The history of women's work and wages and how it has helped us all succeed (2023)

May 2020

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, we should also celebrate the great strides women have made in the workforce. Their entry into paid work has been a major factor in America's prosperity over the past century and a half.

Despite these advances, there is evidence that many women continue to fall short of their goals. Although the income gap between women and men is smaller than it was years ago, it is still considerable; Women are still underrepresented in certain sectors and occupations; and too many women struggle to balance work and family life. Further progress has been hampered by barriers to equal opportunity and workplace rules and norms that do not support an adequate work-life balance. If these obstacles persist, we will squander the potential of many of our citizens and significantly reduce the productive capacity of our economy, while population aging and weak productivity growth are already weighing on economic growth.

A historical perspective on women in the workforce

In the early 20th century, most women in the United States did not work outside the home, and those who did were mostly young and unmarried. At the time, only 20 percent of all women were "gained workers," as the Census Bureau then categorized non-domestic labor participation, and only 5 percent of married people were categorized as such. Of course, these statistics somewhat underestimate the contributions of married women to the economy beyond housekeeping and childrearing, since women's work in the home often involved working in family businesses and the home production of commodities such as agricultural produce for sale. In addition, the aggregated statistics obscure the differing experiences of women by race. At the time, African-American women were about twice as likely to be in the labor market as white women, largely because they were more likely to remain in the workforce after marriage.

If these obstacles persist, we will squander the potential of many of our citizens and significantly reduce the productive capacity of our economy, while population aging and weak productivity growth are already weighing on economic growth.

The fact that many women gave up their jobs after marriage reflected cultural norms, the types of work available to them, and legal restrictions. The career choices of those young women who worked were severely restricted. Most women lacked adequate education - and women with little education mostly toiled as piece workers in factories or as domestic workers, jobs that were dirty and often unsafe. Educated women were in short supply. Less than 2 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college, of which only a third were women. Such women did not have to do physical labor, but their choices were also limited.

Despite widespread sentiment towards women, especially married women, working outside the home, and given the limited opportunities available to them, women entered the labor force in larger numbers during this period, with participation rates approaching 50 by 1930 percent for single women and nearly 12 percent for married women. This increase suggests that while the incentive – and in many cases the imperative – remained for women to exit the labor market upon marriage if they could rely on their husband's income, mores were changing. In fact, these years coincided with the so-called first wave of the women's movement, when women came together to advocate change on a variety of social issues, including suffrage and temperance, culminating in the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote guaranteed.

Between the 1930s and the mid-1970s, women's participation in the economy continued to increase, with gains largely attributable to increased employment among married women. By 1970, 50 percent of single women and 40 percent of married women were employed. Several factors contributed to this increase. First, with the advent of mass higher education, graduation rates increased significantly. At the same time, new technologies contributed to an increased demand for clerical workers, and these jobs were increasingly filled by women. In addition, as these jobs tended to be cleaner and safer, and the stigma associated with working for a married woman forcing women out of the labor force diminished, these formal barriers were gradually removed in the post-World War II era.

The history of women's work and wages and how it has helped us all succeed (2)

In the decades from 1930 to 1970, there were also increasing opportunities for highly educated women. However, at the beginning of this period, most women still expected short careers, and women were still largely viewed as second earners whose careers came first.

Attitudes towards working women and their employment prospects have changed over time. With increasing professional experience, women increasingly realized that they could reconcile career and family. A new model of the two-earner family emerged. Some women entered college and graduate school with the expectation of working, whether or not they wanted to marry and start a family.

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In the 1970s, a dramatic change in women's working lives was underway. In the aftermath of World War II, many women didn't expect to work as much of their adult lives as it turned out. In contrast, young women in the 1970s were more likely to expect to spend a significant portion of their lives in the workforce, and they prepared for this by improving their educational qualifications and taking courses and college majors better suited to careers than women only prepared for jobs.

These changes in attitudes and expectations have been supported by other changes in society. Protections in the workplace were enhanced with the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 and the recognition of sexual harassment in the workplace. Access to contraception has improved, giving married couples greater control over family size and young women the ability to delay marriage and plan children around their educational and career choices. And in 1974, for the first time, women were given the right to apply for loans in their own name without a male co-signer.

