The Thinking 

The History of Married Women in the Workforce

February 7, 2011



It is funny that in America today, one gets the impression that the golden era was the 1950s. Everything was perfect and then things all went to hell starting in the 60s.  If one wants a return to the 1950s that makes one a radical and a “cultural conservative.” However, when looking at social statistics, one finds that the 1950s was a period of holding down the fort. The decade only looks good compared to what came after; it looks quite bad compared to what came before. Social indicators show that family breakdown began its steady upward climb in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Here I want to give you a table detailing the increase in married women joining the labor force decade by decade from 1890 up to the current day (data for 1910 is excluded due to the unreliability of data from that year). All data is from government sources. 

The labels in the table are:  All (the proportion of all married women 14, 15, or 16 years and older who are in the labor force), White (white women; in early years Native White women with Native Parents, later Native White women, then simply all White women), R/C (Rate of Change, the annualized rate of increase in the quantity of married white women in the labor force compared to the prior date), Black (black women; for the years 1940 to 1970 the racial classification refers to all Non-Whites, for all other years it refers only to black women)

 Percentage of Married Women in the Labor Force; 14, 15, or 16 years and older





1890 4.6% 2.2% 22.7%
1900 5.6% 3.0% 3.2% 26.0%
1920 9.0% 6.3% 4.0% 32.5%
1930 11.7% 9.8% 4.9% 33.2%
1940 13.8% 12.5% 2.8% 27.3%
1950 21.6% 20.7% 6.2% 31.8%
1960 30.7% 29.8% 5.0% 40.5%
1970 39.5% 38.5% 4.0% 50.0%
1980 50.1% 49.3% 4.5% 59.0%
1990 58.3% 57.7% 3.4% 64.6%
1995 61.1% 60.7% 2.5% 68.2%
2000 62.2% 61.4% 0.6% 71.4%
2009 61.7% 61.3% 0.0% 67.1%

                                                                —  Comments –

Lisa writes:

This is why modern homeschooling, with its return to Mom at home and Dad as Bread-winner-somewhere-else will not effect a permanent positive change for the good in our society. The true deterioration of the family began with industrialization and the pulling of fathers away from thinking of “home” as a productive place. Not that all fathers worked at home, but if, in the 1890’s, 90% of America lived “rurally,” there was definitely a different worldview about what happened at home, and who was there for a majority of the time. Mandatory schooling laws became more prominent around the same decades, and added to the segregation of the family.

Laura writes:

Homeschooling itself will not lead to a revolution in family life, though I believe it ultimately will make education better, even for those who do not homeschool. I’ve never made the point that homeschooling itself was the answer.

You say the rate of family decline is caused by industrialization. In other words, even though industrialization itself did not increase dramatically between 1960 and 1980, the entry of 10 percent more married women into the workforce during that time was caused by industrialization. From 1950 to 2009, the percent of white married women in the labor force increased by more than 40 percent.  You mean that despite the unprecedented material prosperity of this period, the family was destined to decline.

Obviously, the change from a heavily agricultural economy was an important factor, but we are not a poor nation. I might agree we had no choice to accept a massive decline in child well-being, along with major drops in fertility and a downturn in manners and community life, if true resistance to these phenomena had occurred, the sort of resistance that sprang up in the early decades of the twentieth century when women’s organizations sounded the alarm and worked to prevent more women from being drawn into the labor force because they saw it as harmful to marriage and children. Instead of resistance, we saw the exaltation of family breakdown and the glorification of careerism.

If we had no choice but to see our culture die, did we at least have the choice to say that what was happening was not good?

Lisa writes:

Though the rate number of women entering the workforce is not linear, but exponential, this does not preclude the forces being set in motion many years earlier having a delayed “compounding of interest,” so to speak. The rate itself may or may not be directly caused by industrialization, but I did not mean to intimate that. Sorry for the confusion.

And many theorize that rather than “despite the material prosperity of this period, the family was destined to decline,” that it, along with other factors sped the decline.

Laura writes:

Yes, those forces probably had a delayed effect. Technological and economic changes of the twentieth century were obviously an important factor.

Ideas were at least as important. For instance, if we look at villages on the New England coast in the 17th and 18th century, many of the men spent vast amounts of time away from home, sometimes for more than six months at a time on whaling trips in the Pacific. Family life did not deteriorate in those villages because fathers were often away.

However, let’s say for the sake of argument that technological and economic changes absolutely necessitated the departure of women from the home. In that case, if conceptions of family life had not changed, people would regard this as they might regard a physical disease. When one has a terminal disease, one does not regard it as good. One seeks a cure because survival depends on it.

You said earlier that men lost the idea of home as a productive place. I don’t think I understand what you mean. Do you think that people in the seventeenth century regarded homes as primarily economic entities even when agriculture was prominent? It seems that even then people regarded the most important “product” of the home to be human beings. For instance, literacy in America was very high, almost universal in the late eighteenth century. Why did parents bother to teach their children when they were going to be farmers, especially given the expense and time involved in teaching higher literacy?

The real productive purpose of the home has not changed. I know that Lisa agrees with me on that point, but I often hear this argument that people in the past saw their homes as cottage industries and that with industrialization the entire understanding of what home was changed. But this assumes a high level of materialism on the part of, say, 18th century Americans. They did not face many of the centrifugal forces that 20th century Americans have faced. Technology and the modern economy radically changed things. But America was from the outset a transient nation, presenting ample opportunity for family breakdown and individualism. Tocqueville was struck when he visited 18th century America by how much deliberate and conscious care was taken by Americans to maintain the different spheres of the sexes. His point was, this wasn’t all necessary. It was the result of spiritual and cultural forces.

Jesse Powell writes:

Lisa offers the hypothesis that a major source of family breakdown is men not viewing the “home,” the sphere of women in the home, as being “productive,” or worth supporting and protecting, when, as the result of the industrial revolution, they became physically separated from the home in their daily lives. Now, I will agree that men viewing “the feminine sphere” in the home as being important and worth protecting is vitally important but I think that men understood the importance of women’s work whether they were in physical proximity to the home or not. Also, from the point of view of the cultural understanding of the importance of women’s work in the home it seems to me that men and women lost this understanding in parallel to each other; certainly today neither men nor women on the whole understand the importance of women dedicating themselves to the feminine sphere within the home.

Already in 1900, life was not as oriented around agriculture and farming as one might think. I want to add, in the situation of a family living on a farm in the countryside where both the husband and the wife worked equally to maintain the productivity of the farm, both the husband and the wife would have been considered employed, the husband categorized as a “farmer” and the wife most likely categorized as an “agricultural laborer”; the very low numbers of married women working is not due to women’s work on the family farm not being counted. [Laura writes: However, a woman who was doing the normal work of a farm wife, such as maintaining the house, taking care of the children, tending the family vegetable garden and the chicken coop, etc. would not have been considered employed.]

In 1900, 25% of women 16 years old and older lived in cities of 50,000 people or more. In terms of employment, however, agricultural employment for both sexes was less than you might think. Already in 1900, even though the number of married women working was still very low, the occupations that most people held were already removed from the basic necessity of producing food. In 1900, among those 16 and older, 34% of all employment was in the agricultural sector; 38% of the employment for men and 16% of the employment of women. Outside of agriculture the biggest employment category for men was manufacturing and mechanical pursuits, employing 25% of men; and for women was domestic and personal service, employing 40% of the women who were working.

It is not accurate to say that in 1900 almost everyone still worked on the farm and that is why the domestic sphere of women was still valued. The cultural ethic of protecting the feminine sphere of the family from the intrusion of paid work was still very strong even when two thirds of the workforce was no longer on the farm.

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