IZA DP No. 14449: Women at Work in the United States since 1860: An Analysis of Unreported Family Workers
Estimated labor force participation rates among free women in the pre-Civil War period were exceedingly low. This is due, in part, to cultural or societal expectations of the role of women and the lack of thorough enumeration by Census takers. This paper develops an augmented labor force participation rate for free women in 1860 and compares it with the augmented rate for 1920 and today. Our methodology identifies women who are likely providing informal and unenumerated labor for market production in support of a family business, that is, unreported family workers. These individuals are not coded in the original data as formally working, but are likely to be engaged in the labor force on the basis of the self- employment of other relatives in their household. Unreported family workers are classified into four categories: farm, merchant, craft, and boardinghouse keepers. Using microdata, the inclusion of these workers more than triples the free female labor force participation rate in the 1860 Census from 16 percent to 57 percent, more than doubles the participation rate in the 1920 Census from 24 percent to 50 percent, and has a trivial effect on the currently measured rate of 56 percent (2015-2019 American Community Survey). This suggests that rather than a steep rise from a very low level in the female labor force participation rate since 1860, it has in fact always been high and fairly stable over time. In contrast, the effect of including unreported family workers in the male augmented labor force participation rate is relatively small.