Labor supply of women over time

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%.

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?

26 Responses to “Labor supply of women over time”

  1. Clarissa Says:

    In my country, not only the entire generation of our mothers worked but also the entire generation of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. After 1917 pretty much all women worked. Having the experience of 3 generations of powerful, professional and highly independent women behind me is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    Hmm. My mom was just telling me yesterday that she thought that getting married would mean she could take a break from work and raise children. The opposite happened. He stayed home and got drunk, while “raising me” and she worked. Since my mom comes from a farming family, I think working moms go back centuries in my lineage.

    I didn’t realize the existence of marriage bars. How peculiar.

  3. Everyday Tips Says:

    I didn’t know about marriage bars either.

    My great-grandma owned a dress shop that was in the lower level of her home in Detroit, so she worked. Is that considered outside the home? Doesn’t matter, she worked.

    My grandma didn’t work until she got divorced at the age of 50. My mom worked once I was in high school.

    I was the first female in the family to get a college degree (and my brothers were the first males actually). I guess you could say I was the first female to work outside the home that had kids, although it was only a couple years. When I have worked since, it has been from home.

    Very interesting post.

    • frugalscholar Says:

      Semi OT? I love the idea of E Warren as head of a consumer agency. But I find her books very annoying. She says that Americans are in shaky shape BECAUSE both parents need to work BECAUSE they need to live in a top school district. Hence houses in those districts are v expensive–hence families need 2 incomes to pay mortgage–hence a layoff will send family into financial disaster.

      I question all those assumptions–even though that is how many people think. I’d be interested in your take on Warren’s books.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, that part is pretty shaky. It does feed into what lots of families want to believe (“it’s not your fault!”) and helps her make her point (cut down on regular expenses). Her statistics are good, but her “whys” a bit not so great. But I doubt she ever crossed the quad to ask Claudia Golden’s opinion, even though the law school and the econ dept are practically *right next to each other.*

      • bogart Says:

        I’d be inclined to defend (or at least muse over) Warren’s point, actually. I don’t think it’s that earlier generations of parents didn’t care about their kids’ futures, etc., etc. But to take my father’s generation (I may have written about this previously here, in which case please forgive the repetition), when he finished high school, any white male graduate in this state could attend the flagship state university. Now, that doesn’t mean any white male could graduate, but even so (and while his sister also went to college, she got kicked out from where she was attending (a private women’s college) when she got married, because, eh, what does a married woman need with an education?). So families could focus their resources on (mostly) their sons — my father’s certainly did — but, provided they were in the right demographic group, be reasonably assured it would pay off. And of course if you weren’t in the “right” demographic group (i.e. you weren’t white), well, your prospects were generally (very) limited — but at least that, too, was a known quantity (NOT defending it by any stretch of the imagination, just saying it reduced incentive — as well as opportunity, of course — to achieve).

        Today of course things are noticeably different, and I do think parents notice, and care. “White flight’s” not a thing of the past, and it’s expensive to flee (this isn’t just about racially diverse schools, don’t get me wrong, but don’t tell me there’s not considerable positive correlation even today between racial composition of the student body and prospects of getting into competitive colleges).

        And, too, arguably more is at stake given the income inequality in today’s US, though in fairness my dad was born during the Great Depression, not an era noted for its economic equality.

  4. Linda Says:

    For as long as I can remember, my mom always worked outside the home. When I was really young she worked part time, but once I got to high school she worked a full time job. Now she’s not working, but she’s also 70 and not in great physical shape.

    I didn’t realize there were marriage bars, either. What a weird concept.

  5. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Yes, it’s funny how they had to make rules about such things. If all married women really wanted to be housewives back in the “good old days” they wouldn’t have had to do that.

  6. Dr. O Says:

    My mom worked outside the home as a teacher. She took some years off when we were young, which was acceptable in her field and didn’t prevent her from excelling in her career later in life. And she had summers off when my brother and I were out of school. Not that I would want to take that time off, but it is a difference in the role that work played in each of our lives, at least. Most of my friends are school teachers who’ve taken considerable time off to be with their kids as well, so my view of the “working mom” is a bit skewed, I guess.

    I think the difficult part is for those families where both spouses have careers that suffer from time off. That didn’t use to be the case for women, I don’t think. Time off or part-time work for young mothers may have presented a financial hardship, but it rarely resulted in a career being altered. That’s not necessarily the case for many working mothers these days.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Female-dominated careers tend to be more flexible in terms of time-off. There’s some argument about the causality on that. For example, nursing is pretty accepting of returning after time off, but that doesn’t seem to be a natural thing… the medical field does change over time and folks do get out of practice, but there are support structures within nursing to mitigate those problems. Structurally, any field should be able to ramp people back up after an absence, but only fields with a lot of women wanting to do that make the effort. As more fields tip to female-dominated (see: MDs, JDs), we may see that kind of structural change.