In the early 1990s, the labor force participation rate for prime-age women—those aged 25 to 54—was just over 74 percent, compared to about 93 percent for prime-age men. By then, the proportion of women in the traditional fields of teaching, nursing, social work, and clerical work had declined, and more women were becoming doctors, lawyers, managers, and professors. As women improved their education and entered industries and occupations previously dominated by men, the gender pay gap began to narrow significantly.

Remaining Challenges and some possible solutions

We as a country have benefited greatly from the increasing role of women in the economy. However, there are signs that barriers to further advancement for women remain. The employment rate of women in their prime working age peaked in the late 1990s and is currently around 76 percent. Of course, women, especially those with a lower level of education, are affected by the same economic forces that have depressed men's labor force participation, including technological change and globalization, which stands at around 89 percent. While some married women choose not to work, the magnitude of this difference should prompt us to consider how structural issues such as inequality of opportunity and challenges in balancing work and family life are holding back women's advancement.

Recent research has shown that although women now attend almost as many vocational schools as men, they are still significantly less likely to reach the highest ranks in their profession.

The pay gap between men and women has narrowed significantly, but progress has slowed recently, and women who work full-time still earn about 17 percent less than men on average each week. Even when we compare men and women in the same or similar jobs who appear nearly identical in terms of background and experience, there typically remains a gap of around 10 percent. Therefore, we cannot rule out that gender-based barriers hold women back, including open discrimination, attitudes that hamper women's success in the workplace, and a lack of mentors.

Recent research has shown that although women now attend vocational schools in almost equal numbers to men, they are still far less likely to reach the highest ranks in their profession. Even in my own field of economics, women make up only about a third of graduate students. Recipients, a number that has barely moved in two decades. This lack of success in moving up into the workforce seems to explain why the wage gap does in fact remain widest at the top of the income distribution.

One of the main reasons these highly qualified women fail to reach the top of their professions and earn equal pay is that top jobs in fields such as law and business require longer work weeks and penalize taking time off. This would have a disproportionate impact on women who continue to wear the lion.” Part of housekeeping and child-rearing responsibilities.

But it can be difficult for women to meet the requirements in these areas once they have children. The fact that these types of jobs require such long hours is likely to deter some women -- as well as men -- from pursuing these career paths. Advances in technology have allowed greater division of labor and flexibility in scheduling, and there are more opportunities in this direction. Economic models also suggest that while it may be difficult for an individual employer to move to a shorter-time model, if many companies changed their model, they and their workers could all be better off.

Of course, most women are not employed in jobs that require such long hours or that have such severe penalties for time off. But the difficult compatibility of work and family is a widespread problem. In fact, the recent trend in many occupations is to require full scheduling flexibility, which can result in too few work hours for those with family needs and make childcare scheduling difficult. Reforms that encourage companies to offer some predictability in schedules, train workers to perform different tasks, or require a guaranteed minimum number of hours in exchange for flexibility could improve the lives of workers in such jobs. Another problem is that in most states, childcare is affordable for less than half of all families. And only 5 percent of workers with wages in the bottom quartile of the wage distribution have jobs that give them paid family leave. This circumstance presents many women with the choice between caring for a sick family member and keeping their job.

This possibility should inform our own thinking about policies that make it easier for women and men to balance their family and career goals. For example, improving access to affordable and quality childcare seems like the right thing to do, as it has been shown to promote full-time employment. Recently, there also seems to be some momentum towards giving families paid leave at the time of birth. European experience suggests selecting strategies that do not narrowly target childbirth but can instead be used to address a variety of health and care responsibilities.


The United States faces a number of longer-term economic challenges, including an aging population and a slow rate of productivity growth. A recent study estimated that increasing the labor force participation rate of women to that of men would increase our gross domestic product by 5 percent. Our jobs and families, and women themselves, would benefit from further advances. However, a number of factors appear to be holding women back, including the difficulties women currently face trying to balance their careers with other aspects of their lives, including caring. In seeking solutions, we should consider improvements in work environments and policies that benefit not just women, but all workers. Pursuing such a strategy would be consistent with the history of women's increasing involvement in the workforce, which has contributed not only to their own well-being, but more broadly to the well-being and prosperity of our country.

