Women at Work in the Pre-Civil War United States: An Analysis of Unreported Family Workers

June 2020

Barry R. Chiswick (George Washington University) and RaeAnn Halenda Robinson (George Washington University)

IIEP working paper 2020-11

Abstract: Rates of labor force participation in the US in the second half of the nineteenth century among free women were exceedingly (and implausibly) low, about 11 percent. This is due, in part, to social perceptions of working women, cultural and societal expectations of female’s role, and lack of accurate or thorough enumeration by Census officials. This paper develops an augmented free female labor force participation rate for 1860. It is calculated by identifying free women (age 16 and older) who were likely providing informal and unenumerated labor for market production in support of a family business, that is, unreported family workers. These individuals are identified as not having a reported occupation, but are likely to be working on the basis of the self-employment occupation of other relatives in their households. Family workers are classified into three categories: farm, merchant, and craft. The inclusion of this category of workers more than triples the free female labor force participation rate in the 1860 Census, from 16 percent to 56 percent, which is comparable to today’s rate (57 percent in 2018).


JEL Codes: N31, J16, J21, J82

Key Words: Women, Labor Force Participation, Occupational Attainment, Unpaid Workers, Unreported Family Workers, 1860 Census

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