American University
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Gender and crisis: Women's employment patterns during the Great Depression

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posted on 2023-09-06, 03:01 authored by Ellen Macdonald Mutari

The impact of the secular increase in women's labor force participation and attachment on the cyclical sensitivity of their employment has been the subject of several studies focusing on the post-war period. Empirical research has found increased substitution of women for men during contemporary economic restructuring. This historical study extends the analysis by considering an earlier period of economic restructuring, the 1920s and 1930s, in order to provide insight into the role of gender in the restructuring process. To overcome the limitations imposed by the lack of a national data set with employment by gender during this period, this research uses state-level establishment data from New York and Ohio (representing mature versus dynamic industrial sectors). Decomposition and regression models developed within literature on post-World War II business cycles are used to analyze how women's employment was affected by economic fluctuations before and during the Great Depression. In both states, working women's segmentation into industries which were less hard hit by the Great Depression confined their employment losses. In Ohio, the decomposition also indicates substitution toward female labor in response to contractions during the 1920s; in New York, women functioned as cyclical reserves. These results imply a link between gender substitution and economic restructuring, especially since the Ohio economy consisted of relatively dynamic industries. Rather than confirming the prediction that women are being newly incorporated as a latent reserve, this historical comparison suggests that periods of economic restructuring are also periods of reconstituting gender. Patterns of gender segmentation which are ordinarily quite rigid may be redefined during the political, social, and cultural upheaval that accompanies economic restructuring--both historically and contemporarily. Thus, although the form of gender segmentation has varied historically, it does not appear that gender is "withering away" as an economic category.



American University




Ph.D. American University 1995.


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