledge of Hebrew, male workers had a distinct advantage. While 80.6 percent of all male workers could speak, read, and write Hebrew, only 47 percent of all women workers could do so. This suggests either an earlier Jewish education in Europe or better preparation for immigration on the part of the men. In the communal agricultural settlement, as might be expected, there were almost no differences in levels of knowledge of the Hebrew language—94.6 percent of men as compared to 85 percent among women. In the cities the gap was more pronounced—77 percent and 39.6 percent, respectively.

However, women possessed more formal education than men. The 1926 Workers Census demonstrated that more women had secondary education than men though the degree of higher education and number of professionals was similar. According to the survey of two large moshavot, Rishon Le-Zion in 1934 and Haderah in 1935, about 50 percent of the women indicated having an occupation abroad; the majority had an industrial-related or liberal profession or were students.

Despite the higher rate of female education, few females possessed the labor market skills considered valuable by the Jewish institutions. In 1926 Histadrut officials stated that only one-third of the women enumerated in the labor census indicated having a profession. Thus, one of the primary objectives of the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot during the period was to teach women new skills, as considered necessary for economic as well as ideological reasons. In the early period their efforts were concentrated on agricultural training farms and the construction trade, which catered to the needs of only a small group of pioneer women. However, in the mid-1920s, realizing the necessity of teaching urban women more demanded skills, they set up women’s cooperatives, in cooperation with the Labor Department of The Zionist Executive. The idea was to provide urban women with a living space within a group while teaching them new skills. The eleven cooperatives included mainly sewing shops, restaurants, and laundry shops. Once again ideological consideration interjected, and once again the training benefited only a small group of workers. In later years training was narrowed down to courses in cooking, home management, and sewing, within the framework of the Pioneer Women’s Homes. A survey of skilled tradesmen taken during World War II by the British Government reveals that the differences in degree of skills between males and females continued and was significant. While 42 percent of all skilled male workers were in the top two categories, only 22 percent of females were highly rated. On the other hand, more than half of the skilled women were in the two lowest categories as compared to a third of all male skilled workers.

The magnitude, structure, and characteristics of female employment in the Yishuv in the aggregated level reflect work opportunities available on the one hand, and the degree of supply responsiveness to given opportunities on the other. The response of female supply in the Yishuv to changes in demand over time was influenced by various socio-demographic factors such as size, age composition, marital status, fertility, education, and attitudes. The socio-demographic characteristics of the female population, especially the immigrants, were generally conducive to female employment and may explain the steady increase in the numbers of women workers. The majority of women came from Eastern and Central Europe, where they were exposed to western patterns of early twentieth century economic behavior. Wage labor was not foreign to them, especially in the industrial and service sectors, and many of them possessed the education, skills, and attitudes required for salaried employment. The existence of a large proportion of young non-married women, especially in the first period, explains the rapid growth of female employment and the changes in occupational distribution. The over-supply of young non-married women may also explain the phenomenon of “bulging,” the clustering of women in the personal services, during the first phase of development. The second period of slower growth rates and decline in size of the service sector coincides with an increase in the share of older, married women and declining fertility, suggesting a positive interaction between these factors and participation rates in periods of advanced development, as observed in many developed countries.

Thus socio-demographic factors were generally favorable to female employment and can be regarded as facilitating the propulsion of women into the labor force. However, supply factors alone cannot explain the low rates of participation in the first period; the pattern of occupational distribution, especially the phenomenon of “bulging” in the service sector; the constant high rates of female unemployment; and the tales of hardship. Possible explanations may be found in the structure of demand for labor and female labor, in particular in the Yishuv.

Demand Structure for Female Workers

In the first period the Jewish economy was small, primarily urbanized and highly dependent on exogenous forces. The immigrants, arriving in increasing numbers, were faced with a young economy in the formative years of industrialization and in the process of development of new economic activities. The agricultural sector, though highly regarded, was small, experimental and unable to absorb the excess supply of labor. Industry, despite a growth in the number and size of industrial enterprises and the impressive increase in productive capacity, still resembled handicraft rather than industry. Increased production in the manufacturing sector was impressive, but not sufficient to provide employment for the growing numbers of immigrants.

