The Female Labor Force and Long-run Development: The American Experience in Comparative Perspective * Claudia Olivetti Boston University and NBER November 2013 * This paper was prepared for the “Human Capital in History: The American Record” conference in Cam- bridge, MA, December 2012. I thank Francine Blau, for her insightful discussion of the paper. Comments from Carola Frydman, Robert Margo and two anonymous referees are also gratefully acknowledged. Many thanks to Marric Buessing for her invaluable research assistance and to Sharon D’Souza for her help with data collection. I am also grateful to Berthold Herrendorf, Richard Rogerson and Akos Valentinyi for sharing their historical data on structural transformation. 1
1 Introduction The nature and extent of segmentation of economic activity across genders and its changing roles during the course of economic development has been a central topic of inquiry since Ester Boserup’s pioneering work on Woman’s Role in Economic Development . This is of course a complex phenomenon and it’s systematic analysis is complicated by measurement issues. Goldin’s work greatly contributed to its understanding and inspired much of the subsequent work on the topic. In a series of seminal papers, Goldin establishes the existence of a U-shaped labor supply of women across the process of economic development, and the important roles played by education and the emergence of a white-collar sector in fostering the paid employment of married women. The absence of a clear distinction between market production and work for the family affects the measurement of labor force participation in early phases of economic development, especially for women. Goldin’s extensive work to fill the gaps in the historical record on women’s work in the United States reveals that female labor force participation was U- shaped: it declined during the 19 th century, reached the bottom sometimes in the 1920s, and then it steadily increased during the 20 th century. Goldin (1986, 1990) argues that, until the late nineteenth century, women in the United States worked almost exclusively in the home or as unpaid labor in family enterprises. This work involved not only the care of children and the upkeep of the house, but also goods production activities such as the cultivation and preparation of food and the manufacture of many of the goods used in the home or sold in the marketplace (clothing, canned food etc.). Women, both on farms and in cities, were active participants in the labor force when the home and work activities could be performed in the same place. But their participation declined as the nature of the production process changed and production moved from the household to factories and offices.