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Women and Public Opinion Polling

November 02, 2020

By Kwelina Thompson


Edith Halsey was coming up short. She was determined to complete her work on time, but her last tasks were proving elusive. Still, she perched her wool hat primly on her head, fastened her coat, grabbed her clipboard and headed out to her Chrysler. Halsey was committed to her job as a pollster. Her most recent challenges in gathering interview data did not dampen her spirit. If anything, she felt a renewed conviction that the work she did was essential.[1]

Halsey was part of a cohort of women that witnessed dramatic shifts in the American social landscape. Highly educated, Halsey, and women like her, found that their newly earned college credentials did not necessarily translate into particularly lucrative or interesting careers. The options were fewer still for married college-educated women who had once left their jobs to assume their roles as comfortable homemakers but had hoped to return to the workforce once their children were in grade school.[2] In the 1940s and 1950s, a job as a pollster presented new options for adult women, both married and single.

Women in Polling

Polling work was a new phenomenon. While survey collection has a long history in social scientific research, stretching back to Progressive Era settlement house reform, polling organized by business firms was a distinctly modern development.[3] George Gallup and Elmo Roper seized on developments in market research and the newly organized science of survey work that had incubated in federal administrative departments during World War I to establish their firms. Gallup and Roper helped to transform public opinion research into a rigorous science that could capture an image of a changing America.[4] For that Gallup and Roper, two public opinion research innovators, would need to draw on a steady stream of data supplied by pollsters like Edith Halsey.

While both men and women applied for jobs as pollsters, the flexible and intermittent nature of the work made polling especially appealing to women.[5] One article estimated that at least ten thousand women were working as pollsters in 1959.[6] Job postings featured in magazines like Good Housekeeping emphasized the ability of a pollster to “choose your own hours.”[7] That flexibility could be a liability. If a woman wanted to pursue polling work full-time, she needed to remain “on-call,” willing to take any assignment that was sent her way. This could mean working on weekends or holidays. Turnover was high as women often found the erratic nature of the job too difficult to sustain.[8]

Advertisement Hiring Women Pollsters

Edith Halsey enjoyed the work she did for Roper’s firm. She was one of the top interviewers for northern New Jersey. Cruising around in her Chrysler, Halsey’s monthly assignment was to complete 125 surveys. For $5-$6 a day, she was to meet with men and women from across an income spectrum in rural and non-rural areas and ask them a series of questions about their lifestyle or their opinions on major government decisions or policies. Like many pollsters, Halsey found that doors frequently slammed in her face. Survey respondents often waved interviewers off, noting that their opinions didn’t really count for much. Halsey disagreed. If faced with a shy or reluctant respondent, she insisted that their “opinions were just as important as [their] votes were to good government.”[9]

Establishing rapport with a respondent was a difficult task even for women who were thought to be poised and friendly. Another Roper interviewer, Mary Crawford, noted that often in low-income areas, pollsters were “automatically looked upon with suspicion.”[10] Crawford, a white middle class woman, felt especially challenged when conducting interviews with respondents of color. The gulf between her position as interviewer and her respondents felt so large that she often doubted if she received accurate responses.[11]

A diffident or cagey respondent, however, was only one of the many obstacles pollsters found. Sampling standards at Roper’s firm were rigorous and needed to be completed on strict timelines and schedules. Pollsters had to work in rain, sleet or snow to meet their quotas and often encountered unfamiliar neighborhoods and towns.[12] Indeed, it was the exacting standard that had sent Halsey back out into the brisk New Jersey countryside looking for a woman in the prosperous income bracket and a working class man in order to complete her monthly assignment.[13] She found her last interviewee, a male sailor, on a dairy farm. He was just pulling a cake out of the oven but spared a few minutes to unleash critiques of President Roosevelt and the state of American foreign policy. Halsey calmly recorded the responses and thanked the sailor for his time. She closed up her notebook and headed home, back to her three sons and husband. The days were long, but Halsey believed the work was not only vital but “fascinating.” Every day she got a sense of what her fellow Americans found frustrating or exhilarating. Social survey research brought America to life.[14]

Halsey, Crawford, and the women like them, were rarely featured in news articles and profiles.  Yet their work was on prominent display when polling data was published in prominent magazines. As it has often been during the development of scientific disciplines, their labor, though essential, remained hidden behind the generally male researchers who became the public face of scientific polling. To be sure, there were women academics like Hazel Gaudet-Erskine and Ruth Tolman who contributed to the development of the field. But, the women in these elite positions were far outnumbered by the army of women who pounded the pavement and gathered the data so necessary for the development of public opinion research.

[1] "How to Get a Part-Time Job as a Pollster," Good Housekeeping, February 1959, 123-24.

[2] Claudia Dale Goldin, Understanding the Gender Gap (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[3] Sarah Igo, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[4] Ibid.

[5] "How to Get a Part-Time Job as a Pollster," Good Housekeeping, February 1959, 123-24.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Igo, The Averaged American.

[11] Ibid.

[12] "How to Get a Part-Time Job as a Pollster”, 123-24.

[13] “Day with a Fortune Interviewer,” 124.

[14] Ibid.


For more on women and polling history in general, see:


Bulmer, Martin., Kevin. Bales, and Kathryn Kish. Sklar, eds. The Social Survey in Historical Perspective, 1880-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Fitzpatrick, Ellen F. Endless Crusade: Women Social Scientists and Progressive Reform. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

House, James S., and David L Featherman. A Telescope on Society: Survey Research and Social Science at the University of Michigan and beyond. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Igo, Sarah Elizabeth. The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Magazine Articles:

“Day with a Fortune Interviewer.” Fortune 24 (December 1941): 124.

"How to Get a Part-Time Job as a Pollster." Good Housekeeping, February 1959, 123-24.


Kwelina Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Cornell University. She specializes in U.S. economic history with a particular focus on the influence of technology on work processes and gender stratification. Her research explores the ways in which institutions of higher education, government policies, and professional organizations have transformed labor market outcomes in the post-World War II era.