My Account

Many now credit government for past progress in gender equality, mostly because of late 20th-century legislation that appeared to benefit women in the workplace. This is a distorted view. Few know that government at all levels actually sought to prevent that progress.

A century ago, just as markets were attracting women to professional life, government regulation in the United States specifically targeted women to restrict their professional choices. The regulations were designed to drive them out of offices and factories and back into their homes — for their own good and the good of their families, their communities, and the future of the race.

By 1910, fully 45 percent of the professional workforce was made up of women. 

The new controls — the first round of a century of interventions in the free labor market — were designed to curb the sweeping changes in economics and demographics that were taking place due to material advances in the last quarter of the 19th century. The regulations limited women’s choices so they would stop making what elites considered the wrong decisions.

The real story, which is only beginning to emerge within the academic literature, is striking. It upends prevailing narratives about the relationship between government and women’s rights. Many cornerstones of the early welfare and regulatory state were designed to hobble women’s personal liberty and economic advancement. They were not progressive but reactionary, an attempt to turn back the clock.

Women’s Work Is Not New

It was the freedom and opportunity realized in the latter period of the 19th century that changed everything for women workers, opening up new lines of employment.

The growth of industrial capitalism meant that women could leave the farm and move to the city. They could choose to leave home without having married — and even stay in the workforce as married women. They enjoyed more choice in education and professional life than ever before.

By 1910, fully 45 percent of the professional workforce was made up of women. They almost entirely dominated the teaching profession, for example. Single women increasingly found work as nurses, librarians, secretaries, and social workers, as well as factory workers in the garment industry. Women, most of them unmarried, constituted 21 percent of the entire workforce.

New clerical jobs, unknown a century earlier, were everywhere to be had. Women’s wages were rising quickly, by an impressive 16 percent from 1890 through 1920. Nor were women working at “exploitative” wages. A Rand corporation study of wage differentials discovered an interesting fact: women’s wages relative to men’s were higher in 1920 than they were in 1980.

The Law Intervenes

And yet, these were also the years in which we first saw government intervention in the labor market, much of it specifically targeting women. As historian Thomas Leonard argues in his spectacular book Illiberal Reformers (2016), an entire generation of intellectuals and politicians panicked about what this could mean for the future of humanity.

Society must control reproduction and therefore what women do with their lives. So said the prevailing ideology of the age. We couldn’t have a situation in which markets enticed women to leave the control of their families and move to the city.

Though they are called Progressives, the reformers’ rhetoric had more in common with the “family values” movement of the 1970s and ‘80s — with pseudoscientific race paranoia playing the role that religion would later play. In many ways, they were the ultimate conservatives, attempting to roll back the tide of history made possible by the advance of the capitalist economy.

They were incredibly successful. Over a 10-year period between 1909 and 1919, 40 states restricted the number of hours that women employees could work. Fifteen states passed new minimum wage laws to limit entry-level jobs. Most states created stipends for single-parent families, specifically to incentivize women to reject commercial life, return to protected domesticity, and stop competing with men for wages.

Such laws were completely new in American history (and in almost all of modern history) because they intervened so fundamentally in the right of workers and employers to make any sort of contract. The Progressive agenda involved government deeply in issues that directly affected people’s ability to provide for themselves. It also created unprecedented impositions on both employees and their employers. Such laws would have been inconceivable even 50 years earlier.

How did all this happen so fast, and why?

The Inferiority of Women

Richard T. Ely, the hugely influential founder of the American Economic Association and the godfather of progressive economics, explained the issue clearly, laying the groundwork for the laws that followed. His 1894 book Socialism and Social Reform expressed a panic about women’s entry into the workforce:

Restrictions should be thrown about the employment of married women, and their employment for a considerable period before and after child-birth should be prohibited under any circumstances. There should also be a restriction of the work-day, as in England, for children and young persons under eighteen, and for women. Such a limitation having beneficial effect upon the health of the community…. Night work should be prohibited for women and persons under eighteen years of age and, in particular, all work injurious to the female organism should be forbidden to women.

If the reference to the “female organism” sounds strange, remember that this generation of intellectuals believed in eugenics — using state force to plan the emergence of the model race — and hence saw women mainly as propagators of the race, not human individuals with the right to choose. For anyone who believed that government had a responsibility to plan human production (and most intellectuals at the time did believe this), the role of women was critical. They couldn’t be allowed to do what they wanted, go where they wanted, or make lives for themselves. This was the normal thought pattern for the generation that gave the United States unprecedented legal restrictions on the labor market.

