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Female Labor Force Participation: The Origin of Black and White Differences, 1870 and 1880

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 May 2010

Claudia Goldin
Princeton University


Although white women have only recently entered the work force, their black counterparts have participated throughout American history. Differences between their rates of participation have been recorded only for the post-1890 period and analyzed only for the post-1940 period due to a lack of available data. To remedy this deficiency my work explores female labor supply at the dawn of emanicipation, 1870 and 1880, in seven southern cities, using data drawn from the manuscripts of the population census. Probit regression techniques demonstrate that economic and demographic variables explain only part of the difference between black and white women and, as in the findings of contemporary research, race is shown to be an important factor. Several explanations are discussed, in particular one relying on socialization differences which are termed a “legacy of slavery.”

Papers Presented at the Thirty-Sixth Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association
Copyright © The Economic History Association 1977

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1 Smuts, Robert W., Women and Work in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), p. 1.Google Scholar

2 Bowen, William G. and Finegan, T. Aldrich, The Economics of Labor Force Participation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969)CrossRefGoogle Scholar is a very comprehensive study which includes an examination of black and white female labor. Bowen and Finegan emphasize differences in marital stability and the problem of part-time service labor in explaining why black women work more than whites even after accounting for age, schooling, other family income, children, and the employment status of the husband. Cain, Glen G., Married Women in the Labor Force: An Economic Analysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966)Google Scholar finds that black and white women respond differently in their labor force participation to the presence of preschoolers but that this might be explained by both the greater availability of other family members and different living situations. Sweet, James A., Women in the Labor Force (N.Y.: Seminar Press, 1973)Google Scholar suggests discrimination in both the housing and male job markets as well as differences in family stability as explanations for the diverse labor force experiences of black and white women in his sample. Bell, Duran, “Why Participation Rates of Black and White Wives Differ,” Journal of Human Resources, 9 (Fall 1974), 465–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar, uses more recent data than Bowen and Finegan and gets somewhat different results. Bell still finds that “if black wives had white characteristics, they would work more, not less” than whites (p. 478), but attributes some of the difference to discrimination in the “high-status employment” of white women. Hall, Robert E., “Wages, Income, and Hours of Work in the U.S. Labor Force,” Chapter 3 in Cain, G. and Watts, H., eds., Income Maintenance and Labor Supply (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1973)Google Scholar summarizes many of the theoretical problems in estimating labor supply functions, particularly that of determining wages for persons who are out of the labor force. Hall also finds that black women respond differently than whites to family, economic, and environmental factors. There are many other excellent articles on labor supply in general and the participation of black and white women—by Boskin, Kosters, Ashenfelter, Mincer and H. Rosen—but the above list includes those that are most germane to this work.

3 Studies which have attempted to explain the change in female labor force participation through time include Long, Clarence D., The Labor Force Under Changing Income and Employment (Princeton: Princeton University Press for the National Bureau of Economic Research, 1958)Google Scholar, and Durand, John, The Labor Force in the U.S., 1890 to 1960 (N.Y.: Social Science Research Council, 1948)Google Scholar.