Manufacturing in the first period also lacked strong traditional female industries, which in many industrialized countries attracted the majority of working women. Thus, industrialization and development could not keep pace with population growth and urbanization, which were solely induced by external forces not related to the economic status of the Jewish sector. The inability of the agricultural and manufacturing sectors to absorb all workers, and the lack of strong traditional female industries in the first period, compelled women to look for employment elsewhere. Hence, female workers, unable to withstand the strong competition in the productive sectors, were forced to seek alternative occupations in the sole sector open to them, the service sector. Within this sector they were propelled into the most traditional branches—personal services and market trade. Over-concentration in personal services led to the phenomenon of “bulging” or “hypertertiarization,” which characterized the female employment market in the first period, obscuring any other developments. Consequently, in the first period, the service sector accounted for a major part of total female employment. A similar trend has been observed in many developing countries, where changes associated with development did not initially lead women to participate in large numbers in the productive sectors. On the contrary, development has created employment opportunities in traditional sectors, in which women worked at jobs that were an extension of their roles at home, such as domestic services, sewing, and cooking.

Thus the initial development of a Jewish national economy, though resulting in increased production and ascending rates of employment, did not generate adequate demand for female workers. The accelerated growth in female activity rates in the first period can be explained primarily by the initial low rates of participation and by overcrowding in personal services, brought about by excess supply over demand and the inability of the young economy to provide sufficient employment in the productive sectors.

At the beginning of the 1930s, the Jewish market was strong enough to bear the pressure of population growth. Consequently, the second period was one of accelerated growth, upsurge in economic activities and vital structural changes. Agriculture underwent a significant structural change: by 1931, citriculture became the main productive branch in agriculture and the single leading export sector in the economy. Major structural changes in industry were associated with the increase in industrial production in the second period, as the number of large, modern, capital-intensive industrial enterprises increased during the mid-1930s and industries traditionally considered “feminine” expanded their production. The expansion of female industries coincided with declining competition in the labor market, as both Arab workers and male workers withdrew from the labor force in increasing numbers, the former due to political circumstances, and the latter due to the outbreak of war. Consequently, demand for female workers rose in all sectors. Employment opportunities increased and women assumed new positions in the productive sectors. During the second period, female activity rates as well as their share in the labor force reached an all-time peak, though the pace of growth diminished relatively to the first period. One may infer that though female employment rates rose during the second period, the increased demand for female workers affected primarily the sectoral distribution of female employment rather than the total share of women in the labor force, as female employment shifted from the services to the productive sector.

Changes in the requirements of the economic system, namely changes in demand factors, were the primary forces for change in the employment status of women. In a country where socio-cultural tenets did not hinder female employment, though there is ample evidence that sexism existed, where women were legally equal and possessed the desire and skills necessary for employment, opportunities for employment were critical factors in determining the magnitude and trends of female activity rates. Thus, in the first period, the influx of people and capital into the country ensured the availability of the workforce and capital resources needed for the economic development of the Jewish sector. The immigrants brought over with them socio-cultural traditions prevalent in their countries of origin, which were generally favorable to female employment. However, the inability of the economy to develop fast enough to absorb the increasing supply of labor in the first period resulted in increased unemployment, depressed participation rates, and overcrowding in personal services.

During the second phase of development, a high rate of female supply combined with expanded employment opportunities to increase employment rates, though at a slower pace than before, suggesting that the expanded productive sectors attracted female workers previously employed in other sectors. Thus, while in the first period demand forces caused an upward shift in the supply curve, in the second period demand forces generated movements along the supply curve.

In sum, the findings imply that female employment in pre-statehood Israel replicated the general pattern established by developed countries, responding to higher levels of economic development with increased participation rates. The data support the U-shaped curve hypothesis regarding the interrelationship between female activity rates and economic growth in the more advanced stages of development. Thus, in the first period, female participation rates increased steadily, though the pressure of over-supply, competition, unemployment, and deficiency in employment opportunities forced women into traditional female industries. During the second period increased employment opportunities and declining unemployment and competition explained the continued upsurge in female activity rates, despite overall high rates of labor supply.


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How to cite this page

Bar-Yishay, Hanna. "Women in the Yishuv Workforce." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 18, 2021) <>.