Married women’s labour force participation, US, 1860-2010: family reputation effects and the U-shaped curve

Zijdeman, R. L. (Speaker), Auke Rijpma (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationAcademic


Economic history and sociology provide complementary hypotheses on why levels of female labour force participation changed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In sociology, an important strand of literature has focused on the reputation effects of women’s work within and between households. The within-family- hypothesis states that husbands and wives will avoid attaining oc- cupations that are similar in terms of social and economic outcome in order to avoid rivalry between the partners, while contrastingly, the among-family-hypothesis states that partners will avoid highly divergent social and economic occupational positions. In economic history, the U-shape hypothesis focuses on opportunities and con- straints for women’s work. After an initial decrease of female labour force participation during economic growth as a result of increas- ing wages allowing households to withdraw women from the labour market, levels of female labour force participation are expected to rise due to increasing productivity and wages of women in manufac- turing and services, in part due to higher female education.
In this paper we combine the two strands of literature and test their hypotheses on an IPUMS-USA sample of ca. 5 million women in the US for the period 1860-2010. Compared to earlier research, the sample is the extended in terms of time, and actually allows us to test whether the bottom of the U-shape is to be found at the turn of the century. Moreover, the sample provides relevant information on characteristics at the individual, household and regional (state) level, allowing us to test reputation effects and include a large number of controls such as changes in family structure and educational level. By combining this data with state level female and male wage data, we can also test the income mechanisms behind the U-shape hypo- thesis. To test our hypotheses and explain patterns in female labour force participation, we use multilevel logistic regressions. We fail to find conclusive evidence for the within or between-family-competition hypotheses, while the actual U-shape in female labour force particip- ation cannot be found in the United States, there is evidence for the underlying mechanisms. At the same time, household level factors are also important.
Period14 Dec 2017
Degree of RecognitionNational