Exploring Economic History

with Palgrave Macmillan

20th Century Bans on Married Women’s Work

On June 8, 1941 my grandmother, Helen Corrigan, was married to her very long-term sweetheart, my grandfather Eddie Power. Helen was a first-grade teacher with 15 years of experience, and was 37 years old. Her late age at marriage was in part due to the marriage bar on teachers in the Boston Public Schools. So absolute was this prohibition to married teachers that even though the school year was just a couple of weeks from ending, Helen was not allowed to return to her first-grade students to finish the school year.

When I heard this story as a child, my Boston Irish grandmother would cock her head, squint her eyes, point at me and say “No married teachers” with a tone that was not quite resentful, but definitely had an edge. I figured that things were very “old-fashioned” back then. As I got older, and would ask about the ban on married teachers, she would fill out the story with details, such as how she and the other teachers protected one woman whose husband was disabled, and who had lied about being unmarried to get a job and support her family. By the time I was a teenager, I cringed at the injustice of it all.

Now, as a labor economist, I cringe at the absurd waste of such policies. Imagine taking a human being, educating them, encouraging them to invest in a college education, having them accumulate fifteen years of valuable experience – needed human capital—and then prohibiting them from using that human capital in their field?

In my book Family Economics and Public Policy, 1800s-Present, I examine the economic repercussions of a wide variety of policies that have affected the resource allocation decisions of U.S. families during the last two centuries. Marriage bars, which were prevalent in teaching in the late 1800s through the 1950s, are a great example of policies that severely constrained families, and even prevented families from forming. My grandmother married so late in life because during the Great Depression, her boyfriend had no work, and marriage meant losing her source of income. The common excuses for such policies – rationing work for men – made no sense in the public and private sector occupations where they were most common, such as teaching, clerical and secretarial work, none of which were considered men’s jobs. (Goldin, 1990) Neither did the excuse that married women had husbands to support them, so jobs should be saved for the single women. Between 1928 and 1941, men’s unemployment grew and grew, while marriage bars in teaching districts also increased from around 60 percent of school districts in the United States to just under 80 percent. (Weiner 1985) Married and single women both needed to support themselves and their families.

The economic implications of such policies are serious. Marriage bars severely restricted my grandmother’s ability to earn a return on her educational investment. From a labor theory point of view, a smaller time horizon over which to earn returns on education means lowered investments in education – the benefits just aren’t as high when laws, policies and society prevent a person from working. These laws affected fertility – delayed marriage meant delayed childbearing and fewer children—and probably as a result my mother was an only child. They certainly affected educational quality in public schools, eliminating highly experienced teachers in the prime of their years, but kept labor costs lower in education and other industries as well. Marriage bars resulted in the higher earning women with longer tenure being pushed out of their careers in favor of younger, cheaper workers.

The great irony is that at about the same time as my grandmother was fired from her job for marriage, the U.S. government was initiating a comprehensive campaign targeting married women in particular to increase labor supply in the war industries. By 1945 there were 1.5 million children in federally supported day care as a result of this effort. (Coontz 1992) Looking back at the policies that enabled this mobilization reveal the potential for policy interventions that would enable more working class mothers today to put their human capital to use. Understanding the past can help us chart the way forward with policies that increase welfare, improve economic efficiency and enable better allocations of valuable human capital.


Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were : American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1992, p. 159.

Goldin, Claudia Dale. Understanding the Gender Gap : An Economic History of American Women. NBER Series on Long-Term Factors in Economic Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 160-79.

Weiner, Lynn Y. From Working Girl to Working Mother : The Female Labor Force in the United States, 1820-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1985, p. 109.

Megan McDonald Way is Associate Professor and Chair of the Economics Division at Babson College, USA. She is the author of the forthcoming book Family Economics and Public Policy, 1800s–Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).