The Supreme Court Weighs In

Consider the Supreme Court case of Muller v. Oregon, which considered state legislation on maximum working hours and decided in favor of the state. Oregon was hardly unusual; it was typical of the 20 states that had already passed such laws directed at women’s freedom to choose employment. From the text of Colorado’s law passed in 1903: “No woman” shall “work or labor for a greater number than eight hours in the twenty-four hour day … where such labor, work, or occupation by its nature, requires the woman to stand or be upon her feet.”

The decision in Muller v. Oregon, then, ratified such laws all over the country. Today, this case is widely considered the foundation of progressive labor law. What’s not well known is that the brief that settled the case was a remarkable piece of pseudoscience that argued for the inferiority of women and hence their need for special protections from the demands of commercial enterprise. That brief was filed by future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis.

The Weird and Awful “Brandeis Brief”

The “Brandeis Brief” argued that the law had to stop the massive influx of women into the workplace because women have “special susceptibility to fatigue and disease,” because female blood has more water in it than men’s blood. Their blood composition also accounts for why women have less focus, energy, and strength generally, according to the brief.

“Physicians are agreed that women are fundamentally weaker than men in all that makes for endurance: in muscular strength, in nervous energy, in the powers of persistent attention and application.”

Moreover, “In strength as well as in rapidity and precision of movement women are inferior to men. This is not a conclusion that has ever been contested.”

Long hours are “more disastrous to the health of women than to men,” the brief explained. Government therefore needed to regulate work hours for the “health, safety, morals, and general welfare of women.”

Restrictions on work hours were therefore essential. “It is of great hygienic importance on account of the more delicate physical organization of woman,” the brief said, “and will contribute much toward the better care of children and the maintenance of a regular family life.”

This brief is also notable for being the first to combine science, however bogus, and public policy in an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Florence Kelley’s Dream of Nonworking Women

One might suspect that the entire effort was a male-driven one to stop female progress, but that’s not the case. A leader in the campaign for such labor interventions was writer and activist Florence Kelley. Modern progressives celebrate her activism for maximum work hours, the 10-hour workday, minimum wages, and children’s rights. Indeed, she is considered a great hero by the sanitized version of history that progressives tell each other.

Florence Kelley wanted not more rights for women but fewer.

Before we cheer her accomplishments, however, we should look at Kelley’s driving motivation. Writing in the American Journal of Sociology, she explained that she wanted a minimum wage as a wage floor to stop manufacturing plants and retail outlets from employing women for less than they could otherwise employ men.

Retail stores, she wrote, tend to “minimize the employment of men, substituting them for women, girls, and boys, employed largely at less than living wages.” It was precisely such competition from women and children that Kelley intended to stop, so that men could earn higher wages and women could return to traditional roles.

In her book Some Ethical Gains through Legislation (1905), Kelley said that long working hours had to be ended for women because commercial life was introducing “vice” into communities (“vice” for this generation was the preferred euphemism for every manner of sexual sin). Worse, women were choosing commercial life over home “on their own initiative.”

Kelley considered it necessary to restrict women’s rights for their own “health and morality,” she said, and also to boost men’s wages so women would stay home under the care of their mothers, fathers, suitors, and husbands.

Moreover, to make such work illegal would make “righteous living” more practical for women. If they stopped being rewarded in wages, they would return to domestic life. Kelley even regretted the invention of electricity because it allowed women to work late at factories, when they should be at home reading to children by firelight.

In Kelley’s view, the ideal role of women with children is not to enter commercial life at all: “Family life in the home is sapped in its foundation when mothers of young children work for wages.” It’s an opinion with which some may still sympathize, but should such an opinion be imposed on working families by coercive legislation? For this paragon of progressive social reform, it was clear that lawmakers had to force women back into the home.

Florence Kelley and the movement she represented sought to disemploy women and get everyone back to a premodern form of domestic living. She wanted not more rights for women but fewer. The workplace was properly for men, who were to get paid high wages sufficient for the whole family. That was the basis for her support of a range of legislation to drive women out of the workforce and put an end to the new range of options available to them, options that many women were happy to choose.

Fear the Women of East Prussia

All this scholarship and activism is one thing, but what about the popular press?

