I am interested in learning more information regarding the history of family structures, specifically as relates to stay at home parents.

The only data I can really find is from the late 60s until now. The USA BLS site has a fair bit of content, but mostly from this time period or later.

Loosely, defining SAHP as a parent who does not work outside the home. In the case of farms, this becomes more complicated, I guess.

I am wondering:

  • What is the history of stay at home mothers throughout the history of the USA?
    • How did this change over time?
    • What primary factors drove this?
  • Historically what has this % looked like?

Ideally, this would be in the form of a short discussion on the history and trends as applies to SAHMs but with some level of historical background and context. If possible it would be great to have some level of statistics included for the trends, though I understand this may not be possible for time periods further in the past.

  • Can add a bit more about where you have looked? I would think census reports would tell the tale. Something like this but further back in time: census.gov/hhes/families/files/graphics/SHP-1b.pdf This looks promising too from the bureau of labor statistics: bls.gov/opub/mlr/1981/02/art5full.pdf
    – AllInOne
    Oct 26, 2016 at 13:39
  • @AllInOne the second BLS source seems to be the extent of what I've been able to find. The BLS has other resources, but all of them start around 1960 as well.
    – enderland
    Oct 26, 2016 at 13:49
  • 4
    You know, historically housewives did a bit more than polishing and cooking. They brewed beer, baked bread, sewed and knitted all clothes for the (large) family, grew vegetables, kept small animals for meat and eggs. They would often do work for extra income, like sewing, laundering, embroidering... and if the family workplace was in the house or nearby they would do a share of the work. They were busy all day A man could not do these things and needed a wife to survive. You can't compare that with the modern idea.
    – RedSonja
    Oct 27, 2016 at 9:02
  • @RedSonja yes, that's part of what I expect and hope to see in an answer here.
    – enderland
    Oct 27, 2016 at 12:06
  • @enderland but beware of attempts to make it look cute and homey. Our historical housewife was a child bride in an arranged marriage. She slaved away unpaid, worn out and constantly pregnant. There was no electricity, running water, or proper medicine. Half of her many children died in their first two years. She herself probably died in childbirth, attended by her unwashed neighbour. She was illiterate, superstitious and ignorant. She was marked by disease, malnutrition and domestic violence.
    – RedSonja
    Nov 15, 2016 at 8:07

2 Answers 2


It's a big question, so I'll mostly just point you to some sources that would help you develop a more complete answer. The main point I would emphasize is that the whole concept of "stay at home mother" is a very modern one. Through most of US history, it was taken for granted that (at least for white women) motherhood was a full time occupation.

Until World War Two, only a small minority of mothers were employed outside their own households. Overall between 1800 and 1900, female labor force participation in the United States is not estimated to have exceeded 20% (see the last page of this student paper). This temporarily dipped below 15% around 1860-1870 (possibly because slave women were "unemployed" by Emancipation?).

Industrialization and urbanization gradually created a demand for female labor, but the traditional association between women and domesticity didn't change very quickly. In the 1800s, women were largely excluded from most jobs but dominated in a few: elementary school teachers, dressmakers and domestic servants. World War Two famously made it more socially acceptable for women to work in other kinds of jobs (think Rosy the Riveter).

For more detailed analysis of long-term employment patterns measured in US Census data, including female employment and its variations over time and between regions and occupations, see the article "Labor Force and Employment, 1800—1960" by Stanley Lebergott.


As Brian Z points out,

the whole concept of "stay at home mother" is a very modern one. Through most of US history, it was taken for granted that (at least for white women) motherhood was a full time occupation.

To which I would add, not only in the United States, but in most, if not all, the world - certainly in Latin America and Europe at the very least.

But not only that; the very idea that "home" and "workplace" are different locations is quite modern. The mediaeval serfs worked at "home" - women inside the house, men in the adjacent fields, except for the days dedicated to labour for the lord or the Church - when women would work in the lord's kitchen, and men in the lord's fields. The idea of a "workplace" distinct from residence, which must be frequented every day except Sundays, is a product of the Industrial Revolution, at least as a mass phenomenon.

So we really do have two centuries in which the location of labour was starkly dictated by sex: in "normal" situations, women were supposed to work "at home", as always before, and men were supposed to work in a different place - factory, office, shop - during most of the day. In situations of labour power scarcity, women - particularly poor women - worked just like as men. This is clearly visible in the begginings of industrialisation, as portrayed by Dickens or Marx, or in the reports of British factory inspectors, and was also very clearly during the two "world wars".

Even in "normal" situations, women did work outside of their homes, but their labour was usually related to "home-like" tasks - either as domestic servants or as teachers or nurses. And, of course, nuns. Related to which, it would be interesting to study in more depth to what extent and in which ways marriage and job were or were not mutually exclusive. Single women probably had a different relation to domestic tasks than married women, and celibacy as a life-long option was always open to women. Even so, there always were "stay-at-home daughters" - single women who took care of their aging parents, and helped sisters and sisters-in-law with nephews, grandchildren, disabled adults, etc.

So I would say that, at least up to WWII, rather than a gradual movement towards women employment, we had more of a see-saw movement, women extensively engaging in industry and commerce when masculine labour was insufficient (wars evidently being one of such occasions) but returning to the household as soon as conditions were less traumatic.

It is possible that this dynamics have been broken since WWII. After WWI, it took but a decade for women to move back from factories and shops into the household. And although a similar movement is easily identifiable in the 50's of the 20th century, it was never as complete as the backlash of the 30's. And then in the sixties this movement was reversed; the following depressive quarter century did not see the "normal" redomestication of women that used to be associated with economic recessions.

This coincides with the final stage of "demographic transition": lower natality rates, made possible by modern contraceptives and social security nets, make motherhood a less overwhelming job. Plus the industry has spotted an important market in the automation of domestic tasks; washing machines, vaccuum cleaners, etc., also had a significative role in freeing the female labour power from the household and into capitalist exploitation in part- and fulltime jobs.

I am not sure, however, that we are seeing an epochal change in the sexual division of labour, instead of just a particularly prolonged sway of the pendulum in the direction of employment of women. It is pretty clear to me that political demands of redomestication of women are starting to become more frequent and systematic - including this curious phenomenon of women who make a carreer out of telling other women that they should not have a carreer.

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