In 2010, nearly 60% of American women over the age of 16 were employed. In 1940, that number was 25%. And when just a quarter of the female population went to work outside the home, there was no public debate about “leaning in” or “having it all.” Though some women chose to work, a good portion of those who worked did so because they had to.
That year, LIFE dove headlong into “an important species of American woman”: the “White Collar Girl.” The movie studio RKO was adapting Christopher Morley’s best-selling novel Kitty Foyle into a film starring Ginger Rogers. The movie, which would land Rogers an Oscar for Best Actress, followed a lower-middle-class working girl from Philadelphia on her exploits in work and love.
LIFE seized the opportunity to dissect the trials of the “White Collar Girl” in a photographic essay featuring Carol Lorell, a Rogers look-alike whose life happened to mirror Kitty Foyle’s: “Like Kitty, she came from Philadelphia, ran away from home, first lived in a lonely female hotel.” Lorell’s poses took readers through a day in the life of a woman like her: grabbing a bite at a lunch counter, serving customers at her job and dressing for a date.
Despite these images of independence, this working girl, whose life was presented as a matter of class-driven necessity, would rather not be one—Kitty would choose to marry and forgo the lonely city nights, if only she could meet a mate. Kitty’s and Carol’s futures hinged on their capacity to land dinner and a movie as opposed to a raise and a promotion: “Living in a city full of men, bumping into them on the crowded streets, mashed up against them in subways and elevators, she still yearns to know them and is lucky if she can get herself a few dates.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.