A Woman’s Wage: Trends by Race and Family Structure 1920-1990


This post investigates the social construction of the woman’s wage over the 20th century (1920-1990). The woman’s wage is a measure of the inclusion of women in society, and we gain important insights when we consider wage as a social construction rather than a theoretical outcome of supply and demand (Kessler-Harris 1991). Early in the 20th century, the minimum wage for women was defined in relation to the amount of money needed to support a family, termed the “family wage,” and the amount necessary to support the American standard of living termed the “living wage” (Kessler-Harris 1991). It was the social norm that the family wage should be earned solely by the breadwinner husband leaving the homemaker wife free to nurture her family (Folbre and Abel 1989, Kessler-Harris 1991). So, women’s wages were thought to be given at the expense of family, and employers paid women a minimum wage much lower than the standard living wage because society assumed a husband or a father supported them. In this way, men were paid on the value they created and women on their assumed need. This construction of a woman’s wage reproduced female dependence on husbands and fathers as well as a gendered workplace.

What is the legacy of this conception of the American family and how has the social construction of the woman’s wage changed over time? How has the woman’s wage been socially constructed differently for women of color? I analyze census data to look at trends in labor force participation and income of women by race and family structure. I argue that the social construction of the “family” and the women’s wage are interrelated: family status is an important factor in the social construction of a woman’s wage and woman’s wages may also affect family status and conceptions of family. I also argue that the woman’s wage is constructed differently for women of different races, as they have fundamentally different experiences than white women (Omi and Winant 2014). Increasing our understanding of the remarkable changes over the 20th century is still important, especially because in the United States women still earn only 80% of what men earn on average (Bailey and DiPrete 2016).

Census analyses and other quantitative studies have established that women’s labor force participation has increased steadily since 1920 (Barrett 1987, Bailey and DiPrete 2016). The increase was especially sharp between 1950 and 2014, when the fraction of women in the labor force rose from less than one-third to one-half (Bailey and DiPrete 2016). The feminization of the labor force depended on a myriad of different factors. One is the transition from multi-generational households and family industries to nuclear households and market work during the late 19th century (Smith and Ward 1984). This lead to women whose labor (on family farms, for example) was previously not counted by the census to move into market jobs (Folbre and Abel 1989). An increase in women in clerical work was an important factor in increasing feminization of the labor force early in the 20th century (Smith and Ward 1984). We also know that in 1900, being married effectively precluded women from working, with an increase in the proportion of married women working through time (Smith and Ward 1984). Decreasing fertility also cause female entry into the workplace because women had more time to spend working rather than raising children (Smith and Ward 1984).

Women’s wages have increased on average as well (Altonji and Blank 2016). This is suggested to be a result of increased educational attainment and skills of women (Bailey and DiPrete 2016). Although women’s labor force participation has increased dramatically and women’s wages have increased on average, pay gaps between women and men are still large, especially in high income positions (Bailey and DiPrete 2016). There are many studies investigating the role of premarket factors like educational opportunity and pursued fields of study (Altonji and Blank 2016), marital status and motherhood (where marriage and as well as being a mother of a child under the age of five generally correspond with lower labor force participation) (Bowen and Finegan 1966, Bailey and DiPrete 2016), as well as the effect of the advent of contraception on labor force participation and salary (Bailey and DiPrete 2016). Overall, family structure has been very dynamic over the course of the 20th century, with a strong increase in divorces and single-parent families starting around 1950 (Eric and Pager 2010).

There are also studies looking at how the overall trends in the economic advancement of women can be viewed through the lenses of socioeconomic class and race. In 1980 women working jobs in the 10th percentile of skill level made 69% of what men made, where women working jobs in the 90th percentile of skill level only made 64% of what men made (Bailey and DiPrete 2016). Salaries of white women are almost always higher than black women, although labor participation of black women was much higher than white women most of the 20th Century (Altonji and Blank 2016, Bailey and DiPrete 2016). We also know that labor force participation increased more rapidly for white woman than for black women from 1920 to 1980 (from 17% to 63% for white women and from 42% to 64% for black women) (Smith and Ward 1984). Studies of women’s economic advancement by race almost always look at differences between black and white women, but the study of Hispanic, Asian, or Native women is lacking. This post will analyze these trends for all minority groups of women included in the census race variable (black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian).

