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).

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