Mismeasuring Women's Work

Joyce Burnette, Wabash College

The proverbial economist looks for his wallet, not where he lost it, but under the lamppost, because the light is better there. Economic historians have spent too much time looking under the lamppost. We focus on labor force participation because it is a familiar measure, and it seems to be easily measured using census data, but it won't tell us what we want to know. If we really want to understand women's work in the past we need to adopt continuous, rather than binary measures. We must also stop assuming that market work equates to work done outside the home, and that household production equates to domestic services. I use household accounts from Le Play's Les Ouvriers Européens and Ouvriers des Deux Mondes to support six different claims: 1. Women did not have more leisure than men. 2. Women did a greater variety of work tasks then men. 3. Since labor force participation is a binary measure, it is not well designed to describe the women's multifaceted work. Counting women doing any market work as in the labor force overestimates the portion of time that women spent in market work, while counting only regularly employed women as in the labor force underestimates it. 4. Because women did so many different tasks, assigning each woman one single occupation leads us to mismeasure the percentage of their time that women contributed to each sector, and undercounts activity in agriculture and manufacturing. 5. While the phrase "work outside the home" is common, we should stop using this term. Market work occurred in the home, and nonmarket work occurred outside the home. 6. While non-market production is typically equated with domestic services, in fact many domestic services were sold in the market, and household production included work in agriculture and manufacturing.

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 Presented in Session 95. Women in Politics and the Labor Force