I chose to begin my analyses in 1920 (where possible) because of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. I think it is an important starting point, and not an end point, in the fight for women’s equality. William Chafe discusses how the argument of feminism during the late 19th Century transitioned from radical equality of the sexes to the expansion of the woman’s sphere to politics: “just as the creation of a good family required the contribution of both husband and wife, so the establishment of effective government depended upon the equal participation of male and female citizens,” (Chafe, 16). Although the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, this was not an end point in the women’s rights movement, nor was it the end of the conception of the American family model (Chafe 1951, Wax 2007).



In order to look at trends in labor force participation and median income by race, sex, and family structure from 1920 to 1990 I created 6 figures. The first three figures show overall trends in women’s labor force participation, women’s income, and women’s income relative to the income of men. The latter three figures add the family structure dimension, defining family structure as one of four categories: married with children, married without children, single parent, or single without children. The latter three graphs show trends in overall women’s family structure by race as well as women’s labor force participation and women’s median income by race and family structure. These figures cannot show causality, but rather simply support each other to begin exploring trends.


Data is sources from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) 1% samples for all years except in 1970 where a 1% state fm1 sample was used and 1980 where 1% metro sample was used. Alaska and Hawaii are not included before 1960 because the data is incomplete for these states in 1940 and 1950. The income variable INCWAGE was first included on the 1940 census, so income analyses only include the time period of 1940 to 1990. All graphs show individual income, which is the amount of money earned in the previous year by an individual. This variable is weighted by person weight (IPUMS variable PERWT) for all years except 1950, when income was included on the sample line forms and is weighted by sample line weight (IPUMS variable SLWT). Income is adjusted for inflation to 1999 US dollars using the IPUMS generated standard conversion variable (CPI99). The Hispanic group includes anyone enumerated with an ethnicity of Hispanic, regardless of race. Other racial groups represent all non-Hispanic people. The “Other” category was first included in the 1950 census, and so for consistency the “Other” racial category is excluded from this analysis. This analysis also excludes anyone living in group quarters and is limited to people of working age, between 16 and 65 years old. The code to generate these figures can be found here.



Corresponding with the literature, Figures 1 and 2 show that overall female labor force participation and wages increase, while Figure 3 shows that the wage gap stagnates and fluctuates around 1960 (Altonji and Blank 2016, Bailey and DiPrete 2016, Smith and Ward 1984). Figure 1 shows that the labor force participation of black women was especially high from 1920 to 1960. Figure 2 shows that although the labor force participation of women increased for all races, the median income did not increase uniformly across racial groups. Asian women have the highest median income for most of this time period, which could reflect the large number of Asian women with higher educational backgrounds (Guo 2016). The median income has increased the most from 1920 to 1990 for black women, but although the median income increases for women of all races up until 1980, the median income of Hispanic, Native American, and black women is consistently lower than that of white and Asian women.

What is happening with the wage gap? Figure 3 shows that for women (who received any income) of all races they make a relatively high percentage of men’s median income. This could be a result of women taking higher-paying jobs or working more hours during World War II, while men vacated their normal positions. Following this, there is a dip in the wage gap in 1960. It’s possible that men returning from WWII pushed women out of these higher-paying positions at this time (Smith and Ward 1984). Figure 2 shows a corresponding decrease in median income from 1950 to 1960.

In Figures 4 and 5, we can see that family structure seems to have similar effects on the labor force participation and median income for women of all races. Overall, single women have higher labor force participation rates, and women without children (within marital status categories) have a greater proportion of labor force participation. This suggests that marital status and having children were factors that kept women from entering the labor force, likely because they didn’t need to enter the work force because they were supported by male family members or because they simply didn’t have time to take care of children or. Additionally, married women actually made more money than single woman relatively consistently across races, although median income doesn’t seem to depend highly on family structure for black women. Figure 6 shows that women married without children, single without children, or single parents generally had higher median income, suggesting that they were able to attain higher paying jobs or work full time and/or needed to work full time out of necessity.