4 There are several recent papers dealing with female labor force participation and family structure in the late nineteenth century, almost all relying heavily on the manuscripts of the Federal Population Census. Elizabeth Pleck, “A Mother's Wages: A Comparison of Income Earning Among Urban Black and Italian Wives, 1896–1911,” in Milton Cantor, History of American Working Women (forthcoming) examines why the labor force participation of black and Italian wives differed and suggests many variables, but employs no rigorous tests. Pleck finds an unexplained differential in Italian and black labor force participation and concludes that “cultural norms, economic pressures, and demographic conditions all played a part in determining the choice between work and family for Italian and black wives in American cities. For black women cultural attitudes favored responding to the family's economic need and the offer of higher wage rates, while for Italian wives cultural values took precedence over economic need except under circumstances of high wage rates for female labor.” Gutman, Herbert, “Persistent Myths About the American Negro Family,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 6 (Autumn 1975), 181210CrossRefGoogle Scholar, concludes that “slavery and quasi-freedom imposed countless burdens upon American blacks, but the high proportion of two-parent households found among them between 1855 and 1880 tells how little is yet known about the slave family structure, its relationship to the dominant white family structure, and the ways in which freedmen and freedwomen adapted, transformed, retained, or rejected older forms of family life.” Furstenberg, Frank et al. , “The Origins of the Female-Headed Black Family: The Destructive Impact of the Urban Experience,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 6 (Autumn 1975), 211–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar, use data from Philadelphia to evaluate whether “slavery resulted in a permanent deterioration of the black family structure” and whether “family structure accounts for economic disadvantage.” Blassingame, John, “Before the Ghetto: The Making of the Black Community in Savannah, Georgia, 1865–1880,” Journal of Social History, 6 (Summer 1973)CrossRefGoogle Scholar gives a general social history of blacks and whites in Reconstruction Savannah. His Black New Orleans 1860–1880 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973)Google Scholar, Chapter 4 explores some data on female-headed families and female labor force participation. Michael R. Haines, “Industrial Work and the Family Cycle, 1889–1890,” (mimeo, April 1976) analyzes the labor force participation of the wives and children of industrial workers using the records of the commissioner of labor.

5 Oppenheimer, Valerie Kincade, The Female Labor Force in the U.S.: Demographic and Economic Factors Governing Its Growth and Changing Composition, Population Monograph Series, No. 5 (University of California, Berkeley, 1969)Google Scholar discusses the social stigmatization of women's work in the twentieth century.

6 It would be very difficult to explain the divergent labor market experiences of black and white women in agriculture whose husbands all listed the identical occupation of “farmer.” A future study will analyze similar data from rural counties to enable broader conclusions to be drawn and correct for possible biases in this regionally sampled data set.

7 One in fifty pages from the census manuscripts were sampled for all cities except New Orleans, for which one in two hundred were used. All persons, though, have been weighted equally in the analysis. This weighting procedure was used because New Orleans was a disproportionately large city, accounting for 20 percent of the total southern urban population (excluding Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland) in 1880. Weighting by this factor reduced to 19 percent the percentage of the population accounted for by New Orleans in 1880. Complete households were taken even if they ran over to a succeeding page. This eliminated the bias toward small households inherent in a strict page sampling procedure.

Because information on sex and age was not compiled for cities in the Federal Population Censuses for 1870 and 1880 one cannot determine the biases in these sampled data. I plan to expand this sample and also use those collected by others to ascertain this important information. The more expanded data set will sample more heavily from the non-seaboard urban South.

8 See Goldin, Claudia, Urban Slavery in the American South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), Table 1, p. 12.Google Scholar

9 Data on servants show a decrease from 1870 to 1880 in the percentage of black women who were live-in domestics.

10 Ransom, Roger and Sutch, Richard, One Kind of Freedom, The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming)Google Scholar discuss the withdrawal of black female and child labor directly after emancipation and claim that the period of readjustment was over by 1868.

11 Claudia Goldin, Urban Slavery in the American South discusses the extensive use of slave artisans in antebellum cities. The Epilogue of that book summarizes what became of these skills after 1865.

12 A family is defined here as consisting of at least a husband and a wife. The term “labor income” is used because income from property is, for the most part, excluded.

13 The age-income profile for black males in 1870 is even flatter.

14 Frazier, E. Franklin, The Negro Family in the U.S, rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)Google Scholar, popularized the notion that the twentieth-century matrifocal black urban family was a product of slavery. Gutman, “Persistent Myths About the American Negro Family,” and Furstenberg et al., “The Origins of the Female-Headed Black Family,” are two excellent reexaminations and challenges to Frazier's work.

15 A female-headed family is defined as a woman with at least one child, and a two-parent family is one with both husband and wife and at least one child. These distinctions get around the problem of using the census marshal's determination of “head of household,” and use, instead, an operational definition. Note that families with only a father or a male head with a child have been excluded. It is difficult to contrast these results with those of Gutman and Furstenberg. See Gutman, “Persistent Myths…,” and Furstenberg et al., “The Origins of the Female-Headed Black Family.” Both the Gutman and Furstenberg data are grouped by households and not by nuclear families. A widowed mother living with her parents, for example, would not be counted in these data sets. Furthermore Gutman includes as households individuals who live alone and childless couples. Therefore a high proportion of single persons without children or childless couples could distort his findings.