    • bogart Says:

      I’d observe that many fields with high proportions of women working in them are also very mobile — historically and today both teaching and nursing met this criterion (pretty much every locale needs good K-12 teachers and good nurses) and more recently I suspect that women’s migration into lawyering may reflect the same phenomenon. It’s one that greatly reduces the prevalence of the two-body problem.

  7. Little House Says:

    My mom worked outside the home for the first 10 years of my life, then became a stay-at-home mom. Actually the first 4 years of my life, my dad was a stay-at-home dad, but I think that’s what eventually drove my mom to divorce him (she didn’t like being the only one financially contributing to the family). So I can’t say that I’m the first generation to be a full-time working woman. Interesting snippets of history, though, especially the marriage bar.

  8. bethh Says:

    My mom stayed home during my childhood (she later got a master’s degree and worked for a decade or so). BUT both of my grandmothers were career women (both were nurses). I think their careers must have spanned the 1930s-70s or so, I’m not really sure when they retired. Unfortunately I don’t know too much about the women a generation further back: one was a farmer’s wife, one was a doctor’s wife, another died when my grandfather was a young man; I don’t know if any of them worked outside the home.

  9. bogart Says:

    My mother always worked outside the home, though not full-time when we kids were small. Of the other 4 women in her generation in my family, 1 has worked since getting divorced (with young kids), 1 has worked much of her life but probably not when my cousins were very young, 1 has always worked (as far as I can remember, though probably with a year or so off for each of 2 kid’s arrivals), and 1 has not worked outside the home since she got married (or had kids, I’m not sure which). Of my grandparents’ generation, of the 4 women I can think of (2 grandmothers, 2 great aunts), one worked basically as a freelancer, 3 did not officially “work” but of those 3, 2 were in spousal settings (think of a military officer’s wife) that (a) required high mobility and (b) were basically jobs in their own right. I’ve watched one of my mother’s generation’s women, similarly situated, refuse to be treated as an unpaid employee (by the organization employing her husband), creating assorted bits of stress and trouble for all concerned (but for a good cause, IMO). Going back more generations than that, I don’t really know.

  10. Cloud Says:

    My Mom worked outside the home, as a teacher. She took time off when her kids were little (she went back when I entered kindergarten- I’m the youngest), both because she wanted to and because she was required to quit her job when my older sister was born.

    She has a strong interest in child development, particularly in the baby and toddler years, and has said that in a different time, she might have become a researcher in that area. The world lost out, there- she would have been great at it. It is a revelation watching her with young kids. She just “gets” them and picks up on things that the rest of us miss. She looks back on the years at home with me and my sister as some of the best of her life, because that was a time when she really got to exercise that interest in early child development. The amazing thing about her (OK, one of the amazing things- she is an awesome mom) is how she has never made me feel bad for not taking so easily to parenting babies and toddlers as she did.

    Anyway, she channeled that interest in kids into primary school education, and was by all accounts a great teacher.

    One of my grandmothers also worked, at a series of mostly menial jobs, because the family (which had 7 kids) needed the money. The other grandmother stayed at home and ran the household with waaaay more precision than strictly necessary. She was one of those “irons the boxer shorts” women.

    On Elizabeth Warren- I think that we should question something fundamental in our society if only families with two parents working in high paying jobs can hope to send their kids to good universities. That is NOT the meritocracy that so many people claim we are.

    But for the record, I’d want to work even if we didn’t need my income. I like what I do. I think that playing up the idea that mothers only work because the “have” to does a disservice to all of us.

  11. Lindy Mint Says:

    My mom was actually one of the first in her family to stay home. My grandfather was a veterinarian, so my grandmother worked the pet hospital with him. My great grandparents ran a flower nursery, and both of them worked there.

    There are many ways in which the 50’s were a weird historical blip.

  12. Rosa Says:

    All four of my great-grandmothers were farm women, and immigrants. Both of my grandmothers had teaching credentials, but one pursued her career and the other was a stay at home mom. My mom is a teacher but was forced to quit because I was due in September and the district would not give maternity leave. She was a stay at home mom for 12 years and still retired with 3 decades of professional work under her belt.