Although trends by family status look pretty similar for women by races, it is important to take into account the total distribution of women by family status within racial categories. For example, because black, Hispanic, and Native American women have a greater proportion of single women especially at the end of the century the trends for single women of these races account for a greater percentage of overall trends for women of those races. This begins to illuminate a story that is not obvious by looking at just one graph in isolation. For example, for black women labor force participation rates of married women were higher than for women of other races early in the 20th century, likely because of racism and ensuing economic disadvantage leading to both parents working by necessity to support their family. As time goes on, the proportion of single black women increases dramatically as seen in Figure 4 and the labor force participation of married black women increases as seen in Figure 5. This corresponds to the large proportion of black women receiving an income compared to black men receiving 1970 and beyond as seen in Figure 3. Additionally, the ‘war on drugs’ systematically affected black men, which could also be a contributing factor to the smaller wage gap for black women compared to women of other races post-1960 (Tonry and Melewski 2008). Considered individually, Figure 3 might suggest that black women are more economically included because they make a large percentage of the income of black men, however in the context of the other figures this explanation seems much less likely. These figures in combination construct a very different narrative for black women than for white women, who don’t face racial discrimination and who’s wages seem to depend highly on family status, as seen in Figure 5.

Overall, family status and race play important roles in determining female labor force participation as well as the social construction of the woman’s wage. However, it is also possible that increasing wages themselves motivated women to join the work force, and may even have affected family size. Smith and Ward (1984) write:

Holding family size constant, a one percent increase in women’s wages will increase their labor supply by one-third of one percent. However, this effect is much larger when we allow family size to adjust to the higher wage. Our estimates indicate that an increase in women’s wages decreases the number of children. (xx)

This suggests that increasing pay for women may have motivated them to have less children and to participate in the labor force. This post confirms increasing labor force participation as well as pay for women, but has the social construction of the woman’s wage being at the cost of family really changed? Further research could use qualitative data to investigate corresponding social changes in the role of women and the women’s sphere. Additionally, further research to understand trends specifically for Native American, Hispanic, and Asian women is needed as well.


The way that we label and define concepts and groups of people have really important consequences. Concepts like family wage and living wage and concepts that reproduce themselves are incredibly powerful and can limit the social and economic mobility of groups of people. Because of the real consequences of socially constructed groups, it’s very important to include these categories on the census. This data has power, and it’s my hope that these data will be used in analyses that illuminate systematic and persistent inequalities in order to create better policies for everyone.



Altonji, Joseph G., and Rebecca M. Blank. “Race and Gender in the Labor Market.” Handbook of Labor Economics 3 (1999): 3144-213.


Bailey, Martha J., and Thomas A. DiPrete. “Five Decades of Remarkable but Slowing Change in U.S. Women’s Economic and Social Status and Political Participation.” The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 2.4 (2016): 1-32.


Barrett, James R. Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers, 1894-1922. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.


Blau, Francine D. and Lawrence M. Kahn. “The Gender Wage Gap: Extent, Trends, and Explanations.” NBER Working Paper No. 21913 (2016): 1-77.


Bowen, W.G, and T.A. Finegan. The Economics of Labor Force Participation. Princeton Univeristy Press, Princeton, N.J. 1966. Print.


Chafe, William H. The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.


Folbre, Nancy and Marjorie Abel. “Women’s Work and Women’s Households: Gender Bias in the U.S. Census.” Social Research 56 (1989): 545-569.


Grodsky, Eric and Devah Pager. “The Structure of Disadvantage: Individual and Occupational Determinants of the Black-White Wage Gap.” American Sociological Review 66 (2001): 542-567.



Guo, Jeff. “Asian American Women Are Closing the Gap with White Men, but That’s Not the Point.” The Washington Post 6 Jan. 2016: n. pag. Online.


Kessler-Harris, Alice. A Woman’s Wage: Historic Meanings and Social Consequences. University Press of Kentucky; Reprint edition, 1991. Online.


Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. Taylor and Francis, Hoboken, 2014. Online.


Smith, James P. and Michael P. Ward. “Women’s Wages and Work in the Twentieth Century.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1984.


Tonry, Michael and Matthew Melewski. “The Malign Effects of Drug and Crime Control Policies on Balck Americans.” Crime and Justice 37 (2008): 1-44.


Wax, Amy L. “Engines of Inequality: Class, Race, and Family Structure” (2008). Faculty Scholarship. Paper 205.