When disaster strikes, it can change the fabric of a society – often through the sheer loss of human life. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami left 35,000 children without one or both parents in Indonesia alone. The Black Death killed more than 75 million people worldwide and more than a third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1351.

While disasters are by definition devastating, sometimes they can lead to changes that are a small silver lining. The 2004 tsunami ended a civil conflict in Indonesia that had left 15,000 dead. The 14th century’s plague, probably the most deadly disaster in human history, set free many serfs in Europe, forced wages for laborers to rise, and caused a fundamental shift in the economy along with an increased standard of living for survivors.

One hundred years ago, a powerful strain of the flu swept the globe, infecting one third of the world’s population. The aftermath of this disaster, too, led to unexpected social changes, opening up new opportunities for women and in the process irreversibly transforming life in the United States.

The virus disproportionately affected young men, which in combination with World War I, created a shortage of labor. This gap enabled women to play a new and indispensible role in the workforce during the crucial period just before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women suffrage in the United States two years later.


Flu brought more women into the workforce

The severity of the epidemic in the U.S. was enough to temporarily shut down parts of the economy in 1918. In New England, coal deliveries were so severely affected that people, unable to keep their homes heated, froze to death at the height of winter. During the 1918 flu outbreak, researchers estimate businesses in Little Rock, Arkansas, saw a decline of 40 to 70 percent.

The worker shortage caused by the flu and World War I opened access to the labor market for women, and in unprecedented numbers they took jobs outside the home. Following the conclusion of the war, the number of women in the workforce was 25 percent higher than it had been previously and by 1920 women made up 21 percent of all gainfully employed individuals in the country. While this gender boost is often ascribed to World War I alone, women’s increased presence in the workforce would have been far less pronounced without the 1918 flu.

Women began to move into employment roles that were previously held exclusively by men, many of which were in manufacturing. They were even able to enter fields from which they had been banned, such as the textile industry. As women filled what had been typically male workplace roles, they also began to demand equal pay for their work. Gaining greater economic power, women began more actively advocating for various women’s rights issues – including, but not limited to, the right to vote.


Outside of work, women also became more involved in community decision-making. Women’s changing social role increased support for women’s rights. In 1919, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs was founded. The organization focused on eliminating sex discrimination in the workforce, making sure women got equal pay and creating a comprehensive equal rights amendment.

⇨ This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.