One argument that many folks make, including such notables as Elizabeth Warren, is that this is the first generation in which both parents worked, and in which both parents needed to work.
Which, is, of course, not actually true.
The year I was born, 50% of our married mothers with children were working mothers. The year my mother was born, that number was 20%. http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2007/02/art2full.pdf
Most papers looking at the labor force participation of mothers start after WWII. What if we take a longer view? Claudia Goldin has. We strongly recommend her book on the topic, Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women.
So, let’s go back in time… looking here at married women only, not just married women with children (for data reasons).
One common argument is that WWII is responsible for the large increase in married women’s outside the labor force participation. Others point to the removal of marriage bars in the early 1950s, an increase in clerical work, an increase in public high school education, and other political and economic movements. By 1950, 21% of married women were in the labor force, and that number has steeply increased each decade to today.
Before WWII, marriage bars kept married women from working outside the home. Goldin estimates that in 1890, only 2.5% of married women worked in the labor force outside the home, compared to 80% of married men. By 1940, that number had increased to 12.5%.
Where did marriage bars come from? The Victorian era (late 1800s) ushered in a new era of bizarre beliefs about women and sex. Some revisionist historians point out increases in women’s rights within the family unit (eventually leading to suffrage), but given how much crap was going on outside the family unit pervading popular culture… it’s likely that those didn’t really have a large impact on women’s labor force status.
During the Victorian era, the (second) industrial revolution was going on. Industrialization allowed for two distinct classes– the Victorian ideal with the sheltered woman who doesn’t work but stays at home (perhaps having been a mill girl at a safe factory prior to marriage to earn her dowry), and the harsh reality of the lower-class working families, in which even the children worked in dangerous conditions. This was truly the first generation with surplus (for more than just a very small percent), and it wasn’t that long ago.
Prior to the second industrial revolution and the rapid increase in factories, women were involved in home production, most notably “putting out,” a manufacturing process in which the assembly line was broken up across many households. Something similar actually goes on in parts of rural China these days. General data are not available for the extent of these, but it is likely given scattered evidence that married women’s market work (albeit, market work in a home-based business) was higher prior to the marriage bars in the 1890s than it was during the time period Goldin’s book covers.
Indeed, men’s outside the home labor force participation was also lower prior to the second industrial revolution because the economy was farm-based and the labor of both parents and all children was needed for subsistence. Some recent work suggests that the specialization of labor within households and on farms was dependent on many things, possibly including whether or not the immigrant’s previous culture used plows (just saw a paper suggesting that the plow led to a culture of believing the woman should work inside at home rather than outside of the home).
If we look at the labor market experience of black women rather than middle-class white women, we see much higher levels of labor force participation throughout history. Widows and single women have also traditionally had much higher labor force participation rates.
So really, the 1950s Donna Reed thing was only a blip, and an illusionary one even then. Without marriage bars forcibly banning work by married women at the tail end of the Victorian era, working rates for women would also have been higher. Women’s labor force situation over time is long and complicated, but we are not the first generation to both work and take care of the home.
A related post from happiest mom discusses the middle-class hiring of help over time.
Are you the first generation in your family where the woman works outside the home?