Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Women and the Paradox of Economic Inequality in the Twentieth-Century

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Women and the Paradox of Economic Inequality in the Twentieth-Century

Article excerpt

Throughout American history, male/female has defined an enduring binary embodied in access to jobs, income, and wealth. Women's economic history shows how for centuries sex has inscribed a durable inequality into the structure of American labor markets that civil and political rights have moderated but not removed. This economic experience of women reflects the paradox of inequality in America: the coexistence of structural inequality with individual and group mobility. Women, like African Americans, have gained what T.H. Marshall labeled civil and political citizenship. No longer are they legally disenfranchised, and discrimination on account of race and gender is against the law. They have also increased their social citizenship, as represented by access to jobs and education, and women, in particular, benefit from many programs of the welfare state. Yet, they remain unequal. On the whole, they earn less than men, end up in occupational ghettos, bump up against glass ceilings, and find themselves, in relation to men, as poor as ever.

The process of internal differentiation characteristic of the history of groups defined by sex, race, or ethnicity provides the key to understanding how the paradox of inequality works. As a group, women, like blacks, experienced mobility that disrupted the processes which had systematically excluded them from access to jobs and income. But their assaults on durable categorical inequalities had their limits. Men/whites re-drew category boundaries, retaining their hold on economic advantage while women/blacks assimilated into and reproduced existing economic and occupational hierarchies among themselves. In the United States, group mobility did not challenge structural inequality--instead, it reinforced it. (1) This process of differentiation--the key to the paradox of inequality--is very important to understand. It is one of the primary ways that inequality works in America, and it poses serious issues and dilemmas for public policy.

In this article, we use the paradox of inequality to illustrate one of the mechanisms through which inequality has been, and continues to be, reproduced in modern American history. With data on occupations of the whole labor force over the century and on earnings from 1940 onward, we summarize some well known information and extend it with a fresh analysis of census microdata from 1900 to 2000 drawn from the University of Minnesota's IPUMS database. (2)

Of course, many kinds of inequality--in domestic, social, and political spheres--have shaped women's experiences. Crucial as these are, they are not, with a few exceptions, the focus of this article, which concentrates on labor market inequality and women's market work. (3) Market work is crucial because exclusion from the market has been the first source of women's economic inequality. Occupation, after all, has been the principal gateway to income. Because only a tiny percentage of people have had investments or other sources of capital with which to support themselves, most people without market work have been dependent on family and friends or on charity or the state. (4)

Even within the universe of market work, inequality is an idea with multiple dimensions. Its relations with sex, or for that matter, with race, ethnicity, or age, require examination from different vantage points--a point not appreciated or observed in most analyses of inequality. Here, then, we add a note to the methodological or conceptual study of inequality as well as to its substance. That is, we proceed by analyzing the relations among sex and inequality through four lenses: (1) participation--the share of women who worked; (2) distribution--the kind of jobs women held; (3) rewards--the relative income they received; and (4) differentiation--the distance among women on scales of occupation and earnings. We end with a brief case history of occupation and income in the banking and credit industry, which encapsulates the major trends in the history of women's inequality in the twentieth-century. …

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