    I do think E. Warren’s analysis works very well for middle-class married couples – the pressure on us to move to a “safer” and “better” school district has been pretty intense, and I know a lot of folks who’ve done it. I don’t think they’re responding to actual educational realities, but the social pressure is definitely there.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      In most of the country I don’t think it’s actually *that* expensive to move to the suburbs. Unless you MUST live in Lexington, MA instead of Belmont, MA, there are generally smaller house or rental options in good school districts (for people who have mobility– people without mobility are still stuck in segregated inner city neighborhoods). It is true that folks are having fewer kids, and *maybe* that’s a reaction, but it also means that folks have school aged kids for a shorter period of time. And, of course, free public high school has only actually been available in most of the country for something like a century (Claudia Goldin also has papers on the high school movement and its effect on women’s labor force participation).

  13. Z Says:

    My mother (born 1925) did not work outside the home. She had also dropped out of college despite the family’s many efforts to keep her in and also to get her a career.

    Both grandmothers (born 1883 and 1892) had college degrees and careers, although one, once she had my father in her 40s, became a homemaker. The other stayed home when her children were small, but then started back to work part time, and was eventually full time again.

    All my great-aunts born in the 1880s and 1890s, in the US and in Russia, also had college degrees and careers except for one who chose to be a farmer’s wife and another whose family’s economic crisis precluded college. She got a career, but didn’t become a wife/mother.

    I was born in the late 50s and was heavily encouraged not to have a career — college was for a decorative BA and an Mrs. degree. My four main high school friends all finished college eventually but none were career oriented. Two are still stay at home moms, and two have gotten divorced and become high school teachers.

  14. Donna Freedman Says:

    My mom worked. Her mom worked. My grandmother worked, my aunts worked, the moms of almost all my classmates worked. The jobs were not glamorous: field hand, factory worker (glass, dresses), bus driver, cafeteria cook, secretary….
    I was born in 1957, so this is not “new.”

  15. Petal Says:

    Claudia Goldin’s work doesn’t really address farm women – she just sort of waves her hand at it because of data issues. But even in the data she has, I think a lot of women are missing. My grandmother never paid into social security (even after it was started) but she certainly worked in the family business. I have many photos of her behind the counter, and my mother and her sisters remember walking to the store after school and doing their homework in the back.

    I actually think this was more common than is generally recognized and the one income that supported family that we so often hear about was really the product of 2 people’s labor. It was just reported under the man’s name.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      No, she doesn’t address farm women for the most part, and they were even more prevalent before the time period of her book.

      That’s a very good point about recording issues. The census is also annoying because during large portions of it they don’t even ask women whether or not they’re working or what kind of work they do.

  16. Petal Says:

    Lindy Mint – Do you know if your grandmothers’ wages were ever reported separately?

  17. Glenda Says:

    This has already come up in many comments, but what counts as “work?” Raising a family, cooking, cleaning, laundering usually is a full time job, even now that we don’t have to haul clothes all the way down to the fountain and beat them to get clean. Or go to the fountain every day to get water. Or sweep every day to remove bugs for which there are no sprays.

    This is just such a complex issue. My grandma, in the fifties, when unmarried, sewed for people around her to make ends meet. This was not a career by any stretch of the imagination, but it brought in money. I also was not technically outside of the house. The work allowed her to stay home with her children. And it was never reported income. When married and not sewing she had plenty of responsibilities. Probably more than when she was a widowed mother, because her husband required certain standards of cleanliness and food. This even being solidly middle class, and even being able to afford some household help at times.

    My great-grandmother was a midwife. This was way before there was schooling for this in rural Italy. I don’t know where she picked up the skills. It was just something she did. Again, this was a job that allowed her to stay close to home since she lived in a village. There weren’t enough births to make it a full time job, and if she needed child care she could ask a neighbor or even bring her kids to work.

    She also worked the fields close to home and was one of those women without running water. I’d say she worked, and probably way more than 80 hours a week. Besides the midwifing, this was all expected. Her husband worked a set number of hours in the farther fields, then came home and expected to be waited on. When she died, he insisted his widowed daughter (my grandma above) would come live with him. Grandma–to the horror of the village–refused and preferred sewing instead. I think it was a wise choice. She would have had to do way more work if she took up her father’s offer to “help” her.

    My paternal grandmother told us she worked in a sewing factory in the fifties. This was a place where “nice girls,” worked. I assume this meant middle-class, unmarried women. It seems the point of such jobs was to have some money to spend on clothes and hats so one could catch a man, and possibly put some money aside for a rainy day. My grandmother was very proud to have worked there, and even have been a supervisor. I am not sure when she quit or why. I think it was simply a question of not having to anymore. Maybe after the family recovered from the financial shock of WWII…

    Anyway, this woman definitely worked for wages and definitely felt like this was a career. She went to school, became a supervisor, even taught some classes. She also worked hard in the home, though I’m not sure if she had help when she was working on her career. And she felt vey accomplished. This was not something she did because she was expected to or because it was a financial imperative.

    These family experiences make me question what counts as work when doing research on the topic.

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