Protecting Family and Race

The Progressive Case for Regulating Women's Work


  • Thomas C. Leonard

    1. Princeton University, Fisher Hall, Princeton, NJ
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      Tim Leonard is Lecturer in the Department of Economics at Princeton University, Fisher Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544; e-mail: An earlier version of this paper was presented at a History of Economics Society session at the 2004 ASSA/AEA meetings. He is grateful to Malcolm Rutherford and Jack Hirshleifer for their comments. In addition to his research on the influence of biological and eugenic thought upon Progressive Era political economy, Leonard has published on the economics of science, 20th-century views of distribution theory in economics, the ethics of trade in inalienable goods, and the implications for rational choice theory when consumption and its effects are separate in time.


Abstract  American economics came of age during the Progressive Era, a time when biological approaches to economic reform were at their high-water mark. Reform-minded economists argued that the labor force should be rid of unfit workers—whom they labeled “unemployables,”“parasites,” and the “industrial residuum”—so as to uplift superior, deserving workers. Women were also frequently classified as unemployable. Leading progressives, including women at the forefront of labor reform, justified exclusionary labor legislation for women on grounds that it would (1) protect the biologically weaker sex from the hazards of market work; (2) protect working women from the temptation of prostitution; (3) protect male heads of household from the economic competition of women; and (4) ensure that women could better carry out their eugenic duties as “mothers of the race.” What united these heterogeneous rationales was the reformers’ aim of discouraging women's labor-force participation.