This essay is an edited version of a speech given by Janet Yellen, then Chair of the Federal Reserve, on May 5, 2017 at the 125 Years of Women at Brown Conference sponsored by Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island would. Yellen thanks Stephanie Aaronson, now Vice President and Director of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, for her assistance in preparing the original remarks.Read the full text of the speech here »

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About the author

The history of women's work and wages and how it has helped us all succeed (3)

Janet L. Yellen

Distinguished Fellow in Residence – Wirtschaftsstudien, The Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy

Janet L. Yellen is a Distinguished Fellow in Residence of the Brookings Institution's Economic Studies Program and an Advisor to the Magellan Group. dr Yellen previously served as Chair of the Federal Reserve Board (2014-2018), as Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve Board (2010-2014), and as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2004-2010). ) and as Chairman of the White House Economic Advisory Council (1997-1999). In 2012 dr. Yellen was named a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association, where she served as Vice President (2004-2005) and where she is currently President of the Executive Committee.



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How has women's role in the workplace changed over time? ›

It wasn't until after the 1970s that real changes could be seen in the workplace for women. A male-dominated job market saw a spike in women taking on new jobs that were once “traditionally male occupations” (Britannica, 2021). New technologies of the time helped with streamlining jobs so that any person could do it.

How did women's roles in the workforce change during World Was I? ›

When America entered the Great War, the number of women in the workforce increased. Their employment opportunities expanded beyond traditional women's professions, such as teaching and domestic work, and women were now employed in clerical positions, sales, and garment and textile factories.

What was women's role in society throughout history? ›

Throughout history, women have been healers and caretakers, playing multiple roles as pharmacists, nurses, midwives, abortionists, counselors, physicians, and 'wise women,' as well as witches. As early as 4000 BC, there were women who studied, taught, and practiced medicine.

What is the impact of the women's entry into the workplace? ›

The addition of women into the workforce was one of the key factors that has increased social mobility over the last 50 years, although this has stalled in recent decades for both genders. Female children of the middle and upper classes had increased access to higher education, and thanks to job equality, were able to ...

What is the importance of women's role in today's generation? ›

Women are the primary caretakers of children and elders in every country of the world. International studies demonstrate that when the economy and political organization of a society change, women take the lead in helping the family adjust to new realities and challenges.

What is the importance of women's work? ›

Women help build an inspiring work culture by bringing in healthy competition, fostering teamwork, bonding and thereby helping the company grow to its full potential. Imagine how bland lives would be without women adding the much-needed flavour and fibre not only in workplaces but also in our daily lives.

How did the women's movement impact society? ›

Voting ensures women's reproductive and economic progress. The 19th Amendment helped millions of women move closer to equality in all aspects of American life. Women advocated for job opportunities, fairer wages, education, sex education, and birth control.

How has the women's movement changed society today? ›

The feminist movement has effected change in Western society, including women's suffrage; greater access to education; more equitable pay with men; the right to initiate divorce proceedings; the right of women to make individual decisions regarding pregnancy (including access to contraceptives and abortion); and the ...

How did women's roles change as a result of the industrial? ›

With the availability of manufactured goods, a woman's role as producer within the home was reduced. The household, and the women who made it a home, took on new meaning. The new role of women was to transform the home into a haven for the men who faced daily pressures and dangers in the work place.

How were women's roles changing? ›

Education has made women independent and they are no longer dependent on men to lead their lives. Business laws have changed to allow more women in the workplace and giving them a comfortable environment to work in. Women can now stand tall like men and get equal opportunities in everything.

How did a women's role in the workplace change during the 1920s? ›

Women's Jobs in the 1920s

The jobs that had the most significant increase for women were clerks, typists, operators, and manufacturing. As families began hiring fewer servants, these women took jobs in stores, offices, and factories.

How did women's roles change in the 21st century? ›

The role of women has also changed in the 21st century. They are no more restricted to cooking, washing clothes, doing household works and looking after their children and family.


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