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Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women.

Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women This book offers the most comprehensive analysis to date of the available quantitative data on women's work in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States. Goldin has not only applied highly sophisticated techniques to the analysis of the decennial census data that are the standard basis for historical studies of women's work-force activity, but she has also scoured the archives for additional survey materials, many of which have never before been subjected to such rigorous quantitative analysis. The result is a complex and insightful account of the economic history of women's work. Parts of the book provide new support for arguments previously made by others on the basis of qualitative evidence; more important, other parts present new findings (some of them previously published in article form) about women's economic history, many of which run counter to the conventional wisdom. Although the book's style is often tedious and many parts of it will be inaccessible to readers without at least a cursory knowledge of quantitative methodology, Goldin's findings are sure to influence scholarship in this area for years to come.

Rather than hammering home a single theme, this book engages a series of basic problems in the economic history of women's work against the template of an exhaustive analysis of the available quantitative data. This approach has real dividends, and Goldin makes a persuasive case for revising widely accepted views about historical changes in women's relationship to work. She also marshals her quantitative evidence to shed light on ongoing historical debates, showing, for example, that protective legislation in the early part of the twentieth century led to shorter hours for workers of both sexes and, contrary to what some historians have argued, did not reduce women's employement opportunities.

Much of the book is devoted to analysis of the changing patterns of women's labor-force participation over time. Here too Goldin offers important new findings, especially in regard to the role of married women. Her re-analysis of the 1890 census data suggests that the labor-force participation rate of white married women was as high in 1890 as in 1940. She goes on to argue that, prior to its well-known rise after the Second World War, white married women's work-force participation actually fell in the early decades of the twentieth century, even as the participation of young, single white women increased. The claim that white married women's participation followed a U-shaped curve contrasts sharply with the received wisdom that it gradually increased over time.

Even more interesting is Goldin's demonstration, derived from a cohort-specific analysis of the decennial census data, that in the first half of this century, white married women were not a homogeneous group in terms of their labor-force behavior. Although the majority of women quit work at the time of marriage, those who remained in the labor force went on to accumulate large amounts of fairly continuous work experience. This is an important revision of the conventional view that married women as a group were intermittent participants in the work force, moving in and out of it over their life cycle. That conventional view is accurate for only one major cohort--namely, those women born around the turn of the century, who entered the labor force as young, single women in the 1920s, left it upon marriage, and then returned as the "older, married women" of the immediate postwar era. Mainly because the quality of labor-force data made a quantum leap forward just after the war, Goldin suggests, the experience of this one cohort has disproprotionately influenced many of our received notions about women's labor-force participation. A wider historical view reveals that in fact it was an atypical and transitional cohort. Its members resembled earlier generations of women in that the majority left work upon marriage; they then joined later cohorts of working women in the postwar period, when married women's participation in the work force became normal--in part because employers' bars on hiring and retaining married women were now dropped and part-time work schedules were introduced to recruit them into the rapidly expanding labor market.

As its title promises, the book also explores the history of the wage gap between women and men. Goldin usefully sets the much-touted narrowing of the gender gap in pay during the 1980s in its larger historical perspective. She shows that there were two earlier periods when the pay gap narrowed. The first was in the early nineteenth century, especially in the nation's then-embryonic manufacturing sector, where mechanization and the growing division of labor led to a reduction in the premiums paid to men for skill and strength and thus a narrowing of the gap. (Although Goldin does not mention it, there is a parallel here to the 1980s experience, when falling male wages--this time linked to deindustrialization rather than to industrialization--again contributed to the reduction in the gender gap in pay.) The 1890-1930 period was another era of reduction ingender differentials in pay, this one not limited to manufacturing but rather economy-wide. Although the nominal wage gap narrowed in this period, Goldin argues that wage discrimination (defined as the portion of the wage gap that remains unexplained after gender differences in education, experience, etc., are taken into account) actually increased, especially in the expanding white-collar sector.

After 1930, there was little change in the wage gap for half a century, in large part because of the downward pull on average female wages of the cohort of women born around 1900 who re-entered the work force after the war with a deficit of experience and with less education than later cohorts. Analysis of the youngest cohorts of workers, for whom the gender gap in pay is especially narrow today, in contrast, offers ground for optimism about the future. Goldin ends the book on this note, suggesting that both the historical declines in gender inequality in pay and the more recent one suggest a positive answer to that old question: does economic progress lead to equality between the sexes? In view of the apparent tenacity of such continuing obstacles to equality as job segregation by sex and the persistent reluctance of men to do their share of unpaid housework and child care (factors that Goldin acknowledges but that do not dampen her optimism), some readers may be skeptical about her hopeful conclusions. Nonetheless, all will profit from her rich insights into the history of change in women's role in the U.S. work force.

Ruth Milkman is associate professor of sociology at UCLA and has written extensively on workplace issue. She is the author of Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation during World War II (1987). Her current interests include gender and trade unionism and the impact of economic restructuring, espcially in manufacturing, on both male and female workers.
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Author:Milkman, Ruth
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
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