My results appear to indicate a higher percentage of female-headed families in the cities than in rural areas for both blacks and whites. This is not a surprising finding considering the selective migration of such individuals from the countryside to the city in search of jobs and relatives.

16 Note that this is the mean number of children per nuclear family, not per household. Families here can include childless couples but are defined as having both husband and wife present.

17 This decline in black fertility continued, and by 1910 the white figure considerably exceeded that for blacks in the urban South. See Stanley Engerman, “Changes in Black Fertility, 1880–1940,” (mimeo, July 1974) for a description and some analysis of the decline in black fertility after 1880.

18 Woodson, Carter G., “The Negro Washerwoman: A Vanishing Figure,” Journal of Negro History, 15 (July 1930), 274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 Two problems arise in the case of a dichotomous dependent variable—that of heteroskedasticity and that of specification. The first is not particularly troublesome for very large samples, but the second is serious because the predicted values from ordinary least squares will not be bounded on the unit interval. This creates difficulties in interpreting the results as conditional probabilities of being in the labor force. For a more complete exposition see Goldberger, Arthur, Econometric Theory (N.Y.: John Wiley and Sons, 1971), pp. 248–51Google Scholar which discusses qualitative and limited dependent variables, and Theil, Henri, Principles of Econometrics (N.Y.: John Wiley and Sons, 1971)Google Scholar, which has a short section on probit analysis, pp. 630–31.

20 Sixteen families in 1870 and six in 1880 were listed as having no family member in the labor force and no wealth. These were dropped from the sample as being anomalous. They probably contained a working family member who was not in the nuclear family or not living in the same household.

21 An appendix to this paper, Wage Data for Various Occupations in the South, 1870 and 1880, details the construction of these components and the sources used. It can be obtained by request from the author.

22 There is no obvious reason why health status was underrecorded in 1870.

23 Other explanatory variables which were tried include illiteracy and the presence of other non-working family members over 15 years old. The first, measured by the ability both to read and to write, yielded an insignificant coefficient. This indicates, perhaps, that literacy is not a good measure of a women's earning ability for the nineteenth century. The “other family member” variable had the wrong sign, probably due to the method of coding the data. Families having either a wife or a husband with children were coded as separate units even if they were living with another family. Therefore the category “other family members” can only include children and unattached individuals. However, the existence of an aunt living with a family, for example, might indicate that there was, in addition, another complete family in the household. Although the presence of an aunt might enable a wife with a preschooler to work, the presence of other working adults might be an economic deterrent to such behavior.

Specifications which include only blacks appear very similar to those given in Table 8. Regressions for whites only had similar coefficients on Child Ten and Per Capita Y but had much larger standard errors.

24 Using the current status measure of employment Cain found, for 1960 data, that the white elasticity was −0.45 and the black −0.13. See G. Cain, Married Women in the Labor Force, Table 33, p. 107.

25 Another possibility is that because the wages assigned in the construction of the labor income variable do not differ by race, black labor incomes are too high and black wives appear to be working “too much.” If black wages were overstated in the computation of labor income, the residuals would be systematically biased and correlated with race. But occupations were, for the most part, racially segregated and research by Robert Higgs indicates that wages by race were equal for given occupations in 1900. See R. Higgs, “Racial Wage Differentials and Segregation in Competitive Labor Markets: An Empirical Report,” University of Washington, Discussion Paper No. 75–8 (Sept. 1975).

26 This proposition will be tested with the data from the Philadelphia Social History Project.

27 Quoted in Scott, Anne Firor, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 122.Google Scholar

28 Greene, Lorenzo J. and Woodson, Carter G., The Negro Wage Earner (Washington: The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Inc., 1930), p. 31.Google Scholar