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. Th…