The female labor force has undergone a transformation during the 20th century, with the working wife and mother switching from the periphery into the mainstream.
Fewer than one in 10 married women worked for wages in 1900. In contrast, by 1980, married women comprised almost two-thirds of the female labor force, as half of all married women worked. Throughout this time, there have been changing social values about women, work and family life that have interacted with changing factors of labor supply and demand.
The work behavior of mothers shifted around the turn of the century. Mothers often worked while their children were very young and then left the labor force when their sons and daughters were old enough to contribute to the family income. By the mid-20th century, mothers generally entered the work force when their youngest child started school. This trend diminished by the 1970s when mothers of pre-school children were entering work life.
Female role transgression and social change occurred during the 1920s, where the working mother replaced the working girl. By the 1930s, the working girl before marriage was no longer considered to be "adrift" from their proper place. However, the domestic idealization of married women and mothers was still strong, as they were expected to devote themselves full-time to home activities. It was said by a sociologist in 1933, that "the chief concern over the family nowadays is not how strong it may be as an economic organization but how it performs services for the personalities of its members."
Issues of moral, economic and psychological aspects of a woman's role as a wife and mother were prevalent between the 1920s and 1940s. These concerns narrowed after 1940 where wives without children and mothers of children in school gradually became accepted. The consequences of a woman's employment outside the home on the physical and psychological health of her children became the center of public debate.
Changing demographics of the female labor force including those with children was not the primary motivator for social policy. Policies enacted for the care and protection of children of poor mothers before 1920 influenced subsequent policies and reforms because of the growth of working mothers of all classes. Public consensus still remains with the mother to be wholly responsible for childcare; however, this is tempered by factors of class and race. The exception to the rule of mothers who should stay at home, is that of poor, unmarried and widowed mothers, whose employment is a preferred alternative than depending on the state. The proportion of widowed or divorced women in the work force has remained relatively constant over the years.
During the 1960s rising divorce rates made women realize they could no longer rely upon the security of marriage for their entire lives. The social acceptance of women staying at home, supporting the family physically and emotionally, meant that the advent of no-fault divorce left many women stranded. Women found themselves abandoned in middle age, with no experience or marketable skills alongside financial devastation by the legal system. Realizing this precarious situation, women began to protect themselves by hardening their idealistic views of men and society's established order. They started adopting a belief in education and work skills, combing parenting and a career in order to survive.
Women face important dilemmas about themselves and their family when they become mothers. It is suggested that women who are reared to participate economically, socially and politically stop doing so; they risk a sense of self, their contentment and therefore, their effectiveness as mothers. Evidence shows that depression is much more common among full-time mothers than employed mothers, particularly among working class women, whose work roles may be less varied and rewarding than those of ‘professional' women.
The position of women and mothers in the workplace has started to build a new stereotype. The ability of working mothers to hold a high profile career and still be a mother is reflected in today's society. Leading companies are increasingly promoting a culture that embraces and formalizes programs to make the lives of working mothers easier, allowing them in turn to hold top positions and boost their earnings.