Off the Record: Reconstructing Women's Labor Force Participation in the European Past

Jane Humphries, Carmen Sarasúa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

81 Citations (Scopus)


Conventional histories of women's labor force participation in Europe conceptualize the trends in terms of a U-shaped pattern. This contribution draws on historical research to challenge such an account. First, it demonstrates that the trough in participation is in part statistically manufactured by uncritical reliance on official sources that systematically undercount women workers. Second, it exploits nonstandard sources to construct alternative estimates of women's participation. Third, it analyzes the reconstructed rates to determine their congruence with neoclassical economics and modern empirical studies. Not all posited relationships time travel. Supply-side factors such as marital status and number and age of children are major determinants of modern women's decision to enter the labor force, yet appear less prominent in historical contexts. Instead, the demand for labor seems decisive. Finally, the U-shaped curve is not entirely a statistical artifact, but appears to evolve at higher levels of participation than usually suggested. © 2012 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-67
JournalFeminist Economics
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2012


  • Economic development
  • economic growth
  • economic history
  • family wage
  • labor market inequality
  • women's labor force participation


Dive into the research topics of 'Off the Record: Reconstructing Women's Labor Force Participation in the European Past'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this