What’s the biggest change in the American way of life in the last 50-60 years? There are a lot of candidates: the coming of new technologies, especially the computer and internet; the end of the post-war boom and the start of economic stagnation for average Americans; much more liberal and open sexual mores; the dismantling of the racial caste system capped by the election of a black president; and so on. These were all important, but my candidate for the Big Change Award is this: Mom goes to work.

historical photo of woman office worker typing

To be sure, mothers always worked — at home for their families, doing housework and childcare. And many mothers also worked at home for pay — farm women churning butter or gathering eggs for sale; poor urban women indoors spinning, weaving, and sewing, paid by the piece. Some mothers, particularly African and Irish American mothers, worked away from home, usually as servants and maids. Still, in the early 20th century, relatively few American mothers with children at home, rarely those with young children, went out to work. Then everything changed. And then maybe the change stopped.

Mom goes to work

The figure below, drawn from census data, shows two stunningly dramatic changes between 1900 and 2002. The longer, top line tracks the percentage of married women who were in the paid labor force; we have numbers on them going back to 1890. In 1950, 22% of married women worked for pay; by 2000, 62% worked for pay. (These data, by the way, belie the conventional story that working women, the Rosie-the-Riveters, were in any large numbers driven out of the labor force after the war.) The lower, shorter line displays the percentage of married women with a child under 6 years old who worked for pay; we have numbers on them going back only to 1950. In that year, about 1 out of 10 mothers of small children worked; in 2000, more than 6 in 10 did!

One rarely sees social change of this magnitude in a settled society over only about two generations. Economic growth, technological marvels, political shifts, and the like seem glacial by comparison.

chart: percent of married women in paid workforce 1900-2002 Why did mom go to work? Or, to be more precise, why did more single women keep working after they married and had children and why did more mothers return to work while their children were so young (see Ch. 5 here)? Many scholars have addressed the topic in detail and I can only present a simplified gloss here. First, work changed to offer more jobs to women. Farming declined sharply; industrial jobs peaked and then declined. Brawn became less important; precise skills, learning, and personal service became more important. The new economy generated millions of white-collar and “pink-collar” jobs that seemed “suited” to women. That cannot be the full story, of course; women also took over many jobs that had once been men’s, such as teaching and secretarial work.

Second, mothers responded to those job opportunities. Some took jobs because the extra income could help families buy cars, homes, furnishings, and so on. Some took jobs because the family needed their income to make up for husbands’ stagnating wages (a noteworthy trend after the 1970s). And some took jobs because they sought personal fulfillment in the world of work.

What were the consequences of so many more mothers working? Cities could be built with the articles and books that have debated – often heatedly, emotionally – the answer to this question. Were mothers selfishly damaging their children or were they instead enriching their children by going off to work? What did the wife’s paycheck mean for the man’s ego and the marriage’s stability? How do women in the workplace change the way work gets done? These questions are still argued and researched by social scientists.

Whatever the answers, some social byproducts of the great move to jobs seem evident (at least to me). One is the loss of much of the free labor that used to staff local associations — garden clubs, PTAs, church sisterhoods. Another was the thinning of neighbor-to-neighbor connections, as housewives became fewer (and working wives frantically tried to get their housewifery completed when they were home). Perhaps most profound is that the expectation, the norm, turned upside down.

In 1950, the working wife was unusual and the working mother of a small child hardly seen. Sixty years later, the non-working wife is unusual and almost two-thirds of mothers with small children work at least part-time. The older among us can remember when a mother with children at home who worked had to, with some embarrassment, explain why. She might perhaps say that a temporary set-back to her husband’s business led her to get a job. And we can remember when the tide shifted and a mother who did not work for pay had to explain why. Perhaps she might say that little Johnnie had some problems adjusting to day care, but that she would soon get back to her career.

The dramatic shift in norms changed some of our political debates. There was a time, for example, when poor, single mothers who worked were considered by the community and the authorities as unfit mothers; they should stay home and tend to their children. Nowadays, the community and authorities often treat poor, single mothers who stay home with their children as lazy no-goods; they should earn a paycheck. If most American mothers go out to work, people seem to say, why can’t these women?

The end of revolution?

Between 1950 and 2000, the percentage of married women and those with young children who worked sky-rocketed. A close look at the figure above suggests that the rocket may have reached its apogee in 2000.

chart The figure below provides a closer look. It presents data for mothers irrespective of marital status, a reasonable shift in focus given the much higher proportion of women who are raising children either before or after marriage. The upper line shows the percentage of all women with a child under 18 at home who were in the labor force, 1975-2008; the lower line focuses on mothers with at least one child under 6 at home. The lines display the rapid increase in working mothers from 1975 to the late 1990s. But then the rates level off. (The numbers do not yet reflect the full surge of male unemployment that started in mid-2008.)

What does this leveling off represent? Have we reached some sort of ceiling effect? Perhaps the nature of child-bearing and child-rearing in the United States is such that Americans will never push past a rate of about 70% employment for mothers. (Crossnational data suggest that in some other western nations these rates go perhaps 10 points higher.) American jobs or American childcare policies may not keep the trend going up. Alternatively perhaps, the leveling off may presage a cultural shift, the beginnings of a purposeful move back into the home by women, something a few observers have argued is starting to happen.

In any case, it is hard to imagine undoing the great social revolution of the twentieth century, of ever getting back to where we came from only 50 or so years ago, of unraveling the Big Change, when mom went to work.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.