Professor Edward A. Ross, author of Sin and Society, spoke out in the New York Times on May 3, 1908. In an article titled “The Price Woman Pays to Industrial Progress,” Ross warned that America’s “fine feminine form” was endangered by commercial society.

If women were permitted to work, an evolutionary selection process would govern their reproduction to the detriment of the human race. The graceful women who would otherwise bear beautiful children would be pushed out of the gene pool and replaced by “squat, splay-footed, wide-backed, flat-breasted, broad-faced, short-necked — a type that lacks every grace that we associate with women.”

Ross’s example: “the women of East Prussia,” who “bear a child in the morning” and “are out in the field in the afternoon.”

The professor explained that women who had worked in factories would not make suitable bearers of children. “Think of the discouraging situation of the young man who after he has been married two or three years finds he has a wife who at the age of 28 or 30 has collapsed, become a miserable invalid, suffering aches and pains all the time.” Why, she might find herself “unable to keep the home attractive.” And all of this “because of just a few extra dollars added to the profits of the employer or a few extra dollars saved to the consumer.”

Because of the dangerous combination of employment and natural selection, Ross contended, the government had to extend a hand to help these women by limiting working hours and establishing a high bar to enter the workforce: minimum wages.

Only through such enlightened interventions could government save women from the workplace, so that they could return to the maternal duties of rearing “girls who have the qualities of fineness — grace and charm.”

Is This Satire?

If this reads like satire, sadly it is not. Nor were such views unusual in a generation of ruling-class intellectuals, politicians, and activists that embraced eugenics and rejected capitalism as too random, too chaotic, too liberating. Their plan was to reestablish and entrench by law the family and marital structure they believed in, which absolutely precluded a generation of women making individual choices over their own lives.

Every trend panicked the eugenic generation. They fretted about the falling birth rate among those who should be reproducing and the rising birth rate among those who shouldn’t be. They worried about morals, about competition, about health, about culture. Most of all, they regretted the change that a dynamic economy was bringing about.

Thus, from 1900 through 1920, a period that set the stage for a century of interventions in the labor market, hundreds of laws stifling women were passed in every state and at the federal level, too. None dared call it misogyny, but this is real history, however rarely it is told.

Feminists against Regulation

Laws that disemployed thousands of women nationwide led to vast protests. The Equal Opportunity League, an early feminist organization in New York, lobbied the state legislature to repeal the bans on work. And it received quite the press coverage.

“So-called ‘welfare’ legislation is not asked for or wanted by real working women,” the league said. “These ‘welfare’ bills are drafted by self-styled social uplifters who assert that working women do not know enough to protect themselves.”

“Are women people? Women are no longer the wards of the State and a law that is unconstitutional for a man voter is equally unconstitutional for a woman voter.”

“Working at night is not more injurious than working in the daytime,” the league argued. “Many women prefer to work at night because the wage is higher, opportunities for advancement greater, and women with children can enjoy being with their child after school hours in the day time.”

In fact, the phrase “equal pay for equal work” was not created to mandate higher wages for women. It was a league slogan invoked to argue against laws that made it “a crime to employ women even five minutes after the eight-hour day.” The phrase emerged as a preferred slogan to protest in favor of free markets, not against them.

Research has shown that women’s wages relative to men’s were higher in 1920 than they were in 1980. 

The Equal Opportunity League also passionately opposed the minimum wage law. Such laws, it argued, “while purporting to be for [women’s] benefit, would really be a serious handicap to them in competing with men workers for desirable positions.”

In short, the conclusion of the League is that these proposed bills and laws, ostensibly intended to protect and shield the woman worker, will, if permitted to stand, unquestionably work her industrial ruin and throw her back into the slough of drudgery out of which she is just emerging after centuries of painful, laborious effort to better her condition. ("Women’s Work Limited by Law," New York Times, January 18, 1920)

Restriction Becomes Liberation?

The fairy tale version of history says that during the 20th century, government freed women to become newly empowered in the workplace. The reality is exactly the opposite. Just as the market was granting women more choices, government swept in to limit them in the name of health, purity, family values, and social uplift. Such laws and regulations are still around today, though they have been recharacterized in a completely different way. As Orwell might say, somewhere along the way, restriction became liberation.

(Author’s note: I’m grateful to Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers for providing the footnotes I followed to write this piece. Also, much more rethinking of Progressive Era politics and its impact on the family is discussed in Steven Horwitz’s Hayek’s Modern Family, newly published by Palgrave.)


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